The Long Read: Order Through Chaos – 130 Years of the Football League

by | Sep 9, 2018

The 130th anniversary of the first weekend of the Football League came on a weekend interrupted by an international break. Such is the nature of Modern Football. The world’s oldest football league competition survives, albeit a little bloodied and battered, in an era during which it can often feel as though we’re not capable of fully taking in the diversity and range of its seventy-two member clubs. It no longer holds the prestige that it held until the Premier League breakaway of 1992 and it occasionally feels as though it is still run by individuals with no comprehension of the supporter’s experience of watching the game, but it’s still with us, and it retains an appeal that stubbornly remains, despite the fact that our culture demands that we focus our attention on an increasingly smaller and more concentrated coterie of players, coaches and clubs.

It’s easy to forget what the Football League has given us, so fundamentally have its innovations become woven into the fabric of the game. The league table, the simple elegance of everybody playing each other twice with points being awarded for winning or drawing the game, has survived one hundred and thirty years with only minor amendments having been made to it. The season which runs from the end of the summer until the start of the fololowing summer. Promotion and relegation at the end of the season. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” can feel like a cliche at times, but the continuing existence of the Football League and its counterparts around the world is living proof of the fact that change for the sake of change seldom even desirable, still less necessary.

In 2018, however, the Football League has issues. It remains heavily criticised for its management of the sub-standard owners to be found amongst its ranks, whilst its tone deafness over the Checkatrade Trophy has demonstrated the grim fact that the game’s governing bodies only ever seem to be interested in the best interests of supporters when it is expedient for them to do so. Ticket prices remain too high, match schedules are increasingly torn asunder in order to satisfy the increasingly intrusive wants of broadcasters, and the League’s response to the Premier League’s EPPP youth development changes has left some of its members wondering whether it is even worth continuing to even maintain an academy when the scales have been tipped in favour of the biggest clubs to the extent to which they have.

Yet the Football League also remains a success. The Championship remains the sixth most watched league in the whole of Europe and, despite the fact that it palls in comparison with that currently wielded by the Premier League, its television contract remains the envy  of many Europe’s other top divisions. And, in an era during which the elite competitions of the European game have never felt so calcified in their positions as they do now, the Football League’s three divisions throw an element of chaos and surprise into the game that the biggest competitions can no longer offer. If English football’s greatest strength is its strength in depth – that thousands of people will turn out to watch matches at its third, fourth or fifth tiers remains a thorn in the side of those who would wish us all to support one of Europe’s five or six biggest clubs – then the Football League has to be considered the driving force behind this.

And, despite the often perpetual-feeling sense of foreboding that continues to hang over so many of its membership, the Football League’s clubs have proved sturdy. Of its twelve original members, eleven remain with us today. Of those eleven, only two have never played Premier League football and have therefore been unbroken members over the entirety of that 130 years. Only Accrington altogether folded (in 1896 – the original Accrington Stanley were voted into the League in 1921 and were no relation) and Stoke were voted out in 1890 but allowed back in two years later. Somehow or other, these clubs have survived societal changes that would have been unimaginable to their founders, two world wars and the development of a leisure culture that has given potential supporters a plethora of ways in which to spend their spare time which might, on paper at least, sound considerably more appealing than standing on a concrete terrace with an anaemic cup of tea watching football that isn’t always aesthetically beautiful. Yet they’re still here, and not only the successful ones. If nothing else, the Football League has been proved to be enduring.

Its foundation was an inevitable response to the professionalisation of the game during the 1880s. The formation of the professional game in England speaks volumes about the nature of the class system in this country, about the privilege enjoyed by the public school educated upper classes who could afford to play for nothing and saw this as a higher virtue, about the industrial revolution and the new money of the mercantile classes, and the application of the rules of this new industrial capitalism to sport. It took until 1885 for the Football Association to finally bow to the inevitable and allow the professionalisation of the game, and the clamour for a regular fixture schedule for clubs was almost immediate. With seasons being made up of the FA Cup, county cups and exhibition matches only, clubs needed a reliable source of income if they were to be able to continue to attract and pay the players that were now starting to move between clubs.

