Why we boing (2013 Updated Version)

This is LONG. And BORING. And HISTORICAL. And NOT NECESSARILY SUPPORTED BY FACTS, although I did the best I could. You've been EFFIN' WARNED. _________________________________________________________________

Promotion and relegation. That's a topic that doesn't get discussed very much.

....no, REALLY. We know why American leagues don't have promotion and relegation...at least, those of us who use brain cells for thinking instead of sustenance. But why did the idea come about in the first place?

Well, it was the Football League's idea, and they're still in business. They even have a history page. The mechanics of promotion and relegation are described, but not the rationale.

There were more clubs than places available in the League, so rather than close other clubs out entirely, crummy teams were forced to re-apply every year. Some were even kicked out in favor of better clubs.

[In 1888/89] Stoke the first wooden spoonists although they were re-elected at the annual meeting in 1889. Of the new applicants, Newton Heath, who became Manchester United, received a solitary vote.

Stoke did not take advantage, and were booted out when they finished last in 1889/90. This would have lasting ramifications, as they joined the League's new rival - the Football Alliance.

The rival did not, however, last long - and there arose the question of what to do with the orphaned teams.

The original constitution of the League had envisaged a second division, and this was formed in 1892/93 by absorbing the Football Alliance. Two Alliance clubs were elected directly into the first division; most of the remaining clubs formed the new Division Two.

The formation of the second division raised the question of promotion and relegation. The League decided that the clubs in the promotion and relegation spots should meet in "test matches", a descriptive enough term borrowed from cricket where the first international matches to be labelled as test matches took place in 1861/62. The test matches ran for six seasons, but were not regarded as particularly fair or successful and were replaced by automatic promotion and relegation in 1898/99.

So how was that pulled off? Why did the Football League accept a bunch of also-rans along with the three clubs they actually wanted? Why did the remaining Alliance clubs settle for a second-tier?

I wrote the Football League and asked.

The principle of promotion and relegation did not apply in England until 1898.

Thanks, League.

But the clubs in question are still around, most of them. So I wrote and asked,

So when the Football Alliance was absorbed into the Football League, why did you accept Second Division status instead of demanding equal membership?  What were you, a bunch of punks or something?

Okay, no, I didn't actually ask it like this, but based on the responses I got, I might as well have. It didn't occur to me I might have been touching a nerve. Sheffield United and Grimsby Town were the only ones to respond.

GTFC [Grimsby Town] were in the Football Alliance, which in 1892 became the Second Division of the Football League.  As far as I am aware it was simply a case of accepting the Alliance as the Second of the Divisions.  Promotion/Relegation between the two divisions was on a "Test Matches" basis until 1899....GTFC applied for election to the FL in 1889/90, but received 0 points, with the four clubs already in the league being re-elected.

We [Sheffield United] applied for membership of the old Division 1, but were refused entry, so became founder members of the old Division 2. We were promoted at the end of that season by way of a test match v Accrington , so, technically, we were the first League Football club to be promoted. For the record, we won the Division One Championship in 1897/98.

"Dan, you clown," you may be saying to yourself at this point, "You're lucky these clubs wrote you at all. You're not a supporter, you're not buying a ticket, you're not doing anything useful for them. These are businesses with responsibilities."

Fine. But one club's website actually had an e-mail address for specific historical enquiries, and I haven't heard word one from them in two weeks. I don't want to say which club, but their initials are Birmingham City Football Club.

Hell, I even found a contact for Darwen FC. I'd never even heard of Darwen, the freaking town itself, let alone their team. What other priorities could they possibly have, beside answering my e-mails? In fairness, that club's interesting history is told in "And then we played...." from here - the FA matches against Old Etonians are a good description of the era from the working-class point of view.** As far as entering the Football League was concerned, the history's author, the late Mr. Calvy, was refreshingly blunt:

After a few years of somewhat indifferent performances and interest at the club, excitement mounted as the 1891/92 season approached, for the Football League had been increased with the addition of two extra places, and Darwen had secured one of them thanks mainly to JJ Bentley the Football League secretary and one of the Salmoners' oldest friends!

As the Salmoners had not excelled in the Football Alliance, it was rather surprising that they were afforded this elevation for along with Darwen trying for election were other clubs such as Sunderland who on paper being Champions of the Alliance should have been favorites, but as in life it who you know that is the key.

Ironically of the other refused hopefuls Nottingham Forest and Newton Heath would became champions and runners up in 1892 respectively, in what became the last season of the Alliance, and both were elected into the Football league the following year.

The other team "promoted" from the Football Alliance with Darwen in 1891 was Stoke City.  Stoke had followed up their bottom-feeding performance in the League by winning the Alliance - which did nothing for the Alliance's public standing.  Neither, of course, did Stoke's enthusiastic return to the League.  It was better, apparently, to serve in heaven than rule in hell.

Darwen were apparently the first team in the history of the world ever to be relegated into a lower division in the same league. They stunk up the Football League in 1891/92, and failed re-election...but were accepted into the brand-new Second Division, along with most of the rest of the Alliance.

