A Potted History of Association Football in England (1919-2017)

This section covers the period from the end of World War I to the present day when the game became established, i.e. there was relatively little change, certainly when compared to what had gone before.

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Contents ..

.. The Football League in the inter-war years
.. Tactics from 1870 to 1930
.. Elite amateur football in the inter-war years
.. World War II years (1939-1945)

1945 to the early 21st century
.. Picking up the pieces after World War II
.. Tactics from the 1930s to the 1960s
.. Sunday league football
.. Elite amateur football in the post-war period
.. The professional game from the 1960s
…. Football League changes from the late 1950s to 1987
…. The road towards the preeminence of the big city clubs
…. On the field
.. Match officials from the 20th century
.. Women’s football (II)
.. Towards the FA pyramid
.. The FA in the early 21st century


While we, perched in the early 21st century, might consider football to have been quite a rough game a hundred years ago, it was in fact significantly less physical than it had been back in the 1860s when it was arguably something of a soccer / rugby hybrid.

In general, the inter-war years can be seen as a period of consolidation at the top end of the game after the hectic changes of the previous fifty years. The FA and the Football League were both conservative organisations between the wars. The FA was against the football pools, club lotteries, dog racing on football grounds, women’s football, Sunday football and floodlit matches .. to name but a few. It also showed little desire to be at the heart of developments in world soccer. The Football League began the period by expanding, but thereafter there was little change.

Meanwhile, elite amateur football saw a more pragmatic form of amateurism replace the gentleman amateur variant, while the grassroots game continued to grow at a rapid pace. The number of FA-affiliated clubs grew from 12,000 in 1910 to 37,000 by 1937.

The Football League in the inter-war years

The Football League embarked on a period of expansion immediately after World War I. The two divisions were each increased to 22 teams in 1919; a third division was added in 1920 when all the clubs in the first division of the Southern League joined; and it became the Third Division South in 1921 when the Third Division North was introduced. Average attendances at First Division matches rose from 23,000 in 1913-14 to 30,000 in 1938-39.

On the financial front, the minimum admission price had been raised to 9d in 1917, in part to cover the Entertainments Tax which had been introduced by the UK Government in 1916, and it subsequently rose to 1 shilling after the war. The maximum wage for professional players was £9 per week in 1921 but it was lowered to £8 in the following year although few players actually earned this sum.

The position of secretary manager at a Football League club had become established by 1900. It was principally an administrative role. The manager, as we might recognise him today, began to appear in the inter-war period. Herbert Chapman, the manager at Huddersfield Town and subsequently Arsenal, is probably most associated with this move to a more technical management role. However, the change was gradual. The Newcastle United board was still picking the team well into the 1950s.

Tactics – 1870 to 1930

As previously mentioned, the early English style was a highly individualistic one, with a total focus on dribbling skills, whereas the Scottish style emphasised the team aspects, allying individual skills with a passing game. In terms of formations, England was considered to be employing an ultra attacking 1-2-7 in the 1870s while Scotland was adopting 2-2-6.

2-3-5 (called the Pyramid system) followed these all-out attacking systems. It is claimed that Wrexham first deployed it in the late 1870s, and it was in widespread use by the 1880s. Two full-backs were at the back with the three half-backs in front of them plus five forwards. The centre-half was a relatively attacking player in this system who was regarded as the fulcrum of the side. This system was used through to the 1920s.

WM formation

The offside law was changed in 1925 when the number of defenders required between the leading attacker and the goal was reduced from three players to two. In the WM system, which was devised by Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal to accommodate this change, the centre-half was pulled back alongside the full-backs. He now occupied a stopper role whose task was to contain the opposing centre-forward. With the two wing-halves just in front of them and the two inside forwards operating behind the centre-forward and wingers, the WM system provided a more balanced setup in terms of both defence and attack.

On the field, Huddersfield Town was the team of the 1920s under the management of Herbert Chapman, winning the First Division league title in three consecutive seasons (starting in 1923-24), finishing runners-up twice and triumphing once in the FA Cup.

Chapman moved to Arsenal in 1925 and laid the foundations for the club’s subsequent successes in the 1930s when it won five league titles and two FA Cups. Their cup win in 1930 was in fact the first success by a southern club since Tottenham Hotspur FC won the trophy back in 1901. Chapman died in 1934, part way through the club’s triumphant decade.

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Charlton vs Liverpool (1938)

Media coverage of the game increased significantly between the wars. The popular press grew, and it used football coverage as part of its circulation wars. This resulted in those players who were at the top of the game becoming household names. Meanwhile, the BBC broadcast its first radio commentary in January 1927, covering the match between Arsenal and Sheffield United. Coverage increased until the Football League banned all broadcasts of its fixtures in June 1931, citing reduced attendances at matches as the reason. The FA was more sympathetic, allowing various cup matches, including the final, plus international matches to be broadcast during the 1930s.

