When I arrived in Atherton train station wearing my Burnley coat, one of the staff members asked me what I was doing there, I replied that I’m going to watch Atherton play. He then asked “Oh, The Collieries?” No, Laburnum Rovers, I said.
Without my knowledge, this would be somewhat of a repeating motif.
Atherton might only have 22,000 people in it but it also the home of three non-league teams. Atherton Collieries who play in the North West Counties Premier Division, Atherton Town who play in the Manchester League and Atherton Laburnum Rovers who are in the middle of the two, in the North West Counties Division One. It’s a frosty and dark Saturday and I made my way to Crilly Park, home of the Laburnums.
If you weren’t looking for the stadium, you would have found it anyway. Crilly Park has, what now, has to be, a rare sight. The stadium possesses a platformed stand that can seat 250 people who can watch the match and have a great view.
Atherton’s stadium is much better than what you’d imagine when thinking of “lower league” non-league. The pitch itself might be a bit soggy today but Atherton also owns clubhouse with a fully stocked bar and seating area as well as a snack bar that serves food and hot drinks.
The massive amounts of parking (Double parking lot), the stand, the sitting area and the number of places to stand around the pitch points to one obvious thing about the club – Atherton Laburnum Rovers are out of their place, the club should not be where it is today.
I find Jane Wilcox in the clubhouse, Jane has been Atherton’s chairwoman for 28 years now and according to one of the supporters “Knows everything about non-league football. If she doesn’t know it, it’s not worth knowing”.
About this season, Jane says: “I still think we’ve got the quality but I obviously hope we’ll improve. I still hope we’ll go up and further. Even after 28 years I still have those dreams and hope of the club doing well … the club itself is still the same club it was 28 years ago, but I think this season we’re progressing well and we’re looking to get back up, maybe not this season maybe the season after."
And for next season, Shaun Lynch has his work cut out for him: “Promotion is definitely what we aim for, back into Premier. It would be a massive step but that would attract more people to the club and to the stadium.” … “To this season, I’d like to finish midtable, Shaun knows what my expectations are. I don’t think that’s possible as we’re running out of time but that’s what I’m hoping for. Next season, I’d like to see us in the promotion battle.”
When I ask about manager Shaun Lynch, Jane responds: “For the third season, we have a new manager. Shaun Lynch is very enthusiastic and wants to take us further. We communicate well and have a good relationship. In fairness, he’s a local lad, the last three managers we’ve had, we’ve given them a chance from the lower leagues and like I said, I knew about Shaun anyway and he phoned me and we talked. We spoke and I liked what he was saying and I liked his enthusiasm.”
“One of our ex-directors built that stand. Derrek Halliwell and unfortunately he passed away last year. Every chairman and director have progressed and extended the club, each director or chairman put something of their own into the club. Each year we’ll look for little improvements. A lot of work is being done on the pitch and extending the lease on the grounds.”
How do you bring more people to the ground, I ask her: “Success on the pitch, in short. If you’ve got a winning side that will attract more attention. We’ve been here since 1956, we’ve always been a big club in this area, I think the club speaks for itself. Hopefully, things will progress and we’ll do well.”
After wandering about the place, talking to people and meeting the Atherton faithful, I find Keith Jones.
Keith is a recent Atherton convert, as he says, formely a Bolton Wanderers season ticket holder for 35 years, he's been coming to Crilly Park for a few years now and according to him, he absoloutely loves it.
Keith Jones Interview
“I have watched them for about 5 years, initially, because we wanted something to do on a Saturday afternoon. So we thought we’ll come down and follow a team as they were the closest ones to us. Collieries across the road are doing very very well, their ground looks fantastic and they’ve got a good team, plenty of finance.. and then we came here and we preferred it here because it’s a lot more friendly, we knew everyone straight away as there are not many of us. But yeah, we liked it here.”
“Atherton LR were a very big team in non-league once and it slipped a little for various reasons, In the last three years that I’ve been watching them, this is probably the best season, believe it or not.”
“The previous manager from 3 seasons ago got a job somewhere else and left. Then a new management last season, and they struggled a bit sadly, now we’ve got Shaun Lynch with the rest of his team.. it might not seem like it but actually, this is the best we’ve seen it here so far. They’re building the team but more importantly, they want to build the club.”
“We very quickly realised that you can’t just come watch a team like this, you have to get involved, you can’t just pay your five pounds and come in.. So, Andy Harrison and his Wife, Lisa came in to help. Lisa and Ellen Campbell run the snack bar with the help of Raygan Cornwell and Andy is doing loads of work on the ground and I do the programmes, never done a programme in my life before but I learned on the job!”
“I think what’s happened is we’re building for next season. There’s no doubt if we get more sponsors, get the committee a bit fuller, get someone to apply for funding, we need people to look at the finances and how to develop them … How can we make more money whilst still being a community club? We can’t compete with Atherton Colleries across the road, They’re a commercial machine and we can’t compete with that but I think we don’t want to be that kind of club, I think we want to be more for the community, but all clubs need finance.”
“From our point of view, as soon as we came here we realised they needed a bit of help. Not in the football side because we can’t really do anything like that but just a bit of help, saving a bit of money in places and making a bit of money in other places and hopefully we’ve done a bit of that but we need more people in the local area to come and watch us play.”
“It’s hard to get the locals to come watch us as there are so many teams in the area. There’s us, Collieries, Atherton Town and Daisy Hill. But in Bolton, there are no non-league teams in the area, nothing in the North West counties. There are a few teams in the Manchester leagues and lower and some of them do quite well and have good facilities and attract a lot of people but I think, this club can attract people from Bolton. I mean, people want to watch football, it’s just a fact. We’ve got loads of space, two car parks (which is quite rare), bar area, snack area, a lot of better facilities than a lot of other teams... What I’m saying is, we’ve got the capacity, all we need is the people.”
