The league should not be confused with the other former Football Combination, a competition for reserve teams from the South of England, or with the Lancashire Combination, another minor league running around the same time.
The first Combination was set up in 1888, the same year the Football League was founded. It consisted of 20 teams, although this proved too many teams for each one to play the other once, let alone twice. Instead each club was to play eight others home and away, making 16 games in total. However unlike the League the Combination was not centrally organised, but left to individual clubs; as a result confusion ensued, as it was not clear whether many matches between clubs were friendlies or Combination matches. Many fixtures were left unfulfilled, and the Combination was wound up in April 1889.
Participating teams included Newton Heath, Grimsby Town, Lincoln City, Burslem Port Vale, Crewe Alexandra, Bootle, Small Heath, South Shore and Blackburn Olympic. Newton Heath, Grimsby, Crewe, Bootle and Small Heath went on to co-found the Football Alliance the following year.
Five of the founding teams would eventually go on to play in the Football League, although in the case of Macclesfield, this would not happen until 1997–98. Glossop North End, who joined in 1894, were also elected to the League (in 1898).