Why Stalybridge Celtic Football Club, more than ever, needs your support

Spectators: The More The Merrier: Stalybridge Celtic Football Club desperately need some more bums on seats and feet on terraces several times over. Image by Matthew Wilkinson, 2011 (Creative Commons License: Attribution-Some Rights Reserved).

On the 22 April 2017, Stalybridge Celtic Football Club were relegated from the National League North Division of the National League. Their fall from the sixth tier of English football to the seventh tier came as no surprise to many fans. The ‘Bridge had had struggled in the lower reaches of National League North in the five years prior to their relegation. Away wins were rarer than UK Number One singles by an artiste other than Drake or Ed Sheeran.

Though National League North football meant longer travelling times, these were offset by some plum local games. Particularly those commanding four-figure attendances (Salford City and Stockport County for instance). In 2017 you could safely say that standards in the National League North were as demanding as those in the Football Conference league of 2002.

As a result, some smaller clubs were unable to compete. Worcester City – lodging at Bromsgrove Sporting FC’s Victoria Ground – resigned to playing the likes of Boldmere St. Michaels instead of AFC Telford United. At one time, they were a formidable force in the Southern League and the Football Conference (when it was known as the Alliance Premier League and the Gola League). Altrincham – known as The Manchester United of Non League Football – followed the ‘Bridge to the Northern Premier League.

Last year’s National League North campaign was dominated by fans’ clubs with big fan bases (FC United of Manchester, Darlington FC) or sides with wealthy benefactors (AFC Fylde, Salford City).

For the likes of Stalybridge Celtic, the competition isn’t just among wealthier non-league clubs. The answer lies at the nearby pub: televised football. Ultimately the buck stops with Rupert Murdoch and rival channels to BSkyB’s offerings. Some televised fixtures are shown during the traditional 3pm kick off time, which has had a detrimental effect on non-league attendance figures.

Stalybridge Celtic alongside its Tameside peers and Glossop North End lie in the shadow of City and United. Then there’s Oldham Athletic; Rochdale; and Huddersfield Town – less than an hour’s drive away. At non-league level, FC United of Manchester and Stockport County as well as its local rivals.

With a shocking start to the season, some ‘Bridge fans have stayed away from Bower Fold. They have taken solace in other activities or televised sports fixtures. This is fine in the short term but damaging for the club.

As a consequence, Stalybridge Celtic Football are skint. Broke. Penniless.

Besides stay-away supporters, the winter weather hasn’t been too kind. To cut the wage bill, five players have been released. New faces have been promoted from within via the club’s Academy.

A recent turnaround in form has seen an epic 68-week run without an away win ending at Cantilever Park, Warrington. This Saturday’s game is a six-pointer for the ‘Bridge: the Yellows of Warrington Town aim to avenge their home defeat. For the thin squad, faced with playing thirteen games over five weeks, it is a real challenge. Warrington Town are second in the NPL Premier Division. Did anyone think the ‘Bridge would beat Altrincham at Moss Lane last Saturday?

Your local club needs you!

This Saturday [24 March] will see a break from Barclays Premier League action due to international friendly fixtures. For Stalybridge Celtic’s home match against Warrington Town, Manchester City and Manchester United season ticket holders can enjoy half price admission. On production of a City or United season ticket, you could watch Stalybridge Celtic for a fiver. That extra five pounds could go towards two pints of lager. Or a pie and a Bovril.

Why support non league football?

In conversation, when asked “which team I support”, I reply with “Manchester United” and “Stalybridge Celtic”. I also keep an eye on Mossley AFC and West Didsbury and Chorlton.

With the ‘Bridge, the Lilywhites, and the West, there are emotional connections. With West Didsbury and Chorlton, the nearest non-league club to one of my old schools (the Ewing School in West Didsbury). Well before they moved to Brookburn Road, their social club was used by Manchester Polytechnic. How do I know this? Yours truly along with the rest of the First Group popped in once, in 1987.

With Mossley there are three things: the view of the Pennine foothills from Seel Park; my late Nana’s house was nearby; and the 343/344 bus routes. The last being one of two routes which triggered my interest in public transport.

