English Old 1st Division



1871 (149 years old)

First Recorded Event




Alternate Names
1st division
first division

Last Edit
zag: 01 Apr 2019
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13 Apr 91 Leeds 4 - 5  Liverpool

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During the 1970s and 1980s, the spectre of hooliganism had begun to haunt English football. The Heysel Stadium disaster was the epitome of this, with English hooligans mixing with poor policing and an old stadium to cause the deaths of 39 Juventus fans during the 1985 European Cup final. This led to English teams being banned from European football for five years, and Liverpool - the club involved - being banned for six. Attendances also suffered throughout the league, with hooliganism and the recession being seen as the key factors. Teams in the north of England, the region with some of the worst unemployment rates nationally, suffered a particularly sharp decline in attendances, which did their financial position no favours. Indeed, the mid 1980s saw two former title-winning sides from the north of England - Burnley and Preston North End - relegated to the Fourth Division for the first time, and then come very close to losing their league status completely. In 1986, Wolverhampton Wanderers became only the second team in English football to suffer three successive relegations, dropping into the Fourth Division for the first time as well, although they were saved from closure for the second time in four years by a new owner.

Even when English teams were re-admitted to European competitions, it was not until 1995 that they regained all of their lost places. And it took a while for English teams to re-establish themselves in Europe. Although Manchester United won the European Cup Winners' Cup in the first season after the ban was lifted, the European Cup was not won by an English club until 1999 – 15 years after the last triumph.

The Hillsborough disaster, which also involved Liverpool, though not related to hooliganism but caused by bad policing, an outdated stadium and anti-hooligan fences led to 96 deaths and more than 300 injuries at the FA Cup semi-final in April 1989. These two tragedies led to a modernisation of English football and English grounds by the mid-1990s. Efforts were made to remove hooligans from English football, whilst the Taylor Report led to the grounds of all top level clubs becoming all-seater.

Match attendances, which had been in decline since the late 1970s, were beginning to recover by the turn of end of the 1980s thanks to the improving image of football as well as the strengthened national economy and falling unemployment after the crises of the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s.

On the field, Liverpool's domination was coming to an end by 1991. One of the biggest success stories of this era was that of Wimbledon, who rose from the Fourth Division to the First in just four seasons, before finishing sixth in their inaugural season in the top flight and beating Liverpool 1–0 in the 1988 FA Cup final, one of the competition's biggest shocks. They had only joined the league in 1977. Another team to make an improbably quick rise from Fourth to First Divisions was Swansea City, who had climbed three divisions between 1977 and 1981. They finished sixth in their first top division campaign, but were relegated the following year and in 1986 fell back into the Fourth Division, having narrowly avoided going out of business. Watford had reached the First Division for the first time in 1982 and finished league runners-up in their first season at this level and were FA Cup runners-up a year later, but were relegated in 1988.

A number of other small clubs achieved success at this time. Charlton Athletic, who were forced to leave The Valley and ground-share with West Ham for safety reasons in 1985, won promotion to the First Division in 1986 after an exile of nearly 30 years. They defied the odds by surviving at this level for four seasons. Norwich City enjoyed even more success during this era. The Norfolk club went down to the Second Division in 1985 but that blow was cushioned by a League Cup triumph. They returned to the top flight a year later and finished fifth on their comeback, also coming fourth and reaching the FA Cup semi-finals in 1989, being in with a serious chance of winning the double with only a few weeks of the season remaining. They reached another FA Cup semi-final in 1992. Oxford United, who had only joined the Football League in 1962, reached the First Division in 1985 and lifted the League Cup the following season. They went back down again in 1988, the same year that Middlesbrough reached the First Division a mere two seasons after almost going out of business as a Third Division side. Luton Town, who began the latest of several spells as a First Division side in 1982, won the Football League Cup - their first major trophy - in 1988 at the expense of a much more fancied Arsenal side.

One fallen giant to enjoy something of a resurgence in this era was Derby County. They had been relegated to the Third Division in 1984, just nine years after being league champions, but back-to-back promotions saw them back in the First Division in 1987. They emerged as surprise title contenders in 1988–89 and finished fifth, only missing out on a UEFA Cup place due to the ban on English clubs in European competition. But Derby were unable to sustain their run of success, and went down to the Second Division in 1991.

After their three consecutive relegations and almost going out of business twice in four years, Wolverhampton Wanderers were beginning to recover by 1987. By 1989, they had won promotion to the Second Division almost single-handedly thanks to the goalscoring exploits of striker Steve Bull, who became the first English footballer to score 50 or more competitive goals in successive seasons, and one of the few Third Division players to be selected for the senior England team. Local businessman Jack Hayward took the club over in 1990, and declared his ambition to restore Wolves to the elite on English football.

