Allan Brown was succeeded as manager by Ray Henderson, who, some ten years earlier, had given an outstanding performance at outside-right for Hull City in Southport’s fifth round RA. Cup tie. Once re-election was assured he appointed a former Hartlepool manager, Angus McLean, as coach and signed two players he had managed at Halifax Town, full-back Kenny Blair and central defender Tony Rhodes. All attempts to entice former Leeds United striker Rod Belfitt to Haig Avenue foundered on the problem of travelling from Doncaster and it was generally felt that too little had been done to improve an under-strength squad.
And so it proved, but not before the F.L. Cup had once again flattered to deceive. Carlisle United were taken to a third meeting at Brunton Park in which Southport briefly led 2-I though the home team won themselves the lucrative second round trip to Highbury, the 65-year-old Joe Patrick, watching two of his former clubs, commented: ‘You couldn’t tell which was the Second Division side and which the Fourth Division.’ In the League itself though, things were sadly different.
The early games followed the same abysmal pattern of the previous season. In the third outing Bradford City imposed the biggest home defeat on Southjport (0-4) since their own visit back in 1964-65; and when Alan Wilson netted at Swansea on October 2nd, it was only the second League goal registered in open play at that stage. An unexpected victory seemed on the cards until a needless penalty was conceded; then, two minutes from time, John Coates let a swerving shot through his fingers and into the net. The return of Coates for the opening game had been a milestone in itself; it was his first appearance for Southport since April 24th, 1965 — a club record 4,137 day gap! His absence of 3,57o days from any Football League fixture also approached an all-time record.
Rhodes had fallen victim to a hamstring injury which was to keep him out for much of the year. Seemingly anchored on two points yet again, Southport achieved a modest revival in fortune when Billy Wilkinson, an ex-colleague of Henderson’s at Hull, obtained his clearance from Tacoma Tides and took over in midfield. The first League victory arrived courtesy of Barnsley on October 22nd and a run of drawn games saw Southport edging clear of the bottom four by the turn of the year.
Wilkinson’s tenth and last appearance was the only time he finished on the losing side but it heralded another disastrous sequence of ten successive defeats which consigned the club to a further re-election application. Home attendances subsided to below the four-figure mark and by early March Ray Henderson had resigned his position as team manager, though retained in the newly-created capacity of Executive Manager.
The only encouraging feature of this grim period was the arrival in February of two young players who looked useful prospects for the future. Tony Harrison, a confident, agile goalkeeper from Whitley Bay, and Steve Brooks, a strong, solid centre-half from Marine, were both draughtsmen by profession; their acquisition was well-timed as the ever-reliable Bobby Sibbald, with almost 25o League games for the club, was shortly to depart for Los Angeles Aztecs.
Right on the March loth transfer deadline another two significant signings were made; George Jones, the experienced striker who had earlier spent a month on loan at Haig Avenue, was taken on full-time from Halifax Town and Hugh Fisher, who only the previous year had been the unused substitute in Southampton’s Cup Final squad, became Southport’s new player-manager.
Almost immediately the side acquired a settled appearance as Fisher tried to instil confidence into his new charges; but just two home wins, 1—o over Stockport County and Scunthorpe United, were scant reward. The Stockport result, achieved by virtue of a goal from the ever consistent Tommy O’Neil playing in his tooth Football League game, ended a run of 22 matches without a win.
Southport’s final tally was three League victories, none of them away from home. The 25 point total — one less than in 1975-76 — was the worst ever, although yet again Southport were comfortably clear of the unfortunate Workington.
Gates fell below 900 and rumours of a financial crisis abounded. Local businessman Jack Carr, who had become a director in January 1976, resigned after 14 months, though he was to remain very close to the board for many years. Another departure was that of David Hughes, the devastating winger of the 1972-73 championship side; his more recent pretensions as a full-back had denied Hugh Fisher the opportunity of assessing his true value. Ten players were retained for the next season but, by the time Southport had completed their programme at Halifax Town, there were grave doubts if there would even be a next season.
Sources: The Sandgrounders: The Complete League History of Southport F. C., by Michael Braham and Geoff Wilde (Palatine Books, 1995). ISBN 978-1-874181-14-9
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