The Football Alliance: The forgotten league from the Victorian age

WHEN the Football League was formed in 1888, there were already hundreds of clubs in existence across Great Britain. The game had been adopted by thousands of people from many walks of life: schools, colleges and universities; church groups; and industry. From these three strands of society, the majority of clubs owe their origins. The league would comprise 12 teams, so it was inevitable there would be a number of disappointed clubs that could not gain admission.

In 1889, another league was proposed, largely consisting of clubs who were either not invited or whose bid to join had been rejected or ignored. The Football Alliance was inaugurated and like its bigger brother, the teams were from the north and the midlands, emphasising where the growth of football was coming from. As James Walvin noted in his book, The People’s Game, “Football ideally fitted the nature and needs of urban industrial life”.

The Alliance was the brainchild of Crewe Alexandra’s secretary J.G. Hall who had been involved with another competition, The Combination, which floundered due to poor organisation and unfulfillment of fixtures.

The Alliance became a de facto second division of the Football League in all but name. Among the first 12 members were some well respected clubs, such as Crewe, who had reached the FA Cup semi-final in 1888, losing to the eventual winners, Preston North End who would then go on to win the Football League champions and FA Cup winners to clinch the first “double” and earn the nickname, “the Invincibles”.

Nottingham Forest, who had been overlooked in favour of Notts County by the Football League were also involved in the Alliance’s first campaign, along with Newton Heath (Manchester United’s forerunner), Grimsby Town and Walsall Town Swifts. There was also Long Eaton Rangers, who played one season before disappearing into local football.

Small Heath Alliance, founded in 1875 and would become Birmingham City, were also founder members. They played on Coventry Road at a ground that later became popularly known as Muntz Street. The club was based at this stadium for close on 30 years, despite having a very poor playing surface that earned the nickname, “the celery patch”. Muntz Street soon became impractical and the club moved to what became St. Andrews.

There was another team from Birmingham in that first Alliance season, Birmingham St. George’s, which was the result of a series of club mergers, notably Mitchell’s and St. George’s in 1881. The club had a relatively short life, disbanding in 1892 due to financial difficulties as Small Heath and Aston Villa started to dominate local football. 

The Alliance also included some names that fell away from prominence. Darwen FC folded as recently as 2009 (although a successor club was formed immediately), but had their moments in the FA Cup and played in the Football League between 1891 and 1899. Darwen finished sixth in 1890 and 1891 and were then elected to the League. Earlier in the club’s history, they included Fergus Suter in their ranks, reputed to be the first professional player and the subject of the recent TV dramatization The English Game.

Bootle was another northern club that folded before being reformed. The original Bootle club was founded in 1879 at a time when the Merseyside town was growing rapidly. It was a popular home for wealthy merchants who prospered from the rise of Liverpool as a port. Bootle’s main rivals were Everton and when the Football League was being set-up, the organisers only required one club from the Liverpool area. Bootle missed out but enjoyed a very successful year in 1889-90, finishing runners-up in the Alliance by four points and also reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, losing 7-0 to Blackburn Rovers. Bootle later became founder members of the second division in 1892 but resigned after a solitary year.

The Alliance clubs fared well in the FA Cup in 1890 and The Wednesday reached the final after beating Football League members Accrington, Bolton Wanderers and Notts County on the way. Wednesday were a decent side and had England internationals in Teddy Brayshaw and Billy Betts in their line-up, as well as one of the early adopters of man-to-man marking, Jack Dungworth. Their star man was Albert Mumford, known as “Clinks”, who scored the vital goals against Bolton Wanderers in the semi-final.

Blackburn, their opponents in the cup final, easily won by 6-1, but reaching the final highlighted there was talent outside the League. Wednesday also won the Alliance, but the following season saw them, bizarrely, finish bottom, before recovering in 1891-92 and securing election to the Football League. 

The second champions of the Alliance, in 1891, were Stoke City, who had finished bottom of the Football League in 1889 and 1890 and were not re-elected. Stoke had retained players who appeared in the League and their squad included players like Tommy Clare and Bill Rowley, who had been capped by England. Their leading scorer was the extremely versatile Alfie Edge, who netted 12 goals in 22 games.

In 1891, the first hint of a southern entrant came in the form of Royal Arsenal, who had just turned professional. They expressed an interest in joining the Alliance, but they missed their chance. They did join the Football League in 1893 as Woolwich Arsenal. 

