The playing history of Southampton Football Club commenced on the “backfield” of the Hampshire County Cricket Ground on Saturday 21 November 1885. The imposingly named St Mary’s Church of England Young Men’s Association Football Club defeated Freemantle Association 5-1; with two goals from A.A. Fry and a hat-trick from Charlie Bromley. The new club had been formed at a meeting of the Young Men’s Association in their Grove Street Schoolrooms headquarters earlier that month.
The “Y.M.A.”, as it was known, was a busy organisations, set up around 1881 for the benefit of the church’s choristers, Sunday-school teachers and other young, male parochial volunteers. They numbered choral singing, glee singing, cricket, boxing and gymnastics among their many activities.
The football club affiliated with the Hampshire Football Association when it was initiated in 1887, and became first holders of the Junior Cup, defeating Southampton Harriers in the replayed final; by which time they had split with the Y.M.A., renamed themselves St Mary’s FC, attracted an enthusiastic following and had become known as “the Saints”.
Over the next four seasons they won the Junior Cup outright with three consecutive victories, then won the Hampshire FA Senior Cup in 1891 and 1892. In 1893 they reached the final again and were defeated by Freemantle with a last minute penalty – a tremendous upset.
Saints had entered for the FA cup for the first time in 1891-92. They eliminated Warmley (Bristol way) in the first qualifying round, then drew Reading at the Antelope Ground. The “Biscuit-men” were defeated 7-0. Unbowed, Reading protested that Saints were fielding two illegal players. The FA upheld the protest and Saints were eliminated – undefeated.
The Saints had discretely signed their first professional in 1892, but had made no secret of the fact that they were prepared to employ professionals to pursue their ambitions. Quite what their ambitions were is a matter of conjecture, there was no local league system and the Football League, which expanded to 28 clubs in two division in 1892 was unlikely to welcome a club so remote from its Lancashire-Birmingham heartland.
In 1893 the directors of Millwall (then known as Millwall Athletic), organised a meeting of top southern clubs to promote the foundation of a “Southern League”. St Mary’s were not invited, and their formal request to join was rejected. It looked as if Southampton was too remote from London and the Great Western Railway to have any hope of hosting professional football on a regular basis.
ABOVE: nine of the players that represented
St Mary’s FC in 1891-92 and a couple of committeemen
LEFT: The earliest known action photograph of the Saints, during the notorious Final of the Hants FA Senior Cup in 1893. The venue was the County Cricket Ground. The stand in the background was built by the Hampshire Football Association, whose major source of income was their cut from St Mary’s FC’s cup games.