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On this day in 1888...

17 April 2020

Some 132 years ago, on 17 April 1888, the formation of the world’s original league football competition came to pass.

Five football Clubs had earlier received a letter from William McGregor, which proved the catalyst for the inception of the global game’s original and most durable league competition, The Football League, and McGregor became its first chairman and president.

In 1905, he 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 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.

Having sent the letter on 2 March, on 23 March he invited what he saw as the key participants in a new possible competition to meet 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 17 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.

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