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How Wanderers helped Stoke, Notts County and Wolves join the Football League

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
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“I should like to hear what other clubs you would suggest” – so concluded a letter from Aston Villa committee member William McGregor to the Bolton Wanderers

secretary, John Bentley, as he formulated a plan which would soon crystallise in the form of the Football League.

The request for suggestions was actually sent out to four clubs – Bolton, Blackburn Rovers, Preston North End and West Brom – but it would be Bentley’s reply which had a profound effect on which teams would meet some weeks later on April 17, 1888, at the Royal Hotel in Manchester.

McGregor, a bushy-bearded Methodist who ran a draper’s shop in the Midlands, was looking to create a competition which could make fixtures more uniform and avoid the problem of ‘no-shows’ and late postponements.

After several years of haggling, football had moved towards being a fully professional sport and needed a competition to reflect the move from amateurism. And in an echo of the situation facing clubs today, they could ill-afford to pay players without balancing things out without gate receipts from the paying public.

McGregor’s idea was to invite ‘10 or 12’ teams to compete in a ‘regular and fixed programme’ and he was keen to hear from other leading administrators in the game.

Turton-born Bentley, a man ahead of his time in footballing terms, had been one of the architects in Wanderers’ creation and was appointed secretary in February 1885. After success in his first year he was involved in some internal squabbles within the club and voted out of office, replaced by a player, Bob Struthers.

The centre-forward, known as “The Wanderers Masher” didn’t settle in the role and was quickly succeeded by Fitzroy Norris, who also struggled to live up to Bentley’s high standards.

Back in the job, Bentley was quick to pass on his vision of who should be included in the new league.

He proposed that Stoke, Notts County and Wolverhampton Wanderers should be drafted in from the Midlands, alongside Burnley and Accrington, from across Lancashire.

Not all of his suggestions made it, however, and neighbouring Halliwell were nudged out after it was decided that only one club from each respective town or city should be allowed admission. In the same manner Bootle lost out to Everton, Nottingham Forest to County, and former FA Cup winners Blackburn Olympic to Rovers.

Bentley also put forward Mitchell St George’s from Birmingham and the Southern League champions Old Carthusians – but they failed to make the cut after much debate to leave a dozen teams to meet at a venue off Market Street in Manchester to put together the loose rules of the new league.

It was at that gathering that Preston’s representative, Major William Sudell, suggested the name “The Football League”. McGregor had ventured the title “Association Football Union,” but there was no sulking from him when delegates deemed that too similar to the Rugby Union. One wonders what the group would have thought of “the EFL”?

Although McGregor would take his place as the league president, he would be succeeded by Bentley who held the position for another 17 years, reinforcing his reputation as being the most powerful man in football at the time.

He also worked for Manchester United and was a qualified journalist, serving as editor of The Athletic News and writing a regular column in the Daily Express and Daily Mail.

Bentley was also responsible for coming up with the points system – oddly agreed in November with the season already a few months old.

He suggested two points for a win and one for a draw, although West Brom were lobbying for teams to receive no points for drawing a game.

Among the early league rules which were agreed, £15 was guaranteed to the away team, rather than a 50-50 split in money made at the turnstile and the fact the bottom four teams in each season would have to apply for re-election.

Teams would be required to play their strongest team in every game and the league fixtures would take precedence to friendlies or cup matches.

Threats of fines didn't stop Blackburn failing to play against Notts County on the opening weekend of the newly created league, however, as they opted to play against Newton Heath (the precursor to Manchester United) instead.

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