Matthew Taylor & John Coyle

De Montfort University, Leicester, England

The growth of the Football League during its first 35 years was a most impressive and remarkable phenomenon. Founded in 1888 with twelve members, all based in the north-west and Midlands, by 1923 the League possessed eighty-eight clubs, a level of membership it retained up to 1939. It had grown from a single division in 1888 to comprise three divisions (the Third having Northern and Southern Sections) by 1921. Geographically, too, the League had expanded, to a point at which it could truly be called a national League, with members in places as diverse as Newcastle and Plymouth, Cardiff and Gillingham, Hartlepool and Exeter.

However, the development of the Football League was not simply a matter of expansion. As sports economists have demonstrated, changes in the composition of an agreed number of clubs can act as a means of controlling League quality and maintaining financial viability. In contrast to some sports in the USA, the League had no formal equivalent of the system that allows league executives to move club franchises to areas with greater crowd potential.1 Rather, changes in the composition of the League could be effected through the system of election, where member clubs with weak playing records could be replaced by aspirants from outside the League. Between 1888 and 1939, 26 clubs were not re-elected, and although some of these subsequently gained re-admission, others had to make do with a future outside the leading football competition in England and Wales. This paper will assess how the system of election evolved between 1888 and 1939. Additionally, it will focus on the consequences of the election system, both for the League as a body and for individual clubs seeking to retain or gain a League place.

The Election System

The principle of elections was enshrined in the first rules of the Football League, agreed a few months after the competition's launch. They provided for the bottom four clubs in the competition `to retire but be eligible for re-election.'2 Those voting in the election ballot would be the individual member clubs who formed the League. The League had therefore established two important principles: firstly, that the composition of its membership was open to change; secondly that the clubs themselves would determine the membership. A third principle, less important perhaps but nonetheless significant, was established at the League's first Annual General Meeting (AGM) in July 1889. It was agreed that the four retiring clubs would each have a vote in the election ballot, a move which subsequently provoked allegations of a "closed shop." 3

Given that the clubs had the power to alter the composition of the League, it is worth considering the motives on which their decisions were based. Stephen Tischler has argued that population size and the ability to draw crowds were the exclusive factors determining which clubs were chosen. In other words, economic criteria alone influenced the voting clubs.4 On the other hand, Tony Arnold has suggested that a broad range of influences, including `reference to geographical and traditional factors as well as the economic or playing attributes of the various applicants' came to bear upon the clubs at election time.5 While an analysis of individual cases would make it difficult to support Tischler's view, it would nevertheless appear that economic factors weighed most heavily with the clubs when deciding on who should be members of the Football League.

The original number of clubs required to re-apply, four, was reduced to three in 1898, then to two ten years later. After the creation of Division Three's regionalised sections in 1921, the bottom two clubs in each section were forced to apply for re-election to their section, and this continued up to, and after, 1939. Applications for membership had to be sent in writing to the League Secretary well in advance of the AGM (after 1915 by 10 May each year), and until 1924 a representative of each applicant club was allowed to address voting members for up to three minutes. If two applicants received the same number of votes the unsuccessful applicants withdrew and a second ballot was taken, each member voting just once, and if this proved inconclusive the League executive - the Management Committee - made the decision.

It appears that initially many applicants for election and re-election relied upon receiving support on the day of the AGM, either through informal canvassing or via the formal address to voters, and as late as 1901 one commentator felt `personality and a pleasing voice primed with confidence go a long way when a club is applying for membership'.6 Some speakers, like Middlesbrough's Henry Walker and J.H. Cook of Doncaster Rovers, were regarded as expert orators who could elicit support successfully.7 Other applicants hoped to bolster their claims by enlisting local dignitaries, such as the Mayor or MP, to address the meeting on the clubs' behalf.8 Yet although oratorical skills were an advantage, it is unlikely that a good speech ever got a poor applicant elected. In the matter of elections a `good knowledge of soccer politics' helped rather more than speeches, and canvassing of an informal, then more formal, nature became the norm.9 By 1924 it was felt that the speeches were irrelevant, the Management Committee deciding to discontinue them `as the clubs had presumably made up their minds for whom they would vote.'10

Informal canvassing was noted during the 1903 elections, when Bradford City gained election to the League. Before the AGM it was observed that `the clubs are being energetically canvassed, promises are being given and the "would-bes" are reckoning on votes which they will find will not all materialise in the ballot box.' 11 At the AGM, Athletic News noted the role played by the directors of the applicants: `Hither and thither the representatives of the applying clubs flick about to secure votes, until those who are safe and sound themselves become bored and readily promise to vote for all and sundry'. 12

More formal canvassing methods soon followed, as the minute books of several clubs reveal. This canvassing was done through the distribution of a circular letter `setting out the advantages and claims' of the club in financial, sporting and geographic terms.13 Oldham Athletic issued 250 copies of such a circular in 1906, and supplemented this with the personal efforts of club representatives. Both Charles Sutcliffe, a member of the League Management Committee who was acting as a solicitor to the club and was soon to join the directorate, and the team manager were requested to use their influence at forthcoming meetings of football's governing bodies in support of Oldham's application.14 This attempt failed, but in March 1907 the Oldham board appointed a special sub-committee to make arrangements for the club's next application. These included the distribution, throughout the north and midlands, of an advertisement in the shape of a football with the inscription `Oldham wants League Football', as well as a personal deputation to every voting club.15 Similarly, West Ham United sent three directors and the secretary on separate visits to Birmingham, Grimsby, Hull, Lincoln, Nottingham and Coventry in support of its application in 1919.16

The example of Ipswich Town illustrates how sophisticated and expensive applications to join the League had become by the 1930s. In November 1936, almost six months before the next AGM, a director was appointed to begin `propaganda work on behalf of this club with the Football League clubs' and an initial sum of 200 was allocated specifically for this purpose.17 In April 1937 the Secretary-Manager was instructed to apply formally for admission to the Third Division Southern Section and to proceed with a brochure to be circulated to all League clubs. Although the application proved unsuccessful, the club's Finance Committee reported that 340 in total had been spent in support of the application.18

