CHROMASPORT & TROPHIES UNITED COUNTIES LEAGUE HISTORY
The league was formed in May 1895 at a meeting at the Granville Hotel, Wellingborough as the ‘Northamptonshire Junior League’. Eleven clubs across the county competed in the first season with the first matches played on 7th September 1895. Kettering Church Institute beat Rushden 3rds 3-1 and Wellingborough Reserves beat Wellingborough Midland Cottages 4-1.
Wellingborough Reserves became the first champions of the league and for its second season the competition expanded into the divisions with the word ‘Junior’ dropped from the title as some clubs of a higher standard joined. Northampton Town joined the league in 1897 and became champions in their second season before moving up to the Southern League. They would become the league’s first former member to reach the Football League in 1920. In 1900 Bedford Queens became the first club from outside the county to join the league.
The current championship trophy was presented to the league by Conservative candidate for East Northants, Mr JC Denham-Parker, in 1901! The league reverted to just a single division in 1904-05 with just seven clubs in membership, but a year later the competition reverted to a two section format, lasting until 1911.
The league continued when World War One started in 1914, but was abandoned in mid season as numerous clubs withdrew as players departed to join the war effort.
The league resumed in 1919 and a second division was again introduced in 1925 before the lower section was again dropped after eight seasons.
The thirties saw a decline in numbers and from 1929 to 1933 clubs played some of their rivals three times to make up the fixture list.
A Knockout Cup competition was introduced for the first time in 1933-34, with Rushden Town the first winners.
By this time the competition had expanded its boundaries with six of the thirteen clubs based outside Northamptonshire, prompting a change of name to the United Counties League.
The thirties saw Rushden Town enjoy the most spectacular run of success enjoyed by any club in the league’s long history as they claimed four successive championships.
The outbreak of the Second World War saw the competition abandoned but for the first two seasons of the war a war period league was run with reduced boundaries.
Post war the league resumed with eight clubs for the 1945-46 seasons, Bedford Avenue becoming champions.
The league expanded in the early post war years and by 1949-50 had 21 clubs in membership. The following season a second division was again introduced.
The years after the war saw the league enjoy its best ever attendances, many club records remaining to this day. The best crowd recorded was 6,925 who watched the 1952-53 Knockout Cup final between Bedford Town Reserves and Spalding United.
The league’s peak seasons of pre eminence were quickly followed by a fall as many clubs moved on to other leagues, forcing a contraction to a single division in 1956, many of the teams remaining being second strings of established clubs whose first teams had moved on.
For many of the departing clubs the grass did not prove greener elsewhere and in 1961 a number of familiar faces returned to the fold as the league again expanded to two divisions.
Further expansion of the competition took place in 1968 as a third division was formed with 16 teams in membership.
At this stage all divisions featured first and reserve teams but in 1972 a Premier Division was formed with first teams only, clubs having to comply with higher facility standards.
In the mid 1970s the Football Association introduced the FA Vase competition in place of the Amateur Cup and this gave clubs the opportunity to make their names known nationally. Stamford reached three Wembley finals, losing to Billericay in 1976 and Stansted in 1984 but beating Guisborough 2-0 in the 1980 final. Irthlingborough Diamonds were also prominent in the competition’s early years but a place at Wembley proved elusive.
A new floodlit era came to the league when Irthlingborough Diamonds installed lights in 1978 and over the years they were joined by many other clubs the Premier Division becoming fully floodlit in 1992.
In 1980 further league restructuring saw Division One become a first team competition only and a new Reserve Division formed to cater for second strings who had previously played in Divisions One and Two. A second Reserve Division was added in 1983.
By this time a pyramid of leagues was being put in place and the UCL became an official feeder to the Southern League. Expansion of the latter competition had seen Rushden Town step up in 1983, the first club to move directly between the competitions since 1945. Buckingham Town became the first club to win promotion to the Southern League in 1986.
In a time of change the league had obtained sponsorship for its Knockout Cup competition from Bury St Edmunds brewers Greene King in the late 70s, while the league’s first full sponsorship was provided by Northampton based Nene Group in 1985.
In 1987 the league introduced three points for a win for the first time and in 1992 Northampton Spencer became the first club to break the 100 point barrier as they won the Premier Division crown.
In 1989 the league launched its own pyramid of junior leagues with Northampton Vanaid becoming the first club to step up in 1993.
The league celebrated the completion of its first hundred years with a centenary dinner at Wicksteed Park in 1995, FA secretary Graham Kelly and former England players Trevor Brooking and Emlyn Hughes the guests of honour.