Before the introduction of football to the area the most popular sport was cricket, but it didn’t take long for football to become to most popular activity after the first recorded game in the area. The first recorded game of association football involving a Hastings team was organised on 12 November 1879, which saw Hastings & St Leonards Football Club lose 7-0 to New College from Eastbourne.
Hastings & St Leonards FC were really a rugby club, who played a handful of football games during this period, it is most probable that New College were more experienced playing the association game as were many other schools and educational establishments during this era. In Sussex, association rules were adopted by Lancing College and Brighton College in 1871 and 1873 respectively.
The first association game to be played in the borough was between The Lindens and Eastbourne College at St Leonards Green on 11 November 1881, which ended in a 3-3 draw. The Lindens was a school located down Upper Maze Hill, who alongside University School, Highbury House and St Leonards Collegiate School, were early pioneers of the game locally during the 1880s and teams were mostly, if not entirely, made up of schoolmasters, teachers and pupils (former and current).
The South Saxons were the only team in the 1880s not to come from a school, the amateur athletic club were based in St Leonards and founded in 1877; the club played its first association game in 1881 and entered the inaugural Sussex Senior Challenge Cup in 1882. The first club in the borough formed solely as an association football club were Hastings & St Leonards Swifts, who were formed at a meeting held at the Clarence Hotel on 11 December 1889. The club entered for the Sussex Junior and Senior Cups for that season, but would only survive three seasons.
The Hastings & St Leonards Football Association was formed in 1892 at a meeting held in the Bedford Hotel on 23 February. The newly formed organisation swiftly went in search for a purpose built football venue to serve the borough, whilst writing its rules and code, with help from the Brighton FA. Alexandra Park and the Highbury House ground (Horntye) were initially viewed as potential venues for the Hastings FA pitch; opposition was met to the park idea as significant changes to the landscape to accommodate a football pitch would be necessary and the owner of the Horntye site was said to be unlikely to allow the FA use of their ground. Sites on the West Hill and near Barley Lane were proposed but not discussed any further; the East Hill was already regularly hosting football games, but attempts had been made to prevent the game being played here; the Central Ground had hosted organised sports since it was laid out in 1864, but had drainage problems. The association ended up agreeing with committee of the Central Ground to use their facilities at the cost of half the gate money taken, with The Green being used when the Central Ground was unfit.
In the same year as its formation the Hastings & St Leonards FA set up a cup competition for local teams named the Carlisle Cup. Set up as a league competition, the first winners were the South Saxons, who competed against the Hastings Athletic Club, Hastings Alliance Club, Highbury House School, St Clements and Christ Church. Despite the formation of competitive football, many clubs around this time opted to play friendly games against each other, though the number of clubs joining leagues did gradually increase throughout the 1890s.
On 22 August 1893, Rock-a-Nore Football Club were founded at a meeting held in the London Trader. The majority of members were fishermen and boatmen from the Old Town and the club quickly become one of the strongest teams in the area. By 1920 they were the most senior club in the borough and were founder members of the Sussex County League in that year and had just moved to the newly laid out Pilot Field. In 1921 the club changed its name to Hastings & St Leonards FC, changing their name again in 1979 to Hastings Town. In 2002 the name was changed once more to Hastings United and thus taking on the identity of the professional club who’d competed in the Southern League between 1948 and 1985.
The 1890s saw football rapidly rise in popularity, taking over cricket as the most popular sport. It was a common complaint amongst local football fans, that the Central Ground committee favoured cricket and were quiet strict as to when football teams could play at the venue, despite the fact football was attracting much larger attendances, including a game between Hastings Athletic and London Polytechnic, which was watched by between 2000 to 3000 people. The Central Ground committee’s bias towards summer sport was the reason the Hastings FA continued to search for venue they had control of, which would not happen until 1904.