To have any chance of being elected, then, it was clearly becoming essential to do more than simply state one's case: the facts could not be left to speak for themselves. Before the 1920 AGM, Athletic News observed that of the seven candidates for inclusion in the Second Division only the four who had `prosecuted an active canvass' had any real hope of success.19 The press could be a useful ally in such a situation. From the 1900s sporting and general papers began to discuss seriously the merits of various candidates and to print extracts from, or the whole of, their circular appeals. By 1911, Athletic News was devoting a considerable amount of front page space to these appeals, and it was generally accepted that newspapers were important in publicising a club's case. In 1909 the Sheffield weekly, Football and Sports Special, lauded one candidate for its close contact with the press throughout its campaign and contrasted this with the complacency of a rival club: `we heard practically nothing of what they were doing, or whether they desired any sort of help'.20

Many applicants also actively sought the support of influential clubs and directors. Friends within the League circle could offer practical assistance and give greater weight to arguments for admission. Middlesbrough's election to Division Two at the first attempt in 1899 was thought to have been `thanks to the influence of the northern delegates.'21 Ipswich Town's successful application in 1938 probably owed much to the personal canvassing of the Arsenal Chairman, Sir Samuel Hill-Wood, on the club's behalf. Hill-Wood was an acquaintance of his Ipswich counterpart, Captain Cobbold, and had helped the Suffolk club's preparations the previous season by offering practical assistance, including a set of tip-up seats for their stadium.22 Following Ipswich's election, the secretary was instructed to write to Hill-Wood `and thank him for all he had done for this club.'23 Some clubs approached members of the Management Committee directly, even though it was customary for the Committee to remain neutral in the election of clubs. Charles Sutcliffe thus reported in 1920 that certain clubs had contacted him and other Committee members to test the likelihood of being elected if an application were made. This type of activity was common amongst clubs who stood to be fined by or expelled from their respective leagues if a formal application was made to join the Football League.24

More seriously, there was a problem of candidates offering baits or incentives, usually of a financial nature, to voting clubs. Chelsea and Clapton Orient began this trend in 1905 by agreeing to pay northern clubs 20 and midland clubs 15 for each visit to London over a period of three years.25 Following similar promises by Fulham two years later, several clubs began to feel such payments constituted a `bribe', or at least gave the payer an unfair advantage, and in 1908 it was resolved that `no club applying for admission to the League should be allowed to hold out any inducement whatever in the shape of travelling expenses to clubs already holding membership'.26 It seems unlikely that this edict prevented applicants from offering surreptitious inducements in order to facilitate their election, though there is a lack of solid evidence. The Sheffield United directors were certainly aware of improper conduct on the part of certain candidates during the 1920 elections, and they called on the Management Committee to take action.27 It would appear that nothing was done, as by 1931 the President had to warn non-League clubs that the practices of `touting for votes' or `keeping open house' would be punished in future by disqualification.28

More sinister still were allegations that League clubs were offered inducements to resign their membership. Although the contemporary press and the clubs vociferously denied that such dishonourable conduct ever occurred, it appears that some clubs were so anxious to join the League that they were prepared to pay for the opportunity. An example comes from Oldham's admission to the League in 1907. The club's minutes reveal that on 10 June 1907 the directors were informed of Burslem Port Vale's financial difficulties. They agreed to offer Vale 1,000, including the transfer of two players, `on their resigning membership of the Football League Ltd., [and] providing this Club is elected to said League in their place.'29 Four days later Vale notified the League of their resignation and on 15th June Oldham were elected on the basis they had headed the voting list of unsuccessful candidates at the AGM.30 There were rumours of a similar arrangement between Tottenham and Stoke the following year, even though Stoke announced that their resignation `had not been influenced in any way by financial inducements from any club desirous of obtaining a position in the League'.31

Why Clubs Were Elected

Although it appears that in the majority of cases there was no hint of a direct financial benefit from supporting one candidate over another, indirect financial benefit was another matter. Contemporary observers believed that financial strength and crowd potential were increasingly becoming deciding factors in the election of clubs. In 1901, Athletic News reckoned that `First League football of the future is apparently to be a matter of population.'32 Big city clubs offered the potential of large attendances. Estimated crowds at matches in Sheffield, Birmingham and Liverpool in 1893-94 and 1894-95 ranged from 20,000 to 44,000, while Northwich averaged only 1,325 during 1893-94.33 Writing in 1905 William McGregor, the League's founder, felt that the acquisition of members in Hull, Leeds and Bradford meant `that the Second League will, in another five years, be a competition infinitely more important than it is today.'34 However, it is difficult to find conclusive proof that big city clubs were automatically favoured. Voting took place by secret ballot, and the votes of individual clubs, and perhaps more importantly the reasons behind them, are hard to ascertain. Club minute books are unfortunately taciturn on this subject, not least because such decisions were often not decided at board level, but instead were discussed informally or left to the club representative's discretion.

