The Club was formed on Thursday 28th January 1874 at the Chequers Hotel in the town. Just over two weeks later the first match was played with the East of England Non Conformist Grammar School (now Bishop’s Stortford College) being defeated by two goals to one, both scored by the Rev. R J Tomes. In that first season fifteen games were played, three of which were won, with seven others drawn. The Club colours at that time were vivid crimson and olive green. After several years of playing just friendly matches the Club became one of the founder members of the Hertfordshire Football Association in 1885 and played in the first ever County Senior Cup Competition that same season, beating Aspley 2-1 away from home in their first match.
The Club progressed into league football in the 1890s by joining a succession of locally based competitions. The highlights between 1889 and 1929 were the “double” seasons in 1912-13, when both the Saffron Walden & District League and the Stansted & District League titles were secured, and 1919-20, when the East Herts League and the Stansted & District League were won.
The Club was accepted into the FA Challenge Cup for the first time in the 1924-25 season and then it was in 1929 that the next milestone was reached when the Club was accepted into Division 2 (East) of the Spartan League. A good start was made with the Ministry of Health being well beaten by five goals to nil. Three years later, at the end of the 1931-32 season, the Division 2 (East) championship was won and with it promotion to Division 1 of the Spartan League. A year later Stortford won the Herts Senior Cup for the first time.
During the Second World War the Club played mainly friendly matches against locally based service units. The 1945-46 season saw Stortford compete again in the Spartan League, where they stayed until the formation of the Delphian League in 1951.
The 1950s saw steady progress in the Club’s fortunes with the League Championship being won in season 1954-55. Until this time progress in the FA Amateur Cup had been nothing but a dream but in season 1962-63 Stortford found themselves only two games away from Wembley.
In a tense quarterfinal, in front of 9,000 people, Stortford were defeated 1-0 by the Isthmian League Champions Wimbledon at Plough Lane and Wimbledon went on to win the Cup. The mid 1960s turned out to be a very exciting period for the Club as in the space of three years, the Bishops having by now joined the expanded Athenian League, were runners-up in Division 2, Champions of Division I and runners-up in the Premier Division.
The Premier Division title was eventually captured in the 1969-70 season. Then, a long-term ambition was realised when an application to join the Isthmian League was accepted for the 1971-72 season. The early 1970s was also another very successful period in the Club’s history, 3rd place in the League was achieved in season 1973-74, Stortford’s best ever position, whilst six Cup Final victories were achieved in the space of four seasons. The undoubted pinnacle of these highlights came fittingly in the Club’s centenary season when the FA Amateur Cup was won at Wembley Stadium by beating Ilford 4-1 in front of over 30,000 spectators. This in fact was the last FA Amateur Cup Final ever held. Scorers for Stortford were Dave Lawrence, Peter Leakey, Dennis Murphy and lastly Martin Smith from the penalty spot.
The rest of the decade was something of an anti-climax, with the Club being relegated to Division 1, but there was another huge upturn in the Club’s fortunes as the 1980-81 season was another memorable one in the Bishop’s history. The Club won the Isthmian League Division 1 title and the “double” came in May 1981 in the Final of the FA Trophy when Terry Sullivan scored a late goal to leave lsthmian League Premier Division side Sutton United defeated 1-0 This victory came after a record breaking run of 13 games that had begun in the Preliminary Round in the September of the previous year. In achieving this success, Stortford became the first ever Club to capture both the FA Amateur Cup and the FA Trophy.
After reaching the quarter final of the FA Trophy again in 1982 and setting the record for consecutive unbeaten matches in that Competition (17), Bishops turned their attention to the FA Cup. Though they had reached the Competition proper 5 times before, it was in the 1982-83 season that they really made an impact. After disposing of local rivals Harlow Town, 3rd Division Reading were beaten at Elm Park in the 1st Round and then Slough Town were defeated in the 2nd Round. The 3rd Round saw the Bishops drawn away at Middlesbrough, then managed by Malcolm Allison. In the tie at Teesside, Stortford fought back from a two goal half-time deficit to earn a well merited replay. The following Tuesday over 6,000 people packed into the Rhodes Avenue ground for the replay. Lyndon Lynch gave Stortford the lead on the stroke of half time but Middlesbrough’s superior fitness told in the end and they fought back and eventually won through with two late goals. Stortford again faced League opposition in 1985 going out after a replay to Colchester United.
