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The History Of The Football Goal, Goalpost, Crossbar and Net

The History Of The Football Goal, Goalpost, Crossbar and Net

One of the most fascinating things about football, away from the matches themselves of course, are the number of things involved in the game that we seemingly take for granted. We know that a referee uses their whistle to start the match, but few people who listen to the sound on a weekly basis would be able to tell you when it was first used or why. We’ve written elsewhere on this site about the corner flag, which has a far more interesting history than you would ever have imagined. Another example of this notion of taking important aspects of the game for granted comes in the form of the goals and goalposts.

Few items on the football pitch other than the ball itself are quite as important as the goals, which are the centre of attention for both of the teams playing the game. Whether they’re attempting to score in the opposition’s goal or protect their own, footballers have the post and the crossbar lodged firmly in their mind from the moment the match gets underway. As fans of the game, most of us could draw a set of goalposts, complete with the crossbar and net, but how many of us know when they’ve been part of football since? Were they there on the first day that a ball was kicked in anger, or are they a relatively modern thing? Has their design changed at all? We’ll tell you what we know here.

The First Use Of A ‘Goal’

If you’ve read our piece on the history of football itself then you’ll know that a version of the sport can be traced back to the day of the Chinese Emperor Ch'eng Ti, who ruled in around 32 B.C. The first known reference to a goal came in his time, when two bamboo sticks stood with a net made of silk stretched out between them.

In England it’s believed that the first use of something akin to a goal came in 1681 when the King’s servants played against those of the Duke of Albermale and the doorways of two forts were the objects of their ambition. Indeed, during the seventeenth century a ‘goal’ was considered to be the space between two fixed objects, regardless of how far apart they were.

Of course, none of those examples are relevant to the actual sport of football. That didn’t come about until the middle of the 1800s, with similar sports having been played before then but the one that we know and love today going through numerous rule changes before the ones that we play now came into being. In 1801, for example, Joseph Strutt said that a goal consisted of ‘two stick driven into the ground’, whilst the Uppington School rules said that a goal was scored when the ball went through ‘the goal and under the bar’.

The first version of rules that football tends to look towards was written in 1848 with the production of the Cambridge rules, which declared a goal to be scored when the ball goes ‘through the flag-posts and under the string’; the clear implication being that a crossbar wasn’t yet thought of. The Eton rules were a tad more specific, saying that the ‘goal-sticks’ should be ‘seven feet out the ground’ with the space between them ‘eleven feet’, with the ball needing to go between them but ‘not above’ for it to be valid.

The Football Association’s Rules

The first codified version of the rules as laid out by the Football Association were written down in 1863. Though countless of these rules have changed over the years, from the job of the referee through to what penalties should be awarded for and whether or not goalkeepers are allowed to pick up the ball, the FA’s initial ruling on the distance between goalposts has remained the same ever since.

The 1863 rules stated that goalposts should be eight yards apart. The one thing that wasn’t mentioned back then, however, was a crossbar. In fact, the 1863 version of the Laws of the Game didn’t say anything about such a thing, whether it be made of tape or rope. Some clubs still chose to use string to make a crossbar, with those that didn’t finding that the opposition would claim for a goal even if the ball was thirty yards higher than the posts.

The Crossbar

Image of an early goal with tape used for crossbar - By Internet Archive Book Images [Public domain, Public domain or No restrictions ], via Wikimedia Commons

The result of the ridiculousness of such goals being argued over resulting in the Football Association amending their rules in 1866, adding that the use of tape between the two posts was required from then on. Tape was used in the first ever FA Cup final in 1872, resulting in clubs accepting that the crossbar was not to be just a passing fad. As a result, the likes of Sheffield Football Club and Queens Park both installed them, with each claiming to be the first club in the world to do so. The crossbar became a mandatory addition to the goal ten years after the first FA Cup final when the rules were amended again in 1882.

