League football might just be the greatest export of Victorian Britain. It seems scarcely credible that it was a little short of one hundred and twenty years ago that The Football League kicked off for the first time, so now feels like an appropriate time to celebrate the anniversary of a venerable institution which has time and again confounded its critics, both inside and outside of the game, and, in spite of the cultural domination of the Premier League and the Champions League, continues to thrive as one of the most watched football tournaments in Europe. The strength of the competition in depth is probably the single, defining feature of English football that sets it apart from the rest of the world, though this was a feature of the league that took decades to develop. The current format of it (or, since the formation of the Premier League in 1992, the current bastardised version of it) – of four national divisions with promotion and relegation between them – is also celebrating an anniversary this year. It’s fifty years old this year – more on that next month.

In the first place, though there were only twelve clubs. The idea was the brainchild of William McGregor, a Scottish draper that had moved south and become a director of Aston Villa. The FA had legalised professionalism in 1885, but it took three years clubs to realise that the chaotic system of arranging their own matches, with no structure behind it at all, couldn’t continue. The clubs met for the first time at a London hotel in March 1888, and kicked off on the 8th of September. The regional make-up of the league represented the tipping of the balance of power in Victorian England. The south was nowhere to be seen, with the twelve founder members – Preston North End, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, Burnley, Accrington, Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Notts County, Derby County and Stoke City -coming from the industrial heartlands of the Midlands and the North-West. Preston North End’s famous “Invincibles” won the first title, of course, but the league itself soon had competition in the form of the Football Alliance, founded in 1889. This upstart league had twelve members, with sixteen clubs – Ardwick (later to become Manchester City), Birmingham St George’s, Bootle, Burton Swifts, Crewe Alexandra, Darwen, Grimsby Town, Lincoln City, Long Eaton Rangers, Newton Heath (later to become Manchester United), Nottingham Forest, The Wednesday (later to become Sheffield Wednesday), Small Heath (later to become Birmingham City), Stoke City, Sunderland Albion and Walsall Town Swifts – taking part in it over the course of its three years. In 1892, it was merged into the Football League to become the league’s Second Division.

In the early days, the Football League was organised in a manner that is difficult to imagine today. Anyone believing that play-offs are a recent invention would be in for a surprise. Until 1898, there was no automatic promotion and relegation between the two divisions, with test matches being played between the bottom two clubs in the First Division and the top two clubs in the Second Division. Automatic promotion wa introduced after it was revealed that Stoke City and Burnley had colluded to keep themselves in the First Division in the last round of a set of test matches. Woolwich Arsenal became the first southern club to join the League, in 1893, followed a couple of years later by Luton Town, though Luton dropped back into the professional Southern Football League in 1900. Even in its early years, the League often found itself embroiled in controversy. It was widely criticised for playing through the 1914/15 season, after the outbreak of the First World War, and the strange circumstances by which Arsenal’s chairman, Henry Norris, managed to get his club promoted into the First Division in 1919 after they had finished the 1914/15 season in sixth place in the Second Division at the expense of local rivals Tottenham Hotspur still rankles with Spurs supporters and provided the groundwork for one of English football’s bitterest rivalries.

The end of the First World War brought about the biggest expansion in the history of the Football League, the great leap forward in the evolution of the competition that we recognise today. In 1919, the two divisions were expanded to twenty-two clubs each, and in 1920 the league was expanded to three divisions with an exodus of professional clubs from the Southern League. In 1921, a further expansion brought in the Third Division (North) and Third Division (South). It was the beginning of a boom period for English league football that would last for almost five decades. With the formation of the League looking stable for the first time (even though the economic woes of the 1920s necessitated several changes), most of the changes over the next thirty years or so came on the pitch. Arsenal became the first London club to win the First Division in 1931, shirt numbers were introduced and crowds grew to incredible levels, with over 35,000,000 people watching the first season after the end of the Second World War, for which play was suspended (this compares with an all-time low of 7,500,000 in 1985/86).

The final step of the evolution into the League that we know now came with the change from regional Third Divisions into national Third & Fourth Divisions in 1958. The Football League Cup was introdiced in 1961 as a midweek cup competition which, after a slow start, started to gain in popularity after the final was moved to Wembley in 1967). Substitutes followed in 1965, and three points for a win in 1981. Automatic promotion between the Fourth Division and the Football Conference was introduced in 1987, introducing extra interest at the bottom of the ladder. However, by this time, crowds were in decline. Hooliganism and poor facilities were the primary reasons for this, with crowds bottoming out in the immediate aftermath of Heysel and the Bradford Fire. The Football League had been making deals with television stations for the previous two decades, but the biggest clubs were unhappy at having to share television money with smaller clubs. There had been talk of a “Super League” for some years before the creation of the Premier League. The biggest clubs hoodwinked the FA on board to give the new league a veneer of respectability (the “FA” was dropped from the league’s title not long after it started – the Premier League now effectively runs itself) and broke away in the summer of 1992.

The Football League renamed its Second, Third and Fourth Divisions the First, Second and Third Divisions and struggled manfully on. In 2004, they became the Championship, League One and League Two. Without the biggest draws, the television deals that they signed were tiny compared with those being signed by the Premier League, exacerbating the gap between the Premier League and the rest. The situation reached a nadir after the disastrous ITV Digital contract. The TV station, bank-rolled by ITV giants Granada and Carlton, signed a £315m contract for rights to Football League television coverage. When audiences were disastrous, ITV Digital bosses pressed the League to accept a cut in the value of the contract of £130m and, when they refused, put the company into administration. The League took the company’s owners to court, but the ruling went against them, with the presiding judge being openly critical of the League’s failure to obtain written guarantees from Granada and Carlton to underwrite the venture. The problem for the League’s member clubs was that they had already started spending money that they were now not going to see. Half of all of the Football League’s clubs have had spells in administration, and arguably the biggest miracle in the last twenty years of English football is that none of them have folded completely and to resign from the League.

In 2008, however, the landscape is very different. Clubs still have spells of financial crisis, though these tend be due to woeful maladministration by owners rather than anything else. The Football League now docks points from clubs that enter into administration and those that don’t exit adminsitration before the start of the following season. Luton Town, as most of you will already be aware, face losing their Football Leagu place this season after being forced to start with a frankly disproportionate thirty point deduction. The League is, however, in remarkably good health. A normal Saturday afternoon will see the best part of 200,000 people watch matches in The Championship alone. Crowds have risen throughout the League, whilst they have stagnated in the Premier League, and the Championship is now the fourth most-watched football league in Europe, better only by the Premier League, La Liga in Spain and the Bundesliga. As yet, the apocalyptic belief that all promoted Championship clubs would be little more than cannon fodder upon getting promoted hasn’t come to pass (though the antics of Derby County last season did little to challenge that misconception), and many people regarded last season’s close battle for the two automatic promotion places as being an indication of a lack of quality in the division. The prognosis for the world’s oldest football league going into its 120th year, however, is far healthier than anyone would have predicted ten years ago.