Southern League

Southern League Trophy The Football League was founded in 1888 to provide regular fixtures for the new professional teams from the industrial North and Midlands. As such, teams from south of Birmingham play only a limited role in its early history. The exception to this rule was Royal Arsenal, the South's second professional team (after Luton), who first attempted to form a Southern League in 1892. Reading were among the teams elected to the proposed league, along with Arsenal, Chatham, Chiswick Park, Crouch End, Ilford, Luton Town, Marlow, Millwall Athletic, Old St Mark's, Swindon Town, and West Herts. Tottenham Hotspur did apply, but could not muster a single vote! These plans were however scuppered by the regional Football Associations who maintained a strong amateur tradition. Instead Royal Arsenal joined the Football League in 1893, changing their name to Woolwich Arsenal (they subsequently dropped the Woolwich after moving to North London in 1914).

The Southern League was eventually formed in January 1894 following an initiative by Millwall. The founder members of the First Division were Chatham, Clapton, Ilford, Luton Town, Millwall Athletic, Reading, Royal Ordnance Factories (from Woolwich), 2nd Scots Guards and Swindon Town. The Scots Guards withdrew before the competition started and were replaced by Southampton St Mary's.

A couple of months later a Second Division was formed by Bromley, Chesham, Maidenhead, New Brompton (i.e. Gillingham), Old St Stephen's, Sheppey United and Uxbridge. Initially promotion and relegation were decided by Test Matches between the top teams in Division 2 and the bottom teams in Division 1.

Initially only Chatham, Luton, Millwall, Southampton and Swindon turned professional, but the other top teams in the Southern League eventually followed suit. Reading turned professional in 1895, for example. The strength of the League can be judged by the performance of its teams in the FA Cup in the 1890s and early 1900s where they were able to hold their own with their Football League opponents. Tottenham won the competition in 1900-01, beating Reading in the quarter finals, and Southampton were twice beaten finalists. Indeed the 1899-1900 semi-final replay was competed by two Southern League sides, Southampton and Millwall, at a Southern League ground, Elm Park - the Saints running out 3-0 winners.

Southern teams slowly gained a foothold in the Football League, although often bypassing the Southern League. For example, a newly created team, Chelsea, were elected in 1905 after being rejected by the Southern League. So too were Clapton Orient, who had been competing in the Southern League Division Two with the likes of Reading Reserves the previous season. Luton (1897-1900), Bristol City (1901), Fulham (1907) and Tottenham (1908) all followed more conventional routes. There were proposals to amalgamate the two leagues in 1907 and 1909, either as a Third Division or a regional Second Division, but these were rejected. There were also disputes, particularly over transfer fees, and at one time the Southern League placed a ban on its members applying to the Football League.

The Southern League management was weakened by the First World War when the leading teams competed with the London Football League teams in the London Combination. The Football League managed to bring its teams back into the fold in 1919 due to some very underhand methods. The First Division was expanded, with Chelsea, who had been relegated in the last pre-war season of 1914-15, and Arsenal, who had only finished fifth in the Second Division, being elected into an expanded top division. Perhaps justice was done in the case of Chelsea - they had only been relegated due to a fixed match between Manchester United and Liverpool - but Arsenal's election is one of the League's darkest hours - they have never lost the place earned in such a dubious manner. As a further measure, West Ham, eighth in the Southern League in 1915 (six places below Reading), were elected to the Second Division. Thus a possible breakaway London League was averted.

This left the Southern League in an even weaker position, and when merger with the Football League eventually came in 1920 it was in the nature of a takeover. The Southern League Division One was incorporated en masse into the Football League as Division Three. This in turn became Division Three South the following season when a corresponding Division Three North was formed. The northern teams were drawn from a variety of leagues - there being no one pre-eminent northern league until the formation of the Northern Premier League in 1968.

The Southern League was left with a rump consisting of a large number of Welsh teams from the old Second Division, a handful of English teams, and the reserve elevens of its old members. It organised these into two regional divisions - English and Welsh - with the top two teams playing off for the championship. When an economic depression decimated the Welsh section in 1923, the two sections were reorganised as East and West. A unified First Division was reintroduced in 1936.

Slowly the League regained some of its prestige, with teams like Charlton (1921), Bournemouth (1923), Torquay (1927), Aldershot (1932), Ipswich (1938), Colchester (1950), Oxford (1962), Cambridge (1970), Hereford (1972) and Wimbledon (1977) using it as a stepping stone into the Football League. In 1979 the top teams again broke away, together with those from the Northern Premier League, to form the Alliance Premier League (later the Conference). The top teams from the Isthmian League only joined later.

The second leading south-based league, the Isthmian League, had been founded in 1905, but was always a strictly amateur competition. It was therefore not really in direct competition with the partially professional Southern League until 1974, when the formal distinction between professional and amateur football was abolished. As mentioned previously, the Northern Premier League was not formed until 1968.

