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The Longest Continuous Time In The Football League

The longest time spent in the Football League

On the day I write this (3rd May 2019) there is considerable interest in the fact that tomorrow could be the day that one of the founder members of the Football League is relegated from the league after 131 years as a member. That club is Notts County, who must not lose their game against Swindon Town if they are to avoid being relegated to the National League.

This got me thinking… how many other clubs have (or used to have) an unbroken run of 100 or more years in the Football League? This turns out to be a layered question, so I have decided to produce a range of lists to answer the question. But first a little bit of a potted Football League history.

The Football League was founded in 1888, initially with 12 members. Every team would play every other team twice, both home and away, and at the end of the season the teams with the most points (2 for a win, 1 for a draw and 0 for a loss) would be Champions. In addition the 3 lowest placed teams at the end of the season would be forced to resign ahead of an AGM between seasons. At the AGM there would be an election between those members who had just resigned due to their low placing, and any non-members wishing to join the Football League for the next season. Occasionally the League expanded, and thus elected more teams than had been required to resign, and in this way it eventually reached the 1980s with 92 members across 4 divisions.

The 1980s saw a lot of change though. Firstly a win became worth 3 points rather than 2, which made it more important to achieve a win, and therefore less likely a match ended in a draw. Also the Alliance Premier League, founded in 1979 as a national non-league competition for the best non-league teams, became the only feeder to the Football League, although at first the highest placed eligible team (not always the champions, because only some APL team met the Football League’s stringent rule and regs) were invited to be the only team to stand in the election with the Football League teams who had just had to resigned. On the surface this makes it more likely that the outgoing Football League teams got instantly re-elected, since now a maximum of one outgoing League team could be replaced, since there was only one non-league team able to contest for their place. However allowing only one non-league team to be in the election meant that if a sizable number of existing Football Leagues were of a mind to elect a fresh team into their ranks then their votes would be concentrated onto that one non-league candidate, instead of being potentially spread amongst many non-league hopefuls, so in some ways a non-league club’s chances of being elected did increase, though in the event no new club was elected to the league before the rules changed in for the 1986-87 season.

In 1986-87 the APL, now called the Conference, was given one automatic promotion place for its champions (subject to eligibility), and correspondingly one Football League club would automatically be relegated to the Conference. All of this was subject to the champions being eligible (as above), but was nonetheless a seismic shift for the Football League, who for 98 years had been something of an ‘old boys’ club who were much more likely to re-elect the bottom placed existing clubs than they were to elect a fresh club. Obviously once automatic relegation from the league existed it became much more common for clubs to leave the league, and much harder therefore to reach 100 continuous years in the League, which would only have become possible in the first place in 1988, given the League started in 1888.

One other thing would also come into play a few years later. In the late 80s and very early 90s many of the bigger clubs began grumbling about the Football League, and wanting to take a larger slice of the television highlights revenues etc generated by the League (on the basis that people tuning in to Match of the day were much more like to be doing so to see highlights of Leeds Utd v Manchester United at the summit of Division One, than for Doncaster Rovers v Carlisle Utd at the arse end of Division Four). The FA proposed to create a breakaway league for England’s top clubs, and at the end of the 1991-92 season they succeeded in signing up all the Division One clubs who had not just been relegated and those Division Two clubs who had gained promotion. The FA Premier League began in August 1992, and from this point it becomes possible to leave the Football League in glory in an upwards direction, as well as in shame in a downwards one (or disappearing altogether into non-existence as a result of financial collapse), so it becomes even less likely that clubs will reach 100 continuous years in the Football League.

In 2005 the Conference gained a second promotion place for the winners of its new play-offs, mirroring the play-offs that had existed in the Football League since 1987. There was also, from this point, a second relegation from the League.

Fast forward to 3rd May 2019 and I believe there are only 26 clubs who have achieved 100 or more continuous years in the Football League, (assuming the war years, when no seasons took place, still count as continuous membership for all clubs that played in both the last full season before the hiatus, and the first full season afterwards).

