A 100 years ago today (31 May 1920) Brentford joined the English Football League, the world’s oldest continuous league competition. The motion, approved at the league’s AGM, created a Third Division. It gave 20 other clubs an escape from non-league football.
At the time, The Bees were Southern League members for 22 years, then the premier non-league competition South of Birmingham. It was a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for The Bees. When war broke out in August 1914 the club was in a precarious financial state. It ended that season fielding a team of amateurs. They were also anchored in the Southern League Second Division, relegated in 1913.
By May 1919 and with war at an end, Brentford were London Combination champions. The competition set up by Metropolitan clubs to decrease travelling costs in war-time. This title win no doubt helped their Southern League First Division election cause.
Alongside Coventry City they took their place in an enlarged top division. The competition re-started in September 1919, and Brentford finished 15th, with Portsmouth top.
Expanding the Football League was the brainchild of Charles ‘Chas’ Sutcliffe. He was a prominent member of the League’s Management Committee. Sutcliffe had instigated promotion and relegation in 1898. Prior to their introduction, two-legged ‘Test Matches’ decided any movement between the two divisions a Victorian version of the play-offs.
Sutcliffe was a lawyer by trade. In court he defended the controversial ‘retain and transfer’ system, which kept footballers professional slaves to their clubs. He was also responsible for compiling the annual fixture list. His method was used until computerisation took over in the late 1960s.
He turned his sights to extending the league’s franchise. At that point, only Arsenal (1894), Orient (1905), Fulham (1907), Tottenham Hotspur (1909), and West Ham (1919) had joined from the South East. This bold move would ensure the league was a truly a national competition.
The Southern League clubs sensed their chance to finally join. On 15 May 1920, 14 of them – including a representative from Brentford – met 24 Northern clubs in Sheffield to further the case for league expansion. Among those were newly-formed Leeds United. The Southern League clubs deferred on a joint resolution. They prefered to wait until their own divisional meeting three days later.
That took place, at Anderton’s Hotel in London. They passed the following resolution: “that this meeting is of the opinion that the time has arrived for application to be made to the Football League to form a Third Division of Northern and Southern sections. Further, that the clubs competing in the Southern League (Division One) be eligible to join the Southern section en bloc.”
Following this, a six-man Southern deputation met their Northern counterparts again on Saturday 22 May 1920. Things would have to move soon; the Football League’s AGM would take place nine days later.
The Football League management committee met the Northern and Southern combined deputation two days before the league’s AGM. This was to decide if they would allow them to make a case for expansion before member clubs. The deputation recommended Northern and Southern sections with promotion and relegation to the Second Division.
The vote took place early Monday morning on 31 May 1920 at the Connaught Rooms Hotel in Holborn, London. Among the usual business, the main agenda item was to decide who would keep their place in the Second Division via a ballot. Ambitious non-league clubs would line-up against the bottom two trying to keep their league place (Lincoln City and Grimsby Town).
All member clubs were entitled to vote for their top two candidates. Phoenix club Leeds United topped the poll. They were formed after predecessor Leeds City were thrown out of the league a year earlier and the club expunged. This was for making illegal payments to players during World War One. Leeds had also attended the Third Division meetings as an insurance. Southern League Cardiff City finished second, ahead of Grimsby Town and Lincoln City, who both faced non-league oblivion.
Business then turned to a proposed new Third Division, proposed by Sutcliffe on behalf of the league’s management committee. He reported back on the meeting with the deputation two days earlier. While he was pleased with the standard of Southern League clubs joining the league, the proposed northern section did not meet to Sutcliffe’s liking. He commented they were not “clubs of sufficient and playing and financial strength.”
Tottenham Hotspur’s representative, Mr Cadman, suggested electing the Southern League top tier outright. Everton proposed an amendment. The topic should be considered at another meeting to give clubs more time to consider – Preston North End seconding the motion. The Toffeemen’s intervention gained only eight votes, and so Division Three was born. The entrance fee to each new club was set at £100 and a ten guinea yearly subscription.
Cardiff City’s election to the Second Division gave Grimsby Town a reprieve. Alongside Brentford, the following became founder members of the Football League Division Three.
- Brighton and Hove Albion
- Bristol Rovers
- Crystal Palace (inaugural champions in 1920/1921)
- Exeter City
- Grimsby Town
- Luton Town
- Merthyr Town
- Newport County
- Northampton Town
- Norwich City
- Plymouth Argyle
- Queen’s Park Rangers
- Southend United
- Swansea Town
- Swindon Town
It’s remarkable to note at the time of writing, only two clubs in have not survived. In both cases (Merthyr Town) and (Newport County) have reformed, the latter joining the Football League in 2013. In Brentford’s case, it’s not 100 years of interrupted league membership. Along with 15 other clubs, they were expelled in the summer of 1941 for organising the London War League without the league’s permission. However, all clubs were re-admitted 12 months later.
So with permission granted by the Football Association on July 10 for the League to expand their membership, Brentford looked forward to their first match as a Football League club on Saturday 28 August 1920 at Exeter City.