The Sweeper: Villa Unveils Tribute to a Sporting Visionary

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William McGregor

With no obvious narrative coming out of this weekend’s football, despite a few tasty derbies, the Sweeper turns its focus to the unveiling of a statue at Villa Park on Saturday commemorating the simple-yet-monumental achievement of Aston Villa administrator William McGregor.   McGregor, a Scotsman, arrived at the club in 1877 and helped establish Villa as the dominant team in football’s early years, but it was his innovation introduced in 1888 that would change the nature of football, and sports, forever.

In the years following the codification of the Laws of the Game of 1863, football was largely viewed as a spectacle, with individual match-ups arranged to prove one team’s superiority over another.  By 1886 though, football was a mess.  Despite the the FA Cup, the new knockout competition devised in 1883, football lacked competitive structure.  The recent introduction of professionalism by the Football Association (a move in which McGregor played an integral part) had put a heavy financial strain on clubs, locked in a struggle to secure the most lucrative matches possible.  This arrangement led to frequent cancellations, and fans were becoming irate with a haphazard schedule prone to last-minute changes: attendances began to fall off, and some clubs faced bankruptcy.

After an irate Villa fan approached McGregor about the situation that same year, the Villa director came up with a simple proposal: a home-and-away league in which every team would play each other twice.  He pitched the idea to the FA in March of 1888, and the Football League was born in September of that same year, the same basic competitive structure in continued use to this day around the world. It proved the final step in the transition from a muscular Christian, amateur diversion to a serious, working-class business.

It’s not hard to see why the Aston Villa’s Supporters Trust were eager to drum up support for McGregor’s statue; here was a sporting director who not only listened to fan grievances, but was bold enough to act on them.  McGregor’s innovation gives hope to fans who want their voices heard when it comes to the direction of the sport they love and support, and without whom the game would die, as it almost did in 1886. (thanks to the Footy Blog for highlighting this story).

Worldwide Stories

  • McGregor’s story leads nicely into some other fan initiatives this week.  Toronto FC supporters are quickly mobilizing in response to news that BMO Field, once deemed Canada’s soccer-specific national stadium, might be the new home of the Canadian Football League’s (the one with rouges and three downs) Toronto Argonauts.  TFC supporters are encouraging ticket-holders to write to their city councilors to help prevent what will almost certainly be an unacceptable strain on BMO’s new grass surface.
  • And 121 years later, there is still debate about the structure of the soccer league, at least in North America in relation to MLS.  Jimmy Conrad’s Soccernet op-ed adopts a Linux approach to league reform, proposing a slew of ideas, some maybe workable, some completely nuts.  Match Fit USA responds to the challenge with more than a few mods.
  • Meanwhile, it seems Scottish football administrators have deteriorated somewhat since McGregor’s day.
  • Derbies, derbies, derbies!  We’ve already had Genoa v. Sampdoria, a nasty affair with Cassano fouled, and whingeing, like a madman on his way to losing 3-0 to Genoa.  Now we have Arsenal v. Chelsea, which has Frank Lampard poised to lose a £20, 000 donation to a hospital with a sick Arsenal fan if Chelsea loses.  So Frank’s motivation to win will be not giving to sick children I guess?  And then there’s Liverpool v. Everton, which highlights the recent struggles of both Merseyside clubs.  David Moyes whinge is the loudest, though.  And then of course, there’s the El Clásico, coming soon to a theatre near you.
  • David James basically parrots everyone else’s idea of what constitutes a brilliant save.

Richard Whittall writes A More Splendid Life.


2 thoughts on “The Sweeper: Villa Unveils Tribute to a Sporting Visionary

  1. footysphere

    Not so sure that McGregor proposal to create a league was a philanthropic gesture to ensure football fans got a regular fix of games. It was a hard-headed business decison. Professionalism had been legalised in 1885 and players wages were steadily being driven upwards putting immense financila pressure on many clubs. Clubs needed regular games as gate receipts were the only income they had. The introduction of a league ensured a regular supply of important, competitive fixtures that would generate the gate money essential for survival.

    It’s interesting to note that in January of 1888, just a few months before the league was formed, a game between Aston Villa & Preston North End generated record gate receipts of £1117 from a world record crowd of just under 26000. I’m sure it was this rather than an irate fan that led to McGregor suggesting the creation of a league.

  2. Nigel

    As a Villa supporter I am glad to have come across this post. Ever since Randy Lerner took over the club, the heritage and history of the club has been given a high profile which is something the fans have always wanted.