William Sudell

Football's Pioneers: William Sudell

For several seasons, Leicester City Football Club has worked with De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History & Culture on various heritage projects. Today, Dr. Neil Carter profiles William Sudell, football’s first manager.
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Although largely forgotten now, Sudell was one of the most significant figures in the early history of professional football. Born in Preston in 1850, he became a manager of a mill in the town and was chairman of Preston North End Football Club between 1876 and 1893.

Sudell was important in the modernisation of association football for two reasons. First, he was at the forefront of the decisive move which forced the Football Association to legalise professionalism in 1885. Like a number of Lancashire clubs, Preston North End paid its players, especially those from Scotland.

In 1884, after it had defeated Upton Park in an FA Cup tie, the amateur team claimed that Preston was professional. The FA agreed and expelled them from the competition. But this move galvanised a number of other clubs who threatened to breakaway to form a British Football Association.

Eventually, the FA relented and allowed professionalism, albeit with some stringent measures.

Secondly, Sudell was the driving force behind Preston North End’s domination of the early days of the professional game in the 1880s. In 1889 Preston not only became the first team to win the Football League Championship-FA Cup double, but until Arsenal in 2004, they were the only team to win the title without losing a game, albeit after 22, not 38 games.

Sudell was not only an early football entrepreneur, but he was also a pioneering figure in football management. While other clubs were run by committee, at Preston, Sudell was the committee and he was the first manager to make a difference. His management was the major factor in Preston’s success.

He was astute in the players he brought to Preston, which included the Scots, Nick Ross and John Goodall. Sudell also devised the team’s tactics using a blackboard and sometimes chess pieces on a billiards table.

As a result, Preston was noted for a passing game compared to their rivals’ style, which was characterised by upfield rushes. Sudell also believed in pre-match preparation that extended to scouting opponents and the players’ footwear. Player discipline was also important to him and he did not like them to drink.

Preston won the league again in 1889/90 They were runners-up in the next three seasons. However, this marked the end of Preston’s glory years. In 1893, Sudell lost control of the club and, two years later, he was arrested and then convicted for embezzling funds into the club’s coffers from the mill he managed.

He was sent to prison for three years, although he served only 12 months. After the trial, little was heard of Sudell until his death in South Africa in 1911, where he made a living as a sports journalist.

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