Prior to the turn of the century, the only competitive games for amateur clubs in the South of England were various cup competitions. The majority of other fixtures were friendly. At the suggestion of Mr T.H. Kirkup, secretary of the London Football Association, Mr George Clark, honorary treasurer of Ilford and Frank Evans honorary Secretary of Clapton FC a meeting was held at Winchester House, Old Broad Street with representatives of the Casuals, Civil Service, Clapton, Ealing Association, Ilford, and London Caledonians had been invited to consider the formation of a strong amateur league.
The representatives were all in favour and the Isthmian League was formed on 8 March 1905. The league’s motto has always been ‘honour sufficit’. Consequently, no cup was awarded to the champions nor were there any medals for players. Honour was the only reward.
The Beginnings of the League
In the first three seasons of the League there were just six member clubs and of these three clubs resigned after the first two seasons to be replaced by three new clubs.
Membership of the League had always been by invitation. Membership increased to 10 clubs in 1908 and 11 clubs in 1911. After the First World War there were just 5 clubs but this soon went back to 12 clubs in 1919.
1921 saw an increase to 14 clubs and membership stayed at this level until 1952 when an increase was made to 15 clubs and in 1956 a more even number of 16 clubs formed the basis of membership of the League.
In 1963 membership was increased to 20 with the addition of the 4 strongest clubs from the Athenian League namely, Enfield, Hendon, Hitchin Town and Sutton United. Membership remained then fairly static until 1971 when Maidstone United and Wealdstone turned professional to join the Southern League and were replaced by 3 more clubs from the Athenian League and then in 1972 Leatherhead were admitted to increase membership to 22 clubs.
In 1973 a second Division was formed and in 1979 saw a third Division added. With the final demise of the Athenian League in 1984 the League saw itself with the highest number of clubs it had had with the ability to have a total of 88 clubs. It only achieved this on a few occasions but, nevertheless, saw its position as the premier league in the south of the country maintained.
The League has been innovators in many ways. The League was the first league to have sponsorship when Rothman’s of Pall Mall selected the Isthmian League with a number of other leagues around the country to lead the way with sponsorship.
Prize money was offered to promote more goals and to encourage fair play. Any clubs which went over a certain number of penalty points for bookings and send offs during a season lost any money at all it earned by position in the League. Following on from this Berger Paints, Servowarm, Vauxhall, Diadora, ICIS and current sponsors Ryman have been the title sponsors. The League Cup has seen Hitachi, AC Delco and Bryco amongst its sponsors.
The League was the first league to adopt 3 points for a win, the first to use goal difference instead of goal average and was the first league outside the Football League to become a limited company with a full time administration.
To return to this history of the Isthmian League, one finds that it was soon involved in dispute, which lasted eight years. The Surrey, Middlesex and Football Association Council forced these associations to take over the government of the professional clubs as well.
There was opposition to take this motion and in March 1906, the Amateur Football Association was formed to protect what the amateur clubs considered their rights. The Amateur Football Association was split from the other county associations and member clubs were not allowed to play professional clubs or any other amateur club that remained affiliated to the Football Association.
As a result of this the Casuals, Civil Service FC and Ealing, who had joined the Amateur Football Association resigned from the Isthmian League and their places were taken by Dulwich Hamlet, Oxford City and West Norwood.
Membership to the Isthmian League had always been by invitation. In 1908-09, Bromley, Leytonstone, Nunhead and Shepherds Bush were invited to join, thus increasing the membership to 10 clubs. Bromley were champions during the first two seasons, but resigned at the end of their third season in the Isthmian League.
They were replaced in 1911-12 by Tunbridge Wells and Woking, thus increasing the membership to 11 clubs. New Crusaders replaced Tunbridge Wells for the 1913-14 season and the Isthmian League closed down during the First World War, London Caledonians were champions in three successive seasons, 1911-14.
Return of the League
When the Isthmian League resumed in 1919-20, the membership was increased to 12 clubs. The Casuals and Civil Service FC were accepted back into the Isthmian League as the Amateur Football Association’s dispute with the Football Association had been resolved in 1914. Tufnell Park was also accepted into the Isthmian League, but New Crusaders and Shepherds Bush did not take their place after the war.
In 1921-22, the Isthmian League was increased to 14 clubs with the addition of Wimbledon and Wycombe Wanderers. St.Albans City replaced West Norwood in 1923-24 and Kingstonian replaced Civil Service FC in 1929-30.
There was no further changes in membership until just before the Second World War, which bought the Isthmian League to a close shortly after the start of the 1939-40 season. Casuals had amalgamated with the Corinthians in 1939 and London Caledonians and Nunhead were absentees after having had their grounds requisitioned.
As neither club were able to find alternative accommodation, they had no option but to resign and their places were taken by Romford and Walthamstow Avenue from the Athenian League. At the time of their resignation, London Caledonians had won their first Isthmian League championship a record 6 times, including the first hat-trick between 1911-1914.