In 1896 the East Sussex League was formed and Hastings & St Leonards FC, the old athletic club, were invited to join. The club won the league in its first season and would go onto win the competition another three times. The 1902-03 season saw St Leonards crowned East Sussex League champions; the club was formed in 1898 and the west enders quickly became fierce rivals with the Hastings club. The “Greenbacks”, as they were known as, became the first club in the area to turn professional in 1905 at the same time as changing name to St Leonards United. The two teams merged a year later, when it was decided to be for the best of both teams and the borough, to have one club playing professionally. The club was named Hastings & St Leonards United and played in the Southern League, South Eastern League and the United League, playing against the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspurs and West Ham United reserve teams.
The aim of the borough’s senior club was to win promotion to the first division of the Southern League and during their short existence welcomed Portsmouth to the Central Ground in the FA Cup, whilst travelling to Norwich City and Blackpool in the same competition. Despite the ambitions of the club, gates simply weren’t high enough, with the club losing money every season. The team won Division 2B in 1909-10, but lost heavily to Stoke City in a play-off game. Due to their failure to win promotion and the lack of support, Hastings & St Leonards United were wound up in the summer of 1910.
The death of the professional club saw St Leonards Amateurs become the areas senior club, winning the East Sussex League in 1912 and 1913 and was the first club from the borough to win the Sussex Senior Cup in 1912. The club joined the Athenian League in 1913, the same year they changed name to Hastings & St Leonards Amateurs and played their home games at the Sports Ground, the old home of St Leonards United. The Sports Ground was laid out in 1904, this occurred after years of work by the Hastings FA to find a ground of their own. The land on the Brisco Estate was purchased by Hastings Council in 1902, with the football pitch being laid out in 1904 in time for the 1904-05 season.
The outbreak of the First World War put a stop to competitive football around the country. There are reports of military games being played in the area, including the 7th South Wales Borderers v 11th Royal Welsh Fusiliers playing the first recorded game of football at Hickmans Field, now known as the Oval. It is during this period that it was not too uncommon to see obituaries for local footballers who’d been killed during the conflict; the most notable being the death of Bert Beney, the star player of Hastings & St Leonards FC and Hastings & St Leonards United, who died in Belgium on 20 April 1915.
Whilst multiple clubs never reformed after the war, including Hastings & St Leonards Amateurs, a good number of new clubs were being formed in the years following the conflict. However the lack of public football pitches soon became an issue, the Sports Ground was to be turned into bowling greens as part of White Rock Gardens and football had not been played on the Central Ground since the demise of Hastings & St Leonards United in 1910. A new ground had been proposed before the war, but obviously never materialised. Multiple clubs were jostling for use of the three pitches on the East Hill, whilst many others hired from or relied on the generosity of local farmers and land owners.
A large site located up Elphinstone Road had been proposed as a suitable site for a football ground in 1900 and may have possible been the site of a handful of games as far back as 1894; owned by the Hastings Board of Guardians, the site was the proposed location for the new Hastings Workhouse to replace the one located at Frederick Road (later St Helens Hospital), before being dropped due to objections from wealthy neighbours. The site was looked at again in 1920 alongside Horntye, which had recently been purchased by the Hastings Corporation, as the potential new top class football pitch to serve the borough. The Pilot Field was chosen as it could be made ready in time for the coming season.
The first tenants of the newly laid out ground were Rock-a-Nore, who by now were the most senior club in the area and had just been invited to join the newly formed Sussex County League. The Rocks changed name to Hastings & St Leonards in 1921 and were fairly inconsistent in the County League, finishing in second place twice before leaving to join the Southern Amateur League in 1927. It is during this era the club enjoyed its most successful spell, winning Division Two in their first season and then going on to win Division One four times, as well as the Sussex Senior Cup and the Amateur Football Alliance Senior Cup.
The outbreak of World War Two halted Hastings & St Leonards’ successful spell on the pitch, local leagues ran on a reduced format for the 1939-40 season before stopping completely for the duration of the war. Local clubs would still manage to field teams for friendly matches, mostly against military sides. Competitive football made a return after the war, with Hastings & St Leonards returning to the Southern Amateur League, before joining the Corinthian League in 1947.
