He was a fresh faced 18-year-old when the then recently appointed Ramsbottom United manager Jon Robinson gave him the nod to get ready.

It was the third round of the League Cup against Northwich Victoria – Robinson’s first match in charge following the shock resignation of Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley, who were heading to Salford City.

In the 66th minute, his time had come. Tom Hartley, the talented blonde-haired youth came on to the field for Tom Brooks for the first time.

He had been around the Rammy set-up for a while under the previous management, having been spotted playing for Lancashire Under 16s who had won the ESFA Inter County Cup in 2013, beating Greater Manchester on a penalty shootout in the Final at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry.

That winning Lancashire side also contained Sam Lavelle, who went on to captain Morecambe and has just moved to Charlton Athletic, Dom Telford, now a regular at Newport County having played for Bury and Plymouth Argyle and Henry Cameron, at one time playing for Blackpool but has moved to New Zealand and represented the ‘All Whites’ seven times.

For Tom, he was training twice a week under the watchful eyes of the dual bosses as they prepared for life in the NPL Premier Division following the promotion via the play-offs the previous season, and the youngster took in everything, developing his game and learning continually.

“I was still really young, about 16 or 17,” Tom remembers. “And we had a really good side too back then, with the likes of Robbo, Jordan, Gassy, G Stop, Howson, Dawson, Burton and Dean to name a few. We were a very very strong side and for a young lad like me trying to break into that side, it wasn’t easy when you consider all of that quality.

“But I learned a lot under Bernard and Jonno, they were brilliant to be with and be a part of. It was gutting when they left but I got my first call up in Robbo’s first game as manager, coming on as a sub.”

Over the next couple of seasons, Tom would be a regular on the bench under Robinson but only got onto the field 14 times in total, scoring in one of them – the League Cup Quarter-Final win over Harrogate Railway Athletic where he notched our third in the 3-1 win.

The last of his appearances off the subs bench came at Kendal Town on 16 August 2016, replacing Gareth Seddon after 71 minutes.

“I could understand why Robbo didn’t want to give me a start,” he admitted. “He came in at a difficult time and wanted to get results. He wasn’t going to depend on such a young lad to do it.”

But, soon after that last appearance, he began to fall out of love with the game. He was about to become a father for the first time and he was spending time away working for long periods.

“I still played a bit of five-a-side but I just wasn’t enjoying the game as much as I used to. I was away quite a bit as well so that didn’t help so I just took a break from it to concentrate on other things, including being a Dad.”

The break lasted some two years when the Rawtenstall-based man decided to try and get himself back into it – although Covid did stop him in his tracks initially. Once play was permitted again, he contacted the West Lancashire League side Rossendale FC and their manager, Ray Davies.

“I am really grateful to Ray and the lads at Rossendale. I contacted them to see if I could join up, went training, got myself fit and back to playing. We were a really strong side, probably far too strong to be playing in the division that we are in the West Lancs (their record is currently played 11, won 11, 60 goals scored and five against in Division 2) but I got back enjoying it and it got the bit between my teeth again. And that is pretty much down to Ray, who gave me that chance.

Scoring 16 goals in his last five games and playing with many of his mates and “falling in love with football again”, he decided to see if he could better himself once more and contacted Rammy’s club chairman Harry Williams.

“I popped in to see Harry last week and he said to me ‘I see you are banging them in at Rossy, lad’. I said to him that I wanted to see if I could test myself back at a higher level so he put me in touch with the manager, Lee and here I am again.”

Lee had certainly been impressed by Tom’s work rate, his desire and hunger and offered him a starting place in Saturday’s 4-0 win over Newcastle Town.

“I liked what I saw with Tom,” said ‘Diego’. “He worked really hard at training and impressed me and the coaches. His numbers with Rossendale show what a talented lad he is so it made sense to give him a start in the team on Saturday.”

The reward for that faith was a goal in his first start for the club, his second strike in a Rammy shirt – some six years in the making – plus an assist for another Rammy debutant, Hugo Rodriguez.

“It was a good day,” Tom continued. “It was a great feeling to get the goal and an assist as well.

“I am really enjoying my football again and it is great to be back at Rammy. My two children, four-year-old Henry, my little girl Billie, who is one, and my partner Chloe have been really supportive of me wanting to get back playing again.

“I was just a young kid when I played here previously but I am 24 now, back playing for a decent side and more experienced now, both physically and mentally. Much of that is down to my time at Rossendale but it is great to be here at Rammy again and I can’t wait to keep going and continuing to enjoy my football.”

It is a pleasure to have you back with us, Tom. Welcome back!