The Birth of the Football League

A footballing letter of note

Football (as in, soccer) ahead. Please act accordingly. As always, complaints@lettersofnote.com is active and largely unmonitored.


As I type—and for what it’s worth, I type from Manchester, England—the footballing world is having a real moment. It has been confirmed that 12 “top” European clubs—AC Milan, Arsenal, Atlético Madrid, Chelsea, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester Utd, Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur—have hatched a plan to break away and form a European Super League from which relegation will be impossible and into which vast amounts of money will flow. This clearly isn’t the newsletter in which to discuss the ramifications of such a plan but early reports1 indicate that said plan has gone down like a lead balloon2. Fans are seething, pundits are monologuing, and strongly worded statements are being issued by footballing associations nobody knew existed.

From many angles it’s fascinating, and as a lapsed football fan with a letter habit, one of the first things I thought of when the news broke was a missive written on March 2nd, 1888, by William McGregor, then director of Aston Villa. Frustrated by the lack of any dependable fixture list between teams, McGregor was writing to a handful of English football clubs with the suggestion that they form a league. Six months later, on September 8th, with McGregor at the helm, the first season of the newly-formed Football League kicked-off, its 12 founder members being Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion, and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Four years later, a second division was added.

In 1992, 22 of the league’s top clubs hatched a plan to break away and form a “Premier League” from which relegation was possible and into which vast amounts of money would soon flow. Currently hosting 72 teams over three divisions, The English Football League (as it is now known) is the oldest football competition in the world.


Dear ________

Every year it is becoming more and more difficult for football clubs of any standing to meet their friendly engagements and even arrange friendly matches. The consequence is that at the last moment, through cup-tie interference, clubs are compelled to take on teams who will not attract the public.

I beg to tender the following suggestion as a means of getting over the difficulty: that ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home-and-away fixtures each season, the said fixtures to be arranged at a friendly conference about the same time as the International Conference.

This combination might be known as the Association Football Union, and could be managed by representative from each club. Of course, this is in no way to interfere with the National Association; even the suggested matches might be played under cup-tie rules. However, this is a detail.

My object in writing to you at present is merely to draw your attention to the subject, and to suggest a friendly conference to discuss the matter more fully. I would take it as a favour if you would kindly think the matter over, and make whatever suggestions you deem necessary.

I am only writing to the following—Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End, West Bromwich Albion, and Aston Villa—and would like to hear what other clubs you would suggest.

I am, yours very truly,

William McGregor

(Aston Villa F.C.)

P.S. How would Friday, 23rd March, 1888, suit for the friendly conference at Anderton’s Hotel, London?

1

I scrolled through Twitter.

2

I originally typed “old leather football” only to have an internal debate over whether those old leather footballs were actually heavier than modern footballs. They definitely hurt more, but that could simply be down to my being much smaller back when they regularly smashed into my cold face.