Even when the necessity for a crossbar became a mandatory requirement, clubs still struggled to figure out how to make it work. In 1888, for example, the London team Kensington Swifts found itself disqualified from the FA Cup because one of its crossbars was lower than the other, resulting in a complaint from Crewe Alexandria. Was that a deliberate tactic, or simply a problem with construction of the goals? The latter was likely to be the result of the crossbar breaking in 1896 when the Sheffield United goalkeeper William Foulkes swung off his crossbar; though the fact that his nickname was ‘Fatty’ means that’s open to some debate.

Nets As ‘Huge Pockets’

As with the crossbar, there was nothing about goal nets in the original 1863 FA Rules of the Game. Nothing was introduced about them in 1866 nor in 1882 when the rules were amended, but as football became more and more popular rows tended to be more and more commonplace regarding whether or not the ball had actually been scored.

In the 1880s Ireland argued that an England goal shouldn’t have stood because they believed that it had gone over the bar rather than under it. The fact that it was the final goal in a 9-1 defeat didn’t matter to the Irish, who wanted the score to at least be fair and accurate. Ironically, four years later and England argued that Ireland’s goal shouldn’t have stood in a far more respectable 2-2 draw because they felt it had gone wide of the post.

In the end it was a Liverpudlian engineer that came up with the solution to all of the arguments and fallings out. John Brodie had large pockets on his trousers and realised that if goals had similar such ‘pockets’ then the ball would nestle into them if they were legitimate. He completed his new ‘pockets’ in 1891 and trialled them during a game in Nottingham. Within the year the Football Association accepted them and added them into the Rules of the Game, with the new item being used in the FA Cup final of 1892.

Brodie’s invention might well have reduced the number of arguments but the new goal nets certainly didn’t end them. In 1909, for example, the ball hit the net but bounced back out, resulting in the match referee saying no goal had been scored and West Brom missing out on promotion as a result. The same thing happened in 1970, leading to the Baggies’ fellow West Midlands side Aston Villa being relegated when a valid goal wasn’t given.

One of the most controversial goals in the history of football came in 1966, of course, when Geoff Hurst’s shot hit the crossbar and bounced down, with the Russian linesman declaring it to be a goal. Was it one? Who knows. The result, however, was that England won the World Cup for the first time and the ball didn’t even need to hit John Brodie’s invention for it to count.

The Shape Of The Posts

Example of an older style square goal post - Dragiša Modrinjak [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The final thing worth mentioning is the shape of the posts themselves. Once the FA had introduced them as a necessity, they were actually square. This remained the case until relatively recently, with FIFA only banning square posts in 1987.

That decision to enforce the use of more spherical posts was as a result of controversy during the European Cup final between Bayern Munich and Saint Etienne at Hampden Park. The Scottish ground was still using square goal frames at the time, which Saint Etienne later blamed for their loss as they struck the crossbar twice in a manner that might have resulted in a goal if today’s round frames had been in use. In the wake of the match the French press dubbed the goal frame at Hampden Park ‘les poteaux carrés’, or ‘the square posts’. Bayern won the game 1-0.

Nowadays goals are made out of steel sections of aluminium that meet strict safety criteria. The problem of whether or not the ball has crossed the line, as witnessed most famously in 1966, has been eradicated in the top level of the game thanks to the introduction of goal line technology. What changes might occur in the future?

"It’s just a couple of posts and a crossbar,” Paolo Di Canio once pointed out to FourFourTwo as he bounded around Swindon Town’s training ground. “But for a footballer, it is paradise.”

The Italian wasn’t wrong. The whole game is focused on this rectangle of thin air, framed by wooden or aluminium beams and a mesh of netting. The evolution of the goalmouth, however, has been a long, argumentative and occasionally lethal process.

Steady evolution

Perversely, football has existed for much longer than goals. The sport’s distant ancestors did involve feet smacking a sphere, but the zones towards which their shots were propelled varied wildly.

