By Tony Cunningham
It’s probably fair to say that the passing of the year 2020 was greeted with much delight in most quarters, and none more so than at Ramsbottom United, although there are still dark clouds ahead.
Having made the play-offs at the end of the 2018/19 season, a stuttering start to the 19/20 campaign heralded doubts about whether the team could emulate and possible better that accomplishment. However, after tweaking the squad in October, manager Chris Willcock and his management team began to see the benefits as the Rams entered 2020 with much optimism.
Alas, although we weren’t aware at the time, January 2020 was to prove a false dawn.
We entered the year on the back of eight unbeaten league games, and continued the run with a New Year’s Day trip to Trafford and another three points.
Victories at home to Pickering Town and two excellent three-pointers on the road at City of Liverpool (a superb 5-2 scoreline) and Brighouse Town, saw the Rams battling at the top of the league with Cumbrian rivals Workington, who were the visitors for the next home game.
An unlikely defeat on a Tuesday night following a long winter journey up to north-east side Dunston, broke the impressive run, at the unlucky thirteenth time of asking, but a visit from table-toppers Workington attracted a season high crowd of 622 to the Harry Williams Riverside Stadium, and the Rams emphatically sent the Reds back to the north-west coast after a 2-0 victory that could and should have been more decisive.
That saw Ramsbottom United proudly positioned at the top of the league table, with hopes high that after last season’s close run, promotion looked very much on the cards for a team seemingly brimming with confidence.
That confidence continued with some impressive and entertaining performances.
Two 3-0 wins were enjoyed away at Droylsden and at home to Tadcaster Albion, but as the weather took hold leading to a number of postponements, for some reason, the climate in north-west Cumbria appeared to be much more favourable, and the main challengers, Workington, were able to complete matches with victories, obviously having been stunned by their defeat at the HWRS.
We entered March with rumblings of a pandemic about to arrive on these shores.
A win away at Kendal continued the fine run, but after a postponed home game, we travelled over to one of our other main rivals in Merseyside, Marine, for what in normal circumstances would have been a massive “six-pointer”.
With football being side-lined because of what was to come, over 600 crammed in to Rossett Park, with most expecting the home side to close the gap and enter the promotion race themselves.
The Rams and their healthy following had other ideas.
One of those matches which will live long in the memory, concluded in sensational style, as Jamie Rother magnificently snatched a late, late winner, producing great celebrations both on and off the pitch.
That would probably have seen off the challenge from Marine, and a look at the table found the Rams in second place behind the Cumbrians, adrift by ten points but with three games in hand.
At that stage, the Rams had suffered just a single defeat in eighteen league matches, a run that had catapulted them up from mid-table into the guise of genuine promotion contenders.
Fourteen wins and three draws was championship form, and a continuation of such would surely have ensured promotion, but days after the Marine game, football was brought to a shuddering halt due to Covid-19.
With what appeared to be unnecessary haste, the League declared that the season would then be regarded as “null and void”, essentially stating that all the effort put in during the previous seven months had been in vain.
Complaints were plentiful, although probably not from clubs saved from the ignominy of relegation, but despite attempts to reverse the decision, or at least give meaning to all the games played by calculating potential final positions, the League and the FA stood firm.
Despite the attractive football and the increase in average attendances (307) that such entertainment had accomplished, we had to take it and accept that the season was over.
In hindsight, it was probably the right thing to do, for any hopes that the pandemic would soon vanish and the completion of the campaign could be achieved, would never have happened, whilst any realistic chance of games being played behind closed doors, at this level of the game would have been a financial disaster for clubs.
And so Covid-19 continued to disrupt the lives of everyone not only in this country but throughout the world, making 2020 a year that will forever be etched in the memory for entirely the wrong reason.
The summer months proved a slight temporary break from the virus in certain instances, but football at NPL level showed no sign of resuming as the weeks passed.
Hopes of an August restart dimmed as Government regulations continued to restrict full movement, meaning the traditional pre-season was pushed further back, and the NPL AGM had to take place remotely.
With the Government finally easing restrictions, the FA decided that their three competitions (Cup, Trophy and Vase) would go ahead from early September, and the NPL announced a commencement of the new season on Saturday 19th.
