Southampton Football Club formed as the St Mary’s Young Men’s Association in 1885 and the team played their first game on 21 November 1885, beating local rivals Freemantle 5-1. This game was played on land in Northlands Road, but this was not to be the club’s permanent home. Between then and the move to the Dell in 1898, Saints played on Southampton Common, at the Antelope Ground on St Mary’s Road, and at the County Ground on Northlands Road too.
In those years the club grew in size and stature, winning the Hampshire Junior Cup in 1888, 1889, and 1890, and the Hampshire Senior Cup in 1891 and 1892. The club went from strength to strength and were crowned Southern League champions in 1896-97, before retaining their title in 1897-98. It was apparent, then, that the club needed a proper home, and a site was soon suggested. It was a small dell, a narrow valley next to the relatively new St Mark’s Church on Archers Road. George Thomas, a fishmonger and member of the Southampton Football and Athletic Company Limited, secured the land and he immediately went to work constructing the new ground, purchasing materials and hiring contractors. It cost somewhere in the region of £10,000 to complete but by September 1898, the Southern League champions were ready to move into their new home.
The first game at the Dell was kicked off by Alderman George John Tilling, then Mayor of Southampton, on 3 September 1898. The game was not without incident. Early on, Arthur Chadwick (who would later manage the Saints from 1925 to 1931) accidentally kicked Brighton United’s centre-forward Willie McArthur in the face and he had to be carried off the field so that he could receive some medical attention. It only took five minutes for the home side to open the scoring, with Watty Keay, a ‘prime favourite with the dockers’, securing the honour of being the first player to score at the Dell. Abe Hartley put the Saints 2-0 up just before half-time, and they settled into their new home by controlling the game. Jim McKenzie, who had assisted Hartley in the first-half, added a third, before Roddy McLeod got one back for Brighton United. McLeod would join Saints towards the end of the season. Southampton’s Tom Smith completed the scoring, and Saints ran out 4-1 winners on that historic day.
A correspondent from the Bournemouth Guardian attended the game:
‘The opening of the Southampton Football Club’s new ground at Southampton on Saturday drew together a large crowd. Naturally, I could not resist the alluring bait, and found many other Bournemouth people on the ground bent on the same object. Though a Southern League match, the Southampton public looked upon it rather as an opportunity of trying to find out what the new players were like, and whether the eleven was equal to the famous team of last season, than as a doubtful issue…. All supporters of the Saints went away relieved at their display. The defence is, to my mind, stronger than before, with Durber, Petrie, and Dewar on Saturday in reserve. That question was soon settled, and I watched the forwards most carefully to see if the defection of Turner and Farrell had weakened the row. McKenzie is not yet a Turner, but he may easily become one if he keeps up his style of the second half of Saturday’s game. Neither is Hartley the master of combination that Jack Farrell was, but on the right wing the improvement is marked. Wood and Smith seem likely to form the very strongest right wing the Saints have ever had. I must say that the new ground full of people is an imposing sight, and the officials of the club were in high feather on Saturday at the success of their undertaking, both in building up a team and a ground.’
Also in attendance was a reporter called ‘Southerner’, who wrote the following in a ‘Notes From The South’ column in the Lancashire Evening Post sports section:
‘So far I have had very little to say about Southampton, the team of the South on last season’s form. On Saturday, therefore, I made the somewhat tedious journey down to the South coast on purpose to be present at the opening of their new ground. Never had I such a surprise. I have seen nearly all the best grounds in the kingdom, but none where the arrangements have been carried out more perfectly than at Southampton. The playing portion is an enclosure sunk below the original level of the ground, so that the tiers of stands are mostly on solid earth cut out on all four sides, while the slopes are all of natural formation. The result is that everybody gets a perfect bird’s-eye view of the game under the best possible conditions. All the big stands have perfectly independent and covered entrances and exits. In the chief stand each seat is numbered and reserved, the roofing extends for some feet out beyond the main pillars, and it will thus be possible for people to leave their homes on a wet day, drive into the ground under cover, and take their seats without getting wet. These advantages should secure larger “gates” on wet days than has hitherto been the case. But it was the luxurious accommodation for the players that roused my envy and made me wish that I was a professional player and that the Southampton secretary was trying to secure my signature. He would have had it by now, and instead of penning these lines in boiling, baking, roasting London I should have been wallowing in an enormous plunge bath on the Southampton ground or enjoying the delights of shower and needle baths. In addition to these baths there are also hot and cold and plain baths. The lot of the Southampton football professional is indeed a happy one!’
