Tonbridge Football Club were formed in October 1947 following the suggestion of local businessman and founder chairman Mr. Herbert Portch, and were one of four clubs to be elected to the Southern League for the 1948-49 season. 'Jock' Dunoon, a former Chelsea player, was the club's first manager. The club took out a lease on the Angel Ground, formerly the home of Kent County Cricket Club and named after the nearby pub 'The Angel'. Hence Tonbridge FC became known as 'The Angels'. A crowd of around 5,000 turned up for the club's opening league fixture against fellow newcomers Hastings United but the match was lost 2-1 with Albert Ronson scoring the club's first ever goal. Progress was slow in the early days with the club rock bottom at Christmas and with Harold Hobbis taking over as manager from Dunoon and Marshall Raybould, but the club would improve their form in the second half of the season to finish third from last.
Throughout the 1950s the Angels would struggle to make any progress in the Southern League and a peak of 11th place was reached in 1949/50, the club's second season, however Tonbridge would prove to be a strong side in cup competitions. In 1949/50, the club reached the semi-finals of the Southern League Cup, losing 3-2 to Colchester United. In three successive seasons, 1950-51, 1951-52 and 1952-53, Tonbridge reached the First Round Proper of the FA Cup, only to lose each of the three after a replay. The Angels' opponents were Chelmsford City, Aldershot and Norwich City respectively. The Aldershot tie at the Angel Ground saw a record attendance of 8,236, while the Norwich City game was shrouded in controversy with a late goal at Carrow Road settling the tie. The first trophy to be lifted came in 1951/52 with the Angels winning the Kent Senior Shield. Tonbridge would go on to win this trophy a further four times, in 1956, 1958, 1959 and 1964. Two Southern League Cup finals were reached and lost, beaten in 1954/55 by Yeovil Town and two seasons later by Hereford United, and two Kent Senior Cup finals were also lost in 1956/57 and 1958/59. The club were relegated from the Premier Division in 1961/62, but were promoted two seasons later finishing in 4th place after narrowly missing out the year before. However the club were then relegated back to Division One in 1965-66. The notable success of the 1960s was the achievement of reaching the First Round Proper for a fourth time, this time being knocked out 1-0 by Dagenham. The club also won the Kent Senior Cup for the first time in 1964/65.
The 1964/65 Kent Senior Cup winning side, managed by the late Harry Haslam. (Photo courtesy of 'Flying With The Angels')
In 1972/73 the Angels won promotion to the Premier Division by finishing as runners-up to Maidstone United. In the same season the First Round Proper of the FA Cup was reached once again as Charlton Athletic were the visitors to the Angel Ground. A crowd of 7,770 saw Charlton win 5-0. Tonbridge won the Kent Senior Cup in 1974/75 while managed by former World Cup winner George Cohen. After struggling to stay in the Premier Division, the club suffered financial troubles and went into voluntary liquidation in 1976. Tonbridge Angels FC was then formed and allowed to complete the fixture list on the understanding that relegation would result at the end of the 1975/76 season, wherever the club finished. Another major problem loomed soon after. The club's landlords, the local council, wanted the Angel Ground for development. A battle lasting up to three years that went as far as the High Courts ensued before the club was eventually offered a new ground at Longmead, its present home. The appropriately named Micky Angel scored the last ever goal at the old Angel Ground in 1980.
Former Tonbridge and Arsenal goalkeeper Tony Burns took over as manager for the 1980/81 season and the club’s new Longmead Stadium hosted its first game on August 18th 1980, a crowd of 701 watching a Southern League Cup game against Crawley Town. Despite having a new home, finances proved to be a problem for the club. Burns departed for Gravesend & Northfleet in December 1982 to be replaced by John Keirs, who took the club to fourth place in the 1983/84 season, promotion only denied to the Angels on the final day of the season. Phil Emblen took over the reins in July 1985 and led the club to another Southern League Semi Final appearance in 1987, but his departure along with several key players at the end of the 1987/88 season led to a slump in the 40th anniversary season.
1988/89 proved to be a disaster for the club. Former Tottenham Hotspur man Terry Naylor took charge and lasted for just seven games, in that time only managing to earn a single drawn match. With the Angels at the bottom of the league Tommy Sampson came in to try to steady the ship but the damage was already done. The Angels bade farewell to the Southern League after 40 years, relegation to the Kent League being the club’s “reward” after ending the season in next to bottom spot.
