As football grew from its amateur origins, clubs sought the best players to represent them. Footballers from working class backgrounds were offered financial inducements by ambitious clubs (such as paid work, pub tenancies or other business opportunities). In July 1885, after many fractious meetings, the decision was taken. Professionalism was allowed. Clubs, though, needed revenue to pay these professional players. The FA Challenge Cup attracted large crowds but it was the sport’s only major competition. Could football be structured to survive financially? In stepped William McGregor. His proposal changed the structure of the game. It led to the Football League.
McGregor was a director at Aston Villa, a club which paid many of its players. He realised that Villa needed regular competitive games for financial security. His solution? In March 1888 he wrote to Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End and West Bromwich Albion. He proposed: “that ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home and away fixtures each season”.
McGregor called a meeting in Manchester and, at the Royal Hotel, the Football League was formed - the world’s first football league. It kicked off, with great publicity, on September 8 1888 with 12 founder clubs from the Midlands and the North. Football developed at an astonishing speed.
William McGregor has remained an unknown figure to most. Until 2009, when an impressive 7’6” bronze statue was unveiled at Aston Villa after six years of fundraising led by the Aston Villa Supporters Trust. The statue depicts a bearded McGregor standing, elegant and somewhat Shakespearian in pose - and in his hand that letter proposing his ground-breaking vision for future league competition.