Sunday, 6 May 2012

Was the Football League founded in Manchester in 1888?

It's the oldest professional football league competition in the world. Under its modern guise as the Premier League, it has the highest revenue of any football league in the world. But can we say that it was founded in Manchester in 1888? Or is this claim, as one commenter on the When Saturday Comes website argues, 'disingenuous'?
'The Football League was founded in the city [Manchester] in 1888.' This is just about correct but omits the background. William McGregor, an Aston Villa director, was the first to propose a league. A meeting of interested parties was held in London (before the FA Cup Final) and the formalities were completed in Manchester. Notably no clubs from Manchester were included.
The Football Association held its first meeting at a pub in London on 26th October 1863. The first FA Cup final took place on 16th March 1872 and the first England international (vs. Scotland) took place in Glasgow on 30th November in the same year. Professionalism was legalised on 20th July 1885, shortly after the formation of Newton Heath L&YR FC in 1878 (later Man Utd) and St. Mark's (West Gorton) FC in 1880 (later Man City). With professionalism came financial pressures, leading to the creation of the Football League.
William McGregor, the founder of the Football League
On 2nd March 1888 William McGregor, a director at Aston Villa (founded 1874), wrote to Blackburn Rovers (1875), Bolton Wanderers (1874), Preston North End (1881), West Bromwich Albion (1878) and Stoke FC (1863) with his suggestion. The first meeting was held in London on the eve of the FA Cup final on 23rd March with the formalities completed in Manchester on 17th April. In addition to the six teams already mentioned, the founding members also included Accrington FC (1876), Burnley FC (1882), Derby County (1884), Everton (1878), Notts County (1862) and Wolverhampton Wanderers (1877).

So whilst no clubs from Manchester itself were included, the inaugural league had six teams from Lancashire and six from the Midlands, with Manchester (then the centre of the global cotton trade and a huge transport and business hub) the obvious place to hold any meeting of the twelve clubs. Newton Heath joined the first division for a brief spell in 1892, with Manchester City making their first appearance in the top flight in 1899. It wasn't until 1904 that a London team were represented at this level (Woolwich Arsenal).

What's most interesting about the early years of the Football League is how relatively provincial it was, with small towns such as Bury achieving greater success. No team from Manchester or London won the league until Man Utd in 1908. This is in marked contrast with the current Premier League, which is dominated by teams from the two cities (as Paul Wilson noted earlier in the season).

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