Some indication of clubs' thinking might be provided by studying the arguments made by prospective members, both at the AGM and in canvassing material. It is firstly important to distinguish between existing members applying for re-election and those outside the League seeking to gain entry, as they tended to employ distinct lines of argument. The main tactic of the first group was to stress their long connection with, and loyalty to, the League. For major clubs who seldom finished in the re-election places, this was a fairly straightforward matter. In 1903 Burnley's representative promised that his club `would not offend again' while Nottingham Forest's appeal for re-admission in 1914 was based entirely on its `long and honourable career' and past contribution to the League.35 For a club like Lincoln City, which was regularly required to justify its League status, the need to evoke a sense of tradition and loyalty became crucial. A typical example was the club's circular appeal of 1911 which stated that `Our connection with the League has extended over eighteen years and during that period all the duties and obligations of League Membership have been honourably fulfilled.' It was also mentioned that `we are... one of the oldest clubs in the country'.36

Nevertheless, clubs applying for re-election were not averse to citing population figures in support of their case. In 1904, Mr Johnson, representing Leicester Fosse in their bid for re-election, emphasised that his city's population of 250,000 `could well support' higher grade football. Burton could scarcely match such numbers, but in 1906 Mr Peach told the AGM that the town `was about to be benefited by a light railway which would open up a district of 35,000 inhabitants, and largely a mining and manufacturing population.'37 This helped Burton United finish second in the election ballot, but they succumbed a year later when the clubs favoured the metropolitan potential of Fulham.

The approach of non-League clubs was different. They felt they had more to prove and tended to adopt more substantial and wide-ranging argu ments. Oldham Athletic's circular appeal of 1907 characterised the type of document sent to the electorate. It began by stating that the intention of the document was:

to lay before you the reasons why we consider our admittance will be beneficial not only to the League but to Association Football, its followers and supporters generally; with the object of gaining your assistance and support at the Annual Meeting of the League.

It then covered a number of areas in which the club was presented as reaching the perceived necessary standards or offering something extra to the League. Firstly the population within the town, the Parliamentary Borough and a five mile and ten mile radius were stated, along with details of geographical accessibility and transport facilities. Secondly, emphasis was placed on the pedigree and record of the team in their present league competition and the FA Cup. Thirdly, the club's ability to attract good crowds- `we have been able to obtain 8,000 spectators regularly'- and its ground capacity and facilities were all noted. Fourthly, the financial basis and security of the club were outlined, and finally the document stressed the role of the club in popularising the association code in the area, the implication being that their election would strengthen this process.38 By the end of the 1900s, Oldham's format had almost become a blueprint for non-League candidates. Of course, clubs placed emphasis on what they considered their strong points to be - playing record, facilities or finances - but few chose to deviate from the general pattern. Some circulars, like that supporting Huddersfield Town's application in 1910, were especially meticulous. In addition to the standard contents, the Town directors included a report by the renowned architect and engineer Archibald Leitch on the proposed development of their Leeds Road ground, along with a sketch of the ground and even a list of railway tariffs for travelling teams and spectators.39 Others chose to emphasise population, with mixed results. In 1915, Athletic News reported Darlington's claim to be `the centre of a population of 250,000,' while `the county borough (of Walsall) has a population of 100,000' and Coventry `has a population approaching 150,000.'40 In 1919 Rochdale claimed to be `the centre of a population of over 400,000 residing within a six mile radius,' and Cardiff, elected in 1920, claimed a more realistic population of 250,000.41

The importance of adequate railway facilities deserves special attention here. While it would be too deterministic to suggest that the growth of the League retraced that of the national railway system, there was undoubtedly a close link between the two. As the journalist James Catton remarked in 1919:

What has been the first point urged in any application for membership of The Football League? The ease with which visiting clubs could get to the new centre and away from it. If the proposed new centre was served by several railway companies and linked with various lines the facts weighed with those who had cast their votes.42

For all clubs, then, a good railway link became an essential prerequisite for admission: for some it was the main selling-point. Those located at the extremities of the country were especially anxious to overcome the concerns of existing members over possible transport difficulties. Darlington based each of their annual applications to the League between 1910 and 1914 on the town's position at `the centre of the North-Eastern Railway system'. It was also emphasised that the `North-Eastern Railway Company are making [Darlington] their headquarters, and are transferring their works from Gateshead and York'.43 Though not a `railway town' in the sense of Darlington, Carlisle United's successful 1928 circular noted that the town was `one of the best served railway centres in the British Isles.' York City's address in the same year stated that the city was `situated on a main line between Edinburgh and London and served by a railway service second to none'.44 Furthermore, as the rail network expanded in the first two decades of the century, and competition between companies increased, so most club grounds became served by two or more stations or lines.45 For example, teams or supporters destined for either Bradford club in 1910 could travel on the Midland, North-Eastern, Lancashire and Yorkshire, Great Northern or Great Central railways. Ten years later a connection had been added by the London and North-Western Railway.

Of course, clubs could move from one category to another. Those rejected from the League at one AGM often re-appeared at the next, bidding to regain their former status. We have seen how Lincoln City lost their place in 1908, and in 1908-09 they had to compete in the Midland League. They won this league by a wide margin and their circular address before the 1909 AGM claimed this success demonstrated `the strength and vitality of the club' in overcoming `almost insuperable difficulties.'46 Lincoln were duly elected, but lost their place again in 1911. They followed up rejection with another notable campaign in non-League football and managed to secure election in 1912, at the expense of Gainsborough.47 A similarly determined non-League campaign helped Grimsby Town to regain its League status in 1911. The club lost its place to Huddersfield Town in 1910, and, as Grimsby's history notes `the shock of losing Football League status must have proved a lesson for the directors, for they assembled one of the best teams that supporters had seen for some seasons.'48 They won the Midland League title and their `manifesto' included references to results, attendances and crowd potential.49 Just to make certain, they asked the town's MP, Sir George Doughty, to present their case at the AGM, where they ousted Lincoln.50

Stockport County also pursued an aggressive policy in order to win back their League status, lost in 1904. They responded by running teams in both the Lancashire Combination and the Midland League, although the stronger side played in the Combination if there was a fixture clash.51 Their `determined fight to gain re-entry to the Football League' was rewarded with the Combination championship, despite having to sell two key players in order to balance the books, and they were re-elected in 1905.52 These instances prove that determination and the willingness to show strength in non-League football were the key to winning back lost places.