A further downgrading of the Southern, Isthmian and Northern Premier Leagues came in 2004, with the top clubs being reorganised into the Conference (North) and Conference (South) divisions. They are now at the seventh level of English football.

The following table gives a complete list of champions and runners-up, including the play-off results when the league was divided on a regional basis: England/Wales (1920-23), East/West (1923-36 and 1939-40), North West/South East (1958-59), and South/Midlands (1979-82).

                         Champions                 Runners-up
    1894-95  South 1     Millwall Athletic         Luton Town
    1895-96  South 1     Millwall Athletic         Luton Town
    1896-97  South 1     Southampton St Mary's     Millwall Athletic
    1897-98  South 1     Southampton*              Bristol City
    1898-99  South 1     Southampton               Bristol City
    1899-00  South 1     Tottenham Hotspur         Portsmouth
    1900-01  South 1     Southampton               Bristol City
    1901-02  South 1     Portsmouth                Tottenham Hotspur
    1902-03  South 1     Southampton               READING
    1903-04  South 1     Southampton               Tottenham Hotspur
    1904-05  South 1     Bristol Rovers            READING
    1905-06  South 1     Fulham                    Southampton
    1906-07  South 1     Fulham                    Portsmouth
    1907-08  South 1     Queen's Park Rangers      Plymouth Argyle
    1908-09  South 1     Northampton Town          Swindon Town
    1909-10  South 1     Brighton & Hove Alb       Swindon Town
    1910-11  South 1     Swindon Town              Northampton Town
    1911-12  South 1     Queen's Park Rangers      Plymouth Argyle
    1912-13  South 1     Plymouth Argyle           Swindon Town
    1913-14  South 1     Swindon Town              Crystal Palace
    1914-15  South 1     Watford                   READING
    1915-19  South 1     no competition
    1919-20  South 1     Portsmouth                Watford

                         Champions                 Runners-up
    1920-21  South       Brighton & HA Res  1/2    Barry              1/1
    1921-22  South       Plymouth Arg Res     3    Ebbw Vale            0
    1922-23  South       Ebbw Vale            2    Bristol City Res     1
    1923-24  South       Yeovil & PU          3    Peterborough & FU    1
    1924-25  South       Southampton Res      2    Swansea Town Res     1
    1925-26  South       Plymouth Arg Res     1    Millwall Res*        0
    1926-27  South       Brighton & HA Res    4    Torquay United       0
    1927-28  South       Kettering Town       5    Bristol City Res     0
    1928-29  South       Plymouth Arg Res     4    Kettering Town       2
    1929-30  South       Aldershot Town       3    Bath City            2
    1930-31  South       Dartford             7    Exeter City Res      2
    1931-32  South       Dartford             2    Yeovil & PU          1
    1932-33  South       Norwich City Res     2    Bath City            1
    1933-34  South       Plymouth Arg Res   2/3    Norwich City Res   2/0
    1934-35  South       Norwich City Res   2/7    Yeovil & PU        2/2
    1935-36  South       Margate              3    Plymouth Arg Res     1
    1936-37  South       Ipswich Town              Norwich City Res
    1937-38  South       Guildford City            Plymouth Arg Res
    1938-39  South       Colchester United         Guildford City
    1939-40  South       Chelmsford City      3    Lovells' Athletic    3  (shared)
    1940-45  South       no competition
    1945-46  South       Chelmsford City           Hereford United
    1946-47  South       Gillingham                Guildford City
    1947-48  South       Merthyr Tydfil            Gillingham
    1948-49  South       Gillingham                Chelmsford City
    1949-50  South       Merthyr Tydfil            Colchester United
    1950-51  South       Merthyr Tydfil            Hereford United
    1951-52  South       Merthyr Tydfil            Weymouth
    1952-53  South       Headington United         Merthyr Tydfil
    1953-54  South       Merthyr Tydfil            Headington United
    1954-55  South       Yeovil Town*              Weymouth
    1955-56  South       Guildford City            Cheltenham Town
    1956-57  South       Kettering Town            Bedford Town
    1957-58  South       Gravesend & N'fleet       Bedford Town

                         Champions                 Runners-up
    1958-59  South       Bedford Town         2    Hereford United      1
    1959-60  South Pr    Bath City                 Headington United
    1960-61  South Pr    Oxford United*            Chelmsford City
    1961-62  South Pr    Oxford United             Bath City
    1962-63  South Pr    Cambridge City            Cambridge United
    1963-64  South Pr    Yeovil Town               Chelmsford City
    1964-65  South Pr    Weymouth                  Guildford City
    1965-66  South Pr    Weymouth                  Chelmsford City
    1966-67  South Pr    Romford                   Nuneaton Borough
    1967-68  South Pr    Chelmsford City           Wimbledon
    1968-69  South Pr    Cambridge United          Hillingdon Borough
    1969-70  South Pr    Cambridge United          Yeovil Town
    1970-71  South Pr    Yeovil Town               Cambridge City
    1971-72  South Pr    Chelmsford City           Hereford United
    1972-73  South Pr    Kettering Town            Yeovil Town
    1973-74  South Pr    Dartford                  Grantham
    1974-75  South Pr    Wimbledon                 Nuneaton Borough
    1975-76  South Pr    Wimbledon                 Yeovil Town
    1976-77  South Pr    Wimbledon                 Minehead
    1977-78  South Pr    Bath City                 Weymouth
    1978-79  South Pr    Worcester City            Kettering Town