Elite amateur football in the inter-war years

The Amateur Football Alliance (AFA) suffered from World War I. Only around one third of its clubs reappeared after the conflict. In addition, public schools were moving away from football to rugby. In part, some schools made the change because they were unhappy that fixtures had not been suspended when war was declared, as other sports such as cricket and rugby had done. The 1914-15 season had been completed and then fixtures were suspended, resuming in the 1919-20 season.

Corinthian FC’s fixture list was hard hit by the reduced number of clubs. It started to play schools, claiming that it was attempting to encourage them, but it invariably thrashed them which probably had the opposite effect. The club took the decision in 1922 to enter the FA Cup for the first time. It beat First Division Blackburn Rovers in round 1 in 1923-24 but lost 5-0 to West Bromwich Albion in the next round. It won only two further ties over the next decade, although the club continued to attract considerable media and public attention. However, in the mid-1930s the FA said that it would now have to play through the qualifying rounds of the competition like any other amateur side. The club struggled on until 1939 when it formally amalgamated with Casuals FC, becoming Corinthian-Casuals.

Elsewhere, the pragmatic amateur (the term used by Terry Morris) was replacing the gentleman amateur. Young players were recruited from local schools; grounds were developed that had an air of permanency; committees of members were established who were willing to devote time and energy to running the club; connections were established with the local community; and there were signs of succession from one generation of supporters to the next.

In London and the Home Counties there was a mixture of regeneration within existing clubs and the appearance of new clubs. Dulwich Hamlet FC was a prime example of the former. It had an outstanding club official in Lorraine Wilson who founded the club in 1890s. He had acted as the treasurer ever since, and had done much to keep the club afloat during World War I. Clapton FC in Forest Gate East London was another example. Meanwhile, new clubs arose from junior leagues, especially in West and North London, principally on the back of new industrial development in these areas. Examples include Wealdstone FC (Harrow), Finchley FC  and Hayes FC.

The Northern League had mixed fortunes during the inter-war years. Some clubs folded due to financial difficulties while others prospered, particularly those who had strong connections with local collieries and communities, e.g. Crook Town and Bishop Auckland.

However, many elite amateur clubs generally tended to endure a hand to mouth existence, the occasional season with a good run in the Amateur Cup or a good draw in the FA Cup being offset by years when the books barely balanced.

Shamateurism, a term coined by journalists, came into public focus with the Crook Town scandal in 1927-28. There were two areas of concern: jobs being found for players in local firms and the payment of expenses. Travel and meal expenses were allowed but the actual costs had to be claimed. However, flat payments were often made. In the Crook Town scandal, there were claims of excessive flat payments, and it was also claimed that one player was paid a wage. Crook Town said that lots of other clubs did the same. The result of the FA’s investigations into Crook Town and other clubs was that 341 players were suspended on grounds of their “professionalism”, while many club officials were also suspended on grounds of “malpractice”. There were a number of other investigations into shamateurism in the inter-war years but not on the same scale.

World War II years (1939-45)

The Football League was suspended as soon as war was declared on September 3rd, 1939. However, a regional competition was soon in place, followed by a Football League Cup. War Office regulations regarding matches included: the attendance should be no greater than 8,000; entry was to be by ticket only; and teams were to travel no more than 50 miles to play. Unsurprisingly, there were sometimes travel problems; games were halted when air raid sirens sounded; and occasionally key players did not appear, leading to calls for volunteers in the crowd to take their place. However, wartime games did help to convey a sense that normal life was carrying on despite the conflict.

1945 to the early 21st century

England’s relative isolation from world football in the 1930s saw it lagging behind in the 1950s at both club and international level, a situation which was gradually remedied from the 1960s onwards.

The major trend in the professional game from the 1960s onwards was the growing domination of the big city clubs. Meanwhile, the elite amateur game went from a peak of success and popularity in the 1950s to extinction in the 1970s; women’s football grew in popularity from the 1970s; but the adult men’s grassroots game experienced a sharp decline from around the end of the 20th century.

Picking up the pieces after World War II

Football was extremely popular immediately after World War II. Football League attendances reached an all-time high of 41 million in the 1948-49 season, while the FA Amateur Cup Final attracted 95,000 in the same season when it was staged at Wembley for the first time. However, there was a general downward trend thereafter, with Football League attendances dropping to 28 million by 1961-62.

There were minor changes to the Football League in the 1950s. Four clubs were added at the beginning of the 1950-51 season, and the Third Division North / South structure was replaced by the Third and Fourth Divisions in 1958.

