On a weekend when Manchester United confirmed their superiority as England’s number one club it was probably appropriate that the penalty which brought them back a point from Ewood Park was a dive with Javier Hernandez going to ground even before Blackburn Rovers keeper Paul Robinson barged into him. This though is no lament for the past, as football has always had its cheats going back as far as the first playoffs at the end of the 19th century. Funny enough Blackburn were also the victims back then.
When did the Football League playoffs begin is a fairly standard football quiz question and most fans with some knowledge of the game can trot out the standard answer ‘at the end of the 1986-87 season’ and earn a valuable point in their search for whatever prize is on offer at the end.
However for football purists, and aren’t we all, the answer is wrong as believe it or not the first playoffs were organised a good few years earlier, back in fact at the end of the 1892-93 season when they were known as ‘test matches’, a descriptive term that was borrowed from cricket where it was first used to describe international matches thirty years previously in 1861-62.
Football ‘test matches’ or playoffs were the result of the expansion of the Football League from one Division to two. A First Division was launched after William McGregor wrote to some of the leading clubs in March 1888 and after two meetings the founder members of the League were agreed. It is a remarkable achievement that 123 years later only Accrington from the original twelve are no longer in the league - or kicking at all after going out of business in the 1890s.
Football had only really become popular a relatively short time before the launch of the Football League and occurred alongside the rapid urbanisation then taking place throughout England Wales and which by 1860 was starting to produce an annual increase in real wages for workers giving them more money to spend not only on essentials but also on activities that they enjoyed participating in and watching.
With the gradual reduction of the working week from six days to five and a half, with Saturday afternoons off, the fledgling football clubs in areas with large populations soon realised that they could charge an entry fee for spectators keen to see games that were quick and exciting to watch. With the money the clubs could, after they’d covered their expenses, start to pay players, managers and a training staff even if it meant obtaining them from outside their own localities and by 1885 professionalism was legalised within the game of football in England.
FA Rule 25 – ‘Matches shall not be played on Sundays within the jurisdiction of the Association.’
The start of the Football League meant guaranteed fixtures for the leading clubs and depending upon how many entered the ground then a guaranteed income. By the start of the 20th century there was already in place a highly complex network of about 200 mutually dependent business organisations supported by thousands of smaller amateur clubs – much as it is today in the 21st century. With this, of course, has come an increasing involvement with the game of businessmen, lawyers and accountants with the running of football clubs. There has also been a whole series of businesses developed to supply products for football such as shirt manufacturers, printers and publishers not to mention local businesses and firms who sell products to fans on match days.
When the Football League began in 1888 it was agreed that at the end of the season the bottom four clubs would be required to retire at the end of the season and stand for re-election against teams from outside the league who wished to become members, the first team to lose its place in this way being Stoke City who were replaced by a North East team, Sunderland at the end of the second ever season in 1890.
Meanwhile a rival competition had been established, the Football Alliance, and it was agreed that it would be a good idea if the two were merged and this is what happened at the end of the 1891-92 season. This presented a problem in that there was no way of deciding how teams from Division Two could replace those finishing at the bottom of Division One. It was agreed that the fairest way would be for the bottom teams to play the top with the winners playing in Division One the the following season.
This playoffs kicked off on April 22nd 1893 when Manchester United [or as they were then - Newton Heath], Notts County and Accrington from the bottom played Birmingham City, Darwen and Sheffield United respectively with Man Utd, Darwen and Sheffield United proving successful. Birmingham had in fact finished top of Division Two and Manchester United bottom of Division One so ‘the Blues’ were appropriately enough named from the start!
Birmingham were again back the following season overcoming Darwen, whilst the great North-West rivals of Liverpool and Manchester United squared up to each other for the first time with Liverpool winning 2-0 whilst Preston hung on to their top flight spot by beating Notts County 4-0.
In 1894-95 Bury, Derby County and Stoke were all successful in overcoming the challenges of Liverpool, Notts County and Manchester United.
Teams involved with the test matches had been using a loophole in the laws of the game to attract players to play in them. To try and stop this the Football League decided in 1895 that in order to participate any player concerned had to have played in at least four league games for the club previously or been resident in the club’s home town for at least four weeks beforehand. This was intended to stop clubs trying to buy their way out of trouble.
In 1895-96 the one-off games were changed and a league format was introduced involving the bottom two from Division One and the top two from Division Two playing one another. This allowed bottom placed West Bromwich Albion to escape relegation whilst Liverpool replaced Birmingham with Manchester City staying where they started in Division Two.
In 1896-97 there was a major shock when three times League Champions Sunderland finished second bottom and along with Burnley who finished bottom were joined by Newton Heath and Notts County in the eight games ‘mini-league.’
Things looked bleak for Sunderland as they had only two points from the first three games, but in front of 8,000 spectators at their then Newcastle Road ground they beat Newton Heath with two goals from Jas Gillespie - a result that saw the Manchester side start the following season in Division Two alongside Lancashire rivals Burnley. For Sunderland the escape helped ensure that until 1958, when they were ‘finally’ relegated from Division One, to proudly claim that they had played all their games in the top flight.
The 1897-98 season was the last of the original football league play-offs and it pitched Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City from the first up against Newcastle United and Burnley from the second.
When the final round of matches took place on April 30th 1898 Stoke and Burnley knew that they only had to draw their game to be playing First Division football the following season. What followed was a total farce, the most boring game of football ever played ended 0-0.
‘The game proved a complete fiasco.’
‘The teams could have done without goalkeepers so anxious were the forwards not to score’
Whether or not this was when one of the bitterest rivalries in football started between Burnley and Blackburn Rovers we can only guess.
