Local Heroes: St Mary’s FC
The Saints were formed at a meeting of the St Mary’s Church of England Young Men’s Association sometime in November 1885. Their first match was played on the ‘backfield’ of Hampshire County Cricket Club’s new ground at Banister Court. They defeated Freemantle 5-1.
The only players named in the brief account of the match in the following Saturday’s edition of the Hampshire Independent were Ned Bromley, who had struck Saints’ first hat-trick, and skipper A.A. Fry, who scored two. Freemantle’s goalscorer, ‘a member of the St Mary’s team’, like the rest of the side, remains anonymous.
Hampshire CCC relocated to West End in 2001 and the County Ground redeveloped for housing, but the site of the backfield remains a sporting venue, having been occupied by the County Bowling Club since 1889.
The Independent’s header identifies the nascent Saints, wrongly, as ‘Y.M.C.A.’ but as noted in the opening sentence, they were formed ‘in connection with the St Mary’s Young Men’s Association’. It was an avowedly ‘muscular Christian’ organisation whose members were prominent in parish affairs, particularly as Sunday school teachers and choristers. Before adopting football, the Y.M.A. had many interests, other than bible study, not least cricket and gymnastics.
The Young Men joined the Hampshire FA on its formation in 1887. They were successful from the off. The Saints, as they were soon nicknamed, won the Hampshire FA Junior Cup outright in 1890/91, having won it three times in three consecutive seasons, and then went on to win Hampshire FA Senior Cup in 1892 and 1893.
During the 1891/92 season, St Mary’s made their first tilt at the FA Cup – and carried on a tradition of never losing a cup tie. They eliminated Warmley (near Bristol) 4-1, at Warmley, in the first qualifying round and then defeated Reading 7-0 at home in the second. Reading protested the result, claiming Saints were fielding two illegal players. The FA upheld the protest and Saints were out.
Further north, professionalism was looming large. The Football League expanded to two divisions in 1892. The Football Associations of London and the Home Counties were fiercely amateur, but the Hampshire FA was fairly relaxed about it, and the Saints’ committee, despite being dominated by Y.M.A. old boys, was inclined to take a progressive view.
As the 1892/93 season beckoned, the local press (there were five weekly titles published in Southampton) were reporting that St Mary’s were looking to sign at least one professional footballer. It was later revealed that they were already discretely paying one player; Jack Dollin, formerly of Freemantle.
The Southern League was formed in 1894. It had taken the Saints nine years to evolve from a youth club side playing kick-arounds on Southampton Common to a professional football club. This was not unusual at the time. However, it was unusual in the South. Saints, Millwall Athletic and Luton Town, were probably the only Southern League clubs that could field a fully professional XI as the new league kicked-off.