The match that came to symbolise the move away from the amateur ethos was the 1883 FA Cup Final, when Blackburn Olympic, playing a passing game, defeated Old Etonions, who still preferred the “traditional” tactics of rushing and scrimmages by two goals to one. The chief architect of the formation of the Football League was William McGregor. Born in Perthshire in 1846, McGregor was a draper by trade and had been involved in early attempts to establish a baseball league in England, but football was his main preoccupation was football. He’d joined the committee at Aston Villa in 1877 and helping it to stave off a threat of bankruptcy before becoming a director of the club. As the winds of change blew through the game during the 1880s, McGregor became a supporter of professionalism. What was clear by the second half of the decade was that there was a need for more regular incomes for clubs. The FA Cup would only guarantee a match or two for clubs, and exhibition matches were prone to cancellation for a variety of different reasons.

In March 1888, McGregor called a meeting in order “that ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home-and-away fixtures each season.” The “Association Football Union” was rejected as a name because it was considered too similar to the newly-formed Rugby Football Union. The “English League” was rejected because members wanted to leave the door open to the possibility of Scottish clubs joining. The Football League was born. With no clubs in attendance from the south of the country, the new league had a distinctly northern feel to it, with its membership being taken from professional clubs in the Midland and north-west of England. Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers. The first matches were played on the 8th September 1888, and Preston North End, of course, ended the season as unbeaten winners of the competition, eleven points clear of second placed Aston Villa.

Expansion came relatively quickly. The Football League was expanded to fourteen clubs with the addition of Sunderland and Darwen in 1891, and the following year a Second Division was added, with Test Matches (which closely resembled modern play-offs) deciding promotion and relegation issues. This expansion continued into the new century. Southern clubs started to join the League from the 1890s on, although many chose to stick with the similarly professional Southern League until after the end of the First World War. The biggest change of the years between the wars came in 1920, with the expansion of the League to four divisions, including a Third Division North and Third Division South. This encouraged most of the remaining bigger Southern League clubs to finally jump ship to the League. These two divisions would, of course, become the Third Division and Fourth Division in 1958.

By this time, the game was showing the first signs of shrinkage after the immediate post-war boom in attendances. In the years that followed the resumption of the Football League in 1946 crowds had rocketed up, but this had proved to be something of a flash in the pan. Attendances started to fall as soon as 1950, and with this decline continuing (and with no signs of wages falling in line with this), the Football League set up its own cup competition as an extra source of revenue for clubs in 1960. The Football League Cup brought innovations of its own, played as it was almost entirely under floodlights, in midweek and over home and away legs, but it was also seen as something of a thumbing of the nose to the Football Association, with whom the League had an occasionally fractious relationship. The Football League Cup wasn’t an immediate success. Several of the bigger clubs refused to enter it, and it only found any form of status when the final of the competition was moved to Wembley in 1967.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, however, other changes to the set-up of the Football League would be more technical in nature. From 1976 on, clubs finishing level on points began to be separated according to goal difference (the difference between goals scored and goals conceded) rather than goal average (goals scored divided by goals conceded), a response to the perception that goal average encouraged more defensive football. In 1981, three points for a win was introduced at the behest of the Coventry City chairman Jimmy Hill, again with the aim of bringing teams out of their defensive shells.

These two changes hint at the game’s increasing difficulties at the time. Hooliganism, the perception of defensive football, and increasingly dilapidated facilities were commonly cited as reasons for the continuing decline in attendances. These bottomed out for the 1985/86 season, but by this time further changes were on the way. The antiquated system of re-election at the bottom of the Fourth Division was replaced by one automatic and relegation process with the Football Conference (which had been founded in 1979), whilst play-offs returned in 1987 for the first time since the beginning of the century. Attendances for the 1986/87 season rose for the first time win a decade.

