The purpose of the game is to score a 'base', which is achieved by kicking the ball between two vertical posts, a pair of which is at each end of the ground, similar to rugby posts but without a cross-bar. This may be done either from open play or from 'yards' and the kick may be of any height.
The teams are eleven a side, comprising four centres, two wings on each side of the field and three backs.
In a typical phase of play, the ball will be dribbled down the field quite slowly by the centres. They may be tackled soccer style, or knocked off the ball by their opponents (all shoulder charging is allowed, except in the back) but if they manage to work the ball down to within kicking range of their opponents' base, one of them will turn and 'give yards' to a team mate. On 'taking yards,' the catcher then has the opportunity of kicking the ball between the posts and scoring a base.
In the course of the dribble the ball may fly out to, or be passed to, the wings. Progress is usually faster on the drier fringes of the ground and wings tend to be smaller, nippier footballers. If they manage to take the ball up to the base line, they will either centre it or 'give yards', which can then be transferred to a team mate nearer the middle of the field. If the ball crosses the side line, there is no restriction on how the ball may be thrown in. It is therefore usually bowled in by one of the backs, a method which will often send it as far as a kick. As the offside rule does not apply from throws, it will be seen that a throw near the opponents' end of the field is an attacking opportunity. On the other hand, if the ball crosses the base line from a defender, the ball must be thrown in perpendicularly from the crossing place, a rather less threatening situation unless it happens to be very near the base.
The Harrow ball is constructed from three pieces of leather, two circular and one rectangular. The circumferences of the circles are stitched to the longer sides of the rectangle, and the two ends of the rectangle are also joined. A rubber bladder is inserted into the leather case through this short join and the opening is closed with a lace. The inflated ball thus becomes an approximately spherical shape. It is larger than a soccer ball, its circular section having a diameter about 27.5cm at its largest. Dry weight is about 820 grams.
In 1999 a football was found in the rafters of Stirling Castle, supposedly above Mary Queen of Scots' bedroom. It was formally identified by the National Museum in Edinburgh as being 430 years old and therefore the oldest surviving football.
Interestingly, its construction is exactly the same as a Harrow football: two circular pieces of leather stitched to a central rectangular piece curved to form a cylinder. This is a neat way of forming a near cylindrical shape with just three components. However the Harrow ball is considerably larger than the Stirling ball, being nearly a foot across in its widest part.
This size of ball, particularly when soaked in water and caked in mud, is only headed by the more foolhardy player - and then only once. A better, safer and more effective way of meeting the aerial ball is with the shoulder, known as 'fouling'. The ball may be 'fouled' whenever it may not be caught, that is from a throw or a base kick.
The History of Harrow Football
"Again we rush across the slush -
A pack of breathless faces -
And charge and fall, and see the ball
Fly whizzing through the bases".
Stet Fortuna Domus, 1891
Most games arise out of the conditions of climate and terrain that prevail at the time. Harrow Football is no exception. It began as an unorganised kick-about in the School Yard (fug football) and slowly developed into an organised activity. From 1803 to 1850 it was played on what is now the Sixth Form Cricket Ground and then, when the School acquired some land on the east side of the Hill, a formal game began to evolve.
Like most of northwest London, the Harrow grounds are solid clay, a material which in summer months is cracked with heat but in the winter becomes a slippery, miry marsh. It was in these unattractive and discouraging conditions that Harrow Football was born. The rules of the games were codified in 1865 by Edward Bowen, later House Master of The Grove, author of Forty Years On and several other Harrow Songs.
It is difficult to imagine the state of the grounds in the nineteenth century. Contemporary reports suggest six inches of mud but that it had often been up to a foot deep before the drainage had been put down in 1889. Conditions may have been dreadful but there was huge pride in the game: EW Howson, later House Master of Druries, added two more football songs, Three Yards in 1885 and Play Up in 1887.
