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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Where are they now - Southport?

The latest installement of our feature looking back at the clubs of Football League days gone by continues with a look at Southport. Nobes looks back on the highs and lows of the coastal town's club.

Blackpool, Brighton, Bournemouth, Torquay, Morecambe. There's a proud history of seaside resorts boasting Football League outfits.

They offer visiting supporters a unique away day - with fans hoping to get their trip to the seaside when the weather is at its best.

For over half a century however, another seaside resort was able to stage Football League matches - that of Southport in Lancashire.

The Sandgrounders, as the club are known, had already been playing in local leagues for 40 years before, in 1921, they became founder members of the Third Division North.

They finished 9th in their inagural season - ahead of the likes of Tranmere, Chesterfield, and Lincoln.

It was a division they called home for the first 18 years of their Football League tenure - until football was cancelled after the outbreak of War in 1939.

In 1931 they recorded a notable achievement - becoming the first team from their division to reach the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup. There they were crushed by Everton 9-1, but it had still been a remarkable run.

During that time, they finished as high as 4th - in 1925 and again in 1939. They experienced their lean times too though, ending up second bottom in successive years from 1935.

They were to have a few more lean years after the resumption of the game following the end of the Second World War. In three of the first six seasons back, Southport finished 21st out of 22 teams. Things had become a bit tougher beside the seaside.

Then, in 1958, the Sandgrounders finished bottom of the Third Division North - and were subsequently relegated to the new Fourth Division after the re-organisation of the lower divisions.

Twelve months later, and they finished bottom of the entire Football League, but retained their place and gradually got to grips with life in the new national division.

They had to wait until 1967 before their first ever promotion, however. Port finished second to Stockport in the Fourth Division, pipping North West rivals Barrow to promotion by virtue of a superior Goal Average.

Southport's Haig Avenue hosted Football League games for over 50 years

It had been achieved under the guidance of manager Billy Bingham - who would later gain fame as coach of the Northern Ireland national team who qualified for successive World Cups in the 1980s.

Southport spent three years in the Third Division, posting finishes of 14th and 8th before suffering relegation in 1970, missing out on survival by a single point.

Back in the Fourth Division - and perhaps strengthened by their spell in a higher division - Port held their own in the top half and then, in 1972/3, secured their first and only Football League title.

The Haig Avenue outfit won more than half of their games that year to finish four points clear of runners-up Hereford. However, they were immediately relegated back down again just a year later.

It was the beginning of their decline, with crowds dwindling and finances tight, Southport finished second bottom of the Fourth Division for three successive years.

The third, in 1978, culminated in them being losing out on a re-election vote - the last ever side to do so. They were replaced by another small Lancashire club who had finished runners-up in the Northern Premier League. Their name was Wigan Athletic.

Southport took Wigan's spot in the NPL - where they recorded mostly mid-table finishes with two 5th spots their best campaigns.

Southport have won three titles in Non League football - including last year

However, in 1993 they were crowned NPL Champions - amassing over 100 goals as they ran away with the division to secure promotion to the Conference.

Port were strong performers on their debut in Non League's top flight - finishing 4th in their first year followed by 3rd in the next campaign.

They held their own in the Conference, finishing 4th in 2001 before relegation in 2003 ended their ten-year spell in the division. It was to mark the beginning of their yo-yoing between Non League's first and second tiers.

Port, under the management of Liam Watson, bounced back as winners of the new Conference North division in 2005, but struggled on their return and were relegated back down again two seasons later.

Successive defeats in the Conference North play offs followed before Watson's return as manager last season saw Southport edge out Fleetwood in a titanic tussle for the title.

This season they are, once again, involved in a relegation battle as they seek to remain in Non League's top division. It seems as though fighting promotion or relegation has just become part of the proceedings at Haig Avenue.

Perhap it's appropriate though that, after the resort's Pleasureland amusement park closed down, the local football club ensures life is never dull for a Southport fan.

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