Ged O’Brien: Rewriting Football History from the Ground Up

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Blog author: David Bain

Former Liverpool FC football manager Bill Shankly is once famously reputed to have said, ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ 

That same sentiment could equally apply to Ged O’Brien. Ged is on a quest, a quest driven by an inner passion which seeks to tear up the orthodox history of how the modern game of football came to be and replace it with a new narrative, one which places Scotland on the very centre spot of its existence.  

By day, Ged is a secondary school teacher in Glasgow’s east end teaching English, Scottish Studies and Media Communications. At other times he is a football historian, author and a founder of the Scottish Football Museum. Recently, he has been associated with the archaeological excavations at Hampden Bowling Club which were attempting to discover more about the site of the first Hampden Park, the first home ground of Queen’s Park Football Club, and, according to Ged, the most important site in modern world football. Ged’s previous research has raised national awareness of Andrew Watson, originally of Queen’s Park FC, as the first known black Scottish international football player. Watson’s first appearance on the football field predated Andrew Wharton, conventionally thought to be the first black player in Britain by over a decade. However, O’Brien is not driven to identifying the first black player but in understanding his importance: of Watson he says, ‘You may find an earlier black footballer, but you will never find a more influential one.’ 

In a highly entertaining and informative presentation, Ged challenged the widely accepted popular narrative that the modern game of football was created within the English public school system. Instead, he put forward a strong case that Scotland was responsible for the invention of the modern game of professional football and its development throughout the UK and the rest of the world.  

Historical sources reveal that a game called football has been played throughout Scotland and elsewhere for hundreds of years. Ged noted from various post-Reformation records the ire of the Protestant post-Reformation church to games being played on the Sabbath. We do not know what form (or forms) these games of football took, although there are early sketches from England showing a game whereby crowds attempt to move a ball along a town street which appears not too dissimilar to Orkney’s ‘Ba’ Game’ still played today. Jed O’Brien dismisses these mass ball games as the origins of football. He is focussed on the modern game as we now know it, regulated by an accepted common rule book and governed by national and international associations. 

When such developments took place in the second half of the 19th century, Ged’s thesis is that the Scottish and English games were culturally different. It was the Scots who played a game based on passing and dribbling the ball whereas to the English, such tactics would be viewed as cowardly and unworthy. Instead, its public-school ethos maintained that games were tests of manhood and tactics consisted of hacking and full contact with the opponent.  The result was that England were comprehensively thrashed at international level on the six times they played Scotland.  

So dominant were the Scots that Scottish footballers were employed by English football clubs to advise and develop their games, and whom Ged collectively refers to as the ‘Scotch Professors’. One of these Scotch professors was Andrew Watson, who travelled to England to play for Swifts and Corinthians football clubs in London and the south of England. 

Indeed, such was the work of the Scotch Professors, Scots were instrumental in developing the game of football across the world, including clubs in countries such as Uruguay, Argentina and Spain. So why is this story not widely known? Ged advances two principal reasons. Firstly, the use of the word ‘England’ was conflated around the world to encapsulate the whole of the United Kingdom and did not distinguish the other home nations such as Scotland.  And secondly, Ged argues, Scotland’s recognition has been overlooked by the Football Association in a deliberate attempt to suppress the influence of the Scottish game and claim the modern game as an English invention. And it appears to have worked to the extent that the FIFA World Football Museum credits the first ever international football match took place at Kensington Oval in 1870, ignoring the fact that this was not an international match in the modern sense. In fact, the first properly constituted international football match was played on 30th November 1872 between Scotland and England at the West of Scotland cricket ground. 

Ged is clear. When it comes to founding the modern game, Scotland won. However, when it comes to lifting the trophy, that victory belongs to the Auld Enemy. And Ged’s mission in life is to win that trophy back. 

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