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The Offside Rule – A Brief History

Stephen Walsh takes a look at the origins of football’s much debated offside rule, a law which was adapted from the early codes of Cambridge University students.

Author’s Note: Over my past few articles with Pundit Arena I have looked at the origins of various sports terms. Ideas for my articles have included curiosities such as Glenn Burke inventing the high five in 1977 with the LA Dodgers and John Alexander Brodie creating the goal net in the 1890’s. In a similar vein, I am now going to tell the story of how the offside rule came into being.

Today we will be looking at how the offside rule was created and subsequently evolved to become the law we know today. This contentious rule is currently law 11 in the FIFA rule book whereby “a person is deemed to be offside when they are between the goal and the last defender before the ball reaches them”.

It was first included in the rules when a group of Cambridge students led by HC Malden met in his Trinity College rooms, Cambridge, to write out a set of laws to govern the game. There is no available date for this meeting as a the original rules document didn’t survive, however rules from that era are available, such as the 1856 rules in Shrewsbury school Library.

Rule nine from the document, signed by the eleven men in attendance, states that “if a ball has passed a player and has come from the direction of his own goal, he may not have touched it until the other side has kicked it, unless there are more than three of the other side before him. No player is allowed to loiter between the ball and the adversaries’ goal”.

This rule originated from rugby which was the main sport of many of the colleges in attendance. To play the rule properly teams often had up to eight forwards where they would constantly pass to each other so as to keep the ball moving forward. Imagine a team with eight forwards on the pitch nowadays.

Of course, as was common with sport back in 19th century Britain, a different part of the country had to make up their own offside rules. Sheffield came up with the idea of a “kick through” which meant that the ball could be kicked over the top where a number of players would be loitering around the goal ready to pounce and score. They published their rules in 1857 and only signed up to the standardised Football Association rules in 1925.

In 1925 the rules were changed by the Football Association in the hope of making games more exciting. The change involved amending the wording in the rule from “at least three players” to “two opponents”.

The measure had an immediate impact as records from the time show;  there were 4,700 goals scored in Football League games in the 1924-1925 season but a year later, after implementing the new rule, 6,373 goals were scored. A fairly substantial increase one could say.

The powers that be in the game wanted to meddle with the law and in 1973 the Scottish Football Association decided to try out a new offside system for the league cup whereby an offside could only occur within the eighteen-yard box and a line was extended to the sidelines so as to enforce the rule. It wasn’t well received and was quickly dropped.

In the 1987/88 season the Conference trialed a new offside rule that would make it impossible to be offside from a direct free kick. Opposition teams decided to pack opposition boxes so as to score a goal even placing numerous players in front of the goal keeper in order to prevent him from saving shots. Unsurprisingly this impractical idea was scrapped.

In 1990 FIFA decided to alter the rule further when they said an attacker was onside if he was in line with the last defender. This was an attempt to make the game more attractive and lead to more goals. It was well received by all in the game and the change was implemented.

In the years to come there is likely to be even further changes brought to the table regarding the offside rule but one thing is for certain is that it is here to stay and will continue to dominate many a post match chat and analysis.

Stephen Walsh, Pundit Arena.

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