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The Man Who Created Merseyside Football


In his new book, David Kennedy recounts the sporting legacy of John Houlding, the former Lord Mayor of Liverpool who was responsible for the rise of two of English football’s biggest and most successful football clubs — Everton and Liverpool.

It might be hard for blues to swallow, but Everton’s first decade in existence was dominated by a man more readily associated with Liverpool FC — local brewer, John Houlding. Despite his more obvious association with Liverpool FC, Houlding spent half of his years involved in football with Everton, and he is undoubtedly the first giant figure in the club’s history. It was Houlding’s money and guile that catapulted Everton into the elite of the English game, but he has ultimately been remembered — when remembered at all by Evertonians – as an interloper who attempted to exploit his position as club president. There has been an underplaying of his crucial role in the development of Everton.

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A cricket enthusiast, sport figured prominently in John Houlding’s life. And, as a man seeking to boost his profile for business and political purposes (Houlding was a committed Tory), he also used sport to good effect in projecting himself in the district Everton where he had taken up residence in the mid-1870s. He made his mark in the district by sponsoring the development of a quoits club, a bowling club, and becoming president of the district swimming club. It was uncharacteristic tardiness on Houlding’s part, therefore, that the major sporting institution in the district, Everton Football Club, had already been in existence for two years before he became closely involved with it.

Everton FC were a step up and away from Houlding’s other sporting associations in terms of scale. They were a burgeoning organization, quickly establishing themselves as the premier football club in the area, and had the unmistakable potential for mass appeal. The club’s possibilities for Houlding in terms of improving his own social status and political influence were obvious.

Prior to Houlding’s involvement, the Everton committee had tried to finance the club via membership fees. Everton FC had its expenses to meet: payment to players on an informal basis (professionalism not being legitimate until 1885); train fares to and from away games in the north west of England; the basic costs of providing kit, boots, nets and balls. A club membership annual subscription was levied, but that nowhere near covered the club’s outgoings. Its weekly fixtures were attracting thousands of spectators to Stanley Park; however they were non-paying spectators, and if Everton were to keep up their momentum this needed to change.

The club committee’s attempt to set up a permanent gate-taking ground off Priory Road from the 1883-84 season proved unsuccessful. Houlding’s grip on Everton FC began in earnest at this vulnerable point for the club. A suggestion was made that the committee should petition the wealthy Houlding to take up – on behalf of the club – a plot of land (eventually to be called Anfield) which was owned by his fellow brewer and acquaintance, Joseph Orrell. This they did, and Houlding agreed to the plan and persuaded Orrell into a sale. For the Everton Committee, which had been facing the prospect of their team being forced back to open parkland for their fixtures, the Houlding-Orrell deal was a welcome life-line; not only did the club have the prospect of security of tenure for seasons to come, it would be Houlding taking the ultimate risk on financing the new ground.

Made president by the club, the deal with Orrell meant that Houlding was now also, effectively, Everton’s landlord. From this point forward Houlding would take the club more firmly into his growing portfolio of interests and reap the benefits. Indeed, his association with the club had already proved to be beneficial politically: Houlding’s securing of a council seat in 1884 was a victory in no small measure aided by the players and members of Everton FC who had canvassed for votes on their president’s behalf. Although, political capital was important to John Houlding, so too was turning a profit — a lesson the committeemen at Everton would eventually learn.

With a rich man at its helm, the conditions were established for the club to satisfy its ambitions. Everton had the wherewithal to do what its Lancashire rivals were able to do at an earlier stage: employ top professional players. These additions, however, did not in the short term provide Everton with the level of success they craved. It remained the case that locally they were almost beyond dispute the dominant club. However, against their mighty north west of England rivals they still struggled to be seen as worthy opponents, and were even denied entry into the Lancashire Senior Cup – the Lancashire Football Association’s premier competition.

One thing Everton were excelling at, though, was attracting regular first-class opposition to Anfield for exhibition games. Under Houlding, Everton had increased its stadium capacity and upgraded facilities for players and supporters alike. Anfield had been taken from the 8,000-10,000 capacity the club were restricted to when first taking up tenancy in 1884, to a 20,000 capacity stadium by 1887. In the wake of these improvements, gate receipts rapidly increased from the £200 taken in the club’s inaugural season at Anfield in 1884-85, to almost £1,500 for the 1887-88 season.

It was a stadium that commanded attention, and it would soon be hosting games in the inaugural season of the English Football League when Everton, against all expectations, became one of its twelve founding members. How could this have come to pass? How could a club thought not good enough to compete in Lancashire’s premier cup competition have been chosen to kick off the English Football League’s maiden season along with eleven of the country’s top clubs? The answer is two-fold: the commercial pragmatism of the nascent Football League, and the persuasive powers of John Houlding.

