Local records show that the modern game of association football has been played in the area since the 1880s. Any evidence of football participation before the 1880s most likely refers to rugby football or games played to similar rules. Athletic clubs in the area such as the Hastings & St Leonards Amateur Athletic Club and the South Saxons fielded football teams as early as the 1860s.
The earliest known record of the association game involving a team from Hastings took place on 12 November 1879, between Hastings & St Leonards Football Club and New College from Eastbourne. With the Hastings club being used to playing rugby rules they lost 7-0 to a side presumably more experienced playing the association game.
Jump ahead two years to 1881 where we have the first known record of an official association football game being played in Hastings. The match took place at St Leonards Green where the Lindens School, located a short distance away down Upper Maze Hill, drew 3-3 against Eastbourne College.
By 1882 the South Saxons were regularly playing games under association rules in addition to rugby fixtures, however it wasn’t until 1889 the town had its own dedicated association club when Hastings & St Leonards Swifts were formed on 2 September at a meeting held in the Clarence Hotel. The Hastings & St Leonards Football Association was founded three years later in 1892.
The newly formed Hastings FA promptly organised a cup competition for local teams named the Carlisle Cup, which was played in a league format over the autumn and winter months. The South Saxons were the first winners of the cup, which was also competed for by Hastings Athletic, Alliance, Highbury House, St Clements and Christ Church. The competition would go on to become one of the most popular and prestigious competitions in the area, which lasted until the 1920s.
On 22 August 1893 Rock-a-Nore FC was founded at a meeting held in the London Trader. The majority of members were fishermen and boatmen from the old town and the club rapidly went onto become one of the strongest teams in the town. The club were founder members of the Sussex County League in 1920, the year in which they moved to newly opened Pilot Field. In 1921 they changed their name to Hastings & St Leonards, before changing name again in 1979 to Hastings Town. In 2002 they changed their name to Hastings United, taking on the identity of the professional club who competed in the Southern League between 1948 and 1985. The present day Rock-a-Nore club was founded as Old Town Athletic and took on the Rocks’ identity in 1921 shortly after the original club became Hastings & St Leonards.
May 1896 saw the formation of the East Sussex League as the East Sussex Senior League, with Hastings & St Leonards FC (formally Hastings Athletic) accepting the invitation to join. Hastings won the league in its first season, playing against Brighton Athletic, Burgess Hill, Eastbourne Swifts, East Grinstead, Hailsham, Lewes and North End Rangers (Brighton).
By 1904 the two strongest sides in the area were Hastings & St Leonards FC and St Leonards FC. After competing against each other in the East Sussex League, Hastings entered the South Eastern League, a very strong league originally formed for reserve teams of professional clubs located in and around London. Opponents included reserve teams from Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Brighton & Hove Albion. The year also saw the opening on the newly laid out ground on the Brisco estate called the Sports Ground, built for football and hockey, the first tenants were St Leonards & Rock-a-Nore and was to replace the Central Ground as the primary venue for football.
Not to be outdone by their local rivals St Leonards entered Division Two of the Southern League in 1905, also changing their name to St Leonards United. Football fans in the town were sceptical of the move, with many believing having two professional clubs in the town the size of Hastings wasn’t sustainable. The doubters were proved right when a year later Hastings & St Leonards and St Leonards United merged to become Hastings & St Leonards United, after both struggled to attract the gates needed to sustain that level of football and had run at a considerable loss.
Newly formed Hastings & St Leonards United continued to spend money in a bid to win promotion to Division One of the Southern League and managed to earn a play-off game after winning Division 2B in the 1909-10 season. However, the club lost 6-0 to Stoke City and it was quickly decided the club could not carry on running due to the amount of outgoings each season.
By 1913, St Leonards Amateurs had become the strongest team in the area, winning the East Sussex League in the 1911-12 and 1912-13 seasons and the Sussex Senior Cup in 1912, the first club from the town to do so. They changed their name to Hastings & St Leonards Amateur and joined the Athenian League ahead of the 1913-14 season, which was seen as a feeder to the Isthmian League. However, the outbreak of the First World War put a stop to football competitions around the country, including the Athenian League, but whilst many clubs returned to action after the war, the Amateurs never reformed. Another loss to the football scene around this time was the Sports Ground, the Amateurs’ home, which was lost to development of White Rock Gardens. The bowling greens and Clambers play centre now stand on the site of the pitch.
