It is arguable that more happened off the field in the close season of 1977 than had happened on it in the preceding nine months. Amongst the welter of announcements, appeals and meetings both public and private it is difficult to distinguish truth from rumour; but the crisis which threatened Southport F.C. was revealed on May 23rd when the Board declared that without ‘a substantial injection of cash’ by June 3rd the club would withdraw its application for re-election to the Football League.
As an immediate cost-cutting measure they released all the players from their contracts (though retaining their League registrations), thus enabling them to sign on the dole. At a hastily convened shareholders’ meeting a week later the first fund-raising schemes were proposed; squads of volunteers — the authors included! — took to the streets in an attempt to distribute leaflets appealing for donations to every house in the town. Somewhat illegally, the contributions tended to be collected there and then and by late evening groups of supporters would return to director Graham Davies’ Franklyn Hotel on the Promenade to go through the sealed envelopes and cash up the receipts. This raised a few thousand pounds in the short term but was abandoned when unscrupulous elements quite unconnected with the ‘official’ enterprise began collecting on their own account.
The Board’s patent lack of drive lost them sympathy at an inconclusive public meeting attended by 250 supporters at the Floral Hall’s Midnight Lounge on June 8th; but two days later their stock rose as they secured $20,000 (around £11,000) by selling the talented little winger George Dewsnip to Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League. This was pure profit; he had given three years’ excellent service since arriving on a free transfer from Preston North End in May 1974. Then came the coup which staved off Southport’s departure from the League. A ‘Mister X’ had reportedly rung director Cec Rimmer offering ‘a substantial loan at a low rate of interest’ to enable the club to continue. The Board marched confidently into the League A.G.M. two days later and secured re-election, though Workington were less fortunate and were replaced by Wimbledon. In time it became apparent that ‘Mister X’ never existed and no loan ever materialised; but in achieving its objective the ploy had been remarkably successful. The subsequent club A.G.M. in July saw the return of Leon Rapaport to the Board as Vice Chairman to one Walter Giller, a former director of Skelmersdale United. The latter’s appointment was not popular and ultimately proved extremely costly. But at last Hughie Fisher could begin to sign players and in a flurry of activity he picked up Bolton Wanderers’ Geoff Gay along with Workington’s Chris Kisby and Phil Ashworth, whilst granting trials to Pat Hilton and Gary Cooper. It was the strongly-built striker Ashworth who made the immediate impact; he scored in each of the first seven League games to claim outright the club record for successive scoring. Only a calf muscle injury halted his sequence. Meantime, there were encouraging developments in the F.L. Cup; a stirring comeback against Tranmere Rovers saw Southport through to an epic encounter with Hull City, the second equaliser — a 30 yard looping, dipping volley from trialist Cooper — ranking as one of the all-time great goals at Haig Avenue. The replay at Hull was Southport’s first defeat in the opening eight games. Though only one League game had been won, the 3—I defeat of Northampton Town had been contested at a cracking pace and attracted the best League crowd (2,677) since the visit of Oldham Athletic in April 1974. It proved, however, to be the solitary victory before Christmas; draws abounded but wins simply failed to materialise.
Typical was the visit of Grimsby Town on September 27th; Southport went 2-0 up late on but conceded two goals in the last five minutes, the equaliser arriving 15 seconds from time. Yet on October 7th the 0—0 draw with Southend United ended a run of 14 consecutive League games in which Southport had scored — amazingly the best run since 1955-56. At last Southport looked likely to win an F.A. cup-tie when leading Runcorn 2-1 deep into injury time. Then ex-Sandgrounder Dave Lyon deservedly equalised with the last kick of the match; poor Tony Brookfield missed two golden opportunities at Canal Street before an 84th minute decider won Runcorn the replay.
