You may know that Aston Villa started the first Football League in the world when Secretary William McGregor suggested it in 1888. But did Villa score the first League goal and how did the Villa start in the first place?

As every decent history book says, Aston Villa started the first Football League in the world when Secretary William McGregor called for leading clubs to play together regularly in 1888. That is why his statue is there outside the Trinity Road stand.

Mystery One: Did Villa score the first League Goal?

And it is often thought that Villa scored the first league goal in history, on the first Saturday afternoon – it being an own goal. Villa’s first goal in the League was said to be an own goal by Gershon Cox against Wolverhampton, away in a 2-2 draw.

The belief that this was the first ever League goal was because it was reported to have happened half an hour after the kick off which took place at 3pm, and other games kicked off later. The own goal still stands as Villa’s first ever but research now suggests it was not the first goal scored in the League on that first Saturday. In his excellent book THE ORIGINS OF THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE (Amberley 2014) Mark Metcalf has a different story.

Metcalf found a researcher Robert Boyling, at the Newspaper Library then in Colindale London, who discovered an advert saying the Villa-Wolves game would start at 3.30pm on 8th September 1888. So Cox put through his own goal at 4pm.

In the games at Everton vs Accrington and Stoke V Albion there were no goals before half time, but reports in the Bolton and Preston games say they kicked off at 3.45 and 3.50pm. The report of the Bolton Wanderers V Notts County game is key. The reporter wrote “The County kicked off with the sun at their backs, the visiting right made an attack that was cleared by Bethell but Davenport coming away transferred play to the other end, and in two minutes from the start Kenny had scored a fine goal for the Wanderers”. Kenny was Kenny Davenport and as Bolton kicked off at 3.45 his first goal was 3.47 so 13 minutes before Cox put through his own net.

Kenny Davenport scored the first goal in league football in World History for Bolton Wanderers. Villa will have to be content with scoring the first own goal in history.

Mystery Two: How Did Villa Get Started?

In the last third of the nineteenth century, football developed in the industrial towns of the UK. The ancient battles between mobs of young men half rugger and half soccer which still happens every February in the Derbyshire town of Ashbourne developed into a proper sport. In the public schools rugby developed with handling of the ball allowed – forget the myth that soccer came first. They were handling the ball in Rugby and other fee paying schools well before the soccer rule book was written down. But it is true that soccer was first played by amateurs and the FA cup did not get played by professionals till the 1880s.

The cup was first played in 1871 and amateur (mainly public school) teams dominated, till in 1882 Blackburn Rovers played the Old Etonians – and were beaten 1-0. But the writing was on the wall for the amateurs and when professionalism was legalized working class men who could take time off from regular jobs to train proved fitter and more skilful than amateurs. In shaping the modern professional League game Villa were to play a big part. But when did the club form up?

While 1874 is the accepted year Villa set out, and we know that the shift from six day to five and a half day working in factories and shops allowed spectators to turn up on Saturday afternoons, even though there were no floodlights on winter afternoons, the actual development is mysterious.

Football took off more in Staffordshire and the Black Country than Warwickshire and Birmingham – Stoke City claim to have formed in 1863 with pupils from Charterhouse public school, but research suggests the pupils were not there in 1863 so 1868 is more likely. But they were certainly well ahead of Birmingham though by the early 1870s football was attracting interest in the Second City. How to start a team was an issue in itself as there were not even amateur teams and while there were Rugby teams and Cricket teams no one was playing soccer.

No one was keeping records and it is not clear why it was called Aston Villa. One of the few things one can be certain of is that there was no actual Villa – a substantial building – in the area where it developed, the streets have a sprawl of terrace houses then as now, despite a Jacobean Mansion overlooking where the ground now stands. In fact it did not start in Aston but in Lozells, and did not move to Villa Park on the Aston Lower Grounds till 1897. The club took paying customers first in Perry Barr.