The History of Hastings United Football Club
Hastings United Football Club was founded in 1894 and, until the 1985/86 season, were playing in the Sussex County League. The club has previously played under the banner of Hastings & St.Leonards and, until the 2003/04 season, played under the name of Hastings Town.
Success was quickly achieved in the early days. The club won the Sussex Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR) Cup in 1900/01 and again in 1901/02, whilst still playing in local football. The club joined the Sussex County League in 1921 and in their first season finished runners-up to Worthing. Hastings again finished second in the 1926/27 season, this time behind Southwick, but then reverted to Hastings League Football.
The RUR Cup was won again in the 1938/39 and 1939/40 seasons. The club joined the Sussex County League again in 1952, but didn't enjoy real success until the 1959/60 season, when finishing second in Division Two.
After changing the name to Hastings Town, the club went through a lean spell on the pitch, but in the 1979/80 season, clinched the Division Two Championship and won the divisional cup. The following season, the club won the County League Cup. The 1984/85 season was to be the last as a member of the Sussex County League. Following the decision of the then Hastings United to cease trading, Town applied for membership of the Southern League and were elected to the Southern Division. At the same time, the club negotiated a long term lease with Hastings Borough Council for the Pilot Field Stadium.
The 1984/85 season had seen Hastings United struggling against relegation from the Premier Division and it was a combination of the last day of the season results - United beating Welling United 2-1 and Crawley Town doing the U's a big favour by beating Witney Town - that saw that Premier Division spot retained by the narrowest margin. Having done the business on the pitch, it was to be off-field matters that caused the demise of Hastings United in June 1985, when financial problems became insurmountable and the club ceased trading.
At that time, Hastings Town were a mid-table Sussex County League Division One side, playing a couple of hundred yards up Elphinstone Road at The Firs. Following the demise of United, Town applied to join the Southern League. Witney Town objected to Town going straight into the Premier Division, as United's demise had saved them from relegation. This was not an issue, as Town were more than happy to start in the Southern Division and continue at The Pilot Field (or the Firs Football Centre, as the stadium was to be renamed for a short period), albeit at a lower level.
Several of United's ex-players signed for Hastings Town in time for the start of the 1985/86 season, which saw Town feature prominently in a tight promotion campaign with Cambridge City, Salisbury City and Dover Athletic. The solitary home defeat of the season was to be crucial. Having already won 2-0 at Cambridge a matter of weeks earlier, Town entertained City in front of 844 spectators towards the end of April and, having led 1-0 and 2-1, eventually lost 3-2, a result that left Salisbury City with games in hand, which they won, to deny Town promotion.
The 1986/87 season was to see Town mount another promotion challenge, but while they were in with a fighting chance, the campaign was not as tight as the previous season. Dorchester Town and Ashford Town were to take the two promotion places while Hastings Town finished in fourth place behind Woodford Town.
Having made two concerted attempts at bringing Premier Division football back to Hastings, the 1987/88 season was one of great disappointment, with Town never showing any signs of mounting a challenge as they finished in a dismal twelfth position. That season saw Dover Athletic and Waterlooville promoted.
Peter Sillett was to return to The Pilot Field, where he had enjoyed great success managing Hastings United, and declared that it would take about three years to put together a promotion winning side. Those next three seasons were to see a team taking shape. In the 1988/89 season, Town finished seventh, while Chelmsford City and Gravesend & Northfleet were promoted. The following season, Town finished in seventh spot again, while Bashley and Poole Town gained promotion. In the 1990/91 season, it was Buckingham Town and Trowbridge Town, who were the successful sides, as once again, Town finished in seventh spot, after heading the table for a short spell after a long unbeaten period.
Long time supporters have fond memories of a 1991/92 season, in which everything fell into place at long last. The season opened with a 4-0 win away at Dunstable Town and the same scoreline at home to Margate. Town won their first five games and were to head the Beazer Homes League Southern Division table for virtually the whole campaign, leaving Weymouth, Havant Town and Sittingbourne to fight over the runners-up spot.
The 1992/93 season saw Town playing Beazer Homes League Premier Division football for the first time. They had to go into that campaign with their Southern Division squad and were to find the leap in standard very difficult. Peter Sillett was dismissed in December, as the side struggled at the wrong end of the table due to a lack of goals. Dean White was appointed as manager and successfully steered Town to safety.
Town were to play Premier Division football for the next six years. Supporters went through many ups and downs. A major relegation battle took place in the 1993/94 season, when Town looked favourites to go back to the Southern Division, only for a late run of victories to help them climb out of the bottom four. The 1994/95 season saw a mid-table position achieved, but success came in the guise of a 3-1 aggregate League Cup final victory over Leek Town, while in the 1995/96 season, Town finished up in eighth place, when better form at home might have led to a higher position, but did land the Sussex Senior Cup with a 1-0 win over Crawley Town in the final.
