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When, or maybe if, the Premier League marks the 100th anniversary of what we were led to believe was the birth of a “whole new ball game” back in 1992, it’s anyone’s guess as to what we can expect as the nation comes together to celebrate the arrival of a promised land, rich in television money and populated by even richer footballers. Maybe fans will turn up to games in a variety of pastel-shaded sports jackets as a tribute to Richard Keys? Perhaps there could be a nod to the dancing girls who strutted their stuff during the first ever Monday Night Football game between Manchester City and QPR? Or how about commissioning a statue of Brian Deane, the scorer of the Premier League’s very first goal?

Whatever they decide, it’s safe to say that, should English football reach this historic milestone, it would have to go some to rival the obscure and quite frankly bizarre celebrations that marked the 100th anniversary of the Football League when they took place back in the summers of 1987 and 1988.

When the Football League was formed at the Royal Hotel in Manchester back in 1888 by Messrs McGregor and Sudell – and boasting the names of founder members Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers – few could have envisaged just what a success the new venture would be. As the concept of competitive, professional Association Football became more popular, a Second Division was introduced in 1892 including the absorption of the rival Football Alliance. With it came the names of Nottingham Forest, The Wednesday (later Sheffield Wednesday) and Newton Heath (later Manchester United) as the format began to morph into a simpler version of what we see today.

So when the Football League set about celebrating the birth of modern football as we know it some 100 years previously, of course the nation could look forward to being treated to a feast of football being played over an entire season (and a bit more) doing justice to this now-global game that the nation could be proud to call their own. Well, not exactly.

Unlike the fashion, music and TV shows of the time, football in the 1980s was understated to say the least. A number of tragedies had tarnished the good name of the game, particularly in England, the country where the Football League had been born 10 decades before, and things would ultimately get worse before they got better. In keeping with this fallow period for the national game, the centenary celebrations were equally unimpressive.

It all began on 8 August 1987 as a Football League representative side took on a World XI under the twin towers of the old Wembley Stadium, and despite the appearance of Diego Maradona, who had dumped England out of the World Cup on the way to single-handedly winning the trophy a year previously, the game still failed to live up to its billing.

The two sides were managed by Bobby Robson and Terry Venables respectively, with each boss being able to name an 18-man squad from some of the finest footballing talent on offer around the world, but unlike today – where players usually find any way possible of getting out of such futile commitments – there were few notable omissions.

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While the ‘home’ side boasted names such as Peter Shilton, Liam Brady, Bryan Robson and Osvaldo Ardiles, the World XI named superstars like Josimar, Michel Platini, Thomas Berthold and Dragan Stojković in their ranks as well as the aforementioned Maradona, who had allegedly demanded £100,000 to be there. Even so, a gate of just 61,000 turned up for a game that was also being screened live on ITV and had played havoc with the coming season’s schedule.

The fixture meant that the Charity Shield between Everton and Coventry had to be moved and played on the unusually early date of 1 August, leading many in the game to question not just the logic, but why the game was being staged in the first place. “The 100 years bore,” was how one paper described the laborious centenary celebrations, while the Guardian claimed: “Football in August is not just an absurdity, it verges on the immoral.”

With the huge number of substitutions taking place during what was effectively an exhibition game and the fact some overseas players were some way off starting their new season and far from match fit, it was difficult to view this as a serious clash, let alone an entertaining one. “The organisers seemed so intent on massaging the egos of every player chosen for their squads that they entirely lost sight of the original purpose of the game – to entertain the crowd and the alleged one billion television viewers around the world,” wrote Frank McGhee in the following day’s Observer.

Possibly the biggest talking point was the crowd’s reaction to Maradona just 14 months after his antics at Mexico 86, and perhaps predictably, he was roundly booed from start-to-finish by those who had made the effort to turn up, which only added to the pantomime feel of the day.

For the record, the Football League side were comfortable 3-0 winners that day thanks to strikes from Manchester United pair Bryan Robson and Norman Whiteside, but that wasn’t the end of proceedings. Far from it; this was just the curtain raiser for a number of other events that would punctuate, if not disrupt, the football season for the next 13 months or so.

In April 1988, an entire round of Football League fixtures was set aside for the staging of the Mercantile Credit Football Festival, and yes, it really was as awkward as it sounds. Destined to be remembered with about as much affection as the Texaco Cup, The Auto Windscreens Shield or the Anglo-Scottish Cup, Wembley was again the host for 16 pre-determined teams to fight it out over two days in a series of mini knock-out matches in front of a sparse and slightly bemused crowd.

Eight teams represented the First Division, while four came from the Second Division and two each from Divisions Three and Four, all of which had qualified using a fairly convoluted system which saw teams ranked based upon the points they gained between December and March of that season; a system which, conveniently, favoured those who were doing well in their respective leagues come the end of the campaign.

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Attendances were again low with 41,500 turning up on the Saturday for the early rounds and the quarter-finals and only 17,000 on the Sunday for two semi-finals and the final, with those who didn’t turn up missing little in all honesty.

