Surprise results aren’t merely restricted to the latter rounds of the FA Cup. In a Fourth Qualifying Round replay at Priory Lane last week, Eastbourne Borough of the Blue Square Premier were beaten 4-3 by Tooting & Mitcham United of the Ryman League Premier Division. The win for the South London club was a welcome return to the competition proper for the club. It’s their first appearance in the First Round since the 1977/78 season, and the reward for their win at Eastbourne is a trip to the North-West to play Stockport County. Tooting & Mitcham United, however, have a story that is richer than just their win at Eastbourne would suggest.
The last thirty years or so haven’t been kind to the non-league football clubs of London. Grounds such as Wealdstone’s Lower Mead, Walthamstow’s Green Pond Road, Enfield’s Southbury Road and Edgware Town’s White Lion Ground have been lost to property developers. Dulwich Hamlet had to sell a chunk of their cavernous Champion Hill stadium in 1990 and they perpetually seem to be in danger of losing the scaled-down ground that they have been playing at since then. Tooting & Mitcham United, however, are still here even though it seemed likely for much of the last twenty years that somehow their days may be numbered.
The golden days of Tooting & Mitcham United were the last golden days of amateur football in England. While the likes of Bishop Auckland were frequently showing their professional rivals how to play from the Northern League, Tooting & Mitcham United became, in the post-war years, Isthmian League royalty after their promotion from the Athenian League in 1956. They won the title twice in their first four seasons in their new league, and in 1957 an astonishing crowd of 17,500 packed into their Sandy Lane stadium to see them play Queens Park Rangers in the Second Round of the competition.
Two years later, though, they were back in the competition proper and the extent to which they meant business this time in the qualifying stages, in which they beat Bromley 5-1, Redhill 7-1, Sutton United 8-1 and Horsham 4-0. In the First Round they were drawn against Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic and beat them 3-1, and followed this up with a 2-1 win against Northampton Town. The Third Draw saw them drawn at home against Nottingham Forest of the First Division. Anything other than avoiding a hiding would have been an achievement for the club, but a crowd of 14,500 saw them race into a 2-0 half-time lead, before an own goal and a disputed penalty scraped a draw for the visitors, who won the replay 3-0 at The City Ground.
They never quite reached the heights that they did in the late 1950s in the league, but Tooting & Mitcham United managed to go one stage further in the FA Cup during the mid-1970s. By then, they were managed by Roy Dwight, who, ironically enough, had scored for Nottingham Forest in the 1959 FA Cup Final before breaking his leg (as well, of course, as being the cousin of Elton John). In the 1974/75 season they were narrowly beaten at home in the First Round by Crystal Palace. The following year beat the previous season’s giant-killers Leatherhead after a replay in the Second Round, and followed this up with a surprise win, 2-1 away at Swindon Town. In the Fourth Round they lost 3-1 to Bradford City.
After that came a slow decline, symbolised most poignantly by their falling attendances, which at their low point fell to not many more than 100, and by the decay of their Sandy Lane stadium, which had been one of the finest non-league grounds in London during its heyday. By the 1990s, however, the concrete terraces were crumbling and had weeds growing through them and the wooden stand was falling to pieces. Something had to be done, and chairman John Buffoni struck up a deal with Ron Noades to sell the Sandy Lane site and move to a new stadium built on the site of the old Crystal Palace training ground. It may have been a deal with the devil, but the club pulled through and moved to Imperial Fields in 2002.
They have bounced between the Ryman League Premier Division and Division One South since then, last winning promotion in 2008. They currently sit in fifth place in the Ryman League Premier Division, with two games in hand on two of the four teams above them. The runaway leaders Dartford may prove to be a stretch too far, but a place in the play-offs for the Blue Square South may not be beyond them. Saturday’s trip to Edgeley Park is a bonus, but the meat and drink of the matter is that Tooting & Mitcham United still exists, which is more than can be said for some of the clubs that used to be their contempories during their salad days in the 1950s.