John McKenna: A life-time in football

November 21, 1927
There are men in football today who have spent a life-time in the game – forty, fifty years of more. It is the intention of the Athletic News to tell theur story – to give their impressions of the start of things, the quaint old ways, the humours of the years, the greatest days and players, games and glories – in short, to tell what these long-service leaders and figures in football have done for the game, and show how times have changed.

Today Mr. John McKenna, now President of the Football League, discloses the fact that in the beginning he pushed the Liverpool Club into the League – unawares. They were elected as the result of Mr. McKenna replying to an advertisement in the “Athletic News” off his own bat.

In the summer of 1872 a young man from Monaghan set sail across the Irish Sea with that self-assurance and determination which have characterised him in all the after-years, to see his fortune.

Thus did Mr. John McKenna, today a personality in many walks of life, but in particular identified with and endeared to the great universe of football. President of the Football League, and Vice President of the Football Association – the two main branches of his many activities – enter upon his career.

No more than eighteen years of age when he started the great adventure, this dour, purposeful Irishman with his rich vein of humour, was then clearly budding in the qualities which have made him distinguished as a leader of the people’s game.

Succeeded John James Bentley.
When the time came to find a successor to the late Mr. John James Bentley as President of The League, the choice promptly fell on Mr. McKenna. Plainly here was the man for the moment – of deep sincerity, breadth of vision, mature of thought and decisive of action. He became the titular head of a great organisation, not merely for his intricate knowledge of the laws and regulations of the game, but because, endowed by temperament and practical conceptions, he was particularly created to lead.

The judgment of his fellows has been unerringly confirmed. There have been opponents to his policy; those who thought him brusque and assertive of opinion. Nevertheless, the admission has generally had to be made that perhaps his was the aptitude for grasping events ahead, for seeing both sides of a question. He is nothing if not thorough.

Mr. McKenna is the first to say that whatever success he has attained in the management of football, respectively as hon. secretary of a League club, also director, and now chief over all, is due to the co-operation of his colleagues. That may be.

Still, there is no doubt that those allied with him have had a monumental example to follow if integrity and loyalty. Mr. McKenna has been the friend of the professional, as well as fair and without favour to the players’ employers.

From the beginning the President was accustomed to meet difficulties, and to surmount them. During his office there have been ripples which, but for his tact and straight dealing, might have become mountainous waves. Was he not the key personality in the great upheaval which threatened a strike of players and the complete stoppage of football?

It was largely through his influence that the Players’ Union was formed in its present constitution, for the mutual interest of the parties, and not as an appendage of a trade union organisation!

Strike! That word was anathema.

Mark the method of adjustment. Representatives of the 44 clubs were summoned to a conference in London, and the captain of each team was invited to be present.

A Rugby convert.
A Board of Gurdians officer in Liverpool for 35 years, ere he retired in 1920, Mr. McKenna was plunged into Association football. As an enthusiastic volunteer, he joined the Lancashire Artillery, and even as a soldier revealed the progressive adaptability, so that he was a battery sergeant-major in next to no-time, and when it was decided to form a Rugby football club he accepted the chairmanship.

Shooting results on print in Liverpool Mercury, June 8 – 1876.

But it happened that, being immersed in the local Parliamentary debating society, he came in contact with those interested in the Soccer code, and one day he was persuaded to see a match – between Everton and Bootle – played almost on the identical stretch of turf where the Liverpool players now operate.

Now, if one became a subscriber at the modest sum of 15s., the privilege was a seat on the rather primitive stand. So Mr. McKenna followed the fortunes of Everton and definitely became a convert from Rugby. Mark what that code lost as a consequence of conversation at a debating society meeting!

A split and -.
However, all was not happy with the Everton club. Members of the committee took exception to the views of Mr. John Houlding – afterwards Alderman Houlding – and the great schism took place.

The Everton section went across the park, and Mr. Houlding, and those who stayed with him, including Mr. McKenna, were left with a ground but no team, although Everton continued playing on the enclosure until the end of the season, what time Mr. McKenna signed the Articles of association for the new club, becoming vice-president.

He tried to register the new organisation as Everton, but the Football Association held that he original club had a prior claim. So Liverpool came into being, and nearly went out after a brief existence. Only the munificence of Mr. Houlding and the keenness of Mr. McKenna, and the hon. secretary (Mr. W.E. Barclay) saved the situation for the time being.

