The Early Beginnings
In the 1860s, so the story goes, a group of young men, mainly from Argyllshire and beyond, regularly gathered on Saturday afternoons in a corner of Queen’s Park in Glasgow for sport and recreation amongst themselves. These men were said to have been well educated and had migrated from the Highlands to Glasgow in search of work away from toiling on the land or the burden of heavy industry. It was in the white-collar field of administration these men were employed. Given that they had all come from similar areas it was only natural that they banded together in friendship and through recreation.
Looking for something different to occupy their free Saturday afternoons, they came across an evolving game called association football. This was a version of rugby football but with the major difference that the game was played with a round ball instead of an oval one. Association football was mainly played in English public schools and universities and the rules varied from school to school. In 1863 the Football Association was formed and adopted the “Cambridge Rules”, which became the “London Rules”; thereafter all member clubs played under a uniform set of rules. In the north of England, however, clubs played under a slightly different set of rules known as the “Sheffield Rules”. It was not until 1877 that a completely uniform set of rules was formally adopted across the whole of the United Kingdom. The friends therefore decided to try out this “new” game and in 1867 formed themselves into a club called Queen’s Park Football Club.
Whilst much enjoyment was experienced and, indeed, people started to watch the men play this “new” sport, it soon became apparent that playing amongst themselves was not enough so they started to look for other opponents. Initially, this took the form of public challenges against other sporting clubs to play against Queen’s Park under the rules they had drawn up and then a series of exhibition games took place in an effort to spread the game. Gradually, over the next 5 years, other clubs were formed. These varied from participants of other sporting activities such as athletics and cricket clubs looking for a sport to occupy the winter months, villagers banding together to form a team, through to factory workers’ teams and even army volunteer groups. Swimming clubs, rowing clubs and YMCA clubs had all dabbled in association football.
By the early 1870s things were looking rather bleak for Queen’s Park and for the establishment of association football in Scotland. The difficulty in persuading teams not to handle the ball made finding opponents hard. However, the publicity of several events suddenly changed the overall outlook. In 1870 Queen’s Park joined the Football Association and in 1871 contributed one guinea towards the cost of purchasing a cup. The F. A. Challenge Cup was launched for the 1871/72 season. Queen’s Park entered the inaugural competition and were exempted from playing until the semi-finals where they were drawn against the Wanderers. The tie, played in London, ended goalless but a lack of funds meant they could not remain for the replay and had to scratch i.e. forfeit the match. This sparked interest, particularly in Dunbartonshire, with 6 new clubs including: Dumbarton, Renton and Vale of Leven; and Glasgow with 7 new clubs including: Clydesdale, Rangers and Third Lanark Rifle Volunteers.
In November 1872 the first International football match between Scotland and England took place at Hamilton Crescent, Glasgow. Scotland was entirely represented by players from Queen’s Park and, although England were clear favourites, they played out a creditable goalless draw. This sparked another surge of interest and more teams were formed during 1873, including over 20 in Glasgow alone. March 1873 saw representatives of Queen’s Park, Clydesdale, Dumbreck, Eastern, Granville, Third Lanark and Vale of Leven attend a meeting and form the Scottish Football Association. Kilmarnock did not attend but sent a message of support. At the end of the meeting a statement was issued: “The clubs here represented form themselves into an association for the promotion of football according to the rules of The Football Association and that the clubs connected with this association subscribe for a challenge cup to be played annually, the committee to propose the laws of the competition.” Other clubs soon became members and a subscription for a trophy raised £56 12s 11d. That trophy is still used today and is the oldest trophy still competed for in the world of football. 16 teams entered the competition that began in October 1873 with Queen’s Park becoming the first winners after defeating Clydesdale 2-0 in the final, held on March 1874.
After a five-year struggle to establish the new game, suddenly the concept grew legs and by the end of the decade 140 teams competed for the 1879/80 Scottish Cup. During this period local associations began to form and with it then launch their own competitions. First off the mark was the Edinburgh Football Association, formed in 1875 and with it the Edinburgh Cup. The Ayrshire Football Association (Ayrshire Cup) followed in 1877 with the Renfrewshire Football Association (Renfrewhire Cup) next, a year later. The Lanarkshire Football Association and Cup was formed in 1879.
