Until the mid-1980s, admission to the Football League was by election only. At the end of each season clubs at the bottom of the Football League were obliged to seek re-election at the competition’s Annual General Meeting, where a vote by their League colleagues, who also considered the applications of ambitious non-Football League clubs, decided their fate.
It was often dubbed the ‘old pals act’ since more often than not, the clubs seeking re-election got back into the League without any problem at all, and the system was therefore heavily criticised by those clubs on the “outside” who argued that on field merit should be the only consideration given. Indeed after a failed attempt to be elected to the Football League in 1903, Southport’s Deputy Mayor, Councillor Trounsen, was particularly critical of the process.
If he could have his way he would have all divisions of football so created and arranged that merit should be the absolute quality that should be recognised in preference to any other qualification. (Hear, hear). He would have them worked on the same conditions as the Premier League, that was, that the bottom clubs should be relegated to the next inferior League, and not be entitled to re-election; and the top club in the inferior League should take the place of those that were displaced. That would remove every possibility of any committee or anyone else preventing merit being recognised. That was the true spirit of sport, and he thought it was possible. So that when a team had gone through 15 years, good and bad, like Southport Central had done – and he was glad to say that they had more good than bad – and they proved their worth and respectability, and no exception could be taken to their personnel, that they should secure the honourable position to which they are entitled.Formby Times, 30th May 1903
Below is a brief season-by-season history of Southport’s various attempts to gain entry to the Football League and, once admitted, their later attempts to remain within it.
The method of voting varied, but from the advent of the Third Division in the early 1920s the Full Members (clubs in Division One and Two) had one vote per available place, whilst the Associate Members (those in Division Three – and Division Four from 1958) shared a very small number of votes.
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
The Sandgrounder (Southport FC Matchday Programme) Article Series. Southport through the seasons. The League History of Southport FC, Compiled by Michael P. Braham and Geoffrey S. Wilde
Applications to Join the Football League
In 1900-01 Central ran neck and neck with Stalybridge Rovers in the Lancashire League but were defeated 2-1 on Easter Monday by the Rovers in front of a record Scarisbrick New Road crowd of 6000. That was one of only two defeats during the season and Central finished second on goal average.
When it became known in February 1901 that there was a proposal to amalgamate the Football League with the Southern League and thus regionalise the Second Division Central decided to aim for a better class of football. They could do so with confidence.
Due to economics by the Committee and the cultivation of local talent they had succeeded in clearing off the previous season’s deficit and wiped £50 of the stand account leaving only a debt of £65 and the old Guarantors account of £70 outstanding.
The Committee held a public meeting at the Temperance Institute to test public opinion on the advisability of making an application to the Second Division and the members voted overwhelmingly in favour. In a circular to all football league clubs, the club stressed that Southport was easily accessible by rail and all clubs with the exceptionof Woolwich and possibly Middlesborough could complete the journey in one day. The Club was “an old and established one being the only one to have been connected with the Lancashire League from its commencement to the present date.” Their ground was “one of the finest in Lancashire with plenty of accommodation, dressing rooms on the ground and every convenience provided for football teams.”
The proposed regional Second Division did not materialize and preston North End’s resolution to increase the Second Division by four clubs was defeated. Central were disappointed at the result receiving only five votes
Burton Swifts FL 23 re-elected to Division Two Bristol City SL 23 elected to Division Two Stockport County FL 16 Second vote 21 re-elected to Division Two Doncaster Rovers ML 16 Second vote 13 Walsall Town Swifts FL 7 not re-elected Crewe Alexandra LL ) 5 Darwen LL ) 0 Stalybridge Rovers LL ) 7 Southport Central LL ) 5 votes At the start of the following season New Brighton Tower resigned from the League and Doncaster Rovers were elected to the League Doncaster Rovers ML elected to Division Two
After being one of the original members of the Lancashire League, Southport Central won the Championship at their 14th attempt. Their success came in what proved to be the last season of the League. Southport suffered only three defeats and won the Championship with five points to spare.
