There was only one game at the start, and that was football. Not association football, or Rugby football, but just football. There was a field and a ball and a couple of posts, but rules varied wildly. But as the competitive game developed in the public schools of England in the second half of the 19th century, it diversified. The playing field became smaller and numbers were restricted to a couple of dozen players. Playing in isolation, different schools developed different rules. You were allowed to kick and hack opponents in Blackheath while various forms of football had been played without rules at Rugby School long before William Webb-Ellis picked up the ball. Matters became complicated when schoolboys progressed to university and found others playing different versions of the same game. If the sport was to develop, agreed rules would be needed.
The Football Association was founded in England in 1863, and running with ball in hand was outlawed. There was some debate over the kicking of opponents, but eventually it was agreed to limit violence to attacks on goalkeepers. The decisions split the schools, and they went their separate ways. Some chose 'association' football, while others continued to develop their own sport, which they now called rugby.
Association football was taking shape and the organised game spread to the public schools of the Welsh borders, becoming the preferred form at Wem, Oswestry, and Shrewsbury. When pupils left, they continued playing. Shrewsbury School Old Boys attempted to form a club on arrival at Cambridge University in the early 1840s, which suggests Shrewsbury School were one of football's driving forces. Henry de Winton and John Charles Thring, who are credited with the first attempt at a set of rules in 1848, had both attended Shrewsbury. It is safe to assume that some of the school's former scholars returned to Wales and influenced contemporaries who had attended Welsh establishments such as Ruabon. The oldest existing copy of the laws of the game, written around 1856, remains at Shrewsbury Public School. It is no wonder that football in Wales began in the north East.
Organised competitive football in Wales also sprouted from the public schools. A student of Treborth Academy, Bangor, invited a newspaper editor for a game in 1862. There were was a contest between Anglesey Collegiate and Holyhead on 11 March 1864, and a match was held between Deganwy and Llanrwst schools in 1875. A year later, Lampeter's St David's College played Ystrad Meurog Grammar School under association rules. Even in south Wales, where rugby was already dominating, there was a game in 1865: One of the teams involved, Swansea Grammar School, was playing association rules by 1877.
Ironically, rugby was the inspiration behind the foundation of the Football Association of Wales. Llewelyn Kenrick had been enthused by a letter in a publication called 'The Field' in 1876 suggesting the formation of a Welsh rugby team, and publicly challenged the teams of England, Scotland and Ireland to a game of football under association rules. Ireland refused, as they would only play under the rules of rugby.
It can be quite confusing to research the early association football and rugby football as both codes simply called themselves football clubs. And they were confused themselves. On hearing of the proposed international, CC Chambers, captain of Swansea and member of South Wales Football Club, wrote to the Western Mail on 3 March 1876. "I shall be happy to produce from these parts a team who shall hold their own against any team from North Wales, either at the Association or Rugby Union games, the latter preferred." Swansea also entered the first Welsh Cup but withdrew upon discovering it was not a rugby competition.
The south stipulated its preference for rugby with the formation of the South Wales Football Union in 1878. Since football split, Wales has been a front-line battleground in the struggle between the codes for supremacy. Football clubs were forced to take sides – would they play association or rugby football? Some tried to compromise and games were arranged over two legs to incorporate both versions. In 1875, Brecon's Christ Church beat Brecon Town at association football, but lost heavily at rugby in the second leg. Builth, meanwhile, voted to play both codes in 1876 depending on the preference of their opponents. In the first fixture of the season they faced Radnorshire Wanderers under association rules, but when their football burst they switched to rugby for the afternoon.
When a football international was arranged at Swansea for the visit of Ireland in 1894, the south-Walian Western Mail was uninterested. "In this portion of the principality, the association game is practically unknown." On match day the newpaper printed a diagram of the pitch, and an explanation of the "differences between rugby and association."
Even today, over a century later, those differences remain, though rugby and association clubs live side-by-side in the villages, towns and cities of Wales. The differences now are so apparent that it easy to forget that the two codes were one and the same thing just a few generations ago. They were both simply football.