The History of Hastings United

The present Hastings United Football Club appears to have existed continuously since 1901 having undergone three changes of name. One consequence of those name changes has been that the club’s history has become inclined to be interwoven with that of other clubs with similar names and only recently may its history have been disentangled which is why this what is considered accurate history may now read somewhat differently to previous versions. The origins of the club began with the founding of old town side Rock-A-Nore in 1894; however, five years later they became defunct but in 1901 a new club started-up using the same name. They won the East Sussex League Championship in 1907/08 and were to be amongst the foremost local sides regularly winning trophies until World War One called a halt to proceedings.

The Rock-A-Nore club resumed in 1919, this has lead to some confusion as to whether the Club was actually founded in 1901 or 1919 and Hastings United has taken the view that it was 1901 in which year the club won five local trophies plus the Sussex Junior Cup, the latter success being crucial as it not only secured them an invitation to become a founder members of the Sussex League when it started in 1920 but led to the Council developing a community ground. They purchased Pilot Field Meadow where the first pitch was prepared on the upper area, later “The Firs”, with Rock-A-Nore having first call upon it. Their opening match there was a County League fixture against Chichester on September 11th, 1920 when a crowd of over one thousand saw them lose by the odd goal of three. Having previously rejected a proposal to add Hastings to the club name, in April, 1921 it was agreed to change the name to Hastings and St.Leonards Football Club. As Hastings & St. Leonards, the club attracted the area’s better players and immediately achieved a second place finish in the County League, a feat they repeated in 1926. During this period the Council invested substantial amounts in developing the lower pitch turning it into a stadium, complete with the concrete grandstand that still graces the ground.

After rejecting ideas of turning professional but having failed to gain admission to the Athenian or Isthmian Leagues, the club joined Eastbourne in the Southern Amateur League who accepted them but only in Division Two which they won at the first attempt in season 1927/28. Promoted, the club made a sensational entry to the top division playing their opening league game at Wembley Stadium, the home for one season of Ealing Association, where they lost 0-1. Season-on-season progress saw their finishing positions improve whilst in 1933 they reached the final of the Sussex Senior Cup for the first time only to lose to Eastbourne after a replay. The following season they were runners-up to Ipswich Town but in season 1934/35 Hastings & St. Leonards won their first league championship although they were beaten by Worthing in the final of the Sussex Senior Cup.

In season 1935/36 the club won a second league championship and recorded a first Sussex Senior Cup success, defeating Lewes 2-0 in the final, while being beaten finalists in the AFA Senior Cup going down 0-2 to holders Harwich & Parkston at Crystal Palace. The following year there were no major cup final appearances but they became only the second club to win the Southern Amateur League championship in three consecutive seasons. In an ironic twist of fate a record breaking fourth title was denied them by one point as a result of their first home league loss since August, 1935, a 0-1 defeat, to eventual champions Civil Service; however, they did record a first success in the national AFA Senior Cup and a second Sussex Senior Cup victory. The fourth league championship came in 1939 and that season the club also lifted the Sussex RUR Charity Cup for the first time.

The Southern Amateur League did not operate between 1939 and 1945 but for season 1939/40 the Sussex County League staged a war emergency competition which was played in two geographical sections; the Sussex Senior Cup operated in a similar manner. By winning the eastern section of both competitions, Hastings reached the final of each where they met Worthing who had won both west sections; the two sides were also invited to contest the RUR Charity Cup, thus the sides were scheduled to meet in three finals. The first meeting was in the Senior Cup and that resulted in a draw, after extra time, with Worthing then winning the replay. Two weeks on, Hastings won the Charity Cup after extra time and so the League Play-Off became a decider which Worthing won.  Shortly afterwards the club suspended operations for the duration of the Second World War but maintained a link with local youth football and, therefore, were able to field teams in a full programme of club matches during season 1944/45.Resuming in the Southern Amateur League, the club were again runners-up in 1946 and decided that the time was right to look for challenges elsewhere and, unable to gain entry to either the Athenian or Isthmian Leagues, they entered the Corinthian League. Despite bringing a good class of amateur football to the town, there was a clamour in Hastings for professional football and in the summer of 1948 Hastings & St. Leonards found that the lease on the Pilot Field stadium had been awarded to the newly formed Hastings United F.C. who had gained admission to an enlarged Southern League without ever having kicked a ball.

With no suitable ground available, “The Amateurs” were forced to withdraw from the Corinthian League but the club continuing with teams in the local leagues playing on the top pitch at the Pilot Field. In 1952 the club became founder members of Division Two of the Sussex County League, however, the transition was a huge step for which the club was not prepared and in the first three seasons they finished bottom of the division.  Eventually in season 1959/60 the club finished as runners-up but with only the top side eligible for promotion they remained in Division Two for a further twenty years. During that period the club changed its name to Hastings Town and improved The Firs ground re-profiling the pitch and constructing a purpose built clubhouse. Success returned to the club in season 1979/80 when they won both the Division Two title and the divisional cup. The following season they won the League Challenge Cup and finished in fourth place in Division One with a further four seasons being spent in Division One.

