The Football League 1888-89 – Review
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. They also won the 1889 FA Cup, and retained their League title the following season. Their centre-forward John Goodall was the competition’s top scorer, 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, played for Aston Villa in the first league season, before the Goodall brothers were re-united at Derby County in 1889. 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.
Notts County and Stoke City 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. 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.
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 – The Rise of the Invincibles.