1996/97 was a season of real struggle, as relegation once again loomed. For much of the season, Town were rock bottom and in March, a depressing sequence of seven games without a goal was recorded. But inspiration from managerial team Garry Wilson and Mick Crowe eventually saw Town climb out of the bottom four.
Lottery winner Mark Gardiner became involved with the club at the start of the 1997/98 season, but despite money being available for team building, success on the pitch was frustratingly hard to attain. Garry Wilson was dismissed after an FA Trophy defeat at home to Bath City and cousins Terry and Dean White took over, leading the side back to the Sussex Senior Cup final where they prevailed 2-1 against Burgess Hill Town.
1998/99 was a season of huge contrasts. Town should have started in the Ryman League Premier Division, but fortune favoured them and they remained a Dr Martens League Premier Division side. The season started well for Town and they were the only side to challenge Nuneaton Borough's title rampage. By the end of the year, Town were in turmoil, having resigned from Southern League, with the budget slashed, and players leaving, Town were placed into administration and the Southern League refused to accept an attempt to withdraw the resignation, which had been tendered earlier. Despite a creditable final fifth placing, the season ended with Hastings Town not knowing where they would be playing the following season.
More turmoil followed during the close season. An appeal to retain Town's Premier Division status was unsuccessful and attempts to get the club out of administration were subjected to several counter bids from unknown parties and, by June, it really seemed that Town were doomed altogether, with the administrator looking inclined to accept the latest counter bid. But a final effort by a local consortium was to be successful at the very last moment and Hastings Town Football Club was saved.
Having been accepted back into the Dr Martens League as new entrants, Town kicked off the 1999/2000 season in the Eastern Division with a 2-0 victory at home to VS Rugby. Much of the previous season's squad was retained and hopes were high for a quick return to the Premier Division. But a forty-two game campaign is never easy and Town went close for the next two seasons, but not close enough. Town finished fifth in that season and sixth in the next. A memorable run to the final of the 1999/2000 League Cup did provide some lighter relief though, although Premier Division high flyers Burton Albion proved too strong, running out 6-2 aggregate victors, while a penalty shoot-out defeat to a strong Brighton & Hove Albion saw the Sussex Senior Cup elude Town as well.
George Wakeling had been appointed as manager early in the 2000/01 season, following Dean White's move into the Nationwide League with Brighton & Hove Albion. A huge battle throughout the season followed, against Grantham Town, Dorchester Town and Histon. After a defeat to local rivals St.Leonards in early February, Town embarked on a superb run that left them unbeaten until mid-April, and the title and promotion were guaranteed.
In the 2002/03 season, Hastings United were back playing Dr Martens League Premier Division football, but in contrast to the 1985/86 season, this was a name and colour change only. Supporters were under no illusions that a huge leap in playing standards awaited them. United enjoyed a good start to the campaign and were in sixth spot early on, as well as enjoying a maiden trip to the first round of the FA Cup, following a stunning 5-0 replay victory at Conference side Kettering Town in the final qualifying round. A 1-0 defeat at Stevenage Borough, also from the Conference, ended United's interest in the competition, and from then on, things went badly wrong in the league, and a run of one win in sixteen games was the prelude to an immediate return to the Eastern Division.
Chairman and benefactor Mick Maplesden had announced his intention to stand down at half time during the final game of the 2002/03 season and George Wakeling also resigned in the close season. Steve Lovell took over as manager, but a drastically reduced budget left him with a youthful and inexperienced squad. United spent much of the season locked in a battle to avoid relegation back to the Sussex County League, but an improved run of results late on, saw them finish in seventeenth place.
The restructuring of non-league football then led to the club being switched to the Ryman League Division One for the start of the 2004/05 campaign. The Club enjoyed an excellent start to the season and found themselves in and around the top six in the league throughout the first couple of months and also reached the third qualifying round of the FA Cup. A dip in league form followed and the Club parted company with Steve Lovell in November, as they slid dangerously close to the relegation places. The appointment of former Everton and Wales goalkeeping legend Neville Southall as manager signalled an upturn in fortunes in the New Year, but an inconsistent season ended with another disappointing run, as United were forced to settle for an eleventh place finish.
The 2005/06 season proved to be another one of change for the Club, rather mirroring the previous campaign. United got off to a decent start and were just three points behind the leaders at the beginning of November, but a sudden slump in form saw them slip slowly down the table and, by the end of the month, the Club had decided to part company with Southall, a move that caused more disruption than anyone could have guessed, with the entire management team tendering their resignations on the same day. Senior players, Nigel Kane and Pat Brown, volunteered to take charge of team affairs on a caretaker basis and were eventually rewarded with full time appointments as joint player-managers. After a shaky start to their tenure, a seven match unbeaten run took United in sight of the play-offs once again, but only one win in the last seven matches, ultimately saw United finish in twelfth place, with Brown stepping down for personal reasons and leaving Kane in sole charge.
