Southport, possibly more famous in sporting terms as the home of the Royal Birkdale golf course, suffered the ignominy of becoming the last town to lose its Football League status in 1978. Southport fell victims to the Seaside Curse, which saw the likes Barrow, New Brighton and Workington lose their place amongst the lower reaches of English professional football before the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation with the Conference, but their continuing presence in senior non-league football is a testament to the hardiness of the club and the durability of non-league football.
Formed in 1881, they played for forty years as a non-league club. They created an unwelcome first when they were bought out by a tyre company in 1918 who changed their name to Southport Vulcan after their company (the experiment only lasted a year before being quietly dropped – it did, however, leave them as possibly the first senior English club to adopt a sponsor’s name into their club name) before, in the great Football League expansion of 1921, being co-opted into the new Third Division North.
Initially, whilst their League form was unimpressive, they did briefly gain a reputation in the FA Cup, becoming the first team from Division Three North to make the quarter-finals in 1931 (though they did contrive to lose 9-1 to Everton once they got there), but they remained a bottom division club until 1967, when Billy Bingham (who would, of course, go on to lead Northern Ireland to the last, umm, twelve of the 1982 World Cup finals, beating the hosts Spain on the way) took them up into Division Three, where they lasted three years before being relegated back to the basement. In 1973, they were promoted back up again, but the board sacked their popular manager Jimmy Meadows just after Christmas, and they were relegated back into Divisions Four. This time, there was no way back. The mid-1970s were a bad time for smaller English clubs. Crowds had dropped to well below 2,000 in an era with very television money and almost no sponsorship money at all. In 1978, they were replaced by Wigan Athletic (Wigan were voted in having finished in sixth place in the Northern Premier League, though they had barely finished outside the top two or three for the previous ten years).
At the end of their first season in the Northern Premier League, the Southport management made an almost fatally bad decision in the summer of 1979, when they rejected an invitation to join the newly-formed Alliance Premier League (which would later change it’s name to the Conference). They cited concerns over extra expenses for travel, but failed to consider the fact that they were effectively awarding themselves relegation. They spent most of the 1980s struggling to keep themselves solvent, and failed to make the Conference until 1993, when they won the Northern Premier League at the fourteenth time of asking. After a couple of seasons flirting with a Conference championship challenge, they became mid-table regulars, managing a first Wembley appearance in the 1998 FA Trophy final (losing 1-0 against Cheltenham Town) and dumping Notts County out of the FA Cup in 2002, before being relegated again in 2003. This time they were down for just one season, winning the Conference North in 2004, but they were relegated back at the end of last season.
The Football League and the Conference eventually negotiated automatic promotion and relegation in 1987, and this was expanded to two places in 2003. The experiences of the promoted clubs have varied widely. Some, such as Wycombe Wanderers and Yeovil Town, have established themselves in the League, whilst others, such as Kidderminster Harriers and Rushden & Diamonds, have had a go before falling back through the trap door. Although it still results in a considerable amount of wailing from the supporters of clubs struggling on (what is now known as) League Two, the Conference is stronger and more professional than ever. A number of former League clubs have stabilised in the Conference, whilst a couple (most notably Doncaster Rovers and Carlisle United) ended years of crisis with a stabilising couple of years in the Conference before re-emerging in a considerably better state than they had been for many years. We’ll probably never see the heroics of the Wimbledon team that went from the Southern League to Division One in less than a decade again, but we have meritocracy now at the foot of the football ladder now, and the more idiosyncratic decisions of the Football League’s re-election committee are now, thankfully, largely merely footnotes in the history of the game.
Six Of The Best – Former Southport Legends
Stan Mortensen – Still the only scorer of a hat-trick in an FA Cup Final (for Blackpool in 1953), Mortensen played a season for Southport just four years after his unparalleled achievement.
Bill Perry – The man who scored the winner in the aforementioned 1953 FA Cup Final also played one season for Southport, in 1962-63.
Mark Wright – The 1992 FA Cup-winning Liverpool captain managed Southport in 2000/01, before being sacked amid rumours of racist abuse. He then repeated the trick five years later at Peterbrough United. Classy.
Jimmy Melia – The man who took Brighton & Hove Albion to the 1983 FA Cup final (and also played nearly 300 matches for Liverpool) had a short and unsuccessful time in charge of Southport in 1975.
Luther Blissett – The former Watford striker (and the man who unwittingly gave his name to “The Luther Blissett Project” – Google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about) played for Southport in the 1990s.
Andy Mutch – Steve Bull’s often forgotten striking partner at Wolverhampton Wanderers in the late 1980s and early 1990s topped and tailed his playing career at Southport, starting out there in 1984 and playing his final match there in 1999.