On Saturday, Ramsbottom United head into Evo-Stik Premier Division for the first time in their history when Kings Lynn Town make the 340-mile round trip to the Harry Williams Riverside Stadium.
It was only 105 days ago that the club secured promotion following the drama of the play-off victory at Bamber Bridge but the new season has dawned with much to look forward to and plenty for the Rammy faithful to enjoy and endure as the Rammy rollercoaster hits the tracks once more.
No-one who was there will forget that day in a hurry – including co-manager Anthony Johnson, who, even without his best mate and fellow boss Bernard Morley on that day – masterminded the incredible rise culminating in that amazing win and subsequent promotion.
In an exclusive interview with the Ramsbottom United website, Jonno looks back over the meteoric rise of the team on the pitch and the club off it and looks forward to the excitement ahead.
“I have had a very good summer,” he said. “Because of what happened, everyone needed a rest following all the emotions that we went through. And that, I think, is the first time ever that I think we all needed a break – obviously apart from Jordan and Whiz who obviously didn’t!
“Because, after the season ended, it all came to a bit of an end and we didn’t get a massive chance to savour it with the lads. We had a few quiet ones in midweek and the celebrations after the game at Bamber Bridge but would have liked to have savoured it a bit more with all of the lads.”
But that has now been consigned to the history books and focus has turned to the challenges ahead, starting with Kings Lynn Town on Saturday. “I have been pleased with pre-season, where we have remained unbeaten,” Jonno added, “if you discount the penalty shoot-out loss at Nelson.
“We changed our pre-season from last season where we ended up playing Airbus UK – who finished second in the Welsh Premier League – a very good Manchester United U21 side, including a number of players who ended up in the first XI later that season and former football league side Stockport County.
“We played some really big, tough games and were 10 out of 10. We beat Airbus, were leading United and beating Stockport too but what we took out of it was that we thought we could beat anyone. We started the league season with no wins from the first 7.
“I think we got to a level where we were ready for the league games but we peaked too early. This year, we decided to play against some old friends from the North West Counties and then pick it up against a good Bury side and then Radcliffe and Clitheroe to finish – all tough tests but against sides that wanted to beat us, rather than us wanting to beat them like that season against Airbus etc.
“From our point of view, I think we came through these games well, especially defensively.”
Some questions had been asked about the lack of new signings in the defence following the departures of Danny Warrender, Owen Roberts and the continued injury absence of Andy Dawson. But Jonno was happy to put those fears to rest.
“A lot of our pre-season was looking at the shape of our back 5 and, seeing the amount of chances the opposition didn’t create against us throughout all the matches, we were happy. Don’t forget, the NWCFL teams had an extra 2-3 weeks on us as they have already had two weeks of their season now.
“But, in view of the new signings, we did have a long look at things, especially from the back and, if you look at the Bamber game, three of our back 5 have gone (Fearon, Warrender and Roberts). Expectation was on us from the season before and when you look back to the start of the season – we had Shenton, Warrender, Flannery, Dawson and Roberts at the back – so we had massive upheaval defensively.
“It would have been easy to just sign someone for the sake of it. But we have Steve and Billy (Howson and Priestley) along with Lee Pugh, who we signed at the end of last season and is just 22 years old and was just released from a Conference side in Chester FC.
“And we have Dominic Smalley – who has been mithering us for ages to play at right-back and has been arguably our best player in pre-season. Dom will play anywhere we tell him to really but he has said he prefers right-back and we have Pilky as well. I think we could have unearthed a real gem of a right-back in Dom!
“So I am not very concerned about the defence, we have good options and have players who can play in loads of different positions. In midfield, we have Spenno (Grant Spencer) and Jordan (Hulme) as well as Tom Williams, who we picked up from Brig.
“I appreciate how it looks from the outside when you lose the experience of Danny, Owen and Daws but what people forget is that we didn’t have them for much of the season either and during the play-offs, the Bamber home game and Farsley, who finished sixth and we did ok. I think we have cover in all areas and we also have Pughy, who can play right-back as well as left.
“We are also really pleased with the signings we have made – especially as they have all come to us, done the hard work of trying to impress us rather than us going out and looking for players who are just looking for football.
“The lads we have got are all young lads and they are hungry to do well. ‘Rio’ comes to us from Salford City and was on their top scorers list, despite only playing a handful of games. He is quick, strong and has everything in his game. Malachi is a good, strong lad and is great on the ball, fitting in perfectly to what we are about. Once he takes the handbrake off, he will be quite a handful.
“Osebi is a wide player who has been at quite a few clubs despite him only being 23 years old. He has lots of ability and plenty of pace. What he needs to do is settle down at one club and we hope we can get the best out of him.
“We don’t really know whats happening with Jordan and Whiz, who had a great time in New Orleans but are talking about going back there so Osebi will be a useful guy to have around.