In 1892, the final year of the competition, Nottingham Forest were champions, a team that had stunned the football establishment by beating Preston North End in the FA Cup in front of 20,000 people. The overall standard of the Alliance was evident when a representative game with the Football League at Sheffield ended all-square. As the League sought to expand, the union of the two leagues took place in 1892, allowing the Football League to create an official second division. 

The Alliance was short-lived, perhaps, but it proved there was strength in depth within the football community and as the Football League grew in confidence, its merger was inevitable. Despite its important role in spreading organised football, the competition has been somewhat overlooked in the history of the game.

Three points for a win – has it made a difference?

JIMMY HILL was a character who divided opinion, but nobody can deny he was an ideas man. Not everybody agreed with some of his schemes, but Mr Hill had the good of the game at heart and was often concerned about football’s future. In 1981, the Football League introduced a new points system with the aim of making the game more interesting. Instead of two points for a win, the reward for victory would be three, with only one point for a draw. The idea came from Jimmy Hill’s committee that was looking at ways to halt the decline of English football, which was gathering momentum at an alarming pace. 

It was a grim time for football in Britain: crowds were falling, hooliganism rife, costs getting out of control and the game’s appeal was deteriorating. The Football League looked bloated, stuck in the past and lacking in the commercial acumen to get the industry out of a hole. To make life that little bit more difficult, the UK economy, by the end of March 1981, had endured five consecutive quarters of negative growth. Unemployment had hit the 2.5 million mark by 1981.

People were bored with football as England’s position in the global game slumped. They had failed to qualify for two World Cups (1974 and 1978) and had been lacklustre in the European Championships in 1976 and 1980. Club football was doing well in Europe, however, with Liverpool winning the European Cup in 1977, 1978 and 1981 and Nottingham Forest doing likewise in 1979 and 1980. 

But at home, attendances were falling fast. From 1970, when the average first division gate was just over 32 thousand, football’s top flight lost almost 20% of its audience by 1980. By 1984, the figure had worsened to an average of less than 19 thousand. Between 1977 and 1981, even clubs like Manchester United (-17%), Liverpool (-21%), Manchester City (-17%) and Newcastle (-50%), were suffering at the turnstiles. The English game was some £ 60 million in debt in 1981, a small figure by today’s standards, but worrying at the time.

Hooliganism was a major problem for football and the UK government needed little excuse to demonise the sport and its followers. In the 1980s, annual arrests regularly exceeded five thousand per season and town centre skirmishes on matchdayswere not uncommon. This not only discouraged families and certain demographics, but also tarnished the image of football.

Stiffer penalties for hooligans were among the suggestions made by working groups looking at transforming football’s trajectory. Hill and his colleagues looked to reduce the size of the top divisions and reintroduce regionalisation in the lower divisions. The Football League also needed a new deal from TV and the pools. Transfer fees were spiralling and needed a ceiling. Finally, clubs wanted to curb the practice of hiring and firing managers in mid-season, a scenario that often triggered an exodus of players and inter-club tension.

Against all these suggestions and proposals, introducing three points for a win seemed relatively unimportant and somewhat cosmetic. In February 1981, the change to the points system was narrowly voted in. The headline news, however, was the gentleman’s agreement among club chairman not to poach a manager from another club during a season. Three points for a win was a laudable concept, it encouraged teams to go for a win rather than settle for a draw. In other words, strive for victory rather than avoid defeat. There were teams in the 1970s that had made an art of winning at home and drawing away, which often meant a defence-orientated strategy for away games.

The opening day of the 1981-82 season produced some surprise results: Arsenal were beaten 1-0 at home by Stoke; Notts County won 1-0 at Villa; an expensively-assembled Manchester United were beaten 2-1 by Coventry at all-seater Highfield Road; newly-promoted Swansea crushed Leeds 5-1; Wolves beat Liverpool 1-0. A total of 34 goals were scored and attendances were down 7% on the opening day of the previous campaign. There were just two draws and not a single goalless game.

By the end of 1981-82, the first division’s goals-per-game was down from 2.66 to 2.54 and attendances fell once more, this time by 8.6% to 22,556. Had there been any benefit from the points change? It was clear that football’s race to the bottom was not yet over, indeed, it would take the whole decade to reach a point of reinvention and reinvigoration.

Three points for a win did create a new dynamic and also revealed the damage that a high percentage of draws could do to a team. Eluding defeat was not enough but even though the incentive had been enhanced by 50%, increased coaching and tactical awareness has not eradicated the useful draw. For example, in 1981-82, the first season of three for a win, 26% of top flight games were stalemates. Over the last five seasons, the average has been well over 30%.

