© Tony Brown, 1995

Taken from the introduction to "The Ultimate Football League Statistics Book", published by the author in 1994.

The idea of a "league", in which each club played every other club in an organised, scheduled fashion was first established in America with the formation of baseball's National League in 1876. The earlier baseball National Association was less well organised; each club was not obliged to play every other, and they played unequal numbers of games. Cricket in this country was also less formally structured at the time; an unofficial championship table was published as early as 1864 but not until 1892 did each county play every other twice.

The 1880s were a period of rapid change in the organisation of professional, competitive football. The press reports of the time show a growing spectator interest in the game as the Saturday half day holiday became established. The growth of football can be seen by examining the number of clubs entering the F.A. Cup competition; fifteen in 1871/72, seventy three in 1881/82, and one hundred and forty nine in 1888/89. The fixture list of a leading club at that time included a series of "friendly" fixtures with other clubs of similar status, the F.A. Cup, and other cup competitions organised by the county or town in which the club was based. The formation of the Football League in 1888 can thus be seen as a logical development; a means of continuing to attract the paying public to a guaranteed number of home games each season.

William McGregor, a committee member of Aston Villa, wrote to some of the leading clubs in March 1888; after two meetings the founder members of the League were agreed. The number of Saturdays available was a factor in limiting the number of clubs in the competition to twelve. This required twenty two Saturdays for the fixtures, but the clubs would also have continued with some of their traditional friendly games and needed to play their national and local cup games as well. Many clubs found that the only way to tackle this fixture problem was to arrange two games on one day, and use two completely different "first" teams to play the games.

The first twelve clubs comprised six from Lancashire and six from the Midlands. All of them had professional players. Just one of those clubs is no longer playing today (Accrington), although another (Stoke) has had two spells out of the League. Well established clubs who were not included in the original twelve were Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday; Forest were late to embrace professionalism and preferred to retain their former fixture list. Southern clubs stayed largely amateur and aloof from the League; Arsenal were the first to be admitted, in 1893/94. It was originally hoped that Scottish clubs would join; clubs from north of the border had played in the F.A. Cup since the competition started in 1871/72. However, they formed their own league in 1890.

The first games were played under the League rules on September 8th 1888. Some of these rules were still under discussion; the two points for a win, one for a draw rule was not agreed until November 21st that year. The counter proposal was just to count the wins. Things were a little disorganised at first. Matches often started late due to the late arrival of the opposition. Results were sometimes disputed. Bolton Wanderers claimed a game against Notts County in 1889/90 was lost 0-3 and not 0-4 as shown in the records; this helped them avoid the need to apply for re-election at the end of the season. The Notts County versus Derby County game in the first season is shown in the League's records as played on the 19th November 1888 with a 2-5 result. In fact the match was played on 16th March 1889 and finished 3-5.

There is no doubt that all the clubs involved found the League was a success. The original rules required the last four clubs to retire and apply for re-election; all were successful in 1889, so the second season started with the same twelve clubs. Stoke were the first club not to be re-elected; they were replaced by Sunderland in 1890. Nottingham Forest changed their minds about organised competition and were founder members in 1889 of a rival competition, the Football Alliance. A game between the two leagues was played in 1891, resulting in a 1-1 draw. The original constitution of the League had envisaged a second division, and this was formed in 1892/93 by absorbing the Football Alliance. Two Alliance clubs were elected directly into the first division; most of the remaining clubs formed the new Division Two.

The formation of the second division raised the question of promotion and relegation. The League decided that the clubs in the promotion and relegation spots should meet in "test matches", a descriptive enough term borrowed from cricket where the first international matches to be labelled as test matches took place in 1861/62. The test matches ran for six seasons, but were not regarded as particularly fair or successful and were replaced by automatic promotion and relegation in 1898/99. The League rules still allowed for direct election into the first division; the last club to benefit from this were Arsenal who were elected to Division One after the First World War despite finishing fifth in Division Two in season 1914/15; it was an inspired choice as they have remained in the division ever since.

There was a fairly rapid turnover of clubs in the second division in the seasons up to 1915. Some clubs dropped out for a year or so and played in regional leagues before returning; others never did return. Some disbanded, others can still be found to this day playing in the minor leagues.

