FORTY YEARS ON
By Mike Garnett
Reproduced by kind permission of the author from the Robins' Review, 13 August 2019.
To trace the origins of the Alliance Premier League you probably need to start in London’s Fleet Street in 1892. Anderton’s Hotel was the venue for a meeting to discuss the formation of a league whose aim would be to provide regular competition for clubs in the South of England.
Royal Arsenal F.C. had been instrumental in setting up this meeting but found many other clubs frankly afraid of a negative reaction from the London F.A. The proposal was shelved and Royal Arsenal gained election to the Football League the following year. Millwall Athletic then set up another meeting and, this time, a two-division league was set up.
In its early years the Southern League proved very strong; Tottenham Hotspur won the F.A. Cup in 1901 and Southampton twice reached the final. From 1905 onwards leading Southern League clubs moved steadily on to the Football League and in 1920 that league formed its Third Division by the simple expedient of recruiting all the members of the Southern League’s First Division!
Meanwhile the footballers of the North settled into a pattern of county league competitions, although the formation of the Football League’s Third Division (North) in 1921 saw clubs recruited from a number of leagues. It was only in 1966 that a concerted push for a Northern equivalent of the Southern League was made, the initial meeting being held in Altrincham.
The title of Northern League was already claimed by the leading amateur league in the faraway North-East so the steering committee settled on The Northern Premier League as a working title and that league played its first fixtures on Saturday August 10th, 1968.
The arrival of a national knock-out competition, the F.A. Trophy, a year later extended horizons at this level and, within ten years, plans were laid for a national league for clubs outside the Football League. Part of the motivation behind these developments was the desire to break the perceived “closed shop” of entry to the Football League, whose bottom club went up for re-election each year, usually against a raft of clubs whose sheer numbers splintered any vote. Since the regional divisions had become national Divisions Three and Four in 1958 only Peterborough United, who replaced Gateshead in 1960, Oxford United (1962, replacing the bankrupt Accrington Stanley), Cambridge United (1970, replacing Bradford Park Avenue), Hereford United (1972, replacing Barrow). Wimbledon (1977, replacing Workington) and finally Wigan Athletic (1978, replacing Southport) had broken through the glass ceiling.
Although the number of clubs applying for membership had gradually been whittled down to two per year, it was hoped that a national league at this level would enable support to crystallise around its champion club and break the effective monopoly. As we know only too well, it took a few more years for the process of automatic promotion and relegation to come about. Turkeys are not known for voting for Christmas!
The new Alliance Premier League was made up of 20 part-time professional clubs, 13 from the Southern League and 7 from the NPL, allocated places based on playing performances over the previous two seasons allied to acceptable ground facilities. Among the founder members from the North was Altrincham F.C. Next time we will see what club and ground looked like forty years ago.