Result: Southport 2-0 Leamington (National League North)
Venue: Haig Avenue (Saturday 13th January 2018, 3pm)
My only completely undecided weekend of the month saw no lack of options on the table by the time it came to deciding where I’d be watching my football. Late Friday night saw the ninety-seven options whittled down to a handful and, between myself and regular blog appearance maker Dan, got it down to a final two; Ossett Albion or Southport; Queen’s Terrace or Haig Avenue. For Dan both would be a new venue, whereas only Southport’s home gave me another to add to the ever-growing list, having visited Albion’s home on about four occasions. Dan was happy with either and so to the coast it was.
This proved to be a pretty good decision too as it turned out, with trains from Liverpool being messed up come the morning by signalling failures. As such, this meant most of the express journeys towards Yorkshire were experiencing crowding problems whereas the trains heading to Southport had no such issues. However, I still had to come up with a contingency plan to get there myself, with my pre-planned itinerary going out the window. As such, I instead headed into Manchester, arriving in the nick of time to meet Dan on the train over to Merseyside…or Lancashire depending on who you ask!
A problem free journey whilst passing the grounds of Wigan Athletic and Burscough followed before we arrived within view of Haig Avenue itself at just before half-eleven on a windswept and fairly miserable day in the coastal resort. Not that there was much in the way of holiday makers today, mind you with the town being far emptier than it might be during the summer months. Anyway, after arriving into the station we set off around the town on a fruitless venture to try to find a pay-point for Dan, though he did manage to find some cough sweets, so there was something of a consolation prize in that. We soon abandoned this pursuit and instead decided to put our time to far better use. That use being drink!
After heading up to the coast we popped into the large Victoria pub on the main coastal road where we’d plan out the rest of our tour of the town. A Moretti at £4 did for me whilst we watched the opening stages of the Cardiff-Sunderland game. Upon finishing up, we headed onwards over the bridge opposite and down to the pier where Dan decided he didn’t fancy becoming more exposed to the bracing winds (what with his cough and all) and so I made a dash up there solo. Not much to see, outside of a few people struggling to walk against the oncoming gale! I was more than happy to keep my stay brief and we quickly returned over the Marine Way bridge and onwards to the (at least self-proclaimed) “smallest bar in Europe”, the Lakeside.
“Shut until February” read the sign and “Bollocks” thought I. Luckily, our next planned stop was only a couple of minutes away in the form of the Windmill. The Windmill stands on land that has seen a pub on it from the 18th century (or the 1800’s) according to the menus on the table and the pub is certainly an old-school, welcoming one, complete with small windmill outside. A pint of Amstel was a good accompaniment as we shook off the cold prior to making the short walk back into the town centre and to the Wetherspoon’s named the Willow Grove which stands just off the main thoroughfare, Lord Street. A fairly standard ‘spoons offering, the Willow Grove was what you’d expect really and a bottle of Hooch was once again had in here (yes, I had the round in here) as we decided that we’d be better served catching the bus to the ground, or more specifically the foot of Haig Avenue itself. Though this almost went awry….
After almost getting the correct bus number, but the one heading in the wrong direction, we found the stop we wanted and was soon en route to Haig Avenue, eventually arriving with a good twenty-five minutes or so before kick-off. A five-minute walk later and we were at the gates of the ground which is dominated by its large all-seater main stand.
The strangely priced £13.50 entrance fee was paid and we were into the home of the Sandgrounders. Programme soon purchased (a decent offering at £2.50), I headed off in search of the bar, before soon realising that there was no way (that I could figure out anyway) of getting there once you’re inside the ground itself. So I instead grabbed some chips (£2.50) from the “away end” food trailer before completing a pre-match lap of the ground and returning to find Dan with far thinner chips than those I was just finishing off. Pros and cons in that, I guess.
