The Football League celebrates 125 years since its inception as the world’s original league football competition. What began as a simple idea by a Perthshire-born draper has become a much loved part of our nation’s sporting heritage and the template for leagues the world over.
It all began in March 1888 when League founder William McGregor (pictured), 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 globe.
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 fulfilment and interesting in character”.
A number of basic principles were agreed, only one of which remains in The Football League’s rulebook 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 matches would be paramount in clubs’ 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 Football League was a huge hit with supporters from the off and by 1892 it would have a Second Division with automatic relegation and promotion introduced six years later to replace the unsatisfactory system of ‘test matches’ between clubs.
“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.”Looking back on his creation in 1905, McGregor wrote:
More than 100 years later, McGregor’s words still ring true and he would doubtless take great pride from the success of The Football League. Across 125 years, more than two billion people have watched 177,000 matches, including many of the most iconic moments in sport.
Today, its 72 clubs form the largest body of professional clubs in European football and no other country has a league system below its top tier to match its breadth, popularity and economic pulling power. League clubs employ more than 2,000 professional players and have 8,000 schoolboy and apprentice players on their books.
Every weekend around 350,000 spectators attend matches, helping clubs generate more than £650 million of income every year. Clubs also engage with one and a half million people through their community programmes, extending football’s impact beyond the 90 minutes.
It is an epic story, with epic characters and an anniversary celebration for everyone that loves the game to share.
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