Next season marks the 50th anniversary of a major exodus from the Athenian League to the Isthmian League. Teams like Hitchin, Hendon and Sutton United joined the league, diluting the strength of the Athenian and laying the seeds for that competition’s terminal decline.
Half a century on, what’s happened to the clubs that formed the Isthmian in 1963? Who has progressed, who has declined. Who still exists?
The restructuring of non-league football in 2004 changed the dynamics of the game outside the Football League. As a result, the Isthmian Premier has been downgraded, so anyone still playing at this level (Step 3) can be seen as a “decliner”.
That means that Hendon, Kingstonian, St.Albans and Hitchin, although in the Premier Divisions of the Isthmian and Southern Leagues, have effectively declined in status over 50 years.
Other teams that have fallen in this period include: Corinthian Casuals, Clapton, Dulwich Hamlet, Tooting & Mitcham, Maidstone United and Enfield.
Non-movers, although playing at Step 2, are: Sutton United, Oxford City and Bromley.
So, the teams in the ascendancy. Wimbledon and Wycombe Wanderers are both Football League clubs now. In the case of Wimbledon, the club has been to hell and back (well, Milton Keynes) and is now established as the club that carries the former Wimbledon legacy. Wycombe are also in League Two. Woking, the other climber, are back in the Conference National.
Those that have disappeared in their original form are Ilford, Walthamstow, Leytonstone and Barking. London non-league football has suffered in the past 50 years, with merger after merger to try and forge a competitive club. Dagenham & Redbridge emerged out of this mess and they’re just about holding their own in the Football League.
Now take a look at today’s Isthmian League and it’s a case of new money, new clubs and fast-movers. In 1963, three of today’s constitution were playing in the Sussex League: Whitehawk, Bognor Regis and Lewes. Two were in the Eastern Counties League – Lowestoft and Bury. From the same region, Leiston were in the Ipswich & District League!
Only two clubs were playing at a comparable level – Hastings United (although they have been relegated) and Margate. Wealdstone, Carshalton and Harrow were both in the Athenian, Hampton (later to become & Richmond) were playing in the Spartan League, Met.Police the Metropolitan, Canvey the London League and Cray Wanderers resided in the short-lived Aetolian League.
Five clubs did not exist in 1963: Concord Rangers, East Thurrock United, Enfield Town , Wingate & Finchley and Thurrock.
The real winners, then, from 50 years of ups and downs: Wimbledon, Wycombe, Whitehawk, East Thurrock, Leiston and Concord Rangers. All said and done, of the Class of 1963, only three have genuinely moved higher. The losers? The plethora of London-area clubs that have been merged out of existence. No doubt it will look even more different in a decade. It’s all part of the circle of footballing life. Cue a song….