Haig Avenue is a pretty smart ground and gives off a nice sense of character I felt. Outside of its classical Main Stand – which reminded me a little of Altrincham’s – the rest of the ground features fairly substantial terracing. Only one area of this is covered, however, with that being at the right-hand end, the closest end from where we had entered. This also gives a decent raised view of the action. The remainder is open to the elements but many weren’t too perturbed by this today, with the travelling support from Leamington, along with their impressive number of flags, taking up a temporary home opposite, behind the other end. The terracing is split up sporadically, meaning there is around eight separate areas around the ground with the covered terrace being joined by around three areas at the uncovered end and a further five on the far side of the ground, running the length of the pitch. So, ground description out of the way, here’s the backstory of Southport F.C….
An original Southport Football Club was founded in 1881 initially as a rugby outfit before switching to association football after only a few months. 1882 saw the team compete in the FA Cup for the first time, recording a 1-1 draw with Liverpool Ramblers before the club merged with the Southport Athletic Society a couple of years later prior to a later amalgamation with another local side, Southport Wanderers. The club would retain the Wanderers name and moved to a new ground on Scarisbrick New Road, not far from their current Haig Avenue home.
After only a few months over the summer of 1886 retaining the Wanderers suffix, the club reverted to being known as Southport FC and they joined the Lancashire League upon its founding in 1888. Upon doing so the club again changed name, this time to Southport Central, and after an FA Cup 1st Round meeting with Everton in 1895, finished as league runners-up in both 1900 & 1901. The league title was eventually won in 1902 before Southport switched to the newly created Lancashire Combination for the following campaign. The Combination’s Division 2 was won at the end of the club’s first season here and Southport’s next season, their first in the top division, ended with what was to be their highest finish: third. After lifting their first silverware in the form of the 1904-’05 Lancashire Senior Cup, 1905 saw Southport move into Haig Avenue (then known as Ash Lane) and they have called the ground home ever since.
1911 saw Southport move into another newly founded league, this time the Central League, where the club mostly had a struggle, finishing no higher than 15th. After a second-bottom finish in 1915, the outbreak of WWI put a stop on football for the next few years. Upon resumption in 1918, the club again had a name change, now being known as Southport Vulcan due to the Vulcan Motor Company’s purchase of the club and became the first team to have a “sponsor” in their name. This was short-lived, though, and by the time the club joined the Football League in 1921, they were back to simply being known as Southport.
Becoming a founder member of the Third Division North, Southport would remain here for the next 29 seasons finishing a best of fourth twice (1925 & 1939). They also reached the FA Cup quarter-finals in 1931, again losing out to Everton and won the Third Division North Cup in 1938. Their long Third Division North tenure ended with the creation of Division 4, which Southport would take a place in for the 1958-’59 season. 1967 saw the club promoted as Division 4 runners-up, though their stay in the now nationalised Division 3 was a short one, lasting only three seasons until their relegation in 1970. However, 1973 would see Southport return once more to the third tier as Division 4 champions but an even shorter stay was to follow, a sole season spent back there before returning to the bottom division of the League.
A swift decline was to follow and, after three consecutive second-bottom finishes between 1976 & 1978, the club was voted out of the Football League, their spot being taken by Wigan Athletic via the re-election system, with Southport becoming the final victim of this rule prior to the introduction of automatic relegation in the bottom division. This meant that the Sandgrounders would be playing in the non-league Northern Premier League for the 1978-’79 season.
A 15 season spell in the NPL was to follow, which encompassed the league’s “demotion” to a Step 2 competition upon the creation of the Alliance League (later the Football Conference). After lifting the NPL League Challenge Cup in 1991, Southport’s initial stint in the league was eventually ended in 1993 when the club were promoted to the Conference as NPL Premier Division champions. That season also saw the club reach the FA Cup’s Second Round for the first time since 1968. 1998 saw Southport reach the FA Trophy Final and take their first (and to date only) trip to Wembley. Unfortunately for them, it would end in a 1-0 defeat to Cheltenham Town.
After finishing fourth in 2001, fortunes changed and 2003 saw the club relegated once more to the NPL. A 6th placed finish at the end of the next season was enough to ensure Southport a place in the newly formed Conference North, the inaugural season of which ended with “Port” as champions. Promotion to the Conference duly followed, though their stay was brief, the club being relegated after two seasons of struggle, though 2006 did see the start of Southport’s fleeting attempt at going full-time (this ended in 2008). Three years were spent back in the Conference North, with 2009 seeing an unsuccessful play-off appearance before the club was again promoted as champions the next year, beating the ambitious Fleetwood Town to the title.
