John James Bentley

Football's Pioneers: John James Bentley

Dr Neil Carter from De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History and Culture recalls John James Bentley, a football pioneer who was arguably the most powerful man in football in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

After its establishment in 1888, the Football League grew rapidly from the original 12 clubs to two divisions of 20 by 1905. However, this expansion was not an inevitable process but largely a product of the internal politics between the game’s main governing bodies.

Initially though, rather than a national league, the Football League remained northern-dominated. Indeed, it faced competition from the Southern League, which was established in 1894. It was only after the First World War that the Football League could claim to be a national league with the creation of a Third Division in 1920.

In theory the Football Association was the governing body for the entire game with the Football League subservient. However, the reality was more complex. Relations between the FA and the League continued to be shaped by the debate over amateur and professional football.

Tensions were especially fraught over the League’s financial arrangements with the players, in the form of wages and the transfer system, which the FA attempted to control. There was increasing hostility from the clubs and at a meeting in 1908 clubs actually considered withdrawing from the FA if their proposals to allow player bonuses were not met.

The FA relented and in 1910 ceded authority to the League over the financial arrangements between clubs and players. Nevertheless, struggles between the two bodies would continue throughout much of the twentieth century.

So who ran the Football League? Matters of administration were carried out by the Football League Management Committee who in theory represented the wishes of the clubs.

For its first 45 years only two secretaries served the League, Harry Lockett (1888-1902) and Tom Charnley (1902-33) as well as three Presidents. The first was its founder, William McGregor (1892-94), followed by John James Bentley (1894-1910) and John McKenna (1910-36).

Around the turn of the century, Bentley (1860-1918) (pictured) was arguably the most powerful man in football. Another pioneer of the modern game, he had represented Lancashire as a player and became a football journalist.

In 1886, Bentley was appointed assistant editor of the Athletic News – the effective mouthpiece of the Football League, and from 1895 to 1900 he was the paper’s editor. He served on the League’s Management Committee for 30 years and was also the first League official to be a Vice-President of the FA in 1905.

Away from the committee room, Bentley was an early secretary of Bolton Wanderers and later its chairman in 1897. In 1902 he became a director of the newly re-constituted Manchester United plus its acting chairman until 1908. He was later its secretary from 1912 to 1916. However, it was said that no-one was more devoted to the Football League than Bentley.

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