At the end of the 1951-52 season, Tufnell Park was not re-elected. Their place was taken by Barking. Bromley also returned to the Isthmian League, and even though there have been subsequent occasions when clubs playing records have been below that of the rest of the clubs in the league, it is unusual that a club is not re-elected at the Annual General Meeting.
Tufnell Park, after several name changes, have since returned to the Isthmian League as Haringey Borough. Also in 1951-52, Leytonstone completed a hat-trick of championship wins, the first since London Caledonians effort between 1911-14. Wimbledon (1961-64) and Enfield (1967-70 and 1975-78) have since emulated this feat.
Tooting & Mitcham United were elected to the Isthmian League in 1956-57 extending the membership to more manageable 16 clubs. Romford turned professional at the end of the 1959-60 season and joined the Southern League. They were replaced by Maidstone United.
For some time, the top Athenian League clubs had claimed to be better than the poorer Isthmian league clubs but because membership of the Isthmian League was invitation only, and as the Isthmian League was reluctant to elect new clubs in place of the bottom clubs, the Athenian League clubs were not given the opportunity to prove their claim. Efforts to operate a system of promotion and relegation between the two leagues had always been rejected by the Isthmian League and so progressive clubs could reach the top of the Athenian League and no further.
The League is expanding
In 1963-64, the Isthmian League increased its membership to 20 clubs by admitting Enfield, Hendon, Hitchin Town and Sutton United from the Athenian League and, with the addition of Wealdstone in 1964-65 as replacements for Wimbledon, who had decided to turn professional after several seasons as the recognised top amateur club in the country, the Isthmian League had gone some way to meeting the objectives of the Athenian League clubs.
After the admission to the Isthmian League, Enfield won the Isthmian League championship 7 times and finished second on 4 occasions before moving on to the Alliance Premier League in 1981.
There were no further changes in membership until 1971-72, when Maidstone United and Wealdstone turned professional and joined the Southern League. They were replaced by Bishop’s Stortford, Hayes and Walton and Hersham. Leatherhead was admitted for the 1972-73 season to increase the membership to 22 clubs.
New League regulations – 3 points per win
In addition to sponsorship, the Isthmian League intruded three points for a win and accepted promotion and relegation in 1973-74. Fifteen clubs from the Athenian League and Hertford Town from the Eastern Counties League formed the Isthmian League Division Two. Dagenham and Slough Town were promoted at the end of the season in place of Corinthian Casuals and St.Albans City.
Boreham Wood and Croydon were admitted to Division Two increasing membership of that Division to 18 clubs. Division Two was further increased to 22 clubs in 1975-76 with the inclusion of Harrow Borough, Hornchurch, Ware and Wembley from the Athenian League.
A third Division was added in 1977-78. The divisions were named Premier, Division One and Division Two. The Athenian League was provided with the bulk of the 17 new clubs. Metropolitan Police from the Southern League being the exception.
At the end of that season, Epsom & Ewell and Metropolitan Police were promoted from Division Two to Division One, with Corinthian Casuals and Hornchurch making the reverse journey. Membership of Division Two was increased to 18 clubs in 1978-79 with the addition of Hungerford Town from the Hellenic League.
At the end of the 1978-79 season, the Isthmian League lost one of its founder members, Ilford, who had lost their ground, amalgamated with Leytonstone as Leytonstone and Ilford. At that time, Ilford were one of the only two clubs to have competed in the Isthmian League in every season since its foundation. The sole survivor is Clapton. During their spell in the Isthmian League, Ilford won their championship three times, the last instance being in 1921-22.
Leytonstone had 9 championship wins to their credit. In their initial season after amalgamation, the club competed in Division One. They obtained promotion straight away to Division One champions in 1979-80 and then went onto win the Premier Division championship in 1981-82.
To compensate for the loss, the Isthmian League accepted Barton Rovers and Billericay into Division Two. Billericay Town were Athenian League champions in the previous two seasons following successes in the Essex Senior League and the FA Challenge Vase. They reached the Premier Division in the shortest possible time by winning the Division Two championship in 1979-80 and finishing runners up in Division One in 1980-81. Barton Rovers had been champions of the South Midlands League in eight of their previous nine seasons.
Enfield and Dagenham both left the Isthmian League at the end of the 1980-81 season. Both clubs accepted an invitation to join the Alliance Premier League, Bognor Regis Town were accepted into Division One from the Southern League and justified this by gaining promotion to the Premier Division in their first season in the Isthmian League, 1981-82.
Basildon United and Windsor and Eton from their Athenian League also joined the Isthmian League in 1981-82. At the end that season, Camberley Town failed to be re-elected and returned to the Athenian League. The Isthmian added former Athenian League clubs, Leyton-Wingate and Uxbridge in 1982-83. It was also agreed that with effect from 1982-83, the Isthmian League champions would be promoted to the Alliance Premier League and that the bottom two clubs in Division Two would, subject to facilities, be replaced by the top two Athenian League clubs.
