Pre Season Friendly
Southport FCv Preston North End FC
Saturday, 14th July 2012, 3pm
Entrance £8, Programme 20p
Distance 203 miles, Attendance 1916
Stepping into a sun-kissed Haig Avenue, as strains of Tom Hark filled the air, the familiarity of the setting was uncanny. A huge stand towered to my left, terracing swept either side adorned with yellow and black barriers, and before me lay a lush, carefully manicured, stage from where yellow-clad athletes would wow their adoring public. All about there were friendly faces, happy to advise and inform, whilst optimistically enjoying the start of another season. Though never a visitor to Southport, emotionally it felt I’d been here before… back then, the aura of my inaugural season at Watford was exactly the same. Unfortunately for Southport that season also coincided with a completely different milestone for them and football too.
While evidence suggests football was originally played in the seaside town’s private schools earlier, the official formation of Southport FC came late in 1881. They would go on to become founder members of Division 3 North however never managed to lift themselves out of the bottom two divisions. Then despite some successes – after three near bottom of the league finishes – Southport became the last team ever to be voted out of the league. At the time I was too young to appreciate the significance of the Watford’s 3-2 win on 29th April 1978; I was absorbed by the sight of Blissett and Bond. Southport’s fans, on the other hand, were witnessing their last ever league fixture.
Today’s mighty yellows were taking on Preston North End, an 1881 side of two divisions higher. Welcomed and entertained by devoted fans and volunteers of the club, I was told grateful tales of family inductions to Haig Avenue, and heard the recent history of the Sandgrounders in the Northern and Conference leagues. They spoke of missed meetings with the revered Carl Walker, entertainingly debated the club’s newest recruits. For each forty-five both sides were fielding a different pre-arranged eleven players. The action should aptly have been described as a game of two halves, but for me the break clearly came far earlier.
In the warm up Conference side Southport – on their newly widened pitch – looked relaxed and assured, but from the whistle it was the away side that raced to gain the lead. A quick break down the right afforded Keane a crossing chance, but in attempting a clearance, Steve Akrigg headed the ball into his own net. Ten minutes later, following new boy Louis Barnes’ soft challenge on Holroyd, the referee pointed to the spot. The debatable penalty, whilst doubling the lead, would signal the end of Preston’s dominance. For the rest of the match the home side matched them evenly and fairly, creating good chances, forcing saves and hitting the woodwork at least once. Discussing the fine performances of players like Barnes and Alan Moogan, as we strolled out afterwards, I pointed out that they might have lost the first 15 minutes, but they’d scored as many goals as Preston, and drawn the remaining 75. Given this was pre-season; morally it could be declared a draw.
My hosts for the day, Nicola, and James and Andy, dressed in the latest kit (unlike the players), thankfully bore no malice of 1978, but instead formed an loyal and amiable group who – like the music on the tannoy – added to the good feeling of the day. They had some frustrations of the match, but this was easily outweighed by relaxed optimism that their club would beat last season’s 7th place. Departing this nostalgic scene, down streets filled with the scent of freshly cut hedges, I felt sure I’d return.