Aston Villa president, William McGregor, did not have Everton on his mailing list when he notified a select number of his fellow club presidents in March 1887 of his intention to set up a national league — an idea that had been discussed in football circles for a year or two before finally happening. A provisional list of the clubs chosen to play in the new national league confirmed that, as expected, Everton were out in the cold. A determined Houlding, though, had other ideas. He set his attention on courting the most prestigious clubs in the country, Aston Villa and Preston North End, in an effort to make the final list of clubs. In the wake of Everton’s name not making the provisional league list, Houlding had his club secretary, Alex Nisbet, invite both Aston Villa and Preston to play at Anfield. The approach to Aston Villa, in particular, proved decisive. The Birmingham club played Everton at Anfield in April 1887 and its president, McGregor, was mightily impressed by the surroundings: telling his Everton counterpart that his club’s amenities were advanced and agreeable. Soon after, the Aston Villa secretary arranged a return fixture between the two clubs at their own Wellington Road stadium in Birmingham; the Aston Villa secretary commenting “We have visited your ground and you have never been here, there is no doubt you would be a considerable draw. Will you, therefore, play here. I feel sure it would pay you well”.

Houlding’s nudge had paid off handsomely. Less than three weeks after being left off McGregor’s short-list, Everton were notified that they were indeed to be one of the twelve founding members of the Football League. McGregor later admitted that many of the better teams in England had been rejected in favour of Everton whose attendances could help make the venture a financial success. Regardless of Realpolitik, though, this was an astonishing coup for Houlding given that, comfortably, Everton had a far inferior competitive record than a host of better known football clubs in the country, including established outfits such as Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday.

This huge competitive step up, however, was daunting. It necessitated the spending of much more money on players if the club were to seize its opportunity. This, as usual, meant the spending of John Houlding’s money. With Everton now competing in the Football League, top professionals were only too willing to join the club. England internationals Johnny Holt and Edgar Chadwick transferred from Bootle and Blackburn Rovers, respectively. Scottish internationals, Nick Ross and Bob Kelso joined the club from Preston North End. Houlding’s cash was being used to poach players from some of the best teams in the country.

In the league’s first season, Everton finished a creditable eighth, higher placed than much-rated clubs like Stoke City and Burnley. Not bad for a club many considered unfit to challenge the very best that Lancashire had to offer. However, matters were to get considerably better after Everton signed attacker Fred Geary from Notts Rangers in 1889. One of seven new recruits to the first team group that summer, Geary would be described in today’s football parlance as a goal machine. In the young Englishman’s first season he scored twenty-one goals in twenty-two games, catapulting Everton to the runners up spot behind an all-powerful Preston North End team who had retained their crown (the famous ‘Invincibles’ team). The club’s increased investment in playing staff had been justified and the team were going from strength-to-strength. In the following season, 1890-91, Geary continued his marksmanship with a twenty-goal haul and Everton went one place better to become champions of England.

It had been a meteoric rise for the club: in the space of ten years it had been transformed from a district team, battling it out for local park supremacy with scores of other hopeful clubs, to the greatest team in England. It was an achievement John Houlding would not fail to exploit. After all, it was his money that had transformed the fortunes of the club, and he was well aware of it. In the days succeeding the club’s triumph, Houlding called for a public celebration of Everton’s achievement. These were the days before a victorious team would tour its home town displaying a trophy on an open top bus, so there would not be that scale of recognition. However, a large audience packed into the auditorium of Liverpool College on the evening of 8 May 1891 to witness the formal presentation of the Football League trophy to the club. The choice of venue was a significant one for Houlding. As an Old Lerpoolian – as the Collegiate alumni were called – Houlding had returned to his alma mater bringing with him the League Championship trophy.

The great and the good of the city were assembled to bear witness to Everton’s momentous success. These were the moments John Houlding had dreamt of and worked hard to make a reality, and the night was a chance to gather salutations from the social elite. Houlding rose to his feet and, after acknowledging the time and effort of the audience to attend the occasion, accepted the trophy on behalf of the newly-crowned Football League champions. “We have seen some of the most brilliant victories that have been celebrated in this country. We have now won, and deservedly, one of the finest cups in Great Britain. It is our duty to do all in our power to keep possession of the cup”. The night of celebration at the Collegiate was brought to a close with the singing of Georg Friedrich Handel’s ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’:

See the conquering hero comes!
Sound the trumpets, beat the drums.
Sports prepare, the laurel bring,
Songs of triumphs to him sing.

Houlding was nearing the peak of his power and influence. His control of the city’s football club — now the foremost sporting club in the country — gave him profile outside of Liverpool. As someone who stood at the brink of selection for a Liverpool parliamentary seat, he had done his chances no harm by bringing great honour to the city. The name Houlding was one of the most recognized in Liverpool, and his actions were closely followed and commented upon in the city’s daily newspapers and society journals. All in all, in the summer of 1891, with his football team riding high and his own public and private life in good order, John Houlding must have been a contented figure – his continued success apparently an inevitability. Storm clouds were gathering though, and any hubris Houlding may have had were about to be punished. Only months after the triumphant return to Liverpool College with his championship winning Everton team he faced a series of struggles in the football club which would eventually envelop the rest of his public life. For the first time, John Houlding’s credibility would be tested and questioned. The forward march of Houlding was about to be halted.

