Can We Have Our Balls Back, Please? - book cover

How the British Invented Sport and Then Almost Forgot How to Play

A history of popular sports and games Can We Have Our Balls Back, Please? is an entertaining and surprising journey from local folk games to modern world wide sport.

Despite the sub-title; Can We Have Our Balls Back, Please? does not claim that most world-wide sports were invented in Britain. However it would seem that their rules and organisation were often formalised in Britain.

Origin of Popular Sports – Not Always as Reported

The book covers all the major international sports and it would appear that most popular sports originated from local games. A classic example is football or soccer which is derived from long established folk games – some of which were mass participation events. Indeed there remain a few pockets that continue the tradition such as in England at Ashbourne, Derbyshire on Shrove Tuesday – the traditional day for such events.

It is difficult to imagine how “The Beautiful Game” developed from such a free for all which allows little footwork. Rugby on the other hand was supposedly created at Rugby School when William Webb-Ellis picked up the ball during a game of football and ran with it. As Julian Norridge points out football had allowed carrying, and other behaviour now outlawed, in its many local variations. In challenging the Webb-Ellis story Norridge makes clear that Rugby owes rather more to the shared folk origins of both games.

Can We Have Our Balls Back, Please? debunks many other myths about the origin of now popular sports. Interestingly few were invented by an individual or a group but generally grew out of local folk games. Perhaps the most notable exceptions are basketball and snooker.

Gambling and Sport – A Long and Mixed History

A major driving force for the development of games and sports was gambling. Much of the early history of sport involves wealthy men gambling on matches between their representatives in boxing, horse racing, running, rowing, yachting even football and cricket. The rules were not standardised and were agreed between the people making the match. For a long time this persisted but as competition became less local the need for a common set of rules across the country became more important.

Sport was also taken up by British public schools (actually private and fee-paying) and they had their own variations. As they started to compete against each other it created a need for standardised rules. There was also pressure from students who went off to University or into work and wanted to continue playing their favourite sport with others who came from a different tradition.

Governing Bodies and Universal Rules

As a result groups of like-minded individuals got together, often in hostelries, and started the first governing bodies. Although Britain may not have created the sports they did have a disproportionate role in establishing them in their modern form. The British Empire, and the colonisation of America, also provided the channel for those sports and their British rules to spread quickly around the world. Inevitably with the growth in the sports playing population the ability of Britain, or indeed any country, to dominate declines with the increased competition.

A Fascinating and Engrossing History

Can We Have Our Balls Back, Please? is a fascinating insight into the history of major games from their local, folk, tradition to the world-wide phenomenon of modern sport. It is a most enjoyable read and a useful reference – it can be dipped into but as with Football and Rugby there are linkages that may be missed if not read in sequence.

Julian Norridge has produced a witty and entertaining set of stories that chronicles all the major sports. Can We Have Our Balls Back, Please? is well referenced and there is a comprehensive index which will make it invaluable for settling pub arguments. It is a valuable contribution to sport history – all sports fans should have a copy. Indeed anyone who has a passing interest in any sport and likes a good read will enjoy Can We Have Our Balls Back, Please?

Can We Have Our Balls Back, Please? (2009, ISBN:978-0-141-03616-8) by Julian Norridge is published in paperback by Penguin at £9.99 (Can$20). It was the Sunday Times Sports Book of The Year.

Julian Norridge is an award winning journalist and a BAFTA and Emmy nominated television programme maker. As a first book this is an impressive debut work.

By the way, Baseball is not a derivative of the British game of Rounders as often argued but apparently both are derived from the same ancient British game... Called Baseball!


First shown on Suite101


Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.