Football: Stalybridge's big chance to regain renown

The club that gave up their League status may surprise Chester City in the FA Cup tomorrow.
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The Independent Online
THE CURRENT manager, Phil Wilson, dismisses it with "it was a long time ago" but Stalybridge Celtic have a quirk in their history that seems barely credible in this status-driven age. Clubs scrap and toil to retain their cherished Football League status but not Stalybridge, they gave it away.

Founder members of the Third Division North, the club that is situated near the point where builders had to admit defeat to the inhospitable Pennines had been so ambitious before the First World War they had joined the Southern League, boldly ignoring the cost as they travelled hundreds of miles by train. Having got into the League, however, they decided the support they were getting was not worthy of the status and they quietly resigned in 1922. Goodbye to potential football renown, hello to decades of scrapping among the foothills.

"As far as we know we're the only club who voluntarily relinquished our League status," Nick Shaw, Stalybridge's programme editor, said somewhat sheepishly. "Apparently they just couldn't afford it on the gates they were getting. It makes us unique, although whether that's a good thing is debatable."

Having donated their chance of glory, success has largely by-passed the Greater Manchester club, who now reside two rungs down from their zenith in the UniBond League and who attracted a crowd of around 150 for Tuesday's Cheshire Cup match with Warrington Town. But tomorrow they have the chance to grasp renown again when they attempt to go further in the FA Cup than they have ever managed before.

The third round and a chance to meet a glamour club is barred by the insubstantial shape of the League's bottom club, Chester City, who arrive at Bower Fold knowing that Stalybridge have lost only once at home this season. A shock is in the offing, indeed there will be those who will be more surprised if the struggling Third Division club prevail. It is something Wilson instantly discounts. "I don't see it that way at all," he said sticking strictly to managerial guidelines entitled "Playing Down Expectation". "We're very much the underdogs. They're a League team, we're not." Then the glimmer of an upset begins to burn. "It's the biggest game for a long, long time in Stalybridge's history," he added. "We're hoping for a crowd of 4,000 and if they get behind us, we have a chance."

Wilson, 46, while relatively unknown in the stellar managerial world inhabited by Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Kenny Dalglish etc, has a big reputation in non-League circles in the North-West. A player with Tranmere Rovers, Blackburn Rovers, Runcorn, Altrincham, Northwich and Caernarfon, he played at Wembley three times, winning the FA Trophy with Northwich in 1984. As a manager he took Stalybridge into the Football Conference in his first spell as manager (1989-1994) and did the same with Leek Town.

When Stalybridge were second bottom of the UniBond League last November having surrendered their Conference status with a calamitous season the year before (27 defeats, 93 goals conceded) it was to Wilson they turned again and the reward was mid-table security last season and an outside chance of promotion this term.

"I came back because I've always liked the people here," Wilson said. "I always had a good feeling about the place, so when the chance came I happily took it. We were second in the table a few weeks ago but the Cup run has counted against us. We've got games in hand - I think we've played fewer home games than anybody - and if we win them, we'll be back among the leaders. There's still a chance of going up."

In fact, Chester tomorrow will be Stalybridge's 13th game in six weeks and their eighth in the FA Cup, which is eight more than the holders Manchester United will be playing for one. It is a chance to meet another set of Premiership giants, though, that will spur them on. Only twice have they reached the second round before, most recently in the 1993-94 season when they lost 3-1 to Carlisle.

It was money that forced Stalybridge to quit the League in the 1920s and it is money that makes the Cup so attractive now and more than 6,000 fans have watched their progress so far, a run that would have been more lucrative had a robber not stolen a bag containing pounds 2,500 in gate receipts during their first-round replay with Merthyr Town.

"The theft took the shine off a great night," Stalybridge's chairman, Peter Barnes, said, "but the Cup run is still a magnificent boost. It's certainly helping to balance the books."

The match with Chester also represents something more: a chance to redress the balance of the club's history and tilt it away from bewilderment over a decision made 77 years ago. It would be more pleasant to be known as the Cup's fairy-tale club of 1999-2000.