“Sam Cook is a player in the Lee Gaskell mode who started at Macclesfield Town and then went to Loughborough University and he has really caught our eye at training.
“What we have loved about it is that, every season, we get loads of players to trial but these lads have really stood up and they deserve their chance. They have done the hard yards by proving themselves to us and the coaches, rather than just going on reputation or hearsay.
“But then we have the other side of it – the lads that have done so well for us over the years are still here and that is almost like a coup in itself, especially with big money offers being thrown around by the likes of Salford City. To only lose Wodge to another club is testimony to the great spirit we have in our team.
“And you have to ask the question – why would they want to leave after what we did last year? These lads are still young – Pughy, Dom, Jordan, Whiz, Billy etc are 24-25 and under – three quarters of the side still have 10 or so years in them along with the likes of Scott Burton, Pilky, Gaskell and Robbo. But for me, the most important signing was Shents on a contract. If you have a keeper to the quality that he is, then to keep him here, despite a lot of interest, is great news for us.
“We have a squad who have played over 1,600 matches for us. You don’t get that at this level and that will hold us in good stead for the coming season as we have proven that we can go into this league and compete and we are not starting from scratch with a load of new players.
“We are going into the unknown and into a world of football that we have never experienced before. I was reading the non-league paper the other day and they were talking to a lad from Stourbridge. He was asked who is roommate was! Roommate!! And then it dawns on you that teams at this level stay overnight ahead of games and are doing things professionally.
“Over the years, we have been used to going to Nelson and Abbey Hey, Bacup and Padiham etc, now we are coming up against clubs like Kings Lynn, Workington and Rushall Olympic. A lot of people wouldn’t have even heard of Rushall Olympic but that is what it is about. You realise the level you have got and if you can’t get excited about that, then you shouldn’t be involved.
“It will be a new world for us but we strive to get into this level and have some proper trips out and we need to do our homework on these teams but it is hard as we don’t have the money to pay for scouts to go and watch our opponents.
“So it is very much going into the unknown, not only for us but for a lot of our opponents. And, as we proved over the last couple of years, any side that doesn’t come here and respect us will get beaten – just ask Worksop last year! However, we don’t expect any sides to underestimate us or disrespect us. But I, personally, would much sooner be playing these sorts of sides.
“Of course, we might finish bottom but as long as we have played well, I will be ok. Everyone knows I am a marde arse and I might have to face up to some hammerings but we have to enjoy where we are at because it’s only five years ago that we were down at the bottom of the NWCFL.
“I know for a fact that if we turn up every single game and play the way we do, we will win every game. But, I know we won’t turn up for every game, this is the way we are as a team. We all understand that we are going to come up against players with pedigree from the Football League – players who have commanded millions of pounds previously. But, I tell you something, its going to be brilliant and we all can’t wait for it to start.”
The most amazing thing of all, however, is the fact that Ramsbottom United are where they are in 2014/15 season – playing in the Premier Division of the Evo-Stik League. And Jonno was equally pleased and almost surprised.
“At the first forum meeting that we had when Bernard and I took over, we were asked what the plan was for us and we said that we would be here for 10 years. We were ridiculed about getting the job in the first place and our expectations were maybe exaggeratedly high but we knew we would do well.
“But, truthfully, it is beyond our wildest dreams to achieve this in the space of five years but that is the way we have done it with the group that we have. However, we are not into predictions and will just take every day as it comes along.
“We wouldn’t be us if we didn’t say we wanted to win the league, which is the kind of group we are. You only have to look back at that Newcastle Town game on day one – we might get that on Saturday but to think where we have come from and who we have beaten along the way, you just can’t imagine it.
“Remember, we had Pilky, a 17-year-old trialist called Phil Dean, Robbo, Dom Smalley from Atherton LR and more recently Billy and Steve Howson from Barnoldswick and Radcliffe respectively. These sort of lads have repaid us by enjoying it and they want to stay with us. It is frightening when you consider the offers these guys have had to leave and here they still are with us.
“And that comes from Bernard and myself, Darren and Glenn being loyal too. We have always been honest. We have also been truthful with all the lads. Some we have had here, who are all part of our story, might not have been quite good enough but they are still part of us.
“We always try and set an example. Everyone knows we were tapped up by Northwich and Salford but we have stayed and the lads have seen that and stayed too. We might not be everyone’s cup of tea but every single manager we have spoken to have said they have never seen such respect for managers as we have with the lads. And that is because we know where the line is. The line of respect, the line of good fun and, probably for the first time, we are the elder statesmen in the dressing room and the lads are looking up at us age wise too.
“What we can assure everyone is that we will continue to play the way we have and continue to enjoy ourselves while we are doing it. Thank you to everyone for your support over the years and long may it continue!”