The Football League 1888-89 – Review

April 20, 2019 2 By Paul W

The very first season of the Football League concluded 130 years ago, on the 20th April, 1889. Managed by Major William Sudell, one of the leading advocates of professional football, Preston North End were the first League title winners, going through the 1888-89 season unbeaten. The ‘Invincibles’ also won the 1889 FA Cup to complete the first ‘double’, and retained their League title the following season. 

Preston North End 1888-89

However there was no silverware for the Champions – the League Championship trophy was not awarded until 1891. Manufactured by Vaughtons of Birmingham (based close to William McGregor’s own business premises), it was lifted for the first time by Everton. Preston centre-forward John Goodall was the competition’s top scorer in 1888-89, with 20 goals in 21 matches.

Goodall later wrote a book, Association Football, which according to author Mark Metcalf, “provides a fascinating and unique insight into the game at the time.” Goodall believed the Preston team of 1888-89 were “superior as a result of the perfect placing of players and a willingness to work as a team, allied to ‘pluck’ in never knowing when they were beaten.” His brother Archie, a former teammate at Preston, was one of the first players to be transferred in league football when he moved to Aston Villa during the season in October 1888. The Goodall brothers were re-united at Derby County in the following season, 1889-90. The two were both internationals; John for England, and Archie for Ireland.

Having been the site of the League’s first goal, Bolton’s Pikes Lane ground also saw the first hat-trick, on 15 September, when William Tait scored three for visitors Burnley. Tait’s triumph was tarnished in the aftermath of the game, when he and team-mates Jack Abrahams and William Bury were suspended for a week by their club after reports of ‘certain excesses’ – namely ‘imbibing intoxicants too freely’ – possibly the League’s first disciplinary issue.

The first season also saw “a number of disputes” over contentious decisions, which would not be resolved until goal nets and penalty kicks were introduced in 1891. A famous name in football history made a single cameo appearance in the first season. Known as the world’s first professional footballer, the Scottish maestro Fergus Suter made his only League appearance on 22 December 1888 for Blackburn at West Brom – as a goalkeeper!

An impressive total of 586 goals were scored in the first League season, averaging out at 4.44 goals per game. Only two fixtures ended goalless, the first being Accrington-Preston on 20 October 1888, followed by Stoke-Everton in December. The unbeaten Champions Preston were also the League’s top scorers with 74, followed by Blackburn (66), Bolton (63) and runners-up Aston Villa (61). Stoke were the lowest scorers, managing only 26 in their 22 games.

Football League Table 1888-89
Football League Table 1888-89 (from R.C. Churchill’s League Football) – note that Churchill has added ‘Stanley’ to Accrington, which was a later, separate club. He has also listed Stoke as ‘City’, while Stoke-on-Trent didn’t become a city until 1925.

Notts County and Stoke were level on 12 points each at the bottom of the table, separated by goal average, in which goals scored were divided by those conceded. There was no relegation; instead, the clubs took a vote on re-election to the League, which resulted in the same 12 teams competing the following season. Birmingham club St. George’s were closest to gaining entry, with five votes to Notts County’s seven. The first change in the League’s composition occurred at the end of the 1889-90 season, when Sunderland were elected in place of Stoke, who had once again finished at the bottom of the table. A Second Division was not added until 1892, but automatic promotion and relegation did not follow; until 1897 a series of ‘test matches’ took place at the end of the season between the bottom clubs of the First Division and the top of the Second.  

Attendances reflected the formative status of the League, which took several years to become fully established. With an average across the League of 4,560 in 1888-89 (Everton recorded the highest average crowds at Anfield, approximately 7,000), Metcalf notes the first signs that professional football “was moving towards replacing cricket as the nation’s number one sport.” Furthermore, “some of these were away fans, rail companies having quickly realised they could make a profit by providing transport to matches. This not only boosted attendance figures, but helped increase the atmosphere at games and made the English Football League a crucial part of English society and unique in the world of football.” By 1900, the average First Division attendance had doubled to 9,000, and a decade later to 16,000.

Football League Results 1888-89
Football League Results 1888-89

While the League established itself in its first season, its best players dominated the England team for the 1889 home internationals with nine of the twelve clubs represented – Goodall, West Brom’s Billy Bassett, Wolves’ Joe Brodie and Blackburn’s John Southworth among them. However at this stage there was still a sprinkling of amateur players from Old Carthusians, Old Westminsters and Oxford University selected for the national team, reflecting the historic split with the FA over professionalism. One of few amateurs in the League itself was Preston’s Fred Dewhurst (also an England international), who scored North End’s first League goal and also opened the scoring in the 3-0 FA Cup Final win over Wolves.

Innovations for that first season included a ‘pooling’ proposal for gate money, which resulted in the regulation that “Each club shall take its own gate receipts, but shall pay its opponents a sum of £12 [reduced from an initial proposal of £15]”. The principle of a percentage of gate money going to the away club remained in place for the best part of a century, until it was abolished in the 1980s. The practice of awarding two points for a win (and one for a draw) was established during the season, on 21 November 1888, with a motion led by West Bromwich Albion to only give points for victories defeated by six votes to four.

This post is heavily indebted to Mark Metcalf’s book The Origins of the Football League: The First Season 1888/89. There is also a graphic novel celebrating Preston’s achievements – Michael Barrett’s The Rise of the Invincibles, illustrated by David Sque.