It was on Saturday 12th November 1881 that Southport played its first Association Football match
Although association football was played in the town’s private schools in the late 1870’s the original Southport Football club began as a rugby team. The ‘handling code’ had been played competitively since 1872 in Southport and there were teams under the titles of Southport Olympic, Southport Wasps, Southport Hornets and The Grasshoppers.
Southport Football Club, who had been in existence for some seasons, arranged rugby fixtures for 1881-82. After some heavy defeats, the last recorded being on 29th October when, fielding two men short, Southport lost to Bootle by one goal, eight tries and eleven minor points, the club switched to association football.
On 12th November, Southport played Bootle ‘second’ in their first match under Association Rules.
Bootle took the lead but Jackson shot ‘a capital goal to equalize’.
The Southport team was:
S. Platt (Goal),
B. Pidduck, J.G. Howard(Backs)
P. Edwards, F. Jackson and T.B. Burnett(Captain) (Halves),
J.R. Topliss and F. Holden(Rights) W. Platt(Centre) J. Melross and J. Sykes (Lefts).
The Southport Visiter commented ‘that the team will no doubt render a good account of themselves when they get over the difficulty of hands off and forget the rugby rules’. The following week Southport lost by ‘one goal and one disputed goal to nil’ at Burscough.
Ralph Rylance did more than anyone to establish association football in the town. He came to Southport from Blackburn where he was employed by a firm of solicitors. Before moving he played for the Blackburn Law team, a noted eleven in those days. He played for the ‘Lawyers’ against Southport in our third engagement. The Blackburn Club displayed superior skill and thrashed Southport 7-0. Performances soon improved with Ralph Rylance now playing for Southport and Tranmere Rovers were beaten twice whilst the Tradesman of Southport and Liverpool Excelsior were both overcome 7-0. However, little interest was shown in Southport’s matches compared with Southport Olympic who played on an adjoining pitch at Scarisbrick New Road. Spectators left the football field when Olympic began playing. Such was the lack of popularity of the sport in the town, acquiring footballs to play with was difficult – Ralph Rylance had to bring three footballs from his former club.
The 1882-83 season was preceded by an exhibition match between the two famous Blackburn Clubs – the Rovers and Witton – at the Athletic Society’s Sports. This match created considerable interest and encouraged by this, Southport joined both the Lancashire and English Football Associations and entered the Football Association, Lancashire and Liverpool and District Challenge Cups.
In goal for Blackburn that day was Herbie Arthur, who would later go on to represent Southport Central.
At the club’s A.G.M. in September, held at the Bold Arms Hotel, Charles Scarisbrick was re-elected President, W. J. Connell, Treasurer and Ralph Rylance was elected Captain. A full list of fixtures was arranged with teams such as Bootle, Everton, Wirral, Liverpool Rovers, Birkenhead and Bolton Olympic.
The competitive element of the cup-ties aroused most interest. On 7th October, Southport entertained Liverpool Ramblers in their first ever F.A., or English Challenge Cup tie as the competition was called for years. This game was watched by 300 spectators including many women supporters and resulted in a 1-1 draw, Ambler scoring for Southport following a neat pass from Arthur Dalby. In the replay, Southport were weakened by the non-arrival of one of their best forwards and goalkeeper, Platt, missed the train.
“The Reds” had to play two substitutes and because of the re-organisation lost 4-0. In the Lancashire Challenge cup, after easily accounting for Stacksteads, 4-0, Southport, now playing the six forward game lost 5-4 in a thriller at Rishton.
The rules of the game were somewhat different at that time. The game was rough with little combined play. Penalties were as yet unknown and the charging of goalkeepers was not only permissable but relished with delight by the forwards. The players boots were of the ordinary every day variety and spikes in place of studs were not uncommon.
Games were often spoilt by colour clashes. When Southport visited Birkenhead Association they were placed at a disadvantage with the home side, who also wore scarlet shirts and the ground was covered with long grass- on other occasions home games were interrupted when the ball was kicked into adjoining gardens and the players had to argue with irate householders.
The highlight of the 1883-84 season was the English Cup clash with Blackburn Rovers at their Leamington Road ground. Rovers won 7-1 but Southport were far from disgraced.
In the 1884-85 season the club merged with the Southport Athletic Society. The team moved to the Sports Ground, Sussex Road, and training took place at the Circus Field, Eastbank Street, every Tuesday evening. Also it was unanimously decided to change their red jerseys for red and white striped flannel shirts.
As football grew in popularity other clubs sprang up in the town. Southport Wanderers, High Park, Churchtown and Southport Old Boys were amongst the most prominent. However Southport Football Club was considered to be the town’s premier side. In 1884 the Charity Cup was launched. Eleven local teams entered with the proceeds, £18 in the first year, going towards the Infirmary. Southport confirmed their premier spot by defeating Crescent 5-0 in the final at the Sports Ground.
The club’s most notable success to date was their 1-0 victory over Preston North End in the Lancashire Challenge Cup in 1884. Although North End only sent their reserve side Southport caused something of a sensation and it was said that the Preston players were ashamed to go home after such a disgrace. Dalby scored the goal just four minutes from time.
The County selectors were present at that game and singled out Squire Platt, the Southport goalkeeper, to represent Lancashire against Hallamshire at Sheffield the following month, Lancashire winning 4-3. Platt also appeared for Liverpool and District when they played North Wales at Wrexham.
As the premier side in the town it was little surprise that Southport Football Club prevailed over Crescent in the final in the first year of the Southport Charity Cup (1884/85) in competition and success on the field locally continued in 1885/86, beating Southport Wanderers 4-0 to retain the charity cup. Southport Football Club were certainly recognised as the leading club in the town and were also recognised as one of the “senior” Lancashire sides at the time, as can be evidenced by their placing within the Lancashire Senior (rather than junior) cup.
Boarding was erected around a portion of the ground as protection against the weather. This did not prevent a match against Burscough being reduced to half an hour each way due to ‘Boisterous and disagreeable weather’
In October, an understrength Southport lost 12-1 at Darwen. The following week, although Southport led Astley 2-0 at half time, they were beaten 3-2 in an English Cup-tie.
Off the field the club was not in a healthy state and in the 1885/86 season they were facing stiff competition from twenty six other clubs in the town. Southport reduced their annual subscriptions to five shillings to try and compete but were later forced to sever their connections with the Athletic Society and in the Athletic Society’s Annual report the Committee regretted ‘their unfortunate connection with the Football Club which resulted in the Society incurring an expenditure on their account of £88-3 shillings.
After five years existence Southport’s first football club folded