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South Down: Southport’s Football League swansong

Southport completed an unwanted hat-trick in 1978 when they became the third coastal club from the north-west to be voted out of the Football League inside a decade, following in the slipstream of Barrow (1972) and Workington (1977). HYDER JAWAD charts the demise of the Sandgrounders

WHEN Hughie Fisher turned up at Haig Avenue on March 10, 1977 to take up his position as player-manager of Southport, it did not take him long to realise that here was a club grappling unsuccessfully with the art of poverty.

“The first thing I learnt was that two players had not been seen for six weeks because the club had not paid their expenses,” Fisher says. “The second thing was that I could not sign any players. The third thing was that the 1976-77 season might be the club’s last.”

Fisher had left Southampton, with whom he won an FA Cup winners’ medal ten months before, because the idea of Southport intrigued him. The experience would be valuable. What better way to learn the intricacies of the game than to start at the bottom, where money was tight and attendances low?

But Fisher did not legislate for the interventions of a trumpet-playing pub landlord called Walter Stanley Giller. If the decline of Southport could be attributed to one man, Giller would be the obvious candidate. “He was bombastic and brash,” Fisher says. “His attitude was ‘I’m the chairman and I’m always right’, even when it was obvious he was wrong. He was a difficult man to work with. He made too many enemies, which you cannot afford at that level.”

What a contrast Giller provided with John Church, a previous Southport chairman, by now the president, who had supported the club since its first League season in 1921-22 and had been a director since 1957. Church was, Fisher says, “the heartbeat of the club; friendly, popular, loyal, enthusiastic, and easy to deal with”. In other words, the polar opposite of Giller.

Giller had been the vice-chairman of Skelmersdale United in 1971 when, having won the FA Amateur Cup at Wembley, the Cheshire League club endured a Football Association enquiry concerning illegal payments to players. Giller avoided censure but his reputation suffered, and his arrival at Haig Avenue not only ruffled feathers but alienated the club from friendly rivals.

When small clubs suffer decline, there always seems to be an anti-hero at the centre of the story. For Gateshead in 1960, there was David Absalom. For Accrington Stanley in 1962, Bob Lord. For Third Lanark in 1967, William Hiddelston. For Bradford Park Avenue in 1970, Herbert Metcalfe. For Southport in 1978, Giller.

Southport did survive the 1976-77 campaign, in spite of a hoax from a “Mr X” to invest significantly in the club, and began  1977-78 in good heart, with Fisher now able to sign players. “There were a few good players there, like Tommy O’Neil, who had played with George Best for Manchester United,” Fisher says. “I brought in a few others, like Geoff Gay from Bolton Wanderers and Phil Ashworth from Workington.”

Despite beginning 1977-78 with seven unbeaten League and cup matches, injuries took their toll, and Southport slipped into the bottom four at the end of October and remained there. Even the arrival of Jim Cumbes, the former Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper, could not inspire a revival. Home attendances hovered between 1,500 and 2,000.

Southport finished one off the bottom of the Fourth Division in 1977-78 (above Rochdale) but the club still had to present itself for re-election at the Football League’s AGM at the Café Royal, London, on June 2, 1978. “I offered to go to London for the election,” Fisher says. “I was on a family holiday but I felt that I should really have been there, in London, with the Southport party. But Giller was having none of it. He said ‘no, don’t come; I will call you with the result’.”

Giller did call and the news was bad: “We lost. Wigan Athletic elected to the League”.

Fisher was surprised – “I really thought we would succeed” – but as the afternoon turned to evening, he realised that perhaps the result, painful as it was, might have been the right one. And how close it was: York City (49 votes), Rochdale (39), Hartlepool United (33), Southport (26), Wigan Athletic (26), Bath City (23). Southport and Wigan went to a second ballot, which Wigan won 29-20.

Wigan, having failed on 34 previous occasions to join the League, owed its election to three men: Arthur Horrocks, Sir Alf Ramsey, and Giller.

Horrocks was the Wigan chairman who canvassed the First and Second Division clubs with skill and diplomacy. Ramsey was the former England manager, who, having developed affection for Wigan, became an unofficial member of the canvassing team to ensure that Aston Villa, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers voted for the club. (Ramsey had been the Birmingham director-manager in 1977-78 when they beat Wigan 4-0 in the FA Cup). Giller, conversely, did not bother to canvass at all. Plausible rumours emerged that Giller’s personality cost Southport at least one vote on which the club could usually count.

