HISTORY OF SOUTHPORT FOOTBALL CLUB
The highlights of Southport Football Club formed in 1881 include a Football League Championship, an appearance at Wembley, an FA Cup sixth round appearance, a Northern Premier League title and 2 Conference North titles. Southport were founder members of the new Third Division North in 1921 just as they were of the Conference North. Coincidentally both Barrow and Stalybridge Celtic hold the same double. Southport enjoyed their Football League status until 1978. From 1978 to 1993 the Sandgrounders were Northern Premier League members and from the 1993-94 season became an established Vauxhall/ Nationwide Conference club for a decade.
In the last ten years Southport have played in the Nationwide Conference, Unibond Premiership, Nationwide North, Nationwide Conference again, Nationwide North again and are now back in the equivalent of Nationwide Conference, the Conference Premier.
Southport have played at Haig Avenue for over 100 years. In 2005 the club celebrated its centenary at Haig Avenue, having previously been based at the Central Ground. Southport were founder members of the Central League in 1911 and in 1918 were taken over by the Vulcan Motor Company - playing as Southport Vulcan for one season, the first club to use a sponsorship label as part of their name.
In the FA Cup Southport became the first Third Division North club to reach the sixth round in 1931, losing away from home against the mighty Everton 9-1. A season later a Haig Avenue record gate of 20,010 saw the Sandgrounders draw in the 4th round with Newcastle. Southport reached the 5th round in 1965 after defeating Cardiff City before losing at Hull City. Southport’s last third round appearance was under Paul Futcher when the hopes of a big club were dashed being defeated by Leyton Orient. The elusive big FA Cup draw has been missing since Southport lost 1-0 to Harry Catterick’s Everton back in 1968.
As a Football League club Southport achieved two promotions out of the Fourth Division. In 1966-67 Billy Bingham’s squad finished as runners up to Stockport County 45 years after joining the Football League. Bingham’s illustrious career took him on to manage Plymouth, Northern Ireland and Everton. Bingham was a big name player who gained his management experience at Haig Avenue.
With Bingham gone in 1968-69 under Don McEvoy’s management the club achieved its highest ever position - 8th in the then Third Division. A number of players for ever associated with Southport formed the backbone of this impressive squad - George Andrews, Alex Russell, Arthur Peat and the biggest favourite of all Eric Redrobe.
Former Southport player Jimmy Meadows went one better than Billy Bingham, lifting the Fourth Division title in 1972-73 with an exciting and experienced side. Southport had found themselves back in the Fourth Division basement having been relegated in 1970. Meadows was a talented winger whose career was wrecked by suffering a broken leg in the 1955 FA Cup final. This was just a month after picking up his first England cap. Ironically it was Meadows Stockport that had pipped the Port to the Fourth Division championship back in 1967. Meadows played with two expansive wingers in David Hughes and Frank Lee. He partnered the highly experienced Jim Fryatt, a fine aerial exponent who holds the record as the scorer of the fastest ever league goal with the lively Andy Provan. Captain John McPhee marshalled the side, who after defeating Darlington 7-0 on January 6th never looked back. Sadly Meadows and his highly talented number two Brian Green did not have the capacity to strengthen for the Third Division and with McPhee retired the experienced players that remained could not handle the new league. Fryatt and Provan after a summer spell in the USA, where they were aptly nicknamed “Batman and Robin”, came back jaded. Summer signings failed or sustained injuries. Meadows was prematurely sacked on December 30th, Green having left to join Chester earlier.
Most supporters trace the decline of the club into non league from that moment. It was a rapid decline in fortunes - league title winners in 1973 and voted out under re election procedures in June 1978. Alan Ball senior settled Southport back in the Fourth Division but Ball’s preoccupation in also coaching Swedish club I.F. Saab led to his departure. Ex Liverpool star Jimmy Melia who later took Brighton to the FA Cup final, Allan Brown and Ray Henderson, all experienced managers, were unable to revive Southport’s fortunes as re-election became an annual humiliating occurrence. A continual weakness in the goal scoring department put the Port in the doldrums. With gates low and without financial clout at boardroom level the club failed to arrest its position despite the appointment of ex Scotland international and Southampton schemer Hughie Fisher as player manager. Fisher’s side defeated Tranmere Rovers in the League Cup but finished second bottom to Rochdale at the end of the 1977-78 season. The old pals act didn’t work this time with the older board members Jack Clough deceased and John Church no longer chairman. Disastrously chairman Walter Giller failed to canvas and on a second ballot at the Café Royal on June 2nd Southport lost their league status to Wigan Athletic. Southport’s fifty years in the Football League was over. Their last home Football League match was against Huddersfield Town on April 22nd drawing one all while their last ever Football League match was away to Graham Taylor’s Watford, losing 3-2 in front of 10,089 supporters. Watford went all the way to the now Premiership. Southport remained stuck in the Northern Premier until 1993.