The opening day would be a sign of things to come as the club went from strength to strength in their new home. The first season at the Dell saw the Saints again compete for the Southern League and they went into the final game of the season tied on points with Bristol City. As fate would have it, the final game of the season was an away fixture at Bristol City, who had gone the entire season without losing at home. With both teams on 33 points, Saints were top by virtue of goal difference, and so they only needed a draw to secure the title. Bristol City needed to win. Around 15,000 fans were present, including an away following of around four hundred who had made the trip from Southampton. The stage was set for a dramatic title-deciding clash and it could not have started any worse for Saints, who found themselves 2-0 down at half-time. Telegrams were sent back to Southampton, and hopes for a draw diminished by the minute. Roddy McLeod, who had scored against Saints for Brighton United on the opening day of the season, was moved from the inside-right to centre-forward, and within twelve minutes of the restart, Saints were level. Arthur Chadwick had got the first with a long range strike, and captain Harry ‘The Wolf’ Wood scored the equaliser. The Saints fans ‘rose tremendously’ as Bristol City began to panic, and Duncan McLean put Saints 3-2 up. With that, ‘except for the Southampton war cry – “Yi! Yi!! Yi!!!” – a solemn silence had now fallen over the crowd’. Wood added a fourth for Saints to make sure, Bristol City got one back, but that’s how it ended. Bristol City 3-4 Southampton and with it the Southern League title. The news filtered back to Southampton, and the fans there began to celebrate. When the special train rolled into the railway station at the top of Oxford Street, the players, staff, and four hundred fans on board discovered that the streets were thronged with people and the Town Band was there to help them celebrate. They struggled to exit the station and, when they reached the street, the band began to play, and a procession formed that paraded through the principal streets of the town, with ‘the crowd cheering as only footballers know how’. The Hampshire Advertiser reporter wrote, ‘judging from the excitement which was witnessed in Southampton on Saturday night, it certainly does not seem that football enthusiasm is on the wane’.
The following season Saints finished third and reached the FA Cup final, where they lost to Bury. In 1900-01 they won the Southern League again.
In 1901, the Dell hosted its first international game: a Home International Championship match between England and Ireland. The England side boasted three Southampton players in its starting line-up, with Jack Robinson in goal, the full-back Charles Burgess Fry, and Arthur Turner, who was unfortunately forced off injured after twenty minutes. England won 3-0.
The 1901-02 season saw a repeat of 1899-00 with Saints finishing third in the league and coming runners-up in the FA Cup final. The club were Southern League champions again in 1903 and 1904, but that would be their last piece of silverware for a while.
Southampton joined the Football League Third Division in 1920 and that season they finished second, missing out on promotion. The following year the Third Division split into North and South sections, and Saints won the league on goal difference. Bill Rawlings scored thirty goals that season, including four in one game in an 8-0 home triumph over Northampton, and three goals in seven days against Portsmouth, netting both in a 2-0 win at Fratton Park, and then the opener in a 1-1 draw at the Dell the following weekend. Rawlings’ form that season earned him two England caps, a rare distinction for a player plying his trade in the third tier.
A description of the Dell was printed in the Liverpool Echo before the two sides met in the FA Cup in February 1924. It had been the first time the sides had faced each other at the Dell since the 1901-02 season, when Saints had thrashed Liverpool 4-1 en route to the FA Cup final. The newspaper claimed the match was still talked about in Southampton as being the finest exhibition of football ever seen at the Dell.
‘It is a pity in some respects, and especially from the point of view of the financial prospects of both clubs, that the third round FA Cup tie between Southampton and Liverpool is to be played on the Dell, for the Saints’ enclosure is small. Its greatest capacity is 22,000, and the highest gate-money ever taken there amounted to £1,814 10s. This receipts record was put up when Blackpool visited in the second round, and the attendance record was made in the fourth round last season when West Ham drew 21,960 spectators. It is a curiously-built ground, with the people almost coming down to the touchline. It is, as its name suggests, in a “dell”, with natural and constructed terraced banks behind each goal. The stands – there are two – flank the ground. One, the west stand, the seats in which are reserved, houses 1,000 people, while the other, the east stand, accommodates 2,800 spectators. One of the old players of the club used to call it the “mouse-trap”, and visiting teams, unaccustomed to such close surroundings, get the impression when they make their first appearance there of being closed-in on all sides.’