In many instances, the ‘goal’ was the rival town’s church – an easy target for any out-of-form forward – but often there was no real tactical aim beyond an enjoyable spree of communal mayhem

Chinese documents dating back to 2500BC mention youths booting objects through holes in a cloth stretched between sticks. By the first century BC, this had evolved into zu qiu, still the word the Chinese use for football, and tsu chu, in which competitors aimed at fabric affixed nine metres off the ground (Stoke City may have been pretty useful).

Other variations involved striking six crescent-shaped boards or a pole, and bai da, in which points were awarded for committing the fewest errors, rather than actually hitting anything.

Koreans and Maoris devised versions with one post in the middle of a field, while Japan’s kemari was a glorified round of keepy-uppy. Around 200AD, Roman armies indulged in harpastum, a pastime that involved kicking a ball but was more about knocking seven gladiatorial bells out of each other than taking it anywhere.

The Aztecs had laced-up leather footballs and practised trying to slot them through holes in 
a wall – a bit like Soccer AM’s ‘Road To Wembley’ feature for soap actors and members of Kasabian.

Shrovetide football throughout Middle Ages Europe, meanwhile, was more hooliganism than Association rules: huge gangs of beered-up yokels propelling an inflated bladder using fists, feet and sticks. In many instances, the ‘goal’ was the rival town’s church – an easy target for any out-of-form forward – but often there was no real tactical aim beyond an enjoyable spree of communal mayhem.

The first mentions of a physical goalmouth are credited to writers John Norden and Richard Carew in the late 16th and early 17th centuries while describing Cornish hurling, a rule-free rugby-style rampage using a small silver sphere (quidditch without flying, basically). Carew described the construction of something totally new. “Two bushes in the ground, some eight or 10 foote asunder,” he wrote, “they terme their goales.”

The goal is born

This arrangement of foliage was a breakthrough. Instead of being simply an orgy of destruction, what the Cornishmen unleashed was an orgy of destruction with a goal, in both senses of the word. Half a century later, the word was clearly part of Britain’s sporting lexicon.

“I’ll play a gole at camp-ball,” wrote John Day in 1659’s The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green. Camp-ball was another early invention that focused strongly on face-punching and eye-gouging – but unlike Italian calcio, in which the objective was to get violently from one end of the pitch to the other, it had a target.

By the end of the 17th century, the idea was commonplace. A Sutton Coldfield play area was described in Francis Willughby’s Book of Games as having “a close that has a gate at either end. The gates are called goals.” The game was on.

But it would take the organisational prowess of the British public school system for something resembling the modern goalpost to evolve. At the fabled 1848 meeting at Cambridge University, teachers from Eton, Harrow, Marlborough, Westminster, Shrewsbury and Rugby – each of whom had developed different variations of the sport – sat down to thrash out the ‘Cambridge Rules’.

As well as allowing goal-kicks and banning handling, they decreed that a ‘goal’ should be awarded when a ball was put through upright flagposts and underneath a string.

There was no initial height specification, meaning many clubs didn’t bother with a string and allowed a strike between the sticks scored 30ft up in the air

Setting things straight

The size of the goal continued to fluctuate until the newly-formed Football Association hammered down the rules. In 1863 they deemed that posts should be eight yards (24 feet) apart, which remains the official width of a goal to this day.

Something still needed to be done about the upper limit of the space, though: there was no initial height specification, meaning many clubs didn’t bother with a string and allowed a strike between the sticks scored 30ft up in the air.

Tape eventually replaced string, notably at the first ever FA Cup final in 1872; and in 1875, experiments with crossbars began. Sheffield FC and Scottish club Queen’s Park both claim to be the first to have used one; it’s likely they did so independently at roughly the same time.

The crossbar was made compulsory in 1882, marked eight feet above the ground, but construction quality was an issue. In 1888, Kensington Swifts were disqualified from the FA Cup after one of their horizontals was found to be lower than the other and Crewe Alexandra complained.