A brief new year revival, culminating in the only away win of the season (2-0 at Scunthorpe), petered out and 12 of the final 20 games were lost. Undoubtedly injuries played their part. The tricky little winger Pat Hilton suffered more than most; returning from a thigh injury on November 19th he sustained a particularly nasty fractured cheekbone and jaw against Newport County which sidelined him until February. As Southport collected their 2,000th point in the Football League at Aldershot on January 2nd, so ‘keeper Tony Harrison collected a fractured arm and Hughie Fisher had to sign up Runcorn’s Jim Cumbes (still a Worcestershire county cricketer) on a non-contract basis to cover.
February 28th at Hartlepool saw Phil Ashworth’s last game — he was subsequently diagnosed as needing a hernia operation — while, in the second minute of play, the club’s other leading scorer George Jones suffered torn ligaments and missed the next eight matches. Jack Howarth, at 33 the veteran of over 500 League games, was hurriedly signed from Bournemouth on a free transfer but enjoyed little success.
All things considered, Fisher did well to keep a reasonably settled side; no fewer than seven players had upwards of 39 League appearances. But a team which promised much failed to deliver, despite recruiting Ian St John as part-time coach.
In April the last League win — a resounding 4-1 triumph over York City — was followed by a complete collapse against new boys Wimbledon who won 5-0 on their only visit to Haig Avenue in a match postponed from January. Ironically the season wound up with a spirited performance at Vicarage Road, Watford where the champions, setting out on their way to Division I, struggled to preserve a 3-2 scoreline as Pat Hilton hit the post.
Eventually an air of gloomy inevitability engulfed the club as the realisation that yet another, possibly final re-election application would be required. On the plus side was the playing record where, despite equalling the previous season’s record haul of 19 draws, an additional 6 points had been gathered; also, the average home attendance of 1,873 showed a healthy increase of 30% over 1976-77. This would undoubtedly have been higher still had not the already twice postponed match against Reading been put back a further 24 hours at short notice in March; the resultant gate of 838 — the second lowest in Southport’s League history —reflected not so much lack of appeal as lack of publicity.
On the downside, however, was the personality of the Chairman himself. Much of Southport’s success on previous such occasions could be attributed to the bluff, down-to-earth John Church, whose innocent enthusiasm for the club he had supported since childhood endeared him to all he met. Walter Giller was an abrasive, assertive character who had upset one or two influential clubs on whose votes Southport could usually count; his previous record at Skelmersdale had hardly been squeaky clean and, in the final analysis, these peripheral factors outweighed the traditions and endeavours of fifty years of Football League membership. Yet it could not have been closer.
When the League A.G.M. was held at London’s Cafe Royal on June 2nd, the initial voting left Southport and Wigan Athletic tied for fourth place on 26 apiece, with Bath City running them close on 23. A second ballot was required and this time Wigan prevailed 29-20. Rochdale, 7 points adrift of Southport at the foot of Division IV, were re-elected comfortably. It subsequently transpired that Wigan chairman Arthur Horrocks — himself a director of Southport in the early ‘seventies — had canvassed the other clubs fairly thoroughly over a considerable period of time.
Whilst many Southport supporters had secretly feared this outcome, the shock of comprehending that League status had gone for good had a numbing effect. Councillor Ralph Gregson, chairman of the Tourism and Attractions Committee, was quoted as saying: ‘This has come as a blow to me from the point of view of tourism. Southport F.C. earned the town a lot of publicity. Their name appeared on football coupons and in results every week and was taken all over the country.’ The sentiments were admirable, but hardly exonerated the Council for past lack of support. As the realisation slowly sank in, everyone connected with the club began to ask ‘Where do we go from here?’ None of the answers seemed particularly palatable; in the event, the board swallowed its pride and took the only positive step open to it by applying, successfully, for membership of the Northern Premier League. An entirely new world and still more tribulations lay ahead; but the writing had been on the wall for years.
Southport never had been a ‘football town’ and the competition from the big clubs nearby had become an even greater threat as car ownership had expanded since the war. In reality the miracle was that Southport had survived for fifty seasons in the League; that in itself bore testimony to the strength of the personalities who had managed to keep the club operational all that time. The irony was that the fall should follow so closely on the heels of its greatest successes. It was this more than anything that the true supporters found it hardest to accept.
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
NB: Southport failed to gain re-election.
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