Unsurprisingly Queen’s Park were the dominant team in Scotland and won the first three Scottish Cups – Clydesdale, Renton and Third Lanark, respectively, the beaten finalists. This dominance was about to be challenged though it would not come from Glasgow but from the Dunbartonshire villages of Alexandria (Vale of Leven), Dumbarton and Renton. Vale of Leven knocked out Queen’s Park in the quarter-finals of the fourth edition and carried on to win that seasons competition, as well as the next two, thereby emulating Queen’s Park. Rangers, Third Lanark and Rangers, respectively, the beaten finalists. Stung by their lack of success in the Scottish Cup (although they did win the first two editions of the newly launched Glasgow Merchants’ Charity Cup), Queen’s Park reasserted their authority by winning the next three Scottish Cups, Thornliebank, Dumbarton and Dumbarton again being the beaten finalists. They also won the Charity Cup twice in that period.
The early 1880s saw football across Scotland continue to grow. This can be demonstrated that by 1881 the north-eastern area of Glasgow had enough interest and support to form the Glasgow North Eastern Football Association and with it its own cup competition. 1882 saw the Fifeshire Football Association formed and in 1883 Forfarshire and Stirlingshire followed suit. Until this point Glasgow’s football interests were effectively administered by the SFA but this had now become too onerous for them and the Glasgow Football Association was formed in 1883. Surprisingly, however, for one reason or another, they did not launch their own cup competition until 1887. In 1884 another three association and cup competitions were launched – Dunbartonshire, Linlithgowshire and Perthshire.
During the mid 1880s Queen’s Park once more entered the FA Cup in England and in 1884 went all the way to the final where they lost out narrowly, 2-1, to Blackburn Rovers. They repeated the feat the following year, again losing out to Blackburn Rovers, this time by 2-0. In the 1885/86 season Queen’s Park were joined by Heart of Midlothian, Partick Thistle, Rangers and Third Lanark but none progressed further than the Second Round. The next season saw Cowlairs and Renton also participate. Hearts and Queen’s Park fell in the first round and Third Lanark in the second. In the third round Cowlairs lost out to Rangers, and Renton, who defeated holders Blackburn Rovers in the previous round, lost to Preston North End. Partick Thistle defeated Cliftonville of Ireland 11-0 in the third round and eventually lost out in the fifth round but Rangers reached the semi-finals, losing out to Aston Villa by 3-0. This was the last time Scottish clubs played in the FA Cup as the SFA, perceiving a threat to their own competition, banned Scottish clubs from participating in the FA Cup from season 1887/88 onwards.
Football in Scotland in the 1880s grew year on year, not only by participants but also by those willing to pay to watch. Although there was a lot of fluidity at this time as clubs folded for one reason or another, these were replaced by other clubs that were formed. The only real competitive matches were Scottish Cup ties and local cup games, “ordinary” matches – games that nowadays are classed as friendlies; filled the rest of the season’s calendar. Interest in these ordinary games fluctuated depending on the level of the opposition and an early exit from a cup competitions could often lead to “blank” Saturdays i.e. a Saturday without a game because a fixture could not be arranged. Scotland also started to lose players to England and this “poaching” of players was starting to cause serious concerns amongst most Scottish clubs.
At this time football clubs in both Scotland and England was amateur. Players were not paid for playing football but expenses for loss of earnings was permitted. Mostly players stayed with a particular club because it was local and close to their place of work. However, if a player moved area in order to secure a better-paid job it often led to a change of club particularly if he was of a certain standard. Clubs in the towns and cities, although not immune, had a better chance of holding on to their better players than those in the counties due to the higher availability of employment. Movement of players between Scottish clubs was frequent but at least they stayed in Scotland, the loss of players to England was not welcome. Scotland had become a nursery for the clubs in the industrial north of England – the prospect of better-paid employment being the incentive.
