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.

Stranger in a strange land: Sheffield Wednesday

ALTHOUGH a battle would rage between Leeds and Sheffield if you ever suggested it, the club with the most gongs in Yorkshire is actually the Wednesday. Sheffield Wednesday have won eight major honours to Leeds United’s seven, although most of those trophies were lifted before the second world war. Sheffield United, their neighbours and red half of the steel city, have won five. Leeds, without doubt, are the closest the county has got to modern success, although their last piece of silverware was won in 1992.

Hillsborough has become a word that sends a chill up the spine of every football fan who remembers the days of precarious overcrowded terracing. There is a kind of horrific irony in the fact that the 1989 disaster took place at a time when football was staring into the abyss. 

The average attendance for the top flight in 1988-89 was 20,500 and Wednesday’s gates were just over 20,000. The most horrific and far-reaching catastrophe of the modern football era took place at a time when football grounds had never been less appealing. Not that Hillsborough was one of the worst stadiums, for it was always considered for FA Cup semi-finals and it hosted several games during Euro 96, but times were very different.

Hillsborough today remains a decent and capable arena and Wednesday still have the potential to be a very sizeable club. Sadly, they fall into the category of big also-rans, a status they have endured often over the past 50 years. The list of clubs in this bracket is extensive and seems to be getting more lengthy with time: Birmingham City, Nottingham Forest, Derby County, Stoke City, Newcastle United, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and so on.

Sheffield is a city that should host Premier League football on a regular basis. With a population of 530,000 people and two big clubs in Wednesday and United, it is not unreasonable to think that some modicum of success should come the city’s way. The last trophy to land up in Sheffield was the Football League Cup in 1991, won by Wednesday. That’s 30 long years ago. The last league title was won by Wednesday in 1930 and the last FA Cup triumph was also theirs in 1935. United’s last prize was the FA Cup in 1925 and their only title was won in 1898.

This season, Wednesday find themselves in league one thanks to a 12 point deduction that was later reduced to six. The penalty was punishment for breaching the EFL’s profitability and sustainability rules. Understandably, there is some bitterness and resentment, but Wednesday are too big to stay at this level for too long – at least that’s what the optimists believe.

While United were rubbing shoulders with the elite in 2020-21, Wednesday were last in the Premier League in 2000, so they have been in exile for over 20 years. The club’s finances have clearly suffered and in 2019-20, they made a pre-tax loss of £ 24.1 million. Their income totalled £ 21 million, but their wage bill was £ 33.5 million, a very worrying figure.

They haven’t uprooted any trees in 2021-22, so the mood at the recent home game with Gillingham was a little sombre and flat. Admittedly, it was Remembrance Weekend, but with the team just above mid-table and a little shot-shy (20 goals in 16), it was no surprise that Darren Moore’s side had drawn half of their games. They had only lost three league games and had gone seven games unbeaten, but those stalemates can be very damaging. Wednesday’s top scorer, Lee Gregory, had netted six goals before the Gillingham game, but he was unable to play in the game due to a calf injury. Gregory joined the club in the summer from Stoke City and has already become vital to Wednesday’s cause. They could have done with him.

The game itself was a reminder that this was the third tier of the English game. Gillingham took the lead after 22 minutes through Vadaine Oliver, a neat finish permitted by a generous Wednesday defence. Earlier, the home side went close when Callum Paterson’s close range effort bounced off the post. It wasn’t until the 75thminute when Wednesday equalised, Barry Bannan’s shot rebounding to Florian Kamberi, who shot home from inside the area. That was it as far as entertainment went, it was not a classic game by any means. But Wednesday are not far away from being a reasonable side, they have lost just three times, after all. With a few more goals, they can be promotion contenders. A crowd of 20,000 helps support the narrative of a long lost status.

Perthaps this is why the locals seeed perpetually discontented, judging by the banter on the journey back to the centre of town. A trip from Hillsborough can include a tram journey, a highly civilised way to travel even if the carriages were full of supporters singing anti-United songs and gagging for their pre-match refreshments. They’re all the same, really, football fans.

Sheffield Wednesday – Fallen giants looking for a reset

AT LONG last, Sheffield Wednesday released their accounts for 2019-20 season, just a few months after publishing their 2018-19 figures. Some might say these are grim times for the Owls and their relegation to League One was attributable to a six-point deduction (reduced from 12) imposed on the club for failure to pay players.

Wednesday now find themselves in a division that also includes Sunderland, Ipswich Town and Portsmouth, all clubs that have been league champions in the past. Wednesday remain a big club on paper with the potential to draw 25,000 crowds to Hillsborough even on a bad day.

Wednesday’s financials for 2019-20 don’t make very pleasant reading, they made a pre-tax loss of £ 24 million, about average for the Championship. It represented a negative swing of more than £ 40 million, but it has to be noted that the club only made a pre-tax profit in 2018-19 because of the £ 38 million profit from the sale of Hillsborough to owner Dejphon Chansiri. The club paid £ 2.5 million in rent in order to play at their historic ground in 2019-20. Wednesday, however, consistently lose money and the only other profit in the past decade was down to the waiver on a £ 21 million loan.

Wednesday’s turnover fell by 8% in 2019-20 to £ 20.9 million, with matchday income down by 23%. Due to the pandemic, the club lost five home matches in terms of revenues, so the 2020-21 campaign will surely reveal further losses as virtually the entire home programme was played in front of an empty Hillsborough.

Wednesday combine their broadcasting and commercial revenues in their financial statements, but it is reasonable to assume there was little change in both streams – the combined total was £14.2 million, just a little higher than 2018-19. 

Where the club did show an increase was in their profit on player trading which reached a record £ 6.2 million. Wednesday have, consistently, failed to leverage the talent they develop and nurture themselves. Liam Shaw and Ozaze Urhoghide have both left for Celtic for very modest fees despite being highly-valued in the past.

Wednesday’s wage bill, at £ 33.5 million, was a worrying 161% of income, slightly up on 2018-19 but less than 2017-18’s 168%. Needless to say, the wage bill is still at an unsustainable level and the club will surely continue birng costs down to a more manageable level. Wednesday’s net debt has declined by £ 20 million since 2018 and fell by £ 7 million from 2019 to £ 57 million. 

Since relegation, player turnover has been high at Wednesday – 13 left in the days that followed the end of the campaign. More than 20 have departed Hillsborough since the start of July 2021.  Manager Darren Moore aims to reduce the average age of the squad as efforts to trim the wage bill gather momentum. The club has also lowered prices at Hillsborough for 2021-22 quite significantly.

Sheffield Wednesday are, naturally, among the favourites for promotion and with a financial reset in progress, getting back to the Championship as soon as possible will be a priority. But with the likes of Sunderland and Ipswich in the mix, League One is set to be very competitive.