He has over 1,150 matches as a manager across a lucrative 25-year career, but Steve Wilkes (pictured above on the right with coach Scott Campbell) knows the level of the challenge that awaits him as the new Ramsbottom United boss.
Wilkes left Northwich Victoria at the end of the 2022-23 season having taken them to fifth in the North West Counties League, departing with no real desire to move to another club, looking to take a break away from the game and spend some time with his grandchildren and his wife.
However, former Rammy captain Phil Rose – who leads up the Rams’ club sponsors RoseBridge – was Wilkes’ skipper when he took his first steps in management at Darwen in 1998 and a tentative conversation led to the 55-year-old agreeing to joining the Harry Williams Riverside Stadium club.
The former Preston North End, Southport and Morecambe midfielder in his playing days, he admitted that he took some time to accept the position after discussing the role with his family.
“I absolutely wasn’t looking for a new club when I told Northwich that I wanted to leave at the end of last season”, he insisted. “I looked them all square in the eyes and told them that when I told them I was resigning.
“I know they are disappointed that I have joined another club but the rumours that I was aware of this position back in February are just false. Rammy appointed Dave Chadwick in March so the stories just don’t make any sense.
“I did think that I had taken the Vics as far as I could and I really enjoyed my time there and we had a great season to finish fifth behind some big money spenders in that division like Vauxhall Motors, Avro, Bury and Wythenshawe.
“But I am very much looking forward to starting at Rammy. I have known Rosey [Phil Rose] a long time and rang me and asked if I fancied a chat, I came down, met up with Harry, another man I have known a long time, chatted with the family and thought, ok I will take it on.”
Whilst it was a surprise to many Ramsbottom United supporters that incumbent manager Chadwick was eased out – he has since taken on the first team role at Atherton Collieries in the NPL Premier, Wilkes has extensive experience at this level.
He started his career with Darwen before moving to Padiham, then to Runcorn Linnets, back to Padiham and then subsequently Northwich Victoria, leading 1,162 games as a manager.
A NWCFL title win with Padiham came in 2013, joining the Rams in NPL Division One North – and beaten them 2-1 at the HWRS on August Bank Holiday Monday to continue our poor start to that season of four defeats in the first four games – we were promoted famously through the play-offs at the end of that memorable campaign.
So Wilkes is aware of what it takes to win the league the Rams find themselves back in after an eleven year absence and he has already had extensive talks with the squad that saw the end of the season out.
“Some of the conversations I have had have been constructive and some have been quite mindboggling as some are wanting to continue to play in the league they were in or even go higher,” he mused.
“But those I have spoken to and agreed to stay are the ones that I really wanted to stay, players like Oscar Radcliffe and Owen Collinge – good local lads who want to stay and fight for us.
“I am still talking to Will Hall, who is a very good player and one I want to keep – I want him to stay as a Rammy lad and be a part of that squad that gets us back up again.
“Ramsbottom United is a good, proper non-league football club with a good fan base who were averaging 250-260 last season so I want to get that winning team on the pitch and get those who have gone away – maybe some have headed back to Bury – to come back and support us.
“It is a well-established club, and it is well run. That is a big thing for me and there are some big plans to improve the commercial side of things and the media side of things too. These are the sorts of things that I like and it enticed me to come.”
Whilst not being a man to make predictions, Wilkes has admitted that winning the league and bouncing straight back is always the target. But he hasn’t put a time scale on it.
“You have seen the league, it is a tough, tough league and I don’t think that people realise how tough it is.
“You have four teams coming down from the NPL and still teams like Bury and Wythenshawe there plus promoted sides like Pilkington have some cash to throw at a charge for the title.
“Of course, I want to go straight back up and if you offered me fifth place right now and the play-offs, I would snap your hand off. But I am not going to sit here and tell you we are going to win the league because I never set myself targets publicly because that puts pressure on you and the players.
“I want us to get back up again but whether that is in 12 months or two years remains to be seen. It is a very long season, of 46 games plus the FA Cup, FA Vase and League Cup competition so we need a good solid squad of 30 players as the season could run in to 60+ games if we go well.”
Pre-season commences on June 13 and is looking to ensure he has all bases covered. And that includes taking a closer look at the Ramsbottom United Under 23s who lost in the final of the Lancashire Cup last week 1-0 to Lancaster City.
“I am likely to bring a few players with me from Northwich and we will have those players who want to stay with us. I have made contact with a few other players that I know but I will also be looking at the 23s as I saw the game and thought a couple of the players, I need to look at again.
“We aim to have seven games in pre-season and be firing ready to go for the first game in August with a good squad of players.
“It is always difficult to keep everyone happy but with a season that could extend to 50+ games, that’s why you need a squad that are happy. The dressing room is the most important place because if it is good in there, then you have a great chance of being successful.
“Like Bernard and Jonno have, they have players who will run through walls for you. That is what I want to have at Rammy this season and I want to see lads who are prepared to fight for their places.
“If they are left out or on the bench, don’t moan about it because there will be plenty of football for everyone in such a long season playing a lot of Saturday/Tuesday’s for about 30 of the 39 weeks of the campaign.”
The drop back to the North West Counties League was a bitter blow for the Rams, but with Wilkes in charge, the chances of a swift return are boosted greatly.