If the prospects of better-paid employment alone was really the case then things might have stabilised, but for "amateurism" read “shamateurism”; as the more ambitious clubs in both countries were increasingly coming up with more ingenious ways to effectively pay players. To the clubs who could afford to pay players, amateurism was just a veneer and unless it was blatant the authorities were largely impotent. The not so urban myth was that clubs had two sets of account books, one for the SFA and one containing the real accounts. Furthermore, the clubs themselves rarely called each other out for fear of being exposed for doing the same thing. The game changer came in 1885, when the FA in England could no longer hide the hypocrisy and accepted the inevitable and legalised professional football.
Attempts for Scottish football to follow suit failed repeatedly. The SFA, driven by Queen’s Park, refused to endorse professionalism and were ably supported by the press. They held the view that “professionalism" was a dirty word, that football was an amateur sport that should remain pure in Scotland, and they backed the SFA’s stance with an almost evangelic attitude. In some ways, this attitude bordered on bigotry given the majority of players came from a working class background employed in menial through to heavy industrial and dangerous mining tasks, they should not have the opportunity to better themselves. The middle class administered football, the press was middle class and the working man should know his place and do as he was told. And yet the irony of the situation was lost on the administrators and the press – they complained about the loss of talent yet refused to accept the solution.
English football at this time was the same as Scotland – the season comprised of national and local cup competitions “filled-out” by ordinary fixtures and the randomness this entailed with clubs having to arrange fixtures amongst themselves. From a professional aspect a more formal structure was needed if clubs were to survive and, more importantly, make a profit. In early 1888, William McGregor, an exiled Scot and director of Aston Villa FC based in Birmingham, formulated a plan that would guarantee clubs a set number of fixtures throughout the season. It would take the form of a league and each member club would play each other twice, home and away, with the winners of this competition becoming champions. McGregor wrote to other clubs, mainly based in the northwest and midlands of England and invited them to discuss his plan. In April 1888 the Football League was formally adopted with 12 member clubs and the first season kicked off in September of that year.
The Football League was such a success that the following season saw three regional leagues being formed in England, the Alliance League, the Midland League and the Northern League. This, in effect, exacerbated the problem of Scottish players leaving for England. Such was their reputation for being skilful footballers, that this made the demand for Scottish players even higher and reached a point where there was a high disproportionate amount of Scots playing football in England. This reputation was not unfounded. Between the first recognised international in 1872 and 1890, 19 annual matches had been played between the two countries. Scotland had won 11 of them losing only three times.
Despite the loss of players, Scottish football was still flourishing. By 1890 another 4 regional associations had been established – Aberdeenshire (1887), Clackmannanshire (1887), Wigtownshire (1889) and Banffshire (1890). This meant there were now 17 regional associations covering just about the whole of the country and this had an impact on the Scottish Cup. The first competition in 1873 saw just 16 clubs enter, by the 1888/89 season a record 162 clubs entered. In season 1876/77, the draw for the early rounds became regionalised, thus clubs in local associations were drawn against each other. The upside to this was local clubs faced each other, thereby cutting down on travel time and expenses; the downside was that two top regional teams could meet in the first round with one inevitably knocked out. This left the loser, relying on a decent cup run for fixtures, with empty fixture dates in their calendar – and a potential reduction to their finances.
It is often reported in the press today that the SFA is a collection of self interested parties with those who shout loudly and often enough getting their way mostly to the detriment of the game as a whole. It was no different 130 years ago as it is today. In the late 1880s and early 1890s there was a clear demarcation between the successful and ambitious clubs (supported by those clubs who had pretensions of joining them) and those who were content to survive and trundle along as social clubs. Presiding over all this was Queen’s Park who believed that as the founders and introducers of association football into Scotland, they were the sole arbiters of all that was good for the game. The battle lines were now drawn.
In early 1890, Renton, one of Scotland’s top clubs, made it known that they would push for qualifying rounds in the Scottish Cup. The top clubs in each region would be exempt from the early rounds. Renton had previous with this proposal. Two years earlier they demanded that a qualifying round be introduced for the Dunbartonshire Cup. On that occasion they did not get the required support and the proposal was defeated. Renton withdrew from the competition as a result and did not play in it again until 1894. When this plan became publicly known, the sporting press were fully supportive as they saw it as a way to spike any attempt to form a league. They urged the SFA to get behind any such proposal. Anything that would halt a league and by extension, professionalism was a good thing in their eyes. How dare the working class aspire to better themselves!
