The Joma Devon & Exeter Football League as it is currently known has been in existence since around 1900. It is currently one of the biggest and most successful grass roots Leagues in the country with over 80 clubs and many Reserve teams taking part. Up to 4000 players register with the League and that usually includes over 100 from the local colleges. In 2017 the League adopted the Whole Game Registration system and this has proved to be very successful.
The League can offer membership for clubs anywhere in Devon but they must be within a 50 mile range of Exeter. In recent years teams from Dorset and Somerset have joined the League but the main body of teams come from the East Devon and Exeter area.
The Leagues history is a little vague in its origins but newspapers at the time suggest it began in 1899 as the East Devon Junior League. Research suggests this table is the Eastern section of the DEVON LEAGUE before the East Devon League came into existence in 1900. A colleague of mine John Gibbes found this as he is researching Torquay Uniteds history and he has been an invaluable help.
1. Exeter United 6 4 0 2 19 7 8
2. Dawlish 5 2 2 1 9 7 6
3. Exmouth 5 1 2 2 5 12 4
4. Newton YMCA 4 0 2 2 6 12 2
17 Feb Dawlish 1 Newton YMCA 0
31 Mar Newton YMCA v Exmouth (not found)
1. Exeter United 6 4 0 2 19 7 8
2. Dawlish 6 3 2 1 10 7 8
3. Exmouth 5 1 2 2 5 12 4
4. Newton YMCA 5 0 2 3 6 13 2
Dawlish 2 Exeter United 0
Prior to that in competition with Exeter United at the turn of the century were St Sidwells United, and the latter became the more dominant team for various reasons. On the 1st June 1904 St Sidwells changed their name to Exeter City, and claimed the Senior championship, so the League is proud to have been the starting post for the Grecians first team. It was to be the only season in our League as Exeter City first team as the following year they entered the Plymouth & District League then moved on to the Southern League and the National Football League.
In those days, many of the smaller clubs were from church and school origins such as St Lukes, and the local military bases. Gradually clubs formed in the city centre and the surrounding towns and villages as transport improved, and there was a surge of new clubs before and after the first world war.
Also in the early years of the last century apart from Exeter City, Torquay United had teams in the East Devon Senior League before they too became a professional club. Heavitree United and Friernhay notably were major powers and could attract over 5000 spectators to their many cup encounters at St James Park.
The Premier division did not kick in until 1921 Friernhay being the first champions, and locally there were several smaller leagues formed including the Exeter & Victory League.
Around 1930 the League became the Exeter & District League in a merger with the East Devon & Exeter Victory League and that continued until after the 2nd World war when other Leagues such as the Tiverton & District League, the Ottery & District League and the Axe Vale League disbanded and most of their teams came in.
Since the late 1950’s the League has grown considerably and has the strength of membership it currently enjoys. The League then became the Devon & Exeter League in 1972, the name it bears today.
Tiverton Town now in the Southern League were members for many years, and other major clubs such as Barnstaple Town, Bideford, Elmore, Ilfracombe Town, and Willand Rovers spent many years in the League before stepping up to higher pastures. The League lost a number of its stronger teams to the Devon League which itself moved on to become South West Peninsular League, but many of their reserve teams remain in membership and still add much to the League.
In the year 2000 the League held its centenary at Exeter University and were lucky enough to persuade World cup winner legend Mr Jack Charlton to honour us with his presence, although he did not come cheap, he was worth every penny, and just his presence gave the event total credibility.
Famous players from the League
A number of well known players began their careers in our League before going big time, names such as Scott Hiley, Chris Vinnicombe, Nicky Marker, Mike Balson, Glenn Cronin, Kevin Hill and not forgetting the late Adam Stansfield. The League has also been associated with Maurice Setters from his starting days at Honiton Town, but perhaps our most famous name is the legendary Cliff Bastin who played in the League in 1927 1928 in one of the local church teams, before signing for Exeter City and then of course Arsenal. Cliff was Arsenals top scorer for many years, before retiring to run the Ship Inn pub in Heavitree. Cliffs daughters Pat & Barbara both still live in the Exeter area and Pat is married to Reg Vicary the secretary of one of our leading clubs.