The League was suspended at the end of the 1914/15 season because of the First World War. Most clubs continued to play in regional competitions during the war, but many players volunteered for active duty and did not return. The League restarted in 1919.

The experience of amalgamating another league into the Football League was repeated in 1920, when the first division of the Southern League (formed in 1894) became the third division of the League. It was intended to form a third division for northern clubs at the same time, but there was no "Northern League" to take over. The northern section started one year after the southern section, with clubs from leagues such as the North Eastern, the Lancashire Combination, the Birmingham and District, the Midland, and the Central. Most of these leagues were established in the early 1890s, all taking the Football League rules as their basis. Just one club was promoted from each of the third divisions. In order to fit the clubs relegated from Division Two into their appropriate division, South or North, it was sometimes necessary to move the Midland clubs from one third division to the other; thus clubs such as Mansfield and Walsall played in both divisions.

The 1939/40 season had just started at the outbreak of the Second World War; most clubs had played three games when the competition was suspended. As in the First War, a number of regional leagues were organised. The League did not restart until August 1946 althoughthe F.A. Cup was played in season 1945/46.

The period from 1922 to 1958 saw little change; the number of clubs dropping out or failing to win re-election was much smaller than the seasons up to 1915. The third divisions were expanded to 24 clubs in 1950. By 1958, the economic justification for regional third divisions was less obvious, and it was decided to replace them with nationwide Third and Fourth divisions. The top half of each regional division formed the new Third division, and the bottom half the Fourth. Four clubs were promoted and four relegated between the two new divisions. Two up, two down had been the general rule between the higher divisions; this changed to three up, three down in 1973/74.

Until season 1975/76, clubs that finished level on points were separated by "goal average". Their total of goals for was divided by their goals against. This could be argued to encourage defensive play, since not conceding any goals is obviously going to help the average. From 1976/77 onwards, goal difference was used instead. This is calculated by subtracting the goals against from the goals for. If clubs have the same goal difference, the one with most goals for is given the higher place; this rule was needed to settle the First Division championship in 1988/89. The "new" Football League decided that "goals for" would apply from 1992/93 onwards, but the Premier League has retained goal difference.

1981/82 saw one of the most fundamental changes in the history of the League, although it caused no major revolution. The reward of two points for a win was replaced by three points, the argument being that it would stimulate attacking play and reduce the number of 0-0 draws that had peaked between 1971 and 1980.

Season 1985/86 was the last season in which the bottom four clubs (of Division Four) had to apply for re-election. The League clubs agreed that the bottom club in 1986/87 would be replaced by the champions of the GM Vauxhall Conference. This had been formed in 1979/80 (as the Alliance Premier League) to bring together the major non-league clubs from the regional leagues. Lincoln City were bottom in 1986/87. This was the fourth time in their history that they were out of the league, but (as on all other occasions) they were back after just one season. The re-election principle had not always seemed fair; Gateshead were not re-elected in 1960 yet nearby Hartlepool survived on many occasions. There is an interesting list of clubs that applied for election but didn't make it; how might football history have changed if the applications of The Argonauts, Rossendale, and Fairfield been successful?

The test match principle was re-introduced in 1986/87 as a means of helping to reduce the first division from 22 clubs to 20. The play-offs were generally held to be successful even though "odd" results could occur; Chelsea were relegated in 1988 despite winning three of their four play-off games. The play-offs continued from 1988/89 as a means of deciding the final promotion place in Divisions Two, Three and Four. The bottom club of Division Four in seasons 1990/91 and 1991/92 were not moved to the GM Vauxhall Conference as it had been decided to restore the first division to 22 clubs.

The clubs which would have formed the first division in 1992/93 broke away to form the F.A. Premier League. The remaining divisions two, three and four of the Football League were then renumbered one, two and three. Three clubs are relegated from the Premier League, and three promoted from Division 1 though this changed at the end of 1994/95 when the number of clubs in the Premier League was reduced.


There have been many competitive games played under League rules that are not regarded as "league" games. These matches are:

Test matches, played between 1893 and 1898, and used to determine promotion and relegation between Divisions One and Two.

