Football started as an amateur game, and in the south of England remained in the early 1880s as a game played in the public schools. However the growth of the game in the Midlands, the North and especially Scotland, made it obvious that working class players had talent in abundance – but would only fulfil their talent if they stopped working and trained full time. Factory owners in Northern England had the money to give illegal payments, and questions were raised when two talented Scots, Fergus Suter and James Love, left Partick in Scotland for Darwen in Lancashire and helped Darwen take public school Old Etonians to two Cup replays in 1879 before losing. It would only be a matter of time before a working class team would beat public school amateurs, and questions started to be asked how these workers could play games after five and a half days hard work.

As Suter, a stonemason by trade, was never seen to do a days work it was obvious he was being paid, and a Football Association inquiry was set up in 1882 but could not prove he was being paid. In 1883 however the FA found evidence that Accrington Stanley had paid a player and expulsion from the FA cup followed, with Preston North End (PNE) next to be investigated. When they were successful in a cup game against Upton Park in 1884, their opponents complained that they employed full time players. The FA called on Major Sudell, part time manager of the team and employee of a Preston cotton mill to explain what was going on.

Sudell was forthright saying “Of course I pay them. If I don’t another club sure as hell will and we’ll not be able to compete with them on the football field” (1). This was a first statement of the problem that money would drive football but Sudell seemed to have lost as the FA threw PNE out of the FA Cup. Sudell responded by forming an embryonic British Football Association of teams which paid players. Faced with this threat the FA gave way and clubs were allowed to pay players in 1885.

The door was now open for clubs with more money to sign the best players, and PNE would soon find the downside of their temporary advantage. In the first year of the new competition they won both the League and the FA cup – ten of the team were Scots, as Scotland still banned professionalism so their best players headed south – but Preston were never able to win the competitions again as richer clubs attracted the best players. Perhaps as a result of this, Wikipedia says Sudell embezzled money from the mill which was his regular employer – but spent it all on financing Preston North End, a total of £5,326, big money in Victorian England. Suddell was jailed for 3 years. Perhaps he could say, like the President of Real Madrid over the European Super League, he aimed to bring in a new system to benefit the game.

However Sudell had also created a problem which would have to be solved rapidly or it would be impossible to employ players because clubs would run out of cash. The only games to be played were cup competitions, the big national tournament being the FA cup, plus friendlies. The latter were often cancelled at short notice. Without regular income, cutting the cash flow threatened to bring the clubs employing professional players into the bankruptcy court. It was at this point that Aston Villa took the step which was to transform world soccer.

William McGregor’s Proposal

In fact it was William McGregor, Villa’s secretary who took the vital step. McGregor, a Scot from Perthshire had come to Birmingham to make his fortune and with his wife Jessie ran a drapers shop at 301 Summer Lane* in the inner city, had been drawn to the club by the play of three Scots footballers, including Captain George Ramsay. The Scots influence on Villa was strong and Ramsey had invited Queens Park Rangers – the Scottish club – down in 1882 to study their play. As the Scottish amateurs beat Villa 3-1 it was clear that the passing game was superior and with professionalism this would be a winning formula, if the players could be regularly paid. Competition was essential to draw crowds and a regular schedule was needed to keep cash flow healthy. A systematic organization of fixtures was essential to keep the accounts in the black.

The second problem, having turnstiles sufficient to control crowds would come later, but McGregor may have been influenced by the disgraceful scenes and overcrowding which marred the FA cup game against Preston – the team to beat in 1888 – on 7th January 1888 when it is said 26,849 crowded into the Wellington Road ground in Perry Barr, with Preston beating Villa 3-1 and a crowd invasion taking place. How this number arrived is a mystery – this was a small enclosure and in the first home game on 15th September the same year, it is said only 2000 turned up. But the September match was the first game of a new and untried competition, the Football League, and its formation is the key issue. By the spring of 1888, McGregor made his decision. Clubs must co-operate. He composed and sent, to four selected clubs and his Villa colleagues the following historic 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. The consequence is that at the last moment, through cup tie intereference, 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 difficultly: that ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home and away fixtures, 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 representatives from each club. Of course, this is in no way to interfere with the National Associaton: 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 very much like to hear what other clubs you would suggest.

I am, yours very truly, William McGregor (Aston Villa FC)

PS How would Friday, 23rd March, 1888, suit for the friendly conference at Anderton’s Hotel, London?

Eight clubs turned up for what turned out to be a push at an open door –– Preston did not attend – but in addition to four named in the letter, Burnley, Derby County, Notts County, and Wolverhampton Wanderers came to approve the proposal. It was agreed to hold another meeting on April 17th in Manchester, the venue to reflect the fact only clubs from the Midlands and North were being invited, and Preston, Accrington, Bolton and Everton were invited. All turned up in Manchester and the twelve clubs agreed to start the League the following September. It is one reason that Villa v Everton is the most played fixture in the English league, but all the clubs in that initial season are memorable even if some have fallen on hard times. None of them could have realized that they were planting a seed that would come to be the most successful club competition on the planet. However while the law of unintended consequences might have taken the idea further than anyone expected, the idea successfully solved the problem that worried William McGregor. There was no uncertainty about playing games and the fans were enthused by regular meaningful contests. The League would develop, but the basic idea was so good its success was guarunteed. As his statue outside the Trinity Road stand at Villa Park shows, McGregor was not and could never be forgotten. He was a man who made history.

  • Norman Giller, Football and All That Hodder and Stoughton 2004

*disgracefully there is no plaque or other memorial to note that the McGregors lived at this place. 30 4 21