Up to 1930 cricket was played into the Autumn term finishing with the Goose Match at Michaelmas. The first Football match was then played on Founder's Day at the beginning of October and until 1896 Football continued for the rest of the winter.
Although the Harrow game was ideally suited to Harrow clay, it had two major disadvantages; first, opponents were confined to Old Harrovians and secondly, those that wanted to continue to play football at university had a problem since each school had been playing to different rules. Rugbeians, whose code allowed handling and running, could not agree with Harrovians who could catch the ball but not run with it and Etonians and Wykehamists who could do neither.
There was strong pressure, largely driven by Charterhouse and Westminster, to agree on a common set of rules and several Old Harrovians were involved in the discussions which led to the formation of the Football Association in 1863. Of the fourteen rules agreed at the inaugural meeting, the first eight are clearly based on the Harrow game.
With so many Old Harrovians now playing the Association game (or soccer, as it was to be universally known), the School had a brief flirtation with the idea of converting to it in 1864. Harrow Football might have died then and there but the decision was made to stick to it owing to the state of the grounds. Soccer continued to be played on an occasional basis and was introduced as the official game of the Spring term in 1896. Some dabbled in rugger too, with some matches played against outside opposition between 1903 and 1910.
In 1913, CH Byre, an OH Master, wrote "Soccer and Rugger in the Easter term call for little comment. The ground is ill-adapted for either game and the interest is practically limited to the players themselves. The fixtures are inclined to be dull and moderate."
It was the arrival of Dr Cyril Norwood as Head Master in 1925 that was to be the turning point. He had been a Master at Marlborough, which by then was established as a strong rugby-playing school. A year after his arrival at Harrow and following some powerful propaganda, a referendum was held; for reasons as much social as practical, rugby football was voted in and became officially established as the major game of the Autumn term; Football moving to the shorter Spring term. Norwood wrote the Song of the Forwards to underline rugby's new status and dedicated it to CD Laborde and the XV of 1932 although their results (won 3, lost 6, drawn 1) would not appear to be cause for wild celebration. One chorus, "feet, feet, feet, feet one rush and together, let drive and let fly," smacks more of football than rugby and it seems that Harrovians were reluctant to give up their old skills; forwards were coached to dribble the ball, only heeling it when stopped. Nevertheless the standard of rugby gradually improved, although it was not until 1954 that the School could boast an unbeaten season. Although a new Sixth Form rugby ground was laid in 1957, significant changes did not occur until the drainage and levelling of the Julian fields and the Park Ground in the 1970s. These 'New Fields', so called, were jealously guarded and Football was now played solely on the Ducker and Upper Redding fields. Ducker 1 became the 1st XI ground.
Several factors now began to affect the way Football was played. First, the drainage of the New Fields made the other grounds much drier too. Secondly, improved technology in ball manufacture had made it increasingly difficult to get the traditional leather ball. Harrow Football is essentially a dribbling game. When the ball can be kicked twenty or thirty yards, the character of the game changes. The combined effect has been a faster game but one that has departed from its roots and has found difficulty adapting.
The improved New Fields were beginning to make soccer a real possibility in the Spring term, although the surface was rarely dry enough before the end of February. In spite of the short season the game quickly established itself and Harrow XIs have been more than a match for their opponents that now include some 'two-term' soccer schools. Members of the 1st XI were awarded full Flannel status in 1998.
The most recent development has pushed Harrow Football even further to the fringes. The levelling and drainage of the Upper Redding fields now leave only one Ducker pitch and the Sheepcote and Hempstall fields (reclaimed from the Farm) for Football. It remains a popular House sport but 'Flannels' (1st XI colours) were reduced to minor game status in 2003.
"You lie in corners dark and dull,
An empty lump of air you!
You sit and sulk, a frozen bulk,
With pads and bats above you,
Till winter comes again and then...?"
Plump a Lump, 1890
Note: Forty Years On with its football allegory has been adopted by schools - many of them girls' - all over the world. Very few can know what they were actually singing about.