The Football League, the world's original league football competition, is celebrating its 125th anniversary during 2013.
In March 1888, League founder William McGregor, the club secretary of Aston Villa, sent his famous letter to clubs suggesting "that ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home-and-away fixtures each season." McGregor’s letter was the catalyst for the beginning of league football, which 125 years later still dominates the sporting landscape in countries across the world.
Following the Football Association’s decision to permit professionalism in 1885, the game’s development had become stifled by the lack of a coherent and organised fixture list. The predominance of cup football meant that clubs could easily lose fixtures at relatively short notice and it was even common for clubs to cancel matches (or alternatively field scratch teams) because they had been offered more lucrative fixtures elsewhere.
Three weeks later, clubs met at Anderton’s Hotel on Fleet Street in London to consider the contents of McGregor’s letter. The minutes of the first meeting, which included representatives of Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Burnley, Derby County, Notts County, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers, record that “a strong feeling was evinced that something should be done to improve the present unsatisfactory state of club fixtures and to render them more certain in their fulfillment and interesting in character”.
A number of basic principles were agreed, only one of which remains in The Football League’s Regulations today (regulation 24.1), namely that all clubs must field full strength teams. This was an important principle for all clubs to agree at outset as it made sure league football would be paramount in club's priorities.
Clubs met again at the Royal Hotel, Manchester, in April 1888, where they agreed to call their new competition ‘The Football League’ – despite McGregor’s preference for the word ‘Union’ to be used instead.
The first season of The Football League kicked-off on 8th September 1888 with 12 founder members and the first champions were Preston's ‘invincibles’ who won 18 and drew four of their 22 league matches.
The game itself looked very different to today. The referee stood on the touchline, acting as time-keeper and arbitrating between the two umpires (one supplied by each club) when they could not agree. At half time, players remained on the pitch for their five-minute break or changed straight around if the light was failing. There were no numbers, goal nets, substitutes or teamsheets.
Looking back on his creation in 1905, McGregor wrote: “I wonder what would happen if you could blot out the league system from sport from this day onward? I wonder who would be better for it? Ninety-nine players out of every hundred and ninety-nine clubs out of every hundred, would be infinitely worse off, because no principle ever formulated in connection with sport has caused so much really genuine, bona-fide competition as the league system.”
More than 100 years later, McGregor’s words still ring true.
Across 125 years, two billion people have watched more than 177,000 matches in The Football League, including many of the iconic moments of our sporting heritage.
Today, The Football League is the largest single body of professional clubs in world football with 72 clubs located in towns and cities throughout the country. In a 10-month playing season, between August and May, clubs play in a total of 1,671 matches watched by more than 15m people.
The League and its clubs will celebrate its 125th Anniversary at the beginning of the 2013/14 season with a special Anniversary Fixture Programme, a 125th Anniversary Exhibition at the National Football Museum and a range of other activity.
Football League Commercial Office
The Football League
30 Gloucester Place
Tel: 0844 463 1888
Fax: 0844 826 5188