The concept of promotion and relegation has been a constant and defining feature of professional football in England since the Football League introduced the Second Division in 1892. It provides clubs outside the top-flight with a clear incentive to perform well during the season, with the opportunity of progressing into a higher division, whilst underachieving sides face the prospect of dropping into a less prestigious level of competition. Modern clubs also have an additional financial incentive to achieve and retain top-flight status with promotion to the Premier League now worth an estimated £190 million due to the combination of TV and advertising revenue.

However, the automatic form of promotion and relegation that is used today has not always been in place. The inauguration of the Second Division marked the arrival of the principle of merit promotion with the Football League establishing a test-match system to determine the movement of clubs between the two divisions. Prior to 1892, the composition of the First Division was decided by vote with the bottom four clubs, in addition to any external clubs wishing to join the league, having to apply for election or, in the case of the former, re-election.

The Football League tweaked and experimented with test-match system during the final decade of the nineteenth century and by the 1897/98 season had introduced a mini-league format. This required the bottom two clubs from the First Division and the top two clubs from the Second Division to participate in a series of matches to determine who would progress into the top-flight the following season.

However, it became apparent that there was a definitive flaw in the mini-league test-system format that resulted in what has been described by some authors as the ‘worst’ or ‘most boring’ game of football in history.

1897/98 Season: Stoke City vs Burnley

At the conclusion of the 1897/98 season, top-flight clubs Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers were joined by Second Division sides Newcastle United and Burnley in the test-match series to establish who would be promoted and relegated. In this particular instance, teams were required to play four fixtures (home and away) against opponents that had participated in a different league than themselves during the campaign. The two clubs that accumulated the most points would be promoted.

However, by the final round of matches in the mini-league a scenario had emerged where a goalless draw between Stoke City and Burnley at the Victoria Ground would see both clubs promoted to the First Division regardless of the result in the parallel contest between Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers. In effect, the players and officials from both teams recognised that it was in the interest of everyone present in ‘The Potteries’ that day that neither side won the game.

Only 3,000 spectators attended the match and soon after the game had commenced a heavy storm occurred that restricted the quality of play. The Sportsman reported that ‘it was impossible for the men to play well at all … the wind blew strongly, and the ground becoming sodden and slippery frequent mistakes were made’. There were no shots at goal during the first half and there was little to enthuse those in the stands. Although this could be partly blamed on the weather the same excuse could not be used following the change of ends.

Newspaper reports indicate that the weather began to clear during the second period, but neither team appeared interested in attempting to score a goal or produce any form of attacking play. The London Evening Standard noted that ‘the play fell off considerably after the changing of ends, neither side apparently exerting themselves’ whilst the Newcastle Journal commented that ‘play was of a poor description, neither side appearing to show any great keenness [to score]’. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph were much more robust in their description of proceedings:

‘There was evidently no inclination of playing to a definitive issue at Stoke. Reporters combine to describe the game as one of deadly dullness, one in which the players seemed utterly careless as to the scoring of goals. Why should they otherwise? They knew full well that a place in the First Division was certain for next season if no goals were scored … [the] test match became a farce’.

 

It was also noted that players from both teams resorted to kicking the ball out of play on a regular basis, although this had some unexpected repercussions. Frustrated supporters began to refuse to return any balls that came into the stand, partly as a method of demonstrating their discontent with the game and also to entertain themselves, by hiding them under their coats or throwing them outside the ground. Some reports suggest that one ball was thrown onto the roof of a stand and that another ended in the River Trent whilst up to five different balls had to procured during the contest. However, the actions of supporters did provide one stand-out moment of amusement for onlookers. The Sportsman explains that:

‘During the second half the ball frequently went into touch on the paddock side and some youths kept it to entertain themselves … to prevent them from getting the ball again as it bounced over the touch-line, a policeman on duty and the Stoke trainer rushed for it. The result was that the ball passed between them into the crowd, while the trainer knocked the officer at full length on his back. The incident caused great merryment’.

Reaction and Legacy

The match, somewhat unsurprisingly, ended in a goalless draw with some reports indicating that there was not one shot during the entire contest, resulting in both Stoke City and Burnley being promoted to the First Division for the subsequent season. Contemporary reporters complained about the approach to the game that the two clubs had adopted, although they were careful not to openly accuse either side of colluding to fix the contest, whilst the test-match system itself received a large degree of criticism.

Quite how the players from both clubs agreed to play out a goalless draw or, perhaps more pertinently, how they trusted each to carry through the agreed result is an interesting, although a seemingly unanswerable, question. However, it is worth noting that Burnley goalkeeper Jack Hillman was no stranger to controversy. He had been suspended mid-way through the 1897/98 season by Dundee for ‘not trying’ whilst he would later receive a one-year suspension from the Football Association in 1900/01 for attempting to bribe Nottingham Forrest players to lose a match that Burnley need to win.

 

The Stoke City vs Burnley ‘farce’ brought an end to the test-match system and from the 1898/99 season onwards the Football League introduced the automatic system of promotion and relegation that is still applied in the modern game.