Saints and Hampshire County Cricket Club were old chums. Dr Russell Bencraft, one of Southampton’s most prominent and influential townsmen, was the president of the football club and honorary secretary of the cricket club. The good doctor was also a founder member and former club captain of Trojans but, in 1896, when Saints were forced to vacate the Antelope, Trojans were evicted in Saints’ favour and moved in with Freemantle FC at their ground in Atherly.
The St Mary’s Young Men’s Association FC’s first match had been played on what was known as the “backfield” of the County Ground, on 21 November 1885. Freemantle, their opponents, were using it for home matches at that time. The venue was just six months old, having been opened with a “Grand Bazaar” and a match between Hampshire North and Hampshire South on May 9.
The County Ground was already an established soccer arena before Saints became the winter residents, Saints had played cup ties there and used it regularly for exhibition matches in and around Easter, when the Antelope was always choked with cricket fixtures. It was also the venue for most of the Hampshire FA cup finals and their representative matches (inter-county games being a notable feature of southern football in the late 19th century). Indeed, there was even a football grandstand partly funded by the Hampshire FA. The one drawback was that, unlike the Antelope, there was no banking. Instances of spectators being pushed through the ropes and onto the pitch, sending the press table flying, featured regularly in match reports.
Saints won the Southern League Championship in both seasons spent at the County Ground, and it was while there they first made an impression on the national game – albeit with a team bulging with highly paid former Football League players.
Having made it through the preliminary rounds of the FA Cup they eliminated Leicester Fosse and then Newcastle United, both of League Division Two, before being drawn at First Division Bolton Wanderers. Saints, on £5 per-man win bonuses (the Trotters’ men were on £3 each), earned a goaless draw at Burnden Park. An estimated crowd of 12,000 turned up to see the replay, and the County Ground wasn’t really up to accommodating 5,000. Amidst the chaos Saints won 4-0.
The semi-final opponents were Nottingham Forest at Bramall Lane on 19 March. Following a one-all draw they replay was fixed for the following Wednesday at the Cup Final venue Crystal Palace. Saints lost 2-0, to two late goals during a freak blizzard. The performance of the referee was a national scandal.
In Southampton the controversy was mingled with interest in Saints’ new home, which was taking shape in a dell a few hundred yards from their present home.
Part of the “backfield”, where St Mary’s Young Men’s Association FC played their first match in 1885, became the County Bowling Club in 1889. The County Ground has long been a housing estate, but the bowling club continues to flourish in its original setting.
The oldest extant action photograph of Saints. It was taken at the final of the 1893 Hants FA Senior Cup. A disastrous day for St Mary’s who were expected to win the trophy outright, with their third consecutive victory. Freemantle won 2-1 with a last minute penalty.
After 90 seconds Bob “death or glory” Buchanan scores only goal of the Second Round Cup tie against Newcastle United. Having become the first Southern League club to eliminate a Football League side from the FA Cup, they were on their way to being the first Southern League club to reach the semi-finals.
The Saints’ defeat of Bolton Wanderers was greeted rapturously by Fleet Street, who yearned for a Southern side capable of challenging Northern hegemony – even if it wasn’t based in London. This cartoon appeared in the Morning Leader.
Above: Southampton FC 1897-98 (St Mary’s was dropped from the club’s name in the summer of 1897)
Below: The County Ground’s last cricket season was 2000. This aerial photo was taken around the mid 1970s.