Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"100 Years of the Football League", 1888 1988

   Eighteen-eighty-eight: Queen Victoria was Queen of Great Britain and Empress of an India on which the sun was still rising. It was a year, too, in which W.G. Grace captained England's cricketers for the first time at the age of 40, John L. Sullivan was the last bareknuckle heavyweight champion of the world and Winston Churchill was an unhappy schoolboy at Harrow. Vincent Van Gogh was still painting, Wyatt Earp still shooting and Florence Nightingale still caring. The pneumatic tyre was invented and, more prettily, less usefully, the first beauty contest was held. It was also the year in which the Football League was founded, the first competition of its kind, a prototype for the mushrooming world of football. The idea was simple and revolutionary, and its champion was a Scot who ran a drapery shop in Birmingham and who later confessed: 'I've never taken part in active football. I tried it once when I was very young and had to take to bed for a week. William McGregor - the father of League football - was a portly, full-bearded Perthshire man of Stirling principles, undeniable optimism and gentle humour. He moved to Birmingham to improve his lot and it was football's luck that the shop he bought was near Villa Park. McGregor joined Aston Villa -and the shape of football began to change.

 McGregor's timing was inspired because football was in a mess. The game had been adopted and refined by the universities, schools and officers' messes of the country, international football was well established, the FA Cup was already a big favourite and professionalism had been legalized. But friendly fixtures were cancelled at will if the weather was poor or if transport presented a problem or if key players were injured. Games were often called off on Saturday mornings. Spectators would turn up at deserted grounds. Clubs with hefty wage bills sometimes found themselves without a game, and without income, for two or three weeks. Fixture cards were meaningless. So McGregor wrote a now famous letter to Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Preston North End, West Bromwich Albion and, not surprisingly, his own club Aston Villa. 'I beg to tender,' he wrote, 'the following suggestion ... that ten or twelve oftfte most prominent ciu6s in England combine to arrange home-and-away fixtures each season... I would take it as a favour if you would kindly think the matter over... and should like to hear what other clubs you would suggest. 

 A meeting took place at Anderton's Hotel in Fleet Street, London, on 22 March 1888, and by the end of a fruitful second conference, at the Royal Hotel, Manchester, on 17 April, the battle lines were agreed. Twelve clubs were formally invited to become League members: six from Lancashire - Preston North End, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, Burnley, Accrington and Blackburn Rovers, and six more, broadly, from the Midlands -Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Notts County, Derby County and Stoke. No southern club received an invitation simply because there was no professional football south of Birmingham. And McGregor was properly appointed as the first president. The first simple rules were gradually improved and hardened to meet new problems, but, right from the start, clubs were obliged to play their strongest side in all matches. McGregor and his pioneers passionately believed in their new creation and were determined to make it work. The high court of history rightly applauds them.

The first programme of League matches took place on 8 September 1888 and the first League goal is reliably credited to Jack Gordon of Preston North End — the club whose form towered above everything in that first season. They won the League championship without losing a match and won the FA Cup without conceding a goal. One newspaper report of the time happily described them as 'the most perfect, most consistent team in the history of the game' - a claim that has never been sensibly repeated. How could it be? How can comparisons bridge a hundred years? Surely the only way Preston can be judged is by the margin of their superiority over their contemporaries; and North End's preeminence in 1888-9 has never been matched. They were well named The Invincibles. Preston North End were simply ahead of their time. They played a major role in legalizing professionalism, enticing players from Scotland with guarantees of good jobs, and they turned the game itself from a vigorous exercise into something of a science. The celebrated James Crabtree of Burnley, Aston Villa and England, was to write: The three Preston half-backs were almost the first trio to realize the full importance of helping their forward line... it was axiomatic that when North End were attacking they had eight forwards at work. 

 Their manager was William Sudell, the first outstanding member of a precarious profession. He was an astute businessman, a loyal boss and a flexible tactician who devised a playing format that made the best of his players' talents - including above all those of John Goodall, England's centre-forward, of whom that mighty Corinthian G.O. Smith said: 'A great player and a great gentleman. I've always been proud to count myself his friend.' Goodall, a Londoner who learnt the game in Scotland, has been described as the pioneer of scientific professional play. Preston retained the championship in 1889-90 and then finished runners-up in the following three seasons. The Old Invincibles split up, and Preston have not been champions since. Their decline opened the way for Sunderland (who had replaced Stoke of the original twelve in 1890) and Aston Villa. Between them they were to win the title eight times by the turn of the century. Sunderland, grandly known as 'the team of all the talents', were champions three times in four years; they brought new pride to the town and inspired a feeling for football in the north-east that still endures. They were the creation of their manager and match secretary Tom Watson, a hard and perceptive Newcastle man with an open admiration for Scottish players. His poaching raids across the border were so successful that he was personally threatened.