In fact Rovers and Newcastle both did gain promotion that season when it was agreed to enlarge the First Division. The Stoke-Burnley game did however provide the final ‘nail in the coffin’ for the test matches, they had not been regarded as particularly fair or successful and from the 1898-99 season they were replaced by automatic promotion and relegation. Bolton Wanderers and Sheffield Wednesday were the first Division One teams to be denied an opportunity to hang on to their places through the test matches.
What happened next?
The answer is very little, but in 1920 the First Dvision of the Southern League became the Third Division. It had been intended to form a northern section of Division Three but there was no ‘Northern League’ and it took another year to form one, this being composed of teams from across the North East, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Birmingham, Lincolnshire and Midland districts. Maintaining the principle of two up two down as it applied to Division One and Two it meant that only the winners of the Third Division North and South moved up a league to replace the bottom two in Division Two.
Almost 40 years later and shortly after the opening of the first Motorway the Football League formed Division Three and Four. Teams finishing in the bottom half of the North and South Division Three dropped into the fourth. Instead of two up and two down it was agreed that at the end of the first season, 1958-59, four teams would be promoted from Division Four to replace the bottom four in Division Three. This had first been proposed for all the leagues by Mr W Bendle Moore, the chairman of Derby County, in 1931 but his efforts floundered due to the opposition of other chairmen who felt it would produce chaos.
When it was finally introduced for the bottom leagues the hopes were that with more chances of being promoted, and of course relegated, it would increase excitement and no doubt bring more spectators through the gates to produce much needed revenue. Whilst it didn’t embody the principle of ‘every game will count’ that has been used to justify the play-offs it went somewhere towards it and in 1973/74 the decision was taken to make it three up from Division Two to replace three down from Division One.
Many years earlier during the mid 1920s the great Huddersfield and later Arsenal Herbert Chapman had suggested that eleven teams should be relegated and eleven promoted each season, a proposal which if enacted would mean ‘every game would matter’ but would probably reduce each league to a farce. Chapman had advanced his argument as he hoped to restrict clubs spending excessive amounts of money on new players in order to ‘stay up’ and also because he wanted to reduce the stigma of relegation.
Hardly surprisingly the proposals were rubbished with the then League President Mr John McKenna saying:- “The Management Committee would never dream of making such a suggestion as the interchange of 11 clubs instead of two.” Perhaps not then, but perhaps some Chairman today might not think it too bad an idea?
The current play off system was introduced as part of a radical series of changes when football was in a major crisis. On February 14th 1985 the Chairmen of the Football League rejected a TV deal that would have meant receipts of £19 million over four years. The negotiating group and the League Management Committee had recommended acceptance of the deal but the chairmen, led by Robert Maxwell of Oxford United, wanted more money, even suggesting they would hold out for £80 million.
The ‘Big Five’ clubs which at that time consisted of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and Everton had already expressed their concern about smaller clubs having too much say and had started meeting to discuss issues back in 1982, only one – Liverpool was represented on the Management Committee. Their objections were primarily about sharing gate receipts [they wanted clubs to be able to keep all the gate receipts from their home matches] and they also objected to paying a 4% share of the gate receipts into a pool to be distributed throughout all the clubs – they wanted this reducing to 3%.
At the League Annual Meeting in 1983 these clubs had managed to persuade others to agree to clubs keeping their home receipts - the smaller clubs feared that unless they agreed a deal the larger ones might walk away and create their own league, a reasonable assumption bearing in mind what did in fact happen.
When the Football League Chairman turned down the proposed TV deal on St Valentine’s Day they could not have predicted what would happen next. There were riots at Kenilworth Road in an FA Cup match between Luton Town and Millwall, serious disorder by Chelsea fans at both League Cup semi-final matches with Sunderland, a major disturbance at the Birmingham-Leeds final day game and then a massive fire at Bradford City’s final home game which killed 56 people.  All followed by the deaths of 39 more people at the Heysel Stadium in Belgium  after the Liverpool fans pulling down of an inadequate fence led to panic amongst those standing in an area that should have been left empty and crushing at the side of the ground. Did TV companies really feel the need to cover such a sport? The answer was, not that much and certainly not if it involved laying out a great deal of money.
The Conservative Government were also outraged and football was told to get its house in order. English clubs were also banned from European Football with the consequent loss of TV interest such that when the following season [1985-86] kicked off there was no live football on television.
It was at this point that the Big 5 made their move and on September 30th 1985 they invited 13-15 other clubs to join them in a Super League with Ted Croker from the Football Association at its head.
During the discussions there was talk of a 20 tier top league and 24 in the second, with third and fourth division clubs cut adrift. Graham Kelly of the football league believed that something had to be done to keep the major clubs in the Football League ‘framework’ but also knew that the leading clubs were not prepared to stand by the status quo.
How keen is something we will be exploring as it would have involved a great deal of work both administratively and financially by the big clubs, and Gordon Taylor was able to obtain support from the players to oppose the breakaway and threaten strike action.
It was agreed on December 18th 1985 not to give one division total control but change the revenue shares – the First division would get 50% of TV and sponsors money, Second Division – 25% and associate members [i.e. the third and fourth] – 25%
It was agreed to reduce the First division from 22 to 20 teams but not to do this immediately and it was with this in mind that there would be a staggered promotion and relegation, supplemented by play-offs similar to the American Leagues – these would operate for two years but if they were popular they would be maintained for the foreseeable future. [in fact the play-offs are massively popular today and it was the lower league chairman that had first suggested them in the 1980s in 1983, the top teams simply latched on to the idea]
On the Management Committee it was agreed there would be four from Division One, three from Division Two and one from the associate members - all of which failed to stand the test of time as by 1992 the Premier League was up and running.