The expunged records of Wigan Borough in 1932, Accrington Stanley in 1962 and Aldershot in 1993. These clubs failed to complete the season and so the results of the games they had played that season were removed from the final totals.

Those of season 1939/40, which was abandoned because of the 1939-45 War after each club had played two or three matches.

Play-offs, which have been used since 1987 to settle some promotion and relegation issues.


The original League rules published in 1888 required the bottom four clubs to retire from the League but they were then eligible to apply for re-election. The formation of the second division meant that the bottom four clubs of that division had to retire; this was reduced to three in season 1895/96 and two in 1908/09. Two clubs from each of the Third Divisions North and South had to retire, and four from Division Four. The last season of the re-election principle was 1985/86; until 1990/91, the bottom club in Division Four has been replaced by the champions of the GM Vauxhall Conference.

Bolton Wanderers were not obliged to retire in 1889/90 after a dispute over the result of one of their games.

West Bromwich Albion were excused from retiring in 1891/92 because they had won the F.A. Cup. Darwen were not re-elected that season, but were then elected to the new Division Two.

Birmingham City were not promoted after winning the championship of Division Two in 1892/93 (and Manchester United were not relegated after finishing last in Division One) as a result of the test matches. Similarly, West Bromwich Albion avoided relegation in 1895/96 despite finishing bottom of Division One.

Rotherham Town were not re-elected in 1893/94, but were invited back for the following season after the resignation of Middlesbrough Ironopolis. Crewe managed to avoid retiring that season by arguing that Bootle should be considered as finishing below them; Bootle had in fact resigned just before the start of the season.

Stoke City and Burnley qualified for Division One in the test matches of 1897/98. A 0-0 draw was sufficient for the clubs to top the test match table and they duly ensured that this happened in what was probably the most boring game of all time. However, after it was agreed to increase the number of clubs in the League, the two defeated clubs (Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United) were elected to Division One. Once again, Darwen were not re-elected that season, but were invited back because of the increase in the number of clubs.

Bury and Notts County were re-elected to Division One after finishing last in 1904/05, because the size of the League was increased again.

Burton United were not re-elected, but it was their turn to be invited back because of an increase in the number of clubs.

There were several changes when the League resumed in 1919 after the First World War. Chelsea were re-elected to Division One without going to a vote as the division had been extended to 22 clubs. Arsenal were elected (somewhat controversially) to Division One ahead of Tottenham Hotspur (who were thus relegated to Division Two), Burnley, Wolves, Nottingham Forest, Birmingham City and Hull City.

Leeds City were expelled in the 1919/20 season for not revealing their books to the League; these were thought to contain evidence of illegal payments to players during the War. They had played eight matches at the time; Port Vale were invited to rejoin the League and played the remaining Leeds City fixtures. They were also credited with the results of the eight games.

Grimsby Town and Lincoln City were not re-elected in 1920. However, Grimsby were elected (somewhat incongruously - the only northern club) to the new Division Three. Although they had finished below Lincoln in the table they had polled more votes in the re-election ballot. They transferred to Division Three (North) when this was formed for the 1921/22 season.

The third division of the League was created for the 1920/21 season by taking the clubs from the first division of the Southern League and including Grimsby. As there was no Third Division (North) until the following season it is arguable as to whether the records for the third division should be labelled as "3S" or simply "3".

Brentford and Gillingham were not obliged to retire in 1920/21 because of the formation of Division Three (North).

The resignation of Wigan Borough in 1931/32 meant that only Rochdale had to retire. Similarly, the resignation of Accrington Stanley in 1961/62 meant that just the last three clubs in Division Four that year needed to retire.

Peterborough United were relegated from Division Three to Division Four at the end of the 1967/68 season because of illegal payments to players. However, points were not deducted from their record. Port Vale were expelled in 1968 for unauthorised payments, but were immediately re-elected.

The Scunthorpe United versus Exeter City game in season 1973/74 was not played. Scunthorpe were awarded two points.

Swindon Town won their play off match against Sunderland in 1989/90 but were not promoted because of irregular payments to players.

