In 1876 James J Lang, a Scottish international, moved South from Third Lanark to the Wednesday (the club that would later be named Sheffield Wednesday). Although he was not paid by the club, he was found a job by one of the Wednesday’s directors where he was not required to do any work. As such Lang is often regarded as football’s first professional. It would not be long before there were many more.
On 1 January 1878 Darwen, a club in Lancashire, played a match against the Scottish club Partick Thistle, and following the game Darwen recruited two of the Partick players, James Love and Fergie Suter, to come south. Although Darwen attempted to disguise the professionalism of their new players by finding them local jobs, there was little doubt over the reason for their move. Suter was initially employed as a stone mason, the work he had done in Scotland, but he soon tired of the harder stone found in Lancashire and came to depend on the club. In 1879 Darwen met the Old Etonians in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, and brought the issue of professionalism to the forefront of footballing debate. The first game ended 5-5, with Darwen scoring 4 goals in the last 15 minutes, while the second resulted in a 2-2 draw. It was only in the third clash at the Oval that the Old Etonians finally overcame them, winning 6-2 and going on to win the Cup.
Seeing the success enjoyed by Darwen other sides from the Midlands and the North sought to use the money flooding in from cotton, coal and steel to bridge the gap between themselves and their aristocratic Southern rivals. At first the issue appeared to have been solved through a system of expenses and travel costs which the FA tacitly approved. However, in 1882 a new rule was introduced by the FA stating that “Any member of a club receiving remuneration or consideration of any sort above his actual expenses and any wages lost by any such player taking part in any match shall be debarred from taking part in either cup, inter-Association, or International contests, and any club employing such a player shall be excluded from this Association.”
The vital difference of this competing organisation would be that full professionalism would be legitimised and the system of under the table payments, to which administrators had previously turned a blind eye, would be rendered unnecessary. The FA were faced with an impossible decision. They could either bow to the inevitable and sanction professionalism or stay true to the amateur ethos and face the game being torn apart.
In July 1885 the FA came up with a compromise which they believed would allow them to retain control of the game without ignoring their deep-seated belief in amateurism. The FA believed: “It is now expedient in the interests of association football to legalise the employment of professional football players, but only under certain restrictions.”
Indeed so restrictive was the framework under which paid employment was instituted that it came to be viewed in some quarters as akin to slavery. Players were owned and controlled by their clubs and could be bought and sold as chattels, against their wishes, and could even be excluded from the game entirely if they did not cooperate. The players might now benefit from open professionalism, but the terms on which they were employed were often significantly less favourable.
A significant proportion of those signing professional terms were the “Scottish professors”, in such high demand for their mastery of the close passing game which was the trademark of Scottish football in the early years of the game. While spectators continued to appreciate the honesty of the dribbling game traditionally practiced in the South there was an increasing recognition that passing had significant merits of its own. First among these was in results. Between April 1879, when the Scots lost a close game 5-4 to England, and March 1888 when they were humbled 5-0 by the “auld enemy” in Glasgow, the Scottish national team did not lose a single game. Furthermore the crowds were being increasingly won over by the stylish play that the passing game represented.
While fans undoubtedly sought good results there was always the understanding that they came to be entertained. If clubs could not provide an attractive playing style to go with good results then the crowds could find better ways to spend an afternoon. The exodus of Scots to the Northern towns of England was only encouraged by the unwillingness of the Scottish FA to follow their English counterpart’s example in legalising payments to players. In the following years the FA and the clubs appeared to have found a truce which suited each party well. The FA’s position as the guardian of the game seemed secure, until the intervention of an upstart on the continent: FIFA.