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Scottish League formed

The first Rangers team

© EMPICS

The formation of the Scottish Football League was inevitably linked to developments in England, where the Football Association was formed in London as far back as 1863. In those days there was certainly no universal agreement on the rules of the game, with football rules in Scotland still allowing the ball to be handled by all the outfield players, as well as the goalkeeper, whereas in England only the keeper was permitted to handle the ball and then only in his own area.

Nevertheless, there were huge differences in the rules, which had been adopted even across England, where for example the two Sheffield clubs were playing to different rules than most of the other clubs. Therefore, one of the first tasks to be undertaken by the new Football Association was to lay down a uniform set of rules for the game.

With no organising body in existence north of the border and football in Scotland comprising mainly of a series of friendly matches, some with English clubs, Queen's Park, Scotland's oldest and best-known club at that time took the dramatic step of joining the FA in 1870.

Indeed Queen's Park were one of the clubs which entered the initial FA Cup in 1871/72 and along with each of the other entrants they paid the sum of one guinea towards the cost of the trophy. Other Scottish clubs that played in the English Cup were Third Lanark, Cowlairs, Rangers, Renton and Partick Thistle.

The drive towards setting up a Football Association in Scotland grew stronger in the early 1870s and eventually the Scottish Football Association was established in 1873. Scotland's own knockout cup competition, the Scottish FA Cup was first competed for in the 1873/74 season, with Queen's Park being the first winners.

Queen's Park 1874

© EMPICS

The main factor in the establishment of a separate league in Scotland was the advent of professional football south of the border. Payments to players had been made legal in England in 1885 and professional footballers were paid decent salaries for that time. Ironically this attracted many Scottish players southwards to ply their trade in England, whereas in Scotland the game remained, in theory anyway, an amateur game until 1893.

In 1887 the Scottish Football Association ordered all of its member clubs to withdraw from the English FA and cease further participation in the FA Cup.

In the same year in England, an exiled Scot, one William MacGregor, came up with the idea of a "league" competition to replace the ongoing diet of friendlies, which was only interrupted by the occasional FA cup-tie.

MacGregor's idea was that the clubs would play each other twice in a season, on a home-and-away basis, with two points being awarded for a win and one for a draw. The team with the highest number of points when all fixtures had been played would be declared champions. Discussions between the clubs led to 12 clubs from the North and the Midlands contesting the first English League season in 1888/89.

Rutherglen Glencairn players

© EMPICS

The success of the league set-up in England was viewed with some envy by Scotland's top clubs and the drive to set up a rival league in Scotland grew stronger amongst all in the Scottish game. The main opposition came from those who worried that the establishment of a league in Scotland would inevitably lead to professionalism coming to Scottish football.

That bastion of amateurism Queen's Park Football Club felt so strongly about this that they wanted no part to play in the establishment of the Scottish League and indeed they boycotted the inaugural league season in 1890/91.

There were a number of reasons for the "amateurs" resisting the new league. One of these was that it was felt that rather than nurture the smaller and weaker clubs, the league would ultimately cause their demise. To a club that saw themselves as pioneers of the game, Queen's Park felt that they could not be party to such a potentially destructive element.

Such fears proved inconclusive as within ten years, six of the founder members and "top-flight" clubs of their day, had gone out of existence.

The Queen's Park board also held the viewpoint that, even though payments to players in Scotland was theoretically illegal, it was common practice for some Scottish clubs to make "under the counter" payments to their top players.

This was confirmed when during that first league campaign St Bernards FC were suspended by the Scottish FA for paying one of their players. This row then escalated when another club, Renton, played a friendly fixture against St Bernards and found themselves expelled from the league's opening season as a result. Renton's playing record was expunged, as the new competition was plunged into a deepening crisis so soon after its inception.

Another controversy surrounded three clubs who each had four points deducted, for playing ineligible players, in the 1890/91 season. These were Celtic, Third Lanark and Cowlairs.

The first full season of the Scottish League ended in as close a finish as has been seen since. Two clubs, Dumbarton and Rangers finished the campaign level on points. Goal average, or goal difference had not been considered as a means of separating the teams, so a play-off between the two sides was hastily arranged. The game finished 2-2 and with extra-time and penalties being still an idea of the distant future it was agreed that the trophy would be shared, with each of the clubs holding it for six months. This remains the only occasion where the Scottish championship was tied.
Dumbarton won the title outright the following season

The Second Division was formed in 1893. There was initially no automatic promotion and relegation between the two divisions. The top two clubs in the Second Division and the bottom two in the First were subject to a ballot by all except the bottom two of the First Division clubs. Any clubs level on points played a play-off match to establish which of them were included in the ballot.

A few seasons later the voting system was amended slightly. The change, however, was an extremely controversial one, whereby the bottom two clubs in the First Division were allowed a vote too. This system may seem unfair and indeed could be compared to the controversial votes in recent years, whereby Scottish Premier League clubs decided whether Falkirk and Inverness Caledonian Thistle might be accepted into the top League.

It has to be remembered though that there was, and indeed there still remains, a vast difference between the crowd-pulling potential of the top Scottish clubs and the smaller ones. Therefore matters such as gate receipts and travel costs would be crucial in the decisions of the First Division clubs as to who stayed up and who went, or stayed, down.

Queen's Park finally joined the League in 1900/01. They have remained as amateurs throughout the club's existence, a fact which put them at a massive disadvantage when compared to other clubs. There has been a steady drift of the club's better players to other clubs since the start of the professional era. Yet despite this Queen's Park managed to maintain First Division status for most of the period up to the Second World War, a remarkable achievement.

Goal average was brought in as a method of separating tied teams, in 1921/22. This remained in force until season 1971/72 when it was replaced by goal difference.

Third Lanark 1889

© EMPICS

After the First World War non-League clubs in east and central Scotland formed a rival Central League. This was outside of the jurisdiction of existing League rules. It meant that clubs within this League could sign players without the need to pay a transfer fee. Central League clubs soon found that they were able to lure top First Division players away from their clubs and the likes of Dunfermline Athletic were particularly successful in attracting big name stars to Fife in this era.

The reaction of the Scottish League was to form a new Second Division for season 1921/22 from the Central League clubs. Automatic promotion and relegation came in for the first time and goal average was introduced as a far more desirable way to separate tied teams. The players poached by Dunfermline soon returned to their previous clubs. In 1923/24 a new Third Division was added, comprising chiefly of clubs from the Western League. However, that initial attempt at establishing a Third Division only lasted for three seasons.

All official football was ended, both in Scotland and England, in September 1939, at the outset of the Second World War. Regional leagues were formed throughout the war years and it was not until 1946/47 season that the Scottish Football League resumed.

In 1975/76 the reorganisation of the game once again led to a triple league system. A Premier League was formed, comprising of ten clubs who would play each other four times per season, twice at home and twice away. In 1986/87 the number of clubs in the Premier League was increased from 10 to 12, meaning that during a full league each club would play an incredible 44 games, more than any other top league in Europe.

In 1996/97 the Premier League underwent a dramatic reorganisation making it into a separate body from the Scottish Football League. Once again promotion between the First Division does not happen automatically. The First Division champions need to be voted into the Premier League by the top division clubs. The main criteria for election to the top division is not at all connected to the footballing ability of the club, but whether or not their stadium facilities are good enough. This continues to be a source of huge controversy and debate amongst Scottish football fans.

Written by: Paul MacDonald



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