At this point some attention should be given to the Management Committee's role in elections. The Committee was responsible for managing the day-to-day affairs of the League, and its representatives were answerable to the member clubs.53 In 1893 the AGM agreed to extend the First Division to sixteen clubs, and two new members were needed to bring Division Two up to strength. Rather than call a Special General Meeting, the clubs delegated this task to the Management Committee, who chose Woolwich Arsenal and Liverpool from a shortlist of five applicants.54 Whether the clubs would have chosen otherwise must remain a matter for conjecture, though it should be said that both chosen clubs offered potential rather than pedigree. Arsenal had only been a professional club for two years and would be the League's first London member, while Liverpool had been in existence for only one season, though in that time had won the Lancashire League.55 Although the Management Committee's votes are not known, it would appear that Middlesbrough Ironopolis were the most favoured of the unsuccessful three, as they were invited to take Accrington's place when that club resigned from the League before the season started. The Teesside club, an early rival to the present Middlesbrough FC, lasted only one season, and like Accrington resigned after the 1894 AGM had taken place. The Committee did not canvass for new applicants but offered Ironopolis's place to the leading non-elected club from the AGM ballot, Rotherham Town.

The Management Committee also followed precedent in 1901 when Doncaster Rovers, top of the non-elected clubs, replaced New Brighton Tower, who resigned just before the season began. However, the case of Tottenham Hotspur and Lincoln City in 1908 saw the Committee overturn their precedent. Lincoln had not been re-elected at the AGM, but had gained more votes than Tottenham, then a leading member of the rival Southern League. Soon after the AGM Stoke resigned owing to financial difficulties, and both Lincoln and Tottenham applied to take their place. A Special Meeting of the League took place in July, and both clubs advanced strong cases, to the extent that three ballots each produced tied votes. The decision was referred to the Management Committee, who ignored the issue of the voting at the AGM and elected Tottenham by five votes to three.

The case of Tottenham and the earlier elections of Woolwich Arsenal and Liverpool can be viewed as evidence of the Management Committee showing favour to `big city' clubs. As Stoke's H.D. Austerberry told his fellow representatives in 1908:

the face of football politics had vastly changed during the past few years, and whether they wished it or not, they knew very well that a little struggling club that came to the annual meeting and applied for admission would not stand the slightest chance. 56

Tischler cited the Tottenham/ Lincoln case as an example of the way in which poorer clubs from smaller cities were discarded in favour of wealthier and better situated outfits. 57 This was undoubtedly a factor in the Management Committee's decision, but there were other considerations too. Tottenham had an impressive playing record, both in the Southern League and in the FA Cup, which they had won in 1901, whereas Lincoln had finished in the bottom three on a number of occasions, including the two previous seasons. Athletic News believed that Lincoln had received sufficient warning and had appealed for help too often: `The members of the League can grow tired of re-electing a club in an age where the tendency is to concentrate the best professional football in the largest centres'. Also, the widespread feeling that Lincoln acted as a nursery club for Chelsea may have lost it support.58 In contrast, the press generally agreed Tottenham were an attractive side who would draw large crowds and could survive in better company. One writer felt sympathy for Lincoln but could not `help thinking that the presence of a powerful club like Tottenham will be for the general advantage of the competition'.59 The Yorkshire Post agreed that `Tottenham always play good football and they will be an attraction wherever they play.'60 Despite the Management Committee's decision to favour potential over long service, as with Tottenham over Lincoln, it would be wrong to see the Committee and the clubs as being at odds over elections. The Committee was ultimately answerable to the clubs, and in any case its apparent desire to oversee a League comprising the best clubs in the land coincided neatly with the clubs' economic interests in belonging to such a League.

Overall a clear shift can be discerned amongst those successful at elections, away from small town clubs and towards big city outfits. Glossop's population at the time of its election in 1898 was around 25,000, and it grew little during the club's tenure in the League.61 This may explain why Glossop gained only one vote in support of their re-election bid in 1915. Burton, which for three seasons supported two League clubs on a population of around 45,000, lost their remaining club in 1907.62 Gainsborough Trinity achieved their record crowd and receipts (5,600 and 134) from a 3-1 victory over Chelsea in 1911 which ensured their status for another year. However, Gainsborough had a population of only 50,000, and the town was relatively isolated, so in 1912 the club achieved only nine votes at the AGM.63 This surprisingly low vote, for a club which had applied for re-election only once before, in 1902, can be explained only in terms of a shift of League football away from small population centres. As Athletic News observed in 1914, `modern professional football is becoming more and more centred in the large towns.'64 It might have added `and big cities' while noting that small town clubs were being squeezed out into non-league football. All the canvassing in the world could not disguise the fact that, between the early 1900s and 1920, Football League members favoured the cause of representatives of big cities over those of small towns.

Although the issuing of circulars provided some clues as to the informal criteria applied to potential applicants, such as population, ground capacity and access to transport nodes, no formal minimum standards were in fact laid down until the 1920s. The catalyst for change was the formation of the Third Division's Northern Section, which was thought to include little-known clubs with unproven track records. At the 1920 AGM the Management Committee recommended that the creation of the Northern Section be delayed for twelve months, since proposed members were `not strong enough both financially and in a playing sense.'65 The Committee put into place a vetting process for all applicants, through a system of ground inspections and questionnaires. Prospective members were required to have dressing rooms, accommodation for match officials and other facilities on their grounds. In addition, the Management Committee sent each candidate a list of questions `which are so searching as to obtain complete information with reference to applying clubs.' It inquired into the condition and status of the club; its financial position and future prospects; gate money received; and the nature and holding capacity of the ground, enclosures and stands, while Athletic News advised candidates to add details of the size of the local population and catchment area.66 Again, in 1924 the Committee examined the credentials of outside applicants and only recommended those it felt reached the necessary standards, but it was not until 1927 that entry qualifications became formalised. Thereafter, applicants were required to supply the Committee with balance sheets for the previous two seasons, details of the members and shareholders, average attendances for both first and reserve team fixtures and particulars of ground capacity, location and dressing-room facilities.67

League Expansion, Consolidation and the Election System

While noting the remarkable growth of the League up to the early 1920s, it is important to recognise that periods of expansion were generally followed by consolidation. In its formative years, for example, the League was accused of operating a closed shop, and as it grew in the late 1890s, it did not do so as rapidly as some would have wished. After the creation of the Third Division, the League again became the subject of accusations from those outside that their entry was effectively barred. This section will focus on the `closed shop' allegations, then look at how the League managed expansion, using the election system as a method of quality control.

