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The beauty of the English Sunday League

Several notable players have featured in the world's most unique league

A soccer matchday on a Sunday? It may sound normal, but not in England. At least apart from the last round of the season. This is when all Premier league matches are being held at the same window of time, on the so called “Survival Sunday”.

Until the 1960s, Sunday leisure and entertainment activities including sports were considered against the law in England. Successive ”Observance Acts” were passed by Great Britain’s legislavion body, the House of Commons, which not only disallowed organized sporting activities, but also prohibited the charging for admission to such events. Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest and nothing more. That was the traditional view in most parts of the country, especially the religious ones.

How the league started

There was a main issue against that general belief and ”rule”. Given that soccer had an extremely overwhelming appeal to the majority of the population, most of male fans would watch their favorite local clubs on Saturday after finishing work. Thus, the only available day for them to play soccer for a local team was the day after, the ”rest day”. The first organized Sunday League formed in England was the ”Edmonton & District Sunday Football League” of North London in 1925. Soon after, many more leagues and clubs were founded throughout England in the 1930s featuring players who also were contracted by…legitimate Saturday teams. Keep in my mind that until 1958 English soccer consisted of just two national divisions and the rest were all county leagues run by the local association. That meant that the Sunday leagues were practically the third or fourth tier of the English soccer.

It was a development that the FA (the Football Association) did not like as no Sunday league was yet under its auspices. However, the Sunday leagues would regularly “steal” soccer players with an FA license. As a result those “non-legitimate” leagues would not be recognized by any local County Football Association. On top of that, the FA threatened to suspend any player under contract by a Saturday side or referee who participated in a Sunday match.

The Sunday clubs were financially independent backed by local businessmen and various sponsors (predominantly pubs) and found a way out of the predicament: FA’s player or referees would play under a false name. One of the most famous players who featured on Sundays was Jimmy Mullen, Wolves and England’s outside left. Mullen played in the Wolverhampton & District Sunday League during the 1940s and 1950s.

When someone was young could freely join a Sunday club and there was no need to false any documents. Legendary England’s captain Bobby Moore started off his career from East London’s Hackney and Leyton Sunday League before joining West Ham in 1956. Prolific striker Jimmy Greaves also played in the same league until 1955, the year he signed for Chelsea. It was until the 1950s when Sunday soccer’s rose rapidly in popularity with more leagues being formed and some of them were now affiliated to the local County Associations. The FA was once more suspicious.

A Sunday match at Hackney Marshes in the early 1960s.
The Sunday Cup

The FA Cup, the oldest national competition in the world started in 1893. The FA Amateur Cup began in 1893 following the legalization of professionalism within soccer, inviting amateur county teams to participate. The Committees of various Sunday leagues across England decided to follow FA’s steps by launching their own national cup competition the Sunday Cup in 1960. The success of the new knock-out cup competition brought the FA closer to the Sunday leagues. As a result, the former decided to sanction the Sunday Cup in 1964. The competition was rebranded as the FA Sunday Cup. Forest Gate Mount Athletic has been the most successful team ever since with 3 trophies (1962, 1963 and 1964).

The Hackney Marshes and…Lionel Messi!

It is known as the spiritual home of England’s Sunday soccer. A pitch complex that consists of 88 full-size pitches! Built in 1946, the complex has hosted countless matches for East London’s Hackney and Leyton Sunday league since then. It is the league where David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, Stuart Pearce and many others started their careers from and considered one of the most prestigious in the Sunday soccer. The Hackney Marshes Pavilion, a contemporary two-storey building -that has won design awards for its architecture- accommodates 38 changing and 8 officials’ rooms and other facilities alongside a terrace overlooking the pitches.

Most of Sunday matches are held at the same time producing an impressive spectacle. At least from an aerial view. The fact is that there is no other place in the world where so many goals are scored at the same location and within 90 minutes. Hackney Marshes is almost as famous as some of the players who were brought along there to make advertisements, such as Eric Cantona in the 1990s and more recently Lionel Messi. It was the 15th of September 2010 when the Argentinian superstar who had previously expressed the desire to play at the Marshes arrived at the complex. The 2009 Ballon d’or winner was expected to come on as a substitute in a friendly match with other Sunday league players. However, it was not meant to be.

Messi flew into the spiritual home of England’s Sunday soccer via helicopter and he was immediately surrounded by fans just moments after stepping out. The then Barcelona’s player was quickly escorted into a van by his security team and taken further away from the pitch. The event organized by Adidas had to be cancelled because of security fears. Eight months later Lionel Messi would be back to London winning the Champions League for Barcelona against Manchester United at Wembley.

