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On this day in 1888: The letter that led to the formation of The Football League

2 March 2016

On 2nd March 1888, five football clubs received a letter from William McGregor.

That proved the catalyst for the formation of the global game’s original and most durable league competition, The Football League. And he became its first chairman and president.

In 1905 McGregor would recall that football was 'rapidly going to the bad' when he penned his momentous letter to Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End, West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa, where he was a director.

The letter's 'sole object' was to get rid of the uncertainty which shrouded football in the 1880s, when mismatches were commonplace and less well-run clubs routinely pulled out of fixtures at a late stage. With poor weather compounding the situation, Villa once endured five consecutive blank Saturdays.

Football had embraced professionalism in 1885, so the cancellations and their impact on revenue from paying spectators were damaging indeed. The set-up McGregor proposed, with each side playing the others at home and away, would provide a 'regular and fixed programme' that, in turn, would ensure they 'got the crowd regularly.'

According to Peter Morris’s book The History of Aston Villa (1960), the idea stemmed from McGregor’s conversations with a friend, Joe Tillotson, who warned him supporters were tired of watching one-sided friendlies.

“No one enjoyed the really rousing games of old more than I did,” remembered McGregor after the turn of the century. “But clubs were not then exempt from the preliminary rounds of local and national cup competitions, and it was not edifying to see a strong club beat a minor team by 26 goals to nil. You could not expect people to take interest in such fixtures, but the professionals’ wage bill was there, and it had to be met.”

As well as a devout Congregationalist, active member of the Liberal party, teetotaller and, in later years, a journalist, McGregor was also a visionary; a man with a plan, but also the flexibility and humility to allow others to shape its development.

For instance, having invited what he saw as the key participants in a possible new competition to meet on 23rd March at Anderton’s Hotel, in London’s Fleet Street, he modestly requested the clubs’ input and wondered which other teams they might care to nominate.

Among the “favourable replies”, Bolton suggested Wolverhampton Wanderers, Accrington and Burnley, confirming the West Midlands and East Lancashire as the hotbeds of the burgeoning professional game.

Notts County, Stoke, Derby County and Everton also became involved by the time fast-moving events led to the establishment of the 12-club Football League at a meeting in Manchester on 17th April.            

It was at that gathering, in the Royal Hotel, that Preston’s representative, Major William Sudell, suggested the name “The Football League”. McGregor had ventured the title “Association Football Union”, but there was no sulking from him when delegates deemed that too similar to the Rugby Union.

But it all stemmed from the letter sent by McGregor, who became known as the Father of the League, on this day in 1888.

Read: Click here to read McGregor's letter

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