The minimum admission price was 1s 6d in 1951, rising to 2s 6d in 1960. Radio commentaries of matches had started again during the war and continued after it. However, from the 1951-52 season the BBC was not allowed to give advance notice of which match was being covered in an attempt to protect attendances. Meanwhile, TV coverage, which was in its infancy, was limited to the Cup Final. This affected league attendances, as matches were played on the same day. The Cup Final was moved to the last day of season when few games were played, and eventually, from 1954 onward, it was played in the week after the final league Saturday.

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Chelsea vs Newcastle Utd (1955)

The post war period began to see greater management autonomy in the professional game. Matt Busby, who is often considered to be the first tracksuit manager, took over at Manchester United in 1945. Walter Winterbottom, appointed as England’s first ever team manager in 1946, was another important figure. He sought to increase the network of the FA coaching scheme. Teachers were the principal attendees on such courses, but they were gradually joined by a smattering of professional players. Some enthused about this move while others complained about what they saw as an intellectual approach to the game. However, defeats at club level by Moscow Dynamo and at international level by Hungary helped to draw the sting from the criticism, and coaching had been adopted by most professional clubs by the end of the 1950s. Tactics varied from Tottenham Hotspur’s push and run side of 1951, the deep lying centre forward (known as the Revie Plan in 1954-55) and the first dabblings with 4-2-4.  As part of its coaching drive, the FA showed the BBC recording of the Real Madrid versus Eintracht Frankfurt European Cup Final of 1960 in schools across the country. This was one of the classic European finals, showing Di Stefano and Puskas in their pomp.

At the end of the Second World War the FA had decided to organise a Youth Championship for county FAs as a way to stimulate the game among youngsters who were not yet old enough to play senior football. In 1951 it was realised that a competition for clubs would probably have a wider appeal, and the FA Youth Challenge Cup was started in the 1952–53 season. Manchester United won the trophy in the first five years of its existence.

Finally, amateurs playing for professional clubs had been an everyday occurrence before World War I, and it was still relatively common during the inter-war years, but it subsequently petered out. The last amateur to be selected to play for England was in 1947, and a final noteworthy event was that Seamus O’Connell managed to win an FA Amateur Cup winners medal with Bishop Auckland and a League Championship winners medal with Chelsea in the same season (1954-55).

Tactics from the 1930s to the 1960s

England had a rude awakening in November 1953 when Hungary beat them 6-3 at Wembley. While England was still using the WM formation that had been devised in the 1920s, other countries had moved on, some of them using intellectuals to take charge of tactics it was claimed! It is important to realise that the systems which are mentioned below were seldom the result of some abstract purist thinking, they were often based on the strengths and weaknesses of the players who were available to the coach.

The Danubian School was an adaptation of 2-3-5. It deployed a deep-lying centre-forward who operated behind the other four forwards. The Austrians deployed it effectively in the 1930s. Unfortunately, their relative lack of finishing power meant that they were unable to fully capitalise on the system.

The Metodo system (2-3-2-3) was devised by Vittorio Pozzo who coached Italy to World Cup successes in 1934 and 1938. He withdrew two forwards who operated just in front of the half backs. This helped to counteract the opponent’s midfield and aided counter-attacking.

Marton Bukovi, the Hungarian coach, devised 2-3-1-4 where the centre forward operated as a playmaker behind the forward line (similar to the Danubian School above). This formation changed to 2-3-2-3 when the team lost possession. The system was used by the successful Hungarian national team of the early 1950s. England were beaten tactically and technically in the 1953 game against Hungary. They were dumbfounded by Hideguti who played in the deep-lying centre forward role, a tactic which they had never come across before, and they were generally technically inferior to the Hungarians, personified by Ferenc Puskas’ sublime drag-back goal. England seemed to learn nothing from this defeat, possibly just putting it down to a bad day at the office. A return match was played in Budapest in 1954 which Hungary won 7-1, England’s heaviest ever defeat.

4-2-4 was devised independently in the early 1950s by Flavio Costa in Brazil and Hungarian Bela Guttmann. It was used by Brazil in their World Cup triumphs of 1958 and 1970. It was a balanced system with two players in midfield. The English national side and various English clubs dabbled with the system in the early 1960s.

4-3-3, an adaptation of 4-2-4, was used by Brazil in their World Cup triumph of 1962. In this system Mario Zagallo, a very fit winger in the 1958 tournament, dropped back into midfield. After various experiments Sir Alf Ramsey eventually decided that England would use 4-3-3 in the successful World Cup campaign of 1966 although some describe it as 4-1-3-2 where Nobby Stiles operated just in front of the back four.

