Football is the most popular sport in the world and it has a long and illustrious history. There is evidence that early forms of football, in which a ball or similar object was kicked by players, were developed around 2,000 years ago in China and ancient Greece. Even the modern form of the game has roots that reach back to the mid-19th century. But which are the oldest football teams to still be playing today?
In this article, we’ll first focus on the oldest clubs still playing the England (which is the home of the game as we know it today after all), then we’ll cast the net further afield to find the oldest clubs from around the world. Note that we are featuring association football clubs here, so the likes of Liverpool St Helens and Durham School Football Club – who play(ed) rugby, will not get places on our list.
Oldest Football Clubs in England (and Wales) That Are Still Playing
Here we will take a look at the oldest football clubs that are still in existence and playing in the English football league system. This will therefore exclude the likes of Cambridge University AFC who claim to have been established in 1856, making them the oldest English club still playing. The date of their founding is disputed, but aside from that they currently play in the British Universities and Colleges Sport system and so will not be considered here. They should stick to rowing really, anyway!
It will also exclude Royal Engineers Association Football Club; they actually won the FA Cup in 1875 and made the final on three other occasions, but they currently play in the Army Football Association rather than the English football league system, so despite (possibly) being founded in 1863, they don’t get a place here either. We’ll take a look at all the clubs that were created before 1870.
Sheffield Football Club – Founded 1857
Although not as recognised or successful as the other clubs from their city, Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday, it was Sheffield FC who were first to form in October 1857. They were established a full decade before Wednesday and 34 years before United. At the time of writing, Sheffield FC ply their trade in Division One East of the Northern Premier League, alongside the likes of Ossett United and Tadcaster Albion.
Sheffield FC have had some success during their long history, most notably when they won the 1904 FA Amateur Cup (which ran as a competition until 1974). They have made it to the fourth round of the FA Cup on two occasions… though not for a while: 1877/78 and 1879/80 were their high points in that tournament.
They also came close to winning the FA Vase almost a century later though when they lost in the final during the 1976/77 campaign. They are also one of just two football clubs to have been awarded the FIFA Order of Merit (the highest honour bestowed by the governing body); you might have heard of the other club to have been given that honour: Real Madrid (founded in 1902 so just babies!).
Although Sheffield FC are the oldest football club still standing (at least of those not associated with institutions such as universities or hospitals), it is worth noting two things: Sheffield FC are not a professional football club, which does not invalidate them but it would explain why they often don’t appear in “oldest football clubs” lists that might only include professional clubs.
Secondly, the club initially followed the Sheffield rules of football and did not adopt the more widely recognised Football Association rules until 1877. In the eyes of some people, this means Sheffield FC did not really become an association football club until 1877, despite joining the Football Association in 1863. For those who see things that way, it is another club that is really the oldest of them all, Notts County, who frequently lead the way in many such lists.
Hallam Football Club – Founded 1860
Although it has roots that stretch way back to 1804 when Hallam Cricket Club was created at pub called the Plough Inn, Hallam FC was only formed in 1860 in response to Sheffield FC’s creation three years before. The sides first met on Boxing Day in 1860 under the Sheffield rules of football.
Despite most clubs opting to join the Football Association and follow their rules in the 1870s and 80s, Hallam remained an amateur outfit. This perhaps led to their demise as they were dissolved in 1886, though they re-formed in 1887. They also ceased playing (though continued their FA membership) for 15 years from the end of the 1932/33 season after the landlord at the time of the aforementioned Plough Inn made the decision to lease their land (where Hallam usually played) to other teams instead.
Hallam returned to action in 1947, but for some football historians these breaks in the club’s playing history will invalidate their claims as being one of the oldest clubs still playing today. But we thought they were worth mentioning all the same. Over the course of their long history, Hallam FC have picked up a bit of silverware. They found early success in the Youdan Cup, a one-off tournament that took place in 1867 under Sheffield rules. Hallam have also won the Northern Counties East League Cup (2003/04) and were the Yorkshire League Division Two champions in the 1960/61 season.
At the time of writing, Hallam have just finished top of the Northern Counties East League Division One, amassing a whopping 102 points and posting an impressive goal difference of +103. They’ll be promoted to the Northern Counties Eastern League Premier Division where they’ll face such mighty opposition as Sherwood Colliery, Penistone Church and Hemsworth Miners Welfare. Only eight more promotions to get into the Premier League!