The club stabilised on the pitch under former reserve team manager Harry McNally having assembled a talented squad by November 1978, including Graham Barrow. But the board’s refusal in the spring of 1979 to take up an invitation of a place in the new Football Alliance (the forerunner of today’s Conference) primarily on financial grounds i.e. travelling costs, impacted badly, losing players and gates. The early 1980’s were dark days from which the club only just survived after various board re shuffles and financial crises.
Charlie Clapham took a place on the board in 1982 and became chairman in 1984. He had the financial acumen that had been missing - a long term vision and with careful negotiations plotted the club slowly out of its rising near crippling debts. Today he is one of the longest serving chairmen in the pyramid and the club is financially secure, something not apparent for most of the club’s chequered history.
Brian Kettle’s 1992-93 side won the Northern Premier league in real style amassing 96 points and scoring over 100 goals. They also reached the second round of the FA Cup for the first time since 1968. Skipper Kevin Mooney played in all the 68 league and cup matches. Kettle took the club into the Vauxhall Conference finishing fourth. Billy Ayre in his first season went one better finishing third, just eight points off champions Macclesfield Town.
Paul Futcher’s 1997-98 squad achieved a first for both the club and the town - a Wembley FA Trophy final. Futcher, formerly the most expensive defender in British football at the age of 40, achieved a personal lifetime ambition by running out on the Wembley turf. The town rallied with over 10,000 enjoying a wonderful day with Steve Cotterill’s Cheltenham scoring a late winner with Southport taking the plaudits but not their chances. Futcher was unable to build on his Wembley squad with former England captain Mark Wright taking over the Haig Avenue reigns. Wright inherited a number of talented younger players assembled by Futcher and motivated them, taking them up from second from bottom in the Conference to a respectable 9th position. Wright’s full season of 2000-01 saw the Sandgrounders finish a fine fourth behind Brian Talbot’s Rushden and Diamonds. Wright left that summer to take over at Oxford with experienced non league manager Phil Wilson the new manager for the 2001-02 season. Wilson brought with him a number of his Unibond Stalybridge championship squad finishing 15th. The next season was expected to be better but it turned into disaster. In November 2002 after going unbeaten in their first seven league games the squad became FA Cup giant killers. In front of a near 4,000 gate a rousing 4-2 performance coming back from 2-0 down destroyed Notts County in front of the Match of the Day cameras. But a long sequence of unsatisfactory results led to Phil Wilson’s departure in January with the club in 9th place but slipping down the table.
Former Irish international defender Mike Walsh was given the post originally for a short spell and then until to the end of the season. Walsh was expected to make the impact Mark Wright had done as a motivator but he didn’t. A disastrous run of just 2 wins in 15 Conference matches saw Southport spectacularly slump to defeat and relegation at Stevenage on the last day of the 2002-03 season. Walsh stayed on and recorded 4 straight victories at the start of the season but an autumn of repeated reversals saw his departure and the appointment of ex Runcorn player manager Liam Watson, a former England semi pro-international.
The appointment of Liam Watson in autumn 2003 re-energised the club, Liam, the youngest manager in the clubs history signalled a new era at Southport in which a new younger supporter base blossomed and the transformation was remarkable. Watson radically restructured his playing staff in rapid time and lifted the Nationwide North title as inaugural champions.
Southport as a seaside town has really transformed over the last decade. Attendances over the seasons have been the real economic issue to sustain success at a high level. The club has set up its own youth development scheme and awaits from acorns future stars. Michael Powell is the first youth development player to be put on contract and this is seen as a big step forward. The club is now in it’s sixth season of delivering a youth development scheme under UEFA youth coaches Tony Rodwell and Jon Gautrey. Liam Watson did a tremendous job to maintain Southport in the Nationwide Conference as a part time club two season’s ago but his departure when the decision to go full time was made took the club by surprise and the appointment of Paul Cook didn’t work out with him departing early in 2007. Cook was replaced by former England international Peter Davenport. Port narrowly missed out on conference survival after a late rally. In March 2008 Davenport was replaced by Gary Brabin after a string of poor results who took Southport into the Play offs. Port fell at the semi-final stage on penalties and in the summer Gary Brabin moved on to become manager of Cambridge United.
Liam Watson returned to the club amidst much fanfare on 30th June 2008 and within 2 years had built a squad that were capable of winning the Blue Square North, a feat they achieved on the last day of the 2009/10 season away at Eastwood Town. Liam is now building for the future which many hope will be a return to the Football League, a cherished status lost back in 1978.