Towards the end of the 1980s two former favourite players of the Rhodes Avenue crowds returned as managers. Firstly, former England international John Radford, who had played in the FA Trophy winning side, became manager in 1987. He took the Club to success in the Herts Senior Cup in his first season and continued the following season, 1988-89, by winning the AC Delco Cup (Isthmian League Cup). Apart from the Cup run in, he also took the team on a promotion challenge, which only faltered in the closing weeks and the Club finished 7th in the table. Terry Moore, a record holder in his days as Stortford’s goalkeeper when he collected both FA Amateur and FA Trophy cup winners medals – the only player to do so for the same Club, then became manager and he led the Bishops to victories in the Clubcall Cup and Loctite Cup in season 1990-91.
In more recent times, the Club was relegated to Division 1 at the conclusion of the 1991-92 term, but with ex-Arsenal star John Radford now as the Blues manager Stortford regained Premiership status by winning the Division 1 Championship in season 1993-94. Life back in the Premier Division was not easy, with a best position of 12th being achieved in season 1995-96, although the Herts Charity Cup was won the following season with a crushing 4-0 defeat of Ware. Off the field the Club suffered delays moving to its new ground at Dunmow Road having left the Rhodes Avenue ground at the end of 1997, which they had been at since 1919.
After 18 months during which home league matches were played at Boreham Wood, St.Albans City, Hitchin Town, Dagenham & Redbridge and Ware, the Club were once again relegated to Division One at the end of the 1998/99 season. But a new and eagerly awaited chapter in the Club’s history began on Saturday 17th July 1999 when the new Woodside Park Stadium finally opened with a pre-season friendly against Norwich City. The match ended in a 2-2 draw in front of a 918 crowd. On Friday 3rd September a crowd of 2,444 saw the official opening of the stadium performed by George Graham followed by a match against a strong Tottenham Hotspur side including Hans Segers, David Ginola, Chris Armstrong, Ruel Fox, Jose Dominguez, Mauricio Tarico, Steffen Freund, Stephen Clemence and Justin Edinburgh. Blues made the record books on Thursday 30th December 1999 when Bishop’s Stortford won 5-3 at Chertsey in a Ryman League match, which was the last Association Football League match played in England in the 20th Century.
The Club, supporters and team finally settled in at Woodside Park but only after some serious problems with the pitch had seen many postponed games and fixture headaches in those first two seasons. In the 2000/2001 campaign, Blues came with a late challenge after making wholesale squad changes at Christmas and narrowly missed out on a promotion place. However, by season 2001/2 the playing surface was immaculate and hosting Ryman and England representative games along with many local and junior league cup finals and Blues themselves were faring better in the League. Promotion back to the Ryman Premier after a 3 years absence was secured on the 6th April 2002 at home to Walton & Hersham. The 2-0 victory was courtsey of goals by club captain Al-James Hannigan and Tim Langer. Manager Martin Hayes had done the job required of him by both Club Directors and supporters.
Meanwhile, Ryman League hot-shot and Blues top scorer Vinnie John was trialling at League Clubs up and down the country, with QPR, Torquay and Wycombe Wanderers all showing interest. His departure at the end of that excellent season seemed most likely even after he rattled in the Blues 100th League goal of the season in the final game at Woodside Park in that promotion campaign. A week later and Blues had finished second, missing out on the championship to Jimmy Chapman’s Ford Utd by just one point as the last day of action saw Blues win 4-2 at Whyteleafe and Ford just hang on to win 2-1 at home to George Talbot’s Uxbridge. Vinnie John’s departure though was not to be for almost another season.
The 2002/3 campaign saw Bishop’s Stortford back in the Premier Division and the near disaster of the Rhodes Avenue sale and ground sharing were fading in the memory. On Tuesday 14th January 2003, Martin Hayes team travelled to Tring in the semi-final of the Herts Charity Cup and recorded the Clubs best ever win in a competitive match away from home with a 9-1 victory. Blues fortune in that Cup continued as Hemel Hempstead Town were defeated 3-1 in the May final and Captain Rob French lifted Blues first silverware for 6 years. Back in February, the club had sold star striker Vinnie John to Hornchurch FC for a club record fee and in March amongst much publicity, ex Arsenal striker and Liberian International Christopher Wreh signed to play at Woodside Park. The Club ended that season in a respectable 13th place, but Mr Wreh made only one appearance, scoring on his debut in a 4-0 win at Hendon in front of the Sky Sports cameras.
