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History

HISTORY OF THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE

16 December 2014

A complete history of the Football League.

Formed in 1888, The Football League is the world's original football league.Now well into its second century and with crowds resurgent once again, the section below details The Football League's fascinating history:

1888 - The Birth of the World's Original League Football Competition
1889-1915 - The Era of Growth and Expansion
1919-1939 - Between the Wars
1945-1969 - Football's Golden Era
1970-1992 - Decline and Breakaway
1993-2008 - Bust and Boom

1888 - The Birth of the World's Original League Football Competition

It was a letter from William McGregor, a director at Aston Villa, to four other clubs on March 2, 1888, which led to the formation of the world's first league football competition. "I beg to tender the following suggestion," McGregor, a Perthshire-born draper, wrote to Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End and West Bromwich Albion, "that ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home-and-away fixtures each season…"

Three weeks later, on the eve of West Bromwich's victory over Preston in the FA Cup final, a meeting was held at Anderton's Hotel in Fleet Street, London, to discuss McGregor's plans. A further meeting on April 17 at the Royal Hotel, Manchester, agreed the name 'The Football League', and the first season kicked off on September 8 with 12 member clubs.

Football had descended into a disorganised shambles in the years after the Football Association ended the practice of illegal payments to players, by permitting professionalism in 1885. Fixture lists, comprising FA Cup ties and 'friendly' matches, did not produce the regular income the clubs required, and this unfavourable scenario prompted McGregor to pen his letter.

"Every year it is becoming more and more difficult for football clubs of any standing to meet their friendly engagements and even arrange friendly matches," he wrote. "The consequence is that at the last moment, through cup-tie interference, clubs are compelled to take on teams who will not attract the public.

"My object in writing to you at present is merely to draw your attention to the subject, and to suggest a friendly conference to discuss the matter more fully. I would take it as a favour if you would kindly think the matter over, and make whatever suggestions you deem necessary."

It was not until the season had started that The Football League Board settled on the two-points-for-a-win, one-point-for-a-draw system that would remain for nearly a century, and be adopted worldwide. Initially it was proposed there would be one point for a win.

In that inaugural season, Villa, Blackburn, Bolton, Preston and West Bromwich were joined by Everton, Burnley, Accrington, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Notts County, Derby County and Stoke as the League's founder members.

Ten of the dozen played on the opening day - Blackburn and Notts County were the exceptions - though a variety of kick-off times led to much debate about who scored the League's first goal. It has now been credited to Gershom Cox, the unfortunate Aston Villa full-back, who in attempting to clear a shot around the half-hour mark in a match away to Wolverhampton Wanderers, only succeeded in turning the ball over his own goal-line.

The all-Midlands match was the only one to kick off at 3pm, and though Fred Dewhurst scored after three minutes in Preston's 5-2 win over Burnley, they did not start until 3.50pm. Dewhurst's consolation was that Preston went through the season unbeaten to claim the first Football League Championship. 'The Invincibles' also won the FA Cup to become the first side to complete the League and Cup Double.

1889-1915 - The Era of Growth and Expansion

Preston retained the League title the following season, though they lost four of their 22 fixtures this time, and they finished runners-up for the following three seasons. Stoke, who finished bottom of the table for the first two seasons, were not re-elected, and Sunderland took their place, and won the title in their second season when membership of The League had grown to 14 clubs.

The initial success of The Football League was such that a rival competition, the Football Alliance, comprising 12 clubs from the North and Midlands, was formed in 1889, and ran for three seasons before the two leagues amalgamated in 1892. The majority of the Alliance clubs formed The Football League Second Division, while the existing League clubs, plus three of the strongest newcomers, made up a 16-team Football League First Division.

Automatic promotion and relegation between the two divisions - two up, two down - was not introduced until 1898 when The League expanded to 36 clubs, split equally. Until then there had been a system of end-of-season 'test matches' between the bottom two in the First Division and the top two in the Second Division. This system, though, was brought into disrepute when Stoke and Burnley colluded in the final match, agreeing a 0-0 draw, which ensured both teams would compete in the First Division the following season.

The clubs who finished bottom of Second Division had to apply for re-election to The League at the end of each season.

In 1891, additions to the laws that had been drawn up at the first meeting three years earlier, led to the introduction of goal nets and penalty kicks.

Sunderland and McGregor's Aston Villa dominated the 11 seasons from 1892, winning the title nine times between them, with Villa becoming, in 1897, the second club to complete the Double, and the last for more than 60 years. One of the two seasons when the two clubs failed to land the Championship between them, was the first that Liverpool had finished as champions.

The Football League was very much based in the North and the Midlands, and it was not until 1893 that Woolwich Arsenal became the first club from London to join the competition; it was 1905 before Chelsea and Clapton Orient would follow when the two divisions expanded to 20 clubs each. Woolwich Arsenal's geographical isolation - Luton were their closest opponents - resulted in low attendances which, in turn, led to financial problems and they reached the brink of bankruptcy in 1910.

