Updated: Apr 27, 2021
Today in Andertons Hotel in Fleet Street, London, a meeting was held which led to the formation of the football league. Organised by a Scottish businessmen and director of Aston Villa, William McGregor. A committed Christian and teetotaller, McGregor had transformed the club to compete in the age of an emerging professionalism in sport. He now wanted to ensure regular fixtures and reliable crowds to start paying the wages. This is his story, the story of Aston Villa and the Football League which is now has an annual revenue of over 800 million pounds.
McGregor, a Scot from Perthshire, had followed his brother to Birmingham in England where he established a draper’s business in the Aston area of the city. Originally, he had followed a local club, Calthorpe, and McGregor would close his shop early for home matches, and sold football kit. He was a committed Christian who was widely respected in the local community for his honesty and integrity, described as "a man of absolutely unblemished personal character". Because of a new neighbouring clubs’ connection to a Wesleyan Chapel, McGregor was soon invited to become a committee member and umpired matches for the club. We usually associate the world umpire with cricket but in the 1870’s in association football, each team would bring their own partisan umpire, allowing the team captains to concentrate on the game. Later, the referee, a third "neutral" official was added; this referee would be "referred to" if the umpires could not resolve a dispute.
Aston Villa Football Club had been formed fourteen years earlier by members of the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel, when four boys from the Young Men’s Bible Class formed a cricket team for the summer months and then a couple of years later a football team to keep them fit in the winter. Their first match, was against Aston Brook St Mary's Rugby team. As a condition of the match, the Villa side had to agree to play the first half under Rugby rules and the second half under Association rules. Different Shaped Balls were even used for each half but in the end, Villa won 1-0! Association football, which became known as soccer by shortening the word "association", is based on the efforts to standardise the widely varying forms of football played in the public schools of England. With common rules first drawn up at Trinity College, Cambridge, at a meeting attended by representatives from Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester and Shrewsbury schools. Rugby football was codified at Rugby School, and involved handling of the ball, and scrummaging formations, and has now evolve into a completely different professional sport. After Villa played their first game with the two codes, but they soon established themselves as one of the best association football teams in England.
At the time the club played at Aston Park, close to the premises of McGregor's business. He assumed the post of club administrator to survive its financial troubles. After some of Aston Villa's possessions were seized by bailiffs, McGregor allowed the club to use his shop as a store to prevent further seizures, and after Aston Villa won their first trophy, the Birmingham Senior Cup, McGregor became the club's president. Because of McGregor’s reputation as an honest and hardworking, professional businessman, he was able to encourage sobriety in the club - as the club’s committee where concerned about the players drinking habits. McGregor, a lifelong teetotaller, linked to the Wesleyan sobriety movement, demanded that Villa players who liked a beer should join him at a coffee house in Aston High Street every Monday for gatherings and music events. This focus on health and discipline was a foreshadowing of Arsene Wengers successful attempts to change the drinking culture at Arsenal 100 years later. The deeper McGregor was involved with the game, the greater was his desire to see a structure established – especially as professionalism was beginning to embrace sport. At that time clubs only faced each other in cups and friendlies, but as the game was rapidly growing in popularity, Mr McGregor decided a new system for serious clubs who were beginning to pay professional wages was needed. He disliked the word league and preferred to label his new idea for a regular competition as an Association Football Union.
A letter was initially sent to Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End and neighbouring West Bromwich Albion. It said: “I beg to tender the following suggestion as a means of getting over the difficulty: that ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home-and-away fixtures each season.” The recipients met today, on the eve of the FA Cup final, at the Anderton Hotel on Fleet Street in London to discuss the idea. A further meeting in April at the Royal Hotel in Manchester agreed upon a name for the competition – The Football League. More about William McGregor and the founding of the league can be found in Peter Lupson's excellent book Thank God for Football.