English Football History

Here’s the history lesson. I’ll be brief, but if you want just the key facts, click here for the English Football History timeline

Although crude forms of the game had been played in England since the 12th century, the history of English football could be said to trace back to the legalisation of professional football in 1885.

However, up until the formation of the Football League in 1888, the lack of organisation left the game in chaos. Teams sought out the most lucrative games, and often called off matches at a moments notice if a better offer came along.

Into the breach stepped William McGregor, a Scotsman, who later became a director of Aston Villa. McGregor wrote to the leading clubs suggesting the formation of a league with games played on a home and away basis each season.

The formation of the league was announced at a meeting at Anderton’s Hotel, Fleet Street, on 22 March 1888. The inaugural season kicked off on 8 September 1888.

The original 12 members were Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke, Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion.

Preston North End went into history as the first Champions,winning the League without losing a game – the original “Invincibles”. They also won the FA Cup, without conceding a goal – the first “Double”.

Preston repeated their triumph the following season but the rest of the century was dominated by Aston Villa and Sunderland, who between them won eight titles between 1892 and 1899. (Sunderland had replaced Stoke, after the latter defected to the rival Football Alliance).

Promotion and relegation were introduced as the League expanded to two divisions of 18 teams each in 1891. Other rules were also brought in, such as the introduction of goal nets and penalty kicks.

In the early part of the century, Liverpool, Manchester United and Newcastle United dominated, while southern sides like Woolwich Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea were elected to the previously northern dominated leagues.

League competition was suspended for four years during the First World War, and when it resumed there were major changes. Immediately after the war, the First and Second Divisions were expanded to 22 teams. Four years later Third Divisions (North and South) were introduced.

In the 1920’s Herbert Chapman, one of the greatest managers in league history, emerged. After leading Huddersfield to two league titles in 1924 and 1925, Chapman moved to Arsenal, then a struggling and often relegation threatened side.

At Arsenal he won back-to-back titles in 1933 and 1934 and built an Arsenal side that were to dominate the 1930’s, winning five titles. (Chapman died of pneumonia in 1934).

Arsenal’s league triumphs brought and end to northern dominance of the game after northern clubs had claimed the first 38 league titles.

In 1939 the league was again suspended due to war and returned on Saturday 31 August 1946. The first two post war titles were won by Liverpool and Arsenal, before Portsmouth emerged as unlikely champions. They won back-to back titles in 1949 and 1950.

In the five years immediately after the war Manchester United had finished as runners-up four times. Matt Busby’s young side, known affectionately as the “Busby Babes”, went on to claim three titles during the 50’s.

Tragically, eight of that team were killed when the plane bringing them back from a European tie, crashed on take-off at Munich on 6 February 1958.

Wolverhampton Wanderers, also won three titles during the fifties, even if their style of football, under manager Stan Cullis, was criticised as “kick-and-rush”.

Between those two periods of dominance, Chelsea won the title fot the first time in their history in 1955.

The 50’s were also a decade which produced many legends of the English game like Stanley Matthews at Blackpool, Billy Wright at Wolves, and Bolton’s Nat Lofthouse.

On 22 February 1956, Poertsmouth made history when they entertained Newcastle United in the first floodlit game.

1961, saw Bill Nicholson’s great Tottenham Hotspur team win the first League and FA Cup “Double” since Aston Villa in 1897.

They were succeeded as champions by unfancied Ipswich Town in 1962, but the rest of the 60’s were dominated by three teams, each built in the unique style of their respective managers, Matt Busby’s rebuilt Manchester United, Liverpool under Bill Shankly and Don Revie’s Leeds United, emerging from Second Division obscurity to win their first title in 1969.

Substitutes were allowed for the first time in 1965 – initially only for injuries, but changed the following year to allow for tactical substitutions.

The 60’s also introduced the world to some of the game’s all time greats, as George Best, Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law, Jimmy Greaves, Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles became household names.

In 1971 Arsenal repeated Tottenham’s achievement of a decade earlier by winning the “Double”.

The rest of the decade was dominated by two legendary managers – Brian Clough who won the League with Derby County and Nottingham Forest (as well as two European Cups with Forest), and Bob Paisley, whose Liverpool side won four league titles (one under Bill Shankly) and the European Cup in the 70’s.

In 1973/74, the promotion / relegation rule was changed, with two-up-two down being increased to three-up-three-down.

Aston Villa won the title in 1980, but it was Liverpool who continued to dominate, winning six of the next nine, including three in a row in 1982, 1983 and 1984. To complete the Merseyside domination of the 80’s Everton were champions in 85 and 87.

Liverpool also won the European Cup in 1981 and 84, as English clubs dominated Europe.

However, the 1985 final at the Heysel Stadium, was to have major repercussions for the English game, when 39 fans were killed as a result of fighting between Liverpool and AC Milan fans.

English clubs, who had won seven of the last nine finals, were banned from Europe.

English football was at its lowest ebb – attendances were falling, more and more clubs were getting into financial trouble, and without European football, many of the best players were moving abroad. Football hooliganism had become a national disgrace.

In 1981, the Football League introduced 3 points for a win to encourage more attacking football.

Other key developments during the decade saw the introduction of synthetic pitches at some clubs, the introduction of end-of-season promotion play-offs, and automatic promotion / relegation between the Fourth Division and the Conference.

Safety and the design of football stadia came under the spotlight after Heysel and the Bradford Valley Parade fire, which claimed 59 lives. There were the first rumblings of a break away league by the leading clubs.

On the pitch Arsenal and Liverpool traded four titles between them in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

Arsenal’s 1989 title win was one of the most thrilling in history. Needing to win by two goals at Anfield in the final game of the season, they claimed the title with a last minute strike by Michael Thomas.

On the terraces there was another disaster as 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Hillsborough during the FA Cup semi final against Nottingham Forest.

Leeds United won the title in 1992, as the old First Division was consigned to history.

On 14 June 1991, the rumblings of discontent, which had started years earlier, saw 16 First Division clubs sign a document stating their intent to join the break away Premier League.

The first Premier League season kicked off in 1992.