Renton was the driving force behind Scottish Cup reform and they were also the prime movers for the creation of a Scottish League. In February 1890 they issued invitations to Dunbartonshire, Paisley and Edinburgh clubs to an informal meeting to discuss forming a league. Third Lanark were tasked with drumming up support in Glasgow with St.Bernard’s tasked with the same in Edinburgh. The outcome of this meeting would decide the viability of moving forward. From this point it did not take long for outrage to hit the pages of newspapers. Typical was a letter published in the Glasgow Evening News on Monday, 3rd March 1890:
“Football League for Scotland
Sir – Allow me, through the medium of your paper, to enter a protest against the formation of the above. Why should a league be formed in Scotland? Is there a need for it? The English Football League was formed by professional clubs, so that those who composed the league might draw large ‘gates’ and thus manage to keep themselves afloat. But we have no professional clubs in Scotland – at least I hope not. Again what about the time which would require to be devoted to this competition? Cup ties take up so many of our Saturdays that most of the matches would require to be played on other days. But few could find the time to play on these days, and it is therefore clear that if a league was formed professionalism would immediately follow. Would true Scotchmen, then, like to see professionalism rampant in Scotland? I think not – trusting that by a general outcry this proposed league will be crushed. I am, etc,
J. Fergus StirlingGlasgow, 1st March, 1890."
Professionalism, with its subsequent drain of Scottish players to England, was the hot topic discussed at a meeting in Derby between the SFA and the FA on the 7th March 1890. The SFA raised real concerns regarding the exportation of Scottish players to professional English clubs. Unfortunately, as was becoming more usual, the conference was held in private so we have no way of knowing how strong a case the SFA put forward. The only information available is a press statement issued by the FA:
“That the President (Major Marindin) of the English Association be requested to convey to the representatives of the Scottish Association the assurance that the members of the conference belonging to the Football Association appreciate the evils complained of by the SFA with reference to the importation of players from Scotland, and will be glad to give any suggestions which may be conveyed to them with a view to the same being reminded their most careful consideration.”
I am sure the SFA took comfort in that two-fingered gesture from the FA. The only real action offered by the SFA was to hammer players who went to England only to return fairly soon after because they could not settle, with long bans from the game. A classic cutting your nose off to spite your face.
Following the informal meeting in February, a more formal meeting was held in Holton’s Hotel, Glasgow on 20th March 1890 for all clubs interested in forming a league. The meeting was chaired by Mr Lawrance of Dumbarton FC and the clubs represented were: Dumbarton, Renton and Vale of Leven from Dunbartonshire, Celtic, Cowlairs, Rangers and Third Lanark from Glasgow, Heart of Midlothian and St.Bernard’s from Edinburgh, Abercorn and St.Mirren from Paisley and Cambuslang from Lanarkshire.
The delegates spoke strongly advocating the formation of the league, as being beneficial to the best interests of the game and the clubs financially. Great stress was put on the fact that the league was to be conducted on purely amateur lines and in harmony, if possible, with the SFA. They agreed that the formation of a league meant a qualifying competition for the Scottish Cup would be necessary. A motion by J.H. McLaughlin (Celtic) and seconded by Mr Richardson (Heart of Midlothian) was put to the delegates:
“That a committee be appointed from this meeting to draft the rules and constitution of this proposed league, and submit them to the various clubs deterring upon at this meeting; and that those clubs be requested to send representatives with full powers to a meeting to be afterwards convened."
The motion was passed unanimously. The appointed committee was Messrs Henderson (Cowlairs), Lawrance (Dumbarton), Graham (Renton), Towns (St.Mirren), Thomson (Third Lanark), McLaughlin (Celtic) and Wilton (Rangers). Lawrance acting as interim Secretary and McLaughlin as Convener. A Scottish league was now becoming a reality and it did not take long for the press to come out strongly against it.
