THEY stared each other down across a pitch that was borderline bog. On one side, wearing blue shirts, white knickerbockers and red goblin-like caps called cowls, the home favourites but the poor relations. 

On the other, dressed from head to toe in immaculate white stood a foreign adversary, intimidating and disdainful, some still smoking cheroots seconds before the first ball was kicked. Emblazoned on their shirts was a badge of three lions.

Soaked by three days of rain, the normally manicured surface of the West of Scotland cricket ground in Glasgow’s leafy west end was more like a slippery sump. A fog had just lifted, suddenly revealing four banks of supporters bathed in weak sunshine who minutes earlier were just silhouettes against a blanket of white. The goals were primitive, little more than wooden stakes bound together using tape for a bar.

Read more: Chris Jack: The decision should be an easy one for Derek McInnes if Rangers come calling

This, then, was the setting for the first official football showdown between Scotland and England, a confrontation that took place 145 years ago last week, on November 30, 1872 – St Andrew’s Day.

A time when the British Empire was at its zenith. Victoria had been on the throne for 35 years and William Gladstone, as a Liberal Prime Minister, conducted affairs of state from the Parliamentary dispatch box.
But even in 1872, nationhood differences within the United Kingdom framework could still be intensified by something as simple as a game of football played between two countries joined by an open border but divided by a deep-rooted sense of a turbulent and often bloody history.

Scotland versus England was already a political football long before those 22 players lined up for the first properly-sanctioned match between the two countries. Not for nothing did football fans north of Hadrian’s Wall denigrate their southern neighbours as ‘the Auld Enemy’, a less than complimentary Victorian epithet that would echo down the decades still to come. No one then knew, however, that this match would give birth to international football’s oldest and most caustic rivalry, a conflict that had its roots in age-old enmity. Or that the shape of the international game today owes a debt to the Englishman who was the prime mover behind that recognised fixture in Glasgow.

Charles Alcock was the highly influential secretary of the Football Association, the world’s first football governing body, which had been set up in 1863. He was also captain of the Wanderers Football Club, a team that had just won the inaugural FA Cup.

Read more: Celtic steady themselves as they prepare to book Europa League place

Alcock saw himself as a football apostle, a man whose destiny it was to spread the word as the game began to flourish among the industrial cities of England. In particular, he was a powerful advocate of ‘association’ football, which adhered to a strict set of rules, chief among which banned any running with the ball in a player’s hand.

At the same time, the seeds of football in Scotland were slowly germinating. But the game lacked the formal structure Alcock had put in place down south and there was only one team of note – Queen’s Park, a club that pledged itself to upholding the association code of playing football. As a result, many Scots drifted across the border in search of a proper club and proper games.

An old Harrovian, Alcock liked nothing more than to bait the Scots for languishing behind their southern cousins, sneering at the haphazard way the game was organised. In 1870, he made his contempt public by throwing down the gauntlet for an England v Scotland  ‘international’ match in London, which went ahead on March 5, 1870, at The Oval.

England triumphed 1-0 and also won four more games over the next two years. The Scots, however, refused to recognise the legitimacy of the games since Alcock insisted that only players from London clubs be invited to wear a Scotland jersey. The controversy was played out over several months in august newspaper columns north and south of the border as Scotland accused Alcock of rigging the deck to give England a winning hand. Typically bombastic, however, he refused to give ground on the issue. 

He wrote: “I must join issue with your correspondent in some instances. First, I assert that of whatever the Scotch eleven may have been composed the right to play was open to every Scotchman [Alcock’s italics] whether his lines were cast North or South of the Tweed and that if in the face of the invitations publicly given through the columns of leading journals of Scotland the representative eleven consisted chiefly of Anglo-Scotians ... the fault lies on the heads of the players of the north, not on the management who sought the services of all alike impartially. To call the team London Scotchmen contributes nothing. The match was, as announced, to all intents and purposes between England and Scotland.”

Read more: Chris Jack: The decision should be an easy one for Derek McInnes if Rangers come calling

Tensions were then further inflamed when the first rugby international between Scotland and England took place in Edinburgh – a fixture that infuriated Alcock, who saw it as a threat to his own vision for the future of football.

The row continued to rage until October 1872 when the FA, with Alcock sensing a messianic opportunity, agreed to send a team north the following month to take on a fully homegrown Scottish side, which would be drawn entirely from the ranks of Queen’s Park, then Scotland’s best team. Further proof of Alcock’s zeal can be glimpsed in an FA minute, which said the decision was made ‘To further the interests of the Association in Scotland’.

Despite Scotland still not having a fully-functioning governing body – the SFA would not take shape for another six months – the much-anticipated showdown between Scotland and England was warranted as the first ‘official’ game between the two countries. Even then, there was disagreement over the rules. Scotland initially refused to acknowledge the FA’s code and threatened to field more than 11 players, a bluff that raised Alcock’s hackles. He wrote: “More than eleven we do not care to play as it is with greater numbers it is our opinion the game becomes less scientific and more a trial of charging and brute force.”

At stake was cross-border bragging rights. Scots author Andy Mitchell’s excellent book on that first game, First Elevens, shines a fascinating light on the events leading up to the match. He said: “Scotland and England were no longer fighting each other but people had to find ways of expressing their nationhood and this was one way of doing that.”

And so it was that on November 30, 1872, an estimated 4000 supporters, the progenitors of the Tartan Army, braved the winter chill and fog to cheer on Scotland against England. Demand for tickets was high. Extra transport was laid on from Glasgow City centre to ferry supporters to Hamilton Crescent. Admission was a shilling (5p today), a not inconsiderable sum which, Mitchell says, was designed to keep out ‘the riff-raff’.

Read more: Celtic steady themselves as they prepare to book Europa League place

The Scottish team was drawn entirely from Queen’s Park, whose captain Robert Gardner picked the team that lined up as follows:  Gardner (captain), William Ker, Joseph Taylor, James Thomson, James Smith, Robert Smith, Robert Leckie, Alex Rhind, William MacKinnon, James Weir and David Wotherspoon. “It wasn’t a problem that all the players came from one club,” says Mitchell, formerly head of communications at the SFA.  “The match was entirely organised by Queen’s Park Football Club. I think that within the club there was a feeling that if we are going to organise and bankroll this match it should be for our members.
“It was important to the Scots but maybe less so to the English. It took them a bit of time to catch on. It was a missionary type game for the English to spread the word about their code of association football. From the English perspective it was an interesting adventure north for those who could take the couple of days it required to travel up to Glasgow. For Scotland, though, it was a huge novelty.”

The game itself was notable not just for its validity, but also for the starkly different tactics each team deployed. England relied heavily on a dribbling game, with each player backing up his team-mate almost like a rugby scrum. 

In contrast, Scotland benefited from the Queen’s Park collective, which had long fostered the tactical belief that crisp and accurate passing was the key to getting the ball up the pitch fast. 

In the end, both styles cancelled each other out and the game finished 0-0, leaving honour satisfied on both sides. Almost a century would pass before they fought out another 0-0 stalemate. The first officially sanctioned match between Scotland and England was swiftly declared a huge success; it even made a healthy profit, which acted as a grubstake to finance a return match at the Oval in London five months later.

More importantly however, as Mitchell, points out, it provided the impetus for the game in Scotland to undergo a massive boom, as well as providing the template for international football.

And that expansion of football’s terrain north of the border, he believes, owes more than a little to Charles Alcock, the founding father of association football.

First Elevens, by Andy Mitchell, is available on Amazon priced £16.