By the end of the 1980s, however, the winds of change were gusting that even the Football League couldn’t withstand them. The League’s relationship with television had always been a complicated one. An early experiment with broadcasting matches live had ended almost as soon as it began in 1960, and tight regulations had come to govern the televising of the game thereafter, with clubs extremely anxious about the effect of this relatively new technology on attendances. In 1979, however, ITV had tried to wrestle exclusive Football League highlights, and the subsequent furore over this – it led to questions being asked in parliament – only cemented the idea of the increasing importance of television in the game. The Football League headed off the “Snatch of the Day” crisis, but the changing nature of this relationship was to continue unabated. Shirt sponsorship was allowed from 1981 on – although intitally for non-televised matches only – and live televised Sunday afternoon and Friday night matches began in 1983. Two years later, the first half of the season wasn’t broadcast at all after the BBC, ITV and the Football League failed to reach agreement over a new contract.

Hillsborough, of course, changed everything. The Taylor Report saw sweeping changes to grounds in the name of safety, whilst the post-1990 World Cup finals glow saw the mild resurgence of interest in the game of the late 1980s continue to grow. At the time, the Football League’s television contract didn’t seem to please anyone. The majority of clubs were unhappy with the fact that ITV only ever seemed interested in screening matches featuring at least onre of the “Big Five” – Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United – of the time. The other First Division clubs were unhappy at contractual arrangements which required them to share their television money with the other three divisions of the League. And the Big Five themselves were unhappy at the relatively conservative nature of the television schedule and a belief that they themselves weren’t benefiting from the game’s still-evolving new order to the extent that they felt they should.

At a meeting between Greg Dyke, the head of sport at London Weekend Television, and the chairmen of the Big Five, held in October 1990, the new league began to take fruition. With the relationship between the FA and the Football League strained, Arsenal’s David Dein approached the FA to give the proposed new league its blessing. The FA said yes. The clubs of the First Division announced their resignation en masse, and the Premier League would be formed in May 1992 for the start of the 1992/93 season. Greg Dyke, however, would come to miss out on this particular party. When the television rights came up for bidding, the Premier League went with a considerably bigger offer from Sky Sports, moving top flight English football to pay television, a state of affairs that has now been the case for twenty-six years. ITV had bid £205m for the rights and later increased this to £262m, but Sky had a mole in the form of the Tottenham Hotspur chairman Alan Sugar, whose Amstrad would be making satellite dishes for Sky.

Sugar was overheard talking to Sky’s Rupert Murdoch at a meeting in May 1992. It has been reported that he told Murdoch to make a bid that would “blow them out of the water, and Sky’s bid of £305m was enough to get them over the line. Sugar, ironically, was the only chairman of a Big Five club to support the Sky deal. The other biggest clubs were sufficiently concerned by the possible negative effects of being on a subscription channel and Sky’s apparent lack of commitment to showing more of their matches than anybody else’s. The other clubs in the division, more than counterbalanced their votes and the deal was done. It was a decision that would change the landscape of English football forever.

The Football League’s response to this was to struggle on, trying to make the best of it. Premier League clubs would continue to play in the League Cup, and there would be promotion and relegation with the Second Division – now hastily renamed the First Division – so things might have been worse, but none of this could override the feeling that the game’s growing prosperity would benefit the few rather than the many. In March 1992, Aldershot had become the first Football League club to fail to complete a season since Accrington Stanley, twenty years earlier, whilst at the start of the following season, Maidstone United limped through the first three matches of their season before folding. This, it was reflected at the time, was some distance removed from the “whole new ball game” being advertised on Sky’s posters, which seemed to be everywhere during the summer of 1992. The Football League signed a vastly reduced television deal with ITV, which would at least bring some football to terrestrial television and would give welcome exposure to clubs who were away from the top flight, and got on with it.

The inevitable wage inflation that came about as a result of the new money pouring into the Premier League and the Bosman Ruling of 1995, which allowed players to leave clubs at the end of their contracts free of charge, trickled down into the Football League as the 1990s progressed. This, however, came against a growing belief that the financial possibilities for clubs could be endless. Each new Premier League television contract brought a fresh round of breathless headlines at its value, whilst many clubs attempted to float on the stock market, decisions the failure of which led to the first signs that the game might be headed towards an unsustainable bubble.

