I was browsing through January’s issue of the Journal of Sporting Archaeology when a notice caught my eye: ‘Professor Allison’s lecture on “The Druidic Origins of Association Football” scheduled for the 20th March has been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances.’ When I contacted the journal’s editor he was unable to explain what those ‘circumstances’ were but he did put me in touch with Professor Allison. After a brief and somewhat mysterious telephone conversation, the professor invited me to his office at University College London. Prior to our meeting, my cursory research indicated that Allison is a well-known expert in both the Iron Age and Roman periods of British history. As far as I can tell, he has never had any research interests in football or sport more generally.
When I arrive at Professor Allison’s door at the appointed time, he welcomes me into his book-lined room, which is more of an old-fashioned study than an office. Allison is a friendly, intense man in his sixties, speaks in a low voice, and has a dishevelled appearance. His uncombed hair and rumpled suit convey the impression of a scholar with his mind on higher and more complex matters than the trivia of personal appearance. After brief introductions on both sides, we begin our discussion. I record the whole conversation and present it here almost verbatim, with only the pauses and fillers removed and some brief descriptions of tone and atmosphere added. I begin by asking Professor Allison why his lecture was cancelled.
‘Postponed in fact, not cancelled for good,’ he says. ‘You see, word had got out that I was going to deal with the practice of human sacrifice by the ancient Druids. There is a certain amount of denial among some of our modern Druids, what you might call the New Age wing of Druidism, about that. They say it’s all Roman propaganda, intended to discredit the indigenous Celtic religion. Nonsense, of course. But I was warned that protests were planned, disruption intended. So I postponed. When I do give the lecture, I want to make sure that adequate security is in place.’
I cannot not hide my scepticism. ’But what has human sacrifice got to do with the origins of football?’
‘Well that’s the whole point of the lecture.’ Allison smiles grimly as he rolls a cigarette. He lights up and continues. ’Let me explain. Have you heard of William Stukeley?’
‘Vaguely. Some sort of antiquarian?’
‘Yes, he was an antiquarian. And an Anglican priest. And supposedly a Druid, whatever that might have meant in the eighteenth century. But most importantly, Stukeley was the first person to excavate the burial mounds around Stonehenge. He was a bit of a crank but he did some important work. Many of his papers are held in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Which is where I discovered the manuscript that led me to this theory.’
‘A manuscript of Stukeley’s?’
‘Yes, unpublished, like much of his work. I was at the Bodleian, researching a paper I was planning on gender roles and burial practices in pre-Roman Britain. I happened to be reading through an excavation record that Stukeley made in the summer of 1723. It included a description and drawing of a large silver drinking bowl he found. The bowl was decorated with a series of bas-relief frames depicting the stages in the preparation and execution of a human sacrifice, according to the Celtic religious, that’s to say the Druidic, ritual.’
‘Human sacrifice, ‘ I repeat, repelled and yet intrigued by the notion.
‘Yes. But it was clear from Stukeley’s notes that he was puzzled by some aspects of the process depicted on the bowl. To me however, looking with twenty-first century eyes, they seemed strangely familiar.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’ll explain but first let me give you some context. One of the many mysteries about the Celtic sacrificial rite has been to do with how the victims were chosen. Yes, we know that they were usually criminals or prisoners of war. But there must have been more to it. The Druids believed in a natural order actively sustained by the gods. In other words, they did not believe in chance or randomness. So, let’s suppose we have a group of men taken prisoner in some conflict or other. The ritual of sacrifice was highly organised and not some random slaughter. So how would they have decided who was to die? There must have been a selection process, and one that allowed the gods to intervene as they wished. This is what the scenes on the bowl depict.’
‘Where is the bowl now?’
‘Sadly, we don’t know what happened to it. Stukeley’s estate was sold off after his death. It’s probably sitting on a sideboard somewhere in England. But his drawings and description are clear enough for me to have a high degree of confidence that my theory is sound.’
Allison’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious but the connection between what he has told me so far and the origins of the football is obscure. I am beginning to wonder whether, like William Stukeley, he is also ‘a bit of a crank’.
‘How well do you know the design of Stonehenge?’ Allison says.
‘I remember the broad outline. Concentric stone circles within a ditch and bank earthwork. Some of the stones dressed and joined, others freestanding. But I don’t – ‘
‘Yes, yes, and at the centre of the whole arrangement were five great trilithons, each composed of two upright stones capped by a horizontal lintel.’ The professor regards me intently. ‘Or, to put it another way, two posts and a crossbar.’
‘You mean – ‘
‘Yes, I mean exactly that. The modern game of association football has its roots in a Druidic ritual designed to select those who were to be sacrificed to the Celtic gods. The depictions on the bowl are very clear. Prisoners are shown kicking what is probably some kind of inflated animal bladder at the narrow gap between the two upright stones. In one frame, a man who has put the ball through the opening is shown with arms aloft, presumably giving thanks to the gods. Another frame shows a man on his knees, head in hands, with the ball sitting in front of the trilithon. He has clearly hit the post or the crossbar and knows he is to die.’
