How Celtic and the game of football looked 130 years ago

2023 marked the 130th anniversary of Celtic’s first ever League title (in 1892-93)…

As the Celts pursue their 54th League title, let’s look at the very different football experience which existed in the 1890s…

The League and Scottish Cup

In this era, Scotland’s pinnacle football competition is the League. But in the 1890s, the trophy everyone really wanted was the Scottish Cup. It was so important, it was often described by newspapers as being the ‘Scottish Championship’. This remained the case for years after the League began. It was into the 1900s before the League began to take precedence in the mind of the clubs and fans.


Successful teams nowadays receive a trophy as a memento of their win. In addition, players are given medals as their own way of remembering their victory. In the 1890s, players were given similar tokens. However they were usually not called medals. Instead, winning players received ‘badges’ in honour of their success (albeit that this was the same thing as a medal).


An 1890s pitch would seem very different from now. There was not a penalty box. Instead a line went across the full length of the park, where a box is currently marked out. Any infringement in this area could be given as a penalty (after they were introduced).

Penalty kicks

Penalty kicks were not introduced in football until 1892. They were designed to stop people deliberately stopping a goalscoring chance without any real punishment. The world’s first football penalty kick took place in Airdrie at Mavisbank Park. On 6 1891, James McLuggage of Royal Albert scored the penalty to help his side win 2-0 v Airdrie.

Bould Bhoys – Glory to their name author Matthew Marr

Free kicks

Nowadays, free kicks are an important tactical device – many spectacular goals are scored from direct free kicks. However in the 1890s, only indirect free kicks existed; you could not score straight from a free-kick. This changed in 1903. One of the big challenges of researching football in this era is identifying the correct scorers. Often a player taking a free kick was credited if a goal came from this, even though the rules prevented such a thing.


There are so many tactical variations in the 2020s. In the 1880s and 1890s, there were also numerous strange formations, including 1-2-7, 2-2-6 and so on. However in the 1890s, the most commonly employed formation was a 2-3-5. This involved a goalkeeper, two backs (defenders), three half-backs (midfielders) and five forwards.



Unlike now, referees were not employed for this purpose by an organisation such as the SFA or UEFA. Instead, each team would provide a referee for another game. The linesmen would come from the two teams that were playing. For example, if Celtic played Hearts, the linesmen were Celtic and Hearts officials whilst the referee might come from St Mirren. It was also a different experience being booked or sent off. Although people could be “invited to retire” (sent off), they would not receive a yellow or red card, this not happening until the 1970s.


Footballs in the 1890s were vastly different from the modern lightweight and scientifically designed equipment. The balls were made from heavy leather and weighed much more than 2020s balls. People have concerns about heading in the modern era; how much worse it must have been back then.

Football strips

Just like footballs, modern strips are very differently designed. Club colours are also frequently worn not simply by players but also fans of all ages. In the 1890s, fans would not really have worn these kits. And the footballers’ strips felt and looked unusual. For one thing, the material were made from wool. Imagine how wet and heavy that got! In addition, shorts were usually referred to as ‘knickers’!

Football boots

Football boots were also not the same as nowadays. Aside from being much heavier, they were also a very different shape, more akin to actual boots. But that was maybe needed given the weight of the ball!


Tickets were a very different price from now. It was usually 6d (6 pence) for entry to games, and an extra 6d to sit down. This is very unlike £50 or £60 prices for 2023 games. In fact, it would be interesting to work out ticket price inflation and compare it to wages and other prices! It wasn’t just costs that were different – some people even got free entry. Women were allowed in without being charged. And soldiers in uniform often got this benefit too, including at Celtic Park.


Entering the ground would have been a different experience too. For one thing, many grounds did not have the same purpose-built environment, often being little more than fields marked out by some basic fencing. Furthermore, unlike modern turnstiles that are full adult height, the 1890s equivalent was only waist height. This obviously led to cries of: “Gie’s a lift over, mister!”

Bovril and matchday food

Bovril has become a staple part of many people’s matchday experiences. However it only started being a football drink in the 1890s. It was first available at Scottish games starting in September 1892, the first place being Ibrox during a Rangers v Celtic game that ended in a 2-2 draw. Pre-match adverts also extolled the excitement of hot pies being on offer too. Soon this drink had spread elsewhere, including Celtic Park.

Scotland’s national team

The Scotland national team was also very different in the 1890s, both in terms of players who were included and how they were chosen. For one thing, players were only selected if they played in Scotland. Nowadays this would take out some of the country’s best players, including Andy Robertson, john McGinn and Kieran Tierney. In addition, in the 1890s, it was not a manager that chose the players. Instead, trials were held and a ‘Selecting Seven’ committee then made the decision.

Celtic and Rangers 

Celtic and Rangers also had very different relations. Both sides got on, including playing friendlies against one another. They would even attend the other’s social events, including playing the piano for entertainment! Celtic’s John H McLaughlin was known for his musical skills.

Even stranger was what happened concerning the 1893 Glasgow Cup Final. Cathkin Park was chosen as the host venue for this Celtic versus Rangers match – but Rangers (unsuccessfully) protested and asked for it to be played at Celtic Park! The game itself was just as strange. Rangers won – the first time they ever beat Celtic – and were congratulated by the Celts. In fact, Rangers’ John Marr (no relation to this author!) even remarked at an after-match party that:

“there [was]no club … whom the Celts would rather see win the cup [than Rangers].”

Changed days indeed!

Want to learn more? If you want to learn more about football in this era, including the full story of Celtic’s first title, you can buy my book: The Bould Bhoys! Glory to their name

It’s available online from Celtic Star Books, or in the Celtic Shop.

Follow Matthew on Twitter @hailhailhistory

Click on cover to order hardback copy.

Matthew’s debut Celtic book titled ‘The Bould Bhoys – Glory to their name’ was published by Celtic Star Books earlier this year and is available to order HERE or you can pick up a copy at any official Celtic store. This brilliant book is also available on Amazon Kindle for just £3.49 and includes all photo sections that appear in the hardback edition.

‘The Bould Bhoys! Glory to their name’ – by Matthew Marr

About Author

Matthew Marr first started going to see Celtic in the 1980s and has had a season ticket since 1992. His main Celtic interest is the club's history, especially the early years. In 2023, Matthew published his first Celtic book, telling the story of the Bhoys' first league title. He also runs Celtic history walking tours.

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