2023 – GOODBYE AND GOOD RIDDANCE
2023 will not live long in the memory of Ramsbottom United supporters, or if it does, it will be for all the wrong reasons.
For only the second time in the clubs fifty-seven year existence, relegation ensued.
In all fairness as January 1st appeared, there was an acceptance that the first half of the season had laid a platform for either waving goodbye to our stay in the NPL or a much-improved second half of the campaign. Alas, the latter was not to be.
The last game of 2022 had seen us grab a much-needed win at home to Trafford, so a short trip over to old foes Mossley opened the fixtures for the new year with optimism rife amongst the travelling supporters. A missed penalty and a slender 0-1 defeat saw that optimism absent on the trip home.
Little were we to know that the trip to Tameside would herald a disastrous run of results which saw us suffer a three month long run with not a single victory to cherish.
Consecutive trips over to Merseyside brought two defeats at the hands of hosts Prescot Cables and City of Liverpool.
A point on the road away to troubled Hanley Town in a dire 0-0 at least gained the Rams a point, but a shattering 1-4 home defeat in the next game at home to fellow-relegation strugglers Glossop North End had most supporters with their heads in their hands.
A surprising 1-1 away draw at league leaders Workington was totally unexpected, but too late to save Lee Donafee his job, and his dismissal was generally regarded as being too late in the season.
Lee had been a very popular figure at the Harry Williams Riverside Stadium, having been assistant to Chris Wilcock during the promotion-chasing campaigns, but his time in the hot seat had not proved successful.
In his first season the club finished a disappointing 15th, but the current campaign had proved nothing more than disastrous with the Rams propping up the table and the hopes of closing the gap vanishing by the week.
His popularity had probably given him more time than he deserved, but the parting of the ways was inevitable.
The question was who would replace him and would he have time to rectify the problem.
The answer was David Chadwick, and No.
Chaddy came along with a number of recommendations, having been assistant manager at FC United of Manchester, but he was aware that time was against him.
He had a number of potential new signings lined up, but one by one they looked at the perilous position at the foot of the table and decided a relegation would not look good on their CVs.
Training sessions certainly improved under the new boss, as did the effort on the pitch. Alas, results did not.
A narrow defeat away to Skelmersdale began the new reign, but three successive home games would surely give the team a lift.
Not so. Clitheroe, Bootle and Witton Albion all arrived and departed with the gift of three points apiece.
A trip to Kidsgrove saw the Rams lose 1-2 to a late goal, by which time relegation was almost inevitable.
A drab 0-0 at home to Widnes was barely greeted with any satisfaction, whilst a 1-2 defeat away at east Lancashire rivals Colne virtually sealed the fate.
At long last, after thirteen weeks and thirteen failed attempts, early April saw the Rams gain all three points as they finally won at home against 1874 Northwich. But two away defeats at Trafford, and a diabolical 0-5 surrender at Runcorn Linnets, saw the club play it’s last game in the NPL after twelve years. Despite the 2-1 win over Newcastle Town, there were no celebrations, just a feeling that the previous nine months had been possibly the worst in the club’s history.
Hopes that a change of manager would change the club’s fortunes were ill-placed. David Chadwick, despite his hard work, gained just seven points from thirty-six, and whilst he could quite reasonably argue that the odds were always him, a decision had to be taken ahead of our unwanted return to the NWCFL.
During the summer, it was quite obvious that changes were needed after a thoroughly miserable time.
A return to the league we had left under Bernard and Jonno’s reign was the last thing we had expected the previous August, but that was the reality, and plans had to be put in place to hopefully regain our much-coveted NPL status as quickly as possible.
A change of President saw club sponsor and former club captain Phil Rose come on board, which brought with it a number of forward-looking ideas.
One of these concerned the managerial position.
The committee sat down to discuss the options. One was to keep Chadwick. The general feeling was that this could be a gamble on a rookie manager whose knowledge of non-league football was higher than the NWCFL.
Another was to appoint an experienced boss who knew the league we were about to enter.
The name of Steve Wilkes, who had recently resigned after six years at Northwich Victoria, came to the fore. He had taken Vics to fifth spot, a play-off spot in the NWCFL, on a smaller playing budget. He certainly knew the league, and so he was interviewed and offered the opportunity to reunite Ramsbottom United with the Northern Premier League as soon as possible.
So a busy summer was in the offing.
Hardly surprisingly, most of the squad from the relegation season were released, with a number of players who had played for Steve previously being brought in. Many trials took place from the middle of June as players were put through their paces in the hope of signing on the dotted line. Some came and went, but by the time the new season was due to begin at the end of July, an almost entirely new squad had been assembled, with just Oscar Radcliffe, Ryan Lockett and Owen Collinge left from the previous line-ups.
After the dire fayre served up over the previous two campaigns hopes were high as the new campaign kicked off away to promoted Wythenshawe FC (previously Wythenshawe Amateurs).
On a beautiful sunny day, we were about to trip up in a disappointing manner, with late goals and dropped heads leading to a 0-4 defeat.
A wake-up call, if one was needed, that life in the lower league would not be a walkover.