ONDigital went on air in November 1998. The digital terrestrial broadcaster had been formed by Carlton and Granada, the de facto owners of ITV, and it hit difficulties immediately. There were issues with issuing set-top boxes, meaning that they missed the potentially lucrative Christmas market, whilst aggressive marketing from rivals Sky meant that their deals looked unattractive by comparison. Sales were sluggish, and there were complaints about the quality of the signal once it did start broadcasting. Despite this, though, they agreed a £315m for a three year deal with the Football League in 2000. Football television rights had inflated throughout the 1990s, but they hadn’t inflated that much, and on top of that there was no question that by the time of their rebranding as ITV Digital in 2001, their battle with Sky was lost, with just 1.2m subscribers. By the start of 2002 they were losing £1m a day. In February of that year, they requested to drop the amount left to pay on their contract by £129m. The Football League refused the offer. On the 27th March 2002, ITV Digital was placed into administration and on the 1st of May, it ceased broadcasting.

A new contract was signed between the Football League and Sky in the summer of 2002. It was worth £95m over the next four years, and it plunged its clubs into a crisis from which it’s only recently really recovered. Within a year, sixteen clubs in the Football League entered into administration – and many more were to follow – and it was a miracle that no clubs folded during a season. Several have done so after falling through the trapdoor into non-league football. The ITV Digital collapse really set in motion the beginning of the tightening of – and attention significantly being paid to – regulations relating to football clubs as businesses and their relationship with insolvency law. The complex web of regulations relating to insolvency and club ownership may not be as tight as we might like, but the very fact that they’re even a part of our conversation in the first place can trace at least a part of its history to this tumultuous period.

Ownership issues predate that, of course. At Fulham and Queens Park Rangers during the 1980s, and at Charlton Athletic, Doncaster Rovers and Brighton & Hove Albion during the 1990s – amongst others – supporter protest grew to become a part of the background noise of football as the twentieth century grew to a close. As property and land became national obsessions, and football’s apparent financial value boomed, so the vultures began to circle. When Brighton & Hove Albion lost The Goldstone Ground to developers at the hands of unscrupulous board members in 1997, the Football League did nothing. The Owners and Directors Test remains in place to this day, but it remains frustatingly easy to bypass on account of its fundamental lack of detailed questioning.

As such, protests have continued. At Charlton Athletic, Blackpool, and Coventry City, amongst many others which have come and gone at varying points over the years. It’s tempting to get caught up on the fine detail of issue, when discussing the governing bodies of the game and their relationship with ownership regulations. Who should be excluded, where exactly should the line be drawn, and so on. But that’s not really the point. Whether consciously or not, the ulmate fight is cultural, for supporters to be recognised as central to the experience of football, and who should be rewarded for their support rather than bled dry to the greatest extent possible by clubs. Small wonder, we might consider, that the Football League, which is basically no more or less than the owners of its seventy-two member clubs at any given time, has in the past seemed intransigent towards regulating against the more rapacious elements of football club ownership. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas, as it were.

But the “Against Modern Football” movement that has emerged in recent years has a problem built into its name. There is a tendency on the part of those who oppose them to emphasise the “Against” in the name, whereas the emphasis there would probably be better placed on “Modern.” Evolution of the game of football is inevitable. The 130 years of the Football League demonstrate that. This conversation shouldn’t be about trying to crystallise the game in some (largely imaginarily) halcyon past. It should be about the directions that the game will choose to take, as a leisure activity, as exercise for both children and adults, about the professional game and its relationship to supporters. It should be about having a say and a stake in the future, not trying to preserve football as though it’s some sort of museum of popular culture.

The changes made to the Check-a-Trade Trophy by the Football League in 2016 – and doggedly reinforced ever since – have been a demonstration of how low the concerns of supporters might be considered, these days. The introduction of academy teams from Premier League and Championship clubs into a competition previously held for the bottom two divisions of the Football League has been widely criticised and has led to a boycott which has led to record low attendances in the early stages of the tournament. The League, however, got lucky when it counted. At the end of that first season, Coventry City and Oxford United, two former top flight clubs with potentially big followings, made it to Wembley and the subsequently swollen crowd was predictably subsequently used as proof of the success of the entire competition by its supporters. Continuing in the spite of these ongoing low attendances has not painted the Football League in a particularly positive light, although the protests against it are not quite as vocal as they were a couple of years ago.