Sheffield United’s William ‘Fatty’ Foulkes (a big-boned goalkeeper who once quipped: “I don’t mind what they call me, as long as they don’t call me late for lunch”) broke a bar by swinging off it during an 1896 fixture.

Rounding squares

Major disagreements sprang up thanks to the inadequacy of the target. Though the game was played by gentlemen, teams simply couldn’t agree whether efforts had gone in, and internationals found themselves bickering like narky kids.

Ireland protested fiercely – although perhaps pointlessly – that the ninth of England’s goals in a 9-1 romp had gone over the bar. Four years on, it was England’s turn to gripe as Ireland grabbed a 2-2 draw in Belfast – but keeper Joe Reader insisted that Willie Gibson’s late Irish leveller had gone past the post.

The solution was inspired by John Brodie’s trousers. The Liverpudlian engineer decided he was going to eliminate the squabbling by inventing “a huge pocket”. By 1891 his prototype was complete, and goal nets were trialled in Nottingham.

The first player ever to ripple one was Everton forward Fred Geary. (There must have been something in the air that day: referee Sam Widdowson went on to invent shinpads.) Brodie’s innovation was soon accepted into the official laws and was used in the 1892 FA Cup Final.

The newly-netted goalmouth was still imperfect, though, and disputes continued. Long before Geoff Hurst’s World Cup moment, the referee missed a bounce-out that would have seen West Brom promoted in 1909, while Aston Villa were relegated in 1970 following a similar error.

Many will recall a Clive Allen effort for Crystal Palace in 1980 that boinged in and out off a stanchion; the official was convinced it had hit the upright.

Square goalposts, particularly popular in Scotland, also brought heartache. In the 1976 European Cup Final, a header from Saint-Etienne’s Jacques Santini rebounded 
off the horizontal with the score 0-0. Fans of Les Verts remain convinced that, had the crossbar been rounded, the shot would have gone in.

Alas, a sharp corner foiled them: Bayern Munich grabbed a second-half winner instead, and fans of the French club still 
curse “les poteaux carres” of Glasgow.

The square designs were eventually banned by FIFA in 1987, and the round version has also been gradually replaced by an elliptical shape created by the Standard Goals Company in Nottingham. Precision is absolute: crossbars today are curved slightly upward in order to counteract gravity, which naturally pulls the central section downwards. Douglas fir has also been superseded by aluminium as the material of choice.

Further adjustments?

What does the future hold for the goal? Safety is one issue that still needs work. Collapses of badly-constructed, heavy steel structures in parks have been responsible for the deaths of numerous children over recent decades, and a campaign spearheaded by Brenda Smith, who lost her son to such an accident, is ongoing.

The Government, FA and British Standards have been slow to react to pressure to make park goals safer, according to John Wilson, whose company, ItsaGoal, make lightweight versions. “We’re hoping that changes to the law will be made soon,” he says.

In the professional arena, world-quaking alterations are unlikely. When Sepp Blatter brayed to German magazine Stern in 1996 that “the guardians of the rules are in agreement to lengthen the goals by the diameter of two balls, around 50cm, and to increase the height by the diameter of one ball”, there was such uproar that the plan was immediately shelved.

Is it such a stupid idea? The average male was around a foot shorter than today’s average Premier League goalkeeper (6ft 3in) when the rules were drawn up, so perhaps not. But few fans can entertain such meddling with tradition.

Adjustments continue: Brendan Rodgers changed Liverpool’s nets back to an ’80s-style red. And there is actually little in the laws to stop clubs tinkering more. But while goals as an object will never be as fascinating as the act of scoring them, for footballers and fans, they’ll always be home – and, as Di Canio says, a slice of paradise.

This feature first appeared in the December 2012 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe!

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The History Of The Football Goal, Goalpost, Crossbar and Net

The weird and wonderful history of goal posts


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