By Mike Collett
LONDON, July 30 (Reuters) – They have been playing against each other, on and off, since September 1888 and next weekend Preston North End, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Derby County, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley and Notts County are marking a very special milestone.
They will be kicking off the 125th anniversary season of the English Football League, the oldest in the world, and the model on which virtually every other domestic league competition has been based on ever since.
Although the FA Cup, which began in 1871, had spread the soccer gospel around the British Isles and professionalism had been legalised in 1885, Aston Villa chairman William McGregor thought regular competitive fixtures would be a far better way for the top clubs to make money and sustain themselves rather than rely on irregular cup games and friendlies.
So on March 2, 1888 he wrote to 12 of them suggesting a league format and on Sept. 8, 1888 the Football League began with clubs from the north and midlands.
It was clearly a successful idea with a second division added just four years later. The third division was formed in 1920-21, which was then regionalised the following season into North and South.
Eleven of the 12 founder members are still in existence: Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, who won the first title, Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The 12th, the original Accrington club, lasted from 1876 until 1896 but the town is still represented in the League today by Accrington Stanley in the fourth tier (League Two).
Villa, Everton, Stoke and West Brom will not be taking part in this weekend’s celebrations as they are in the Premier League.
Football League chairman Greg Clarke, speaking when the fixtures were announced last month, was proud of the League’s achievement in reaching a special landmark.
“For 125 years, Football League clubs have delivered the greatest show in town, week after week,” Clarke said.
“Our clubs and their supporters are the heartbeat of the domestic game, giving English league football a breadth and popularity that is unrivalled anywhere in the world.
“We look forward to celebrating 125 years of incredible matches, unforgettable moments and gloves-off footballing rivalry.”
The Football League, however, is no longer home to the country’s top 92 clubs but now boasts 72 members following the formation of the Premier League in 1992, and which, over the last two decades, has grown away from the Football League in terms of income, salaries and facilities.
And whereas once there was just the plain and simple First, Second, Third and Fourth Divisions, the League has had something of an identity crisis since then, battling to re-brand itself over the years with the names of the divisions evolving into the current Championship, League One and League Two titles.
Despite the challenges of the last 20 years however, and the never-ending financial battles many of its clubs face, the League remains a vital and vibrant part of the English soccer scene.
Ranked by attendances, the Championship, which is now England’s second tier, is the fifth biggest division in Europe after the Bundesliga, the Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Italy’s Serie A.
Another key to the sustainability of England’s clubs — which applies to both the Premier League and the Football League — is a statistic from the book “Why England Lose and Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, published in 2010.
They write: “In 1923 the Football League consisted of 88 teams spread over four divisions.
“In the 2007-08 season (which holds good for today too) 85 of these clubs still existed.
“So almost every professional club in England survived the Great Depression, the Second World War, recessions, corrupt chairman and appalling managers. It is a history of remarkable stability.”
That will be reflected this weekend.
Burnley play Bolton at Turf Moor, one of three grounds that hosted matches in September 1888 which is still being used today, the others being Preston’s Deepdale and Anfield, which was home to Everton in 1888 before becoming Liverpool’s home in 1892.
The other Championship fixture sees Derby play Blackburn while Preston meet Wolves in League One. The other designated “anniversary games” are Sheffield United v Notts County in League One, and Newport County v Accrington and Rochdale v Hartlepool in League Two.
Although neither club were among the original 12, they will be meeting for the 137th time, a record among current League members.
In all, 114 seasons of league football have been completed with 11 lost to the two World Wars and one intriguing fact is that of the 11 original surviving founders seven have spent the majority of their time in the top flight.
Everton lead the way with 110 completed top flight seasons, followed by Aston Villa (97), West Brom (75), Blackburn and Bolton (71 each), Wolves (63) and Derby (61).
Of the remaining four Stoke, who along with Everton, Aston Villa, and West Brom are currently in the Premier League, have spent 55 seasons in the top flight, followed by Burnley (51), Preston (45) and Notts County (30).
(Editing by Peter Rutherford; )