Tom Burnett is the founding father of association football in Southport and for this reason he is one of the most deserving inductees into the Southport FC Hall of Fame.
Tom spent the majority of his youth in Southport and was a keen sportsman. Cricket was his first love and he joined the Southport Cricket Club in 1875 upon its reformation at their ground in Scarisbrick New Road. Notable as both a bowler and a batsmen, when he moved to Ruabon, a village near to Wrexham for work a year later he became captain of the Wynnstay Cricket Club. Following in his father’s footsteps as a book-keeper, he became part of their committee, even taking the chair on occasion.
It was during his stay in North Wales that he then developed his love for association football, turning out regularly for Ruabon football club. He was appointed captain in both 1876 and 1877 and represented North Wales on a number of occasions. On 5th March 1877 he won his one and only international football cap, playing as goalkeeper for Wales in their first ever home international match, losing 2-0 to Scotland. Birth qualification was not introduced until the 1890s. Burnett remained in North Wales until 1880 before moving back to Southport.
After the original Southport Rugby Football Club had closed down in 1880 he was part of a group of sportsmen who helped to form a new club in time for the 1881/82 season.
With the new club struggling to gain enough playing members to fulfil its Rugby fixtures (either 15 or 20 were required depending upon the opponent), Burnett seized the opportunity presented to him by a cancelled fixture to take a team for a game of association football on 8th October 1881. This game, reported as being played between “Burscough and T.B.Burnett’s Southport” was enough to convince him that there was a future for the round ball game in the town. After one final rugby fixture at Bootle, Burnett became the secretary of a brand new association football club. That club took to the field, officially, for the first time on 12th November 1881, facing Bootle Second. Burnett was to remain captain for its first two seasons of existence.
Also returning to the cricket field in 1883, he helped to once again re-form Southport Cricket Club, after the club had ceased to play during his absence from the town. In the same year he helped to organise a series of charitable football fixtures in aid of the Infirmary which directly or indirectly led to the establishment of the Southport Charity Cup in 1884.
This was a significant development for football in the town. With the exception of the English and County Cups, these were the only competitive fixtures on offer. He remained secretary of the football club until its amalgamation with the Southport Athletic Society in 1884, after which time he joined the Athletic Society committee.
Upon the dissolution of the original club in 1886 Burnett joined a number of players in the formation of a new Lacrosse club, before once again being tempted back to football as secretary of another new club bearing the Southport Football Club name (the renamed Southport Wanderers) in 1887. Burnett finally stepped away from involvement in football upon the formation of the town’s first professional club, Southport Central Association Football Club.
A year earlier, 1887, he had married Jemima Lewis and they moved to Formby where he remained until his death in 1918. His wife (Je)’Mima’ Burnett passed away in 1925 and they both share the same burial plot in the grounds of St Peter’s Church in Formby.
That Burnett’s role in the history of the sport in this town has been almost forgotten for so long is a shame, but it perhaps says a lot about the man, in that he was quietly efficient, choosing not to boast or brag, but instead to ‘get on with it’ and to take on any role that would help the club flourish. Put simply, without the efforts of Thomas Burnett, this town would not have formed an association football club in the 1880s. The Charity Cup, which did so much to establish football as the town’s game, would likely not have been formed without his help either. Without those both, there would not have been calls to form a professional club, and today’s Southport Football Club, then known as Southport Central would not have been formed in 1888.