On the 8th of September 1888, five matches were played on the opening Saturday of the Football League. Preston North End, with a result that would go on to be a summary of the season, defeated Burnley by five goals to two. Elsewhere, the biggest crowd of the day came at Anfield, where Everton – whose home this was until the 1892 break with their landlord John Houlding, which led to the construction of Goodison Park and the creation of Liverpool Football Club – defeated Accrington by two goals to one in front of a recorded crowd of 10,000 people. The games they watched were, of course, radically different to today, with no crossbars on the goals, and two umpires supervised by a referee who more resembled a modern fourth official than a modern referee. There were, of course, no floodlights, so matches would occasionally finish in the dusk.

On the 8th of September 2018, there were no matches in the Premier League or Championship. In League One and League Two, however, a glimpse at the top of the tables gives a hint as to the ongoing success of the Football League. At the top of League One sit Peterborough United and Portsmouth, whilst at the top of League Two sit Lincoln City and Newport County. On the one hand, these names might have felt right at the top of these divisions at any point over the last fifty years. The Football League has permanence in spades. On the other, though, each of the above has been on a journey. Peterborough United were relatively recent additions in 1960, stalwarts of the lower divisions. Portsmouth were in the Premier League, won the FA Cup and played European football before their crash brought administration – very nearly bankruptcy – a brief spell of fan ownership, and a drop to the basement division before a revival began.

The adventures of the leaders in League Two have been on rollercoaster rides, in their own way. Lincoln City became the first club to be relegated from the Football League Division Four in 1987 and have been so again since, but are currently on an upward curve. Newport County went bust and closed down in February 1989, having dropped from the Football League a year earlier. A new club rose from the ashes as Newport AFC, but it was unable to play in Wales for its first season because the local council considered the new club to be liable for the unpaid rent left by the old club. After this was resolved and the club spent two years back at Somerton Park, they were forced out again, this time by the Football Association of Wales, who were insistent that all Welsh clubs below the Football League join his new national league. Those who objected – nicknamed “the Irate Eight” – upped sticks and went to play in England until the Evans’ rules were deemed unlawful in court. Thereafter followed a slow ascent back to the Football League from the Hellenic League, which was finally achieved at the end of the 2012/13 season, which already marked the centenary of the formation of the original Newport County AFC. These clubs, these four and another sixty-eight, each have a story to tell.

The Football League is more fluid than it used to be. Automatic promotion and relegation from non-league football has seen to that. And it’s certainly more chaotic. The gruelling length of the season and the fact that the financial gap between its biggest and smallest feels like small change in comparison with the gap between all of them and the clubs of the Premier League. That’s the fault-line that really matters, one sense, because above it clubs going to make more than £100m in television money, whilst below it they will make little more than £6m. This hasn’t, somewhat ironically, been reflected in an increased gap in quality between the bottom clubs in the Premier League and the top clubs in the Championship. Promoted teams are no longer necessarily expected to get relegated back from whence they came the following season, whilst many of the clubs relegated from the Premier League in recent years have found the Championship to be considerably more difficult get out of in an upwardly direction than they were probably expecting.

The Championship will likely do as it always does, this season. Over the last few years, it has come to resemble the Grand National for Mascots, a gruelling slog over forty-six matches in which just about anybody, on their day, can still just about beat anybody else. There will be crises within clubs – possibly financial, possibly not – and there will teams that overturn all logic to storm to promotion and managers sacked by owners with itchy trigger-fingers. If the Premier League is slick and streamlined, the Football League is flawed yet perfect, three divisions of football which continue to offer something still removed from the increasingly sanitised air of the Premier League, if you know where to look for it. Stability and instability. Order through chaos. It’s the Football League way, whether we like it or not.