Lionel Messi arrived at the Hackney Marshes on 15 September 2010 to play in a Sunday league game.
Senrab, the club that produced 170 pros

In 2011 Senrab FC was in a major financial trouble being unable to find the 12,000 annual running costs. John Terry helped his first club stay afloat by donating an undisclosed fee. Senrab, a club founded in 1961 in East London’s Forest Gate neighborhood has produced 18 English internationals accumulating over 430 caps between each other. At least 170 players who later became professionals starting their careers from the club playing in the Essex and Corinthian Sunday league including the likes of Sol Campbell (world’s most expensive defender in 2001), Lee Bowyer, Ugo Ehiogu, Muzzy Izzet, Ledley King, Bobby Zamora, Jermain Defoe, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Ray Wilkins and many others.

Two of its former alumni played in the MLS: Jermain Defoe for Toronto and Ashley Cole for LA Galaxy. And John Terry went on to become European champion with Chelsea in 2012. As about Senrab’s home ground, the Wanstead Flats -another soccer complex- can only be rivaled by Hackney Marshes in terms of number of pitches.

Panoramic view of the Hackney Marshes pitch complex in 1962.
World hat-trick record by Alex Torr!

Alex Torr (born in 1993) set a new world hat-trick record in 2013. He completed a hat-trick in just 70 seconds, the fastest ever recorded, breaking Magnus Arvidsson’s 1995 record. Then the Swedish had scored a hat-trick in 89 seconds in a fourth division match between Hassleholms IF and Landskrona (5-3). His record was meant to be broken 18 years later on 3 May 2013, by Alex Torr in the game between Rawson Springs and Winn Gardens (7-1), in Sheffield’s Sunday League. The referee Matt Tyers confirmed the timings of the goals and admitted he had never seen anything like that before.

The Rawson Springs’ 20-year old striker ended the game with 4 goals. Just three days earlier he had notched another treble against Penistone Church (7-0) in only three minutes! For the record, the fastest Premier League hat-trick was scored by Robbie Fowler on 28 August 1994, when Liverpool thrashed Arsenal 3-0 at Anfield. Fowler had completed his three strikes in 4 mins and 33 seconds.

Alex Torr is the world record holder for the fastest hat-trick in history.
English players who joined the league after retirement

It was accustomed for an English player -at least untl the mid 1990s- to start playing soccer from a youth Sunday league club and then potentially move to a Saturday side. And it was quite rare for a Sunday player to enter the third decade of their life and then, get a transfer.

Former Orpington and Bromley District Sunday League player, Ian Wright, had not attracted sufficient interest to get a professional contract offer until the age of 22. In 1985 he left his Sunday club ”Tem-em-Bee” (where his son and former New York Red Bulls player, Shaun Wright-Phillips also played) to join semi-professional side Greenwich and soon after, he signed for Crystal Palace. Nottingham Forest legend Stuart Pearce was playing in the Fulham and District Sunday League until the age of 20 while being also a semi-pro for Wealdstone FC. They both enjoyed an extremely successful career in the Premier League and the English national team in the 1990s, alongside another talented Englishman, Paul Gascoigne.

Gascoigne, one of the best midfielders of his generation, played 57 times for his country. He also helped Tottenham win the 1991 FA Cup, before winning two Scottish league titles with Glasgow Rangers in 1996 and 1997. After failing at a trial with DC United ”Gazza” joined fourth tier English club Boston United and retired in 2004. Ten years later, on 21 August 2014, he came out of retirement, aged 47, after agreeing to join Bornemouth Sunday league side, Abbey FC. He is considered the biggest name to ever play in the Sunday league. Gascoigne was 17 when he made his Newcastle debut in 1985, before moving to Tottenham in 1988 for £2.3m. A British transfer record at the time.

Lee Hendrie played for Aston Villa from 1993 until 2007 and retired in 2014 at the age of 37. Three years later he returned to action signing for Digby Rangers in Birmingham’s Sunday league. Digby Rangers were one of the mightiest soccer minnows in England at the time, having a full squad of ex-pros and semi-pros. Lee Hendrie moved to Monica Star for the 2019-20 season, with his new team also fielding 3 more ex-Premier League players! His teammates were Irish midfielder Lee Carsley, Scottish forward Paul Devlin and English striker Darren Byfield.

One-club man Tony Hibbert quit soccer in 2016 as Everton player and a year later he joined Hares FC in the Liverpool Sunday league. His debut with the club was not as lucky as their unbeaten run immediately came to an end after losing 1-0 by rivals Clay Brow.

Portland Timbers ex-defender Liam Ridgewell, ended his career in 2020 with Southend United and subseuently joined Sunday league side Sutton Rangers at the age of 36. Like Nile Ranger who after a 2-year spell with Southend he featured in the Barnet Sunday League for AC United.

Former Aston Villa star, Lee Hendrie, has played for two Sunday league teams: Digby Rangers and Monica FC.
The overseas players

An interesting fact about the English Sunday league is that several notable foreign players also appeared in its fixtures. Argentinian wingback Julio Arca who spent 13 years in England with Sunderland and Middlesbrough (2000-2013) proved his love for the game by playing in the Sunderland Sunday League just one season after his retirement. On 25 August 2014, he made his debut for Willow Pond FC at the Hylton Road Field. Arca played 90 minutes and helped his team come from behind and grab a point against Hylton Road (2-2). The ex-Boro’ star -an Argentinos Juniors youth product- had to quit soccer at 32 after a broken toe that kept him out for months led to arthritis. In his first season with Diego Maradona’s first club he played with players like Roland Schiavi and Federico Insua.

