Book Review: Football's 12 Apostles: The Making of the League, 1886-1889
Football’s Twelve Apostles
By Thomas Taw
Published by Desert Island Books
April 2006, £16.99, ISBN: 9781905328093
Maybe it’s the hype and money – not to mention scandal – in present-day football, or maybe I’m just getting old, but I find myself increasingly drawn to nostalgia-laden accounts of the game from more innocent times.
Which is what made me pick up Thomas Taw’s account of the Football League’s formation, at the tail-end of the 19th century.
The book will appeal to any student of football history, but particularly supporters of the 12 Apostles — the founder members of the League — seven of whom are currently in England’s top flight.
It is extensively researched, and weaves in newspaper reports from the time, adding humour, colour, and context.
The football of the late Victorian era was a very different game. Not long diverged from rugby, practices such as “charging” of goalkeepers were perfectly legal. If a goalkeeper dropped the ball, a “scrimmage” might occur, in which “players hacked at the ball or each other… until the ball emerged”.
Goalkeepers were advised, “always try, when fisting out a ball, to strike an opposing forward on the nose; it is good fun”.
The game’s laws were not enforced by a referee, but by umpires provided by each of the teams; the referee only got involved if both umpires disagreed — though in the case of 226-pound Sam Ormerod, involvement was kept to the absolute minimum.
And just in case that wasn’t enough basis for controversial decisions — back in the mid-1880s, there weren’t even any goal nets.
The book is effectively divided into three sections. The first is a setting of the scene, with anecdotes from the friendly matches and cup ties which filled football seasons prior to 1888.
The most coverage is given to Preston North End, the dominant team of the era, ”the beau ideal of football skill and chivalry”, and ‘Invincibles’ of that first league season.
North End, as Taw generally refers to them, had filled their team with Scottish players, and adopted the passing game which had become the preferred tactical approach north of the border.
The middle section explains how the 12 founder members came to be selected. The idea for the league is generally credited to Aston Villa chairman William McGregor, though Taw argues that this at least partly was a “myth”.
McGregor had written to four other clubs suggesting “a system of mutual fixtures” — though as Taw points out, this was hardly uncommon at the time. The idea for the league — which was not McGregor’s choice of name, he preferred ‘union’ — only crystallised when those clubs he wrote to suggested inviting other teams as well.
Indeed, Taw argues that McGregor’s move could be intepreted as a “spoiler”, for Villa had recently lost their crown as Birmingham’s top club to West Bromwich Albion — or ‘England’s Albion’ as their home-grown team had become known nationally following the shock 1888 FA Cup final win over Preston’s team of imported Scots. “In his decade in senior football, McGregor had seen many local teams decline and fall”, writes Taw, and wanted to prevent the same thing happening to Villa.
As it turned out, a number of teams in the ascendancy during the mid-1880s would suffer that very fate after missing out on selection for the League.
This was partly due to the League’s ‘one town, one club’ policy. Blackburn Olympic, FA Cup winners in 1883, missed out to Rovers, and folded a year later. In Bolton, Wanderers only just pipped powerful neighbours Halliwell to League membership.
The final section of the book deals with the first league season, 1888/89. A short report on almost every game is included, though the haphazard nature of the fixture schedule means there is little sense of a season progressing, and excitement building towards the denouement. Indeed, there wasn’t even a league table published until halfway through the season.
Taw’s book is enjoyable enough, but anyone wanting a straightforward historical account may tire a little of his style, which can be florid and desultory. It also means the reader can be left confused; at times I ended up resorting to Wikipedia to clarify certain points.
I was also left wanting more. What happened the following season? Did all the 12 Apostles gain election for 1889/90? When did expansion start? An Epilogue would have been helpful — but in its absence, I’m afraid, it was Wikipedia once again.