Finally, the 4-4-2 formation was devised by Viktor Maslov, the Russian coach, in the mid-1960s. It is regarded as the beginning of the modern era of tactics, principally because it introduced what we call “pressing” today, that is reducing the space that is available to the opposition when they have possession. Pressing obviously necessitates high levels of fitness, particularly among the midfield players. The adoption of pressing was initially patchy, Rinus Michels’ Ajax and Graham Taylor’s Watford were deploying it in the 1970s, but it was the late 1980s before AC Milan successfully used it, followed by the Germans. 4-4-2 has since been superseded by a myriad of other systems, but pressing remains popular. Indeed, it is difficult to read or watch anything about football today without the subject being mentioned.

Sunday league football

Dock workers were unable to play football in the early days of the grassroots game, having to work on Saturday afternoons until 1920. It was almost certainly this situation which influenced the formation of the South West Ham Sunday League in 1901. However, the powers that be disapproved of playing on the Sabbath and the Essex FA banned it in 1908. The FA followed suit in 1910, banning any player found to have played on a Sunday.

An article in the Kentish Independent from March 1909 mentions the existence of various other Sunday leagues in the London area around this time, including Edmonton and District Sunday League (although the official founding date of this league is now given as 1925), Stratford and District Sunday League, Hackney and District Sunday League, Music Halls League and Jewish F.A. There was talk at that time of various leagues getting together to form a Sunday Football Association. However, it was to be 1932 before a National Sunday Football Association was founded. At that time there were 13 leagues in the Greater  London area, including the recently formed East London Sunday League (1930).

Tooting & Mitcham Utd was expelled from the FA Amateur Cup in 1925 for fielding players who were playing on Sundays, and Sutton United suffered a similar fate in 1929.  Anybody who played on Saturdays had to play under an assumed name on Sunday – there were a lot of John Smiths around! As an aside, referees probably had a harder time than the players in trying to hide their identities. Another occasional problem for Sunday football was that some games were prone to be disrupted by the Lord’s Day Observance Society.

Games were (and are) played in parks and other public spaces with Hackney Marshes becoming the most celebrated place. It housed 120 pitches after World War II when there was a rapid growth in Sunday League football. New leagues in the post-war period included the Hackney & Leyton Sunday League (1947), Manchester Amateur Sunday League (1947), Liverpool & District Sunday League (1951) and the Norwich & District Sunday League (1958).

The National Sunday Football Association eventually claimed to represent 73 leagues, over 2,500 clubs and 500,000 players. The FA, possibly fearful of the rival organisation, was forced to accept the inevitable, and it finally recognised Sunday League Football in 1960. It subsequently started the National FA Sunday Cup competition in 1964, which in its second season attracted a staggering 1,600 entries.

Elite amateur football in the post war period

Bishop Auckland (1954-55) Non-League Club Directory

The game was extremely popular in the immediate post-war period, leading to a growth in the number of players and clubs, coupled with high attendances at amateur club games in the South East. The closed shop system which was operated by the Isthmian and Athenian Leagues led to the creation of additional leagues, the Corinthian League in 1945, the Delphian League in 1951 and the Hellenic League in 1953.

Pegasus was a club which was formed in 1948 with players coming from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. It was a deliberate attempt to imitate the Corinthian tradition. It did not join a league, but it managed to win the FA Amateur Cup in 1951 at only its third attempt, and again in 1953. The presence of older students at the universities in the immediate post war period obviously helped the club to recruit a number of experienced players. However, this model was not sustainable. Ultimately, Pegasus was competing with Corinthian Casuals for players, a battle which they started to lose. Pegasus’ fixture list became shorter and shorter in the late 1950s, and the club went out of existence in 1963.

Attendances declined in the 1960s, and so the fortunes of amateur clubs suffered. As an example, Bishop Auckland had an income of £11,500 in 1956-57 but only £1,260 in 1967-68. In 1958 it had reserves of £6,300 but an overdraft of £1,449 10 years later. The installation of floodlights allowed teams to arrange mid-week games, typically friendlies. This helped financially for a short time but clubs really needed more competitive league fixtures. These financial problems led to a gradual drift towards professionalism, particularly in the south. Teams who adopted this approach included Wimbledon (1964), Barnet (1965) and Wealdstone (1971). Meanwhile, the Corinthian and Delphian Leagues turned out to be relatively short-lived, both folding in 1963 with their teams transferring to the Athenian League.