 Watson knew a good player when he saw one, and among the best he brought south were the immensely popular John Campbell, a free-scoring centre-forward, a short and muscular dasher; John Edward Doig, known as 'the prince of goalkeepers', who covered his bald head with a cap held in place by an elastic band under his chin; and Hugh Wilson, a popular captain and peerless halfback. But Tom Watson himself was Sunderland's finest signing - a fact they quickly discovered when he joined Liverpool for four guineas a week (twice what Sunderland had been paying him) in 1896. Sunderland finished second from bottom in 1896-7 and, a few years later, Liverpool won the championship for the first time. Before then, however, Aston Villa took command and their grip was one of iron. They won the championship five times in the last seven seasons of the century, won the FA Cup twice and in 1896-7 completed the League and Cup 'double'. Villa, remember, were William McGregor's own team - and their success inspired him to gentle tribute: 'If there is a club in the country which deserves to be dubbed the greatest (and the matter is one of some delicacy) few will deny the right of Aston Villa to share the highest niche of fame with even the most historic of other aspirants. For brilliancy and, at the same time, for consistency of achievement, for activity in philanthropic enterprise, for astuteness of management and for general alertness, the superiors of Aston Villa cannot be found. 

 The names of the Villa players were household words: George Ramsay who had fashioned the club's style of play and whose dribbling was so good that the ball seemed a personal possession; auburn-haired Archie Hunter who was rated by McGregor as the finest centre-forward of all, an idol of the crowd who died at the age of 35; and all the heroes, of course, who completed the 'double' -among them Howard Spencer, the formidable James Crabtree, the two Cowans (James and John), John Devey, their richly talented captain, Fred Wheldon and winger Charlie Athersmith who is said to have played for much of one match holding up an umbrella in heavy rain. The story may owe nothing to fact, but we must cherish our legends. The last years of the Victorian era saw the game make impressive strides. The League expanded, gingerly, to two Divisions of 18 clubs each. A southern club, Woolwich Arsenal, was elected for the first time. Promotion and relegation, goal nets and penalty kicks were introduced. Leagues of every size and standard sprouted up all over Britain, and travellers spread the word even further afield to Europe, South America and every cranny and corner of a robust British Empire. They were days of confidence, change and expansion.

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 On Monday, 26 October 1865, a meeting was convened of representatives froin a dozen of the leading London and suburban football clubs to form an association and to establish an agreed set of rules for the game. The meeting, wbich look place at the Freemasons' Tavern in Great Queen Street, formed the Foolball Association, with 11 of the 12 clubs present enrolling as founders members. But it has taken another six meetings lo formulate the rules of football. The problem has been conrdinating Ihe disparate codes of football played around Ihe country. There was a strong body of opinion in favour of banning sonie of Ihe practices allowed by the Rugby (School) code, already ouflawed by Ihe Sheffleld Rules of 1857 and Ihe Cambridge rules of 1802 and 1865. But representatives of the Blackheath club, strong advocates of the rugby gaine, were unyielding. They insisted on the inclusion of two clauses in the rules: first, that "A player may be entitled to run with the ball towards his adversaries' goal if lie makes a fair catch" and. second, "If any player shall run with the ball touards his adversaries' goal, any player on the opposite side shall be at liberty to charge, hold. trip or hack him, or wrest the ball from him..." Finally, at a meeting held on 8 December, the dispute came to a head. The proposal by the Blackheath group to adjourn the meeting was defeated by 13 votes to 4, and as a consequence tney wwithdrew from the Association. The Laws of Ihe Game, evolved from the Cambridge Rules and now agreed by Ihe Association, were normally accepted, heralding the birth of Association Football.

William McGregor is acknowlegded to be 'The Father of Leogue Football'. On 22 Mardi 1886 in Fleet Street, London, a meeting was held which sowed a seed and The Football League was born.
This videocassette tells the story of The Football League. From the first title winners, The Old Invincibles of Preston North End in 1888-9 up to the 1988 holders Liverpool F.C. Rare archive footage, along with comments from Brian Moore and Bob Wilson combine to tell the story of The League, which has given millions of fans entertainment for lOOyears.
True football fans, young and old, will find this story compelling. The 'greât' characters and 'great' goals show how The Football League has developed over the years to give us the exciting competition it is today.

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