Football's working-class roots

The 'beautiful game', in its organised form, was born in England's grim industrial towns.

Local derbies have long been among the highlights of an English league season. Here, Blackburn try to equalise against Burnley in a 1960 FA Cup tie.
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"And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark satanic mills?"

William Blake's poem-turned-hymn is England's alternative national anthem, sung at cricket and rugby union Test matches and before rugby league's Challenge Cup final. It is not aired at football games, despite its greater relevance to the national sport.

The Industrial Revolution and the mills cannot be separated as England's manufacturing heartland in the north-west became its footballing homeland. Some four decades after Karl Marx famously concluded "religion is the opium of the people", football disproved the communist's theory and began to supersede the church.

And it took on its current form among Blake's dark satanic mills. Five of the 12 founder members of the Football League were clubs from mill towns, the damp climate of the Pennine hills and proximity to the port of Liverpool, the Manchester Ship Canal and the coal mines producing an environment that was uniquely suited to textile manufacturing.

Accrington, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley and Preston, towns where population had swelled dramatically as men moved to work at the many mills, were among the pioneers. The county of Lancashire provided half of the founder members of the Football League - Everton were the other club, in the days before the region of Merseyside was created - in the days when Manchester United and Manchester City were known as Newton Heath and Ardwick, respectively, and Liverpool did not even exist.

In 1888, as now, there was an imbalanced look to England's footballing map. That the north-west provides eight of the 20 members of today's Premier League can appear an anomaly; Blackburn, Blackpool, Bolton and Wigan are there while bigger cities such as Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Bristol, Brighton and Bournemouth go unrepresented. Instead, it is a throwback to the days when football was, as Burnley's official historian Ray Simpson said, "very much a cloth cap man's game. Almost everyone worked in the mills."

It is a 19th-century story. As unexciting as it appears today, "King Cotton" propelled the economy of the United States' southern states and England's north-west. The American Civil War and the abuses of slavery can be attributed, in part, to the cotton trade; more laudably football, perhaps England's greatest export, was a by-product of the textile industry.

And yet, it shared roots with rugby and an ethos that extended into cricket: muscular Christianity, the Victorian public school theory that deemed sport character-building, an asset for empire and war alike. The game was run under the auspices of the upper classes. The first set of football rules were drawn up at Cambridge University - before then, schools played different variants of it - and the FA Cup, introduced in 1871, was initially the preserve of the nobility. A glance at its early winners - Wanderers, Oxford University, Royal Engineers, Old Etonians, Old Carthusians - is tantamount to being transported into another sport as well as another era.

Yet football was changing. The aristocracy had organised and codified football, but the lower class had started playing it. Charles Alcock, the secretary of the English Football Association (FA), said: "What was the recreation of a few has now become the pursuit of thousands. An athletic exercise carried on under a strict system and in many cases by an enforced term of training, almost magnified into a profession."

They were prophetic words. The turning point, north replacing south, working class defeating upper and professionals impinging upon the amateurs' territory, came in 1883. Old Etonians lost the FA Cup final to a five-year-old club called Blackburn Olympic.

It caused consternation, not just in the south but in Blackburn, which had two football clubs. "When Olympic won the FA Cup in 1883, it shook Rovers, who thought they had been the predominant force in the town," said Mike Jackman, the author of Blackburn Rovers: The Complete Record.

Despite their name, Olympic were very much a people's club. "You have to look at the founders and backers of the clubs," Jackman wrote. "Rovers had a public school background whereas Blackburn Olympic were manual workers from the mills. They had one serious backer, the guy who owned the local iron foundry. Rovers was more of a gentlemen's club."

But Rovers' response to their loss of face was increasingly common. "They brought in Scottish professionals at a time when professionalism was illegal," Jackman said. "Fergus Suter came down to play for Darwen. He was a stonemason by trade but when he arrived in Lancashire, no one saw him working with stone. He claimed the Lancashire stone was too hard for him. He soon switched allegiance. Darwen were unhappy but could not complain because what they were doing was illegal. It was just that Rovers were offering more money than Darwen."

Bolstered by a sizeable Scottish contingent, Rovers duly won the FA Cup three years in a row, establishing themselves as the leading club in both the town and the country. Then as now, success attracted controversy: John Inglis, supposedly a full-time motor mechanic, played for them despite living in Glasgow.

Blackburn were assumed to be guilty of misdoing. Preston were proved to be culprits and expelled from the FA Cup for paying their players. The FA's solution in 1885 merely proved to be a short-term fix: legalising professionalism for footballers born within a six-mile radius of the club's ground, or who had lived there for at least two years.