In 1920 the lack of decent football facilities in the town had become a concern for people involved in the game, the East Hill was one of few local public pitches, but lacked the facilities for senior football. Venues such as the Oval and the Catholic Ground (opposite side of Falaise Road to Sports Ground) also lacked the facilities and the Central Recreation Ground was preserved for summer sports. A large number of teams in the area relied on local landowners and farmers renting out fields for football games. The lack of sporting facilities in the town led to Hastings Council searching for a site suitable for hosting sports which could cater to large crowds, with the Pilot Field and Horntye Park earmarked as the two possible sites. The Pilot Field was chosen as it could be made ready quicker than Horntye.
The Pilot Field, then a large sloping meadow, was made ready of use ahead of the 1920-21 season, with Rock-a-Nore becoming the first tenants ahead of their first season in the Sussex County League. The site had previously been marked as a potential site for a new workhouse to replace the one located down Frederick Road (later St Helens Hospital), but this was strongly objected to by the wealthy residents neighbouring the site. The site was eventually laid out into an upper and lower pitch, had a cycle track added and the main stand built in 1923 to resemble the ground which we recognise today.
Rock-a-Nore changed their name to Hastings & St Leonards in 1921 and spent the majority of the decade in the Sussex County League with little success, finishing runners up twice. In 1927 they joined the Southern Amateur League, which was affiliated to the Amateur Football Alliance (AFA) and based in the greater London area. It was throughout the 1930s in the Southern Amatuer League that Hastings enjoyed their most successful spell, winning the league four times and the Sussex Senior Cup on two occasions.
The outbreak of World War Two once again halted football in the area, with leagues running on a reduced format for the 1939-40 season, before stopping completely for the rest of the duration of the war. The end of the conflict saw a return of local football, with Hastings returning to play in the Southern Amateur League, before joining the Corinthian League for the 147-48 season.
The summer of 1948 saw the formation of Hastings United, a new professional club partially named after Hastings & St Leonards United, who were to play in the Southern League. Unfortunately for the successful amateur club, this led to being kicked off the Pilot Field and eventually withdrawal from the Corinthian League after failing to find a pitch suitable enough to call home. The Amateurs, as they had colloquially become known as, returned to local football for the 1949-50 season and went on to become founder members of Division Two of the Sussex County League in 1952.
Hastings United remained members of the Southern League throughout their existence and enjoyed multiple considerable runs in the FA Cup. The club faced the likes of Gillingham, Norwich City, Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich Town, with their home tie against Norwich attracting a record crowd of 12,527. Like their predecessors, United weren’t shy in spending money in pursuance of success and playing at a higher standard. However, the latter years of their existence was plagued by financial woes and the club were forced to fold in 1985, with the old amateur club (now Hastings Town) moving back to the Pilot Field and taking their place in the Southern League.
It was around this time that STAMCO were on the rise through the local leagues. Founded as a works team for the local firm in 1971, they started out playing friendlies before entering the Eastbourne & Hastings League that same year. They progressed through the divisions before joining the Southern Counties Combination in 1982. Three years after the demise of Hastings United, the club joined Division Three of the Sussex County League, finishing runners-up in their first season.
The 1990s was a successful decade for the towns’ two senior clubs. The 1991-92 season saw Hastings Town win the Southern League South Division; the following season STAMCO finished runners-up in Division Two of the Sussex County League, winning promotion to Division One and therefore a move to the Firs. The 1994-95 season STAMCO reach the fifth round of the FA Vase and Hastings Town win the Southern League Cup, with more success the following season for both clubs as Hastings Town won the Sussex Senior Cup and STAMCO earning promotion to the Southern League after a second place finish in Division One of the Sussex County League. For the 1996-97 season, STAMCO changed name to St Leonards Stamcroft and went on to win the Sussex Senior Cup, whilst another second place finish earned them promotion into the Premier Division of the Southern League.
Whilst that was to be St Leonards’ peak, Hastings won the Sussex Senior Cup again in a season that saw St Leonards relegated back to the Southern League Southern Division. Hastings would go onto reach the final of the Sussex Senior Cup for two successive seasons and the final of the Southern League Cup in the 1999-2000 season, losing all three.
After years of spending money on big name players, the tax bill finally caught up with the Saints, who folded midway through the 2004-05 season. Hastings, who changed name to United in 2002, have failed to return to a standard of football that many remember fondly from the 1990s and even earlier. Play-off success in the 2006-07 season and a fantastic FA Cup run in 2012-13 have given fans something to cheer about, but in recent years there has been a feeling of frustration from long standing supporters. The club are currently playing at step four of the non-league pyramid, whilst manager Chris Agutter has got the side playing good attacking football; many fondly remember the standard of the Southern League and long to see the team playing at a similar standard again. One can hope Agutter and his coaching team can lead the team to glory and back up the non-league ladder.