Despite the fact that, from 1889, the four bottom clubs had to apply for re-election, most were re-admitted to the fold. Prior to 1895, only one club failed to be re-elected, Stoke in 1890. Sheffield Wednesday, members of the rival Football Alliance, applied to join in 1889 and 1890 and were rejected on the latter occasion despite winning the Alliance and reaching the FA Cup Final. The League was accused of `keeping their door firmly closed to the Sheffield club and others.'68 A year later the League was extended by two clubs, those chosen being previously discarded Stoke plus Darwen, and as the latter `had not excelled in the Alliance it was rather surprising that they were afforded this elevation.'69 The small size of the League meant that local friendships along with the votes of retiring clubs carried disproportionate weight in the re-election process. In 1892 Athletic News commented that `the weakness of the League has been its mode of election for it is quite obvious that some of the clubs have been elected more by favour than merit.'70 This charge would be heard again, but it was difficult thereafter to argue that the League was keeping out the best clubs, given its relentless expansion.

After 1892, when most of the Alliance clubs joined a suitably expanded competition, a pattern of gradual expansion can be discerned, spreading outwards from the League's initial bases in Lancashire and the midlands. 1892 saw clubs from Sheffield and Manchester join, alongside representatives of Crewe, Burton and Northwich. None were major centres of population, but all three were close to existing centres of League football, allowing the clubs to extend their fixture lists while keeping down travel costs. It is probably significant that the first London member, Woolwich Arsenal, was selected by the Management Committee, while the clubs preferred to admit the likes of Bury, Gainsborough and Stockport, none of them large places, but all close to existing League centres.

The election of Bristol City in 1901 marked a period where the clubs became bolder in their decisions on expansion, at least in a geographical sense. By 1919, League membership had reached 44, and in 1920 the entire Southern League Division One was invited aboard, forming the new Third Division, its Northern Section being added a year later. Between 1919 and 1923, when two more clubs were added to the Northern Section, the League doubled in size, a bold undertaking which said much for the organisation's self-confidence.

As might be expected, such expansion pointed towards a period of consolidation, marked by increasing complaints from clubs outside the League who found the path to membership a difficult one. These complaints were heightened by the perceived weakness of some Northern Section clubs, both in playing and financial terms. Survival had become the watchword for such clubs. It was reckoned that clubs would have to achieve average gate receipts of 350 per match to survive, indicating average attendances around 6,000.71 Of five clubs sampled in 1921-22, only Accrington (average 8,000) and Wigan Borough (7,625) exceeded this figure, while Barrow (5,675), Southport (5,073) and Durham (2,600) were below. Stalybridge achieved receipts of 350 from a 7,475 crowd against Stockport, but this was to be their record League attendance.72 Inglis notes that only five clubs in the Northern Section achieved total gate receipts above 4,235 for 1921-22, this being the lowest figure achieved in the Southern Section (by Newport County).73

Not only were these clubs apparently weak, they were also given the means to help retain their membership. After 1922 the Management Committee agreed to allow each Third Division section to recommend the clubs to be elected, a recommendation which would then `carry weight with the League in any decisions arrived at.'74 Invariably self protection and group loyalty led to support for retiring members at the expense of outside applicants. In the Northern Section, for example, Barrow finished bottom on four occasions between 1924 and 1930, but were re-elected each time. Sometimes the full members chose to ignore the recommendations, as when Aberdare Athletic were voted out in 1927, but in the main the First and Second Division clubs favoured the status quo. This approach was heavily criticised, notably in Athletic News, which accused the League of making itself a `close corporation' to which `no outsiders need apply'. In one particularly scathing attack it condemned the League's `narrow, unprogressive policy' of re-electing the bottom clubs, thus ruling out `ambitious centres and possibly stronger centres'.75 The Management Committee denied any intention of closing the door to aspiring clubs: they `wanted the strongest competitions, but the clubs of the Third Division should know what was best for themselves'.76 In 1929 the Third Division's collusive, self-perpetuating policy was exposed by revelations that representatives of the two retiring clubs had been present throughout the Southern Section's private meeting and that the recommendation to the Full Members was decided not by secret ballot but by a show of hands. Under the circumstances, one non-League club official thought the whole affair `a waste of time', while Athletic News branded such action conservative, selfish and `all too sentimental'. 77

As a result, only four clubs in the Southern Section and three in the Northern Section, lost their places between 1921 and 1939.78 However, it is worth noting that of the clubs who replaced them only one, Carlisle United, has played in English football's top division. Of those who applied unsuccessfully to join the League in this period, only two appear to have had strong cases for election. Mansfield Town were rejected for the Northern Section each year from 1925 to 1930, despite twice winning the championship of the Midland League. They eventually gained admittance when they applied to join the Southern Section in 1931, when they took Newport's place. Shrewsbury Town, Midland League champions in 1938, also applied five years running, from 1935 to 1939, without success, and had to wait until 1951 to be elected. Although the system of recommendations clearly favoured existing members over outsiders, there is little evidence of many stronger or worthier clubs outside the League in this period. The so-called `old pals' act' may have had some justification.