Bolton Wanderers, four times FA Cup winners, were relegated to the Fourth Division in 1987, the same year that Sunderland fell into the Third Division for the first time in their history. Both teams, however, won promotion at the first attempt. Sunderland returned to the First Division in 1990 but went down after just one season.

Burnley's recovery was more steady; they did not climb out of the league's basement division until 1992 and did not reclaim their top flight status until 2009, only surviving for one season at this level.

With Liverpool's fortunes waning, George Graham's Arsenal emerged as a dominant force in the English game, winning the League Cup in 1987 and two league titles, in 1989 and 1991, the former being won in the final minute of the final game of the season against title rivals Liverpool, with young midfielder Michael Thomas scoring the crucial goal. Arsenal would go on to be the first side to pick up the Cup Double in 1993, and followed it with a Cup Winners' Cup the year after. The 1991 title triumph was achieved with just one defeat from 38 league games.

Arsenal's neighbours Tottenham were also successful, winning the FA Cup in 1990–91, with midfielder Paul Gascoigne proving the hero in the semi-finals against Arsenal before injuring himself in the final against Nottingham Forest. Tottenham bought Barcelona's high-scoring England striker Gary Lineker in 1989, and he continued his excellent form over three years at the club before leaving to finish his career in Japan.

Leeds had finally won promotion back to the top flight in 1990 and under Howard Wilkinson they won the 1991–92 league title. Wilkinson is still the most recent English manager to win the league championship. However, the departure of Eric Cantona to Manchester United, amongst other factors, meant they were unable to make a regular challenge for the title following the creation of the Premier League, although they did survive at this level for 12 seasons and achieved regular top five finishes.

Manchester United's six-year trophyless run had ended in 1983 when manager Ron Atkinson (appointed in 1981) guided them to FA Cup glory. They achieved another triumph two years later, but had still gone without a league title since 1967. 10 successive league wins at the start of the 1985–86 season suggested that the title was on its way back to Old Trafford, but United's form fell away as they finished fourth and Liverpool sealed the title. A terrible start to the 1986–87 season cost Atkinson his job in early November, when Alex Ferguson was recruited from Aberdeen. Ferguson strengthened the squad in the 1987 close season and the first stages of the new season and things were looking good as Ferguson's first full season as manager saw United finished second behind runaway champions Liverpool. Further signings after this improvement suggested that the title was even closer for United, but a series of injuries blighted the side and they finished 11th in 1989. United's wait for silverware ended in 1990 when they won their 7th FA Cup, and a year later they won the European Cup Winners' Cup, but it had now been well over 20 years since the league title had been United's.

Despite failure to qualify for Euro 1984 (the first major tournament since the appointment of Bobby Robson as manager), England continued to improve as the 1980s wore on, losing controversially to Argentina in the 1986 World Cup and unluckily on penalties to Germany in the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup, eventually finishing fourth. This success for the national team, and the gradually improving grounds, helped to reinvigorate football's popularity. Attendances rose from the late 1980s and continued to do so as football moved into the business era.

However, the ban on English clubs in European competitions from 1985 to 1990 had led to many English-based players moving overseas. Manchester United striker Mark Hughes and Everton's top scorer Gary Lineker were sold to FC Barcelona in 1986, although both players were back in England by the decade's end, Hughes back at Old Trafford and Lineker playing for Tottenham. Ian Rush left Liverpool for Juventus in 1987, but returned to Anfield the following year. Chris Waddle left Tottenham for Marseille in 1989 and stayed there for three years before returning to England to sign for Sheffield Wednesday. After being appointed Rangers manager in 1986, former Liverpool player Graeme Souness signed a host of English-based players for the Ibrox club.

Even after the ban on English clubs in Europe was lifted, a number of high-profile players moved overseas. Gary Lineker opted to complete his playing career in Japan on leaving Tottenham in 1992, the same year that Paul Gascoigne moved to Italy in a lucrative transfer to Lazio. Another of England's 1990 World Cup stars, David Platt, had been sold by Aston Villa to Italian side Bari in 1991, later playing for Juventus and Sampdoria before returning to England in 1995 to sign for Arsenal - the same year that Gascoigne left Lazio to sign for Rangers in Scotland.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the emergence of numerous young players who went on to reach great heights in the game. These include Paul Gascoigne, David Platt, Matt Le Tissier, Lee Sharpe, Ryan Giggs and Paul Merson.

Established great players who were still playing the top in the early 1990s include Ian Rush, Peter Beardsley, Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce, Neville Southall and Ray Wilkins.

This era also saw many famous names hanging up their boots after long and illustrious careers. These include Ray Clemence, Gary Bailey, Alan Hansen, Craig Johnston, Norman Whiteside, Andy Gray and Billy Bonds.

Successful managers of this era include Kenny Dalglish, George Graham, Howard Kendall, Howard Wilkinson, Alex Ferguson, Bobby Gould, John Lyall, Jim Smith, Maurice Evans and Dave Bassett.


9091 Season

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