In 1877 McGregor joined Aston Villa. Other members of the team included George Ramsay, Archie Hunter and Eli Davis. Although he was only a moderate footballer himself, he was a great organizer. With his encouragement, the club entered the Football Association Challenge Cup in the 1879-80 season. At first the club had little success in the competition but did reach the 5th round in 1883.
McGregor was a committed teetotaller, and did what he could to enforce his views about the dangers of drinking alcohol. As Peter Lupson points out in his book, Thank God for Football : "It did not take long for McGregor to make his presence felt at Aston Villa. One particular problem that faced the committee was the players' drinking habits. Many of them were regularly giving training a miss, preferring to spend their time in local pubs, and some even turned up drunk for matches. Something had to be done. Determined to instill new habits in the players, McGregor, a lifelong teetotaller, decided to rent a room at a coffee house in Aston High Street and to compel them to attend social gatherings and musical events each Monday during the season."
In January, 1884, Preston North End played the London side, Upton Park, in the FA Cup. After the game Upton Park complained to the Football Association that Preston was a professional, rather than an amateur team. Sudell admitted that his players were being paid but argued that this was common practice and did not breach regulations. However, the FA disagreed and expelled them from the competition.
Major William Sudell, the secretary/manager of Preston North End admitted that he had improved the quality of the team by importing top players from other areas. This included several players from Scotland. As well as paying them money for playing for the team, Sudell also found them highly paid work in Preston.
Preston North End now joined forces with other clubs who were paying their players, such as Aston Villaand Sunderland. In October, 1884, these clubs threatened to form a break-away British Football Association. The Football Association responded by establishing a sub-committee, which included William Sudell, to look into this issue. On 20th July, 1885, the FA announced that it was "in the interests of Association Football, to legalise the employment of professional football players, but only under certain restrictions". Clubs were allowed to pay players provided that they had either been born or had lived for two years within a six-mile radius of the ground.
Aston Villa did very well in the 1886-87 season. They lost very few games and scored over 130 goals in the process. Stars of the team included Archie Hunter, Albert Brown, Dennis Hodgetts and Howard Vaughan. Aston Villa also had a good run in the 1886-87 FA Cup. They beat Wolverhampton Wanderers (2-0), Horncastle (5-0), Darwen (3-2) and Glasgow Rangers (3-1) to reach the final for the first time. Aston Villa beat West Bromwich Albion, 2-0, with goals from Hodgetts and Hunter.
The decision to pay players increased club's wage bills. It was therefore necessary to arrange more matches that could be played in front of large crowds. On 2nd March, 1888, William McGregorcirculated a letter to Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End, and West Bromwich Albion suggesting that "ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home and away fixtures each season."
J.J. Bentley of Bolton Wanderers and Tom Mitchell of Blackburn Rovers responded very positively to the suggestion. They suggested that other clubs should be invited to the meeting being held on 23rd March, 1888. This included Accrington, Burnley, Derby County, Notts County, Stoke, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Old Carthusians, and Everton should be invited to the meeting.
The following month the Football League was formed. It consisted of six clubs from Lancashire (Preston North End, Accrington, Blackburn Rovers, Burnley, Bolton Wanderers and Everton) and six from the Midlands (Aston Villa, Derby County, Notts County, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers). The main reason Sunderland was excluded was because the other clubs in the league objected to the costs of travelling to the North-East. McGregor also wanted to restrict the league to twelve clubs. Therefore, the applications of Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest, Darwen and Bootle were rejected.
The first season of the Football League began in September, 1888. Preston North End won the first championship that year without losing a single match and acquired the name the "Invincibles". Eighteen wins and four draws gave them a 11 point lead at the top of the table. Aston Villa finished in second place with 29 points.
William McGregor died in Birmingham in 1911.
The same year that Beecroft became president of Aston Villa FC, a 31 year-old Scotsman who was to change the whole course of football history became a member of the committee. William McGregor had left his native Perthshire in 1870 to take advantage of the business opportunities that Birmingham presented. He bought a linen draper's shop on the corner of Brearley Street and Summer Lane (in Aston) where he was to remain in business for the rest of his life. McGregor had got to know fellow Scot George Ramsay and the two men had become firm friends. Ramsay managed to persuade McGregor to become involved with Aston Villa. It proved to be an astute move because McGregor was a visionary and energetic leader and he helped make Villa the most successful and prestigious club in the country. Even today there is a visible reminder of his influence: it was at his suggestion that the Scottish national symbol of a lion rampant was adopted as the club's badge. But his name in football will forever be associated with something even greater than the famous club itself. He was the creator of the Football League.