Perhaps the Liverpool players, who had been crowned First Division champions in 1922-23, were unaccustomed to such close surroundings. Despite being clear favourites, they couldn’t break down the ‘sturdy’ Southampton defence and the game ended 0-0. Liverpool then won the replay 2-0.
However, the following season gave the Saints an opportunity for revenge. The two teams were drawn against each other in the fourth round of the FA Cup and Liverpool were once again forced to venture into the ‘mouse-trap’. The victor could look forward to a place in the semi-final. Writing in Bee’s Notes On Sport column in the Liverpool Echo ahead of the game, ‘Bee’ described travelling south on the train in ‘a jolly party, a big party, a confident party’. ‘Bee’ was so confident that Liverpool would beat the Saints and go on to win the semi-final too, that they spoke of having thoughts about booking trains to London for the big day at Wembley the following month. ‘Bee’ wrote:
‘There are one or two differentiating points in the personnel of the teams that make me feel more confident about Southampton’s exit this time than last time. Last time the teams met, the Dell was unknown to most of the boys from this part, save Longworth, who had been there in his Leyton days. They had heard much about it and had let it get a shade too big in their mind. The Dell is not a picture palace, but it is not quite so bad as thought by most Liverpool people, who are used to the spaciousness of the Goodison Park and Anfield grounds. One corner of the Dell is a barrier to a winger – there is no denying that; but at the opposite end of the field there is plenty of space for the winger to make his mark without the fear of being “walled in”. So we can imagine the Anfield players won’t be unnerved by the state of the embankment under the club offices.’
‘Nerves count for a lot in Cup-tie issues, and I imagine that Liverpool’s experienced side, with its clever team work, will not be worried by the outlook of visiting Southampton. At any rate, I go for a victory at the first time of asking…’
Liverpool lost 1-0. Bill Rawlings scored the winning goal four minutes from time and spoiled any party that ‘Bee’ might have been having. Saints progressed to the semi-final but lost 2-0 to Sheffield United, who they had lost to twenty-three years earlier in the 1902 final.
It was not only international football matches that the Dell would play host to but heavyweight boxing bouts, too. 1926 saw Phil Scott ready to defend his British Empire heavyweight title against former champion and local lad Joe Beckett. Both men had at one time also been British heavyweight boxing champions. However, a few days before the fight, Beckett tore his calf muscle and so was unable to participate. At short notice, the former New Zealand heavyweight champion Tom Heeney stepped in and the two men went up against each other at the Dell. The ring was erected on the pitch, with a cover over the top, and the rain sent many of the spectators searching for cover in the stands. Scott won narrowly on points after twenty rounds, with Heeney being praised for his performance which came just five days after a victory in London.
Work began on the new West Stand in 1927, enlarging it so that the capacity of the ground would be around 35,000, with 12,000 protected from the rain. The stand could accommodate 8,000 seated spectators, and the pitch itself was moved twenty-five feet to the west, so that a new enclosure could be constructed at the front of the East Stand. The following month, the club purchased the final house they needed in Archers Road, enabling them to complete the work. There had been a danger that if they could not buy the required properties, the stand would remain unfinished for a time.
Further expansion came two years later in 1929. Barely an hour had passed after the full-time whistle was blown on the final game of the 1928-29 season, and the East Stand was engulfed in flames. The wooden structure was completely destroyed, supposedly the result of a dropped cigarette, and so the club went to work on building a new stand which would mirror the West Stand.
Southampton Football Club celebrated their golden jubilee in 1935. The ‘jubilee match’ was the fixture that fell closest to the date of their first ever game back in the November of 1885, and they were set to play Spurs. However, five days before the game, part of the pitch at the Dell collapsed. Torrential downpours had resulted in nationwide flooding, and a brick culvert carrying the stream under the stadium could no longer cope. Part of it collapsed, causing a hole in front of one of the goals which was twelve feet wide and several feet deep. Players helped workmen carry out urgent repairs, and thankfully the pitch was restored to a playable condition before the game against Spurs, which Saints won 2-0. Later that evening, players and staff celebrated the jubilee in style at the grand South Western Hotel on Canute Road. On a cake weighing more than 600 lbs there was a football pitch with two teams lining up against each other, one ‘ancient’, and one ‘modern’. The cake was illuminated by fifty candles. Albert Arthur Fry was one of the guests that evening, he had been Southampton’s first captain and had played in that historic first match against Freemantle in 1885.
