Football League, 1888-89

Roger Titford takes us back to a time before the days of Sky, the offside rule and the prawn sandwich brigade, to the inaugural League season, when Preston North End reigned supreme

The long-term significance
On April 17, 1888, the Football League was founded as the first professional league in the world. So obviously a powerful idea, its first imitator, the Combination, was launched only 10 days later. The League set the template for such structures all around the world for a century or more.

Yet its very beginnings were controversial and dishevelled. William McGregor, chairman of Aston Villa, saw the need for clubs that employed expensive professionals to have a guaranteed list of attractive fixtures rather than rely on the whim of FA Cup results and mere friendlies. He created his own big five by asking Preston, Blackburn Rovers, WBA (the three leading clubs in the country) and Bolton Wanderers in on the idea and asked which other clubs might be suitable.

Five of Bolton’s suggestions were taken up and the final 12 were made up with the addition of Everton and Derby County. There were controversial inclusions – Everton, Stoke, Notts County – and exclusions. The Wednesday and Nottingham Forest entered later, but Halliwell and Birmingham St George did not get in “the ring” as it was sometimes called. “The whole thing is a mere money-making scheme, a speculation” wrote the leading sports journal. It would be called the L-12 today.

Preston were the greatest team of the day – 42 consecutive wins in 1887-88, the pioneers of scientific play – but a law unto themselves off the pitch. They missed meetings, did not reply to letters and were unpopular for the high number of “imported” (Scots and Welsh) players they paid. Major Sudell, their driving force, did eventually come on board and promptly helped jettison some of McGregor’s more idealistic proposals – dividing gate money equally and having a residential qualification for players. Years later Sudell was convicted for embezzlement – embezzling his other companies in order to pump money into his club.
The League later forced through a new seeding arrangement for the FA Cup, with guaranteed places in the last 32 for their leading clubs. Broadly speaking this arrangement has stayed in force ever since and it gave League clubs a stranglehold on the then more prestigious FA Cup.

Story of the season

The season kicked off on September 8 with Dewhurst of Preston scoring the first League goal in a 5-2 win over Burnley, which would have put Preston top if there had been such a thing as a League table. Astonishingly it was not until November – halfway through the season – that the system of two points for a win and one for a draw was agreed upon (as opposed to measuring just the number of wins). Whatever the system, there would have been no stopping Preston who dropped only four points – all in Lancashire – and remained unbeaten in the League, a feat only recently emulated in the top division by Arsenal in 2003-04. Preston had the title (for which there was no trophy) won by early January and finished their League programme in February, allowing them to concentrate on the Cup which they also won.

For the record books

At an average of four goals a game and with only two goalless draws, there was excitement aplenty. Aston Villa’s 9-1 victory over Notts County set the record. Everton were the best supported club at with attendances of more than 7,000 on average, while Preston had more than 6,000.

Same place today

Five of the original 12 are in the Premiership today – showing what a head start League membership gave the original members of “the ring”. Everton – in 1888 the club with the weakest credentials but the most crowd potential – have benefited the most, with only four seasons outside the top division since League foundation. Though of course they were playing at Anfield in those days, so not quite the same place.

Moved furthest away
Both the Accrington and Stoke clubs went out of business within 20 years, though other clubs from those places subsequently gained League membership. Notts County have struggled more than the others from day one and Burnley were the width of a goalpost from losing League membership in 1987.

Went on to greater things
League football itself ~ With more than 60 professional clubs playing in various leagues by 1890.
The Old Pals Act ~ The bottom four clubs up for re-election were all allowed to vote for their survival as league members and did so.
Jack Southworth ~ Blackburn striker who had begun his career with a team called Brookhouse Perseverance. Southworth went on to be the League’s top scorer twice in the 1890s first with Rovers, then Everton. Only played three times for England, despite scoring in each of his international matches.

Disappearing from view
Old Boys ~ Bolton suggested Old Carthusians as possible original members of the League (they had a better FA Cup record than many included), but such teams did not fit with the financial masterplan and they and their ilk soon completely disappeared from the top level of the game.
Archie Hunter ~ The veteran Villa captain was advised to retire, aged 40, during the second League season. He explained: “I broke down while playing Everton. I was playing my hardest when I fell into a pool of water… and fainted away.”

From WSC 225 November 2005. What was happening this month