first appeared in Issue 7 of The Football Pink

HYDER JAWAD brings us the story of South Liverpool and New Brighton, who were doing franchise football way before Wimbledon and Milton Keynes.

In the beginning, Man created football clubs. The clubs were intangible and without form. And Man said, “Let there be football matches”, and football matches proliferated all over the land. Man saw that the football matches were good, so he created stadia in which to stage the matches.

Then Man learnt how to make money from the football matches. At first, most of the money went to the directors (over-fed men with expensive hats); but, later, once the world had transformed from monochrome to colour, most of the money went to the players (over-exposed men with expensive hairstyles).

Throughout the process, the spectators – the men lowest down the food chain, but the ones who appeared to be having the most fun – formed inextricable relationships with the clubs. A spectator would define himself by his love for his club. His club had become, to him, a secular religion; the stadium his church; the team his pastors. Intoxicated by his place in the spectator-club relationship, he never seemed to query what exactly he was supporting.

He was too busy loving his club to ask himself a simple question: what is a football club? Or maybe he realised that there were myriad answers and explanations, all unsatisfactory. Whatever it is that characterises a football club, it is surely something spiritual rather than something tangible.

You would need to be a supporter of AFC Wimbledon or of Milton Keynes Dons to have a real appreciation for the complications of the spectator-club relationship. Here, today, in 2015, where everything seems to be observed in binary terms, we remain transfixed by the nuances of the everlasting Wimbledon debate. Which of the two clubs – AFC Wimbledon or MK Dons – is the true begetter of the Wimbledon FC that formed in 1889, joined the Football League in 1977, won the FA Cup in 1988, and dissolved in 2004?

Death. And rebirth. And so the cycle repeats itself. Just as Friedrich Nietzsche always said it would.

If the debate feels new, the problem is as old as the game itself. The same dichotomy dogged South Shields, then playing in the Football League Division Three North, in 1930. Disillusioned with poor attendances, the directors moved the club the ten miles to Gateshead. The original plan was to relocate the club in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, but the Gateshead Council liked the idea of a ready-made Football League team occupying the site of an old clay pit. Gateshead FC turned the pit into Redheugh Park, an austere if charming arena, and survived as a League club until 1960.

As far as the Football League was concerned, Gateshead FC and South Shields FC were one and the same. It is difficult to know how many spectators from the South Shields epoch travelled regularly to watch the team in Gateshead, although, to obfuscate the issue, a new South Shields FC formed in 1936. Which of Gateshead FC (1930) and South Shields FC (1936) was the true begetter of South Shields FC (1889)?

And then there was New Brighton FC, which, apparently, formed in 1921 and joined the Football League in 1923. Simple, right? Not so. Peruse the New Brighton Football & Athletic Club Co. Ltd “Articles of Association” from August 1921 and you find that the club had been known by a different name: “Formerly the South Liverpool Football and Athletic Club Company Limited.”

This was no error. When referring to William J. Sawyer, the most significant South Liverpool FC personality, the History of the Lancashire Football Association 1878-1928, a painfully dull but significant book, recorded: “Prior to his joining Everton FC, [Sawyer] was Secretary and Managing Director of South Liverpool FC, now known as New Brighton FC”. The writer was Charles Sutcliffe, later to become the president of the Football League, who never got a fact wrong in his life.

Consequently, if New Brighton did not form in 1921, then South Liverpool did not fold in 1921. The clubs were, officially, one and the same, even if it seems unlikely that many South Liverpool regulars navigated the journey on the ferry across the River Mersey for New Brighton home matches at Sandheys Park, Wallasey.

To enhance the appearance of a newly formed club, New Brighton not only had a new ground and a new name but also a new chairman: Dr. Thomas Martlew, a surgeon, born in 1885, who had no connections to South Liverpool. Conversely, Robert Alty, the chairman of South Liverpool, became the New Brighton secretary-manager. Three other South Liverpool directors, William H. Ridge, Joseph Fenerty and Charles Thorburn, assumed similar positions with New Brighton.

If, legally, a club had merely changed its name and its location, spiritually there was an important difference. When a new South Liverpool FC formed in 1935 (the third to bear the name), its founding secretary, Robert A. Joynson, raised the question of what was a football club. He might have asked: Which of New Brighton FC (1921) and South Liverpool FC (1935) was the true begetter of South Liverpool (1910)?

But here we have an added complication. The South Liverpool that emerged in December 1910 was not a new club. It had formed as African Royal FC, the works team for a shipping operation, at least as far back as 1904. Among its Founding Fathers was Richard F. Parry, a civil servant for Her Majesty’s Customs Office, who was a good friend of Sawyer. African Royal become the strongest amateur team in Liverpool and won the West Cheshire League in 1907-08 and 1908-09. The club’s best player was James Brennan, an Irishman, who joined Bury in 1907. Having moved to Brighton & Hove Albion without success, he would die at the front in France in September 1917.

Sawyer’s dream was to create a Football League club in the south end of Liverpool, as a counterbalance to Everton and Liverpool to the north of the city, so he initiated the rebranding of African Royal. Just before Christmas 1910, with the team occupying a mid-table position in the Liverpool County Combination, African Royal became South Liverpool. (This was the second South Liverpool. The first formed in about 1894 and folded up in 1900).