Southampton has always been a port town and it experienced massive growth in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century it was further enlarged and came to be known as the ‘Gateway to the World’. Some of the biggest ships in the world called Southampton home, and not only was it a town of shipping and shipbuilding, it was also an important hub for aviation. On the banks of the River Itchen, at the Supermarine factory, the Spitfire was born. Designed at Woolston by R. J. Mitchell and his team, the Spitfire was built there until the factory was bombed in September 1940 and production was more widely dispersed. In addition, just down the river was the shipyard of John I. Thornycroft, where many Royal Navy ships were constructed. A 1940 German reconnaissance map highlights both of these sites, as well as the Cold Store at the docks, and the gas works at Northam where, some sixty years later, St Mary’s Stadium would be built. The map was accurate and effective, for the Cold Store took a direct hit in August 1940 and burned for two weeks. The Supermarine factory was bombed in the September. The gas works, which was owned by the Southampton Gaslight and Coke Company, was bombed on 26 September 1940. Eleven men lost their lives and in 2011 a memorial plaque was unveiled outside St Mary’s Stadium in order to remember these men. It lists their names, and underneath has the words: ‘All Saints fans. Always remembered’. The German bombs were devastating. Much of the town centre was flattened and the Nazis proudly proclaimed that they had left Southampton ‘a smoking ruin’. Whilst certain areas were successfully targeted, a lot of the bombing was indiscriminate, and the Dell did not escape the bombsights. In November 1940, a bomb landed in the Milton Road penalty area leaving an eighteen-foot crater and a flooded pitch. The war raged on but so did wartime football. Saints had to play a ‘home’ cup fixture against Brentford at Fratton Park, and they played their remaining games away from home or at Eastleigh.
Saints remained in the Second Division and, in 1950, the Dell became the first ground in England to have permanent floodlights installed. Although lighting had been used often in the past, it had been in an experimental manner. Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman had lights installed on one of the stands at Highbury, but the Football League refused to sanction their use. On 31 October 1950, the Dell was lit up by permanent floodlights for a friendly against Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic and then, almost exactly a year later, the first official match under lights at the Dell was played in a reserve fixture against Spurs.
Relegation back to the Third Division South came in 1953 but, in 1960, Saints went back up as champions in a campaign that saw Derek Reeves score 39 league goals. Promotion to the First Division came in 1966, a good year all round for football. Saints travelled to Leyton Orient, in a game where they needed at least a point to secure promotion, and Terry Paine scored the goal in a 1-1 draw that must have felt like a thousand victories.
Saints were relegated back to the Second Division in 1975 but the following season perhaps gave them their finest moment. On a scorching hot day at Wembley on 1 May 1976, Southampton famously defeated Manchester United in the FA Cup final after a late Bobby Stokes strike. The following day, the team embarked upon a nineteen-mile open top bus parade through the city, and the Daily Mirror estimated that 175,000 people turned out to see them. It meant so much to the people of Southampton, and it seems everyone was there, including my mum. She was only ten years old at the time and, despite not having much of an interest in football, she remembers the incredible atmosphere. As luck would have it, the club had arranged Mick Channon’s testimonial match for 3 May, and so two days after the cup triumph, fans were still in a celebratory mood as they packed into the Dell to see their heroes. The FA Cup was paraded in front of an official attendance of 29,508 that night, although those who were there would probably tell you there were a few more than that. Spare a thought for the hundreds outside who could not get a ticket. The Dell was packed to the rafters, the fans encroached the pitch due to the lack of space. A few minutes before the full-time whistle blew, the fans swarmed onto the pitch, a celebration in full flow.
Two years later, in 1978, Saints once again returned to the top flight. Once again, they travelled to Leyton Orient’s Brisbane Road and, like last time, they only needed a point to virtually secure promotion. It is thought that around 12,000 Saints fans made the trip and after another 1-1 draw, many spilled onto the pitch to celebrate. A wall broke in the ensuing madness which caused some injuries. Incidentally, a victory at Leyton Orient in April 2011, thanks to goals from Rickie Lambert and Lee Barnard, saw Saints leapfrog Huddersfield and enter the League One automatic promotion places. We sang ‘the Saints are going up’ for what seemed like an eternity that day but, evidently, we were not the the first set of Saints fans to experience that euphoric feeling at Brisbane Road.
