For nerds such as me, who write up all upcoming events in advance in a diary, it is highly dispiriting at the moment to see the glut of items, not only Rammy football fixtures, that have had to be crossed out and deleted as far as possible from the mind.
So, short again of the usual Saturday sporting ‘fix’, I was grateful, in a kind of desperate second-best way, for the idea someone came up with of transmitting the whole of Rammy’s 2014 play-off final live on YouTube at 3pm on Saturday 28th March 2020.
Apart from evoking fond memories – I attended the game and still have the match programme – it succeeded this week in plugging that unfortunate, current hole between 3 and 5 on Saturday afternoons. Normally, I’m prone to cursing should any game have to go into extra-time, as this one did, but the added 30 minutes of play came as a definite bonus on this occasion.
Back to the match in question, the background to it was that Rammy had only scraped a play-off place on goal difference. Finishing in fifth place, they were initially faced with a challenging away match against second-placed Darlington 1883 who had achieved 90 points over the season compared with the Rams’ 80.
Travelling up to see that match on the Wednesday, it was really impressive how determined the Rams were to stick to their usual attacking game in an intimidating cauldron-atmosphere in a huge, packed stadium with home fans highly vocal and baying for victory. In the end, the Rams won through 2-0 against the much-vaunted Quakers with first-half goals from Scott Burton and Jordan Hulme.
The same team was selected for the final on the Saturday: away again against Bamber Bridge (who in fourth place had beaten third-placed Warrington 1-0 in midweek) at their Irongate Ground.
The Rammy team on the day was: Martin Fearon, Danny Warrender, Owen Roberts, Gary Stopforth, Steve Howson, Billy Priestley, Grant Spencer, Scott Burton, Lee Gaskell, Jordan Hulme and Phil Dean. Among the subs that day were Rammy legend Jon Robinson, towards the end of his playing-career, and Dominic Smalley who was destined by the end of the day to have written himself into the club’s folk-lore.
After 5 minutes, Grant Spencer made a penetrating run down the right-wing before delivering a 30-metre cross which seemed to hang invitingly in the air for Lee Gaskell to rise and thwack into the net with a resounding near-post header. For Gaskell, it crowned a massively successful season in which he was the league’s top scorer with 29 goals in the 40 games played. On this note, it is also worth noting that Phil Dean (Whizz!) was up there as second highest club scorer with 19.
Bamber Bridge came back into the game with their dangerous right-winger, Ally Waddicar (22 goals that season) threatening all the time. In the 22nd minute, striker Greg Johnstone headed an equaliser.
At half-time, the score stood at 1-1 but the home team had enjoyed more possession since the Rams’ early goal. From the way our team in blue took the game back to the opposition after half-time, one sensed they had been given something of a gee-up, rollicking, whatever (!) from manager Anthony Johnson who was managing the team on his own that day in the absence of co-manager Bernard Morley.
A 2-1 lead was established when centre-back Steve Howson connected superbly from the edge of the penalty-area with a knee-high volley that could on other days have hit the back row of the stand but today flew like an arrow into the back of the net.
Dominic Smalley came on as sub after 73 minutes presumably to give a bit of extra ballast to the defence. At the start of stoppage time, Jon Robinson came on in a ploy seemingly aimed at running down the clock. However in the depths of stoppage time, Bamber Bridge were awarded a penalty which was coolly converted to take it to extra-time with Jon Robinson having a full half-hour now to play instead of mere seconds! Again, Johnson appeared to give an earnest chat on the pitch to his players before play resumed. Which seemed to take effect as the Rams pressed hard again.
Two events shaped the match outcome in the first half of extra-time. First, Jon Robinson showed all his experience in making a diagonal run before cleverly slipping a pass into the path of overlapping Smalley who from a tight angle squeezed the ball through and past the keeper to make it 3-2. Then, not soon after, as the home team became more frustrated, their midfield dynamo Matt Lawler was sent off for a second yellow card offence.
When the final whistle went, wild celebrations took place among the Rammy squad of players and support staff. Not to mention the host of Ram supporters who had witnessed this historic victory.
As is well-known, during the following season, Johnson and Morley were invited to become joint managers at Salford. It is ironic to note that Salford had been in the same division as the Rams in 2013/14 and only finished 12th. As well as the managers leaving, they took with them virtually the whole team and it was no surprise when Salford achieved three promotions over four seasons while Ram fortunes went into the doldrums over the same period of time.
Managers came and went and it was not really until this season 2019/20 that such a high standard of football and thirst for success arrived back under manager Chris Willcock.
Many parallels can be found between 2014 and where the club is now in 2020 in terms of playing together in a recognised pattern that enables the team to play with confidence. Both teams have had an attacking emphasis to their game. The team of 2014 notched up 112 goals that season with next highest scorers Curzon Ashton only managing 92. Both teams have had managers with appetites for success that earns the respect of players.
Whilst there will be many who feel strongly that, given of course that the present season had inevitably in the circumstances to be brought to a premature close, final outcomes should have been calculated on an average points per game basis rather than just expunging all record of 2019/20 as if the season had never happened. In this sense, the present team can feel doubly unlucky as to the turn of events. But with the character they have shown this season, it is clear the current squad still has massive potential to go again and produce even more impressive results in future.
‘Walk Down Memory Lane’ the re-showing of the 2014 play-off might have been, but it also served to keep Ramsbottom United in the minds of all the club’s faithful supporters. Much as I would have preferred to be writing a match-report on a live match taking place in 2020, I hope this article helps a bit in linking up the past, present and undoubted future of the club and keeping the faith alive and well in these testing times.