In 1911 Topsham goalkeeper Dick (Pincher) Pym signed for Southern League Exeter City and went on to make 186 consecutive appearances before breaking a collarbone in a cup tie against Watford. After service in the Devonshire Regiment which he joined in 1916, and the 8th East Surrey Regiment, at the end of the war, he rejoined Exeter City for two seasons before being transferred to Bolton Wanderers for a fee believed to have been around £5000, which was a record for both clubs at the time and a record for any goalkeeper. Dick went on to play in three FA Cup finals with Bolton without conceding a goal, the famous 1923 cup final against West Ham winning 2-0, 1926 and 1929 making a hat- trick of FA cup winning medals. Dick won three England caps, the first against Wales played at Swansea in 1925, he played his last game for Bolton in 1930 and returned to play occasionally for Topsham as a centre forward, Dick continued his interest and became President of Topsham Town AFC in 1983 until his death in 1988 at the age of 95.
In 1924 Silverton player Harold Blackmore joined Exeter City scoring 45 goals in 71 starts, was then sold to Bolton Wanderers for £2150 where he scored 111 goals in just 153 appearances, was top scorer for two years and scored in the 1929 2-0 cup final victory against Portsmouth. Blackmore then moved on to Middleborough, Bradford Park Avenue and Bury before returning to Exeter City. His record shows overall he scored 201 goals in 309 appearances which is some going, yet as a Silverton player in the East Devon League he won nothing ! The reason given is that Silverton who finished 4th and 3rd in the Senior division in 1923 and 1924 so he missed out.
Yet another name to recall is Jack Radford who at one time had a cup named after him contested for by teams in and around the city. Jack was Friernhay secretary four times, also wrote for the Express & Echo (Football reports etc) under the name of ‘Half Back’ having attended Ladysmith School as a youngster from where he became an England Schoolboy International. We are not sure whether it was near the same time as Cliff Bastin but Jack was taken to Arsenal for trials by Herbert Chapman just before Second world war broke out which interrupted his football career. Who knows what might have happened!
Jack’s son Mike was also until 2020 Secretary of Exeter City, a role he undertook after being manager of their Youth team for many years.
Amazingly only four League secretaries have been in control of our League since the second world war. Mr R Husson was in charge in 1946 and he was then superseded by Walt Sanders in 1958. Mr Eric Manning then took on in 1968 and did the job for 37 years until Chris Davey took on the reins in 2005. Chris Davey was also the Devon FA representative spending much of his time at Wembley and often took responsibity for taking the England C team abroad. Mr Davey no longer has the role but he has been made a Devon FA Life member. Chris stepped down in 2018 and his post as General secretary is now in the hands of Mr Neil Anthony from Sidmouth. Neil was a prominent footballer in his day and since he retired from playing has been in charge of the three cup competititons, Morrison Bell, Grandisson and Golesworthy, and his experience here should be very much an asset to his new role.
Our Referees appointments secretary is Mr Terry Atkins who has been doing the job for many years and who has around 100 officials to keep happy. Terry has finally stopped refereeing now being in his retirement years but can boast action as a EUROPEAN CUP quarter final linesman at Ajax in Amsterdam on his CV. Terry along with the recently deceased Tony Ellis, often accompanied top Premiership referee the late Mr Ron Crabb to matches, and Ron’s face was the opening shot on BBC Match of the Day for many years in the 1980’s. On a personal note Ron Crabb and myself travelled to Wembley for the 1962 Tottenham v Burnley cup final, and I still have my ticket as a memento.
Former Tottenham and England player Steve Perryman, was the Leagues guest of honour at the 2010 Presentation night and former England Under 21 manager Mr Stuart Pearce has also been a guest of honour in recent years.
Roger Spray our longest serving committee member has been Chairman, Treasurer, fixtures secretary and a committee member since the early 1970s.
The League still offers well organised grass roots football and it will be interesting to see how its history develops now we are in our second century.