A brief history of the English top division

July 1, 2012

The Premier League may have only been in existence since 1992, when English football entered a new era of previously unimaginable affluence, but the English top division is the oldest in world football. It has been won 18 times by both Liverpool and Manchester United, who head a list of 23 champions that includes such names as Huddersfield, Portsmouth and the two Sheffield clubs.

• List of Honours

The Football League was formed in 1888 by the Aston Villa director William McGregor. There were 12 founder members: Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Derby, Everton, Notts County, Preston, Stoke, West Brom and Wolves. By 1950, the league has swelled to 92 clubs.

The first championship was won by Preston, who remained unbeaten throughout the season and became known as the Invincibles. Aston Villa and Sunderland became the first sides to win five titles, just before the fisrt world war, and Huddersfield were the first team to win three consecutive champions, from 1924 to 1926. It was a feat that Arsenal repeated in the Thirties, a decade also notable for a bizarre fall from grace: Manchester City won the title in 1937 and were relegated the following season despite being the league's top scorers.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, during which the league was suspended, there were back-to-back league wins for Portsmouth, Manchester United and Wolves. The last of those came in 1959, and it would be another 18 years before a team retained that title.

Of all the championship victories in that period, none was as improbable as that of Brian Clough's Derby in 1971-72. Having played all their games, Derby knew that they would not win the league if Leeds drew at Wolves or if Liverpool won at Arsenal. Incredibly, both results went Derby's way.

Clough famously won another title with Nottingham Forest, in 1978, but by then seeing any name other than Liverpool at the top of the table was unusual: they won 10 out of 15 championships between 1976 and 1990, including three in a row from 1982 to 1984. Incredibly, they have won not won one since 1990.

Liverpool's hegemony was broken twice by Everton in the mid-Eighties and then, sensationally, by Arsenal in 1989. Both sides met at Anfield in the last game of the season, with Arsenal needing to win by two goals to take the title from Liverpool. Michael Thomas gave them a 2-0 win with an impossibly dramatic last-minute goal.

The last title under the auspices of the Football League was won by Leeds in 1991-92. Then 22 clubs signed up to join the FA Premier League. The founder members were: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Blackburn, Chelsea, Coventry, Crystal Palace, Everton, Ipswich, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Middlesbrough, Norwich, Nottingham Forest, Oldham, QPR, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur and Wimbledon.

The inaugural winners were Manchester United, who had not won the title for an amazing 26 years. It was the first of 12 in 19 seasons, including three in a row from 1999 to 2001 and 2007 to 2009 and also a record breaking one in 2011. The only other winners were Arsenal, Chelsea - and Blackburn, who in 1995 won their first title for 81 years.

In the 21st Century, as the Big Four of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United monopolised the top four places, it was hard to envisage a club like Blackburn ever winning the league again. But the money played its part and Dubai-backed Manchester City went and upset the established order in thrilling style on the final day of the 2011-12 season to claim their first title since 1968. Sergio Aguero's 94th minute goal may well have changed the landscape for good.

  • List of Honours