This summer will see the 2018 FIFA World Cup played in Russia, but the foundations of world football were laid 130 years ago today, on Friday March 23rd, 1888.
That was the date for the first ever meeting of the English Football League, the world’s oldest professional association football league and a prototype for others around the globe.
The Football Association (FA) had been founded 25 years earlier, in 1863, as the governing body of association football in England. Its job was to oversee all aspects of the amateur game in England, including formalising and standardising the rules of football.
With the FA firmly established, more amateur teams sprang up, but there was also growing demand for a league of professional clubs, allowed to pay their players and compete against one another not just locally, but further afield. After debating the matter for four years, the FA voted in July 1885 to permit ‘professionalism’ in what had previously been an all-amateur game.
In truth the move was inevitable, as many clubs were already making ‘gifts’ of money or goods to lure the best players and boost their team’s competitiveness. Other clubs, which stuck rigidly to the amateur rules, were angered by this increasingly blatant breach of FA rules and demanded a ‘level playing field’ for all.
William McGregor, a director of Birmingham-based Aston Villa, is considered the founder of the Football League. He took the initiative by writing to the committee of his own club and those of Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End, Stoke and West Bromwich Albion suggesting the creation of an annual league competition.
It would provide a number of guaranteed fixtures for its member clubs each season by setting a formal and consistent fixture list, which would help secure a more reliable revenue stream in ticket sales. Prior to then, clubs had arranged their own matches on a local and often informal basis, including various cup competitions.
McGregor convened the first meeting at Anderton’s Hotel in London on March 23rd, 1888, on the eve of that year’s amateur FA Cup Final. All present agreed his new league was a sound idea and a second meeting was held just over three weeks later at a hotel in Manchester, at which the league was formally created and named. Preston North End’s representative, Major William Sudell, successfully proposed the name “The Football League”.
The new league’s first season began on September 8th, 1888, when its 12 member clubs – all based in the Midlands and North of England – played their first matches. As well as the six clubs which McGregor originally invited, six more had joined to become founder clubs of The Football League. They were Accrington, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Under the league rules, each club would play all the others twice during the season, once at home and once away. Two points were awarded for a win and one for a draw, although this points system was only agreed part-way through the first season. Right from the outset the new league proved popular with fans, its matches attracting much higher gates than local amateur games.
The first ever Football League champions were Preston North End (pictured above), who won all their matches in that first season and completed the first league-cup double by winning the FA Cup in the same year. In 1890 Stoke were not re-elected to the league and replaced by Sunderland, who won the league title in their second, third and fifth years. Stoke were re-elected for the 1891-92 season along with new member club Darwen, expanding the league to 14 clubs. A new Second Division was also formed in 1892 and the rest, as they say, is history.
Allowing professionalism in The Football League was seen to improve the standard of football by allowing leading clubs to actively and openly recruit better quality players. These first ‘professionals’ were very rarely full-time footballers. Instead they were given good jobs in businesses run by football club directors – usually wealthy local manufacturers – in addition to their relatively small ‘match fees’.
As ticket sales for league fixtures boosted the incomes of member clubs, they were able to improve their facilities, recruit professional managers and staff, increase player wages and further strengthen their position in the league. Not everyone was happy though, as critics argued the move to professionalism would turn football from a sport into a business, sullied by commercialism. Looking at today’s game, you might think they were right.