The result also took Wigan by surprise and the summer was as frantic at Springfield Park as it was depressing at Haig Avenue. Southport applied successfully to fill the place in the Northern Premier League vacated by Wigan. By then, Fisher had left. “I knew the club could not afford to keep me on. They told me immediately. But I also knew that my contract as a player, rather than as player-manager, protected my interests,” he says. “But I left on good terms – a handshake and best wishes from one of the directors, Leon Rapaport. I’d given it my all and I played 60 League matches for the club, only missing one match in the 1977-78 campaign.”

With Harry McNally now the manager, Southport began their Northern Premier League fixtures away to South Liverpool on August 19, 1978, with a 1-0 victory. The attendance of 296 and a post-match pitch invasion involving a dozen spectators emphasised to a former League club the psychological brutality of life in the non-League sphere.

The speed of Southport’s decline was swift and went back to 1973, when, under Jimmy Meadows, whose career ended with injury when playing in the 1955 FA Cup final for Manchester City, they secured promotion to the Third Division as champions of the Fourth Division. At the higher level, Southport self-destructed clumsily, with flawed decisions at board level, poor discipline on the pitch, and a failure to improve on Fourth Division attendances. Relegation, confirmed with a 6-0 defeat away to Oldham Athletic on April 12, 1974, seemed inevitable. Southport had been in the bottom four since the previous October.

Between the departure of Meadows on December 10, 1973 and the appointment of Fisher on March 10, 1977, Southport had accentuated the club’s volatility at boardroom level by employing too many managers in too few years: Alan Ball senior (1973-75), Jimmy Melia (1975), Allan Brown (1976) and Ray Henderson (1976-77).

Elegant and charming, Fisher was a safe pair of hands with a glowing reputation. He had been an unused substitute when Southampton defeated Manchester United 1-0 to win the 1976 FA Cup final. He also played in the 1976 Charity Shield against Liverpool at Wembley (a 1-0 defeat) and both legs of Southampton’s memorable European Cup Winners’ Cup tie against Olympique Marseille of France in September 1976, which ended in a 5-2 aggregate victory.

From the Velodrome, Marseille to Haig Avenue, Southport in just 163 days. “Lawrie McMenemy, who was the Southampton manager, called me into his office and told me about the Southport offer,” Fisher says. “It sounded ideal, but there were considerations. I had been with Southampton for a decade, which meant I was due a testimonial. But on the other hand, it was obvious I was going to get a free transfer from Southampton. I took the professional decision and tried my luck with Southport. I do not regret it, even though matters outside my hands ended it all too quickly.

“I knew what I was signing up for at Southport. But I saw potential. Southport seemed to me a great little club, one that could benefit from my enthusiasm and experience. I thought ‘yeah, let’s give this a go; this could just work out’. And it could have worked out. It seems optimistic now to say that we could have survived in the League, but we had a fine bunch of lads there. There was no money. But a lot of clubs at that level in the late 1970s had no money. Success was determined only by our ability to survive.

“It was great being up in the north-west. I remember getting a phone call from Bob Paisley, who was then the Liverpool manager, asking if I would fancy taking the players to the Liverpool training ground at Melwood for a kick-around. Imagine how the Southport players felt when they heard we were going to play Liverpool in a friendly at Melwood. They even thanked us for coming, and Bob gave us half a dozen balls. For a club like Southport, balls were expensive.

“Perhaps I was too inexperienced. The playing side was no problem for me, but I decided to play as a sweeper when, perhaps, I should have played in midfield. I was always on the lookout for free transfers and experienced professionals coming to the end of their careers. I thought we had the basis of a team that could avoid the re-election places. I think, had it not been for injuries to players like Phil Ashworth, George Jones and Pat Hilton, we might have been OK. We might have avoided the bottom four.”

The football was certainly more attractive under Fisher, with better players and a more sophisticated style, and his enthusiasm cast a light on the self-defeating arrogance of Giller. Fisher valued the supporters, and he always replied to their letters. He would even spend his Sundays watching matches around the amateur leagues of Liverpool, always searching for a talented player previously undiscovered. With such a small budget, there was no other way to proceed. The 1976 FA Cup final was already seeming like a long time ago.

For the final home match of 1977-78, against Huddersfield Town on April 22, Southport produced a special programme to celebrate “50 Years in the League”. In a special message, John Church said: “Football is essential in a holiday town like Southport and I hope the club will prosper for years to come.” A mere 1,466 people turned up to watch, although, intriguingly, the average attendance for the season was 1,873, a 30 per cent increase on 1976-77.