Nevertheless, England’s move was eventually followed by the other main leagues across Europe. In 1988-89, France adopted the format and six years later, Italy followed suit. Then, in 1995-96, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal all changed their points system.

The change has created its own champions. Blackburn in 1995 and Manchester City in 2019 would not have been title winners in a two-point league. And if the “three for a win” system had been introduced earlier in history, Ipswich Town would have won the 1974-75 championship instead of Derby County. 

In the five years before 1981-82, the average goals-per-game was 2.60 but in the past five seasons, the Premier’s average goal-rate has been 2.74 – that’s a 5% increase. It’s hard to say whether it did make a difference to the way teams have played. If anything, it may have prompted a different state of mind, even if the stats don’t always evidence a sea-change. Generally-speaking, football is probably more attack-minded than it was in the late 1970s, so maybe three points has had a positive influence, but more likely, it has been one of the adjustments that helped football turn back from the abyss.


Photo: PA Images

Great Reputations: Stoke City 1972-1975 – Clued-up with Mr Waddington and Mr Hudson


ACCORDING TO Deloitte, Stoke City are among the top 30 football clubs, bigger than the likes of Ajax Amsterdam, four times European champions. Of course, this is attributable to the remarkable level of wealth that exists in the English Premier League rather than Stoke’s success on the field of play.

Although one of the founding members of the Football League in 1888 – they finished bottom in the 12-team competition –  Stoke have never been champions of England. The closest they came, until the mid-1970s, was in 1946-47 when they finished fourth.

Yet Stoke, down the years, have fielded some richly talented players, including Stanley Matthews, Neil Franklin, Jimmy McIlroy and Gordon Banks. Very much the team of the Potteries, as synonymous with the region as Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns, Stoke City have arguably been one of football’s under-achievers, but they have always been very much part of the fabric of the game’s industrial heartland. They may have been indelibly linked to pottery, but they have never been associated with gold or silver.

Look at Stoke’s honours list and it will not take long to absorb. The only major prize has been the Football League Cup, won in 1971-72 against the odds. Nobody expected Stoke to win the trophy that year, more so when they lost the first leg of the semi-final at home to West Ham, but after a marathon tie, they won through to the final. Their opponents, Chelsea, had been in good form since overcoming a poor start to 1971-72. Chelsea had won the FA Cup and European Cup-Winners Cup in the two previous campaigns and the pundits anticipated a hat-trick of triumphs. Furthermore, Stoke had a few players who were approaching the veteran stage of their careers, including Banks, George Eastham, the pipe-smoking Peter Dobing and John Ritchie. On paper, it looked a foregone conclusion that Chelsea would win.


The game started dramatically with Terry Conroy putting Stoke ahead and although Chelsea levelled and began to dominate, Eastham snatched the winner for Tony Waddington’s side. Stoke were ecstatic but despite reaching the FA Cup semi-final, losing for the second successive season to Arsenal at the penultimate stage, their league form deteriorated and they won just once in their last 13 games.

There was little sign that Stoke would build on their 1972 success in 1972-73. Mike Bernard, one of the younger members of the Wembley team, was sold to Everton for £160,000 and in his place came two strikers: England World Cup hero Geoff Hurst from West Ham and Jimmy Robertson from Ipswich Town. The success of 1972 and the arrival of Hurst helped boost season ticket sales, but the campaign started poorly, with one win in the first nine games. Then in October, the club and the nation suffered a major setback when Gordon Banks was involved in a serious car accident. Banks lost an eye and eventually gave up the game. Stoke finished the season in 15th place.

While players like Dobing and Eastham had now gone, along with Banks, the bulk of the team that beat Chelsea was still intact. Waddington knew, midway through the 1973-74 season, that he needed to strengthen his squad. In January 1974, he made a bold bid to bring two highly talented players, Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson, from Chelsea to the Midlands. Both had fallen out with Chelsea and their spat with manager Dave Sexton had dominated the back pages of the national press. Waddington persuaded Hudson to join Stoke, paying £ 240,000 to the London club for his services. He was not able to make it a double coup as Osgood opted to join Southampton.

