The Football League, the world’s original league football competition, is to celebrate its 125th anniversary during 2013.
The anniversary period will begin this Saturday (March 2nd) which marks 125 years since League founder, William McGregor, sent his 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 throughout the world.
Following the decision to permit professionalism in 1885, the game’s development was becoming 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.
Perthshire-born McGregor, the Secretary of Aston Villa, felt that immediate action was needed and he wrote the following letter to Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End and West Bromwich Albion: “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. 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.
“I beg to tender the following suggestion as a means of getting over the difficulty: that ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home-and-away fixtures each season, the said fixtures to be arranged at a friendly conference about the same time as the International Conference.
“This combination might be known as the Association Football Union, and could be managed by representative from each club. Of course, this is in no way to interfere with the National Association; even the suggested matches might be played under cup-tie rules. However, this is a detail.
“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.
“I am only writing to the following – Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End, West Bromwich Albion, and Aston Villa, and would like to hear what other clubs you would suggest.”
The Football League will celebrate its 125th anniversary with its clubs and their supporters at the beginning of the 2013/14 season and its head of communications, John Nagle, said: "The McGregor letter is the start of Saturday at 3pm as we know it today, it’s the point at which professional football decides it has to get organised or be strangled at birth.
"You only have to look through fixture lists from the previous season to see the problem clubs faced. Fixtures were sporadic with clubs sometimes going weeks between matches when they needed the certainty, as they still do today, of regular matches and regular income.
"Looking back now it may seem such an obvious thing to do, but you have to remember it had been 25 years since the formation of the FA and yet nobody else had come up with anything as visionary. McGregor’s idea perfectly met the needs of clubs and the paying public, whilst being utterly simple in its inception.
“The fact that 125 years later The Football League continues to thrive and that league football has become a sporting phenomenon across the globe is the greatest possible tribute to McGregor's foresight.”
Three weeks after McGregor sent his letter (March 22nd) clubs met at Anderton’s Hotel on Fleet Street in London to discuss McGregor’s idea. This was followed by a further meeting on April 17th at the Royal Hotel, Manchester at which the name The Football League was agreed (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 McGregor as its first Chairman. The 12 founder members of The Football League were Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, North End, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion, and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The first champions were, of course, North End's ‘Invincibles’ who won 18 and drew four of their 22 league matches.