Considering the impact football has worldwide in the present day, it would not be too outlandish to claim September 8 1888 was a cultural milestone. It was on that auspicious date that the first organised league association football fixtures were played, and Everton were one of the twelve teams to write their names into the history books.
That much was a surprise; Everton were not thought to be part of league founder William McGregor’s vision for a set of regular competitive fixtures, but nonetheless their name appeared alongside Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
With Everton confirmed as a Football League founder, club secretary William Barclay set about preparing for the first season. The Liverpool Mercury reported that even the Anfield pitch had undergone some all-important refining. “Under the supervision of Mr Rollands, of West Derby, a complete transformation has been effected. Instead of a small Sahara-like desert, the field of play is covered with grass of refreshing green-ness”.
Like this summer, Everton caught the eye with a spate of acquisitions. Harry Warmby and Jack Keys arrived from Derby County; William Lewis came from Bangor; Johnny Holt was signed from Bootle. Alf Milward and Edgar Chadwick, who would go on to make almost 500 Everton appearances between them, both rocked up in L4 that summer. The marquee signing was Preston defender Nick Ross, a man widely regarded as the finest back in the game. Ross was given a wage of £10 per week, which at the time made him one of the world’s best-paid footballers.
“Such a team can only be maintained at an enormous expense,” the Mercury posited, “but the executive can rest assured that the public will gladly assist them in their ambition to possess Liverpool of champion exponents of the game.”
Everton were not the only side spending money on players, and it caught the eye of observers and critics. One such writer commented: “There is something unhealthy in the feverish pitch to which the excitement of Association football has already attained. Since the close of last season, negotiations, conspiracies, poaching, buying and selling, have kept managers of clubs in a constant fever”.
Some things never change.
Everton’s campaign began at Anfield, in front of a crowd estimated at the time to be “close to 12,000” – though 10,000 may be more accurate. The early September afternoon served up the finest of football weather, the ground bathed in strong sun and caressed by a light breeze. Accrington, the visitors, arrived 20 minutes late but won the toss and elected to kick off.
“The Accrington team was the strongest they could put on the field,” the Mercury claimed, “while the home club substituted R.Jones at half back instead of Warmby, and W.Lewis in Costley’s position at centre-forward.”
It was the home side who started on the front foot, a powerful George Farmer shot beaten away by Accrington keeper Johnny Horne. David Waugh hit the crossbar, William Lewis headed over, and Horne denied George Fleming by pushing the forward over while in the act of shooting, but Everton’s dominance was not rewarded with a goal before the break.
Accrington began the second half in better form than its predecessor, yet Everton quickly took the game by the scruff of its neck once more. “The home club took up the running, and literally swarmed Horne, who was in splendid form”, the Mercury report recalled.
But Horne’s heroics could not last. Everton’s first ever league goal was a well-worked move; George Dobson stopped the Reds’ Joe Lofthouse in his tracks, before passing on to Waugh. Waugh found Farmer, and his cross was nodded in by Fleming. The Liverpool Daily Post noted the goal was met with “tremendous cheering and waving of hats”.
Everton had the away side at their mercy, but relinquished the pressure, and the Lancastrians began to put some pressure on the hosts’ goal. It took the efforts of Everton’s two Scots, Ross and Alec Dick, to rebuff the pressure. The latter took most of the plaudits; “Dick was the hero of the finest bit of back play seen on Everton ground for some considerable time, keeping his lines clear in grand style”, the Mercury beamed.
It was no surprise that Accrington’s upturn in fortunes came after half time, considering they were kicking down the Anfield slope in the second period, though Everton still looked dangerous on their assaults up the hill. Horne succumbed to a late challenge while clearing, a fractured rib enough to call an end to his fine showing.Accrington defender John McLellan took over, and it was not long before he was beaten, with the Farmer-Fleming combination again reaping dividends.
Accrington would fight their way back into contention, and even gave themselves a lifeline through a J. Holden free kick, but Everton held on to seal a 2-1 victory to kick off league life in style.
It was a strongly contested game, according to reports, and there was little daylight between the two sides throughout the season. Accrington finished above Everton in the end, by virtue of goal average.
It was a fairly pleasing campaign for an Everton side billed as one of the weakest teams in the division. The Anfield outfit won all of their first seven home games, though defeat to eventual champions – and Invincibles – Preston North End precipitated a run of three straight losses on their own turf. 16 of Everton’s 20 points came at home, making Anfield a rare pleasing sight for Blues fans – with off-field disputes over the rent rumbling on, it would not be long before the ground would have different connotations entirely.
An 8th-place finish meant that Everton would not have to apply for re-election, which provided a springboard for finishing runners-up in 1889/90. The victory was no such catalyst for some of Everton’s heroes that day – Ross returned to Preston before dying prematurely of tuberculosis, and Fleming’s brace were his only Everton goals.
In fact, 1888/89 offered little stability for Everton players – 35 different names appeared on the teamsheet during the campaign, a record which still stands today.
When Everton kick off the 2017/18 league campaign at home to fellow Football League founders Stoke City, they will continue a journey that began 129 years before, on that sunny September afternoon. A repeat performance wouldn’t go amiss.