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Details of United's formation are unclear. Cecil Smith, the chairman in 1905, claimed their origins lay at the Newdigate Arms on High Lane East where a group of drinkers decided to form their own team. Another source from the same era believed that the club was founded by some youths from the White Lion Square area and that they were first known as West Side FC. There was no disagreement about the year of their formation: 1886.
United, who wore blue and red stripes, earned a reputation locally for nurturing young talent during the early years and they frequently performed well in local competitions. Their first success came in 1891 when they won the 1890/91 Kimberley Cup competition by beating Kimberley Wanderers 3-0 in the final. They were admitted into the Derbyshire Alliance, newly formed for the 1891/92 season for the benefit of the county's leading minor clubs, and were joined by Ilkeston Liberal Club followed by Ilkeston FC a year later. They did not have serious ambitions and would have been happy continuing to live up to their reputation. United played on a pitch behind the Rutland Cottage on Heanor Road during the 1890s and several of their young players moved on to Ilkeston Town.
Arguably the most significant event in their history took place in the summer of 1901. Ilkeston Town's financial crisis was not aided by the burden of operating a reserves side and so the two clubs agreed that United would become Town's second string and play on the Manor Ground. The proposal was intended to be mutually beneficial but inside two years it was apparent that the real winners were United. By then Town had gone out of business but a number of their players assisted United during the closing weeks of the 1902/03 season. United romped to the Heanor & District League title, remarkably in front of larger gates than had been attracted to the Manor Ground during the final months of Ilkeston Town's life. They also reached the Derbyshire Divisional Cup Final, a fine achievement for a team playing at that level.
Undoubtedly, with the potential for large gates and by far the best non-League ground for miles, United had the infrastructure in place for swift progress and they were admitted into the Mid-Derbyshire League in 1903/04. That season they won the Derbyshire Divisional Cup, a feat they repeated in 1904/05, 1905/06, 1907/08, 1913/14, 1918/19, 1919/20 and 1922/23. They finished second in the Mid-Derbyshire League in 1904/05 which was also the season that they first entered the FA Cup. United entered the Cup at the third qualifying round stage and were drawn away at second division side Gainsborough Trinity. This was the first time that any Ilkeston club had played against Football League opponents in a competitive match and United took great credit from their 4-1 defeat against a team that finished sixth from the top and who scored four times at home in League games against Barnsley, Bristol City and West Bromwich Albion during the season. They then finished up as runners up in the Mid-Derbyshire League for a second time in 1906/07. Although they were destined never to win the competition, they were ready to progress further up the ladder.
The Mid-Derbyshire League ceased operations in 1907 and it rebranded itself as the Derbyshire Alliance in an attempt to attract more clubs. The league was partially successful in this respect but most of United's opponents remained the same. However, United were totally successful themselves and won the 1907/08 championship title. A new league then sprung up in 1908 - the Notts & Derbyshire League - which comprised of the most successful teams in the Notts & District League and the Derbyshire Alliance. United, therefore, were included and with their confidence rising they won the title in 1908/09. The following season they reached the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup before losing 2-0 at Stoke who lost at Sheffield Wednesday in the next round, and in 1910/11 they finished second in the league as well as enjoying another good FA Cup run. This time when they reached the fourth qualifying round they were paired once more with Gainsborough Trinity, still a second division club. United did themselves proud by holding Trinity to successive goalless draws before losing 5-0 in the second replay, staged at Bramall Lane. Gainsborough lost 3-2 at Liverpool in the next round.
United's status as a leading Notts & Derbyshire League club meant that they were successful in their application to join the newly formed Central Alliance in 1911. Although the Alliance had a disappointingly small membership in its first season it quickly grew in size and stature, with the likes of Peterborough entering the competition. United gradually improved over the next few years to such an extent that they won the title in 1915/16. By this time United had changed their colours to blue shirts after experimenting briefly during the 1913/14 season with white shirts decorated with a red 'V'. The number of clubs competing in the 1915/16 season had diminished to nine due to the First World War and all the fixtures were completed by the turn of the new year. A subsiduary competition then took place but United declined to enter because of the conflict in Europe.
The Central Alliance recommenced operations in 1919/20 and was back to full strength. United finished second, a feat they repeated in 1921/22. The club remained forward thinking and in 1922/23 their first ever match programme was produced. However, the team went into a gradual decline brought about largely by a dip in attendances. The formation of the Football League Division Three (North) and (South) had a detrimental effect upon the Central Alliance as a whole with several leading members leaving to join the Midland League or the Southern League which had both lost clubs to the Football League. United's financial situation became perilous and in 1924 they stunned supporters with the announcement that they were resigning from the Central Alliance. Moreover, on June 28th, chairman Fred Kenward announced they would cease playing for a year to concentrate totally on raising finances and pay off debts after failing in his bid to seek financial assistance from the local business community.
An even bigger surprise came in 1925 when United announced that with much of their debts cleared they had been accepted into the Midland League. In addition they changed their colours to red shirts and a new nickname, The Robins, was adopted. The nickname has become synonymous with Ilkeston football ever since. United hoped that the improved quality of football and standard of opposition on the Manor Ground would result in a leap in attendances. The Midland League had remained a powerful force in non-League football and included the likes of Mansfield, Scunthorpe, Gainsborough and York. With not a single player registered to the club just a month from the start of the 1925/26 season United's sole aim was to avoid finishing bottom. They succeeded mainly because they lost just one of their final 11 home games. The second season saw an improvement and they finished just below half way. They also reached the final qualifying round of the FA Cup but were disappointingly beaten 5-1 at home by York City, a result made worse by the fact that United had beaten The Minstermen 3-2 in a league game earlier in the season. However, their third and final season in the Midland League saw United completely out of their depth and they picked up only three points on their travels all season. Fortunately, eight home wins meant they avoided finishing bottom by a point. The club's financial situation deteriorated once more and they had been forced to release their best players. Local football followers had not been keen to attend the Manor Ground in sufficient numbers to watch a struggling team.
United returned to local football from the 1928/29 season. They entered the Derbyshire Senior League and gates actually increased as the team was able to win most of its games. They finished as runners up in 1930/31 and 1931/32 but they were still unable to rid themselves of the financial burden. Matters were componded by the suicide of chairman Fred Kenward, who had guided United through some very difficult times during the 1920s. He was found drowned in a pond near his home at Field House and had been ill with depression for some time. After winning the final 7 games of the 1931/32 season, Ilkeston United decided to call it a day. Their debts, which stood at £1300 in 1930, had slightly reduced during their final season but not enough to make the club a viable concern. 

The fortunes of United in 1922/23 inspired the following poem by one local resident:
Ilkeston United are still a good side
But their doings of late don't fill us with pride
Bob Stone is a "brick" - keeps goal like a rock,
To many a sharp shooter he gives a rude shock
Smith and Joe Watson guard - opponents find their
Smart passing for'ards rarely pass this fine pair
The committee did well to "Bagshaw" I feel sure
And "Hopewell" mistakes with "Ball" will be fewer
Their centre tries hard enough but he's a bit "Short"
It's no fault of his if the score stands at nought
It must make "Congreve" who works like a "Nigger",*
To find every week the score gets no bigger
There's a "Lane" on the field full of grit, speed and vim,
In his flights on the wing there's few can stop him
The club, though not "Richards" hardly their lot
But it's sure to get poorer if more goals ar'n't got.  
* - "Nigger" was the nickname of right half Albert Richards.