An editorial by the Glasgow Herald on the 24th March 1890 pointed out that proposals for a Scottish league modelled on the lines of the English one was met favourably in some quarters but unfavourably in many others. The opinion expressed was that a league would be a clear threat to the Association despite claiming it would not run counter to the SFA. It went on to claim there was need for a league as the game was amateur. If professionalism existed and clubs were crippled with want of funds then a league would revive them. According to the Herald, as Scottish football was amateur it therefore has little expense, it would be a disastrous for the game and the SFA should strongly oppose its formation. Queen’s Park would have to stand against this.
Any thoughts that qualifying rounds for the Scottish Cup would halt the formation of a league were soon dashed at a meeting of the League Committee held on 26th March 1890. They drew up a petition requesting the SFA to grant a cup qualifying round exempting leading clubs. In doing so they emphasised that a refusal by the SFA would not halt the League’s programme. The committee also drew up a code of rules for the league competition itself. So the battle lines for the coming SFA AGM in May were set. This prompted another editorial from the Glasgow Herald. On 31st March 1890 it voiced that the proposed league attracted little public favour and urged the SFA to use every legitimate means in its power to crush it. League clubs rebelling against the SFA could have international complications. It still held the belief that a qualifying cup competition would placate the clubs saying leading clubs want a “qualifying clause” by which they are precluded from the first and second rounds. The SFA should therefore take the initiative to remove the grievance. Such a move would take from under the feet of the league, a primary reason for which it is called into existence. Clearly the opinion of the Glasgow Herald and other newspapers ran contrary to that of the clubs pushing for a league.
At the Scottish Football Association Annual General Meeting held on Tuesday, 6th May 1890, the first order of business was professionalism. It reported that 46 players had been suspended the previous season for periods of between 1 and 18 months for professionalism. 21 players, after satisfying the committee, were granted reinstatement and permission to play under SFA jurisdiction. It was becoming a losing battle and the only solution they saw was to harden their attitude against those players who sought payment for playing football. The SFA adopted a rule to the effect that “any registered professional who has played under the jurisdiction of another association shall be suspended for a period of not less than one year.” Players now knew exactly what the penalty was. In their hatred of professionalism it seemed to pass over the SFA and their vocal supporters in the media that punitive consequences against the individuals was also hurting the game itself.
The other contentious item on the agenda was that of qualifying rounds in the Scottish Cup. A motion proposed by Mr Graham (Renton) and seconded by Mr Lawrance (Dumbarton) was as follows:
“The competition for the cup shall be divided into two parts – a preliminary and a final competition. The committee shall select 16 clubs, composed of the semi-finalists of the preceding season, and the 12 others they consider as next in merit; and those 16 shall be exempted from the preliminary competition should they so desire. The committee shall then proceed with the preliminary competition until 16 clubs are left. These 16, with the 16 selected, shall then be placed in one lot, and drawn in the final competition. Should any of the 16 selected clubs elect to play in the preliminary competition the number of clubs left from the preliminary competition shall be increased, so that the number of clubs in the final shall always be 32.”
This was a sensible proposal for the improvement of a competition that had become bloated by the increasing number of clubs participating. Furthermore, it gave a selected club the choice of still entering the preliminary rounds if it chose to do so. However the following amendment to the motion was proposed by Mr Campbell (Greenock Abstainers) and seconded by Mr Charles Campbell (SFA Chairman):
“There was no reason for departing from the old rules regarding the cup competition. There should be absolute equality among clubs regarding the national competition.”
This was a classic example of the tail wagging the dog. The reality for these clubs was that they had little chance of winning the competition and what they saw in the main motion was a reduction in the chance of securing a financial windfall. It was ironic the voices that shouted against professionalism were the same voices that shouted for money for their clubs. The clubs wanted as much “gate" money as possible but they were adamant they would not pay players without whom there would be no "gate" money. Not surprisingly the above amendment was carried by 105 votes to 31 and it was reported that this result was greeted with loud cheers. As a footnote the number of entrants for the 1890/91 Scottish Cup competition rose to a record 172.