Hudson was still only 22 years old, so his best days were ahead of him. He had long been considered a potential star of the 1974 World Cup, but after shunning his country when called-up for an England Under-23 tour in 1972, he had little opportunity to shine on the international stage. When Hudson made his debut for Stoke, his new club was 17th in the table. He made his debut against Liverpool earning glowing praise from Bill Shankly, who called it, “the best debut I have ever seen”. Hudson’s ability was never questioned, in fact, he had been compared to West Germany’s rampant Gunter Netzer, but his attitude was always an issue. But at Stoke, away from the distractions of the Kings Road in London, Hudson flourished. People started to call for his inclusion in the England team, which had lost out on appearing in the 1974 World Cup. Meanwhile, Stoke lost just twice in their last 18 games and were unbeaten in the final nine. Hudson even rubbed salt in Chelsea’s wounds in a dreadful season, scoring the only goal in Stoke’s 1-0 win in April at Stamford Bridge.

Waddington, with Hudson at the heart of things, tried to build a team that played a more cerebral style, one that played homage to the scintillating “total football” of the early 1970s. Hudson was certainly cut from the same cloth as some of the Dutch and German players of the period and this was underlined when the former Chelsea man made his debut for England in 1974-75.

Sir Alf Ramsey was never convinced about Hudson, despite naming him in the preliminary 40 for World Cup 1970 as an 18 year-old. Injury kept him out of Chelsea’s FA Cup winning team and that seemed to affect him in the following year. Don Revie finally selected Hudson for the England v West Germany game at Wembley in March 1975 and he had an inspired game, drawing praise from none other than German skipper Franz Beckenbauer, who could not believe that England had not used Hudson more often. But he made just one more appearance, a 5-0 win against Cyprus, before being discarded by Revie.

Stoke were going great guns in the league in 1974-75, starting with a 3-0 win against Brian Clough’s ill-fated Leeds United on the opening day. Jimmy Greenhoff benefitted enormously from Hudson’s pinpoint passing and eventually scored 14 goals in the league, and the old warhorse, Geoff Hurst, had a final flourish up front. Stoke were also boosted by the arrival of Geoff Salmons from Sheffield United. Waddington then made another somewhat audacious capture when he signed Peter Shilton from Leicester City in November for £ 325,000  – a world record for a goalkeeper at that time. Within 10 days of Shilton’s arrival, Stoke hit the top of the league following a 1-0 win against his former employers. For a club that was distinctly a budget-price shopper, the acquisition of Hudson and Shilton gave the Potters a new, are we say, glamorous image, and what’s more, the quality of their football was worth watching.

Football League Division One: November 30, 1974

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Stoke City 20 9 7 4 33 25 25
2 Ipswich Town 20 11 2 7 28 15 24
3 Liverpool 19 10 4 5 25 14 24
4 Everton 19 6 12 1 19 24 24
5 Manchester C 20 10 4 6 26 25 24
6 West Ham Utd 20 9 5 6 37 28 23

The 1974-75 title race was a tight affair, however, and three successive defeats, culminating in a 0-2 defeat at Coventry on Boxing Day, sent Stoke down to seventh place. By mid-February, they were back on top, but there were so many contenders, including unlikely pretenders like Burnley and Middlesbrough, that nobody could really predict how the season would end. The lead at the top changed something like 22 times.

At the end of March, after beating fellow aspirants Liverpool 2-0, Stoke were one point behind leaders Everton and sat in third place. A week later, after a resounding 3-0 win against Chelsea, there were four teams on 47 points with Stoke in third.

But then they either lost their nerve or ran out of steam. Stoke failed to win any of their last three games, starting with a 0-2 defeat at Sheffield United that sent them down to fifth position. Two goalless draws ensured they stayed in that position in the final analysis, but they were only four points off winning the. If Stoke had won their last three games, they would have been champions.

Sadly, it all turned to dust. Stoke dropped to mid-table in 1975-76 and then damage to their ground required money they struggled to find. As a result a string of players departed in 1976-77 – 30 year-old Jimmy Greenhoff left for Manchester United in November 1976 for £120,000; Hudson exited in December 1976 for Arsenal (£200,000); England full-back Mike Pejic defected to Everton (£ 135,000); and Sean Haslegrave and Ian Moores also departed. In March 1977, Waddington left Stoke City and a couple of months later, the club was relegated from Division One.

Stoke may now be firmly established in the Premier League and the top 30 of the Money Football League, but they may never come as close to winning the top honours as they did under Tony Waddington and with Alan Hudson and Peter Shilton in their ranks. Halcyon days in the Potteries.