Of these 26 clubs, 18 have since ended that 100+ year run by signing for (1992 only) or being promoted to the Premier League, and 2 have ended their run by being relegated from the Football League. This leaves the following six clubs as the only ones to have been continuously in the Football League for 100 or more years:

Notts County                                     1888       131years
Preston North End                          1888       131years
Bury                                                       1894       125years
Bristol City                                           1901       118years
(Burslem) Port Vale                        1919       100years
Rotherham County/United*       1919       100years
It should also be pointed out though that 3 of the 6 clubs had to seek re-election on one or more occasions (Notts County 1889 & 1890, Preston North End 1986 & Rotherham County/United in 1925 & 1932), and that re-election by definition requires the club to resign prior to the AGM, then get re-elected at the AGM, which means that those three clubs have technically had their runs broken by very short periods of time, whereas the other three have been truly continuous members since their respective dates above.
*NB Rotherham United was formed in 1925 by merging two existing clubs, Rotherham County and Rotherham Town. Rotherham County had finished bottom of the Football League in 1924-25 and therefore needed to seek re-election to keep their place in Division Three North, whilst Rotherham Town had been a non-league club for some years by this point, though they were not the same Rotherham Town who had been a Football League club for a few seasons in the 1890s before going out of business. The merger between the clubs took place in May 1925, and so Rotherham United sought re-election on the basis of being the successor to Rotherham County, and were successful in this endeavour. I therefore count this as continuous membership for 100+ years, but appreciate that some pedants may only count it as 94 years.

If I bring in the those runs already ended by leaving the Football League, either upwards or downwards, then the list of 26 clubs would look like this:

Notts County                                     1888-2019            131years
Preston North End                          1888-2019            131years
Bury                                                       1894-2019            125years
Burnley                                                                1888-2009            121years
Bristol City                                           1901-2019            118years
Wolves                                                 1888-2003            115years
West Brom                                         1888-2002            114years
Leyton Orient                                    1905-2017            112years
Blackpool                                             1900-2010            110years
Derby County                                    1888-1996            108years
Bolton Wanderers                           1888-1995            107years
Huddersfield Town                         1910-2017            107years
Stockport County                             1905-2011            106years
Sunderland                                         1890-1996            106years
Aston Villa                                           1888-1992            104years
Blackburn Rovers                             1888-1992            104years
Birmingham City                               1892-1992            100years
Leicester City                                     1894-1994            100years
Manchester City                               1892-1992            100years
Manchester United                        1892-1992            100years
Newcastle United                            1893-1993            100years
Nottingham Forest                          1892-1992            100years
(Burslem) Port Vale                        1919-2019            100years
Rotherham County/United         1919-2019            100years
Sheffield United                               1892-1992            100years
Sheffield Wednesday                    1892-1992            100years

Finally, despite the fact that the Premier League is a separate organisation to the Football League, there is a logic in suggesting that we should keep things comparative across the whole time period by counting all Premier League members as having essentially been within the Football League structure, even if not in the organisation with the Football League name, and, as such, the runs should remain continuous for all clubs who are in either organisation. Such a list would contain 40 clubs, with only two runs that have now ended.

Aston Villa                                           1888-2019            131years
Blackburn Rovers                             1888-2019            131years
Bolton Wanderers                           1888-2019            131years
Burnley                                                                1888-2019            131years
Derby County                                    1888-2019            131years
Everton                                                                1888-2019            131years
Notts County                                     1888-2019            131years
Preston North End                          1888-2019            131years
West Bromwich Albion                  1888-2019            131years
Wolverhampton Wanderers       1888-2019            131years
Sunderland                                         1890-2019            129years
Birmingham City                               1892-2019            127years
Manchester City                               1892-2019            127years
Manchester United                        1892-2019            127years
Nottingham Forest                          1892-2019            127years
Sheffield United                               1892-2019            127years
Sheffield Wednesday                    1892-2019            127years
Arsenal                                                 1893-2019            126years
Liverpool                                             1893-2019            126years
Newcastle United                            1893-2019            126years
Bury                                                       1894-2019            125years
Leicester City                                     1894-2019            125years
Barnsley                                               1898-2019            121years
Middlesbrough                                 1899-2019            120years
Blackpool                                             1900-2019            119years
Bristol City                                           1901-2019            118years
Bradford City                                     1903-2019            116years
Chelsea                                                                1905-2019            114years
Hull City                                                1905-2019            114years
Leyton Orient                                    1905-2017            112years
Fulham                                                 1907-2019            112years
Oldham Athletic                               1907-2019            112years
Tottenham Hotspur                        1908-2019            111years
Huddersfield Town                         1910-2019            109years
Stockport County                             1905-2011            106years
Stoke City                                            1915-2019            104years
Coventry City                                     1919-2019            100years
Port Vale                                             1919-2019            100years
Rotherham County/United         1919-2019            100years
West Ham United                            1919-2019            100years




Page Last Updated - 03/05/2019
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