As for Stalybridge Celtic, my emotional connections go further. On walking along Early Bank Road, in my formative years, I always wondered about the ‘wonderful ground below the hill’. The view of the original main stand, the covered Mottram End, and the then open Town End terrace.

On the 26 November 1994, I went to see Stalybridge Celtic beat Woking 2-1. I had heard of The Cards due to their giant-killing exploits in the F.A. Cup. So, thirty minutes on foot and £3.00 of my paper round money later, I began what became The Start of a Beautiful Relationship.

I left amazed. I understood why my father thought televised football was a poor substitute for a live game. He had been to the 1968 European Champions Cup Final at Wembley for a start. He started supporting Manchester United since his early teens and he still follows them (albeit on screen these days). Therefore, Manchester United are his First Club with Stalybridge Celtic his second one. For me, the reverse applies: ‘Bridge first then Manchester United.

In my view, backing your favourite team entails getting to the ground, making some arduous away journeys, and in many cases a better atmosphere. If you see a live non-league football match in your teens you begin to realise two things.

  1. Nothing is perfect: referees can make mistakes, pitches can be muddy, and the Bovril can be too weak for your liking. Oh, and the weather;
  2. There is life beyond 92 League clubs: one that is more interesting – of diverse grounds, friendlier fans, and locations that many of your friends haven’t heard of (how many fans outside of Yorkshire know about Frickley Athletic?).

Whether you choose to support Stalybridge Celtic or any other non league club, non league football is the real deal. Like seeing your favourite musical production in a theatre instead of on a DVD or an online stream. Though you can see Les Miserables at a West End theatre, you could also be entertained by another version from your local theatre group or school production.

Unlike the West End theatres, smaller theatres are desperate for funding. The likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Tottenham Hotspur gain at the expense of the Stalybridge Celtics of this world. For the likes of the Hyde Festival Theatre and the ‘Bridge, the magic money tree is harder to find. Much will have more.

Why Stalybridge Celtic needs your support

1. They are skint

We could have just ended our blog post at this point but the definition of “they are skint” is multi-stranded. Firstly, the original plan with Steve Burr as manager was a quick exit from the Northern Premier League Premier Division – upwards to the National League North. In reality, the ‘product’ on the pitch was unspeakable, which depressed attendances at Bower Fold.

With the appointment of Alex Meecham as his assistant manager, things have started looking upwards. In the last month, results have improved with a miserable 68-week run without an away win ending against Warrington Town. Slowly but surely, the team is starting to gel – even beating Altrincham 2-1 at Moss Lane.

With improved results, improved attendances should follow, giving Burr and Meecham more money to pay for players. Sadly, due to club finances, this is not an option; five first team players have left Bower Fold. With the Academy, players can be promoted from within (as with Aiden Winterbottom’s appearance in goal against Altrincham on St. Patrick’s Day).

Thirdly (and we realised this last July), there are few teams in this season’s NPL campaign with a sizeable away support. With the lack of another FCUM or County, no gates in the high hundreds or low thousands. Depressing the club’s finances even further are postponements, which has meant more Tuesday night fixtures.

Besides the make up of this year’s league, the smaller attendances for each game are smaller still. Tuesday nights stymie away travel, making longer journeys on public transport impossible. Tuesday nights doesn’t help home fans either. The 387 bus finishes for 7pm whereas the three buses per hour to Ashton and Glossop (236/237) are once hourly.

Making it a triple whammy, midweek games are less attractive for matchday sponsors. On a Saturday, corporate sponsors can make a day of it in The Jack Thornley Suite. Whether you’re travelling on a company’s expense account or on a FirstWeek ticket from Ridge Hill estate, Tuesday nights are a less attractive option. Some supporters have housework, childcare, and work commitments, or other hobbies which may be in the way of watching the ‘Bridge.

2. Bower Fold is an excellent ground in an attractive setting

Bower Fold’s picturesque setting also sold the matchday experience to me, as well as its high drama. If your perception of non league football is of park pitches, prepare to be challenged. There is cover on all four sides with unrestricted views in the Lord Tom Pendry stand, Joe Jackson stand, and the main stand. The Mottram End cover has stanchions but they add to the atmosphere when big crowds are seen at Bower Fold.

