After 765 days in exile, Southport secured the Nationwide North championship in scintillating fashion to guarantee the return of Conference football to Haig Avenue.
HARROGATE TOWN 2 – 5 SOUTHPORT
Competition: League / Conference North
Southport Line-Up: Steve Dickinson, Jerome Fitzgerald, Farrell Kilbane, Neil Fitzhenry, Syd Pickford, Carl Baker, Chris Price, Dominic Morley, Steve Daly, Terry Fearns, Sam McNutt ,
Subs: Jamie Speare (GK), Jimmy Williams, Kevin Lynch (Sam McNutt ), Neil Robinson (Terry Fearns), Earl Davis (Steve Daly),
Goals: Steve Daly, Steve Daly, Steve Daly, Terry Fearns, Sam McNutt
The Sandgrounders concluded an exhilarating season with a performance to befit their new-found status, as the inaugural league winners cantered to victory in front of an estimated travelling contingent of 1,400.
The long-term leaders, who have proudly defied their doubters and critics, will once again, be marked on the national football map.
Twelve years after clinching the Northern Premier League at Emley, Southport celebrated glory in Yorkshire once more.
United as one, the management, players and supporters, who together have radically transformed a club teetering on the brink of the abyss, celebrated joyously a momentous milestone in the 124-year history of Southport FC.
The Sandgrounders’ charge was led by striker Steve Daly, who weighed in with the club’s first hat-trick of the season and made a mockery of Harrogate’s grand home record.
The champions-elect were forced to endure an early spell of sustained home pressure, as Danny Holland and Leigh Wood both went close, but the Sandgrounders took an invaluable lead from their third corner in quick succession on 22 minutes.
After a promising passage of play, Carl Baker’s in-swinging centre was met by the effervescent Daly, who rose in a central position to thunder a header into the top right-hand corner.
Knowing only a win would give them a chance of a play-off position, Harrogate responded immediately, forcing two quick-fire stops from goalkeeper Dickinson.
The Southport stopper foiled smartly at the feet of Holland, before producing an incredible reflex save to acrobatically finger-tip Lee Philpott’s point-blank header over the crossbar.
Harrogate’s Leigh Wood flashed a shot across the face of the target, before opposing striker Terry Fearns sliced wide of the near post, as the pendulum continued to alternate.
But the Sandgrounders doubled their advantage on 40 minutes, after a controversial series of events.
Carl Baker rapidly released Terry Fearns after receiving a sliced kick from goalkeeper Paul Pettinger. The ‘Port striker narrowly evaded the off-side trap before firing across the face of Pettinger with consummate coolness, as the hosts appealed in vain.
And the visitors added a third in first-half stoppage time, with a superb solo goal from winger Sam McNutt.
After receiving the ball on the left flank, McNutt jinxed his way inside two Harrogate defenders, before casually side-footing past the beleaguered Pettinger from the narrowest of angles.
The Sandgrounders’ elation increased 10 minutes after the re-start, as a high ball caused confusion amongst the Harrogate defence. Daly was alert to rise above the hesitant duo of Pettinger and defender Richard Dunning, as the striker’s header bounced beyond reach and over the line.
Now rampant, Southport continued to pour forward, with Carl Baker and Terry Fearns both denied, before Daly completed his hat-trick shortly after the hour.
Racing clear of the Harrogate defence on the left, the Port striker advanced in-field with only one aim in mind. As ‘keeper Pettinger was drawn, Daly shrugged off defender Krief, before slotting a low shot inside the left-hand post from 12-yards.
It would have been fitting for the side with the league’s best strike-rate to have conceded the fewest goals, but two late consolation strikes for the hosts ensured Southport shared that honour with Kettering.
Dominic Krief converted a 75th minute penalty to the left of Dickinson after Pickford had clipped Holland, before Andy Brown converted from a corner. But by that time, the championship celebrations were already underway.
Cries for manager Liam Watson rang around Wetherby Road as the jubilant supporters filtered their way onto the pitch. They know how much the most recent success of this proud football club is indebted to its youngster ever manager.
Watson had welded together a youthful squad, with a burning desire, a potential to progress and masterminded a return to the land where they once belonged. Seventeen months previous, that had appeared unimaginable.
It was impossible for the hairs on the back of the neck not to stand on end as the Sandgrounders revelled in glory. Their character, passion and skill make them worthy champions of the Nationwide Conference North.