On Monday 26th January 1903, at a meeting of the Southport Central Football Club Committee, instructions were given for the issuing of a subjoined circular: – “It is the wish of the committee to make application for admission into the Second Division of the Football League, but as the question of securing enough support is the chief item, it was decided to circularise the members, supporters, and tradespeople generally as to what guarantee or promise they would give if such application was successful. It is calculated that an increase of £500 on the present income would be required to run a successful team” (Reported in Lancashire Evening Post on Wednesday 28th January 1903)
Edwin Trounson pleaded Southport Central’s case for admission to the Second Division He claimed that the ground was one of the best adapted for football in the country.
Bradford City -- 30 elected to Division Two Stockport County FL 20 re-elected to Division Two Burnley FL 19 re-elected to Division Two Doncaster Rovers FL ) 14 not re-elected Crewe Alexandra TC ) 7 Southport Central LL ) 4 West Hartlepool NL ) 7 Willington Athletic NA ) 1 Bradford City were elected to the Football League without having played a competitive match. West Yorkshire remained a strongly Rugby League area and it is assumed that City's election was an attempt by the Football League to establish a foothold in this area.
The 1907-08 season saw Southport Central finish in sixth place in the Lancashire Combination.
What proved to be a significant moment in the club’s history came on April 13th, 1908 when Edwin Clayton was appointed Secretary of Southport Central on the resignation of Tom Shipley. Clayton was highly ambitious for Central to progress in the football world and from the outset yearned for the day when they would be members of the Football League. Almost immediately an opportunity presented itself when Stoke resigned and a casual vacancy arose.
On June 21st Central were one of five clubs to apply for the place in the Second Division, but Tottenham Hotspur were elected, while Central failed to attract a single vote: it was recorded that their representative at the meeting did not speak. Clearly Mr Clayton had much work to do if his ambition were to be realised.
Grimsby Town FL 32 re-elected to Division Two Chesterfield Town FL 23 re-elected to Division Two Bradford Park Ave SL 20 elected to Division Two Lincoln City FL 18 not re-elected Tottenham Hotspur SL 14 Burton United BD 1 Rotherham County ML withdrew application Queens Park Rangers SL withdrew application A few days after the AGM, Stoke announced they could not continue in the Football League due to lack of support. Their resignation was accepted. A Special Meeting was arranged to elect a new member, but before the Meeting took place Stoke announced they wished to continue in the League. Stoke, along with Tottenham, Lincoln, Rotherham and Southport stood for Election and in the ballot Tottenham and Lincoln tied, 20 votes each. The Management Committee then voted 5-3 in favour of Tottenham Hotspur. It was rumoured that Stoke's original resignation had been encouraged by Tottenham, who offered financial inducements to Stoke to resign Tottenham Hotspur SL elected to Division Two Lincoln City -- Stoke -- Rotherham County ML Southport Central LC 0 Votes received
At the end of 1910-11, when Central finished in eleventh place, there was a rift between some of the reserve sides of Football League clubs like Manchester City, Everton and Liverpool and the Lancashire Combination. Southport Central joined forces with these teams in a bid to form the Central League.
Barnsley FL 28 re-elected to Division Two Grimsby Town ML 18 elected to Division Two Lincoln City FL 17 not re-elected Darlington NE ) Chesterfield Town ML ) "15 votes between them" Hartlepools United NE ) Rochdale LC ) After the AGM, the five unsuccesfull clubs met and decided to ask the Football League to reconsider the idea of a Third Division. This was backed by 34 of the 40 League clubs. The Football League advertised for new clubs stating that there would need to be a minimum of sixteen teams and that these clubs would not be given a vote at AGMs, except in the election of new clubs. Applications were received from twenty clubs - the five previously mentioned plus Port Vale, Rotherham Town, Crewe Alexandra, Walsall, Burton Town, Macclesfield, St Helen's Town, South Liverpool, Southport Central, South Shields Adelaide, Croydon Common, Portsmouth, Southend United, Cardiff City and Merthyr Town. When the proposal to form a Third Division with these Clubs was put to the League members, they rejected it 26-11 (!)
On June 5th, 1919 a meeting was called for the purpose of reorganizing the Football Club and at a further meeting at which the Mayor, Cllr E. Wood, presided on July 29th, it was revealed that the Vulcan Motor Company had now relinquished their control: since, however, they had taken over all the assets and liabilities along with the unexpired portion of the lease of the ground Southport were effectively debt free.
