That first game attended by our teenager was probably a night game. The atmosphere was fantastic. It seemed like the County Ground was in some sort of a bubble. The night sky and the floodlights produced a feeling that the game and the crowd and the grandstands were completely cut off from the rest of the universe.

Standing right down the front behind the Swindon goal, the newcomer could almost reach out and touch the net. The goalie was right there, tense. Despite the crowd noise, the players could be heard yelling. The opposition team and the result on that night are forgotten, but the boy was instantly smitten and he came back for more and more and more.

Swindon back then had a population of just over 100,000, and each time “The Town” played at home, somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 turned out to watch, compared with under 10,000 today when the population has doubled. They were in Division Three in 1962-63 and then spent two seasons in Division Two before being relegated back to Three.

At the end of games, the large crowds exited the terraces through doors at the back of the grandstands. In the crush, the young fan would sometimes take his feet off the ground and be carried along. Squeezed against the corrugated iron of the grandstand wall, people would inch along to a door then pop out like a cork.

These were the naive days of football before the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 when there were 96 fatalities and 766 injuries in a crowd crush at an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, the worst disaster in British sporting history. One result was that top teams’ terraces were replaced by seats.

And so our young fan started to watch every home game, and the occasional away one, in nearby Oxford and Reading. When winter set in, the pitches in those days could turn to mud patches. In heavy fog it was difficult to see one end of the pitch from the other, the players drifting through the murk like phantoms.

Games even went ahead on snow-covered pitches, provided it wasn’t too deep – the snow was cleared so as to mark the pitch, with the lines changed from their usual white to blue in order to stand out.

Come 1966, our fan moved out of Swindon to the football paradise of London, and began ranging all over the city: Arsenal, Chelsea, QPR, Crystal Palace, Millwall, West Ham United, Fulham et al. Swindon were sometimes nearby, playing away at Charlton Athletic or Gillingham, perhaps.

Then, sensation. Swindon, who had built up a reputation as cup giant-killers, made it to Wembley Stadium in London for the 1969 League Cup final. The Cinderellas of the Third Division beat mighty Arsenal of the First Division 3-1 in extra time, and our new “Londoner”, the ex-Swindonian, was there, naturally. It was one of the great days.

And, to cut a long one short, skinhead hooligans started to make the game dangerous – fans were beaten, darts thrown, cars overturned, trains wrecked – and, in an unrelated move, in 1973 this football fan ended up in Australia for decades, where they mostly play “footie” with an oval ball … Soccer for him was sacrificed for sunshine (for a while, anyway, but that’s another … ).

All of which, with apologies to Scott Murray for his delayed entrance in this nostalgic narrative, brings us to his marvelous book, a treasure for any fan of the game. Murray’s concern is that with the launch of the Premier League in 1992, the First Division and its history stretching back to 1888 stands in some danger of being forgotten, a sorry situation he seeks – and succeeds – to rectify.

In 1888-89 and for the following three seasons the competition was known as The Football League, and the first two championships were won by Preston North End, who these days are competing in the Championship, which is the old pre-1992 Division Two.

Everton claimed the 1890-91 championship and Sunderland the 1891-92 title, with Preston runner-up both times. The Football League, First Division began in 1892-93 with Sunderland emerging as winners, and Preston claiming a third successive second place.

Murray’s book is in narrative form, rather than encyclopaedic, but it does have an appendix of the most important lists, including all the first three teams in each season from 1888-89 until 1991-92, the final year before the Premier League took over. In that period, Liverpool won 18 titles to Arsenal’s 10, Everton’s nine, Manchester United’s and Aston Villa’s seven and Sunderland’s six.

Dixie Dean of Everton scored the most goals in a single season, 60, in 1927-28, way ahead of Pongo Waring of Aston Villa who managed 49 in 1930-31. Dean also holds third place for most goals in a season, netting 44, again for Everton, in 1931-32.

On the list of all-time goalscorers in Division One, Dean comes second with 310, behind Jimmy Greaves whose 357 were scored for Chelsea, West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur.

But these are dry statistics. Murray brings them to life in story form. First he briefly takes us back to ancient China when the feet were used to direct a ball made of feathers through a hole in a silk sheet suspended between bamboo poles. So England may not have been the first to play “football”, but in Victorian Britain the invention of the lawn mower and then child labour legislation that freed children from climbing up chimneys both led to a mania for booting a ball.

Twelve teams competed in 1888-89, with Preston North End adding the FA Cup (without conceding a goal) to their league win (undefeated), thus recording the very first League and Cup Double in the league’s very first season. Little wonder they were nicknamed “The Invincibles”.

However, Aston Villa won the title five times between 1894 and 1900 and confirmed their place as the best team of the era in 1896-97 when they also completed a Double, beating Everton 3-2 in the Cup Final. The feat wasn’t repeated until Tottenham Hotspur did the Double in 1960-61.

Murray resurrects lost names, such as Tom Watson and George Ramsay, who between them won nine of the first 13 championships. Ultimately, Watson won three with Sunderland, who duly became known as the "Team of All Talents", and two with Liverpool. Ramsey ended up with six titles at Aston Villa.

Villa’s players had their eccentricities: in the 1890s captain Jack Devey is recorded as borrowing an overcoat from a spectator and putting it on during a sleet storm, and Charlie Athersmith patrolled his wing holding an umbrella.

And so it goes on, nicely documented by Murray, such as the tale of Glossop – the smallest club to play top-flight football – or Preston North End’s Tom Finney, one of the greatest players in English history who never won a medal of any kind, or the Busby Babes.

In the early 1950s Tottenham Hotspur developed what was then a groundbreaking style of short, accurate and most importantly fast passing. It was called give-it-and-go and it aimed at lengthy possession of the ball. Shades of Barcelona’s later “tika-taka”, it seems.

Murray brings us through all sorts of engrossing tales up to the emergence of the mega-clubs in the 1970s and then, in the 1980s, the hogging rather than the sharing of gate receipts, stock flotations, advances in marketing, big TV money and the emerging talk of a flash “super” league.

The Premier League arrived in 1992 and now we have (outside Murray’s purlieu but duly noted by our pensioner, 67): all the top clubs led by foreign managers, barely an English player among the playing elite (leading to the nadir of England versus Iceland), interviews of managers and players in front of boards covered with logos, the most useless invention known to Man (the rotating advertising sign), “heat maps” showing a player’s movements on the pitch, staggered kick-offs (once they were all at 3pm on a Saturday), fancy goal celebrations (including grinning goons who thrust their faces into the lenses of TV cameras) and ever-expanding World Cup and Euro competitions (and more and more play-offs). Not to mention that other concession to the TV behemoth: the penalty shoot-out. (PS: Can anyone explain why goal-scorers celebrate by sucking their thumbs like babies?)

The Premier League has become virtually the be-all and end-all of English soccer and nowadays the rich can buy a team, or indeed a club. It doesn’t seem to matter that if you support your local big club, none of the players are locals. Murray brings the First Division and its fascinating history back in focus. Here we find as much about Preston, Burnley, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Portsmouth and West Bromwich Albion as Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United.

The author is a regular writer for the Guardian and other publications. This is his fourth book.

As Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, in charge from 1959 to 1974, famously said: "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

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