Meanwhile, shamateurism was always “the elephant in the room”. “Sport and the Community” was the report of the Wolfenden Committee in 1960. It considered the widespread practice of irregular payments to amateur players, and it included the recommendation that the time had come to “abolish the formal distinction between amateur and professional, and to allow any participant, if he needs or wishes it, to be paid as a player, without stigma, reproach or differentiation”. The recommendation was ignored. Changes were afoot in other sports. In cricket the MCC abolished Gentlemen and Players in 1962. Henceforth, all would be known as cricketers. Athletics was slower. It remained amateur for the moment, but it did start to embrace sponsorship in the 1960s.

The FA was dragging its heels, even imposing a 50 mile limit between a player’s place of residence and his football club in 1963. However, the decision to abolish the distinction between amateur and professional was finally taken in November 1972, and it was eventually implemented at the start of 1974-75 season.

The professional game from the 1960s

Apart from what happened on the pitch, there are several interconnected strands which go to make up the professional game from the 1960s onwards. They are: players’ wages and contracts; reduced attendances; income derived from TV highlights and live broadcasts; income from sponsorship; and various structural changes.

Football League changes from the late 1950s to 1987

Attempts to restructure the Football League met with limited success in the period from the late 1950s through to the early 1980s.  There were various piecemeal changes, starting with the introduction of the League Cup in 1960-61, although it was arguably 1967 when the first final was held at Wembley between Queens Park Rangers and West Bromwich Albion before it was generally accepted by the clubs. Other changes included: the introduction of 3 up and 3 down in 1973; 3 points for a win in 1981-82; matches could be played on a Sunday – league games from 1981 and cup games from 1983; and automatic promotion / relegation between the Fourth Division and the Football Conference (currently known as the Vanarama National League) in 1987.

The road towards the preeminence of the big city clubs

The importance of television coverage in the economics of the game would become paramount from the 1990s onwards. However, the first notable step on the journey to saturation coverage came when the BBC’s Match of the Day programme appeared in 1964. The first show contained highlights from the Liverpool versus Arsenal game on the opening day of the 1964-65 season. ITV’s Big Match highlights programme commenced in the following year. This was accompanied by ever greater coverage of the game in the popular press.

The declining fortunes of the small town club. Burnley FC’s golden period spanned the late 1950s and early 1960s. This included winning the First Division championship in 1959-60 and finishing runners-up to Tottenham Hotspur in the 1962 FA Cup Final. However, Burnley was one of the smaller clubs that was ultimately affected by the removal of the maximum wage in 1961. Lancashire town clubs were particularly hit. Although they managed to survive for a time by living off their past records, a decline in playing fortunes and the ease of travel to neighbouring cities such as Liverpool and Manchester took them on a downward spiral. Burnley and Preston North End, both founder members of the Football League, were close to dropping out of the Football League in the 1980s. The only club from a town or city with a population of 200,000 or less to win the First Division (or Premier League) title after Burnley’s success in 1960 has been Blackburn Rovers in 1994-95, and its success was in no small measure helped by the money that chairman Jack Walker ploughed into the club.

Changes in players’ wages and contracts were key elements in the move towards the eventual domination of the richer clubs. There were four main stages in this particular saga: the abolition of the maximum wage (1961); some initial improvements to the retain and transfer system (1964); freedom of contract (1978); and the Bosman ruling (1995).

Not without a struggle, the maximum wage was increased to £12 per week in 1947 and it had reached £20 by 1958. Some players managed to receive more than the maximum, as club directors found ways to circumvent the rules whenever they deemed it was in their interest to do so. Illegal signing-on fees, bonuses and the use of club houses and cars were among the “workarounds” that were employed. However, the retain and transfer system from 1893 remained firmly in place.

The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), the new name for the AFPTU, formulated the following demands in 1960: abolition of the maximum wage; the right of players to a percentage of their transfer fee; a new retaining system and new contracts. In 1961 the players got most of what they wanted, including the abolition of the maximum wage, but there was no movement on retain and transfer. On this subject, George Eastham had recently walked out of football after Newcastle Utd refused to give him a transfer. Newcastle eventually relented after enduring a bout of bad publicity, and he was transferred to Arsenal. However, the PFA persuaded Eastham to allow his claim to go forward as a test case even though he was now an Arsenal player. In the High Court in 1963 Mr. Justice Wilberforce declared that the retain and transfer system was an unjustifiable restraint of trade. The system was changed to the players’ benefit but freedom of contract did not arrive until 1978. This allowed players to refuse a new contract. However, any new club would have to compensate the player’s current club, with an independent tribunal deciding on the transfer fee when the two clubs could not agree. Finally, the Bosman ruling in 1995 said that the payment of transfer fees for players who were free agents (that is out of contract) conflicted with an EU citizen’s right to free movement within employment.