2003/04 saw the restructure of the football pyramid with the top 12 teams from the Ryman Premier (after champions Canvey Island) joining DML counterparts in a new Conference League with 2 first divisions, North and where Stortford would compete if they qualified, South. The battle for the top half of the table added spice to the campaign and manager Martin Hayes duly added strength to his team. Lifelong Blues fan Garth Stephens released his book about the Club. The first round proper of the FA Cup was achieved and a tie away at Nationwide League Club Mansfield Town. It was a day of mixed emotions as 600 travelling fans saw their team lose 6-0 and much loved gateman George Jack pass away on a supporters coach on the journey back to Woodside Park. In April, exactly 30 years to the day that Blues won the last ever Amateur Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, Stortford retained the Herts Charity Cup by defeating Cheshunt 4-1 to match that Wembley scoreline. A ‘promotion’ place had already been secured as Blues won 2-0 at Hitchin on the April bank holiday Monday. The last game of the season saw tearful scenes as the fans said goodbye to midfield supremo, inveterate goalscorer and triple winner of the player of the season trophy, Glen Southam. His £20,000 fee to Dagenham & Redbridge set a new Club record.
A brave new world opened for Blues in August 2004 as they kicked off their Conference South campaign with a 2-1 win at home to Eastbourne Borough. It was a journey into the unknown with league trips as far afield as Weymouth and Newport but Blues held their own in the Autumn with a position on the fringe of the play offs. There was a disappointing early FA Cup defeat by Hayes but FA Trophy wins against Kingstonian and Lewes saw Stortford through to the 3rd Round in the New Year. There were echoes of 1981 as Blues beat Dagenham, Canvey Island and Gravesend from the Conference National to reach a semi-final against Hucknall Town. In the meantime league wins against Dorchester and Cambridge City kept Blues play off hopes alive. Both semi-final games against Hucknall were lost narrowly to dash hopes of an FA Trophy Final return and fatigue eventually ended the play off hopes in the penultimate game of the season at Eastbourne, the day before the Herts Charity Cup Final was lost. A final placing of 10th was very satisfactory in the end and dispelled doubts about how Blues would manage the loss of Glen Southam.
By contrast the 2005-06 season was a disappointment and yet it ended with a trophy. Eastbourne were the first visitors again and the game summed up how the season would go – a frustrating 1-0 defeat. Major injury problems and suspensions to key players helped to cause inconsistent form for Blues, as well as bad luck. This was epitomised in the 3-0 defeat at home to Lewes in November when the visitors had only 2 shots on target all game. Shortly afterwards Blues demolished Histon 5-0. This didn’t kick start the campaign though and after going out of the FA Cup at Hayes again and the FA Trophy at Exeter all that was left apparently was a relegation struggle. However a 10 game unbeaten league run in the New Year banished fears of relegation and at the same time Blues won through to the Herts Senior Cup Final. The cup was won for the first time in 20 years with a 1-0 win over Stevenage and the season was rounded off with a record Woodside Park league crowd of 1016 as champions elect Weymouth visited.
In 2006-07 the club flirted with promotion to the National Conference, the top echelon of non league football.
A top six league finish led to a play-off semi final against Salisbury City. The home leg, played in front of 1049 spectators ended in a 1-1 draw with Greg Pearson scoring for Stortford. Back at Salisbury, the score was again 1-1 after 90 minutes. But two extra time goals saw Salisbury march to the final and the Conference. The FA Cup first round was reached, but Blues fell by five goals to three at Woodside to Kings Lynn – the attendance, 1750.The following season saw a second successive promotion bid. But this time Blues faded away on the run-in, falling from 5th to 10th in six winless matches. A highlight was an FA Trophy second round appearance against Halifax Town. Blues’ illustrious opposition were somewhat fortunate to take the tie to a replay, but made no mistake in 4-1 demolition of Blues’ Wembley hopes. 2008-2009 season saw Martin Hayes record 500 games and 10 years in the job. However a shoestring budget and poor results led to his surprise dismissal and the promotion of reserve team manager, Mark Simpson assisted by Gordon Boateng. The new management team rung the changes and Stortford rallied to move from 20th in the league table to finish 9th.
Garth Stephens & Andrew Cornell