McGregor was a committed Christian widely respected for his honesty and integrity. The Reverend W. G. Percival, a pastor at the Congregational church in Wheeler Street, Aston, where McGregor worshipped for over 40 years, said at his funeral service that the best thing about him "was not so much the genial, kindly, honest sports man, but it was the Christian behind it all". He described him as "a man of absolutely unblemished personal character". Charles Crump, president of the Birmingham County Football Association, stated in the local press that he `stood for all that was best and cleanest in the great game of football: People found it impossible to dislike him even if they disagreed with him, and it was said of him that he never made an enemy and never lost a friend.
It did not take long for McGregor to make his presence felt at Aston Villa. One particular problem that faced the committee was the players' drinking habits. Many of them were regularly giving training a miss, preferring to spend their time in local pubs, and some even turned up drunk for matches. Something had to be done. Determined to instill new habits in the players, McGregor, a lifelong teetotaller, decided to rent a room at a coffee house in Aston High Street and to compel them to attend social gatherings and musical events each Monday during the season. It might be more than just a coincidence that Villa enjoyed considerable success not long afterwards.
McGregor and Ramsay were a formidable partnership. Within three years of McGregor's arrival they had established the club as a force to be reckoned with in local football. A 22-0 win against Small Heath (the forerunners of Birmingham City) gives some indication of their strength at the time. The recruitment in 1878 of 19-year-old Archie Hunter, another Scot who had come to Birmingham in search of work, was a particularly inspired move. Hunter, whose impressive playing style and sense of sportsmanship made him a favourite with the fans, was considered to be the best centre-forward of his day and he was one of football's first superstars. His influence in the side was considerable and when Ramsay retired from playing in 1880 through injury, Hunter took over the captaincy.
Every year it is becoming more and more difficult for football clubs of any standing to meet their friendly engagements and even arrange friendly matches. The consequence is that at the last moment, through cup-tie interference, clubs are compelled to take on teams who will not attract the public.
I beg to tender the following suggestion as a means of getting over the difficulty: that ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home-and-away fixtures each season, the said fixtures to be arranged at a friendly conference about the same time as the International Conference.
This combination might be known as the Association Football Union, and could be managed by representative from each club. Of course, this is in no way to interfere with the National Association; even the suggested matches might be played under cup-tie rules. However, this is a detail.
My object in writing to you at present is merely to draw your attention to the subject, and to suggest a friendly conference to discuss the matter more fully. I would take it as a favour if you would kindly think the matter over, and make whatever suggestions you deem necessary.
I am only writing to the following - Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End, West Bromwich Albion, and Aston Villa, and would like to hear what other clubs you would suggest.
I am, yours very truly, William McGregor (Aston Villa F.C.)
Several have done fine work for The Football League. Mr. William McGregor, the Father of the League, long ago entered into his rest, but his portrait is ever with us in the handbook of this organisation.
A Scotch lad, born at Braco, in Perthshire, he only saw rough, crude football, without rules, as a boy. When he took up his residence in Birmingham, he eventually became identified with Aston Villa.
He saw the difficulties clubs were placed in and the only way out of them. Above all things Mr. McGregor was practical, and from what he told me years after the League was a success, his one regret was he did not insist upon a territorial qualification for all the players. He said: "It's too late now."
But if he had taken that view, and his notion had been incorporated in the rules, I doubt whether such a regulation would have endured to this day.
When he was young the late Mr. J.J. Bentley accomplished much valuable work for this federation of clubs, and followed Mr. McGregor as President of the League. He was, moreover, one of the keenest and cutest judges of a player I ever knew. At heart he was a generous man.
His successor, Mr. John McKenna, has always appealed to the public as the personal embodiment of John Bull, as straight as a ramrod, as blunt and as frank as a man can be, and yet full of the milk of human kindness and of Irish humour. It is the universal opinion that, like Mr. Clegg, he is the right man for the Presidential chair. He had a helpful and loyal lieutenant in Mr. John Lewis.
Mr. John Lewis was very much of the same disposition as Mr. Clegg. I can pay him no higher compliment that I can conceive. Generally known as "the brains of the League," Mr. C.E. Sutcliffe, another Lancastrian, carries great weight in the chamber of the Management Committee and at the annual meetings of the League, for he has an inventive mind and finds a solution for nearly every football problem.
Such have been the leaders of the people's game. Is it any wonder that Association football is the people's pastime?