A thrilling promotion winning season looked far from likely when United lost their opening four games of the 2006/07 season to lie bottom of the table, their worst start to a league season in living memory. Results picked up slowly, but the Club was still preparing for a long relegation battle, and had been knocked out of the FA Cup and FA Trophy, beyond the middle of November. A nine match unbeaten run, which lasted until early in the New Year, propelled United towards the play-off positions though, and it was a further sixteen games until they lost again, firmly installing them as one of the favourites for the league title. But United only hit the summit on one occasion, in mid-March, and then for only twenty-four hours, while just one win in their final four matches saw them finish in fourth place behind champions Maidstone United. Despite playing for an hour with ten men, United stunned Dover Athletic with a 2-0 win at Crabble in the play-off semi-final, and followed that up with an equally impressive 2-0 victory away to Tooting & Mitcham United in the final, clinching promotion to the Ryman League Premier Division, and completing a remarkable turnaround after such a desperate start to the campaign.
Several former players ended their self-imposed exile from the Pilot Field ahead of the 2009/10 campaign, and a season of mid-table security at least looked within United's grasp at the outset. After a slow start, results and performances soon picked up, and although typically early eliminations from the FA Cup and FA Trophy set back their progress, they allowed the U's to get well ahead of their rivals in terms of league matches played, resulting in them holding second place in the table for a three month period either side of Christmas, albeit well behind runaway champions Dartford. An indifferent run of results, especially away from home, allowed a number of other clubs to reel them in though, but the U's still looked good for a play-off place after enjoying two wins over Easter. However, just one victory in their last five league matches ultimately saw United finish seventh, and not even a run to the semi-finals of the Sussex Senior Cup could mask the sense of disappointment at what might have been.
Seeking to build on the relative success of the previous campaign, United invested more heavily than usual in an improved playing squad ahead of the 2010/11 season and a five match unbeaten start saw them head the league early on. Cracks began to show after a home defeat to eventual champions Sutton though, and a last gasp FA Cup exit at Bognor followed, with the Club embarking on a run of just two wins in twenty games that culminated in Dolby's departure in the wake of a 3-2 reverse against a Horsham side that had three men sent off. Lewes Youth Team boss Jason Hopkinson was appointed in his place, inheriting a squad decimated by budget cuts, but having lost his first seven fixtures in charge, results slowly began to improve and United managed to avoid relegation, albeit only on goal difference.
Hopkinson made many friends with his footballing philosophy, which encouraged his players to pass the ball and retain possession whenever possible. Goalscoring proved a significant problem however, and several failed attempts at finding a resolution ended with him stepping down in late October 2011 with only three wins to his name all season. Senior player Sean Ray, the Club's former Youth Team manager, agreed to take over the reins, with Mark Stapley providing valuable assistance, and they got off to a flying start with four consecutive victories. A poor run after Christmas left United in the bottom four again though, but results picked up at the end of February and a mid-table finish looked distinctly possible. Cue a run of one win in nine that dragged them back into danger, only for successive victories over Harrow and Lowestoft to ensure the Club's survival in the Premier Division once more.
The bookmakers had United as favourites for relegation when the 2012/13 campaign kicked off, but a solid enough start provided little insight into what would become an extraordinary season of wildly contrasting fortunes. The early months saw the U's win their first FA Cup tie in six seasons and embark upon a run that took them back to the first round for the first time in ten years. A 2-1 victory away to Conference North side Bishop's Stortford booked a place in round two for the first time ever, where they were drawn away to Harrogate Town, another Conference North outfit. A 1-1 draw in North Yorkshire led to a Pilot Field replay in front of a 4,028 capacity crowd and live television coverage on ESPN, when a dramatic night ended with a 5-4 penalty shoot-out victory that earned United a third round trip to Middlesbrough.
That disappointment was nothing in comparison to what followed a year later though, as United endured a frankly awful 2014/15 campaign, despite having initially assembled an experienced squad that looked plenty capable of another promotion challenge. But after a poor start to the season, White stepped down as manager before the end of September, and was succeeded by former East Preston boss Dominic Di Paola, who was joined at the Club by his backroom team and several of the players with whom he had won the Sussex County League title a few months earlier. Although form improved, results were largely inconsistent, yet Di Paola's decision to resign on New Year's Day came as a huge surprise and left the U's in complete turmoil. Seven years on, Nigel Kane returned to the hotseat and embarked on a rebuilding exercise, but a run of ten games without a win saw United collapse into enormous danger of relegation, only for three victories in April to rescue their Division One South status. Off the pitch, Dave Walters sold his majority shareholding in the Club, with long time supporters Dave Ormerod taking over as Chairman and inviting Tony Cosens, Dave Nessling and Pat McCrossan to join him on the Board of Directors. Since then Peter Sherlock and Barrie West have joined the Board and Daren Burney has become a Non Executive Director.
Hastings United Football Club Honours Achieved: