Was it all our fault?

Colin Brown on the topic of the week. 

I was not at all surprised when the ill-fated European Super League launched itself. After all, it had been coming for some years. What upset me – and, I suspect, many of you – was the involvement of six clubs from our own league, all of whom were long-standing rivals of a hundred years or more, sometimes better than us and sometimes not, but whose owners evidently have a shared level of contempt for our league, for its members and for those of us who spend our honest pennies to support it. I doubt we will forget that in a hurry.

Had the idea progressed, the inevitable outcome would have been six teams disrespecting their fixtures against the rest of us by putting out their reserves and kids, saving their class acts for the real deal matches against their new mates. With Manchester City, I grant we may not have noticed the difference, but trying selling Arsenal and Spurs to me on that basis.

Then I started to think a bit. Given recent events, it is ironic that our statement statue is of the man who gave the world the blueprint for a closed competition featuring, at least initially, only hand-picked clubs and the best players that money could buy. In the new spirit of the time I hope no-one is thinking of getting a mob together to pull the old fellow down.

It would be less than fair to appear to paint our man in the colours of the ESL club chairmen ; different times, different needs, but it is certainly worth discussing some of the parallels.  To set the scene, take a few lines from William McGregor’s ‘I beg to tender’ letter of March 1888: “Every year it is becoming more and more difficult for football clubs of any standing to meet their friendly engagements and even arrange friendly matches. The consequence is that … clubs are compelled to take on teams who will not attract the public. I beg to tender the following suggestion as a means of getting over the difficulty…” No problem so far, but the next bit was probably a little incendiary: “….that ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home-and-away fixtures each season.”

McGregor was open in his justification for this. The costs of running clubs had increased with land leases, ground development, travel and, by now, player’s wages. It had become common for opponents in friendly matches to cry off at short notice and the inability to budget with any certainty was a major problem. Additionally, it had escaped no-one’s notice that the public was turning out more enthusiastically to cheer on their favourites when something offering a tangible reward, such as a knock-out cup competition, was involved.

Our man estimated that an organised league of 22 guaranteed competitive fixtures against top opposition was worth around £5,000 a year (or just over £4 million in modern money) to each competing club. McGregor knew that if you had a good product you could sell it and generate money for profit and investment. And you know how things go from there. And with away sides guaranteed an agreed share of the gate, there was likely to be plenty of punters’ money spread across the lucky twelve.

Naturally, he would have also wanted a structure that might allow his own club to demonstrate their position at or near the top of the tree and at least up until 1920 he got his sums absolutely right as Villa’s ever-full trophy cabinet and even fuller bank balance went hand in hand.

For many, the most important aspect of the McGregor Plan was that by making it mandatory for all member clubs to put out their strongest side in every match the fans would get their money’s worth.  All long gone in this age of squads but a reminder that once upon a not so distant time we left home of a Saturday afternoon able to confidently name not only our likely team but, barring injuries, the one our opponents would put out.

There would have been plenty who applauded the venture for at last providing certainty, coherence, and the promise of regular value for money entertainment but imagine the barbs of criticism aimed at, for example, Accrington Stanley for daring to join such a cartel of get-rich-quick clubs. “Who do they think they are?” would have been heard all round the country. Not for the last time, of course.
McGregor’s letter was formally sent only to four other clubs -B lackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End and West Bromwich Albion. So, including Villa, we had what the media would now call a ‘Big Five’. A self-appointed Big Five at that. They did, however, pick up seven other clubs, also attracted, no doubt, by the initial proposal that there was to be no relegation. Well, no direct relegation but the team to finish bottom would face the jeopardy of a re-election procedure which resulted in 1890 in Stoke given the boot, Sunderland being the beneficiaries. Incidentally, when a new-fangled second division inevitably came along the following season a mob called Small Heath came top.

The ESL proposed something slightly more extreme by guaranteeing the founder clubs a free pass in perpetuity, regardless of performance, making it quite possible for, say, Arsenal to be relegated from the Premiership and come bottom of the ESL but retain their position in the latter. Yes, that would go down very well. The 1888 Big Five could confidently avoid claiming forever membership as it was obvious that none of them would ever finish bottom of the pile. Or at least they thought. The other seven, however, would have to be careful not to lose friends and I guess that they did not skimp on the visiting director’s high teas and the free bar when they were having a poor season.