Following the AGM, the press, who had urged the SFA to accept the qualifying rounds as a means to halt the formation of a league, now changed tact and gave the opinion that a league would now be unworkable due to fixture congestion. However, the interested clubs moved on regardless. There was nothing in the SFA rules preventing the formation of a league. Providing they remained members of the SFA, abided by its existing rules, and Scottish Cup fixtures had precedence over league fixtures, there was nothing to stop league football taking place.
On the 13th May 1890 the committee of the Scottish Football League held a meeting in Glasgow. They unanimously decided to go ahead with a league despite the fact that there would be no qualifying competition in the Scottish Cup. They also unanimously agreed that to avoid any friction league fixtures would be arranged on dates not required by Scottish and other Association cup dates. The league would therefore last throughout the season. The league aspirants did receive one blow, however, as one of the original interested clubs, St.Bernard's, had decided to drop out. This now left an odd number of 11 committed clubs and the committee decided to carry on with that imbalance. The fact was many who were involved in the project still felt privately that Queen’s Park would join them, even at this late stage, and their addition would even up the numbers. As it stood, therefore, the league would comprise of Abercorn, Cambuslang, Celtic, Cowlairs, Dumbarton, Heart of Midlothian, Renton, Rangers, St.Mirren, Third Lanark and Vale of Leven. A futher meeting would be held to elect office bearers and arrange fixtures. A Scottish Football League was now a reality despite all obstacles.
Interestingly, a report of Rangers FC AGM held on Wednesday, 31st March 1890, caused a few eyebrows to be raised. A motion was proposed that a paragraph in the secretary’s report affiliating the club to the Scottish Football League be deleted. It seems that there was some dissent within the ranks of the membership in at least one club. In the end, however, the motion was roundly defeated and Rangers remained committed to the new competition. A few days later, on the 3rd June 1890, at a meeting of the league clubs the fixtures for the coming season were arranged. Also, the following office bearers were elected:
Chairman Mr A. Lawrance – Dumbarton FCVice Chairman Mr George Henderson – Cowlairs FC
Secretary Mr J. H. McLaughlin – Celtic FC
Treasurer Mr W. Wilton – Rangers FC
On the 10th June 1890 the full fixture list for season 1890/91 was issued.
The League Clubs and Queen’s Park
On the 30th June 1890, the Scottish Referee, a weekly (later bi-weekly) newspaper dedicated to football and other major sports in Scotland, led with an article on the relationship between the league clubs and Queen’s Park. For the first time a newspaper gave some support to the league formation, albeit lukewarm as the main target for criticism was Queen’s Park. Back in February 1890, when the league issue was first raised, Third Lanark were tasked with gaining support of the Glasgow clubs and, of course, Queen’s Park received a written request to send a representative to a forthcoming meeting. The reply to Third Lanark was that the question of a league had been put to the Queen’s Park committee but they would not see their way to appointing a representative to attend a meeting.
According to the Scottish Referee that was the first and last communication that had so far passed between the league and Queen’s Park. This silence, they maintained, was taken for granted as implying that Queen’s Park would have nothing to do with the league. As a result the clubs that formed the league organisation went ahead forming their fixtures. The position Queen’s Park now found themselves in was if they wanted to accommodate a league club in their fixture list, they would find that their opponents were unable to comply due to a full fixture list. Furthermore, the league clubs had agreed that no match could be played (outside cup ties) against any other team not in the league without the permission of the other league members.
It was the attitude of Queen’s Park FC that the Scottish Referee was really aiming towards. Queen's Park had long held the mantle of the establishment club, the guardians of Scottish football and that they "mothered" newly established clubs. In the past years this position had been strongly questioned, not only in terms of on field success, but also the teams they played. It had become the habit of Queen’s Park to arrange matches with only those clubs they deemed worthy enough. Indeed, it had become a common grumble that a “minnow" club, lucky enough to secure a fixture, would find the match cancelled because Queen’s Park had secured a more lucrative game to play. Of the league teams it is extremely unlikely that they would have condescend to play at least half of them unless drawn in a cup-tie.
The principle of the league was to have guaranteed set fixtures. It was a principle that potentially killed off the purpose for which Queen’s Park now existed - that of selecting certain clubs for their favours and taking on or putting off fixtures as they choose.