Making a National League
Football in England has not always been a national game, in the sense of an all-embracing competitive structure incorporating every part of the country. The story of the sport's journey from codification and bureaucratisation in the public schools of the south to commercial and professional penetration in the north, and then back again, is much too familiar to repeat here.1 That professional football was essentially a northern creation is without dispute, but historians are less sure about how long it remained the preserve of a particular part of the country: when exactly did the 'sport of the north', in its professional guise at least, become a national game?2 Certainly, by the mid-1920s England's principal cup and league competitions were unequivocally national in scope, even if regionalism still remained vital to the administration of the sport. Above all else, it was the development of the Football League that was the key to the nationalisation of the association game. Founded in 1888 by 12 of the leading professional clubs in the North-west and the Midlands as a means of ensuring regular competitive fixtures, the League was initially a rather unorganised and marginal body. By the Second World War, however, it controlled the largest sporting competition in the world and was possibly even more powerful than the game's governing body.
The growth of the League during its first 35 years was in many respects a remarkable phenomenon. From a modest numerical and regional base, by 1923 it could claim a membership of 88 clubs and had grown from a single division in 1888 to comprise three divisions (the Third having Northern and Southern Sections) by 1921. Geographically, too, the League had expanded to a point at which it could truly be called national, with members in places as diverse as Newcastle and Plymouth, Bristol and Norwich, Hartlepool and Exeter. Such a transformation was symptomatic of more general trends in English