Though Villa would win the title once more before the Great War - in 1910 - the powerbase had shifted further north with Newcastle United champions three times in five years, Blackburn twice in three, Manchester United twice in four, The Wednesday in successive seasons, and Liverpool adding their second five years after the first. Everton, who had broken the monopoly enjoyed by Preston in The League's third season, claimed the title for a second time in 1915, after which the Championship was held in abeyance for four seasons.

1919-1939 - Between the Wars

When The Football League resumed after World War I, it was with an additional four clubs, making two divisions of 22. The League's expansion continued apace. The following season, the leading clubs from the Southern League were invited to form a third division, which was split regionally the following year into the Third Division South and Third Division North. With one team from each division promoted to the Second Division, the two relegated clubs would be assigned to the more appropriate regional division, though Midlands clubs like Mansfield or Walsall would sometimes be moved from one to the other to maintain an equal balance.

In 1923 the League's membership increased again to four equal divisions of 22 clubs, which was maintained until after World War II.

On the pitch, after 15 years of debate, there was a notable change in the offside law, reducing the number of opponents required between the attacking player and goal from three to two, which led to a significant increase in the number of goals scored. One of the main beneficiaries was Dixie Dean who set a League record of 60 goals in the 1927/28 season which helped Everton to the title.

On January 22, 1927, the BBC broadcast the first football match live on radio. Henry Wakelam provided the running commentary during the First Division match between Arsenal and Sheffield United, while a colleague called out numbers referring to sections of the pitch to help listeners follow play on a simple chart.

Until the Twenties, managers had been little more than trainers who picked the side but did little to influence how they played. The early post-war years marked the emergence of one of the greatest managers in the history of the game: Herbert Chapman. Not only did he turned around the fortunes of both Huddersfield Town and Arsenal, Chapman was one of the game's first modernisers: as well as introducing new tactics and training methods, he championed innovations such as floodlighting, European club competitions, numbered shirts and white balls, all of which came to fruition after his premature death from pneumonia in 1934.

Chapman led Huddersfield to the FA Cup and the first two of their unprecedented three successive First Division titles before joining Arsenal in 1925. Arsenal had narrowly avoided relegation the previous season, but Chapman guided them to second place behind the club he had just left. In 1931, in the League's 39th season, Arsenal became the first southern-based side to secure the title; they would win it five times in the nine seasons before the war, and emulate Huddersfield's record of three wins in a row.

Chapman had almost been lost to football in the first season after World War I when he was one of the Leeds City officials banned for life for making illegal payments to players during the war years. He was subsequently cleared of any involvement in the scandal, but not before Leeds City were expelled from the League, and Port Vale took over their fixtures.

1945-1969 - Football's Golden Era

The League was suspended again in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II, this time for seven seasons. When it resumed, the public's appetite for live sport was insatiable, and aggregate crowds for the first season back were 35,604,606; they reached an all-time high of 41,271,404 two years later.

The Third Divisions were expanded to accommodate 24 clubs each in 1950, taking the total number of League clubs to 92. Eight years later the regionalisation of the Third Divisions was ended, and the clubs were reorganised into nationwide Third and Fourth Divisions: the top halves of the North and South sections formed the Third Division, the bottom halves the Fourth.

The dominant figure throughout the quarter of a century after the conclusion of the war was Matt Busby. Under his stewardship Manchester United were runners-up in the Championship in four of the first five post-war seasons before winning the title three times in the seasons leading up to the Munich Air Disaster in 1958, in which eight players were among the 23 killed. Busby rebuilt the team almost from scratch and after two further League titles in the Sixties, United won the European Cup in 1968.

United's League success in the Fifties was matched by Stan Cullis's Wolverhampton Wanderers, who also won the title three times with their so-called 'kick and rush' style.

Herbert Chapman's vision of floodlight football was finally realised on February 22, 1956, when Portsmouth played Newcastle United in a League match at Fratton Park; before long football under lights would become the norm.

As a result of the possibility for evening matches, and in an attempt to provide clubs with another source of income, Alan Hardaker, secretary of The Football League, proposed a new cup competition, and The League Cup was duly introduced in 1960. At first there was a lack of enthusiasm from some of the bigger clubs, though that initial apathy soon evaporated, particularly when the final became a one-off game, played at Wembley, from 1967.

Before the early Sixties players had been subjected to a maximum wage of £20 a week, but a campaign by the Professional Footballers' Association, spearheaded by their chairman Jimmy Hill, led to its abolition, and players were free to negotiate their own terms. Fulham's Johnny Haynes immediately became the first player to receive £100 a week.

Back on the pitch, in 1961 Bill Nicholson led Tottenham Hotspur to the first League and Cup Double since Aston Villa's at the end of the previous century. Up on Merseyside, Bill Shankly, who took over at Liverpool when they were struggling in the Second Division, laid the foundations for future success by winning the title in 1964 and 1966.

Before 1965 teams were forced to play on with a less-than-full complement if injured players were unable to continue; the introduction of one named substitute per team allowed an injured player to be replaced, and from the following season one player, injured or not, could be substituted at the manager's discretion.