Meanwhile Hastings United, who had struggled during season 1984/85 just retained their place in the Southern League’s Premier Division, however, in June, 1985 the club ceased trading when it was found they could no longer sustain their accumulated debts. Hastings Town made application to takeover their Southern League place but Witney objected as United’s demise had saved them from relegation from the Premier Division and, instead, Town were offered a place in the League’s Southern Division. Several ex-United players joined Town and the unified side featured in the promotion race during their first two seasons but just missed out finishing third and fourth in 1986 and 1987, respectively.

It was the return of former Hastings United manager Peter Sillett that saw Town establish themselves as a force in the Southern League winning the Southern Division in 1992. Playing at their highest level ever, Town struggled and Sillett was replaced by Dean White, the local former Chelsea and Gillingham player, who saw them to safety. The club was to spend a further six seasons in the Premier Division of the Southern League, during which they won the Challenge Cup, and reached the final of the Sussex Senior Cup four times in five seasons, lifting the trophy in 1996 and 1998.

Season 1998/99 saw an attempt to transfer to the Isthmian League refused but having resigned from the Southern League they were only accepted back as new entrants and started season 1999/2000 in the Eastern Division which they won in 2002. At this time the club acquired the company name Hastings United and since have played under that title, however, promoted to the Premier Division a twentieth position finish saw them make an immediate return to the Eastern Division but a first appearance was made in the F.A. Challenge Cup competition proper when the side went through to the first round proper after winning in a replay at Kettering Town. Sadly, there was to be no meeting with a Football League side to evoke memories of their namesake’s glorious cup history, instead it was a visit to another Conference side, Stevenage Borough, where the dream ended with a 0-1 defeat. Relegation and the F.A.’s Non-League restructuring moved the side into the Ryman Isthmian League where they finished in eleventh and twelfth places in Division One in 2005 and 2006. Following a fourth place finish in season 2006/07, promotion to the Premier Division was won by defeating second placed Tooting & Mitcham United in the end of season play-off final.

During season 2007/08 Hastings United struggled in the Premier Division and mid-term the club dispensed with the services of Nigel Kane, reserve team manager John Lambert acting in a caretaker capacity, until former Millwall player and ex-Tonbridge Angels boss Tony Dolby arrived and steered the side clear of relegation. Tony did not stay at the Pilot Field and Lambert was appointed as manager for season 2008/09 but once again United found themselves in the lower half of the table for much of the season and after a prolonged spell in or just above the relegation places Tony Dolby returned to replace Lambert and once again oversaw them retain their place in the Premier Division.

The 2009/10 season was United’s most successful since gaining promotion.  They looked likely to make the end of season play-offs until a late dip in form saw them finish in seventh place.  They reached the semi-finals of the Sussex Senior Cup, losing to Brighton & Hove Albion but found no success in the FA Cup, FA Trophy of League Cup.

Manager Tony Dolby left the club in December 2010 and was replaced by Jason Hopkinson who was previously assistant manager at Lewes.  Results picked up which enable the club to retain its Premier Division status. Results in the cup competitions were again disappointing.  Jason left the Club during October 2011 following a disappointing start to the season and was replaced by central defender Sean Ray United again found themselves in a relegation battle but managed to preserve their Premier Division status.

A poor league season in 2012/13 saw the club relegated from the Ryman League Premier Division. There was considerable cup success however.  An FA Cup run saw United reach the third round proper before losing 4-1 away to Championship side Middlesbrough. They also reached the semi-finals of the League Cup, losing away to Concord Rangers, and the Sussex Senior Cup when they lost 1-0 to Bognor Regis Town.

Three days prior to the start of the new season manager Sean Ray resigned his position.  Assistant Mark Stapley and coach Terry White are in temporary charge. John Maggs was appointed as manager towards the end of August 2013, formerly with Crawley Town, Horsham and Crawley Down Gatwick.

John Maggs was dismissed towards the end of January 2014 and replaced by former player Terry White.  Two other managerial changes were made during the season when results were disappointing especially as many had tipped the club to be challenging for a play-off place.Towards the end of season 2014/15 the club changes hands when a new board of directors was appointed. Garry Wilson was appointed as manager during the close season with Danny Bloor joining as assistant manager.

Garry Wilson and Danny Bloor stepped down at the end of the 2015/16 season to be replaced by former United player Darren Hare who had previously been with Gillingham FC undertaking a number of rolls including caretaker manager.  Darren rebuilt the squad during the close-season with a number of new signings.

After an excellent season which ended with a play-off semi-final defeat, on penalties, away to Dorking Wanderers, Darren Hare resigned.  His replacement was Adam Hinshelwood who once again had to rebuild the side as a number of players moved on. Adam resigned during September to take on the managers role at Worthing FC and was replaced by his assistant Chris Agutter who remains at the helm to this day on a full time basis combining his role with being Head of Coaching & Recruitment within the Club’s education and football scheme which it operates in conjunction with East Sussex College Group from Hastings College.