STOKE secretary Harry Lockett represented the Club at what was to be a ground-breaking meeting at the Anderton's Hall Hotel in London on 23rd March 1888.
The get-together was the idea of Bob McGregor, of Aston Villa, who wanted to discuss the idea of forming a Football League.
Three weeks later, on 17th April, the League came into being with McGregor president and Lockett it's first secretary. The Potteries connection was further strengthened by the siting of the League's office at 8 Parkers Terrace, Etruria (later to become 177 Brick Kiln Lane). Lockett also had to quit Stoke to concentrate on his new job - a post he held until May 1902.
The 12 founder members of the new Football League were Stoke, Preston North End, Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion, Accrington, Everton, Burnley, Derby County and Notts County.
The inaugural 1888-89 season began badly with a 2-0 home defeat to West Bromwich and rarely improved. There were instances of players arriving late for games, or not arriving at all, and when two failed to board the morning train for a game against Preston at Deepdale Stoke had to borrow two North End reserves to make up their numbers! They lost 7-0 to the eventual League champions - their heaviest defeat of the season - and after four wins, four draws and 14 defeats finished bottom of the table. The FA Cup offered little cheer - Stoke unwisely fielded their reserves in a qualifying round tie against Warwick County and lost 2-1.
One highlight was the staging of a first-ever international match at the Victoria Ground when England beat Wales 4-1 in front of 3,500. All-in-all, though, it was not a good campaign and at the end of it Stoke had to seek re-election to a League the Club had done so much to help bring about.
The following season began with an early 10-0 thrashing at Preston, which still stands as the Club's record League defeat. Only three games were won and four drawn. With ten points Stoke finished bottom again and went out of the FA Cup to Wolves...twice. The third round tie had to be replayed after Wolves won 4-0 and Stoke protested about the state of the Molineux pitch. Wolves won the rematch seven days later 8-0. Wolves figured prominently throughout the season. In October, after a League game at Molineux, the train on which Stoke were travelling crashed badly at Stafford, though casualties were mercifully nil.
The Club failed to gain re-election to the League at the end of the season, being replaced by Sunderland, and kicked off 1890-91 in the Football Alliance. This competition, in all but name a Second Division of the league comprising 12 clubs from the Midlands and North, was more to their liking and they finished as Champions.
The expansion of the League in 1891-92 from 12 to 14 clubs meant Stoke had no trouble gaining re-election. They finished next-to-bottom, above fellow newcomers Darwen, but it was their highest-ever position to date and re-election was successfully sought. The League expanded to 28 clubs and two divisions in 1892-93. Stoke finished 7th of 16 teams in Division One - far and away their best season, although Jack Evans became the Club's first player to be sent off when he was dismissed at Everton in November.
For the remainder of the decade Stoke held their position in Division One. They had to play Test Matches (the forerunner of play-offs) to avoid relegation in 1895 and 98 and finished a best-ever 6th in 1896. Financial pressures were growing and in February 1896 the Club did a bizarre transfer deal with Darwen - signing striker 'Archie' Maxwell after agreeing to buy a set of wrought iron gates for the equally hard-up Lancashire club's ground. Even that, though, was eclipsed by player-secretary William Rowley, who transferred himself to Leicester Fosse in August 1898 and agreed his own signing-on fee. The League took a dim view and suspended him.
The 1898-99 campaign was in-and-out. Stoke finished 12th out of 18 clubs in the First Division but reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup for the first time, losing 3-1 to Derby at Molineux. For their sterling efforts the players received a £5 bonus.