However, at the end of the 1982-83 season, Wycombe Wanderers, the Isthmian League champions decided not to move to the Alliance Premier League and no other Isthmian League club sought election in their place. At the bottom end of the league, Harwich and Parkston became the first Isthmian League club to be relegated to the Athenian League. As there was a vacancy in the league only one club was relegated from Division One. Newbury Town and Grays Athletic were promoted from the Athenian League at the end of the 1982-83 season.
The arrangement with the Athenian League did not last for long. The Isthmian League decided to expand further in 1984-85 by regionalising its second division. 20 clubs were added, the bulk of them again coming from the Athenian League, which was forced to disband.
The Isthmian League also added several clubs from county league football: Heybridge Swifts and Saffron Walden Town from the Essex Senior League, and Petersfield United from the Hampshire League. A number of Athenian clubs, including champions Redhill, could not be accepted as their grounds were not up to required standard.
Staines Town were demoted from the Premier Division at the end of the 1983-84 season because they failed to carry out the requisite improvements, thus saving Tooting & Mitcham United from relegation. Corinthian Casuals who had existed for over 100 years, with out having their own ground, finally obtained one at Wimbledon Park.
However, as they were unable to obtain planning permission to carry out necessary improvements, they were forced to resign from the Isthmian League, and were accepted, at short notice into the London Spartan League.
At the end of the 1984 season, the Isthmian League took up their option of promotion to the Gola League (now known as Football Conference. Champions, Sutton United decided not to apply, leaving the way open to Wycombe Wanderers to compete in the Gola League in 1985-86. Yeovil Town were relegated from the Gola League.
The Isthmian League has accepted the Combined Counties, Essex Senior, London Spartan and South Midlands Leagues as feeder leagues to its two second divisions. Changes at the bottom in 1985-86 are the relegation of Chertsey Town to the Combined Counties League, the expulsion of Epping Town and election of Southwick and Vauxhall Motors.
Prior to the end of ‘amateur football’ the Isthmian League was without doubt to top amateur league in the south, although Northern League laid claim to being top amateur league in England. The claim being made on the basis of performances in the FA Amateur Cup. Nevertheless, the Isthmian League can look back on 30 occasions when its member clubs won the FA Amateur Cup.
The most successful clubs are Clapton with 5 wins and Dulwich Hamlet with 4. Neither clubs won the FA Amateur Cup after the Second World War. Of the 22 clubs in membership of the Isthmian League Division One in 1973-74, the last season of the FA Amateur Cup, 15 clubs had at least one win in the FA Amateur Cup. In addition, London Caledonians, Wealdstone and Wimbledon all had their names inscribed on the FA Amateur Cup before leaving the Isthmian League.
Initially, Isthmian League Clubs did not have a great deal of success in the FA Challenge Trophy. It was not until 1975-76, the seventh competition, that Enfield became the first Isthmian League club to reach the semi-finals. Since then Dagenham (1979-80), Leatherhead (1977-78), Sutton United (1980-81), Dagenham & Redbridge (1996-97) have been beaten finalists. Most Isthmian League clubs compete in the FA Challenge Trophy but below the top two divisions compete in the FA Challenge Vase. Yeading being the first Isthmian League club to win the FA Vase in 1989/90, whilst Southall (1985/86), Oxford City (1994/95) and Berkhamsted Town 2000/01 have been finalists.
Matches and records against stronger teams
There have been too many occasions when the Isthmian League clubs have toppled Football League Clubs in the FA Cup to record them all. In 1952-53, Walthamstow Avenue were drawn away to Manchester United in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup. They managed a draw at Old Trafford before losing a replay 5-2, which was played at Highbury. In the earlier rounds they had beaten Wimbledon, Watford and Stockport County.
These are not the only occasions that Walthamstow Avenue have beaten Football League clubs in the FA Cup. They have also beaten Gillingham and Queens Park Rangers and also held Ipswich Town to a draw. In 1958-59, Tooting and Mitcham United beat Bournemouth 3-1 and Northampton Town 2-0 before being drawn at home to Nottingham Forest who won the FA Cup that season and they claimed that the nearest they came to a defeat throughout the competition was when they played Tooting and Mitcham United.
In 1975-76, Tooting and Mitcham United reached the Fourth Round of the FA Cup following wins over Romford, Leatherhead, Swindon Town before losing to Bradford City. Sutton United were hosts to Leeds United in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup in 1969-70, but there was no fairy tail ending as they lost 6-0. In 1979-80, Harlow Town beat Leytonstone and Ilford, Southend United, after a replay,and Leicester City after a replay before going to Watford and losing 4-3. Enfield reached the Fourth Round in 1980-81, beating Wembley, Hereford United, Port Vale, in a replay, before losing to Barnsley in a replay held at White Hart Lane in front of over 35,000 spectators. The Isthmian League clubs also have an extremely good record in the various County Cup Competitions.
Since 1974-5, the Isthmian League has run its own cup competition. In the first season, entry was restricted to Division Two clubs, Tilbury beat Croydon Amateurs in the final over two legs. All member clubs have competed in the competition since 1975-76 and the competition was known as the Hitachi Cup between 1977-85, AC Delco Cup 1985-91.