The following clubs had points deducted, in most cases for playing ineligible players. Tranmere Rovers failed to play a game on the scheduled date. Arsenal and Manchester United had points deducted because of player misconduct during their game.

1890/91 Sunderland Division 1 2 points
1926/27 Stockport CoDivision 3N 2 points
1973/74 Preston NEDivision 2 1 point
1973/74 Newport Co.Division 4 1 point
1974/75 Aldershot Division 3 1 point
1981/82Bristol Rov. Division 3 2 points
1981/82Mansfield TDivision 4 2 points
1982/83Blackpool Division 42 points
1987/88Halifax Town Division 41 point
1987/88Tranmere Rov. Division 42 points
1990/91 ArsenalDivision 12 points
1990/91Manchester U Division 11 point
Some "home" games were actually played on grounds belonging to other clubs. The most notable examples are perhaps Manchester United who played on Manchester City's ground from 1946 to 1949 because of bomb damage at Old Trafford, and Notts County when they played at Trent Bridge. At the start and end of each season County had to play elsewhere because of the need to play cricket on the ground. Such games are still counted as home games in the records.


Several clubs have played under different names during their time in the League. The name used in the database is followed by the other names they have used and the League seasons to which they apply.
Arsenal Woolwich Arsenal1893/94-1914
The Arsenal 1914/15-1927
Birmingham City Small Heath 1892/93-1905
Bournemouth Bournemouth and Boscombe Ath.1923/24-72
AFC Bournemouth1972/73 to date
Burton UnitedBurton Swifts 1892/93-1901
Chester City Chester 1931/32-1983
GatesheadSouth Shields 1919/20-30
Glossop Glossop North End1898/99-1903
Hartlepool UnitedHartlepools United 1921/22-68
Leicester City Leicester Fosse 1894/95-1915
Leyton Orient Clapton Orient 1905/06-1939
Orient 1966/67-1987
Manchester City Ardwick1892/93-94
Manchester UnitedNewton Heath 1892/93-1902
Port ValeBurslem Port Vale 1892/93-1907
Rotherham United Rotherham County1919/20-1925
Stoke City Stoke 1888/89-1925
Swansea City Swansea Town 1920/21-1970
Walsall Walsall Town Swifts1892/93-1895

Burton Wanderers merged with Burton Swifts to form Burton United.

Rotherham Town merged with Rotherham County to form Rotherham United.

South Shields moved to Gateshead in 1930, changing their name and their ground.

The original Accrington club resigned from the League in 1893 and went out of existence in 1896, at about the time that Accrington Stanley were formed. They should be considered as separate clubs.

Similarly, Leeds City were not the same club as Leeds United, and New Brighton Tower and New Brighton were separate clubs. These distinctions have sometimes not been made by other compilers of statistics.


The definitive work for League results up to season 1937/38 is the "Story of the Football League", published by the League in 1938.

Five results in the AFS database differ from those given in the League's book (and repeated in other reference works such as Rothmans). They are as follows:

1888/89 (16th March 1889): Notts County 3, Derby County 5 (not 2-5). Notts County cancelled the original fixture scheduled for 17th November 1888 in order to play Derby Midland in the F.A. Cup.

1895/96 (4th January 1896): Arsenal 5, Loughborough 0 (not 6-0). The Loughborough paper reports that the sixth goal was disallowed for offside.

1896/97 (28th November 1896): Leicester City (then Fosse) 4, Walsall 2 (not 4-1). Given by the authors of the Leicester City history "Of Fossils and Foxes" (Dave Smith and Paul Taylor, Polar Publishing). Confirmed by the Nottingham papers, though they note that Walsall scored their second goal "just on time".

1902/03 (25th December 1902): Glossop 3, Stockport County 0 (not 3-1).

1912/13 (26th April 1913): Hull City 2, Leicester City (then Fosse) 0 (not 2-1). Still something of a puzzle. The author of "Hull City, A Complete Record" (Chris Elton, Breedon Books) gives 2-1. "Of Fossils and Foxes" has 2-0 and is therefore accepted as correct (as it is a Leicester goal that is in dispute). However, a Leicester correspondent has 2-1, with Osborn the scorer.

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