“Is Harry mad?”. “What a terrible appointment!”. “They won’t last, it will just be them and their mates”. Those were some of the comments that came when 25-year-old Anthony Johnson and 26-year-old Bernard Morley were appointed as managers of Ramsbottom United in 2009.
In the first of this series, Anthony Johnson spoke to me candidly and openly about each of the six seasons that they took charge of the Rams, covering all of the highs and the lows that they had taking this role on and I am hugely grateful for his time in allowing me to do this.
This is Jonno in his own words and we start with the tail end of the 2008/09 season and taking on the role with Bernard ahead of 2009/10.
It all started when Bernard and I were at Clitheroe. The Rammy manager then was Andy Feeley but he had gone off the rails and then Paul Williams took up the job. Paul is a terrific bloke, lovely man, couldn’t wish to meet a nicer fella.
He was in caretaker charge after Feeley went so we went to see him. I had just broken my leg so was out for a while so we just went and had a chat. It was then that, just out of nowhere really, Bern said “why don’t we apply for the Rammy job?”. “You what, mate, are you f***ing mental?”.
“Well, it’s local and we can bring some of the lads, it will be good fun.”
With that, we went to see Harry at the ground. It must have been April time because he was planting daffodils on the banks. The thing with Harry is, you always have to engage him by his third or fourth response, because if we went to him straight up, he would tell us we had no chance!
So we went to the ground and he looked up and his first comment, “what the f*** are you two doing here?”. “We want the manager’s job, Harry”. We got the response that we expected, as anyone would probably expect. But we said that we were two players playing in the league above, we have got a few contacts and we could make a go of it. He still wasn’t convinced and we left it with him.
At the end of that 2008/09 season, Paul’s side went on a horrible run of results, losing to Abbey Hey, New Mills, AFC Fylde, Runcorn Linnets and Newcastle Town before beating Abbey Hey 1-0 away. But it was the game at Bacup Borough on a warm Friday night in early May, pretty much after everyone else had finished their seasons, where it all changed.
I was going on holiday to Florida the next day but went up and Rammy lost 6-3 in front of 35 people, of which I was one. I thought they were f***ing rubbish and that is when Harry came up to me – Bernard was playing in the game – and asked if I was staying for a drink. I said that I couldn’t because I was going on holiday in the morning but he persuaded me.
We had not been given any idea that we would get the job but, after that performance, it had made up his mind. We went into the bar, he bent over, shook my hand and gave us the job. About 15 seconds later, Paul came in and came up to Harry to ask him about next season. “Won’t be a next season for you, thank you for what you have done, cock”.
Bernard came in about 15 minutes later and I told him we have got the job, pal! Toppo, Malc, Harry and Woolly were all there, shook our hands and, that was that, we were the managers of Ramsbottom United.
My way of thinking when I took over was – I want us to be bigger than Bacup. Then as we progressed further, I wanted us to be bigger than Clitheroe, than Radcliffe, than Bamber Bridge. What is our next target? We wanted to progress, and that is we, not just me. I was always looking to get beyond someone else because if we were happy to be where we were, there is no point in doing it.
When we took on Rammy, there was no way we were going to stay still and sit in mid-table in the Counties. If we are going to get into a fight, get a bloody nose!
The first thing we had to do was change people’s thoughts of us. We arranged a fans forum, a meet the manager’s thing at the cricket club and there were four people there. Bernard, myself, you (Richard Isaacs) and Little Katie. So we starting thinking about what we needed to do and the first thing was make some stellar signings, some names that people might have heard of.
We started with Barry Shuttleworth, who had played for Blackpool and Macclesfield Town in the Football League who was 32 years old at the time and Joel Pilkington, who has been at Burnley but also played a few seasons at Mossley. They were our first signings. But then we got a few comments saying that we should stick with the young lads!
We got Baz Massey to come and got goalkeeper Damien Rooney as well. A 16-17 year old winger Phil Dean came on trial with us and we kept hold of Bern’s brother James, Rick Winstanley, Andy Sensale, Eddie O’Neill and John Blackley, who had been around the club for a while, so it was all coming together.
Our first game of the season was away at Newcastle Town and we set up 3-5-2. In the first 10 minutes, Baz and Sensale missed absolute sitters, absolutely nailed on sitters, it was easier to score than not! I remember it being roasting hot and we lost that game 5-0. I remember going up to Harry after the game and said to him, I think we’ve made a mistake here. Harry just looked at us as said “win or lose, we booze”.
When you think about that season, Newcastle won their first 28 games or something like that and won the league by 24 points, scoring 121 goals and only conceding 21. They had two or three promotions on the bounce too and New Mills, who finished second, were paying wages more than we currently pay at Chester.
We got Jon Robinson to come from New Mills, Mark Sharples from Clitheroe and Carl Lomax, who we had known for years. As many said to us, you didn’t really know what you were doing but you are having a bloody good laugh doing it. Andrew Dawson joined as did George Bowyer from Rochdale. So we had a young Whiz (Phil Dean), Sharpy, Bern and Pilky across the middle – it was as good as anything in the league at the time.
Then Dom Smalley signed in December. Little did we know then but these lads would go on and play 600-700 games for the club. That is just ridiculous when you think about it.
All of a sudden, we were thinking, we have the makings of a really top squad. We played Newcastle Town again in January in the league cup and, with 20 minutes to go, it was 1-1. They went onto win 3-1 but I thought then that we were getting closer to them rather than them pulling away.
We lost 4-1 after extra time to Lancaster in the LFA Trophy when Bernard missed a penalty in the last minute to win the game. Lancaster were soaring at the time, top of their league and we held them for 90 minutes and should have won. There were just a lot of things happening in games, things going really well. Sharpy was only 20-21 for instance, young lad mixing with more experienced ones, and it was going really well.
To finish fourth that season, behind Newcastle, New Mills and Bootle was incredible really. We scored a ridiculous amount of goals but conceded a lot as well. We were pleasing on the eye to watch, a bit of a buccaneer attitude but we knew we had to evolve to stand any real chance but it gave Bernard and I real belief. We put some smiles on faces, brought a bit of belief around the place and the fans built a rapport with the players.
They might not know what they are doing but they know what they want was a phrase we heard a lot! To finish fourth behind those three – and when you look at it, it was unbelievable. Newcastle won the league with ease, even Congleton who finished fifth had a lad, Matt Reed, who won League 2 with Lincoln a couple of seasons ago. We had me, Bern, Matt Morris, James Morley and the lads we had signed. That achievement in that first season has matched everything we have ever done.
To start the season with Newcastle and then Glossop North End, who had played at Wembley earlier in the year, was a tough start but we came through it and finished fourth. I am very proud of that.
But we knew that we had to develop more if we wanted to go to the next stage. By the January, February, March time, we made a few changes and felt we could win the league the next year. Shents came in and so did Danny Warrender, we were already thinking about recruitment. We had to be thinking well in advance if we were determined to constantly build.
That first season, we just knew that if we jumped in at the deep end, we had to swim or we would just die. To finish fourth was ridiculous really but it gave us a base and, with the players that we had and brought in, we knew we could have a good hit at the title and promotion.