Argentinian midfielder Julio Arca joined the Sunday league in 2014, aged 33.

Bulgarian midfielder Stiliyan Petrov made 311 appearances for Glasgow Celtic (1999-2006) before moving to Aston Villa. The charismatic Bulgarian was diagnosed with acute leukaemia in 2012 and quit soccer in 2013. He appeared in the Sunday league the same season with Arca (2014-15). The former Aston Villa captain and Celtic star with 105 international caps, described his Sunday league experience as heaven after the leukaemia hell he was going through.

The previous season his brother and former Manchester City midfielder Martin Petrov featured for Chorlton Torpedo on 3 October 2013 in the Manchester Sunday league. He scored the winner and only goal of his debut game against Spartak Brushes, to the delight of spectators who invaded the pitch afterwards for photographs and autographs. Petrov was an active professional player at the time and accepted the offer to play for Chorlton in order to regain fitness before returning to his club in Bulgaria, CSKA Sofia. On 17 May 2014, he retired from soccer in CSKA’s 1-1 draw with Lokomotiv Plovdiv in the Bulgarian first division.

Ntinos Pontikas became the youngest player in history to score a hat-trick in 1996, after breaking Pelé’s record (Pelé had scored his first hat-trick in Santos’ friendly win over Fabril de Lavras by 7-2, in 1957). With a bright future ahead of him, Pontikas was forced to quit soccer at a young age due to a severe knee injury. After a couple unsuccessful return attempts with local clubs in Greece, he joined the Hackney and Leyton league at the age of 38, playing a full 90 minutes on his debut with Bow Badgers in their 3-1 defeat to Badu Sports.

Jamaican forward Ricardo Fuller left his Kingston club, Tivoli Gardens, in 2001 to sign for Crystal Palace. He retired in 2016 from Oldham, but returned to action a year later. On 17 September 2017 he made his debut in the Potteries and District Sunday league, playing 80 minutes and scoring Grange Park Rangers’ sole goal in their 4-1 defeat to Greenhoffs. The next season Fuller moved to 9th division Nantwich Town and he is currently a 7th division player after signing for Hantley Town. 42-year old Ricardo Fuller had 72 caps during his career with Jamaica.

Ntinos Pontikas, the youngest hat-trick scorer in history, joined the Sunday league at the age of 38.
The most successful clubs

The quality of the various Sunday leagues across England depends heavily on how many ex-professionals or semi-pros are playing. Sponsorship is also a big part of a team’s success. Like SE Dons, a club that has reached a worldwide audience!

The Dons work under professional standards having struck sponsorship deals with various companies. They recently signed a great kit deal with PUMA, they got 175,000 followers on social media, sold hundreds of jerseys even abroad and fans queue round the block to watch them play. One of their players, Zak Ansah, had previously played for Arsenal, coming through the same youth team as Serge Gnabry and even experienced Champions league soccer.

Other great examples of powerful and well organized clubs are Badu Sports with former Ghanaian pros, Niva, an ethnic Ukrainian team with players who had featured in Ukraine’s national divisions and Bulgaria FC. And as it has happened in the past with FC Romania, a Sunday club can switch to Saturday soccer and climb up the English pyramid. ”The Wolves” play now in the 7th division, having already moved to the Cheshunt stadium of 3,500 capacity.

However, Walthamstow Avenue FC – like the Hackney Dawns in the 2000s- did the same journey in opposite direction. The Avenue quit Saturday soccer after winning the 7th division three times in the 1940s and 1950s and also the FA Amateur Cup in 1952 and 1961. Founded in 1900, it is the oldest club in Sunday soccer, and currently a member of the Essex Corinthian league. The club play its home matches at the Green Pond Road. On the other hand, Penn Old Boys was the longest operating Sunday club with a 40-year old presence in the Wolverhampton & District league (1958-1998).

Walthamstow Avenue’ full squad in 1981.

Below there is a list with the most decorated Sunday league clubs.

Clubs with most league wins

* Oakview: 14 championship titles in the Watford Sunday League (1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017)

* Riverside: 13 championship titles in the Watford Sunday League (1956, 1957, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1972, 1973)

* Luton St.Josephs: 10 championship titles in the Watford Sunday League (1982, 1983, 1986, 1989, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2010). St.Josephs also played in 6 FA Sunday Cup Finals (1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2006, 2020)

* Evergreen: 9 championship titles in the Watford Sunday League (1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1981, 1992, 1993) and runners-up in the 1976 Sunday Cup Final

* Woodhouse George/West End: 7 championship titles in the Sheffield Sunday League (1995, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010)

* Imperial: 7 championship titles in the Barnet Sunday League