Article: Best Foot (Ball) Forward – Britains Lost Art Of Football Makers

When given the task of choosing my favourite British-made product of all time my decision proved much easier than one might think. My mind quickly raced between the Steam Engine and the Telephone. My train of thought then travelled forward Spitfire and the World Wide Web, but within seconds I was unflinchingly locked onto the image of a spherical object, which, in it’s simplicity, has provided billions with excitement, unity, exercise, passion, friendship, camaraderie, money and togetherness for over a hundred and fifty years. Ladies and gentlemen I am of course referring to, the Football.

Different forms of football-type games have been played for thousands of years, from the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and the Romans to the Tsin and Han dynasties in China to much rougher variations played in medieval England. Games have been played in England using ‘footballs’ for over a thousand years by all corners of society. However it was with the birth of ‘modern football’ during the mid-19th century which really set the (foot)ball in motion.

Ancient Greeks playing keepy-uppy

England was the first country in the world to develop codified football, born from the desire of young public school pupils to compete with rival schools under the same rules. A decade or so later in 1863 the newly established Football Association moulded varying versions of rules together including the Cambridge and later the Sheffield rules. These formed the first set of rules from the ruling body of British football which this year is  celebrating its 150th birthday.

Village football, Britain 1810

As for the football itself, it has had a similarly varying past, much like the sport it shares its name with. Early balls varied from human heads, stitched cloth, animal skulls and most commonly pig or cow bladders. The most common balls made from animal bladders were blown up by mouth and placed inside animal skin. During the 1660s, Zoologist Francis Willughby recorded in his Book of Games, that mercury was sometimes put into the balls to keep them from lying still. Fast-forward two hundred years and many an injury and death in local ‘football’ games, which would have bore closer resemblance to a full scale riot, and we arrive in 1855 where an American, Charles Goodyear, utilized his invention of vulcanised rubber to produce one of the first professional footballs: an animal bladder encased in rubber. “What’s that”, I hear you cry, “an American made the first football?” Of course not! Four years previously Englishmen Richard Lindon and William Gilbert, father of the highly successful rugby brand, showcased their oval rugby balls and round footballs at the 1851 Great Exhibition. Once more, the oldest existing football in the world pre-dates Goodyear by 350 years to before 1500, and it’s Scottish.

Michael McGinnes and football
The Worlds Oldest Football with it’s Official Keeper and Curator of the Stirling Smith Museum, Michael McGinnes.

In 1862 Lindon came to the rescue of the nation. No longer would people have to blow up dirty animal bladders which could cause disease and even death, which sadly claimed the life of his own wife. Lindon, a shoemaker from Rugby, invented the inflatable India rubber bladder and a special brass air pump. These rubber bladders made it possible to produce the first completely round footballs and it was Lindons footballs which became the first official FA balls.

Arguably the mass-production of footballs started around the time when the English Football League was first established in 1888, which incidentally is also enjoying a milestone birthday this year of 125 years. Two of the most important football manufacturers in Britain for many years were Thomlinson’s of Glasgow and Mitre of Huddersfield. Before the advent of modern balls it was Tomlinson’s “T” ball which was one of the most famous balls in the country. The “T” ball was made at the Greenbank Leather Works in Glasgow, a factory which saw football craftsmanship at its best.

The first all-synthetic ball, the Mitre “Matchplay” was introduced in the early 1960s but all-synthetic balls didn’t fully takeover until the 1980’s. Until the 80’s leather balls were still regarded to offer a higher quality material, with balls that ‘displayed a more consistent flight and bounce’. Mitre has provided footballs and other sporting equipment since 1817 and is currently the kit maker of the greatest football club in the world, Ipswich Town.

Adverts for William Shillcock’s McGregor Boots and Balls; and for the Minerva Football Company

One age-old problem that football manufacturers had to overcome during the 1940’s, and which continues to be an annoying side effect of buying cheap footballs even today, is that sometimes the ball would burst. This happened two years in a row in the 1946 and 1947 FA cup finals. The use of synthetic paints and the removal of the laces in favour of a new valve alleviated the problem of balls bursting. White balls and orange balls became popular in the 1950’s to help spectators see the balls under floodlights and in the snow. This season, 2013-2014, a hi-visibility Mitre ball will be used in the Football League from November until the end of February.

In 1954 FIFA defined the official size and weight of footballs which created a standardised template which all international teams had to play with. Before 1954 international games were played with balls of differing proportions. Incredibly in the final of the first world cup in 1930 between host nation Uruguay and Latin rivals Argentina, the final was played with a different ball in each half due to a disagreement between the teams. The first half was played with Argentina’s ball and the second with Uruguay’s. Argentina were 2-1 up at half time, however the game ended 4-2 to Uruguay. The standardisation of size and weight of footballs is something which the FA had done domestically 82 years earlier in 1872 when it was stated the ball “must be spherical with a circumference of 27 to 28 inches” and a weight of 13-15 oz. In 1937 the weight was increased to 14-16 oz but could be much heavier on a muddy, sodden football pitch.

A Surridge “Cobbler” ball used in the 1976 League Cup Final signed by the finalists Manchester City (winners) and Newcastle United. The ball was presented to the late Mike Doyle of Manchester City who was named the final’s Man of the Match.

It was the quadrennial FIFA World Cup which was the platform for countries to introduce new, ‘revolutionary’ and often controversial footballs onto the world scene. Until 1970 the host country designated the match ball to be used, England used a Slazenger “Special Edition” in 1966. However, for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, West German sports company, Adidas, introduced the famous “Telstar” football to the world. The Telstar, short for television star, because of its black and white design which made it easier to see on black and white television, was the first Adidas World Cup ball and it was certainly not the last.

For the past eleven world cups Adidas has held the monopoly for supplying the footballs to the most famous sporting event in the world. However, considering the mixed-responses to world cup balls in the past few decades, the new Adidas “Brazuca”  has much to prove when it’s introduced at next years World Cup in Brazil. In fact, it seems footballers complaining about balls is an age-old tradition. Brummie inventor and manufacturer of the famous McGregor balls and boots, William Shillcock, wrote in 1905 ‘The maker would laugh if you asked him to produce a ball which only bounced moderately: and here, in a whisper, let me tell you that it is the old player who generally complains of the volatility of the ball. It makes the game too fast for him’. Unfortunately, whether footballers or fans like the Adidas balls or not is irrelevant. Last week FIFA extended it’s partnership with Adidas until 2030. Understandable when one considers that their partnership runs deep and as a result so do their pockets.

Football truly has become more than just a sport. It has become a booming international economy. However, it is becoming increasingly important that we Brits, as the inventors of this beautiful game, remember to honour the heritage it has within our shores. So, to the British football brands of old and new, including Minerva, Lillywhite, Frowd & Co, Tuphine, Epic, Team, McGregor, Umbro, Slazenger, Thomlinson’s and Mitre, we salute you.

Inline image 1
Inside William Shillcock’s Football Factory, c.1905

William Shillcock wrote in 1905 of his company (one of many), making and selling between 40 and 50,000 hand-made footballs a year to customers all over the world. He prophecised that, ‘Of course, there is always a demand for footballs. You can have no conception of the magnitude of the football out-fitting trade to-day. It is a great industry. If football were to cease, England would lose a great and profitable industry. England leads here, believe me’.

Whether footballs will always be made on the other side of the world remains to be seen, what is certain is that football is, and always will be, Made In These Isles.

Collection of Minerva footballs


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