On the wall on the stairs in Delilah’s is a rare blue plaque. Only 12 exist, handed to each of the founding members of the Football League on the competition’s 125 anniversary in September 2013.
It actually all kicked off on this day in 1888, when Stoke City, then just Stoke before the federation of the Six Towns, played host to FA Cup holders West Bromwich Albion in front of a 5,000 crowd at the Victoria Ground.
But while everyone knows Stoke are the second-oldest professional club in the world – at least until Crystal Palace’s revelation today that they now believe they are 44 years older than previously thought – how did they come to be among those dozen chosen ones who changed the sport?
The Potters had actually been playing full seasons for 20 years before the League was formed, a mixture of cup games and friendlies mostly around Staffordshire and the Midlands which were normally anything but friendly.
At first rules changed from game to game, including pretty much a rugby match against Leek that was won by one goal and a touchdown. Teams fielded anything from 11 to 15 players and goalkeepers were only allowed to handle the ball from 1869 – as well as, briefly, a centre-forward.
But it started to formalise and Stoke followed in the wake of Lancashire clubs to turn professional in 1885 – paying Tom Clare and Bill Rowley 13p per match. Those costs meant there was a desire to ensure a consistent income: regular games against decent opposition.
Aston Villa’s William McGregor had the brainwave to make a “fixity of fixtures” and on March 2, 1888 he proposed the idea in a letter to four other clubs: Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End and West Bromwich Albion.
Stoke were then put forward by Bolton’s Jack Bentley, who also proposed inviting Notts County and Wolves. Blackburn suggested Burnley and Accrington.
A meeting was held at Anderton’s Hotel in Fleet Street, London, on March 23 but neither big hitter Bentley nor his Preston counterpart William Sudell could make it. West Brom and Blackburn sent committee men and Derby were only there to observe.
That opened the door for Stoke’s own Harry Lockett to be elected unopposed as the League’s first secretary. He would establish the League’s first headquarters in Etruria at 8 Parkers Terrace, later renamed 177 Brick Kiln Lane, just off the A500.
News of the competition reached the Birmingham Mail by April – but their first comment was to wonder why Stoke had been chosen over Villa’s near-neighbours St George’s. McGregor, however, advocated a one-town, one-club policy to protect commercial interests.
No London club would be involved until 1893 and Woolwich Arsenal. Palace wouldn’t be elected until 1920.
It was Lockett’s reliability – setting the fixtures was a major role for the whole thing to work – which supposedly ensured Stoke’s selection over Burslem Port Vale.
And on April 17 it was all confirmed, with Everton added to the mix.
Sheffield’s The Wednesday, Bolton’s neighbours Halliwell and Notts County’s cross-town rivals Nottingham Forest’s applications were rejected. The three were told there was not room in the calendar for include them as well.
Thomas Taw explained in Football’s Twelve Apostles: “Both Forest and Notts Rangers had recently proven stronger than County but County occupied the Trent Bridge ground, which promised a good gate.”
He added: “Forest met (in November 1888) to decide whether to turn professional. Both they and Notts County were among the oldest in the country (but) Forest had declined from a top three or four side in 1883 to barely top 25 five years later.
“They struggled so badly for fixtures that after five Scottish and four Lancashire clubs had declined to play against them, they were glad to feed off County’s crumbs – playing Derby when the two Countys postponed their League match.
“As soon as committeeman Sam Widdowson persuaded the Special General Meeting to reaffirm amateurism, his brother – the giant goalkeeper Tom Widdowson – joined County with his own aphorism – a ‘guinea in the hand is worth all the amateurism in the bush’.”
Anyway, on September 8, 1888, West Brom plodded up to the Potteries and ran out 2-0 winners.
Football special editions of the Sentinel were produced that evening – featuring a stop press down the right column about another murder from Jack the Ripper.
History was written.