The election system assisted the Football League in expanding into hitherto-untouched areas of England and Wales, and while crowds and finance were of great significance, some attention should be given to strategic factors. In the 1900s there is some evidence that the League, either at Management Committee level, or through the collective wishes of the clubs, made a conscious effort to expand into areas previously dominated by professional rugby. Graham Williams has referred to the `aggressive recruitment' of clubs from rugby strongholds, while Simon Inglis suggested that by 1903 the League had begun plotting `the colonisation of England at the expense of every other rival organisation in both football and rugby'.79 These comments appear to be supported by the bare facts: Bradford City (1903), Leeds City and Hull City (1905), Oldham Athletic and Bradford Park Avenue (1907) and Huddersfield Town (1910) all came into the Football League from towns with deep rugby traditions. The two Bradford clubs, and Leeds City, were formed from previous members of the Northern Union, while the others had strong rival Northern Union clubs. Moreover, in each club's application to join the League, much was made of the local competition between the codes. Bradford Park Avenue's representative, for example, supported his claim by declaring that his club's decision to take up soccer `meant the extinction of Northern Unionism... in Yorkshire'.80

Whether the League had a strategy for extending its sphere of influence into these areas is unclear. In the case of Bradford City, there were suggestions that `undue influence' had been put on the clubs by the Management Committee, and the local press was convinced that assurances had been made by the League's rulers to admit City well before the club had been formally constituted.81 However, it is worth emphasising that the election ballot was the province of the clubs and that League places were not normally within the Committee's gift. That is not to say that Committee members did not actively canvass on City's behalf. Catton, close to informed opinion in the League expressed `a hope in favour of Bradford,' a new club which `seems to have many friends, and I trust their professions will be backed by votes.'82 The clubs were unlikely to go against such canvassing, since Bradford City was a `big city' club offering the potential of attractive fixtures and big crowds. As Vamplew suggests, the electorate `had an eye on the potential gates offered by rival candidates' when casting their ballots.83

The fact that the clubs did control the election process was evident in the failed application of the amateur, London-based Argonauts club in 1928. Some five months before the League AGM, the club's founder, R. W. Sloley, met the FA Secretary Frederick Wall and then the League Management Committee to discuss the possible admission of the club. Wall informed Sloley of his belief that the League `would regard the application favourably' and the Committee itself told him that while `the matter was one which the Clubs would have to decide...they would welcome such a club'.84 In addition, Athletic News noted in May that `an emphatic impression, decidedly favourable to the amateur club, has been created in Football League circles' by Argonauts' decision to play at Wembley Stadium rather than White City.85 Yet despite this apparent support, Argonauts were defeated by 17 votes in the election ballot.

Similarly, it is doubtful whether the election of clubs from London and southern England was linked to any broad strategic initiative. Some Management Committee members, and certain club directors, may indeed have wished to establish a broader base for the Football League in the south, but individual enmities and jealousies tended to preclude the achievement of this long-term goal. The pattern of Welsh membership is also better explained by reference to changing economic fortunes than to strategic policy. In 1920, when Cardiff City applied to become the League's first Welsh member, Athletic News asked `why should South Wales, now a hot-bed of soccer, be outside the pale?'86 It also noted, more significantly, that Cardiff was a large centre of population, so here as often before geographical expansion chimed in with economic factors. By the early 1920s there were six Welsh clubs in the League drawing relatively good gates, but by the early 1930s severe economic depression and unemployment in the South Wales coal fields had necessitated the replacement of Aberdare Athletic and Merthyr Town and the temporary exclusion of Newport County.87 Expansion could be assisted by the election process, but only so long as the clubs who held the votes could see economic benefits in choosing a club from a hitherto-untapped area.


Between 1901 and 1923 the Football League transformed itself from an organisation of professional clubs based mainly in the north-west and midlands into a national body encompassing an entire southern division, ten clubs in London and others in Wales. The road to a national league did not consist of a series of ordered steps taken with a clear end in sight. Because there was never a consensus within the Management Committee or among the clubs for expansion, growth was largely piecemeal and ad-hoc. Certain periods, particularly the 1890s and early 1900s and then after the War, were marked by expansion both quantitative, in terms of increased membership and qualitative, with members coming in from parts of the country which had not previously boasted a Football League club. Other times were of consolidation, usually marked by allegations from outsiders of a `closed shop'.

The election system allowed the League to review and modify its membership on an annual basis. The preceding discussion has shown that while guarantees of large crowds and financial stability were the most important criteria for the election of new members (or the retention of existing ones), they were in fact part of a broader collage of interlocking motives and interests which vied for prominence in the minds of club representatives. Above all, it is important to recognise that the Management Committee, the League's executive, did not have the power that American sports bodies hold, namely to transfer a club to another city when that club had ceased to be of financial benefit to the League. That said, some of the transfers of membership, particularly during the 1900s, where small town clubs were voted out to make way for those representing big cities, do hint at an informal franchising system with League membership being effectively transferred to clubs with greater economic potential. The fact that the election system remained within the control of the member clubs meant that factors such as local connections and loyalty could, and did, influence voting patterns. However, clubs which were perceived as being weak in playing or financial terms could only depend on such factors for a short period of time. The clubs understood that their economic interests would only be served by ensuring that their fellow members were able to compete effectively. As a result economic factors, such as levels of support and crowd potential, weighed most heavily with the representatives when choosing who would join them in their exclusive `club'.


Year Places No. of Year Places No. of

Available Applicants Available Applicants

1889 4 13 1913 2 8

1890 3 9 1914 2 8

1891 6 10 1915 2 6

1892 (Div.1) 5 10 1919 4 8

1892 (Div.2) 12 13 1920 22 25

1893 8 11 1921 24 28

1894 4 9 1922 4 10

1895 4 7 1923 6 12

1896 3 10 1924 4 4

1897 3 10 1925 4 7

1898 7 9 1926 4 7

1899 3 9 1927 4 13

1900 3 7 1928 4 11

1901 3 9 1929 4 16

1902 3 4 1930 4 11

1903 3 8 1931 4 10

1904 3 5 1932 4 9

1905 7 8 1933 4 9

1906 3 5 1934 4 5

1907 3 9 1935 4 7

1908 3 6 1936 4 9

1909 2 5 1937 4 8

1910 2 7 1938 4 9

1911 2 7 1939 4 12

1912 2 8


1890 Bolton Wanderers and Aston Villa finished level in 8th place. The AGM decided that neither club would have to apply for re-election.