Cray Wanderers Football Club – Founded 1860
Although the Cray Wanderers website suggests the club was formed some time around 1860 and are thus the oldest football club in London, there is little in the way of documentary evidence to support this. In fact the first reference to the club as Cray Wanderers did not appear until 1887, making them relative spring chickens compared to some on our list.
Apparently the football club’s roots lie in the “lunchtime kick-abouts” that took place between villagers of St Mary Cray and a group of labourers who were helping to build a nearby railway viaduct at the time. Whether you think this constitutes the formation of a real football club is down to you.
But whether the real date of formation is 1860 or 1887, Cray Wanderers are still playing today and at the time of writing they compete in the Isthmian League Premier Division, which is higher up the English football ladder than either of the Sheffield clubs mentioned above. They haven’t amassed a great haul of silverware over the decades, though they have won various regional divisions in their time and they have made the quarter-finals of the FA Vase on two occasions, most recently in the 2003/04 season.
Notts County Football Club – Founded 1862
Widely recognised as the oldest professional football club in the world, Notts County were also the oldest in the English Football League until they got relegated at the end of the 2018/19 season, ending their impressive run of 157 years. Currently playing in the National League (the fifth tier of English football), Notts County are still run on a professional basis and at the time of writing they have a chance of returning to the Football League.
Notts County have played in their iconic black and white striped shirts since 1890, a kit that was also adopted by Italian giants Juventus in honour of County. Back in 1903, the Italian side wanted a new kit (reportedly because of laundry problems with their existing pink kit!) and their call for help was answered by a Nottingham-based friend of John Savage (an Englishman who played for Juve at the time); the friend managed to get hold of Notts County shirts and shipped them out to Turin.
The Italians were clearly impressed because they’ve retained the colours to this day. They even invited Notts County to play at their new stadium in 2011 in a wonderful sporting gesture and a fine nod to their history.
Despite not being one of the biggest or best teams in the land these days, Notts County have had real success in the past. They won the FA Cup in 1894, becoming the first side to do so while outside of the top division (something that has only been achieved by a handful of sides over the years). They were also runners-up in 1891. They have also been champions of the second tier of English football (aka the Second Division, the First Division and the Championship at various points in its history) on three occasions, though the most recent of those was the 1922/23 campaign.
They have even enjoyed European success… though not quite the Champions League, they won the (now-defunct) Anglo-Italian Cup in 1995 when they beat Ascoli 2-1 in the final. They were guided to that success by Howard Kendall, who had led Everton to the European Cup Winners’ Cup a decade before.
Along with some others on this list, Notts County were one of the 12 founding members of the inaugural Football League which took place over the 1888/89 season. As it happened they finished in 11th place on 12 points, with their goal average keeping them above bottom side Stoke.
Stoke City Football Club – Founded 1863 (or 1868)
Founded in 1863 as Stoke Ramblers by former students of Charterhouse School according to certain reports, there is little real evidence to support this date and many people believe it more likely the club was formed in 1868. The first official match was played in October 1868, it dropped the “Ramblers” part of their name in 1878 and became one of the founding members of the Football league a decade later (though they finished bottom of the inaugural league competition). They added the City part to their name when Stoke was granted city status in 1925.
Over the years, Stoke have had a fair amount of success compared to those teams above. They won the League Cup in the 1971/72 season and were losing finalists in the FA Cup in 2010/11. They’ve never won the top division in England but they’ve been champions of the second tier twice, in 1932/33 and 1962/63. They have also enjoyed the services of one of the greatest English players of all time: Sir Stanley Matthews. He played for Stoke for 19 years in total over two stints… remarkably contributing to both the aforementioned Second Division titles, even though they were virtually 30 years apart!
Wrexham Association Football Club – Founded 1864
Although Wrexham are based in Wales, they have been playing in the English football league system since the early years of the 20th century and so deserve their place on this list. Founded in October 1864 by Wrexham Cricket Club, essentially to keep their players active in the winter months, Wrexham AFC are the oldest football club in Wales and – if you take the 1868 date for Stoke’s formation rather than their claimed 1863 date – the fifth-oldest association football club in the world.
Wrexham have filled their trophy cabinet many times over through the years, not least because they have won the Welsh Cup a record 23 times (they have also been runners-up on 22 occasions). They have also won the FA Trophy (2012/13), but their biggest honour was arguably when they won the third tier title in the 1977/78 season.
Brigg Town Football Club – Founded 1864
Not exactly a household name, but this club from the small North Lincolnshire town of Brigg currently compete in the same division as Hallam and they are almost as old having been established way back in 1864. Though they haven’t won too much over the years, they have landed the FA Vase twice (in 1995/96 and 2002/03) and also made it to the first round proper of the FA Cup in 2001/02 when they lost 4-1 at Tranmere Rovers.
