It is difficult to conceive that the club could suffer three such dire seasons as those on which it was about to embark. There was no lack of continuity on the playing front, though it was late September before leading scorer Paul Taylor was re-signed. The squad had been strengthened by the signings of Eric Snookes, a young red-haired defender from Crewe Alexandra, and Alan Wilson, a thoughtful young Everton forward who was to become a fixture in the Southport side both in and out of the Football League.
The first ructions hit during the last few days of July, just as the club were moving into a series of pre-season friendly matches. Chairman Tom Robinson’s patience finally ran out over Alan Ball’s Swedish involvements; when he failed to appear by the given date, he was promptly sacked. Within three days acting manager Jimmy Melia was named as Ball’s successor, quashing the speculation that ex-Liverpool and Tranmere pivot Ron Yeats, who had been training with Southport, might become player-manager.
While all this was happening, another crisis blew up; Albert Dunlop was suspended from his duties as Commercial Manager after his ‘marathon pop concert’ at Haig Avenue proved a financial disaster. Only 1,000 fans turned up and few of the promised groups materialised; the naivety of Dunlop’s original appointment to a position of trust was fully exposed. No monies were ever recovered from any of his ventures.
Against this background the season 1975-76 unfolded into one of unmitigated depression. After four games the club had scored just once in securing two points, both from home draws. On the League Cup front things were brighter though, as Stockport County were defeated 5-2 on aggregate.
Then, in a controversial move to boost revenue, the board decided to concede home advantage to Newcastle United in the second round in return for a guaranteed £6,000 share of the £16,145 takings at St James’s Park. The switch alienated the majority of the supporters and any thought of a potential cup upset vanished as Alan Gowling netted four times in the course of a 6—o hiding.
The next eleven League matches were all lost, easily the all-time club record. Even so, unlike in earlier bad years, the side were seldom getting trounced; the last five games of this run were all lost by a single goal. By the end of September Jimmy Melia had resigned and left for a coaching position in the Gulf; club captain Duncan Welbourne took on the unenviable role of player-coach, with Bobby Sibbald assuming the captaincy. It is difficult to analyse what exactly was wrong with the side. This was no team of no-hopers simply going through the motions; it was a reasonably balanced side of talented players, albeit somewhat under-strength in attack, experiencing a prolonged ‘bad patch’ as events off the field undermined all their efforts on it. For example, midway through this losing sequence Southport turned on a sparkling display at, of all places, Prenton Park. They exhibited confidence, stroked the ball about in midfield and dominated proceedings in all areas except in front of goal. Yet Tranmere’s solitary second-half strike not only won the match but also put them clear top of the table. Southport’s nightmare persisted.
Just how desperate things became was epitomised by the bizarre intervention of `Romark’ the stage hypnotist; Granada Television’s ‘Kick-Off programme arranged for the team to be put under his influence before the home game with Watford. This unlikely project also failed; goalkeeper Kevin Thomas, not fully out of the hypnosis, gashed his head on a girder before the match and Watford prevailed 2-1 . However, the next game did end the sequence as Bobby Gough’s second goal of the night denied Crewe a victory with two minutes remaining.
The inevitable F.A.Cup defeat came soon after; Southport visited Spennymoor United of the Northern League and though Tommy O’Neil’s superbly placed shot gave them an early lead the underdogs cruised home 4-1. Against such lowly opposition it was an abysmal outcome. At their next meeting the board passed a motion of ‘no confidence’ in chairman Robinson; a week later he resigned ‘to avoid further undermining the club’s position.’ John Church reluctantly agreed to resume as chairman.
That was December 4th; on December 6th the team travelled to Scunthorpe United and, at the 19th time of asking, won their first League game by two goals to one. George Dewsnip, a jinking little winger with long flowing hair, floated home the winner from 25 yards out for his first Southport goal. No turning-point this though; five more defeats followed and the New Year arrived with five points in the bag.
Then, on January 2nd, two things happened. Top-scorer Bobby Gough was transferred to Colchester United for f 7,000 while Allan Brown, former Nottingham Forest, Bury and Torquay United manager, was appointed manager at Haig Avenue.
Slowly things started to move; Newport County provided Southport with their first home win (3—o) but another five match losing sequence (with aggregate goals 15—o against) meant they were still on a mere 9 points by the end of February.
Allan Brown’s revival began with the signing of goalkeeper Dave Ryan on loan from Manchester United; this was a priority, since winger Johnny Johnston had been pressed into service between the posts for the match at Rochdale. Amazingly he held out for 85 minutes until beaten by two late goals. John Higham, initially on loan and later signed on a free transfer from Liverpool, settled in well at centre-half and stability was restored to the defence. Up front Keith Galley, signed on part-time from Morecambe after earlier trial spells, began scoring more regularly and only three of the last 14 games were lost. Indeed the three victories over Easter, culminating in the surprising 2-I win at Huddersfield Town which effectively cost the Yorkshiremen promotion, provided Southport with their first six-point Easter since 193o.
An even more astonishing success almost came at Bournemouth in mid-March, when Southport led 2-0 and 3-1. Prior to this game Bournemouth had conceded only 9 goals at home, while the Sandgrounders had scored 6 on tour! Bournemouth levelled it 3-3 in the end, but the final whistle was delayed some 20 minutes as the teams had earlier been withdrawn owing to a bomb hoax. It really was a season when everything happened to Southport.
Seeking re-election had been a certainty since early April but Southport did finish five points ahead of bottom placed Workington. Shortly afterwards it was rumoured that Blackpool were eager to approach Allan Brown and on May 5th he left to become manager at Bloomfield Road. His 124 days at Haig Avenue had revitalised a dispirited side and given hope for the future. Yet an even more significant departure had been announced just before the Newport victory in January. After 53 years with the club Gordon Hunt had at last decided to retire. He had been Secretary since 1936 and had worked tirelessly behind the scenes to keep the club going, operating for much of the time as Secretary-Manager. He was succeeded by the former Burscough secretary David Raybould.
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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