3. Community projects

The club has an excellent reputation with its youth football projects and its Walking Football team. Where it is streets ahead in this field, it is in need of a bit more help on the social side. Comedy nights and live performances have featured on sporadic occasions in the sponsors’ lounge.

The one thing which stands in the way of there being similar events is the state of the social club. Be pro-active in organising or suggesting suitable events. This gentleman – a ‘Bridge fan since his teens – is the club’s Poet Laureate, creating motivational poetry for the first team’s home games.

4. Live football IS live football

Please accept my apologies for a trite “Brexit means Brexit” style quote. I am more likely say “I have seen a film” if I made an effort in going to the cinema rather than seeing it at home. When you go to a game at a proper football ground instead of seeing it in the pub, you will never want to go back to watching televised sports fixtures.

Whilst you are watching the ‘Bridge at Bower Fold or away from home, you can sense the atmosphere better. You get an account of the game from more than one observer, going off his or her comments from the stands.

5. No gimmicks

Generally, non league football is down to earth and more honest than the overpriced fiefdom padded by TV rights. Reasonable prices are another reason to choose non league over the Barclays Premier League. Plus there’s none of that stupid Video Assisted Refereeing palaver.

For the average fan there are no gimmicks at Bower Fold. The pies are still locally sourced; the club shop isn’t the size of an ALDI store; and the fans are genuine. Some of which have sat or stood through the ‘Bridge’s trials and tribulations through thick, thin, thinner, and thinnest times. It is in the thinnest of times where they need your support.

6. You’ll never leave

In the last two to three seasons I have reached a point where I have said “I wont be renewing my season ticket”. I had even considered going on strike as the ‘Bridge’s Poet Laureate. When I am unable to see the ‘Bridge, I am more on edge ‘viewing’ the game on the Match Centre than at the ground.

On New Year’s Day I had threatened to boycott the home match against Lancaster City citing lack of buses as a plausible excuse. In the end I thought “stuff this, couldn’t be doing with sitting at home”. So I walked to and from Bower Fold in such awful conditions (the worst weather of the 2017 – 2018 season to date). They won 5 – 2, so it was worth the trip and a post-match drink.

7. The best website among NPL clubs

Stalybridge Celtic’s website isn’t just a valuable reference for this season’s results and tables. It has a comprehensive archive with match reports dating from 2000 onwards and results going back to 1988.

Be the change you want to be

Only the people of Stalybridge and surrounding area will ensure the long term future of Stalybridge Celtic Football Club. Up to now it seems as if the fortunes of The Mighty ‘Bridge has been met with indifference. Some assume the lack of fundraising efforts and underuse of the social club isn’t helping matters.

This is where new and existing fans can help.

If you know your history, it was lack of support which led to Stalybridge Celtic’s resignation from the Football League in 1923. The last thing we would like to see is more of the same happening to us at a lower level. With 400 fans instead of the 4,000 fans who saw the likes of Nelson or Chesterfield in the early 1920s.

You can also help by:

  • Talking to friends about Stalybridge Celtic;
  • Inviting a friend or two to the next home match and more besides;
  • Volunteering to raise the profile of the club: for example, participating in the summer work parties or joining the Walking Football team;
  • Asking your employer if they want to sponsor a game: this is especially true if your employer is within Greater Manchester. Or better still, in the Tameside area;
  • Sponsoring the club in any way, shape, or form: whether you wish to sponsor part of the pitch or a home fixture.

One more thing…

It is always easier to support a winning side instead of an underachieving one. As in real life, any football club has its ups and downs. Life itself isn’t all about quick fixes and instant gratification. A lot of work is done behind the scenes and there may be setbacks along the way.

We hope the ‘Bridge can get out of their rut. You can help by seeing Celtic’s game against Warrington Town on Saturday. Tell your City or United supporting season ticket holding friends to come along.

S.V., 22 March 2018.

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