Deciding the first Football League Championship

When the Football League was established in the early months of 1888, it was a genuinely innovative concept in British sport. While professional baseball had been organised into league competitions for some time there was nothing similar for team sports on this side of the Atlantic.

Cricket, the most popular summer sport, had evolved a league structure. but this was relatively informal. Although the elite counties had organised a fixture list from 1873, there was no formal County Championship with a set of rules and regulations; this did not arrive until 1890. As Derek Birley (A Social History of Cricket, 1999, p.145) wrote¬†“It was certainly not a league, such as the professional soccer clubs had set up in 1888, since the counties were still free to pick their own opponent.”

It is tempting to think that football might have copied what was happening in American baseball, particularly bearing in mind the similarities between the two, the only two mainly professional team sports that organised on league lines throughout the world. However, beyond the use of the title ‘league’ this seems unlikely. To contemporaries, ‘League’ held political connotations (the Irish Land League providing the most prominent example) but it was commonly used in baseball. The title was decided upon at the first-ever meeting of members in April 1888, the suggestion coming from Preston’s William Suddell, and was chosen over William McGregor’s favoured term ‘Union’. (Simon Inglis, League Football and the Men Who Made it, 1988, p.9)

The fact that one of the more important decisions, how the champion club should be calculated, was left rather vague when the League was born perhaps underlines the fact that the new competition was not as much about deciding the best club, but about securing the best fixtures (and therefore highest potential income) for the chosen few. The press were not admitted to that inaugural meeting held at the Royal Hotel, Manchester, on 17 April 1888, but it seems they were briefed afterwards as to the decisions made. On the vital question of deciding the champion club, the Lancashire Evening Post (18 April 1688) reported:

The results, it was resolved, shall be taken from the number of wins, draws and losses, and not from the number of goals obtained. In the event of a draw, that is of two clubs having made the same number of wins, the result will be calculated, for the champion club of England, on the averages.

Other newspapers may have taken the information and embellished it somewhat ; the Blackburn Standard, for example, reported on 21 April 1888: “The results will be taken from the wins, draws and losses, and not from the number of goals scored; in other words the averages will be calculated on the county cricket system.”

Cricket’s County Championship was not the best example to cite if clarity was required. There was no formal method for deciding the champion county, and this was left to individual newspapers to decide. These ranged from the simple (wins minus losses) to the more complex, such as that adopted by the London Evening Standard whose table showed each club’s score as a fraction calculated from the proportion of wins compared to the number of matches played. Order was not always decided on simple mathematics and in some instances the newspaper staff chose their own order, presumably a win against a strong team counted as greater value than a similar result against a weak team. The upshot of this, probably to the liking of the cricket fraternity who did not favour organised competition, was that in any year there might be more than one ‘champion county’ declared.

A similar sort of confusion reigned when the Football League got down to business in September 1888. On one occasion the Accrington Observer printed three different league tables in the same edition, including one purely in alphabetical order. (Thomas Taw, Footballs Twelve Apostles, 2009, p.175).

The Preston-based Lancashire Evening Post, acting on inside information from “a prominent member of the committee” (most probably North End’s William Sudell) produced a table based on the following ruling: “the order of the clubs should be based on a majority of wins; in case of a tie on the greatest number of draws, and in case of a further tie, on the smallest number of losses.” (17 November 1888).

The Sheffield Independent table for 9 October 1888 shows the teams arranged in order of the least number of losses; where the teams are level the team with the highest number of wins takes the highest position.

The League was a great success from the very first round of matches and by early November letters began to appear in the sporting press discussing how the table should be calculated. The lack of fine detail on this (and other points) adds further evidence that the new competition was more about ensuring that a small group of clubs met on a regular and defied basis, to enhance match revenues, rather than deciding the champion club of England. This, of course, was what the FA Cup decided. To emphasise the fact it was not until the League’s second annual general meeting, in May 1890, that it was resolved to purchase a trophy for the winners.

The subject was discussed at a meeting of clubs held at the Grand Hotel Birmingham on Wednesday 21 November 1888. 11 of the 12 clubs were present, the exception being Accrington.

The committee of the Football League on Wednesday evening decided, for the present season, at any rate. the vexed question of how the Championship question should be arrived at. Though the matter has been decided, it has not been set at rest, for on all hands numbers of those who have a fad for figures and calculations are busy pulling holes in the system. Some go in for one thing and some for another; but we venture to think that the method decided upon by the League is about as simple and as efficacious as it is possible to get one. It is similar to the system to counting games in chess, excepted that points are substituted for games. The advantage of the League system is that it does away with the half-games, a term about as inapplicable to football as it was possible to devise.
Lancashire Evening Post, 24 November 1888

In fact the committee was split, with the new system of two points for a win and one for a draw being accepted by a majority of 6 votes to 4 (presumably with one abstention). The minority faction had wanted the table to be decided purely on the number of wins. (Inglis, League Football and the Men Who Made lt, p.14)

The decision was only temporary and a sub-committee was established to formulate a more comprehensive set of rules, eventually resulting in a decision to keep the new system on a more permanent basis with the adoption of Rule 10: “Averages for the Championship shall be taken from wins and draws (not from the number of goals scored) to be counted as follows: two points for a win and one for a draw. In the event of two or more clubs being equal in points, the best goal average to count.” This method became the popularly accepted method of deciding league championships as the new structure expanded throughout the football world from the 1889-90 season. The press, however, did not always initially accept it and amongst others, the influential Athletic News continued its original system of calculating the table at least up until the end of 1888.

Further reading: Simon Inglis, League Football and the Men Who Made It (London, 1988); Thomas Taw, Football’s Twelve Apostles, The Making of the League 1886-1889 (Southend-on-Sea, 2006).

This article was originally published in Soccer History issue 36. The magazine, back issues and the current one, can be purchased from


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