Somewhat bizarrely, the large number of games that needed to be completed over the weekend meant that the first round matches and quarter-finals only lasted 20 minutes each half, resulting in nine of the 15 contests going to sudden death penalty shoot-outs. To make things worse, only eight goals were scored in the eight first-round matches. With perhaps the exception of Tranmere Rovers, who had excelled themselves to reach the last four, the tournament was largely forgettable as teams played one game after the other, meaning that fans of the teams who had just played would often drift home after the final whistle – or more than likely to the pub – leaving huge swathes of empty terraces behind them.

The winners were Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest side, who were an impressive side in their own right in the mid-1980s, but the fact that ‘Old Big ‘Ed’ himself didn’t feel the need to turn up to proceedings spoke volumes about the credibility of the tournament – to be honest, many others probably wished they had done the same.  

After thumping Leeds 3-0 in the first round with goals from Franz Carr, Stuart Pearce and Garry Parker, Forest then eliminated Aston Villa on penalties in the quarter-final after yet another 0-0 draw. An exciting 2-2 draw with Tranmere in the semi-final – which was played over two halves of 30 minutes – meant another shootout for Forest and another win, before they finally sealed victory with a win over Sheffield Wednesday – on penalties of course.

Unlike the majority of the nation, such was Forest’s excitement at winning the Mercantile Credit Football League Centenary Tournament that they immediately added it to their official list of honours where it remains today, along with the Football League First Division Championship, the European Cup and other renowned trophies such as the Bass Charity Vase and the Dallas Cup.

But, alas, that wasn’t all folks. The Football League were determined to stretch out their landmark anniversary celebrations as far as they could and as the gripping 1988/89 season commenced, there was one final tournament for fans to not get excited about – the Mercantile Credit Centenary Trophy. This was a knockout tournament that involved the top eight Division One clubs from the previous season, whether they liked it or not, and would finally bring the curtain down on the underwhelming centenary bash which had started back in the previous August and seemed to have gone on for a lifetime.

Like the previous two efforts to capture the nation’s attention, this incarnation was greeted with plenty of derision and much mockery, with Stuart Jones writing in The Times: “This is the closing debacle of the embarrassing League centenary celebrations.”

In hindsight it’s difficult to tell how seriously clubs took the tournament as squad rotation was still an unknown concept back in 1988, and without the distraction of European football – due to English clubs being banned following the tragedy at Heysel in 1985 – strong teams were very much the order of the day. But if the quality of players on the pitch wasn’t a reliable barometer when it came to the tournament’s importance, the lack of spectators on the terraces as the tournament got underway at the end of August certainly was.

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Just over 10,000 turned up to see QPR lose to Arsenal at Loftus Road; 20,000 were at Anfield to see Liverpool defeat Nottingham Forest; 16,500 showed up at Old Trafford as Manchester United beat Everton 1-0; and a measly 17,000 were in attendance as Wimbledon travelled the length of the country on a Monday night only to crash out to Newcastle United.

The Liverpool v Arsenal semi-final did manage to attract the highest gate of the tournament, with 29,000 coming through the turnstiles at Anfield to see the Gunners defeat an injury-ravaged Liverpool side. In a season that would ultimately see the two clubs battle it out for the biggest prize of all in a race that would go to the final kick of the final game, though, this encounter was somewhat lost in the mists of time.

Arsenal’s opponents in the final would be Manchester United, who had overcome Newcastle in extra-time in the semi-final, and in fairness, the final itself proved to be something of a worthy encounter. A couple of feisty meetings between the two sides, including a bad-tempered league meeting and a hard-fought FA Cup fifth round the season before, ensured this would be a bruising encounter if nothing else and if reports are to be believed, things became pretty nasty off the field too.

Whether it was due to the two previous damp squibs or for logistical reasons, Wembley was shunned for this third tale of the trilogy. Apparently United had wanted the final played at either Highbury or Old Trafford, but it was Villa Park that was chosen as the neutral venue due to the fact that former Villa Chairman William McGregor was instrumental in the formation of the Football League – at least that’s what they said at the time.

As it turned out, the venue was more than capable of holding such a low-profile affair. Under 30,000 turned up to witness the tightly-fought encounter on 9 October, as both teams went for it in the driving rain against the backdrop of empty claret seats, with Arsenal eventually claiming the triangular shaped trophy and cheque for £50,000 thanks to a 2-1 win.

It’s highly unlikely that anyone who witnessed this three-pronged attack on the senses, which failed to capture the nation’s attention and took over a year to complete, will remember any of it fondly, even supporters of Nottingham Forest or Arsenal. However, what the Football League Centenary celebrations did do brilliantly was sum up English football perfectly at that time. It was a microcosm of the game as it was then; who played it, who went to watch it, and how they went to watch it.

In an era of round-the-clock media coverage, endless hours of live TV broadcasts, and social media attention which is fast approaching saturation point, we can only guess how different any celebrations might look if they are to take place in 2092; but let’s face it, few of us, if any, will be around to see it, so who really cares?

Matthew Crist    @Matthewjcrist