Of all the paraphernalia in and around a football pitch, nothing grabs my attention quite like the goals themselves. There. I said it. There is something indescribably aesthetically pleasing about goal posts and goal nets. They add completeness to a football pitch. A football stadium during the summer, when the posts have been taken down so that the pitch can be re-seeded, is a peculiarly empty place, less so even than during the winter, when you that the entire place will be transformed in a few hours or days time. If I go past a field of park pitches on a train, they only look right if the goals have nets on them (which they very seldom do).

First of all, though, a bit of history. As familiar and reassuring as the shape of a goal post looks today, it took nearly two decades for the FA to bring about any uniformity amongst its members. Prior to 1863, different local associations and clubs played by different rules and the width of the goals was down to the clubs themselves. The FA was formed and immediately unified the laws of the game, setting the width of the goals at eight yards (for, so far as the records indicate, arbitrary reasons). Rather than a crossbar, a tape was put across the tops of the goals. The FA’s own rulebook, though, couldn’t really be enforced and some local associations continued to tinker. One of the more influential local associations used a goal that was nine feet high and four feet wide with a crossbar, but the FA didn’t permit the use of a crossbar officially until 1875, and finally made them compulsory in 1882. It was dissatisfaction with the new laws, by the way that led to the formation of the Rugby Football Union – Richmond, still a top class rugby team today, played in one of the first demonstration matches for the new Laws, but switched codes with the formation of the RFU.

The story of how nets came to be attached to these posts can be more specifically attributed. In the early days of the game, it was exceptionally difficult to gauge whether the ball had even gone into the goal or not. As crowds grew, spectators started to stand behind the goals, and it even became commonplace for shots into the goal to bounce back into play off those standing behind it. It was an engineer and referee from Liverpool by the name of J.A. Brodie that first came up with the idea. After a couple of trial matches (during one of which nets were used on one goal, presumably so as to offer up some sort of direct comparison) the FA gave their approval, but to this day the use of nets is, strictly speaking, optional (even the current edition of The Laws states that “nets may be attached” – my italics), though more all less all leagues, right down to the very bottom of the amateur game, make their use compulsory. The use of stanchions on goals came about for two primary reasons. Firstly, the kept the nets out of the way of the goalkeeper. Secondly, the posts weren’t always terribly secure when left free-standing, and stanchions helped to anchor the goals.

Until the 1920s, the posts were square-shaped, before clubs started using a somewhat less predictable elliptical shape (the most famous crossbar in history, though – the one that failed to give a definitive answer on Geoff Hurst’s goal for England against West Germany in 1966 – were round). Most English clubs switched from using wooden goals to aluminium goals over a period of time, though the older style square posts lasted longer in Scotland (after a riot at the Scottish Cup final between Rangers and Celtic in 1909, a particularly robust set of posts were installed that would remain in place until the late 1980s, which is surely a record of some sort).

There has been more or less constant talk of making the size of goals bigger for years now, which reached a crushingly dull crescendo in the build up to the 1994 World Cup. Although I don’t agree with it, there is some merit in the idea. Depending on which surveys you read, the average male in the UK is between two and three inches taller than he was a hundred years ago, so on that level it makes sense make the goals bigger. Having said that, though, there have been numerous changes to the rules over the last century to encourage more attacking football, and increasing the size of the goals merely to increase the scores in matches would, I feel, be counter-productive in that it would merely devalue the act of scoring in the first place. The match that finishes 4-4 is so precious precisely because of its rarity.

The rigging behind the goals has provided just as much controversy over the last hundred years or so. In 1909, West Bromwich Albion scored a perfectly good goal in a league match against Blackpool, only to see the ball bounce out and the referee wave play on. Albion won the match, but missed out on promotion on goal average (the precursor to goal difference) as a result. In 1970, Aston Villa were victims of the same thing and in 1979 (and arguably most famously of all) Crystal Palace had a perfectly good goal ruled out when Clive Allen’s shot at Coventry hit the stanchion at the back of the goal and bounced back out again (this is the only footage of it on YouTube – try to ignore the bleatings of Skinner & Baddiel). This was a potential problem that clubs had already taken into consideration. Some clubs, such as Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City, took to hanging their nets in front of the back stanchion, whilst others switched to D-shaped stanchions to try and reduce this sort of thing from happening (things went to the other extreme when England played Hungary at the Nep Stadium in Budapest in June 1981, and Trevor Brooking’s twenty yard shot got wedged in stanchion).

Nets also evolved over the years. In the early 1970s, clubs started introducing “anti-hooliganism” nets. Traditionally, goal nets have a 4″ mesh, but anti-hooligan nets have a smaller mesh, which supposedly makes them more difficult to climb in the event of a pitch invasion. Over the years, clubs have tentatively experimented – Everton’s nets went dark blue in the early 1980s, whilst Grimsby Town (and others – but Grimsby were the first, thanks to to the local fishing industry) had striped nets. I could swear that, on a visit to Parc Des Princes in about 1987, Paris St Germain had goal nets that lit up “GOL!” in a crazy zig-zag shaped balloon when someone scored (since I can find no reference to it anywhere, I may have dreamt this – my memory tells me that they were discontinued after they started malfunctioning and flashing up “GOL!” on any number of random occasions, but still I’m seeking some sort of confirmation on this from elsewhere, if anyone can provide any). From a practical perspective (and I spent about four years putting them up and taking them down every other week), the biggest single problem is that they weigh so much – well over twice as much as standard nets. The plus side of them is that they are considerably more hard-wearing than standard nets and are, in the long run, are more cost-effective.

The current fashion is for the “continental box” style of goal. Debuted at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, it leaves the net completely free from impediment, supported at the back by poles that sit behind the goal. It is, whether accidental or not, a link with the past, as can be seen from this (tiny) picture from the 1927 FA Cup Final. Personally, I’m not a fan (and neither, it would appear, is South America – as this picture from the Maracana shows). This style of goal would be more tolerable were it not for the recent fashion for securing the nets with a base tube (as in the picture above), as opposed to the traditional method of pegging the nets down. This idea was born in Ipswich where, in the early 1980s, the groundsman grew tired of having to tie the nets up every time he wanted to mow the grass on the pitch. He put a base tube around the goal with a hinge at the base of each post, so that the nets could be lifted in one go. Whilst the convenience for the groundsman is obvious, it is strangely less satisfying for the spectator. The ball now hardly ever “nestles” in the corner of the goal and several times I’ve seen a shot powerful enough to lift the whole base of the goal off the ground. Stamford Bridge seems to be particularly bad for this sort of thing. The other latest trend (on the continent, at least) seems to be for coloured nets again. Euro 2004 saw the Portuguese use black nets on the goals and in recent years the Champions League final has seen the traditional nets taken down and replaced with black or green nets. Don’t expect to see any changes too soon, either. Commercialism may be running wild in football, but FIFA rules still say that the posts have to be white, and a recent diktat from Sepp & Co confirmed that sponsors logos are not allowed to be sewn into the design of the nets.

So there we are. The act of seeing a goal may be less satisfying than it used to be, but the game’s authorities have resisted the temptation to tinker too much with the 8 yard x 8 foot goal that has served the game perfectly well for well over a hundred years. And I will continue to get a little tingle in run down my spine when I see a pitch fully marked out, with nets hanging from the goals. I should probably seek some sort of help.