Nottingham Forest Football Club – Founded 1865
Now we get to the oldest club to have made it all the way to the top of English, and indeed European, football. Nottingham Forest were established in 1865 from a group of players of the hockey-like game shinty, and it took them over a century to become champions of the top division in the land, then the First Division (1977/78). They have also won the FA Cup twice, the League Cup four times, the European Cup twice and the European Super Cup once. This haul of top-quality silverware makes Forest the most successful club to be formed before 1870.
A majority of Forest’s success came when managed by the enigmatic but highly effective Brian Clough, arguably one of the greatest English managers of all time and certainly the best to have never managed the national side. At the time of writing, Forest are attempting to battle their way through the play-offs to get back into the top flight for the first time since the 1998/99 season.
Sheffield Wednesday Football Club – Founded 1867
Sheffield was clearly the city to be for football fans in the 1850s and 60s. Sheffield Wednesday were formed in September 1867 by Wednesday Cricket Club to keep the players active during the winter months when no cricket was played. They have had plenty of success over the years and have won the (then) First Division title four times, although not since the 1929/30 season. They’ve also won the FA Cup three times (most recently 1934/35) and the League Cup once (1990/91). Over the years they’ve built up a strong rivalry with Sheffield United, the city upstarts who were only established in 1889.
Other Notable Old Football Teams Still Playing In England
The above completes our list of clubs still playing in England (or the English football league system, to be more accurate) before 1870. But here are a few more of the oldest clubs in the land.
- Marlow – Founded 1870
- Reigate Priory – Founded 1870
- Southall – Founded 1871
- Uxbridge – Founded 1871
- Reading – Founded 1871
- Cuckfield Town – Founded 1872
- Halesowen Town – Founded 1873
- Chippenham Town – Founded 1873
- Bolton Wanderers – Founded 1874
- Aston Villa – Founded 1874
- Northwich Victoria – Founded 1874
- Birmingham City – Founded 1875
- Bournemouth* – Founded 1874
- Blackburn Rovers – Founded 1875
*Note that this Bournemouth, also known as Bournemouth Poppies, play in the Wessex League and are not the same team as Bournemouth AFC who were not established until 1899.
Oldest Football Clubs from Around the World
Now let’s take a look at some of the oldest association football clubs from further afield that are still playing football today. We will not feature any clubs that began playing a different type of “football” (such as rugby or Australian rules football) and then converted to association football later. We shall also not feature clubs who started out playing a completely different sport before settling on football, as was the case with TSV 1860 Munich. As their name suggests, they were founded way back in, you’ve guessed it, 1860… but they began as a gymnastics club and didn’t add a football department to the club until 1899.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the proximity to England, teams from Scotland make up some of the other oldest football clubs in the world. Though there are some very old clubs from further afield who are still going today, notably Club Mercedes from near Buenos Aires in Argentina and also Kjøbenhavns Boldklub who ply their trade in the fifth tier of Danish football these days.
- Queen’s Park – Scotland, Founded 1867
- Kilmarnock – Scotland, Founded 1869
- Stranraer – Scotland, Founded 1870
- Dumbarton – Scotland, Founded 1872
- Rangers – Scotland, Founded 1872
- Heart of Midlothian – Scotland, Founded 1874
- Hamilton Academical – Scotland, Founded 1874
- Hibernian – Scotland, Founded 1875
- Club Mercedes – Argentina, Founded 1875
- Newtown AFC – Wales, Founded 1875 (as Newtown White Stars)
- Kjøbenhavns Boldklub – Denmark, Founded 1876
- Falkirk – Scotland, Founded 1876
- Partick Thistle – Scotland, Founded 1876
Conclusion: The Oldest Teams Still Playing
As you will have seen, if you wanted to play football at the highest level in the middle of the 19th century, Sheffield really was the place to be. With Sheffield FC, Hallam and Sheffield Wednesday all being established long before most clubs in England, the Steel City really was a trailblazer for the beautiful game.
Of course, longevity does not automatically lead to success and although Notts County proved they could hang around the Football League for more than a century and a half it was their city rivals Forest who showed that one of the oldest clubs can rise to the top.
In the modern era when money shouts louder than tradition in many cases, it is quite astounding that so many of these relatively ancient clubs have survived. But it shows that the passion and love fans feel for their clubs and football in general is a force that will keep teams going for decades whatever challenges they might face along the way.