Founded in 1888 by the Birmingham draper William McGregor, the Football League was the first such national competition in the world and the premier one in English and Welsh football for more than a century.
Everton were among its founder members and one of its dominant forces, lifting its First Division title nine times – a feat bettered only by Arsenal and Liverpool – and appearing in the top flight for all but four seasons. In 1992 the First Division clubs broke away from the Football League to form the FA Premier League. This ended the mutuality that was for years the Football League’s pervading ethos and afforded fresh power to English football’s elite to negotiate lucrative new TV and commercial deals, which came to revolutionise English football.
During the 1880s, McGregor, a 41-year-old Scot and Aston Villa committeeman, witnessed at first hand football’s ascent from the fancy of the few to the obsession of the masses. He was aware of the limitations of football’s organisational structure and that the system was ad hoc and open to petty rivalries. Games were prone to cancellation when opponents were lured into a fixture that promised higher gate receipts, while ‘scratch’ teams sent in their place were not uncommon. The lack of organisation meant that in the days before professionalism was legalised players often switched allegiance to whoever could offer them a game or financial inducements. The Everton director Thomas Keates was keenly aware of the problem too: ‘The contrast in the attendances at cup ties and ordinary matches, the trifling interest taken in the latter by the public and the insignificance had long vexed the souls of club managers. How can we vitalise the torpid? That was the question.’
MCGREGOR’S answer was a regular, competitive system of fixtures involving only the top clubs, along the lines of the County Cricket Championship. The season would still allow for local cup competitions and the FA Cup, but interest would be maintained after a team had been knocked out in the early stages. The Scot toured the country, seeking the support of his colleagues at other clubs during the 1886/87 season. The response he got was not always favourable and concerns were voiced about upsetting the FA and the cost of regularised fixtures.
McGregor made his first formal move on 2 March 1888, writing to five clubs – Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End, West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa (but not Everton) – laying out his ideas: a division of ten or twelve clubs who would play each other in home and away matches played under FA rules, and a formal association to be managed by representatives from each member. He also asked for suggestions for additional members. Of the two replies he received, neither appeared to advocate Everton’s inclusion. When several representatives from prospective league members met in London at the end of March, prior to the FA Cup Final between West Bromwich Albion and Preston North End, again Everton were not present.
A FURTHER MEETING WAS scheduled in Manchester’s Royal Hotel on 17 April 1888. Here the Football League was formally created. Alexander Nisbet was present to sign Everton up as founder members along with Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers. According to McGregor: ‘The League should never aspire to be a legislating body ... by the very nature of things the League must be a selfish body. Its interests are wholly bound up in the welfare of its affiliated clubs, and what happens outside is, in a sense, of secondary importance ... The League has work to do; the Association has its work to do and there need be no clashing.’
Everton’s inclusion was something of a surprise, and to this day the rationale remains a mystery. Local rivals Bootle felt that they had a better case for membership and two of that season’s FA Cup semi-finalists, Crewe Alexandra and Derby Junction, were also conspicuous by their absence. The Athletic News noted: ‘Some of the “twelve most prominent” Association clubs, who are to form the new league, have been knocked into smithereens by teams who, so far, have been left out in the cold.’
The Football League’s expansion was rapid. In 1892 the First Division was enlarged to 16 clubs and a new 12-club Second Division was established, taking many members from the rival Football Alliance. By 1898 the League consisted of two 18-club divisions, with its overall membership expanded to 40 in 1905. Its constituency was still largely based on the North-west and Midlands, but the incorporation of the Southern League to make the Third Division in 1920 and the creation of a northern section of the bottom tier (Third Division (North)) a year later brought its total membership up to 88. The Football League, 33 years after its creation, was now a genuinely national venture.
Everton established themselves among the nobility of this magnificent venture, winning the First Division twice before its enforced wartime hiatus and a further three times in the interwar years. They also won the Second Division Championship in 1930/31. As befitted its stature as one of the game’s leading clubs it was well represented in the Football League’s management structure. Robert Molyneux (1893–98), Dr James Baxter (1904–19) and Will Cuff (1925–36) were all members of the League’s management committee, the ruling council that was elected by the clubs to govern its affairs. From 1936–39 Cuff served as the Football League’s vice president and from 1939–49 its President.
THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE presented itself as the counterpoint of the FA, which remained dominated by the public school and university-educated amateurs that first founded the organisation. In reality it was equally conservative, requiring a three-quarters majority to make alterations to its constitution or rules, which frustrated even modest reforms.
In 1958 the regional elements of the Third Division were removed and the leagues merged to create nationally based Third and Fourth Divisions. In 1960 it started its own cup competition, the League Cup.
UNDER THE League Secretary (later Director General) Alan Hardaker (1957–80), the league took on an insular petty-xenophobic complexion, obstructing Chelsea from competing in the first European Cup and opening up the club versus country debate. It became increasingly belligerent on certain issues, such as the relationship with the pools companies and players’ remuneration, taking both parties on in the courts. From the pools its won a settlement for the use of its fixtures, but in 1961 it lost a bitterly fought battle to limit players’ wages.
THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE was slow to adapt to the television revolution that swept through the sport from the 1960s. Even in the early 1980s games were seldom shown live on television and the medium was viewed suspiciously. The league remained caught in the past, although the mutuality that existed in
the English game was a distinguishing factor. Gate receipts were shared until 1983 and an equality of competition existed. At the same time hooliganism, crumbling stadia and rapidly declining crowds plunged the game to breaking point in the 1980s. England’s best players started to move elsewhere.
Under the presidency of Everton chairman Sir Philip Carter, from 1986, the larger clubs started to rebel against this status quo. Seeing the potential from more lucrative television deals – without the need to divvy up money between football’s ‘have nots’ – there was an agitation from the elite clubs to create a ‘Super League’. Football League plans for power sharing were rejected by the FA, which in 1991 produced its own ‘Blueprint for the Future of Football’. This laid the basis for a breakaway with FA support and in 1992 the entire First Division resigned from the Football League and formed the FA Premier League.
In the teeth of this seismic change, the 72-member Football League not only survived, but flourished. Today the Championship (the former Second Division) is the fourth best-supported league in Europe. While the financial divisions between the Premier League and the Football League are widening, the older body has found renewed purpose adopting eminently sensible governance measures, such as a salary cap and controls on ownership, that have brought increased stability to the English game.
But for Everton, besides its annual participation in the League Cup, the league with which they were once so synonymous has now become a spectre, a nightmare to be endured only if they ever suffer the indignity of relegation.