118-years-old and still going strong…

CLIFTON St Vincents was founded in 1899 and currently has four teams competing in the Bristol Downs League – the only football competition in Britain to play all its games in one area. The Downs plateau, a large area of public open space, is turned into a kaleidoscope of colour every Saturday afternoon during the season when more than 700 players line up at kick-off time on 28 pitches spread over this immense area. They are supported by an army of referees and league and club administrators, all proud to be linked with one of Bristol’s oldest sporting traditions.

How it all began…

It was 118 years ago that St Vincents was formed by a group of young football enthusiasts who organised friendly matches on Bristol Downs with coats used as goalposts on a pitch they created near Bristol Zoo. In those days, they picked the team on a wooden bench near St Vincent’s Rock, a stone’s throw from Clifton Suspension Bridge, and from those humble beginnings chose to call the team Clifton St Vincents, a rather unusual name for a football club. Not long after the team was launched, the players were handed a set of goalposts, minus crossbars, but they managed to improvise by stretching tape between the two uprights. They were then given a boost during a team meeting being held under a street lamp which was to have a big bearing on the club’s future. A young master at Clifton College, R W J Pavey, had greatly admired the player’s enthusiasm and invited them to use the comforts of his nearby home for selection and other club meetings. The move resulted in Mr Pavey being elected Clifton St Vincent’s first president – a post he held for more than 50 years. The club then took the decision to join the Bristol Downs League’s third division in 1906, the year after it was formed, and played in black and white striped shirts. But they soon made it to the top flight after being “elected” to Division Two when the club finished seventh in 1909 and then to Division One after completing the 1910-11 season in fourth place. As the start of the First World War approached in 1918, the club was in a strong and healthy position with 26 players on their books, but 11 of them sadly failed to return from active service. St Vincents had to be virtually relaunched when the hostilities were finally over, however, membership grew and the team was strong enough to clinch the Downs League championship for the first time in 1921. The Club has survived for more than a century due mainly to the outstanding work of a band of loyal players and committee men who have given a tremendous amount of loyal service over a countless number of years. Billy Shapland captained the First XI in the early days and was actively involved for 44 years which included two years as chairman and 25 as secretary. A trophy in his memory is still awarded annually to the member who has shown outstanding sportsmanship as well as loyal service. Harold Hook, who was a long-serving president, became a leading member of the Gloucestershire FA and was its representative for important meetings held in those days at the Football Association’s headquarters at Lancaster Gate, London. Another larger than life character was Bob Musselwhite who held the unusual record of playing for St Vincents in 10 Norman Hardy Cup and other finals without ever being on the winning side. He eventually broke his duck in the 1946-47 season, the first after the Second World War, when as captain of the First team he collected the Downs Division One championship trophy. Bob was then elected club chairman and with the ever popular Derek “Podge” Rogers, Dick Edbrooke, Don Hart, and Dick Cobbett formed a formidable committee that guided the club through its most successful years in the 1950s and 60s.

Highs and lows…

During that era, it was always possible to tell which pitch the the First XI were playing on because of the size of the crowd which regularly rose above the 1,000 mark. At the end of the 1958-59 and 1961-62 seasons, the team was heralded as the best amateur side in Bristol after completing a remarkable treble by winning the GFA Senior Amateur Cup. Downs League Championship and Norman Hardy Cup. But perhaps the most outstanding achievement came in 1967 when the club’s four teams finished as champions in the Downs League’s four divisions with the proud record of having clinched a total of 101 victories from the 116 games played. Then to make that fantastic season all the more remarkable, the Youth team was crowned champions of the Church of England’s Under-17 league. The 1970s can best be described as one of the most adventurous periods in St Vincents’ history after it was decided to play in the Gloucestershire County League, albeit with a home ground at Brislington Cricket Club in Somerset. The first couple of seasons saw the club finish in respectable mid-table positions. However, the early promise could not be sustained as the difficulties of playing as true amateurs in what had become a semi-professional competition saw the side plummet to the bottom of the table and heading back to the Downs.

Prestigious players…

Besides the club’s honours, several individual players have also enjoyed lots of success starting with Freddie Loader who was Bristol’s first England schoolboy international before he commenced his long association with the club. Colin Mitchell captained the first team for several seasons and also the Gloucestershire and Downs League representative sides as well as being good enough to play for the Army team during his National Service, packed with some of the country’s top young professionals. Nottingham Forest noticed his pace and fierce left foot during this period and offered him the chance to play in a fifth-round FA Cup match against West Ham if he signed professional. But he opted instead to play county cricket as an amateur for Somerset as a medium pace bowler. He played more than 1,000 games for St Vincents and received the coveted Harry Bamford Trophy which was awarded annually to the Bristolian who upheld the high sporting standards of the former Bristol Rovers full-back. Another member to play more than 1,000 games was Roger Kirby, the club’s current president, who skippered the First team to many league and cup successes as well as being captain of Gloucestershire, the Downs representative team and an FA XI on three occasions. He built a reputation as one of the hardest tackling full-backs in Bristol amateur football, but as in the case of Colin Mitchell, completed a long and distinguished playing career without being booked or sent off. In 2013, Roger Kirby, as president, and life member Dave Wood were handed the Football Association’s 50-year Long Service Awards after giving a combined total of 117-years’ loyal service to our club. The presentation of an inscribed medal, a FA lapel badge and a framed letter of thanks for their dedication to the amateur game was made by Gloucestershire FA vice-chairman and director Roy Schafer. Roger was 13-years old when he made his debut in 1949 and played his last game for the B Team in 2000. Dave, who is better known as Woody, lined-up in the club colours for the first time in the late 1950s and also went on to complete more than 1,000 games before becoming a successful first team manager. John Reid, the club’s current patron and former treasurer, has also given decades of support despite having never kicked a ball for St Vincents. Former club captain Ray King who began his playing career in 1963 before becoming St Vincent’s long serving secretary was also presented with the FA’S 50-year long service award in 2016. It is the most prestigious accolade handed out at the grass roots level of the game.

100 not out…

St Vincents celebrated it’s centenary dinner at Jury’s Bristol Hotel in 1999 with David Davies, the Football Association’s acting chief executive at that time, being the main speaker. The other events to mark the 100th birthday included the chartering the world’s last sea-going paddle-steamer, The Waverley, for a Bristol Channel cruise with more than 400 players, committee members and friends on board. There was also a Wine and Cheese party at Brislington Cricket Club, a Golf Day at Knowle Golf Club, a big Family Fun Day and a centenary challenge football match which saw the President’s XI beat the Chairman’s XI 4-1. Clifton St Vincents is today in a strong position on the playing side with four teams still competing in the Downs League and new changing rooms in the King’s Arms pub at Blackboy Hill which are perhaps the best the club has ever had. In pride of place is the honours board proudly showing St Vincents achievements over such a long period including winning the Downs League championship for a record 18 times in the 2013-14 season and Norman Hardy Cup on a record 22 occasions. It acts as the marker for years to come.