Like the Premier League of today, the Football League came about as a consequence of the rising popularity and wealth of football as more of the game turned un-officially professional with back-room payments to players and clubs. Since the founding of the first club in 1857, and the inception of the FA Cup in 1871, the number of clubs had grown exponentially and the money that was flooding into the game by one means or another meant that a fully professional structure was inevitable.
So it was that a denizen of Braco, Perthshire who ran a drapery business in Birmingham was browsing a proposal for a college football league in the USA when he came up with a solution to a commercial problem. William MacGregor was, as well as a draper, a director of Aston Villa football club and needed to implement a structure to manage all this activity and the money it brought and proposed a formal professional league as the solution. Thus it came to be that the two races Samuel Johnson disliked the most, Scots and Americans, conspired to create the English Football League.
Football in the early era was dominated by the “posh-boy” teams from the south, mostly from privileged backgrounds such as Wanderers and Old Etonians. It wasn’t until 1883 that a working class team, Blackpool Olympic, beat Old Etonians at the Kennington Oval to win the cup. Professionalism was much more prevalent among northern teams with a higher proportion of working class men as players who couldn’t afford the amateur ideal.
On the eve of the 1888 cup final, McGregor called an open meeting of clubs at Anderton’s Hotel in London, attended by representatives of the both the finalists, Preston North End and West Bromwich Albion; however it became plain that the southern teams had no interest in the plan and none attended. A second meeting was held at the Royal Hotel in Manchester, and a structure was agreed with home and away fixtures and two points for a win / one point for a draw; the Preston representative Maj William Sudell suggested “The Football league” as the title. Twelve clubs joined the league and played their first fixtures on 8th Sept 1888; the founding members were Accrington United, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke (now Stoke City), West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers. The league prospers to this day, which more than be said of Maj Sudell; he was convicted of fraud involving the club and went to jail for three years then emigrated to South Africa on his release.
All but Accrington are still in business, with four of the founders – Aston Villa, Everton, Stoke City and West Brom – still playing in the top flight last season, the top finisher was Everton (5th) and the lowest Notts County (64th). The last time a founder won the league was Blackburn Rovers in 1995. They will be joined by Burnley next season – their fifty second in the top flight since they were founded in 1882. The previous season, in 2009, was their first in the top flight since the 1970’s and they remain the smallest town to have hosted a Premier League team (population 73,000).
The first champions were Preston North End, with Stoke last. Stoke failed to get elected in 1890 and were replaced by Sunderland. Stoke were re-elected, went bankrupt, played in the amateur leagues and were only saved when the First World War suspended all the leagues. They re-joined in 1919.
It would be 1893 before the first southern club joined, Arsenal, followed by Luton Town (in 1897) the first team to turn fully professional and Bristol City (1901) who beat Blackpool 2 – 0 in their first ever league game. The first league title by a southern team was Arsenal, in 1930; they would go on to win another four titles before the Second World War put an end to their winning streak.
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