1891 League expanded to 14 clubs.

1892 League expanded to 28 clubs: two to join Division One, a further 12 to form Division Two. West Bromwich Albion (12th in Division One) were exempted from having to apply for re-election because they had won the FA Cup. The number of applicants for Division One includes Liverpool (rejected prior to the vote) and Middlesbrough and Middlesbrough Ironopolis, who had agreed to merge if one of them was elected.

1893 League expanded to 32 clubs.

1894 Only two clubs applied for re-election due to Bootle's and Northwich Victoria's resignations.

1896 Only bottom three had to re-apply. Only two did, as Rotherham Town resigned.

1898 League expanded to 36 clubs- two Divisions of 18 clubs.

1899 Only two clubs applied for re-election due to Darwen's resignation.

1905 League expanded to 40 clubs.

1909 Only bottom two had to re-apply.

1919 League expanded to 44 clubs.

1920 Third Division of 22 clubs added.

1921 Third Division Northern Section of 20 clubs added.

1923 League expanded to 88 clubs- two clubs added to Northern Section.

Sources: Sutcliffe et al, Football League, pp 108-112; S. Inglis, League Football and the Men Who Made It, London, 1988; Reports of Football League AGMs in Athletic News, 5 June 1905, 26 July 1915.


Allison, George, `The Rise of Middlesborough FC' in Book of Football, 1906.

Arnold, Tony, A Game That Would Pay: A Business History of Professional Football in Bradford (London: Duckworths, 1988).

Arnold, Tony, `Rich Man, Poor Man: Economic Arrangements in the Football League' in Williams, John and Wagg, Stephen (eds) British Football and Social Change: Getting into Europe (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1991).

Cain, P. J., `Railways 1870-1914: the maturity of the private system' in Freeman, M. J. and Aldcroft, D. H. (eds), Transport in Victorian Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988).

Dykes, Garth, Oldham Athletic: A Complete Record, 1899-1988 (Derby: Breedon, 1993).

Farnsworth, K., Wednesday!: The History of Sheffield's Oldest Professional Football Club (Sheffield: Sheffield City Libraries, 1982).

Freeman, P. and Harnwell, R., Stockport County: A Complete Record (Derby: Breedon, 1994).

Holland, Julian, Spurs: A History of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club (London: Sportsman's Book Club, 1957).

Inglis, Simon, League Football and the Men Who Made It (London: Willow Collins, 1988).

Kelly, Stephen, You'll Never Walk Alone: The Official Illustrated History of Liverpool FC (London: Macdonald, 1988).

McGregor, W. `The Origin and Future of the Football League' in Gibson, Alfred. and Pickford, William. (eds), Association Football and the Men Who Made It: Volume 2 (London: Caxton, 1905).

Myers, S., The History of Stockport County AFC, 1883-1965 (1966).

Sloane, Peter, `Restriction of Competition in Professional Team Sports', Bulletin of Economic Research, 18 (1976), pp. 3-22.

Simmons, G. W., Tottenham Hotspur Football Club: Its Birth and Progress, 1882-1946 (Enfield: Tottenham Hotspur FC, 1947).

Taylor, Matthew, `"Proud Preston": A History of the Football League, 1900-1939' (Unpublished PhD Thesis, De Montfort University, 1997).

Tischler, Steven, Footballers and Businessmen: The Origins of Professional Football in England (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1981).

Triggs, L., Hepton, D. and Woodhead, S., Grimsby Town: A Complete Record, 1878-1989 (Derby: Breedon, 1989).

Twydell, David, Rejected FC: Volume 1 (Harefield, Middlesex: 1992a).

Twydell, David, Rejected FC: Volume 2 (Harefield, Middlesex: 1992b).

Twydell, David, Rejected FC: Volume 3 (Harefield, Middlesex: 1992c).

Williams, Gareth, `From Grand Slam to Great Slump: Economy, Society and Rugby Football in Wales During the Depression, Welsh History Review, 11, 3, 1983, pp. 346-48.

Williams, Graham, The Code War: English Football Under the Historical Spotlight (Harefield, Middlesex: Yore, 1994).


1 Sloane, 1976, p. 5; Vamplew, 1988, p.112

2 Inglis, 1988, p. 15.

3 Inglis, 1988, p. 17.

4 Tischler, 1981, pp. 81-82.

5 Arnold, 1991, p. 52.

6 Report of the Football League AGM in Athletic News, 20 May 1901.

7 Report of the Football League AGM in Athletic News, 6 June 1904; Allison, 1906.

8 For examples see Athletic News 1 June 1903 (Southport Central); 5 June 1911 (Grimsby Town); 10 June 1912 (Lincoln City) and 17 March 1919 (Rotherham County).

9 Williams, 1994, p. 176.

10 Minutes of the Football League, 2 June 1924 (AGM).

11 Athletic News, 18 May 1903.

12 Report of the Football League AGM in Athletic News, 1 June 1903.

13 Minutes of Oldham Athletic FC, 19 April 1906.

14 Minutes of Oldham Athletic FC, 19 April 1906.

15 Minutes of Oldham Athletic FC, 11 March 1907; Dykes, 1993; Athletic News 13 May 1907.

16 Minutes of West Ham United FC, 25 February 1919.

17 Minutes of Ipswich Town FC, 2 November 1936.

18 Minutes of Ipswich Town FC, 5 April 1937; Minutes of Ipswich Town FC (Finance Committee), 12 June 1937.

19 Athletic News, 31 May 1920.

20 Football and Sports Special, 12 June 1909.

21 Allison, 1906.

22 Minutes of Ipswich Town FC, 3 May 1937.

23 Minutes of Ipswich Town FC, 7 June 1938.

24 Athletic News, 3 May 1920. Between 1907 and 1919 the Southern League took a hard line against member clubs who applied to join the Football League.