2011 saw the club finish in the relegation zone but were reprieved due to Rushden & Diamonds being expelled from the Conference. The following season saw a far more successful campaign for Southport, with the club just missing out on the play-offs in finishing 7th, their best league finish for a decade. Their yo-yo-ing continued with the 2012-’13 season seeing a narrow escape from relegation, though this latter happening was to become more familiar, with each of the next three seasons seeing brushes with the drop survived along with regular changes of manager. Last season saw their luck run out, however, as Southport were relegated back to the National League North after ending up second-bottom of the National League’s top-flight, with this season seeing a bright start replaced by a sharp drop in form resulting in the dismissal of manager Alan Lewer, with Kevin Davies taking the reigns in October. Southport have also won numerous local cup competitions, seeing nine (or maybe eleven?) Liverpool Senior Cups (1931, ’32, ’43, 63, ’75, ’91, ’93, ’99 & 2012) & eight Lancashire Junior Cups (1920, ’93, ’97, ’98, 2001, ’06, ’08, 2010) arrive at Haig Avenue.
As Dan and I finished off our pre-match feasts the teams were getting us underway on the pitch. We relocated to the covered terrace for the early stages and it didn’t take too long for the first action of the game to occur and that first action was to see Southport take the lead. Winger Adam Dawson, who’d go on to have an outstanding game on Southport’s right side, played the ball inside before it fell to Jack Sampson and the forward made no mistake in firing beyond Leamington ‘keeper Tony Breedon.
This early goal may have given some an inkling that this was going to be an end-to-end struggle between two sides looking over their shoulders with some trepidation down towards the wrong end of the table. Unfortunately for us neutrals, though I guess very much welcomed by the Sandgrounders fans – the contest was to be a fairly dour and uneventful one on the whole. Leamington’s Daniel Udoh had the visitors’ one major chance, firing just wide of home ‘keeper Jon Worsnop’s goal whilst Dion Charles came close to doubling the home side’s lead on a few occasions, including clipping the top of the crossbar with a drifting effort. A goal-line clearance kept the Brakes a solitary goal behind after we’d took up a spot in the stand as the temperatures began to dip. The score remained unchanged as the sides headed in at the break. One-nil.
If the first half was quiet and it wouldn’t take much for the second half to be an improvement. Sadly, it wasn’t. Indeed, very little of note happened outside of the early excitement of a double helicopter take-off from a neighbouring school field until, with 20 minutes left on the clock, Jason Gilchrist sealed the win for “The Port”. A swift counter saw Dawson deliver a ball into Gilchrist and he finished comfortably.
Dawson came close to adding a goal his performance deserved, firing over late on, as did the impressive David Morgan who was denied by Breedon, but this mattered little as Southport deservedly took the points and, on this performance at least, look to be heading in the right direction. Leamington meanwhile look to be in need of improvements. And quick. Dan was more than happy with the result and has made me have to say that his pre-match prediction was correct. So there you go, Dan!
After the game we headed into the Grandstand bar within the rear of the stand where another Amstel was had (~£3.50) and Dawson was given his richly deserved Man of the Match award (some Veuve Clicquot I think). From here I came up with the plan of, instead of traipsing back into Southport, we might as well get the train from the nearer Meols Cop station instead. There also happened to be another couple of pubs on the way. Who’d have thought such a coincidence might happen?!
A further pint in each of the Richmond and the Thistle and Thatch were enjoyed before we headed through the night on the short walk up the road to the station for the train back to Manchester. Again this journey was completed with no issues and I arrived nicely for my connection homewards. There ends my trip to Southport’s home and it was a pretty decent day, weather removed. The ground’s decent, travel was cheap enough and the pubs were all fine and decently priced. The game could have been better, but no real complaints there. Onwards to next week and another tick off the ’92’ via one of the stranger ways you can enter a ground. Any guesses?!
Value For Money: 6