Published 11th May 2007, Lancashire Evening Post
The Football League’s annual general meeting at London’s Cafe Royal in June, 1978, went largely unreported in the football world.
But it closed a proud 50-year chapter of professional tradition and endeavour at Haig Avenue, as Southport were plunged into the relative obscurity of the Northern Premier League.
That the club survived at all is testament to the work of lifelong supporters like Haydn Preece, now Southport’s chief executive.
Preece said: “I remember switching on the television, and the news presenter saying, ‘Great news for North West football, Wigan Athletic have been elected to the Football League’.
“There was a short pause and then he added that Wigan would replace Southport.
“It was a very sad moment, the worst possible news.
“I was numb with shock that our Football League status had gone for good.
“There was no way back then, because the league was a closed shop.
“Do you know what, though? The town didn’t really care.
“Southport was switched off to our fate.
“There was no real mourning for the club when they dropped out of the League.
“There wasn’t any real love for Southport FC, and that was the saddest thing.
“I vowed then that if I was ever in a position in my life to try and get them back there, I wouldn’t rest until I’d achieved that goal.”
Last summer Preece called time on a career in teaching, a move he admitted was ‘a gamble’, and went to work on shaping the future of a club he had supported since he was a six-year-old.
Southport and Preece, it seems, were made for each other.
“As a child, in the summer holidays I’d go down to Haig Avenue to sweep the terraces, paint the turnstiles, mow the grass, or do any odd job that needed doing,” he explained.
“One winter’s day I turned up at Haig Avenue in a snowstorm and we had to paint the touchlines orange so the game could go ahead.
“The referee was Jack Taylor, who ‘reffed’ the 1974 World Cup final between Holland and West Germany.
“I always loved that hands-on involvement with the club and the football characters you would meet.
“When I went away to university at Swansea and then worked in Kent, I always contributed by buying a season ticket every August.
“However, when Southport asked me to be the chief executive it was an incredible honour.
“It was an opportunity I had to take.
“The chairman had confidence in me to do the task and, despite the struggle we’ve had on the pitch this season, I’ve enjoyed every minute of the challenge.
“I was born in Forest Road, in sight of Haig Avenue.
“I was always fascinated by the place. I couldn’t turn down my dream job, could I?”
Despite the agony of relegation, after two years in the top flight of non-league football, Preece is confident that Southport can spark a swift revival.
“We’ve taken a step back and it’s a crying shame that we will not be in the Conference next season, especially with a satellite television company showing games live every week, and the cash windfall that would
“It might feel like the end of the world for our fans right now, but we can come back from this as a stronger club.”
For Preece, that burning ambition to help restore Southport’s Football League status drives him on.
Southport underlined their ambition by announcing they will remain a full-time club next term, with former Manchester United and Nottingham Forest striker Peter Davenport at the helm.
“We can’t hang ourselves on full-time football, and there will be cut-backs inevitably, but we are keeping the foundation stone in place.
Most of all, though, we need a period of stability and I’m confident that Peter Davenport will bring that.
“I’d like to say to the manager – Peter, I want you here for five years.
“I want that to happen – a five-year plan for the club.
“Okay, we might lose on a Tuesday night or whenever, and people will be jumping up and down.
“But we’ve got to look long-term, create that momentum and to plan where we will be in two years, not two weeks.
“Football’s a throw-away society, and we can’t keep chopping and changing if we want to progress.
“The club stuck by Liam Watson, and he produced a great escape a year ago. He did a great job, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to commit to a full-time management role and we were forced to look elsewhere.
“My vision has not changed because we are in the Conference North. I want to see Southport back in the Football League, and surely we can do that one day. It is not a dream – it can be done.”
Accrington Stanley were promoted last year and Morecambe are on the brink of following them into the Football League.
“John Coleman took Accrington from the UniBond League to the Football League and has kept them there – a remarkable achievement.
“Coleman should get manager of the year, and we’ve got to learn from how Accrington did it. How they planned it, and how they laid that important foundation stone for success.
“When we went out of the League, we lost a generation of supporters, but a fresh generation have come back to us after the success that Liam Watson brought.
“When I think back to the dark days of 1978, I remember Southport versus Reading. Look at Reading now, challenging for Europe in the Premier League. That’s the beauty of football, there is always hope to fuel that dream.”
Davenport was handed the Herculean task of keeping the club alive in the Conference when he was appointed in January.
But, despite sparking an impressive late charge, Paul Cook’s disastrous tenure had left the club with too much to do.
Cook left Southport at the bottom of the table after plotting just four league wins in five months.
“Paul Cook arrived in the middle of pre-season, and he had an unfortunate start after all the turmoil of last summer,” said Preece.
“By Christmas everything had unravelled, and we can’t afford that to happen again.
“It was also clear that the supporters were not behind Paul from very early on.
“Unfortunately, he was never able to rebuild the relationship with the supporters and, as a manager, you can’t afford to destroy that link.
“That mix became a poisonous one, and that was upsetting because it wasn’t a nice environment.
“The harshness of Paul Cook’s sacking was a sad episode because he was a guy I worked with every day.
“I’ve kept in touch with him, and I firmly believe that he will be a successful manager one day.
“The business, though, is about winning football matches, and we didn’t win enough games.”
We sat at Haig Avenue in the visitors’ dug-out on a blossoming spring day.
Life is never dull in Preece’s company. He has worked miracles to generate fresh sponsorship and fuelled extra interest, despite Southport’s demotion to regional level in the Conference pyramid.
“We had to go out and promote the club in the town and make it attractive for people to come to Haig Avenue.
“This is a proud resort town, where people spend their holidays, so we’ve had a big presence in the Tourist Information Centre, trying to sell the club.
“We’ve got a smashing shirt sponsorship deal with Paymentshield, and next season the dug-outs and floodlights will be sponsored.
“There are all sorts of things happening. For example, we sold 500 replica shirts last season, and I’ve tried to embrace the town more by creating fresh links with business people.
“That’s crucial, because the club needs to be part of the community. We are working very hard to make sure that Haig Avenue is not an outpost in Southport, and that the football club is vibrant.
“We had 3,206 for our last home gate against York, our biggest attendance for 30 years, and our average last season was 1,100.
“I don’t see any reason why we cannot attract an average of 2,000 fans if we can gain promotion back to the Nationwide Conference and put a winning team on the field.
“We have a thriving supporters’ club, with the Trust in Yellow Assocation very active, but we also need to develop that fan base further.
“Many football fans in Southport go to watch Everton and Liverpool, 20 miles down the road, but we have to tap in to those supporters because the Premier League don’t play every Saturday and maybe we can bring some of them to Haig Avenue.”
Preece fizzes with enthusiasm, and his personality is infectious.
“With the new youth development programme in place we are beginning to see some good youngsters emerge.
“In the past we’ve seen young talent go elsewhere. As a kid, Martin Hodge, who eventually signed for Everton as their goalkeeper, played football on the school field behind Haig Avenue.
“But Malcolm Allison took him to Plymouth, instead of Southport spotting his potential and signing a local boy from Meols Cop. It’s so important that we try and grow our ow