From the 1960s, the ‘chocolate boxes’ dominated the Milton End. They were perched up on concrete pillars and could hold around a thousand fans. The steps up to them were steep, and one was allocated to children up to the age of fourteen. By the early 1980s, however, the ‘chocolate boxes’ had been replaced by a family stand which was then re-built in the early 1990s, creating the idiosyncratic wedge that was instantly recognisable as belonging to the Dell. After the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, The Dell converted to an all-seater stadium, leaving it with one of the lowest capacities in the league.
A move from the Dell had been talked about for many years and, in 1999, construction began on the new stadium. The Dell’s days were sadly numbered. The 2000-01 season would be its last and a match against Arsenal would be its competitive swansong. Hassan Kachloul twice levelled for Saints, and everybody knows what happens next. You couldn’t write it. In the 89th minute, Matthew Le Tissier, on the turn, hit a sweet left-footed half-volley beyond Alex Manninger and into the net. Arguably the finest player to ever pull on the red and white shirt, giving the Dell the finest of goodbyes. The outpouring of emotion with that goal must have been overwhelming, indeed, it was said that grown men were moved to tears. Jason Dodd’s testimonial followed, then a final friendly against Brighton and Hove Albion, a nod to the first game there against Brighton United one-hundred and three years before. Uwe Rösler got the only goal in a 1-0 win, before fans helped themselves to various souvenirs from the old ground.
“It’s always been a tough place to go,” Arsène Wenger said of the Dell, “and when they move to a bigger stadium with a bigger pitch, they may find less fear from the opponents as well. It’s a lovely ground and, when you look at the fixtures, you know you will have done well to get the points. No matter how good Southampton are, you know you will be playing against Southampton and the crowd here.”
Indeed, our Bournemouth Guardian correspondent said similar when he paid the ground a visit a week before it opened in August 1898.
‘On Wednesday I had a look at the Southampton Club’s new ground at the Dell. It is about six minutes’ walk from Southampton West Station up Hill Lane. What Mr. Thomas and his directors have done is almost a miracle. A few months ago the site was a deep marshy gorge, of no use to either for the speculative builder or the gardener. It has been levelled up, drained, and is covered with strong grass, and surrounded like an amphitheatre on all four sides with huge covered and open stands, rising some 20 or 30 feet above the level of the pitch. The playing ground is just a foot over the regulation English Cup tie size, and there is only a small space outside the touch and goal lines, so that the spectators are, so to speak, all “on top of the play”. I doubt if there is a ground so compact and carefully laid out in the Kingdom, and its estimated holding capacity of 25,000 will be more like 35,000 with a little packing. Such enterprise ought to bear good fruit.’
Good fruit it did bear. Southampton eventually established themselves in the top flight of English football and, despite a fair few daring escapes from relegation, they managed to stay there.
The move to St Mary’s Stadium finally came in August 2001. The new 32,000-seater stadium cost around £32,000,000 to build, which makes the Dell look like a bargain at £10,000. The site where the bombs had fallen in 1940 was a stone’s throw from St Mary’s Church, the place where it all began. From my seat in the Itchen North I can see the church spire towering above the Chapel Stand and, sometimes, during duller games I find myself thinking about this proximity and the history that goes with it.
I was only ten years old when Saints moved to St Mary’s but I remember the Dell. My first game there was in 1999 and I remember those old floodlights, the concrete steps, the rusty ironwork. Even then, at that young age, it felt like a special place. I had a birthday party there which included a tour of the ground. I vividly remember standing in the the changing rooms, and I think back now to all those great players who would have known that room so well. A bit like our Bournemouth Guardian reporter, I was lucky enough to experience the opening game at a brand new Southampton Football Club stadium too. The first game at St Mary’s was a friendly against Espanyol, and the new stadium could not be any different from the old one. At the Dell, I looked up at the rusty iron in the roof of the West Stand and thought it looked so old that it might fall down. At St Mary’s I gazed across this brand new bowl of a stadium, shiny and expansive. The Dell was the home of Southampton Football Club for one-hundred and three years and now St Mary’s has been our home for nineteen. I wonder how it will look when it is one-hundred and three years old? I wonder what memories will have been created. After all, so many were made at the Dell… An iconic football ground that will live long in the memories of football fans.
Special thanks to Duncan Holley for the photos, some additional information, and a couple of corrections.
This post was originally written for SaintsWorld in February 2019. Edited and updated in April 2020.
Quoted newspaper articles, 1885-1979
All The Saints by Gary Chalk, Duncan Holley, and David Bull