Darwen seemingly weren't in a position to demand better treatment - if you read Mr. Calvy's [now-defunct] site, you'll see that, thanks to Blackburn Rovers, they were already before the 20th century well on their way to becoming what they are today.

So the former Alliance clubs, to say the least, weren't thrilled about the way the Football League had ordered things. Brown was nice enough to elaborate in an email to me:

....the Alliance was always seen as a 'lesser' division for clubs that were not invited into the Football League in 1888.  The FL could state its terms to the Alliance clubs, so there was never a question of a negotiated merger.  The second division clubs were lucky that the first division clubs agreed to promotion and relegation - they did not have to!

So promotion and relegation was simply a genteel form of raiding teams from a rival league.  Stoke and Darwen were chosen for their desirability, which was not necessarily related to the quality on the field.  Teams were not "relegated" from the Football League at this time, simply expelled...and found refuge in the Alliance.

None of this answers why the Football League felt the need to keep the old Alliance teams after that league folded. The National League in American baseball thumped the American Association in a similar way around this time, and simply kept the best AA teams, dumping the rest.

It might have been a way to keep salaries down - a similar sentiment inspired the National League to come to terms with the American League a few years later - but good luck getting any one to admit that. Crewe Alexandra weren't even professional at this time (insert joke here). Grimsby Town wasn't even sure they were fully professional back then (again, joke goes here).

It wasn't initially a perfect meritocracy, ironically because of a failed experiment with playoffs. Small Heath won the first Second Division title (they would grow up to become a familiar face; you can't spell "world's ********ing biggest underachievers" without BCFC), but botched their playoff, while runnersup Sheffield United and, amusingly, Darwen FC won their matches and were promoted.

Wait...so there wasn't an innate English allergy to playoffs, even if they were implemented badly. There were plenty of reasons to organize by geography - we've seen how Sunderland and Grimsby were the back end of nowhere as far as the Football Alliance was concerned, and the Football League itself only managed one spot for a London team during this period, which nearly bankrupted that club (but did end up surviving).

So why not geographic divisions, and a playoff for a championship?

Almost certainly because of the FA Cup. Four teams were supposed to be at risk of losing their places by virtue of holding up the Football League table...but WBA won the FA Cup a month or so earlier, and the Football League didn't have the face to send down the champions of England...at least, not because of a one-game playoff. (For our younger readers, the FA Cup used to be a big effin' deal.)

So it's not too much of a reach to guess that the Football League didn't want to establish a championship playoff that would implicitly, or directly, compete with the FA Cup.

It wasn't simply because the Football Alliance had been defeated and humbled. "The original constitution of the League had envisaged a second division," four years before the absorption of the Alliance, says Brown. The Football League anticipated expansion - as well they might have, with so many clubs around by that point - but also anticipated (correctly) that future clubs would accept secondary status.

The reaction against professionalism was in full swing at this time, doomed though it would ultimately be. Woolwich Arsenal wasn't the best team in the south of England at this time - Corinthian FC were. There was still something horribly disreputable about paying working-class professionals to play a gentleman's game. British influence being what it was at this time, this affected sports worldwide, from the Olympics to the lack of professional teams on the Continent. The United States suffers a variant to this day, in the fake amateurism of the NCAA.

Corinthians took it to extremes - even entering the FA Cup was beneath them - but that didn't mean the FA, or even the public, would have reacted kindly to rail workers, Scots, and other animals trying to upstage the Challenge Cup. According to Brown, professionalism was why some of the nation's bigger clubs wouldn't join the League to begin with.

Without going old school Marxist on you, if the very idea of professionalism among players was resented (although not, seemingly, the concept of charging admission), then it's easy to see the resistance to ranking clubs by their marketability. Nobody was in it to go bankrupt, of course, but it explains why football fans and owners were willing to accept relegation (and, before that, outright expulsion). The Football League was strong enough to impose divisions, but nowhere near strong enough to exclude entire regions the way baseball did for decades.

So we see today, not just in England but around the world, powerful and popular teams cooling their heels in lower divisions while teams like -I don't know, pick a team - WBA take their beatings and pocket their proceeds. Because, in the late nineteenth century, the British believed a championship should be open to all comers, but making money at it was unseemly.

Today, the idea of promotion and relegation has been so internalized by soccer fans that even Don Garber has to waste time dealing with it. To some, playing a league without promotion and relegation is the same as playing without a ball.

But it's not the natural order of things, any more than the BCS college football system is. There are reasons for everything, even the most mystical and mythical.

And this is why West Brom bounces up and down divisions like a superball. Boing boing, indeed.

**Hi from 2013.  I've tried to recreate this post, but various updates have made it not quite the same as it was, and I've lost a couple of interesting bits.  Alas.  Among the worst losses was Mr. Calvy's claim that Darwen FC gave West Bromwich Albion their "baggies" nickname. 

Darwen FC folded in 2009.  A new Darwen AFC is currently playing, in near-total obscurity.  There is no history section on the new team's web page.