An early lesson learned which transformed into a run of just one defeat in the next seven games.
First home league game saw a change of date to accommodate the Isle of Man’s travel arrangements, but a 2-1 victory come the end of it. Two draws and two more wins from the next four NWCFL games, including a spectacular last ditch long-range winner from John Black at Longridge Town, whilst sandwiched in between was a foray into the FA Cup. A 1-0 win at Stockport Town saw us meet up with our old foes, Mossley again, where once more we went out on the back of another 0-1 defeat.
We also kicked off our return to the FA Vase with a Sunday trip over the hills, and an extremely comfortable 3-0 win against Worsbrough Bridge Athletic.
Back into league action saw an unexpected home loss to Glossop North End, followed by another in the strangest game seen for many a year over at Lower Breck. My usual column has more information on this one, but what a weird afternoon that was.
A comfortable home victory over Cheadle Town saw us travel up to unbeaten league leaders Kendal Town, where against the odds we beat the Mintcakes and the horrific traffic on the M6.
However, if an example of our inconsistency so far this season needs highlighting, three days later we travelled to local rivals Prestwich Heys and were soundly beaten after a performance to forget.
A home draw with Irlam followed before we continued our march in the Vase with a comfortable 3-0 home win against Euxton Villa.
A thumping 6-2 triumph at Burscough against Skelmersdale United appeared to have us back on track, but two draws and a disappointing home defeat by Chadderton followed, highlighting the fact that no matter how we tried, we could not put together a run of successful matches.
Three victories would follow, with Pilkington defeated twice, an impressive 5-1 at home then a nail-biting penalty success at their place in a game of two halves. The first totally belonged to the Rams, but we finished up having to scramble a last minute equaliser before going through on spot-kicks.
In between the two games was a 3-0 home success against Nelson in the Macron Cup, but back in the league we slipped down the table having gained just one point from the next nine.
The team obviously enjoyed the penalty-kick lottery, for their next two games went the same way.
In the Vase, Scunthorpe-based Bottesford Town arrived in town, and took us to the wire before it was the Rams who progressed to the next round, and then came the unexpected visit of our big neighbours Bury. If anyone had mentioned just five years away that Rammy and Bury would be competing in the same league, we’d have been surrounded by men in white coats, but here they were in the Macron Cup.
In all honesty, the attendance of 1,699 was more than we had anticipated, but with the exception of a couple of issues, the HWRS dealt with the occasion well, and in another nail-biter, it was the Shakers who eventually moved into the next round of the League Cup thanks to another penalty shoot-out.
As is usual in mid-winter, postponements then came thick and fast, with a 3-0 home win against Burscough preceding a three week enforced break that saw two attempts to play the FA Vase game at home to Hallam hampered by first the frost then the rain, resulting, most unfairly, on the rules being applied which reversed the fixture, taking the game to South Yorkshire.
So whilst the lack of consistency is hampering our attempts to return to the NPL at the first time of asking (although no-one is giving up on that quest), it is generally accepted that the standard and style of football this season is much more entertaining and enjoyable.
Of the 21 games played by mid-December, a total of 89 goals have been scored and conceded, resulting in Ramsbottom United being regarded as one of the most entertaining teams.
So has 2023 been a total disaster?
It was certainly a miserable first six months, but the consensus is that the last six months have seen the supporters enjoying the ride.
Other developments have seen the welcome addition of the club’s new President, resulting in more advertising and an increase in matchday sponsorship.
On the media side, the club has moved on massively. Richard Isaacs continues to produce facts and figures at will, whilst website manager Alan Michaelovitz has been a breath of fresh air with an increase in duties that include the production of the best matchday programme we have had in ages.
Joining him is his 16 year old son, Leo, who has taken over the photographic duties like a stalwart, and is regularly producing some excellent action shots. Will Place has played his part, although his time is more restricted these days, with match reports and after-match manager interviews.
Charley Rattan and his colleagues continue to give the Rams a presence over the local radio airwaves, as the Rossendale Free Press and Bury Times continue to do their bit in publicising the happenings down here at the HWRS.
On top of that, we now have the benefit of a Veo camera which records all matches, with highlights available on the likes of Youtube and Facebook.
On matchdays, punters who wish, are now able to enjoy a “pint” as they walk around and watch the action, something that had been denied us previously, and for the Bury match, the food catering was extended by the presence of an outside catering van.
Of course, all these off-field improvements are there to support what happens on the pitch where we have a new groundsman in Chris.
Steve Wilkes and his coaching staff continue their hard work in shaping what will hopefully be a successful squad, and support-wise, the demotion has had very little effect, with the townsfolk continuing to turn up in decent numbers.
So we march into 2024 in a much happier place than we were in twelve months ago.
What does the future hold? I have no idea,
I would like to think that as a club we can continue to move forward with additional support and sponsorship, alongside more help from volunteers (a cry heard up and down the land from all non-league clubs), whilst on the pitch, a more consistent run of results to see us shoot up the table and clinch one of those top five places.
To do so would see us in the play-off lottery, but, oh how I would love to see us return to the NPL, and that surely is the target for 2024.