Liverpool’s first promotion into the top flight of English football came but a year after the founding of the club in 1892 and it’s as well to remind ourselves of the circumstances preceding this first gathering of silverware.
For the Liver Birds were actually founded as a splinter group from Everton following an internecine dispute that saw patron, brewer and Tory councillor (ouch) John Houlding and his fellow freemason John McKenna break away.
Crucially, Houlding retained control over the Anfield Road ground, the 1890-1 League champions refusing to come to terms with the owner as far as rent payments were concerned and finding themselves banished to a site across Stanley Park, one later described by Gibson and Pickford’s Book of Football as a ‘howling desert’. Manchester United players may be regarding Goodison Park in just the same way this morning.
Hence, just as Glasgow Rangers and Portsmouth have somehow found the ability to continue at Ibrox and Fratton Park in the current age, Liverpool, who might otherwise have been forced to scour the lots and wastelands of the city for a new home, were able to start in the Lancashire League in a stadium which, though modest, had staged an England game as recently as 1889.
Having been refused initial entry into the Football League itself, that first campaign nonetheless proved to be a successful one – the club beating Blackpool to the title on goal difference after a last day 1-1 draw at Southport Central had threatened to scupper their chances. Liverpool were also successful in the Liverpool Senior Cup, defeating their parent organisation in the Final, although as it turns out, both trophies were subsequently stolen – at the cost of £130.
McKenna had been installed as manager and a major policy was to recruit north of the border, thus earning the team the sobriquet, ‘The Team of Macs’ – of 8 in the squad, only William McOwen was born south of Hadrian’s Wall.
Liverpool were joined in Division 2 by Woolwich Arsenal but the Londoners were the only southern side in a league that continued to reflect the sport’s industrial heritage. The next most southerly entrants were Small Heath, later to be rechristened Birmingham City and the club that were eventually to push the Merseysiders the hardest.
Lining up in a decidedly un-Liverpoolesque blue and white quarters, 5,000 showed at Anfield to see Lincoln City defeated 4-0 in the initial home game; Middlesbrough Ironopolis having been dispatched 2-0 on their own turf in the opener.
The strong start was to prove no fluke and 22 matches from 28 were eventually won. While 5-1 thumpings of the Gunners and Newcastle in the autumn proved eye catching, the championship was actually founded on a robust defence – only 18 goals were conceded all season, while Small Heath allowed 44. The likes of Northwich Victoria and Burton Swifts were also readily disposed of and in the end, the future Reds cantered to the title.
But a curiosity of those times would see the club forced to seal their promotion with a ‘test match’ against one of the First Division’s weaker clubs – this turned out to be Newton Heath, soon to be renamed Manchester United – it’s intriguing to wonder how bitterly this contest will have been fought given the supposed roots the rivalry has in the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal. In the event, Liverpool won 2-0.
The two star players of this burgeoning side were Harry Bradshaw, a winger and the man who would go on to be the first to represent England; turning out on just the one occasion against Ireland at Trent Bridge in 1897. Sadly, Bradshaw died of consumption in 1899 but his eight goals and ample assists were crucial to the success. Also a wide man, Matt McQueen could also fill in as a utility player – resident at 32 Kemlyn Road (a street later to be swallowed up by the expansion of the stadium), he finally took the reins as manager of the club in 1923, having earlier served time as a Director. James Stott, in his only season as a Liverpool player, ended up top scoring on 14.
Having done well in the FA Cup – a season high attendance of 18,000 saw Preston defeated before downfall at Bolton – Liverpool seemed primed to do well in their first Division 1 outing but they were still a fledgling concern – a 5-0 loss at West Bromwich Albion early the next autumn sounded the alarm bells and the club were to slide straight back into the second division by the end of the 1894-5 season, despite Bradshaw doubling his seasonal goals tally to 17.
1895-6, however, was to prove far more fruitful and a second promotion in three years was followed by a solid fifth place in Division 1, the port city club establishing themselves as a top echelon outfit. To read about another great promotion side, part 31 of our Great Football League Teams series looks at Bill Shankly’s 1961-2 team.