Next Goal Wins takes a nostalgic look back at the world’s first international football competition, the British Home Championships.
Ask any football fan who they think Britain’s current champions are and it is unlikely they will reply Northern Ireland. There will be heated debates over whether it is England or Scotland, maybe some will argue a case for Wales or Northern Ireland yet it is the latter who are the current holders of the British Home Championship. They won the title when it was last played in 1983/84 and since its demise can proudly say they are the current reigning British Champions.
The first British Home Championship (also known as the Home Internationals) officially started back in 1883/84 but the idea for the competition came the previous year. Football in the 1880’s was a fast moving, evolving sport with differing rules found under each national governing body. Britain’s countries were regularly playing each other in friendlies; the rules of each game being adopted the home nation. This scenario was far from perfect and the Football Associations from the four countries came together to try and agree on a football rule book which could be adopted worldwide.
The meeting in 1882 saw the formation of the International Football Association Board (IFAB) and they launched worldwide standardised football rules. The IFAB are to this day in charge of the rules of association football, a duty they share with FIFA, whom they meet yearly with. Having agreed on formal rules, this now made games between each country far easier and the second agreement of the meeting was to launch an annual competition between each of the four home nations. The announcement of the British Home Championships was made to start the following season 1883/84.
The set up of the championship was simple; each team played each other once, with two points for a win and one point for a draw. Given each team would play three games, it was impossible for a perfect symmetry so teams alternated who they would play at home each year. Thus if Wales played Ireland at home one year, they would play them away the year after. In the absence of any form of goal average or goal difference, if two or more teams shared the same number of points, the position was shared. Goal difference was only introduced in 1978 with goals scored being relied upon if goal difference was the same.
The inaugural match saw Scotland beat Ireland 5-0 and they went on to win the first title, in fact winning the first 4 titles. Whilst tournaments dates were not written in tablets of stone the fixtures tended to be held towards the end of the season. The championship became an annual event and was played every season from 1883/84 to its demise 1983/84 with the exception of the war years when play was suspended in all forms of football. Only once, in 1956, did all countries finish on the same points, and the Championship was shared four ways.
The Championship witnessed one of footballs great tragedies in 1902 during the Scotland v England game at Ibrox. In the first half, a stand collapsed, killing twenty six people with a further 500 being injured. In 1950, the Championship was significantly chosen as a qualifying group for the World Cup Finals being held in Brazil. It was the first time that England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland had entered the World Cup and the top two would qualify. England won the Championship and headed to Brazil however Scotland declined to take part in the World Cup on the basis they had not won the championship. FIFA offered the place to Ireland, the third placed team but they also declined the offer.
For many, an iconic moment in the history of the Home Championship came in the England v Scotland game at Wembley in 1977. The Championship had gone to the wire, with the winner of the last game taking the title. Scotland ran out 2-1 winners but it will not be the game which will last long in the memory, more the hooliganism and vandalism which took place after the final whistle. As the referee led the players from the pitch thousands of the famous Scottish tartan army poured on with joyous scenes quickly turning ugly as fans started ripping up the famous Wembley turf. They did not end there and dancing in the goalmouths soon led to fans hanging from the crossbars and it was not long before they snapped. It took some time for Police to regain control of the situation, long enough though for it to be etched in the memory of most.
By the late 1970’s the tournament was already losing its appeal. The increased pressure to qualify for the World Cup & European Championship meant the Home Championship was being devalued. Further problems were to occur in 1981 when, at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, the IFA refused to move Northern Ireland’s home fixtures. Both English & Welsh FA’s refused to send teams to Belfast and the tournament was declared void with no title awarded. The final nail in the Championships coffin came in 1983 when both the Scottish & English FA announced they would not compete the following year and subsequently fielded weakened teams in what was to be the final tournament. Northern Ireland took full advantage, winning the final tournament and with it, the title of Champions of Britain. Without Scotland & England, the tournament was scrapped with no fixtures being placed in the following year’s calendar and the Home Championship was consigned to the history books, 100 years after it started.
In recent years there has been a call for a return however. Vauxhall, on becoming the sponsor for all the Home Nations announced in 2011 that it was its intention to bring back the tournament as soon as was feasible but as yet, the countries football associations have yet to reach agreement to achieve this. So until it returns, Northern Ireland remain, “Champions of Britain”
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