For clubs outside the chosen twelve the penny quickly dropped that any team without a regular competitive list was going to struggle. Hence the rapid growth of the confusing patchwork of around 500 local leagues which sprung up around the country in imitation of Mr McGregor’s model though with wildly varying levels of wealth. The lubricants that oiled the mechanism of this structure, which now forms the pathway pyramid to the top, were, of course, the twin principles of promotion and relegation. Who is to say that the ESL twelve had not already planned a second division and identified who may have been interested in joining it? Discuss-but I think we can overlook Small Heath this time.

All of which brings us to the convoluted and divisive issue of professionalism. Although into the 1880s the game was mainly amateur it was an open secret that some of the more ambitious clubs in the industrial towns were offering boot money and had begun to entice players from other areas of the country. Mr Sudell at Preston, for example, was already virtually turning out a team of Scotsmen allegedly thinly disguised as expensively paid wandering decorators doing up his house. In 1885 McGregor, who came clean that Villa had been paying players for some time, was able, with the help of like-minded club chairmen, to persuade the Football Association to accept the reality of the situation and allow professionalism and amateurism to exist side by side. Of course, I paraphrase a complex situation.

In so doing McGregor and his friends had, albeit unknowingly, offered the game an arguably greater service than starting up a league. They had almost certainly steered English football away from the sort of damaging civil war which erupted in the rugby game a decade later causing the 100 – year split between an amateur ‘union’ and a professional ‘league’.

All of this paved the way for The Great Man’s new league to agree to recognise professionalism as an essential prerequisite of membership. It was well worth it as people would pay good money to watch the best. Clubs who were not prepared or able to pay their players were quite welcome to continue to play amateur friendlies and might one day, if they were lucky, get a chance to have a pop at one of the big boys in a cup competition. The result was a top-down growth of professionalism, both full and semi alongside the survival of a vibrant amateur game. Something for everyone, as McGregor was to strongly maintain in later years.

You can begin to imagine, however, the initial alarm and resentment that McGregor’s proposals must have spread amongst the former elite old boy, college and regimental sides. Not to mention the fear of being shut out suffered by the likes of small-town outfits such as Wednesbury Old Athletic who had once rubbed shoulders with us and the Baggies. The new league would not have been welcomed unanimously but over the years a great many clubs way down the pecking order have aspired to rise, and every year some do just that. Forest Green Rovers, anyone? And look at the fall and rise of the aforesaid, once elite, Accrington Stanley.

Many of us were quick to voice the hope that the ESL’s familiarity of repetitive fixtures might quickly breed indifference. “You wait,” they may have said in 1888. “People are not going to turn up to watch Aston Villa playing West Bromwich twice a season yet again.” But nowadays we tend accept that such familiarities have given the modern game a unique richness and, far from turning people off, regular derby matches here and around the country continue to attract the crowds. As do matches against old adversaries, although the repetition of Villa v Everton no longer stirs my blood. Unless we win.

Maybe the established rivalries within the ESL Twelve and generated by four sets of three long-established rival clubs from Italy, Spain, London and the English north-west was a canny move and could have worked, who knows? The template was certainly set all those years ago with the sub-plots of Villa, Albion and Wolves competing for local bragging rights down here and the Lancashire clubs doing the same up there, not to mention Derby vs Notts County which must have excited someone. More is the pity, of course, that the west midlands’ position in the global game has been superseded in the public consciousness by the local rivalries of teams from Madrid and Milan. Perhaps that is what really upsets me?

One aspect of McGregor’s plan, doomed to early failure, was a largely forgotten idea which bore an uncanny resemblance to the American franchise model; only one team per town was to be permitted to join the league. The plan was unsustainable and came an early cropper in the old fellow’s own back yard by the inconvenient fact that Villa played at Wellington Road in Perry Barr. In those days Perry Barr, as well as neighbouring Handsworth, were part of Staffordshire and for local government purposes came under the jurisdiction of West Bromwich. Thus, two of the original elite were competing for fans in the same smallish area. In case anyone is wondering, Villa did not play in Birmingham until the present ground, as part of Aston, was incorporated into the city in 1911.

As all league competitions in any sport are built broadly on the foundations laid by McGregor’s prototype I suppose he takes credit and blame according to your prejudices but there remains one huge difference between him and the collection of chancers who plotted the ESL. Put simply, McGregor’s plan for a structured, competitive professional framework was designed to save the game and ensure its development as a sport for the masses, especially the working masses. In so doing he not only saved the Victorian game but created the modern one and we should be beholding to him. As our man later said, “I really believe the game would have received a very severe check, and its popularity would have been paralysed once and for all, had the League not been founded.”

I have not checked with a lawyer, but it seems to me that by contrast the ESL model was rampant greed masquerading as sport with the object of defrauding the masses. They have not, however, gone away.

Colin Brown