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English Football League: A brief history of its beginnings and evolution

The English Football League kicked off with its first round of matches on September 8 1888. Conceived 6 months earlier in Anderton’s hotel, Fleet Street, London twelve teams from the midlands and north began their quest to be crowned the nation’s first champions.

Tottenham's Double-winning side of 1961
Tottenham’s Double-winning side of 1961

The English Football League kicked off with its first round of matches on September 8, 1888. Conceived 6 months earlier in Anderton’s hotel, Fleet Street, London twelve teams from the midlands and north began their quest to be crowned the nation’s first champions.

That first season Preston North End became the original “invincibles”, winning the competition without losing a game. In addition to the league title, they also added the FA Cup to their trophy cabinet that season as well, becoming the first side to record “the double” (It would be 73 years, during the 1960-61 season, before this feat would be repeated; by Bill Nicholson’s Tottenham Hotspur). Although Preston would retain the league championship the following season, the most successful 19th-century team were in fact Aston Villa, who by the turn of the century had helped themselves to 5 titles.

No single side would dominate the early part of the 20th century, with 10 different teams having being crowned champions by 1923. However, that all changed when, starting with the 1923-24 season, Huddersfield Town recorded 3 successive championship victories. The first two of these were masterminded by Herbert Chapman, who then moved to Arsenal and built a team that would emulate this success in the 1930s.

Sadly Herbert never witnessed how great his team would become; dying prematurely from pneumonia in January 1934, midway through Arsenal’s hat-trick of titles that would conclude with victory in the 1934-35 season. (Incidentally, Chapman had already guided Arsenal to the top in 1930-31).

After a 7-year hiatus due to World War II, the return of the competition coincided with Matt Busby taking the reins at Manchester United and building a team forever immortalised as the “Busby Babes”. However, in 1958 having won the league the two previous seasons, tragedy struck when eight team members, plus another 15 passengers and crew, were killed in the Munich air crash.

Barely surviving the disaster himself Busby eventually recovered and assembled another two-time championship winning team in the 1960s. Although, surprisingly, their 1966-67 success was to be United’s last with the league in its traditional format.

In 1970-71, Arsenal became the third “double” winning side although subsequently the 70s and 80s were to be dominated by Liverpool, who in the 15 seasons up to 1989-90, carried the trophy back to their Anfield home on ten occasions with teams guided by Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish. Dalglish’s first success, Liverpool’s own “double” winning season of 1985-86, being as player-manager. Although it should also be remembered that during this period Brian Clough, first with Derby County and then later with Nottingham Forest, became only the 2nd manager to win the league with two different clubs.

However, these decades were also the darkest times for English football. Hooliganism inside and outside the ground was rife, racism on the terraces was still prevalent and the three disasters at Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough meant that both attendances and sponsorship levels were dwindling.

It took the onset of all-seater stadia, and England’s thrilling, but ultimately heartbreaking, World Cup semi-final run in 1990 to re-ignite the public’s love for the game. The resurgence was swifter than anyone could have imagined as a nation, inspired by Gazza’s tears, regained its love for the game; so much so that by the time Leeds United became champions in 1991-92 big business were beginning to take an interest and the game in England was about to be overhauled.

Inspired by how fashionable the game was becoming, motivated by the marketing opportunities football now presented, and financed by Sky TV’s desire to sell its new satellite dishes, a fresh competition was to come into being that would turn the Football League into a second class citizen.

The Premier League was coming and it was to be “A Whole New Ball Game...”

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