Sponsorship. Higher wages and transfer fees, coupled with lower attendances, contributed to the general financial problems which the game encountered, and so opened the door to sponsorship in the late 1970s. QPR was the first club to ask for permission to have a sponsor’s logo on their shirts in 1977. The request was denied, but it was rescinded six months later so long as the logo did not appear on shirts in televised games, a restriction that was eventually lifted in 1983. In 1981 Arsenal signed a 3 year deal with JVC for £0.5m, and by the early 1980s most clubs had a shirt sponsor. The next step was that leagues became sponsored. The Football League was sponsored by Canon in 1983 while Rothmans sponsored the Isthmian and Hellenic leagues.

Hooliganism. Attendances were at an all-time low of 16.5 million in the 1985-86 season. Hooliganism was blamed for the downturn. It was not a new phenomenon. There had been periodic instances of trouble, going back as far as the 1880s, while QPR (1930), Millwall (1934) and Carlisle (1935) had their grounds closed for crowd disturbance. What was new was the concerted nature of hooliganism from the 1970s. Simply the fear of violence could be enough to put people off attending matches, as well as the actual acts. Some town centres were closed on Saturday afternoons in anticipation of trouble. There were running battles, pitch invasions and verbal abuse in and around grounds. 1985 was described as annus horribilis by one author. It saw a full scale battle between Luton and Millwall supporters, a fan stabbed to death in Birmingham, the Heysel disaster, and sandwiched in between them was the fire at Bradford when 56 people died.

Hooliganism declined in the second half of the 1980s although it was far from being eradicated. There were a number of reasons for the change in behaviour, including: a greater police presence at matches; the use of CCTV; the deployment of stewards; the gradual introduction of all-seater stadia; a degree of introspection by some hooligans after the events of 1985; and the arrival of other attractions such as cannabis and carnivals. The improvements led to an upturn in attendances and saw UEFA lift its ban on English clubs in 1990, a measure that had been imposed after Heysel.

Finance. From 1985 the leading clubs were pushing for a larger percentage of gate and TV money and a greater say on the Football League management committee. An agreed settlement was short-lived, and the threat of a breakaway loomed when ITV offered to sponsor a super-league as part of a strategy to see off the fledgling satellite TV industry. A split was averted by giving First Division clubs an even greater percentage of the TV money (75%). Eventually and almost inevitably, a split did occur when the FA proposed a Premier League. First Division clubs gave notice that they would leave the Football League en bloc in the summer of 1991, and the Premier League commenced in August 1991, starting with 22 clubs although the number was cut to 20 in 1995. In May 1992 BSkyB outbid ITV for the live coverage of Premier League matches for 5 years.

Subsequent deals for broadcasting matches became ever more lucrative. The contracts with Sky Sports, BT Sport and BBC (for highlights) which cover 2016-2019 are worth £5.14bn to the Premier League. One of the effects of this largesse is that rich clubs are tempting out of contract foreign stars and their agents. Transfer fees are no longer going to the smaller English clubs.

Meanwhile, the English Football League restructured itself in the 2004-5 season when its top division became known as the Championship and Divisions Two and Three moved up one (becoming Divisions One and Two respectively).

Other financial aspects which were noteworthy in the 1980s and beyond include: ground building and merchandising. A number of clubs have either sold spare land around their grounds to developers or sold the ground, often centrally located, and built new grounds outside the town. Merchandising has been another source of income. In particular, replica strips have proved to be big business both for the clubs and the companies whose logos they have sported.

On the field

By the middle of the 1960s, it is fair to say that the first generation of tracksuit managers were in place and the importance of tactics was fully recognised. English clubs finally began to experience some success in Europe with Tottenham Hotspur winning the European Cup-Winners Cup in 1963, following on from their domestic run of success (League and Cup double in 1960-61 and the FA Cup again in 1962), while Manchester United became the first English side to triumph in the European Cup in 1968. But of course, the World Cup victory of the national side in 1966, when the tournament was held in England, was the outstanding success of the 1960s.

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Matt Busby with the European Cup (1968)

Liverpool was by far the most successful club during the 1970s and 1980s, winning 11 league titles, four European Cups and three FA Cups. It learned the possession game from continental sides and ball playing centre-backs became one of the keys to its continuing success.

Brian Clough, the only manager since Herbert Chapman to win the First Division league title with two clubs (Derby County and Nottingham Forest), guided Forest to two European Cups in 1979 and 1980. Coupled with Aston Villa’s success in 1982, there were a total of seven victories in the European Cup for English clubs in eight years (1977-1984), a truly golden period.