Irlam, who had beaten Liversedge in the extra preliminary round of the FA Cup opened the Rams fixture list, and were sent packing by four goals to one by the newly-assembled Ramsbottom squad.
As is usual during the summer, a number of players departed whilst the management team eventually enlisted a number of newcomers to take their places.
Unlike the previous campaign, this time the squad began brightly with another 4-1 win in the first league outing away at Widnes.
A disappointing early exit from the FA Cup followed at Mossley in a game decided by a crazy 30 seconds. The Rams struck the bar at one end, and as the ball broke, the home side raced upfield to notch the winning goal, with the visiting supporters still cursing their luck.
Within days, it was the FA Trophy that took centre stage, where a magnificent defensive display, after new signing goalkeeper Ollie Martin broke his leg during the first half, saw the Rams dominate the second period and return over the hills from Ossett United with a much deserved victory.
Two successive 3-0 home league wins against Pickering Town and Pontefract Collieries followed, but the next game, away at City of Liverpool was postponed as doubts resurfaced following an upsurge in Covid-19 cases. The easing of restrictions had obviously not proved timely as the virus began to take hold once again.
A dramatic 94th minute winner clinched another three points at home to the afore-mentioned Ossett United, who had every reason to feel frustrated as the celebrations following the late, late goal spilled onto the pitch.
Crowd restrictions had been introduced by the Government, and the maximum 400 crowded into Shawbridge the following Tuesday as the Rams took their 100% league record (incidentally the first time in the club’s history that the team had won all four games at the start of a league campaign) to local rivals Clitheroe.
Alas, the fine performances that had so far been witnessed, were nowhere to be seen as the home side emphatically won the game, probably deserving of more than the 3-1 scoreline.
Another defeat was to follow, albeit on penalties, as a trip to Nottinghamshire saw an exit from the FA Trophy at the hands of Worksop Town after a thrilling 4-4 finish at ninety minutes, in a game where the hosts had established what looked like an unassailable 3-0 lead before a spirited second half revival saw the Rams amazingly sneak ahead 4-3 before eventually being pegged back.
So cup commitments well and truly out of the way, all eyes would be focussed on righting the wrong of last season, and ensuring promotion at the end of this campaign.
A frustrating 2-2 draw at home to Kendal Town, where the visitors stole a point in the last minute, robbed the Rams of another three points, but successive 2-1 victories away at Tadcaster Albion and at home to Prescot Cables saw the team sitting proudly on top of the league table with a record of played eight, won six, drawn one and a single defeat.
Everything on the pitch was looking rosy, but off it, the dark days had returned.
Once again, the ever increasing number of victims of the pandemic had forced the Government, the FA and the League to take a break from playing football.
Rumours of a re-commencement in early December came and went, before a slight improvement offered teams the opportunity of playing again over the Christmas period, but with a much reduced maximum capacity of just 200 home fans only.
Whilst a small handful of clubs took advantage, most realised that to play with such restrictions was neither viable nor fair on supporters who would have been locked out, a decision agreed by Ramsbottom United.
As such, the Boxing Day game at Mossley which would have attracted in advance of 500 was mutually postponed, as was the potential New Year’s Day home game with Trafford.
As things turned out, further draconian restrictions applied to most of the country would have taken that decision out of our hands, as football once again fell foul of the tier restrictions.
So the year ended, as had been the case for most of it, in frustration.
The best seasons that the club had enjoyed since the days of Bernard and Jonno have left everyone at the club, management, players, officials and supporters asking “what if…”.
As we enter the new year, Colne, one of those handful of clubs, managed a victory on Boxing Day, thus leap-frogging the Rams to the top of the league, but having played one game more.
Will this season be completed, or will it be a case of “null and void” again?
All at Rammy sincerely hope that at some point football can return in order to satisfy the League’s desire to see promotion and relegation achieved come the end of May.
If the refusal to recommence continues for much longer, it is quite likely that the League, with the backing of the FA, will introduce two mini-leagues for each division in an attempt to begin playing again and ensure the efforts of everyone concerned are not wasted, as was the case in March.
All in all, a year to forget, but also a year which produced an excellent Ramsbottom United team with some sparkling performances to brighten up the doom and gloom for which 2020 will be forever remembered.