In truth, the portents were already there at Everton FC, as the club’s governance had, for a long time, been beset by factionalism. Although it was widely accepted by both insiders and outsiders to the club that Houlding and his money had been instrumental in the development of Everton, hostility to the president grew amongst the membership when, towards the end of the 1880s, he began to insist on remuneration for the financial commitments he had made to the club. At committee level, fundamental disagreements over how the club should be run were laced with bitter personal animosities – and a twist of political intrigue complicated matters still further.

Barely nine months after the greatest achievement of Houlding’s public life – standing at the helm of a sports organization that had proven itself to be the best in the country – he was stripped of his most important social asset when the large Everton membership voted to expel him and his closest allies on the club committee and also remove the organization to Goodison Park.

Despite his long association with Everton FC, Houlding had been something of a gatecrasher; a man at odds with the sensibility of the club. For all of his charismatic leadership and financial clout, there was always a feeling that his presence at Everton conflicted with the moral sensibility of the club, personified by others such as Alfred Riley Wade and William Cuff, founding members of Everton back in the late 1870s. Later arrivals to the committee, like George Mahon and William Whitford, were much more compatible with these men and the founding principles of the club they embodied. It was this clash of cultures that created tension throughout Houlding’s time as president, and it eventually led to his removal.

However, Houlding had a vision of another football project, and he had the men he could call upon to make his vision a reality. He also, of course, had Anfield. He would set up a very different organization to the one he had been shown the door of. A new era was about to dawn, and John Houlding had a score to settle with Everton FC.

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The Man Who Created Merseyside Football: John Houlding is published on 16th September and available in paperback at Waterstones, Rowman and Amazon.co.uk

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11/09/2020 at

Shifty bugger in cahoots with Orrel to make a financial killing out of EFC. The idea this chancer created a club that enjoyed the extraordinary good fortune of engaging the greatest manager of all time, Bill Shankly, thus creating a footballing dynasty demolishes the notion good triumphs over evil.


12/09/2020 at

I had the great pleasure of reviewing the manuscript of David Kennedy’s expertly researched and exquisitely written book.

If you know your history or have read this 130-page publication, you’ll be aware that ‘King John of Everton’ built two successful – make that world-class – professional football clubs during his lifetime. Some Blues forget that without his ambition, influence and financial support Everton enthusiasts would still be playing in Stanley Park.

The author is a member of the EFC Heritage Society and his book should be of interest to all real fans of Merseyside football and others interested in the complex civic culture and social history of Victorian Merseyside.

Highly recommended.

12/09/2020 at

The man who founded Everton was a committed Tory, which is the first thing that needs to be mentioned with regards Bramley-Moore!

I think the title is all wrong considering Everton was the first club and E comes before L, especially if the author is a member of the EFC heritage society, but maybe I’ve got a bee in my bonnet because I’ve just read that Shankly was the greatest manager of all time, a man with a record that just eclipsed our own Harry Catterick.

12/09/2020 at

Fascinating stuff. Sounds like a right twat!

12/09/2020 at

A must read for anyone who likes to know his history.

Excellent piece. very well research.

12/09/2020 at

We should have paid the rent increase. Would’ve saved a lot of angst

12/09/2020 at

I was thinking about “Blue Plaques” and honouring historical events.

Should we be petitioning Liverpool Council to put a blue plaque on the main stand at Anfield to say that this was where “Everton Football Club” started.
Would be interesting if passed by the council if the current officials of the property objected?

12/09/2020 at

Tony Abrahams if you can tell me of another manager who took a parochial club languishing in the second division and turned them into the powerhouse of English football creating a dynasty and never say die entity that endures today I might review my assertion.

If your contention is authoritarian and disliker of all things media, Harry Catterick, could have done the same then I fear we are on completely opposite paths. When Shankly left his foundations carried on to even greater success when Catterick left we turned to mush something we have never truly recovered from.

12/09/2020 at

Before my time Barry, and I was just comparing the silverware both managers won whilst at their respective clubs.

I’d say Forest were a much smaller club than Liverpool, Barry, and Clough took them up, then won the league, then the European cup twice.

Was Clough a better manager than Shankly? I don’t know it’s normally a person opinion, but you can’t tell me what he won at Forest, wasn’t a much bigger achievement than what Shankly won at Liverpool.

Shankly might have laid the foundations, but it was Paisley, who gave them a European pedigree, whilst Heysel possibly denied Howard Kendall, the chance to replicate both Clough and Paisley for Everton.

12/09/2020 at

Barry #8
What about Sir Alex Ferguson he took a club with their best days behind them but won more in a few decades than Everton has won in its entire existence. Brian Clough didn’t create a dynasty but he took Derby to the title and semi-finals of the European Cup and then went one better with Nottm Forest. I would argue that Cloughie’s achievements are up there with any of the ‘Gods’ of Liverpool. Don’t forget that only 11 or 12 years before everybody’s favourite manager [not mine] arrived, the other lot had won the title – the first of the post-war era.

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