For the first full season after the end of the First World War the Football League decided to increase its membership from 40 clubs (two divisions of 20) to 44 clubs (two divisions of 22). Prior to the upheaval, the club had applied for a place in the newly enlarged Second Division of the Football League.
Realistically the application for election was always doomed to failure since the Football League had never allowed “works” teams in its ranks. The reason that the Vulcan Company suddenly abandoned its interest in Southport Football Club may be explained in part by the fact that Cllr. Hampson. Vulcan’s Chairman and Managing Director, was shortly afterwards imprisoned for twelve months after having been found guilty of fraudulently applying the sum of £22,266.5s 1d. to his own use!
No Football League clubs were obliged to seek re-election and four new places in Division Two were available for applicants: Coventry City SL 35 elected to Division Two West Ham United SL 32 elected to Division Two South Shields NE 28 elected to Division Two Rotherham County ML 28 elected to Division Two Port Vale CE 27 Southport CE 7 Rochdale LC 7 Chesterfield Town ML 0
In May 1920 the question of the formation of a Third Division of the Football League with Northern and Southern sections was considered at a meeting in Sheffield and it was decided to proceed with the proposal. The Northern clubs unanimously carried a resolution that the formation of a Third Division was in the best interests of football, pledging themselves to everything in their power to facilitate its adoption: but the following month it was announced that, subject to obtaining the consent of the F.A. a Third Division of the Football League would be formed for 1920-21 with such division being composed entirely of clubs from the Southern League. The clubs in the proposed Northern Section did not commend themselves to the Management Committee as being suitable and it was agreed that the matter would be further considered the following season.
The Northern clubs convened a meeting at the Grand Hotel, Manchester on June 3rd 1920 and passed the following resolution: “That those present do all they possibly can do to press forward with the programme for the 1921-22 season” A committee was elected with Southport’s own Edwin Clayton as its Secretary. A Northern Section of the Football League Division III now appeared a real possibility.
At a special meeting of the Football League held at the Connaught Rooms, London on March 7th 1921 Southport were one of twenty-eight applicants for the proposed Northern Section. After the First and Second Division clubs agreed to the formation of the section on the recommendation of the Football League Management Committee it was proposed that fourteen clubs be elected en bloc.
The 14 were Lincoln City ML elected to Division Three (North) Accrington Stanley LC elected to Division Three (North) Rochdale CE elected to Division Three (North) Walsall BD elected to Division Three (North) Chesterfield Town ML elected to Division Three (North) Crewe Alexandra CE elected to Division Three (North) Nelson CE elected to Division Three (North) Tranmere Rovers CE elected to Division Three (North) Ashington NE elected to Division Three (North) Hartlepools United NE elected to Division Three (North) Darlington NE elected to Division Three (North) Durham City NE elected to Division Three (North) Barrow LC elected to Division Three (North) Wrexham BD elected to Division Three (North) The division was to have a complement of twenty clubs. At the AGM, Grimsby were transferred to the northern section, and a relegated club (Stockport County) took another place, leaving four places available for applicants: Wigan Borough LC 34 elected to Division Three (North) Halifax Town ML 25 elected to Division Three (North) Southport CE 25 elected to Division Three (North) Stalybridge Celtic CE 25 elected to Division Three (North) Castleford Town ML 18 Rotherham Town ML 13 Blyth Spartans NE 9 Gainsborough Trinity ML 8 Doncaster Rovers ML 6 West Stanley NE 6 Wakefield City YL 4 Lancaster Town LC 3 Scunthorpe & L Utd ML 3 South Liverpool LC 1
Mr Clayton who represented the Southport club together with committee member Walter Parkinson, could take satisfaction from the fact that thirteen years after first proposing a Third Division his ambition had been realized. On a later occasion he was presented with an inscribed gold watch on behalf of the clubs in appreciation of his efforts.
