The Victorian goalkeeper

An article for Goalkeeper Magazine about the origin of the goalkeeper in Victorian times, it also profiles some of the best Victorian keepers.

It’s difficult to imagine football without goalkeepers, but in football’s formative years the position didn’t exist. In the mid-19th century, before association football had been codified, there were numerous variations and sets of rules, but none of them accounted for a goalkeeper.

The influential Cambridge rules, set out in 1848, stated that, “hands may be used only to stop a ball and place it on the ground before the feet.” Any player could handle the ball, and therefore any player could keep goal, but there was no formal goalkeeping position.

In 1863 the original Football Association rules were drawn up, but still made no mention of the goalkeeper. The separate Sheffield rules did, however, stating: “The goalkeeper is that player in the defending side who is for the time being nearest his own goal.” It was still perfectly acceptable for any member of the team to handle the ball anywhere on the pitch, but teams began to assign specific players to act as goalkeeper.

In an 1866 match between Notts County and Sheffield FC, two of England’s oldest association clubs, the respective goalkeepers were named as Mr Steegman and Mr Dixon. Not that they had much to do. “The goalkeepers on either side had never to touch the ball,” the Nottinghamshire Guardian reported.

It was in 1871 that the FA updated its rules to outlaw handling of the ball except by a designated goalkeeper. “A player shall not throw the ball nor pass it to another except in the case of the goalkeeper, who shall be allowed to use his hands for the protection of his goal,” the rules stated.

The goalkeeper had been created, but the Victorian keeper was still very different to today’s goalie. He was allowed to handle the ball anywhere within his own half of the field (that rule wasn’t changed until 1912), and it was perfectly legal to knock the keeper over the goal line with the ball. Victorian keepers had no gloves to improve their handling or protect their hands from the heavy ball, and they wore the same kit and colours as their teammates (jerseys, knickerbockers, and often a cap).

In the first FA Cup Final, between Wanderers and Royal Engineers in March 1872, Reginald de Courtenay Welch and Captain William Merriman were the respective goalkeepers. Wanderers won 1-0, with Welch influential. “At one point the Wanderers goal was in the greatest jeopardy,” reported one newspaper, “but the goalkeeper, by a well-judged kick, managed to avert what appeared an inevitable goal.”

Despite his heroics, goalkeeper wasn’t really Welch’s chosen position. Indeed, he played as a half-back for his country in the first Scotland versus England international match in November 1872. This despite the fact that neither Scotland nor England had a proper goalkeeper to call upon. Scotland’s attempt to get top rugby player Thomas Chalmers to keep goal for them failed, and England’s first-choice Alec Morten, “a goalkeeper of acknowledged skill”, was injured.

Scottish captain Robert Gardner stepped up himself to play in goal, despite the fact that he played as a forward for his club Queen’s Park. Gardner switched positions during the game with teammate Robert Smith. England also switched between two keepers, with Robert Barker swapping duties with William Maynard. Between them they kept clean sheets, and the match finished 0-0.

Gardner enjoyed his stint between the sticks so much that he became a goalkeeper on a permanent basis – and in fact became the first great Victorian keeper. But in the next Scotland versus England match, he made one of the very first high-profile goalkeeping errors, mishandling an early English shot in wet conditions. “The ball was so wet that in the first few minutes it slipped out of the hands of the Scotch goalkeeper and passed between the posts,” reported the Glasgow Herald. Scotland lost 4-2.

With goalkeeping techniques in their infancy, Gardner was an innovator, pioneering the practice of coming out to narrow the angle, while many of his contemporaries preferred to stay rooted to the goal line. Goalkeeper and football administrator Charles Samuel Craven wrote about the attributes and techniques required of a Victorian keeper:

“A good goalkeeper should not be less than five feet six inches in height (the same in girth if he likes). He should be active, cool, and have a good and quick eye. He should be a safe kick. In clearing the ball he should strike up in the air, so that the ball does not meet an opponent and rebound. He sometimes has eight yards to cover in next to no time, and as it is quicker to fall than to run, he should practice throwing himself down. When this art is acquired (and it cannot be done without practice) he will find it fairly useful.”

The role of the goalkeeper continued to evolve during the latter years of the Victorian era, and teams soon began to select, and appreciate, specialist goalkeepers like Robert Gardner, Bob Roberts of West Brom and Ted Doig of Sunderland. Other famous names, like Arthur Wharton and William “Fatty” Foulke began to emerge.

Ghana-born Wharton once held the world record for the 100-yard dash, and was initially deployed at football as a winger, until some wayward kicking saw him played in goal, first for Darlington, then for Preston, Rotherham and Sheffield United. He quickly became regarded as one of the finest keepers of the Victorian era, with the Northern Echo writing, “There is not another man who can keep goal with half his ability.”

As for Foulke, he was literally Victorian football’s biggest character at 6’4” and as much as 24 stone. But he was also immensely talented, winning two FA Cup Finals and a League Championship with Sheffield United, and was referred to as “the best goalkeeper in the world”.

By the end of the Victorian era, the keeper had become not just a vital player in every team, but in many cases the star player. From rather curious origins, the goalkeeper had been born, and football would never be the same.

Published in issue 5 of Goalkeeper Magazine.