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This unique piece of sporting history, which represents a crucial step towards the modern game of association football, is the earliest set of rules ever likely to come to the market. The lot includes both the original handwritten draft rules (1858) and the only known surviving copy of the printed Rules, Regulations, & Laws of the Sheffield Foot-Ball Club (1859).

The evolution of the rules of football is complex, but there is a direct line from the basic laws agreed upon by a group of like-minded Yorkshire sportsmen in the 1850s to the global game enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people today.

The Sheffield code built on earlier football rules (those drawn up at Cambridge University in 1848 and at the elite English public schools where the organised version of the game first took hold), but was hugely influential over the next two decades and a stepping stone towards the laws later penned by the London-based Football Association (established in 1863).

Not just important for taking the game out of the hands of elite educational establishments for the first time, the 1858 rules promoted a passing game played with the feet, and included now-familiar concepts such as the crossbar, the free kick, the throw-in, the goal kick, restrictions on handling the ball and the foul.

"Pushing with the hands is allowed, but no hacking or tripping is fair under any circumstances whatsoever," comments the Rules, Regulations, & Laws.

Established in 1857, Sheffield Football Club is acknowledged by FIFA and the FA as the world's oldest football club - Notts County, the oldest League club, was formed seven years later in 1864.

Not to be confused with Sheffield United (the first team to use the name 'united') or Sheffield Wednesday - the steel city's best-known teams both founded in 1889 - Sheffield FC currently languish eleventh in the Evo-Stik League First Division South.

The archive, to be offered as a single lot with an estimate of £800,000-1.2m, also comprises club minute books from the 1850s and '60s, a volume of match reports from the early 1860s and other material that documents the birth in Yorkshire of the world's first club football culture.

Sheffield v Hallam FC in December 1860 is the first recorded inter-club football match, while the first inter-club competition, the Youdan Cup, was fought out in 1867 in Sheffield, by Sheffield Rules. The archive also documents an early incidence of the game's least attractive feature: the emergence of the game as a spectator sport is underlined by the record of crowd trouble at a local derby match in December 1862.

The chairman of Sheffield Football Club, Richard Tims, said the decision to sell the archive was a "tough" one, but had been taken to develop the club's facilities and secure its future as the home of grassroots football.

He added the decision to sell the archive was sparked by the sale at Sotheby's New York last December of an 1891 document spelling out the rules of basketball for $4.3m, more than double its estimate.

Such is expected to be the worldwide interest in the Sheffield archive that it is being taken to Paris, New York and Doha in the coming weeks.

"It reflects the fact that football is now truly a global game," said Gabriel Heaton, senior specialist in Sotheby's books department.

By Roland Arkell