Arthur Wharton, Sheffield United goalkeeper

Black players had been virtually non-existent in the early days of football. Andrew Watson, born in British Guyana, was probably the first black player. He was an amateur who played for the Queens Park club in Scotland before moving to England where he played for Swifts and Corinthian in the 1880s. He was soon followed by Arthur Wharton, the first black professional player. While there was eventually a slight increase in the 1950s and 1960s, it was the 1970s before black players started to appear in any significant numbers, including Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson and John Fashanu, culminating in Viv Anderson becoming the first black player to be capped for England in 1978.

The arrival of overseas players had something of a false start. The likes of Ardiles and Villa arrived at Tottenham Hotspur in the late 1970s, but the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) pressured the government to limit work permits to established players. In addition, UEFA imposed quotas on the use of non-national players in its club competitions, limiting the number to three. For English clubs this quota system also applied to Scottish, Welsh and Irish players. One of the results of the Bosman ruling was that UEFA was no longer able to impose these quotas, leading to an influx of foreign players.

The establishment of the Premier League saw the beginning of virtually complete preeminence of the bigger clubs. Manchester United has dominated the Premier League, winning the title 13 times in the period from 1992-93 to 2016-17, the UEFA Champions League twice and the FA Cup on 5 occasions. Chelsea and Arsenal are the other successful big clubs over this twenty five season period. Chelsea has 5 league titles, one UEFA Champions League and six FA Cups, while Arsenal has won three league titles and eight FA Cups.

Match officials from the 20th century

The various piecemeal changes which had been made to the laws of the game since 1863 gradually resulted in a document which was difficult to understand. In 1937, IFAB asked Stanley Rous to review the laws and redraft them to make them more comprehensible. Rous was a teacher and amateur goalkeeper who eventually became a top-class referee. At the time of IFAB’s request, he had moved into administration, becoming the secretary of the FA. His rewritten rules were published in 1938. He eventually became President of FIFA from 1961 to 1974.

Rous is also attributed with the implementation of the Diagonal System of Control (DSC) for match officials. As the accompanying diagram indicates, in this system the referee generally covers a diagonal line from the corner of one penalty area to the opposite corner of the other penalty area. Each linesman (now called an assistant referee) patrols half the touchline, the half that is furthest away from the referee. DSC is not meant to dictate a specific route, merely to provide a general guideline. The referee’s precise movements should obviously be dictated by the nature of the play, e.g. he may find himself outside the field of play on occasions if it aids his decision-making abilities. DSC was used in international matches from the early 1960s. English referees alternated, running the left wing diagonal (as shown in the diagram) for one half of the game and a right wing diagonal for the other half. They eventually switched to a single diagonal in 1974.

The increased speed of the modern game, particularly at the top level, brought with it the need for fitter match officials and the advisability of warming up before the start of a game. It also brought the need for improved decision-making. Football lagged behind other sports in using technology to help match officials at the top level of the game. Hawk-Eye technology in cricket and tennis and the Rugby TMO (Television Match Official) all first appeared around 2001, and they gradually became established as integral parts of those sports. After tests in 2011 and 2012, FIFA eventually permitted the use of goal line technology to establish if a goal had been scored where there was doubt. GoalRef and Hawk-Eye were the initially approved products, and the Premier League decided to implement the Hawk-Eye system in the 2013-14 season. At its meeting in June 2016, IFAB approved trials of a second technology, the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), to assist with decisions on: goals – was there any problem in the build-up; penalty decisions; red card decisions; and to resolve cases of mistaken identity.

Women’s Football (II)

The success of the English men’s team in the 1966 World Cup was arguably one of the main drivers in revitalising the women’s game. There was sufficient interest to warrant the setting up of the English Women’s FA (WFA) in 1969. In response to pressure from UEFA, the FA lifted its ban on women playing on the grounds of FA-affiliated clubs in 1971, and in the following year a joint consultative committee of the FA and the WFA was formed to oversee some aspects of the women’s game.

The game then grew over the course of the decade and there were 278 affiliated clubs by 1979. The WFA eventually became affiliated to the FA in 1983 on the same basis as the county FAs.

A number of significant changes occurred in the early 1990s: a 24 club National League was set up in 1991; the WFA folded in 1993 when control of the game passed to the FA who immediately set up the first national cup competition; and Julie Hemsley became the first female member of the FA council in the mid 1990s.

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Women’s football was gaining in popularity in other countries about the same time as it was in England, and inevitably international tournaments started to appear. The UEFA Women’s Championship was first held in 1984 and England’s record up to 2017 was: runners-up on two occasions; semi-finalists on two occasions; the group stage on three occasions; and failure to qualify for the final stages of the competition on four occasions. After a trial tournament in 1988 the FIFA Women’s World Cup was first held in 1991. In the seven tournaments up to 2015 England achieved one third place and three quarter final appearances, while failing to qualify for the final stages of the competition on the other three occasions.