25 Report of the Football League AGM in Athletic News, 5 June 1905. Sutcliffe, 1939, p. 79.

26 Report of the Football League AGM in Athletic News, 1 June 1908.

27 Minutes of Sheffield United Football Committee, 1 June 1920.

28 Minutes of the Football League, 1 June 1931 (AGM).

29 Minutes of Oldham Athletic FC, 10 June 1907. The club paid Burslem Port Vale 1,150 in total and actually had to take out an overdraft of 400 to do so. Minutes 12, 13 June 1907.

30 Manchester Evening News, 14 June 1907.

31 Birmingham Sporting Mail, 20 June 1908. See also the account in Holland, 1957, pp. 74-75.

32 Athletic News, 20 May 1901.

33 Williams, 1994, p.125; Twydell, 1992 (c), p. 164.

34 McGregor, 1905, p. 6.

35 Reports of the Football League AGMs in Athletic News, 1 June 1903 , 1 June 1914.

36 Lincoln City FC Election Circular, quoted in Athletic News, 22 May 1911.

37 Athletic News, 1 June 1903, 6 June 1904, & 4 June 1906.

38 Oldham Athletic AFC Ltd. Circular to Clubs in support of Application for Admission to the Football League, issued April 1907.

39 Huddersfield Town Election Circular, quoted in Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 28 April 1910.

40 Athletic News, 24 May 1915. None of these applications were successful.

41 Athletic News, 3 March 1919 & 1 March 1920.

42 Athletic News, 13 October 1919.

43 Darlington FC Election Circular, quoted in Athletic News, 8 May 1911. Darlington were not admitted to the League until 1921, as part of the newly-formed Third Division Northern Section.

44 Carlisle United FC and York City FC Election Circulars, quoted in Athletic News, 4 June 1928. York were elected the following year.

45 See Cain, 1988, pp. 115-18.

46 Athletic News, 24 May 1909.

47 Athletic News, 13 May 1912 & 10 June 1912.

48 Triggs, Hepton and Woodhead, 1989, p. 11.

49 Athletic News, 8 May 1911.

50 Athletic News, 5 June 1911.

51 Myers, 1966, pp. 30, 32. These Leagues were reckoned to be two of the three strongest in the north and midlands `The Midland Football League... vies with the Birmingham League and Lancashire Combination for general excellence...' (Doncaster Gazette, 9 June 1905.)

52 Freeman and Harnwell, 1994, pp. 15-16.

53 Taylor, 1997, pp. 31-34.

54 The other applicants were Middlesbrough Ironopolis, Doncaster Rovers and Loughborough Town.

55 Kelly, 1988, pp. 14-15, offers a good account of Liverpool's rapid rise, and shows how John McKenna made the application to join the League, without the knowledge of the club's other directors. McKenna later became League President.

56 Report of the Football League AGM in Athletic News, 1 June 1908.

57 Tischler, 1981, p. 82.

58 Athletic News, 6 July 1908.

59 Birmingham Sporting Mail, 4 July 1908.

60 Quoted in Simmons, 1947, p. 75.

61 Twydell, 1992 (a), p. 179.

62 Twydell, 1992 (b), p. 102-29. The clubs were Swifts (members from 1892-1901) and Wanderers (1894-97). The clubs merged to form Burton United in 1901, retaining Swifts' ground, Peel Croft, and League place.

63 Twydell, 1993 (c), pp. 68-9.

64 Athletic News, 25 May 1914.

65 Minutes of the Football League, 29 May 1920.

66 Minutes of the Football League, 10 January 1921; Athletic News, 17 January 1921.

67 Minutes of the Football League, 12 May 1924; 8 April 1927 (SGM); Sutcliffe, 1939, p. 99.

68 Farnsworth, 1982, p. 35.

69 Twydell, 1992 (b), p. 155.

70 Athletic News, 28 March 1892.

71 Twydell, 1992 (b), p 95.

72 Twydell, 1992 (a, b and c).

73 Inglis, 1988, p. 125.

74 Minutes of Football League (Third Division Southern Section SGM), 6 March 1922.

75 Athletic News, 4 June 1928, 12 March 1928.

76 Minutes of Football League, 30 May 1927 (AGM).

77 Athletic News, 20 May 1929.

78 The clubs were Aberdare (1927), Merthyr (1930), Newport (1931) and Gillingham (1938) plus Durham (1928), Ashington (1929) and Nelson (1931).

79 Williams, 1994, p. 125; Inglis, 1988, p. 56.

80 Manchester Evening News, 31 May 1907.

81 Athletic News, 1 June 1903; Arnold, 1988, p. 25.

82 `Tityrus' in Athletic News, 1 June 1903.

83 Vamplew, 1988, p. 126.

84 Athletic News, 2 January 1928; Minutes of the Football League 16 January 1928. Charles Sutcliffe's interpretation of the meeting was slightly different: in his view the Committee told Sloley that they `would show no prejudice' against Argonauts, but `could make no guarantees'. Topical Times, 28 January 1928.

85 Athletic News, 21 May 1928.

86 Athletic News, 1 March 1920.

87 Williams, 1983, pp 346-48. Attendances at most Welsh clubs fell dramatically in this period. Cardiff City, FA Cup Winners in 1927 had attendances of around 2,000 by the time they were relegated to Division Three (South) in 1932. Merthyr was reportedly only able to give visiting clubs 1 as their share of the gate by 1930, when they were voted out of the League.

Dr Richard William Cox
Last updated: 9th of March, 2000

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