South Liverpool joined the Lancashire Combination in 1911 and became professional. A year later, Sawyer turned the club into a limited company and, in 1913, sought new premises at Dingle Park, which offered stunning views of the Mersey. The location proved to be both a blessing and a curse. The landlord was the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board, which dominated Liverpool life, but was too powerful.

On April 25, 1914, the Lancashire Combination match at Dingle Park between South Liverpool and Tranmere Rovers, the newly crowned champions, attracted what the Liverpool Daily Post described as an “attendance of 18,130”. Sawyer, a moustachioed accountant who wore Theodore Roosevelt spectacles, spent the entire season complaining about a lack of funds, which must have left spectators wondering where the proceeds of 18,000-plus attendances were going.

South Liverpool tried and failed in 1914 to gain election to the Football League, although, with Nottingham Forest and Lincoln City easily re-elected, even Stoke City failed to muster enough support. In those days of just two divisions in the Football League, Sawyer hoped that the creation of a Third Division would come to South Liverpool’s rescue. Instead, World War I threw the English game into disarray.

By the time the conflict in Europe ended, Sawyer had moved to Everton to become the secretary-manager for 1918-19, but, as was his wont, he also assisted in the creation of Wigan Borough. Without his personality, South Liverpool struggled in 1919-20, and the club lost its ground at short notice when the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board decided to use the premises for a move into the oil trade.

With the significant figure now Alty, a fruit merchant, South Liverpool moved to Green Lane in the east of the city for 1920-21, at a rent of £75 a year. But the arrangement did not last long. Attendances plummeted to just a few hundred. The timing was ghastly, for 1921 brought the creation of the Football League Division Three North. Had South Liverpool still been at Dingle Lane, the club would almost certainly have secured election. With uncertainty hanging over the club’s future, the League’s management committee recommended that South Liverpool be ruled out of the equation. Both Tranmere Rovers and Wigan Borough secured election. South Liverpool secured just one vote.

The club would almost certainly have folded up had not the option of the move to Wirral presented itself. And so it came to pass that on June 28, 1921, at Egerton Street School, Wallasey, South Liverpool metamorphosed into New Brighton. During the summer, physical effects like turnstiles, iron gates, and scrap metal made their way across the Mersey to assist in the creation of a stadium at Sandheys Park. After two seasons in the Lancashire Combination, New Brighton benefited from the expansion of the Division Three North to secure a place in the Football League in time for 1923-24.

Alty was not there to celebrate. In early 1923, he fell out with Dr. Martlew and instead created his own club: Wallasey United. Mischievously, Alty applied on behalf of Wallasey to join the Football League at the 1923 election, but it was no surprise that the club received not a single vote. Wallasey’s attendances in the Cheshire League in 1923-24 barely surpassed the 100-mark, and the club folded up at the end of the campaign.

New Brighton struggled along until Sawyer became the club’s secretary-manager on March 21, 1933. The day after, New Brighton defeated Liverpool in the Liverpool Senior Cup semi-final. The day after that, the directors of Everton discussed a proposal by Sawyer for the creation of a new South Liverpool, with a view to pursuing a place in the Football League. The Everton directors recoiled – “we do not support an application by any new club in the L’pool area for admission to the Football League”, the minutes of March 28 recorded – and Sawyer went back to his work at New Brighton.

The third South Liverpool club formed in March 1935. The club’s driving force, Robert A. Joynson, had watched the previous South Liverpool during his childhood. Indeed, his father, Arthur, served on the previous club’s committee. The latest incarnation became one of the top non-League clubs in England by 1939, winning the Welsh Cup against Cardiff City. However, three times the club failed to secure election to the Football League, and the arrival of World War II in September 1939 ended, once and for all, any hope the club had of moving out of the non-League sphere.

Sawyer died in 1940, Alty in 1954, and both New Brighton and South Liverpool slipped into decline. Having moved from Sandheys Park to the Tower Grounds, and then forfeited its Football League status in 1951, New Brighton struggled in the non-League sphere. The club slipped into the South Wirral League, playing on park pitches to attendances of zero, and folded up in 1983. South Liverpool left non-League football in 1991 but survived; and now, flourishing in the West Cheshire League, has become the largest amateur club in the city.

If New Brighton’s rise had confirmed that professional football in the south end of Liverpool was manifestly against nature, the club’s fall confirmed that Wirral only had room for one professional club. In this case, Tranmere Rovers.

A new New Brighton formed in 1993 – the third to bear the name if you include New Brighton Tower, members of the Football League from 1898-1901 – but failed to capture the local imagination and folded up in 2012.

Today, there are no traces of Sandheys Park. The area is now an estate, with a labyrinthine assemblage of cul-de-sacs. A few photographs of the old ground remain, but they conjure up only the features of a club that owes everything to its sense of intrigue. Of the Tower Grounds, a couple of walls remain, but the site is now a public park. The site of Dingle Park became part of the Liverpool Garden Festival in 1984.

Death. And rebirth. And so the cycle repeats itself.

HYDER JAWAD – @hyderjawad

Hyder Jawad is the former chief sports writer of the Birmingham Post newspaper, and the winner, in 2005, of the UK Press Gazette Sports Journalist of the Year for Regional Newspapers. He has also worked for the Liverpool Echo, The Times, and The Independent, and has published 10 books on football.

* Rest In Pieces: South Liverpool Football Club 1894-1994 by Hyder Jawad is available via Amazon or eBay or other on-line bookstores