The summer of 1948 saw the reintroduction of professional football to the area after Hastings United were formed and entered the Southern League. Unfortunately for the amateur club, this led to them being kicked off the Pilot Field and unable to find a suitable home for their level of football. They were forced to leave the Corinthian League and made a return to local football in 1949. They went onto become founder members of Division Two of the Sussex County League in 1952, alongside Hastings Rangers, Sidley United and Rye United.
Hastings United remained members of the Southern League throughout their existence and enjoyed some memorable runs in the FA Cup. The club faced the likes of Gillingham, Ipswich Town and Sheffield Wednesday, whilst their game against Norwich City on 9 January 1954 attracted a record crowd of 12,527. United were partially named after Hastings & St Leonards United and like their predecessors, were not 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 folded in 1985. The old amateur club, now known as Hastings Town, moved back to their old home at the Pilot Field and took United’s space in the Southern League.
It was around this time STAMCO were rising through the local leagues. Founded as a works team for the local firm in 1971, they club started out playing friendly games before entering the Eastbourne and Hastings League that same year. They progressed through the divisions before joining the Southern Counties Combination in 1982 and then Division Three of the Sussex County League in 1988, finishing runners up in their first season.
The 1990s was a successful decade for Hastings and STAMCO. Hastings Town won the Southern League Southern Division in 1992 and the following season STAMCO finished runners up in Division Two of the Sussex County League, earning promotion to Division One. STAMCOs promotion meant they had to move from their ground at Pannel Lane, Pett and settled at the Firs, the old Pilot Field upper pitch and Hastings Towns’ old pitch. STAMCO put a lot of work into upgrading the Firs and in the 1994-95 season reached the fifth round of the FA Vase, the same season Hastings Town won the Southern League Cup. The following season saw Hastings win the Sussex Senior Cup and STAMCO finished runners up in Division One of the County League and therefore promotion to the Southern League. Ahead of the 1996-97 season STAMCO changed name to St Leonards Stamcroft and went on to win the Sussex Senior Cup, whilst also achieving another second place finish and promotion to the Southern League Premier Division.
Whilst that was to be St Leonards’ peak, the 1997-98 season saw Hastings win the Sussex Senior Cup again, but St Leonards relegated back to the Southern Division. Hastings went onto reach the final of the Sussex Senior Cup for another two successive seasons and the final of the Southern League Cup in 2000, losing all three.
Into the 2000s, Hastings Town were back in the Southern Division after leaving the Southern League to join the Isthmian League, but were effectively relegated after changing their mind. They managed to win promotion back to the Premier Division after winning the league in 2002, but were relegated again the following season. Hastings took on the identity of the old professional club after changing name to Hastings United and changing the club colours to claret and blue in 2002. After years of spending money on big name players, the tax bill finally caught up with St Leonards, who were forced to fold midway through the 2004-05 season. The Firs was used for local football for a spell, before an all-weather 5-a-side pitch was constructed at one end of the pitch.
Hastings United went on to struggle in the Southern League Southern Division, following a mass exodus of players after their relegation. They ended up joining the Isthmian League following a reshuffle of the non-league pyramid following the creation of the Conference North/South. They won promotion in 2007 to the Isthmian Premier via the play-offs and went one a remarkable FA Cup run during the 2012-13 season, where they were eventually knocked out by Middlesbrough in the third round at the Riverside Stadium. However that season also saw the club relegated back to Division One South (now Division One South East) of the Isthmian League, where they are still playing.
In recent years Hastings United have looked into moving to a new ground, with the ageing Pilot Field costing the club more in maintenance as the years roll by. In 2007, club chairman Dave Walters had initially proposed a ground at Tile Kiln, which would be funded by the sale of the Pilot Field and surrounding land to developers, but the idea never went any further. In November 2016 Hastings United, together with Sport England and the trustees of Horntye Park had been working on plans to build a new sports complex, which would be home to the football club, Hastings Priory Cricket Club and the South Saxons Hockey Club. The development would be funded by the sale of the Pilot Field and Horntye Park; however the plans were dropped after the housing developer pulled out of the scheme. In 2018 the club intended to go back to the idea originally suggested by Dave Walters and build a new ground at Tile Kiln and planning was submitted in 2020.