It is certain that but for a masterstroke by Mr. McKenna, typical of his self-reliance and sensing of future events, the origin of Liverpool as a League club would be of more recent date than 1893. Possibly it has not been told before.

A section of those interested in the new club believed that the success of professional football was vested in the county; that the Lancashire League would challenge the Football League. Accordingly the opposition for an application to the latter was immensely strong.

The lesson of Everton attracting the gates at a minimum admission of 6d., while they could get them at 4d. should have been learned, but no, Liverpool would remain in the Lancashire League; so numbers said. One man decreed otherwise.

Convinced that the League was their salvation, Mr. McKenna strove for hours to bring the honorary secretary, Mr. Barclay, round to his way of thinking, but the majority decision the latter would not go against. This further effort on the part of Mr. McKenna was prompted by the following advertisement which appeared in the Athletic News of May 8 – 1893:


Meditating on the pity of it as he went home from Mr. Barclay’s house, Mr. McKenna was suddenly confronted by a post office. In he marched and handed in the following telegram: –
“Liverpool make application to the Second Division of the League,”
attaching the name and address of Mr. Barclay.

Elected unawares.
Late that night he was preparing to retire when a four-wheeler rolled up to the house, with the request from Mr. Barclay that he would come urgently. He found his colleague in a state of agitation, possessed of a telegram which read: –
“Liverpool elected, Come to London meeting at three o’clock tomorrow to arrange fixtures.”
Then Mr. McKenna explained what he had done.

“But how could he? How could they? The club had said, etc., etc.,” to which the retort was: “Never mind that. Let us get into the League first and tell them afterwards. If they won’t have it, we’ll have to withdraw. Now you must get off to London in the morning.”

Mr. Barclay refused to go without Mr. McKenna. Double harness was eventually agreed upon, but at the last moment a message was sent to say that Mr. Barclay was called away on business. However, John McKenna intended to see this through.

Knowing nothing then of fixture making, he went off to London, and came back with a programme. And that is how Liverpool became a League club – and gained promotion in the same season.

The team of Macs.
Began ups and downs. The Liverpool teams were either very good or very horrid. Now holding the hon. secretary-ship, it was chiefly Mr. McKenna’s job to find players.

At this time matured the team of the “Macs” – there were seven of them – but he disclaims having signed them all, as popularity supposed.

He certainly brought to Liverpool the brothers Matt and Hugh McQueen, the former of whom is the team manager today.

“You could play Matt anywhere,” said Mr. McKenna. “Why, after that tragedy of four draws with Sheffield United in the semi-final of the English Cup, the last one at Bolton (where we drew 4-4 after leading 4-2 to within 16 minutes of time), we put him in goal.”

How times change.
Incidentally, the non-election of Matt McQueen to the board after being a co-opted member was the cause of Mr. McKenna’s resignation as a director after 29½ years’ service.

By this time the late Mr. Tom Watson had been well installed as secretary, and a deal of the responsibility was taken off Mr. McKenna, who had been in the habit of spending two nights in the train at week-ends in search of players in Scotland and elsewhere.

A nonentity.
Those were the days when the agent was a recognised intermediary between club and player, and charged according to the worth of the player signed. Therefore, it is not surprising that the club official had to be wary of the unscrupulous, as Mr. McKenna once discovered when an attempt was made to palm off a nonentity as a famous player.

Remarking on the rise in transfer values and the standard of play, he says: “Football is an entirely different thing these times. It has had an amazing evolution. Different times; different conditions; different methods of management.

“Most of the clubs were made up of good players, because there were enough to go round. Transfers were few. In a word, the growth of professional clubs had made the supply of quality in numbers unequal to the demand.

“Those with money to purchase naturally endeavour to obtain the best, and while I regret that transfers should have become so frequent and fees inflated, I see that it is a condition of things that we cannot very well avoid.

“One club is willing to pay and another to sell. Things may right themselves in course of time. After one failure I don’t see how we can regulate it otherwise.

Reputation and today.
“One thing I am proud of after all these years is the high social scale to which the professi0onal has risen. For this we have much to thank modern education.

“At the same time I would say there has been a vastly improved influence in the direction of clubs which has conveyed itself to the players. Men not only of substance but of social standing sit on the boards. They are jealous of the reputations of their clubs.

“A player’s habits and conduct off the field are with many clubs as important as his playing ability.”
(Athletic News: November 21, 1927)

John McKenna, Liverpool F.C.; The Football Leaugue, and the Football Association.
John McKenna Liverpool F.C.

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