For the first time since joining the League, the ‘Port had to apply for re-election, finished 21st, albeit significantly ahead of the bottom side Carlisle United. Times were hard at Haig Avenue; the team were without a win until their eighth outing in the League and consequently the attendance level dropped alarmingly. The directors were continually under fire, but were really placed in an intolerable position. Lowest ever gates meant that it became a financial necessity to sell their best players, which only lowered the morale and performance of the side. The financial crisis was so acute that often four or five amateurs were utlised to keep down the wage bill. Never at any stage of the season did Southport keep the same side for more than two successive games
Carlisle United FL 46 re-elected to Division Three (North) Southport FL 46 re-elected to Division Three (North) Shrewsbury Town BD 6
The fact that Southport completed this season at all was an achievement, as support dwindled to its lowest ever level. At one point, in February, 1936, it looked as if the club would not be able to continue; the directors had paid the rent from their own pockets. In a perilous position financially -a loss of £1,600 meant that the total indebtedness exceeded £7,500 – the club’s whole future still appeared to be at stake.
Having finished 21st once again, this time above New Brighton, once again the ‘Port had to go cap-in-hand to the Football League.
Southport FL 47 re-elected to Division Three (North) New Brighton FL 38 re-elected to Division Three (North) Shrewsbury Town BD 7 Wigan Athletic CL 6
Despite all the euphoria engendered by the resumption of the Football League post-war, the team failed to perform and the season was a disaster. Finishing only ahead of Halifax Town by 3 points (note that it was 2 points for a win), it meant that the club should once again have been forced to seek re-election. 27 clubs had submitted applications to be considered for entry but all of them were to be disappointed. Due to the two clubs losing their positions on Division Two both being southern the Football League secretary pointed that that if geographically unsuitable teams were to be elected it would cause an imbalance and therefore all four retiring clubs were re-elected en bloc without a vote even taking place.
Mansfield Town FL re-elected to Division Three (South) Norwich City FL re-elected to Division Three (South) Halifax Town FL re-elected to Division Three (North) Southport FL re-elected to Division Three (North) Ashington NE Gillingham SL Merthyr Tydfil SL Nelson LC Northwich Victoria CL Bath City SL Guildford City SL Llanelly WE Peterborough United ML Scunthorpe United ML Shrewsbury Town ML South Liverpool CL Wigan Athletic CL Annfield Plain WL Ashton United CL Bangor City LC Barry Town SL Chelmsford City SL Colchester United SL Consett NE Dudley Town BC Gravesend & N'fleet SL North Shields NE Stockton NE Worcester City SL Workington NE Yeovil Town SL
Southport once again found themselves next to the foot of the table, Bradford City below them by just 2 points. Both were comfortable re-elected, with the division scheduled to expand the following season where Shrewsbury and Scunthorpe would join them.
1949 Bradford City FL 45 re-elected to Division Three (North) Southport FL 42 re-elected to Division Three (North) Aldershot FL 41 re-elected to Division Three (South) Crystal Palace FL 40 re-elected to Division Three (South) Worcester City SL 5 Gillingham SL 5 Shrewsbury Town ML 5 Scunthorpe United ML 5 Merthyr Tydfil SL 3 Yeovil Town SL 2 Peterborough United ML 0 Wigan Athletic LC 0 South Liverpool CL 0 North Shields NE 0 Nelson LC 0
In the summer of 1958 the Football League was reorganised to remove the regionalisation of the Third Division. Although at the A.G.M. the previous summer the directors had resolved to do their utmost to finish in the top half of the table and made twelve close season signings, Southport still ended in 23rd place and were forced to seek re-election. Making their first application in nine years, Southport were re-elected comfortably.
Millwall FL 46 re-elected to Division Four Exeter City FL 43 re-elected to Division Four Southport FL 41 re-elected to Division Four Crewe Alexandra FL 35 re-elected to Division Four Peterborough United ML 15 Wigan Athletic LC 4 Hereford United SL 3 Bedford Town SL 2 Headington United SL 2 King's Lynn ML 2 Kettering Town SL 1 South Shields NE 1 Burton Albion BD 0 Gloucester City SL 0 Morecambe LC 0 Yeovil Town SL 0
For the only time in League history, Southport finished last in their division—the 92nd team in the league—with a paltry 26 points. At the Football League A.G.M. South-port were re-elected but the voting was uncomfortably close.
