The Southern League invited Saints to participate in its inaugural season following the withdrawal of the 2nd Scots Guards. Freshly re-dubbed Southampton St Mary’s, the Saints kicked-off the 1894-95 season with a 3-1 win over Chatham at the Antelope Ground.
Saints’ formal name would be changed again in 1897, to Southampton, when the Club became a limited liability company, but the nickname stuck. Thanks to the steady recruitment of Football League players, particularly from First Division Stoke, they prospered.
Saints moved to the County Cricket Ground in 1896 and won the Southern League championship in 1897 and 1898. In September 1898 they opened the new season a new football ground located in what was known locally as “the dell”. It would seem that the name stuck through the Club’s disinclination to call it anything more striking than “Southampton’s New Football Ground”. Whatever, while not among the largest of sporting venues in the British Isles Southampton’s ground was certainly a contender for the best appointed. If this reads as a little grandiose for a “non-league” club, it’s worth noting that Saints had reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup the previous March and were denied victory over Nottingham Forest in a replay due to the most notorious refereeing performance of the era.
Our perception of Victorian and Edwardian footer is distorted by the phrase “non-league”, but as the Southern League and Football League did not recognise each others contracts, Saints were able to assemble a side that routinely out-performed Football League sides. The side that played the first match at “the dell” included three Scottish internationals, two English internationals and one future England international its ranks. The England players were Harry Wood, among the best inside-forwards of his generation, and Jack Robinson, England’s most acclaimed goalkeeper.
The national press, based in London – a city with one Football League club of no distinction (Woolwich Arsenal) – could be forgiven for exaggerating the Southern League’s quality, and they did, but their enthusiasm for Southampton was fully justified: between 1898 and 1908 Saints competed in four semi-finals as well as two Finals, eliminating 16 Football League clubs from the competition, 11 of them Division One sides – League champions Liverpool were dispatched 4-1 at The Dell in the FA Cup second round, 1901-02.
By 1901, the year Southern League Tottenham Hotspur won the FA Cup, the Southern League’s first division was certainly a superior competition than Football League Division Two and possessed three or four clubs that would have graced the First Division. “Merger” was a word frequently bandied about in the sporting press, especially in London, Southampton and Portsmouth; with the creation of a regional second division being thought the ideal solution south of Birmingham.
The Southern League was outmanoeuvred by the Football League in 1905. The newly created Chelsea and the hitherto obscure Clapton Orient were elected into their ranks. By 1906 both Chelsea and Woolwich Arsenal were in the First Division and Fulham, quickly followed by Spurs, defected from the Southern League. Within the space of four seasons the capital had become a Football League enclave and Saints, long stretched financially, were struggling.
Saints’ league performance slumped, but looked capable of a revival in 1907-08, when they reached that fourth semi-final. It’s interesting to note that Saints, despite the lack of star players, were still favourites to defeat their Second Division opponents Wolverhampton Wanderers; the Southern League’s First Division was still regarded as a tougher competition than Division Two. At Stamford Bridge Wolves, playing some frighteningly direct football, prevailed 2-0. The Final at Crystal Palace, provided an even greater shock, when Wolves defeated an accomplished Newcastle United side 3-1.
Thereafter, the future appeared unpromising. Unless the Saints could find a way into the Football League, they looked doomed, with Portsmouth, to be confined to an increasingly provincial tournament.
Saturday 3 September 1898, Saints attack the Bedford-road end, defended by Brighton United.
The Saints side that played Bury in the 1900 FA Cup final. Saints were hot favourites despite the Shakers’ First Division status, and the 4-0 defeat was a blow to Southern pride.
The 1902 FA Cup Final, as seen in the Athletic News.
Saints lost to 2-1 to Sheffield United in a replay.
Southampton F.C. 1897-98. The chap on the left wearing a yacht-skippers cap is Alfred McMinn, whose activities on behalf of Saints in the transfer market scandalised Football League clubs – Stoke in particular.