‘You’re saying it was something like a penalty shoot-out?’
‘Yes, very like that.’
‘But to get from that to the game of football is a bit of a stretch.’
‘Hear me out. In a different spot Stukeley found a small gold medallion. It depicts a Druid standing in front of a trilithon, arms outstretched, knees slightly bent.’
‘Surely not a…a goalkeeper?’
‘Yes, or a precursor of the goalkeeper. My conjecture is that once the ritual was widespread and therefore widely known, Celtic warriors would prepare for it. Call it practicing penalties if you like. Remember that before the Romans came, the Celtic tribes were fighting one another. Let’s suppose that a certain tribe or generation of fighters gets very skilled at putting the ball between the posts. Then there is a danger that the Druids will not have enough sacrificial victims. So they have to introduce another degree of difficulty into the task. And so the Druid stands in front of the trilithon and attempts to keep the ball out. One can only imagine the drama of such an event.’
‘I suppose this would have attracted large crowds?’
‘Very large crowds, who would have been chanting, singing and beating drums. And of course, at the end of the shoot-out would have come the burning of the victims in the Wicker Man. Quite a spectacle.’
There is something horribly fascinating about Allison’s imaginative reconstruction. I ask him to go on.
‘The next stage of development comes once Roman rule is established in Britain. The Romans were very hostile to Druidism in general and human sacrifice in particular. In fact, they quickly outlawed Celtic religious practices, not just here but in Gaul too. But we also know that the Roman ruling class valued the social utility of sport. Organised games were a way of channelling popular violence and dissent into less threatening forms. Much of the British population must have been aggrieved at the suppression of their native religion. So the Romans took one of the most popular rituals and turned it into a sport. They redesigned it as a game with two opposing teams, but still with the aim of putting a ball between two posts and under a crossbar. Of course they also had to change the layout of the ground and the trilithons. You could say that the Romans moved the goalposts.’
‘But surely this is all guesswork now?’
‘Not entirely. Some years ago a bronze two-handled wine-cup was unearthed at Chester, on the site of the Roman fort, Deva Victrix. It was thought to commemorate a minor skirmish between the XX Valeria Victrix Legion and a British guerrilla force in 90AD. I have examined that artefact and I am convinced that it actually commemorates a football match between soldiers from the XX and a British team. The contest portrayed takes place on what is recognizably a football pitch. Arguably, it could even mark the first ever football international.’
‘And who won?’
‘From the evidence in the inscription, it’s clear that the Romans won. The score is not explicitly stated but from the depiction of the action I would say it was 1-0. Of course, Roman soldiers were noted for their defensive ability.’
I sit back in my chair, my mind working furiously to assimilate this new theory of football’s origins. ‘So you’re saying that the date of the first international football match must be set back almost two thousand years?’
Allison shrugs but gives me a wry smile. ‘My theory shines new light on all kinds of evidence.’ He picks up a volume from his desk. ‘The Roman historian Tacitus, in a famous passage in his Annals, described the last major battle between the Romans and the Britons, at Anglesey around 57AD.’ Allison finds the page he was looking for. ‘He describes the Druids as “lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, which scared our soldiers”. Now have you ever wondered why opposing football fans, unlike those in any other sport, are so hostile, so insulting, and occasionally so violent towards one another? I think that when the ritual of the trilithon was transformed by the Romans into the game of proto-football, the Britons, a disarmed and beaten nation, would have expressed their loathing for the Romans in the only way available to them. Druidic curses became the early football chants, and the peculiar belligerence of football crowds in our time stems from that original sense of powerlessness.’
I still have many questions but my allotted time with Professor Allison is up. He tells me that his lecture is likely to be rescheduled for May, just after the FA Cup Final. As I leave he asks me if I play football.
‘Not very often these days, just an occasional game of five-a-side.’
‘And are you any good?’
‘No, not very.’
We shake hands and I promise I will be at his lecture.
PS. Just a few days ago, as I was preparing this article, Professor Allison called me, out of the blue. He has invited me to a weekend gathering of an obscure order of Druids, at a remote country estate. He told me they are genuine traditionalists, with, in his words, ‘none of this tree-hugging, New Age nonsense about them’. He said they will be re-enacting the ritual that he has described, and invited me to participate. I accepted, of course. He even offered me a lift but I told him I’ll get the train. A funny thing, though. He advised me to get a single ticket and not to bother with a return. Something about the trains in that district not running late on Sundays. When I asked how I would get back to London he was reassuring. ‘We’ll arrange a passage out for you, no need to worry about that.’ It was only after I ended the call that I thought that ‘passage’ was an odd word to use. But I suppose that’s just his way of speaking.