William McGregor

The Father of The League
Without the intervention of Perthshire born draper William McGregor, the history of professional football might have looked very different. Phil Shaw examines what inspired the Aston Villa club secretary to become the driving force behind The Football League in 1888.

It was tentative in tone, politely throwing out a suggestion. Those whose mail-boxes it dropped through were invited to consider and possibly improve upon it.

But the letter which William McGregor posted to five clubs on 2 March 1888 – 125 years ago this week -- proved the catalyst for the formation of the global game’s original and most durable league competition, The Football League. And he became its first chairman and president.

Since 2009 McGregor has been immortalised in a bronze statue by the Directors’ Entrance at the home of the club he loved, Aston Villa. Today, Villa Park is a claret-and-blue citadel in steel, glass and concrete. Yet when McGregor first became attached to the three-year-old club, in 1877, the site housed a “pleasure park”, the Aston Lower Grounds. It was the age of be-whiskered centre-forwards and top-hatted officials. Teams were emerging that would quickly become household names.

A statue in memory of William McGregor outside Villa Park

As a spectacle, however, it was hamstrung by a chronic lack of organisation. In 1905 McGregor would recall that football was “rapidly going to the bad” when he penned his momentous letter to Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End, West Bromwich Albion and Villa, where he was a director.

The letter's “sole object” was to get rid of the uncertainty which shrouded football in the 1880s, when mis-matches were commonplace and less well-run clubs routinely pulled out of fixtures at a late stage. With poor weather compounding the situation, Villa once endured five consecutive blank Saturdays.

Football had embraced professionalism in 1885, so the cancellations and their impact on revenue from paying spectators were damaging indeed. The set-up McGregor proposed, with each side playing the others at home and away, would provide a “regular and fixed programme”. That, in turn, would ensure they “got the crowd regularly”.

According to Peter Morris’s book The History of Aston Villa (1960), the idea stemmed from McGregor’s conversations with a friend, Joe Tillotson, who warned him supporters were tired of watching one-sided friendlies.

“No one enjoyed the really rousing games of old more than I did,” remembered McGregor after the turn of the century. “But clubs were not then exempt from the preliminary rounds of local and national cup competitions, and it was not edifying to see a strong club beat a minor team by 26 goals to nil. You could not expect people to take interest in such fixtures, but the professionals’ wage bill was there, and it had to be met.”

Ironically, the man who became known as the Father of the League initially disliked the very word “league”. His unease stemmed from his boyhood in Scotland, where he was born in Perthshire in 1846 and first saw a football kicked when he was aged seven in his home village of Braco. There he “heard far too much for my comfort” about the Solemn League & Covenant and the Irish Land League, titles synonymous with historic religious and political conflict.

By 1888, aged 41, McGregor owned a linen draper’s store at 307 Summer Lane in Aston ("Football jerseys always in stock"). He and his wife Jessie and their two children lived in a terraced house on Witton Road, close to where Villa Park now stands.   

His interest in football had its origins in reading about the exploits of Scotland’s oldest club, Queen’s Park. After uprooting to the Birmingham area in 1870 he became a regular at the matches of a team called Quilters, and then at Calthorpe FC, closing his shop on match-day afternoons and re-opening at 6pm.

How different the history of football in the Second City might have been had McGregor put his energies into one of those clubs. Instead he was attracted to Villa, partly by their connection with the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel.

As well as a devout Congregationalist, active member of the Liberal party, teetotaller and, in later years, a journalist, he was also a visionary; a man with a plan, but also the flexibility and humility to allow others to shape its development.

For instance, having invited what he saw as the key participants in a possible new competition to meet on 23 March at Anderton’s Hotel, in London’s Fleet Street, he modestly requested the clubs’ input and wondered which other teams they might care to nominate.

Among the “favourable replies”, Bolton suggested Wolverhampton Wanderers, Accrington and Burnley, confirming the West Midlands and East Lancashire as the hotbeds of the burgeoning professional game.

Notts County, Stoke, Derby County and Everton also became involved by the time fast-moving events led to the establishment of the 12-club Football League at a meeting in Manchester on 17 April.             

It was at that gathering, in the Royal Hotel, that Preston’s representative, Major William Sudell, suggested the name “The Football League”. McGregor had ventured the title “Association Football Union”, but there was no sulking from him when delegates deemed that too similar to the Rugby Union.

Later, confronting the question of those who disliked the name, he said he had been “brought to see that it was good”, adding: “I have usually put these people down – I was going to say as brainless asses, but perhaps that would be too strong a term, so I will say foolish people.”

It was classic McGregor. While calling the detractors “asses” did not sit comfortably with his Christian beliefs, he managed to have his cake and eat it, branding them “foolish” yet still incorporating the stronger term into his remarks.

He was soon proclaiming the league system as “great and imperishable”, noting that it had spread to “practically every place of organised sport under the sun”. Had he and the 12 founders not acted, he feared football would have remained “a juvenile pastime” and “the game’s popularity would have been paralysed once and for all”.

McGregor was the obvious choice as chairman of the first League Management Committee. After overseeing the launch of a second division in 1892, he stepped down, becoming honorary president for two years until 1894.

He also served as chairman of the Football Association from 1888 to ’94. Although a Scot, he is seen, complete with heavy beard, on the back row of the England team picture before they faced Scotland at Richmond in 1893.

William McGregor (top left) in the England team photo from 1893

With Villa, who finished runners-up to Preston in the Football League’s inaugural season, he held the offices of president, director, vice-chairman, chairman and life member during a 34-year association with the club.           

He also oversaw their transition to a limited company in the face of hostility from devotees who viewed it as rampant commercialism. “People howled,” said the great pioneer, “but then they will howl at anything that is novel.”  

Nevertheless, his advocacy of “novel” ideas was tempered by a sense of morality. In the early days of the Football League, for instance, he opposed the idea of transfers, though he came to accept that his egalitarian vision of clubs being represented by locally born players had been overtaken by events.  

“Football is a big business,” ran the opening sentence of an article he wrote in 1905, underlining his ability to move with the times. The piece went on to mention the huge sums washing about within the game, such as two FA Cup semi-finals (and a replay) producing the then-gargantuan total receipts of £4,710/0s/11d.

With such a record of power, achievement and influence it would be easy to label McGregor an empire-builder. In fact, he had no delusions of grandeur for The Football League – or himself - asserting that “the general good” of the game was not its “chief concern” and it should not aspire to govern English football.

An enduring, worldwide example of his legacy is the use of the League tables; having the tabulated positions of the teams in the press was his idea. He later admitted humbly that he never foresaw the impact they would have, adding that he trusted clubs “will never forget the debt they owe to newspapers”.

In his final years his celebrity was such that he was persuaded to endorse a "McGregor lace-to-toe football boot". He also penned a football column to the weekly Birmingham Gazette, which billed him as “a born leader of men” and “a man of the highest integrity”. 

High principles did not preclude a sense of humour. Writing about West Bromwich Albion's achievements, he recounted how, before the 1888 FA Cup final against Albion, Preston's captain had asked the referee, a Major Mandarin, whether his side could be photographed with the trophy prior to the match. McGregor quoted the military man's reply: "Had you better not win it first?"

William McGregor died at the age of 65 on 20 December 1911. A Football League stalwart to the last, he had attended a committee meeting in London barely a fortnight earlier. He was buried next to his wife, and at the funeral his daughter's eulogy encapsulated his life and work succinctly.

“He had the spirit of a schoolboy,” she said, “and the heart of a true, full-grown man.”