The Angels regrouped for the 1989/90 season with former player and manager Tony Burns returning to manage the club for a second time. Tonbridge finished in a worthy third place, not enough for a quick return to Southern League football, but silverware was forthcoming in the form of the Kent League Cup. Another former manager returned for the 1990/91 season, Phil Emblen, and he sparked a revival in the club's fortunes. Emblen patiently built a winning team and after two fourth-placed finishes, money-spinning Cup runs and another Kent League Cup win, the title finally arrived at Longmead in the 1992/93 season. And so, after a few seasons away, Tonbridge returned to the league which they had graced for so many years.
During the club’s Kent League days, Longmead Stadium’s record attendance for a competitive match was remarkably beaten three times in ten days during a memorable FA Cup run. After an abandoned 3rd Qualifying Round replay with Hampton in front of over 800 fans, the game was rearranged and drew an impressive attendance of 1,274. Just five days later the 4th Qualifying Round tie against Yeovil drew a crowd of 1,483. Season 1997/98 saw an attendance of 2,412 when the full Crystal Palace first team squad appeared for a charity match in aid of two local hospices, making March 30th 1998 a memorable evening in the clubs history. Still on the topic of records, the Angels’ biggest win came about in the FA Cup in 1951 when Worthing were beaten 11-1. Two seasons before that a 2-11 loss at Folkestone in the Kent Senior Cup had given the club its record defeat.
The Angels briefly topped the Southern Division on their return to Southern League football in the 1993/94 season but settled for a mid-table finish, which was to be repeated the following season. The club struggled in the 1995/96 season with Phil Emblen resigning as Manager in February 1996 to be replaced by Bill Roffey and the club finished in 18th position. In 1996-97 Tonbridge had an improved season finishing in 8th place and in the summer of 1997 Paul Emblen broke the club’s record transfer fee, moving to Charlton Athletic for £7,000. He was later transferred to Wycombe Wanderers for £60,000. His brother, ex-Angel Neil, has appeared for Millwall, Wolves, Crystal Palace and Norwich City.
After a disappointing start to the 1997/98 season Colin Blewden took over as Player-Manager in October and hauled the club away from the relegation zone to finish in 14th place and led the Angels to a 16th place finish in 1998/99. The 1999/2000 season was the club’s most successful since re-joining the Southern League. A run of fourteen games at the end of the season, in which just one defeat was suffered, secured a final league placing of seventh. The following season, it appeared that the Angels might better that seventh place finish. A storming start to the season saw just two of their first nineteen league matches lost. However, a run of five defeats in six matches late on, including a 2-3 reverse and Stamford, left the Angels in eighth spot come the end of the season.
The 2001/02 season was not a successful one for the club. Blewden resigned in October and Tonbridge were one of several clubs involved in a relegation dogfight. They escaped the drop by winning two and drawing one of their last four matches, leaving them four points ahead of relegated Wisbech Town at the end.
Alan Walker was appointed manager at the start of season 2002-03 and that season was arguably the most successful since joining the Southern League, the club eventually finishing ninth after a fine end of season run. That run continued into the 2003-04 with the a club record of 26 league matches unbeaten being ended in December 2003, at which point the Angels were comfortable leaders of the Eastern Division. Walker left the club shortly after due to a loss of sponsorship and the Angels replaced him with player-manager Tony Dolby. After an initial period of mixed results, Dolby steadied the ship and brought in Mike Rutherford as assistant coach before keeping the Angels in the title battle until the penultimate game of the season. The Angels finally finished in third, the club’s highest position in the Southern League for more than 25 years.
The 2004-05 season started a new era in the Ryman Isthmian League Premier Division, and it began well with an unbeaten run of six games in the late summer, but the Angels were in the bottom three by the end of November, where they would stay for the rest of the season, and despite a late comeback were unable to claw themselves out of the relegation zone.
The Angels bounced back into the Premier Division at the first attempt, in the most dramatic of fashions, after a rollercoaster 2005-06 season. Tonbridge were undefeated until October but a bad run of results threatened to undermine the promotion bid, but the Angels always did enough to stay in the play-off places and a late surge secured third place and with it home advantage in the play-offs. Tooting & Mitcham were defeated in the Semi-Final match before a dream Final pitted the Angels at home to old Kent rivals Dover Athletic. The Lilywhites were beaten 3-2 in front of a new record Longmead Stadium attendance of 1,863.
So to 2006-07 where the Angels will once again face the task of survival in the challenging Ryman League Premier Division.