1970-1992 - Decline and Breakaway

After Arsenal became only the fourth club to complete the League and Cup Double, clinching the 1971 Championship at Tottenham, of all places, the Seventies were dominated by sides managed by Brian Clough and Bob Paisley. Clough radically transformed Derby County and Nottingham Forest, winning three League titles between them, and back-to-back European Cups with Forest.

Paisley, meanwhile, stepped out of the shadows of Bill Shankly in 1974, and in the next nine years he led Liverpool to six League titles, three European Cups, one Uefa Cup and three League Cups before handing over to Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish, who maintained the club's success: by the end of the Eighties Liverpool had won the League 11 times in 18 seasons.

Off the field, The Football League scrapped the two-up, two-down promotion and relegation system in 1973, and replaced it with three-up, three-down.Three years later, the criteria for separating clubs finishing on the same number of points was changed from goal average (goals scored divided by goals conceded) to goal difference (the difference between goals scored and goals conceded). In 1981, it was decided to award three points for a win, rather than two, in a further effort to encourage attacking football.

Another innovation was the introduction of the play-off system in 1987 with the intention of providing added incentive to teams outside the automatic promotion places. At the same time automatic promotion and relegation was brought in between the Fourth Division and the Football Conference.

However, two tragedies within the space of three weeks in May 1985 had a profound effect on football in England: 56 people died when fire spread through the stands of Bradford City's Valley Parade, and 39 Juventus supporters were killed before the European Cup final against Liverpool at the Heysel Stadium. Uefa banned English clubs from European competition, and the domestic game fell to its lowest ebb: attendances dwindled, club's finances spiralled alarmingly, hooliganism remained out of control, and the best players moved abroad.

There had been keen competition throughout the Eighties between the terrestrial broadcasters for the rights to screen live League matches. However, the arrival of satellite company British Sky Broadcasting changed the landscape. It coincided with the FA unveiling their Blueprint for Football, which put forward the idea of a Super League of 18 clubs, a proposal the top clubs had been discussing for several years in an attempt to keep more of The League's revenue for themselves.

The Football League resisted the proposals strongly, but on June 14, 1991, 16 First Division clubs signed a document of intent to join the newly formed Premier League, and eventually all 22 clubs tendered their resignations from The League. By September 23, the breakaway league had become official.

The Premier League agreed that the three-up, three-down promotion and relegation system would continue, and struck a five-year television deal with Sky and the BBC, worth £304 million. The Football League sealed a £24 million deal with ITV for live coverage of its games.

1993-2008 - Bust and Boom

The three-division Football League regrouped with 70 clubs in the first three seasons after the split, before expanding to the present-day 72-club set-up when the Premier League reduced to 20 clubs. The divisions were renamed Divisions One, Two and Three to reflect the changes.

Suggestions that the split would be the death of many professional football clubs proved unfounded as football boomed in the satellite television era.To underline that The Football League was still a viable and attractive proposition, ITV Digital signed a three-year, £315 million deal in 2001 for the right to broadcast League matches. However, in March 2002 the channel was put into administration by its parent companies, Carlton and Granada, leaving £178 million unpaid, which had serious repercussions for member clubs. More than 30 would go into administration in the immediate aftermath, and defeat in a court case to reclaim some of the losses against ITV Digital's owners prompted the resignations of David Burns, The League's chief executive, and chairman Keith Harris.

The appointment as chairman of Sir Brian Mawhinney (now Lord Mawhinney), the former chairman of the Conservative Party, in January 2003, proved to be the catalyst for a drive towards good governance and a raft of measures to control club finances. Over the next 18 months The Football League pioneered a host of measures, including publishing club payments to agents, a 'sporting sanction' of 10 points for clubs entering administration, a 'fit and proper persons' test for club directors and majority shareholders and a regulation making it mandatory for clubs to indicate in player contracts remuneration levels for all divisions the player might play in during the term of the contract.

Lord Mawhinney also announced a substantial re-branding, under which The League reclaimed its heritage and renamed the divisions The Championship, League 1 and League 2. As part of the initiative, The League has developed a series of community initiatives, including encouraging young supporters to attend matches at minimal cost under the 'Fans of the Future' campaign.

Attendances at Football League matches have continued to improve steadily: in the first season after the Premier League breakaway, the figure was 10.9 million; in May 2009, The League was able to announce crowds had broken the 16-million barrier for the fifth successive season. The Coca-Cola Championship had become the fourth most watched league in Europe, with a total audience of 9.9 million fans being bettered only by the Premiership, Germany's Bundesliga and La Liga in Spain. League 1 saw nearly 4.2 million going through the turnstiles, while League 2 crowds had risen to over 2.3 million.

In March 2007 the League agreed its largest title sponsorship agreement when Coca-Cola signed a three-year extension. In addition, in November 2007 The League secured a broadcasting agreement with Sky and the BBC, worth a total of £264 million, to run for three seasons from 2009/10, and 2008 saw extended title sponsorship agreements put in place with both Carling and Johnstone's Paint for the same period. "Over the last few years the League's standing has been enhanced, both commercially and competitively, as we have delivered real football for real fans," Lord Mawhinney said. William McGregor would have approved.

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