With payments now legitimate, Blackburn had an annual wage bill of £615 (Dh3,600). Yet the FA's move neither ended the issue - Sunderland were later barred from the FA Cup for fielding three players who, like Inglis, lived in Scotland - nor placated the clubs.

And then William McGregor, a Scottish draper and Aston Villa director, revealed himself to be a visionary. "I beg to tender the following suggestion," he wrote in a letter to Blackburn, Preston, Bolton and the 1888 FA Cup winners West Bromwich Albion. "That 10 or 12 of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home-and-away fixtures each season."

They were fateful words, underpinned by a sound logic.

"Clubs played endless rounds of friendlies but the kick-off times varied," Jackman added. "McGregor wanted more formal fixtures with definite kick-off times and a definite home-and-away schedule." In short, he wanted a guaranteed income.

After two meetings, the list of clubs was finalised. While the development of the railways made a structured Football League possible, Sunderland were nonetheless excluded for geographical reasons. Late applications from Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest and Halliwell (a suburb of Bolton) failed, while Small Heath, later renamed Birmingham City, "whose ambition ran higher than their ability" , according to McGregor, were another notable omission, in a move that may have sowed the seeds of an inter-city rivalry.

A third team from England's "Second City", Mitchell St George's, went from potential members of the Football League to out of existence within a few years. Blackburn Olympic, FA Cup winners five years before, were ignored and folded in 1889.

No club from London featured in Division One until Woolwich Arsenal in 1904. The southern part-timers of Old Carthusians, who had been considered, fell by the wayside as professionalism took precedence (amateurism, in comparison, continued in cricket until 1963 and was enshrined in rugby union until 1995).

So the eventual choice in 1888 incorporated six sides from the Midlands - Villa, West Brom, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Stoke City, Derby County and Notts County - with the North-West providing the other half of the division. "William McGregor was quite a shrewd guy and the make-up of the Football League guaranteed a number of derby games," said Simpson, the Burnley historian. "That may well have been in his mind - parochial rivalry might have been even stronger then."

In the 19th century, as in the 21st, the local element in the support cheered on imported players. "A lot of north-west clubs were made up almost entirely of Scottish players," Simpson said. "Certainly Burnley were and it is true of a lot of others."

It was true of England's first ever champions. Propelled by the goals of their Scottish forwards Jimmy Ross and John Goodall and featuring 10 players from north of the English border, Preston North End won 18 and drew four of their 22 league matches. It earned them a nickname bestowed upon Arsenal 115 years later: "The Invincibles".

Admittedly, their rivals may have had other distractions. With one eye on the cash register, Mike Jackman said: "Rovers still carried on playing friendlies until way into the 1890s. They didn't want to give up the income. They would play a league game on the Saturday and then maybe a couple of midweek friendlies."

Nevertheless, Preston's manager William Sudell, with his recruitment drive and team of "Scotch professors", as they were described, was a factor in the days when most clubs were run by a man with the job title of "Secretary".

A progressive force in one respect, Sudell's story was familiar in others. So, too, was Preston's. The league was won again before the unstoppable team was disrupted by richer teams, plucking the talent from Deepdale. Sudell's attempts to boost the club's finances were illegal; in 1895, he was convicted of embezzling more than £5,000 from the mill where he worked.

Preston's era of supremacy was over. Their second title, won in 1890, was also their last. Soon, they were neither England's football dominant force nor the region's. With the benefit of hindsight, there was an inevitability to the triumph of the big-city clubs - Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United - over their smaller neighbours.

But it was not always obvious. As recently as 1945, the quartet of Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley and Preston could still boast more than twice as many FA Cup wins (12) as the north-west's four most powerful clubs had mustered (five). They are distant days but the legacy of their exploits in the shadow of those dark, satanic mills lives on in the global game.

League's founding father

Few football administrators are immortalised in statues, but William McGregor was no ordinary director. The sculpture of the Scot outside Villa Park, the home of Aston Villa, was unveiled in November 2009 by Lord Mawhinney, the chairman of the Football League.

Albeit unofficially, McGregor was given a grand title: "The Father of the League." Whether he originated the idea of the League is the subject of dispute, but it was McGregor who provide the organisation and inspiration.

His choice of the original 12 clubs showed him to be far-sighted, aware of both commercial concerns and the wishes of the public. "Everton were not a club with a history when the league was formed," McGregor said. "But they were beginning to draw public attention by the number of spectators that found their way to Anfield [then Everton's home] on Saturday afternoon."

He also credited the League with giving football a much-needed boost. "I really believe that the game would have received a very severe check, and its popularity would have been paralysed once and for all, if the League had not been founded," McGregor said. "I am not saying that football would have died, because football will never die."

Instead, he gave it new life. Within a decade, his brainchild had tripled in size, with two tiers of 18 clubs.