The final match took place on April 29, away to Watford, the newly crowned Fourth Division champions, whose manager was Graham Taylor, later the England manager, and whose chairman was Elton John, the unconventional pop star. As if to underline the difference between Watford and Southport, 10,089 turned up at Vicarage Road.

Watford won 3-2 but Pat Hilton had a chance to equalise late on, only to strike the ball against the post. How incongruous that Southport’s best performance of the season should come against the best team in the division on a day when the result barely mattered. Fisher was superb that day, dictating the pace of play as Southport dominated the second half.

Taylor recalls: “Watford were already promoted as champions of Division Four and Southport set to fight for re-election. We had been at the top of the division since October and had become somewhat complacent and had drawn the five games previous to the Southport match. But the real memory I have of the game is when our right-back, Albert McClenaghan, an Irishman playing only his second League game for the club, took a throw in, and as he arched his back to throw the ball into Southport’s penalty area, the ball shot out of his hands into the crowd behind him, whilst he continued his forward throw in movement and fell full length on to the pitch. It is a great pity there were no television cameras as I am sure it would be repeatedly shown as one of football’s funniest moments. We released Albert at the end of the season.”

And with that, it was off to the Café Royal, which, for the Southport directors, must have felt like the Last Supper. Once Alan Hardaker, the League secretary, confirmed that Southport and Wigan would stage a second ballot, Ian McNeill, the Wigan manager, knew in advance how the election would pan out. “As soon as Bath City had lost, I knew we would get enough of those votes to ensure victory for Wigan,” McNeill said at the time. “I was in the corridor when a man in a suit opened the door and said ‘Wigan are in the League’.”

What Walter Giller, John Church and the Southport board could not have known was how unprepared the Wigan club was for life in the League. Ian Halliwell, a Wigan supporter and the auditor, termed his club “a shambles”. To confirm acceptance into the League, the club had to fill in a detailed financial record, which included a complete list of shareholders. Here, however, the shareholder allotment document was meaningless because the majority of the shareholders had purchased stock when the club formed in 1932 and could not be traced. Had the club secretary not cut corners and redistributed the stock to people known to be alive, the League would likely have overturned Wigan’s victory and reallocated Southport its Fourth Division place.

Worse still, the Wigan directors spent so much money putting players on full-time contracts that the attendances in the Fourth Division would not have covered the costs. One of the new Wigan players was Geoff Gay, who had scored six goals in 44 appearances for Southport in 1977-78. Gay would only play one match for Wigan: the first home League game, a 3-0 defeat by Grimsby Town on August 23, 1978.

Fisher signed for Waterlooville of the Southern League and retired from the game in 1980, having taken a position as a sales representative for various breweries. Now aged 70, he lives in Hampshire, watches Southampton occasionally, but spends much of his time on the golf course.

Southport distanced themselves further from the League when the club refused to join the new Alliance Premier League in 1979. The travel costs of a national division for non-League teams proved prohibitive for a club that had still not come to terms with life outside the League. Giller remained with the club until the beginning of 1980-81, the centenary season, when he walked out, after which Southport survived the worst financial crisis in their history.

When the League scrapped the re-election system in 1986, it meant that Southport went into the record books as the last club to lose its status on a vote. There would be more near misses for Southport financially – more fears of dissolution, more quarrels with local politicians – but also, in 1998, a trip to Wembley for the FA Trophy final, in which Southport lost 1-0 to Cheltenham Town.

Southport’s instinct for survival conjures a gratifying narrative, which, when placed in the context of other clubs who failed to gain re-election and later folded – New Brighton, Gateshead, Bradford Park Avenue – says so much for the likes of John Church and his ilk, and of the community itself. Church died in 1990, aged 80, which ended the link with Southport’s first season as a League club, and Giller died three years later, aged 69.

Still occupying Haig Avenue, Southport now play in the Conference Premier, a level that puts the club back within a shout of reclaiming its lost horizon. Perhaps their time was up as a League club in 1978 – “Since then, Wigan have won the FA Cup and spent eight years in the top flight,” Fisher points out – but football is cyclical and Southport may yet return, if only to prove that the re-election defeat was the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end.

The above article appeared in Issue 35 (March & April 2014) of Backpass magazine and is reproduced with permission. Backpass is the retro football magazine with a modern-day bite. It is published eight times a season. The magazine costs £3.99 in the shops but subscriptions to receive the magazine through the post are available on the SHOP page of the backpass magazine website. It is well worth a read. In the UK the subscription for a full season of 8 issues is £32, in Europe it will be £52, and in the Rest of the World it will be £62.

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