Back in the club game, a restructuring of the league took place in 2011 with the formation of the Women’s Super League which initially consisted of a single division, expanding to two divisions, each with ten clubs, in 2014. Underneath them in the FA’s Pyramid for the women’s game came the Women’s FA Premier League in 2014-15, which consisted of a Northern and a Southern division, while at the next level down there were four regional divisions – Northern, Midlands, South-East and South-West. The FA continues to tinker with the structure of the women’s game.

Towards the FA pyramid in the men’s game

The Southern League had been the premier league outside the Football League since the 1890s, despite losing its first division clubs to the newly formed Football League Third Division in 1920. The formation of the Northern Premier League in 1968 was an attempt to match the Southern League. It was principally, but not entirely, an amalgamation of the Lancashire Combination (formed in 1891) and the Cheshire County League (formed in 1919).

The next logical step, particularly for those clubs who sought eventual entry to the English Football League, was to form a nationwide non-league division. This came to pass in 1979 when leading clubs from the Southern League and the Northern Premier League formed the Alliance Premier League (APL). The Southern and Northern Premier Leagues continued to exist, acting as feeder leagues to the APL. This was the first tentative step towards a hierarchical structure in the non-league game.

The Isthmian League was included in this structure, initially sitting at the same level as the Southern League and the Northern Premier League. It had operated as a closed shop with a single division from 1905 until 1973 when it finally introduced a second division. This was presumably a preemptive move before the imminent demise of amateur football in 1974 to try to ensure its survival. It added a third division in 1977 (both additional divisions had 16 teams). It was the Athenian League that suffered from these changes when their leading teams went over to the Isthmian League during its period of expansion, and it eventually folded in 1984.

The structure of the FA Pyramid, as it came to be known in the 1990s, and its constituent leagues were subject to constant change and additions as it went on to include the FA Premier League and English Football League at the top of the pyramid and further non-league and grassroots leagues at the base. In 2017 there were a total of 24 levels in the pyramid.

The FA in the early 21st century

The Premier League proved to be a financial success, attracting ever larger sums of money from media companies to show live matches, with the bigger clubs becoming international brands. These riches have helped to attract the best players from Europe, Africa and South America. The downside of this business model is that there have been reduced opportunities for young English players to establish themselves in the top tier of the game with the potential knock-on effects on the national side.

The adult men’s eleven-a-side game at the grassroots level has been in serious decline. In May 2013 Corinthian, who reports on grassroots soccer in the Liverpool Echo, wrote that twenty years previously there had been three times the number of leagues and almost 5 times the number of teams on Merseyside.  Similar articles on the decline of the local amateur game can be found elsewhere across the country. The reasons given for the decline of adult men’s grassroots soccer include: the cost, both to the clubs and to the individual; the disappearance of a team ethos (replaced by a personal ethos); the varying times of Premier League matches which can get in the way of men who want to play in local amateur games and watch their idols; not to mention the smartphone with its various attendant distractions such as Fantasy Football.

On the plus side there has been the growing popularity of women’s football and the success of the FA Charter Standard accreditation scheme for the grassroots game which was launched in 2001. Accreditation is obtained by clubs and leagues that are judged to be well-run and sustainable, and which prioritise child protection, quality coaching and implementation of the FA’s Respect programme. Clubs may run teams of both sexes, catering for children, youths, adults and vets.

There are three levels of FA Charter Standard Awards for clubs:

  • FA Charter Standard Club for youth and adult clubs: the entry-level accreditation
  • FA Charter Standard Development Club: for clubs clearly enhancing the quality and scope of their football offering
  • FA Charter Standard Community Club: acknowledging the most advanced level of club development and football provision.

Berks and Bucks FA has a solid contingent of clubs who are accredited. At the end of 2017 it listed 17 Community clubs, 25 Development clubs and 99 Charter Standard clubs.

In the south east corner of Berkshire, Ascot United and Berks County can both be found. They are examples of Community clubs.

Ascot United was founded in 1965 by a men’s team who originally played in Sunninghill. It grew to become one of the largest Community football clubs in the UK with 1,000+ registered players and over 70 teams, embracing all ages and abilities from 5 year olds through to Vets. Pictures courtesy of Ascot United.

Berks County was formed in 2014 when Sunninghill Saints and Bracknell Rovers merged, both clubs having been founded in 2009. They complemented each other, Sunninghill having a number of younger teams while Bracknell included several senior teams. Berks County FC had 35 teams in the 2018-2019 season, ranging from adult men, through girls and down to under 7 teams. In addition, there are U6 Soccer School and U5 Academy training groups.

Go to the next section which contains information on a variety of ancillary topics plus an addendum on rugby football in the 19th century.

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