The success of the newly formed Football League in 1888 encouraged the creation of similar models throughout the north and midlands, so it was totally against the trend when in the summer of 1889 Ilkeston Town - formally known as Ilkeston Wanderers - announced that they would no longer play against other teams, either in challenge matches or competitive football. Instead they chose to play private games amongst themselves. One possible reason behind this unexplained decision was that the location of the otherwise suitable Barkers Bridge ground was not popular amongst supporters. Town had hoped to relocate to the Rutland Recreation Ground but this was ruled out because of a plan - which never came to fruition - to build a cemetary on the site. An offer of a new site for the club, by an agent of the Duke of Rutland, near Manners Colliery was rejected by Town as being unacceptable. The old problem of the senior football club not having the best venue in the town had arisen again.
Understandably, many of the Town players departed and signed for rivals Cotmanhay Wanderers in their quest for competitive football. When Cotmanhay's fixture list for the 1889/90 season was published in the local press they were erroneously described as Cotmanhay Wanderers (Late Ilkeston Town) FC. Yet Cotmanhay played just one competitive game before disbanding. Suddenly the best venue in the area was vacant and Ilkeston Town wasted no time in moving in. Reunited with its former players and in possession of the best ground Town were now in a position to make significant progress.
Town successfully applied to enter the newly created Derbyshire Senior League in 1890/91 and after struggling during their first two seasons at this level they made significant strides in 1892/93. Until this point they had been heavily reliant upon local talent, like their predecessors. League football had proven to be a draw for the local public, however, and Ilkeston were now able to cast their net further afield to attract talent. More importantly, a brand new purpose built sporting arena, close to the town centre, was opened in 1893. The Manor Ground, the home of Ilkeston football for the following 99 years, was the catalyst that sparked an extraordinary rise of the Town club and by 1898 they had one of the finest non League teams in the country.
The increase in attendances upon Town's move to the Manor Ground was dramatic as at last football supporters in the town had a ground to be proud of. The new ground also enabled the club to enter the FA Cup for the first time. Ilkeston reached the final qualifying round in 1893/94 before going down 5-4 at Heanor who were beaten by Nottingham Forest in the first round. Two years later they lost 2-0 at Chesterfield, who faced Newcastle at home in the first round, at the same stage and they failed again at the final hurdle in 1896/97 when they lost 4-2 at Heanor in a replay (the winners faced Southampton away). They reached the final qualifying round once more a year later and this time they were beaten 2-0 at Long Eaton Rangers. In those days teams that reached the first round proper had actually made it to the last 32. County honours also came their way at long last. They became the first Ilkeston club to lift the Derbyshire Senior Cup in 1894/95 and further success followed in 1895/96 and 1897/98.
Town's financial situation improved dramatically as a result of the new ground and new found support, and after one final season in the Derbyshire Senior League the ambitious club, now in a position to lure plenty of players with League experience, joined the powerful Midland League in 1894/95. The Midland League ranked alongside the Southern League as the finest outside of the Football League. Successful Midland League clubs of the era were frequently elected to the second division whilst a number of equally strong clubs went in the opposite direction. Ilkeston's opponents included Barnsley, Chesterfield, Doncaster, Northampton, Port Vale and Walsall. However, they were far from overawed and following several decent midtable finishes they finished fourth in 1897/98. Yet the best - but paradoxically the saddest - part was still to come. The 1898/99 saw Town become one of the finest non League clubs in the land just five years after playing in the Derbyshire Senior League. There were just 36 members of the Football League at the time so it could be claimed with some justification that Ilkeston were in the top 50 clubs in the country. They finished second in the Midland League that season after looking certainties to win it, and full details of that season can be found by clicking here.
That was as good as it got. Despite better than ever attendances they were not sufficient to cover the cost of the fine players on their books and the club had overstretched itself. Many of the best players had to be released and although they continued to sign players of a decent calibre the club went into decline. Attendances began to drop alarmingly even though the team was enconsed in midtable for the next couple of seasons. On their day Town could still produce some excellent football, a noteworthy example being the 17-1 record victory against Burton Wanderers in January 1901, but they were woefully inconsistent. The vicious circle wasn't broken. They were forced to release more players in 1901, the team became poorer, gates dropped further still, and the financial situation became critical. A 13-0 defeat against Grimsby Town Reserves in April 1902 was followed by an 11-0 defeat at Derby County Reserves at the start of the 1902/03 season. This was to be Town's final season. They became insolvent and were forced to disband in February 1903, the team bottom of the Midland League, after they failed to fulfill two away fixtures. Their results were expunged following a meeting held by the Midland League committee on February 19th in Nottingham.