                         Champions                 Runners-up
    1979-80  South       Bridgend Town      3/2    Dorchester Town    0/1
    1980-81  South       Alvechurch         1/2    Dartford           0/3  (pens 4-3)
    1981-82  South       Wealdstone         2/0    Nuneaton Borough   1/1  (pens ?-?)
    1982-83  South Pr    AP Leamington             Kidderminster H
    1983-84  South Pr    Dartford                  Fisher Athletic
    1984-85  South Pr    Cheltenham Town           King's Lynn
    1985-86  South Pr    Welling United            Chelmsford City
    1986-87  South Pr    Fisher Athletic           Bromsgrove Rovers
    1987-88  South Pr    Aylesbury United          Dartford
    1988-89  South Pr    Merthyr Tydfil            Dartford
    1989-90  South Pr    Dover Athletic            Bath City
    1990-91  South Pr    Farnborough Town          Gloucester City
    1991-92  South Pr    Bromsgrove Rovers         Dover Athletic
    1992-93  South Pr    Dover Athletic            Cheltenham Town
    1993-94  South Pr    Farnborough Town          Cheltenham Town
    1994-95  South Pr    Hednesford Town           Cheltenham Town
    1995-96  South Pr    Rushden & Diamonds        Halesowen Town
    1996-97  South Pr    Gresley Rovers            Cheltenham Town
    1997-98  South Pr    Forest Green Rovers       Merthyr Tydfil
    1998-99  South Pr    Nuneaton Borough          Boston United
    1999-00  South Pr    Boston United             Burton Albion
    2000-01  South Pr    Margate                   Burton Albion
    2001-02  South Pr    Kettering Town            Tamworth
    2002-03  South Pr    Tamworth                  Stafford Rangers
    2003-04  South Pr    Crawley Town              Weymouth

                         Champions                 Runners-up
    2004-05  South Pr    Histon                    Chippenham Town
    2005-06  South Pr    Salisbury City            Bath City
    2006-07  South Pr    Bath City                 Team Bath
    2007-08  South Pr    King's Lynn               Team Bath
    2008-09  South Pr    Corby Town                Farnborough Town
    2009-10  South Pr    Farnborough Town          Nuneaton Town
    2010-11  South Pr    Truro City                Hednesford Town
    2011-12  South Pr    Brackley Town             Oxford City
    2012-13  South Pr    Leamington*               Stourbridge
    2013-14  South Pr    Hemel Hempstead Town      Chesham United
    2014-15  South Pr    Corby Town                Poole Town
    2015-16  South Pr    Poole Town                Redditch United
    2016-17  South Pr    Chippenham Town           Leamington
    2017-18  South Pr    Hereford                  King's Lynn Town

	 * Southampton previously known as Southampton St Mary's
             * Millwall previously known as Millwall Athletic
             * Yeovil Town previously known as Yeovil and Petters United
             * Oxford United previously known as Headington United
             * Leamington previously known as AP Leamington

Southampton have seven titles (including one from their reserves), Merthyr Tydfil have six, and Plymouth have five (including four from their reserves). Chelmsford, Dartford, Kettering and Yeovil have four title each (one of Chelmsford's being shared), while Bath, Brighton, Farnborough, Oxford and Wimbledon have three each (including two from Brighton's reserves). A picture of the Championship Shield is given at the top of the page. The original trophy has been extended twice (around 1945 and 1980) to allow more space for the small crests used to list the championship winners.

During the 1930s a subsidiary competition was organised to provide extra fixtures. While the League was divided into Eastern and Western sections it was known as the Central section, while after the reformation of a single section in 1936 it became known as the Midweek section. The champions and runners-up in these competitions were as follows:

                         Champions                 Runners-up
    1933-34  Central     Plymouth Arg Res          Clapton Orient Res
    1934-35  Central     Folkestone                Guildford City
    1935-36  Central     Margate                   Bristol Rovers Res
    1936-37  Midweek     Margate                   Bath City
    1937-38  Midweek     Millwall Res              Colchester United
    1938-39  Midweek     Tunbridge Wells R         Colchester United

For a summary of the Southern League Division 1 up to 1920, see here, for Division 2, see here. Also see here for the highest ranked Southern teams in the Football League (excluding London).

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