100 Owners: No.100 – John Houlding (Everton & Liverpool)
There is a point of view held by some that the olden days were better and somehow purer than the world that we live in today. Considering the twenty-four saturation news coverage that football entertains these days, this is perhaps unsurprising. Every tiny story can be blown up out of all proportion, and every word that anybody even remotely connected to the game utters is forensically analysed and interpreted in as many different ways as conceivable. For many years, however, the game remained largely invisible to all those that didn’t attend matches, and the political manoeuvring that took place behind the scenes was veiled in even greater secrecy. For the first of our century of profiles, we’re reaching back to a time before television and cinema, to the frenetic and frequently chaotic days that saw the introduction of the professionalism of football in England.
St. Domingo’s FC was founded, as so many of our clubs were, as the off-shoot of a church – in this case, a Methodist church. They played their formative years on an open pitch on Stanley Park in Liverpool – which now separates Goodison Park from Anfield – where they attracted the attention of a local brewer whose house backed onto the park, John Houlding. Within four years, the club was considering turning professional and required an enclosed ground of its own if it was to make this venture work. After using an enclosed farmer’s field for two years the club was asked to leave, whereupon Orrell recommended another pitch which was owned by a fellow brewer, John Orrell. The club played its first match at Anfield Road in 1884. The following year, Houlding bought the site from Orrell for £6,000 (including legal fees) and by 1888, with attendances for some matches getting as high as 8,000, the club was in a position to become one of the founder members of the Football League.
All was not well, however, between Everton FC and John Houlding. After Houlding purchased the ground, Everton had initially made an annual donation to a local hospital rather than paying rent to Houlding, but this situation soon changed. The club’s success on the pitch – it finished in second place in the Football League in 1890, just two points behind the all-conquering Preston North End – led to Houlding charging Everton rent for the continuing use of the Anfield Road site. When he attempted to increase this rent from £100 per year, the scene was set for a final split that would change the face of English football forever. With the benefit of hindsight, the issue of rent was little more than the tip of the iceberg in terms of the fracturing of the relationship between Everton FC and its landlord. Quite aside from anything else, Everton FC was turning a tidy profit from its successful start in the Football League and the large crowds that turned out to watch the team. The seeds of the discontentment that would lead to what would come to follow, however, had already been sewn.
As well as the charging of rent, Houlding also insisted on the club using his Sandon Hotel as its base, and the sale of his refreshments at their matches, none of which sat well with others at a club that had been formed by Methodists, the church that was at the heart of the temperance movement of the time. There was also a political aspect to this falling out, as several members of the Everton committee at the time were members of the Liberal Party, while Houlding was a member of the Conservative Party. Matters came to a head in September 1891, when Houlding chaired a meeting to try and resolve these differences. He recommended converting the club into a limited company and purchasing the ground from him, as well as some land adjacent to it that he also owned. The club’s committee, however, felt that the price that Houlding was demanding was too high and the evening ended without agreement having been reached.
In March 1892, Everton FC left Anfield Road for good after Houlding served the club with notice to quit Anfield Road in an attempt to force its hand, and purchased a plot of land on the other side of Stanley Park. The amount of money paid for it – £8,070 – was high by the standards of the day, but when Goodison Park was opened by Lord Kinnaird and Frederick Wall of the FA on the 24th of August 1892 it was a sight to behold – England’s first purpose-built football stadium, built from scratch for a professional club. Everton’s departure from Anfield Road, however, provided Houlding with something of a headache. He was now the owner of a football stadium, but one with no football club to play in it. He registered the name “Everton Athletic” with Companies House in what was seen by many as an attempt to seize control of the club from its committee with the intention of taking over Everton’s fixtures and position in the Football League. The FA, however, confirmed that they would not allow this, and that Houlding’s club would need a different name.
So it was that Liverpool FC came into existence, playing its first match on the 1st of September 1892 against the now long-defunct Rotherham Town. They won this match by seven goals to one, but the arrival of this new club wasn’t without its hitches. An ambitious bid to join the Football League was rejected and the club was forced to join the Lancashire League, whilst crowds at Anfield were initially low as supporters of Everton followed the club to its new home. By the end of that first season, however, a taste of what was to come was in the air when Liverpool beat Everton by one goal to nil at Bootle FC in the final of the 1893 Liverpool Senior Cup. That summer, Liverpool FC (along with another name that would go on to become one of English football’s more venerable institutions, Woolwich Arsenal) was voted into the Football League.
In many ways, the breakdown of the relationship between John Houlding and Everton FC was symbolic of wider social issues facing the nascent professional game in England as well as other broader issues that society faced at the time. Houlding was one of the first incarnations of the football club owner. He wanted Everton FC to be run as a company owned by a small number of individuals, whereas others on the committee of the club sought to keep its membership open to many. He wanted to see a return on the investment on the club into which he had put money, but others accused him of seeking to profiteer from its success. In more general terms, barely a couple of decades before the sweeping social reforms that would alter the face of British life forever Houlding was an incarnation of nineteenth century capitalism facing off against a church that was fighting a quasi-political battle in the form of the temperance movement. John Houlding may have lost his battle for the control or ownership of Everton FC, but in creating their rivals Liverpool FC he changed the face of English football in a way that even he would have scarcely imagined would be possible.
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