Oldham Athletic FL 46 re-elected to Division Four Southport FL 34 re-elected to Division Four Barrow FL 32 re-elected to Division Four Aldershot FL 31 re-elected to Division Four Peterborough United ML 26 Headington United SL 7 Worcester City SL 7 Wigan Athletic LC 3 Cambridge City SL 2 Gloucester City SL 2 Kettering Town SL 1 South Shields ML 1 Scarborough ML 1 Yeovil Town SL 0 Bedford Town SL 0 Hereford United SL 0 King's Lynn SL 0 Morecambe LC 0
In the last four practically all season, Southport were lucky to retain their league status after applying for re-election for the third successive year. The whole town was apprehensive as the Football League’s A.G.M. approached. At long last Peterborough United seemed certain to be elected, with ‘Southport favourites to drop out. Nevertheless. Southport secured eleven votes more than Gateshead, who were making only their second application for re-election. Supporters could thank Jack Clough, who had carefully canvassed his many contacts, for retaining Southport’s position, Gateshead, with an impressive Third Division record over the years and gates no worse than Southport’s, could justifiably feel aggrieved.
Oldham Athletic FL 39 re-elected to Division Four Peterborough United ML 35 elected to Division Four Hartlepools United FL 34 re-elected to Division Four Southport FL 29 re-elected to Division Four Gateshead FL 18 not re-elected Headington United SL 10 Chelmsford City SL 3 Bedford Town SL 2 Cambridge City SL 2 Guildford City SL 2 New Brighton LC 2 Romford SL 2 Scarborough ML 2 Worcester City SL 2 Ellesmere Port Town CL 1 Kettering Town SL 1 Morecambe LC 1 South Shields ML 1 Yeovil Town SL 0 Hereford United SL 0 King's Lynn SL 0
21st position was Southport’s once again which meant the club’s eighth re-election application. Great relief was felt when the Football League’s plan to reorganize the Fourth Division into a “Football Alliance” was abandoned. Southport were nevertheless re-elected comfortably.
York City FL 48 re-elected to Division Four Southport FL 45 re-elected to Division Four Barrow FL 42 re-elected to Division Four Hartlepools FL 36 re-elected to Division Four Wigan Athletic CL 5 Gateshead NR 4 Romford SL 4 Yeovil Town SL 3 South Shields NE 3 New Brighton LC 2 Guildford City SL 2 Gloucester City SL 1 Morecambe LC 1 Weymouth SL 1 Bexley United SL 0 Poole Town SL 0 Scarborough ML 0 Eight clubs were removed from the ballot paper for signing Football League players without consent.
Having secured promotion twice in the intervening twelve years between re-election applications, it is difficult to conceive that the club could suffer three such dire seasons as those on which it was about to embark, but 1975-76 unfolded into one of unmitigated depression. Seeking re-election had been a certainty since early April but Southport did finish five points ahead of bottom placed Workington.
Stockport County FL 42 re-elected to Division Four Newport County FL 41 re-elected to Division Four Southport FL 38 re-elected to Division Four Workington FL 21 re-elected to Division Four Yeovil Town SL 18 Kettering Town SL 14 Wigan Athletic NP 6 Wimbledon SL 3 Chelmsford City SL 3 Nuneaton Borough SL 2 Telford United SL 2 Gainsborough Trinity NP 1 Scarborough NP 1
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. Southport’s final tally was three League victories, none of them away from home and the side finished second to bottom yet again. The 25 point total — one less than in 1975-76 — was the worst ever, although yet again Southport were comfortably clear of the unfortunate Workington.
The Football League Management Committee had decided to examine all of the applications in advance of the A.G.M. and only put two forward for election.
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.
Halifax Town FL 44 re-elected to Division Four Hartlepool FL 43 re-elected to Division Four Southport FL 37 re-elected to Division Four Wimbledon SL 27 elected to Division Four Workington FL 21 not re-elected Altrincham NP 12
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.
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.
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.
York City FL 49 re-elected to Division Four Rochdale FL 39 re-elected to Division Four Hartlepool FL 33 re-elected to Division Four Wigan Athletic NP 26 (2nd vote 29) elected to Division Four Southport FL 26 (2nd vote 20) not re-elected Bath City SL 23