“I was a season ticket holder at Bolton Wanderers for 35 years. I was made redundant and around that time the renewal of the season ticket arrived I thought, I just can’t spend that much money on that. We were missing football and we go here and I feel like a complete convert. I love it here! I don’t get why people don’t come here and watch more non-league football. The standard is ok, all of these lads are committed and it’s all volunteers and you can feel it. that’s why I come.. there’s good camaraderie..”
“We’ve got to win, we’ve got to get over the bottom two because there is relegation this year and if we do get relegated, it’s into the Manchester league. And if you think we’ve got facilities for this league, these would be the best facilities in that league .. “Relegation is a real threat this season but a club of this stature shouldn’t be in it. We’re not in the bottom two at the moment but we’ve been and we need a couple of wins to get out of it. We lost to Prestwich 6-0 on Boxing Day but since then we’ve lost maybe 3 games 1-0, so it’s getting there.
“Shaun Lynch is definitely the best of the three managers we’ve had in the past three seasons. There is a big improvement from the last season. It’s more stable and we seem to be attracting a better standard of players. This is, however, a new team so they need to gel. Results and the place in the table might not show it but the club is in the best position in the last three seasons. We’ll survive this season, I’m confident of that. We still have to play Blackpool twice and that’s a six-pointer as they say. “
Sam Pervcial interview
"I started at Bury as a scholar, joined Witton Albion for a part of the season then flew out to Thailand to play in the Thai Premier League. I played for Port FC under Gary Stevens.”
How was playing in Thailand? “The whole experience was crazy, I was sitting down after work on a Friday evening and I got a phone call saying I needed to be in Thailand within three days! So I had to do a bit of a mental trip. Munich, Vienna, Thailand straight into training basically. I’m half Thai, I was born there and moved over when I was three so it was a great thing I could speak the language even though we had a club translator that helped me out a lot. I played there just under a season, about 7-8 months. I was involved in a car crash in Bangkok which snapped my left shin and I was lucky enough to come back and do a bit of rehab before starting football again, which I did as a preseason with Stalybridge Celtic.
Why did you choose Atherton? “I felt the need to get some first team experience. I’ve had a lot of offers to play reserves and such from Curzon Ashton and Stockport to try and work my way up to the first line up but I felt it was right for me to get first team experience as it’s more physical, faster, and I think playing in the other clubs, I haven’t felt as welcome as I have in Atherton. The coach is fantastic and they’re moving in the right direction.. they’re going to record the games and training, the extra training their implementing, more trial games, everything is moving in the right direction.
How’s your relationship with Shaun? “I’ve got a good relationship with the manager, we get on really well. Before I started here I knew of him as he’s a friend of a friend so it was great to develop that relationship.”
The club is not in the best of form right now, how do you get out of it? “It’s difficult at the moment, it’s best to do as well as we can and try and develop and build for next season, go into preseason, recruit some players where we need, get the right fixtures like football league if possible and go from there, invest in the club. From what I’ve seen in the month I’ve been here, I’m confident we’ll stay up.”
Before long it's kick off time which comes a bit earlier than usual, I'm told there's a problem with one of the spotlights and the FA have told Atherton not to turn them on but have an earlier kickoff instead. This, obviously, would make no difference as it's a very dark and cold January day in Lancashire.
City of Liverpool have taken over the high stand and their supporters, littered around the barrier of the pitch as well as the stand, are chanting and yelling, giving the match a good grassroots atmosphere.
The players take to the pitch, Atherton in blue and yellow, City of Liverpool in purple which I find a strange colour for a kit until I see a "Blues + Reds = Purple" sign that was hung by the Liverpool supporters.
The first twenty minutes are under full City of Liverpool control and they’re already pressuring for the first goal.
About half an hour in and Stephen Longrigg in the COL goal has yet to have a touch of the ball, Atherton are on the back foot but are showing some great defending.
Keiran Halliwell gets a blow to the head and has to have the physio look at his bloody nose. He’s then asked to change to a fresh shirt which he does, only to gain 10 numbers and wear the number 15 shirt. One would assume there’s only one number 5 shirt. The joys of grassroots football!
Atherton’s keeper, Tom Goodwin, is finally called upon after a first half full of pressure and possession from COL. A good cross from the right ends up in his hands as he plucks it out of the air.
The first half ends goalless with COL in domination, Atherton have so far been successful in frustrating their opposition with some solid defending.
The second half kicks off and it's obvious Shaun Lynch had a word with his lads, they look like a different side! The Laburnums are going forward in search of a goal.
Atherton are playing in what seems to be a 4-5-1 or a 3-4-3, I can only assume it’s in an attempt to flood the midfield and stop any COL attacks. As a Burnley supporter, Atherton’s number 9, Theo Kidd, reminds me of our Andre Gray lurking around
COL’s last defender in hopes he can stir some trouble.
The first goal finally arrives at the 57th minute when COL's Forbes was brought down in the box after a first tackle on a COL player was judged as a good tackle by the ref.
Tom Peterson calmly converted the penalty, sending Goodwin the wrong way.
With a goal in hand COL were confident and looked for another. Atherton supporters told me before the match they'll be happy with a draw against a bigger and better opposition as COL. If Atherton want a draw here, they'll have to go out and get it.
COL watch as a deflected shot goes an inch outside the far post, Atherton break on the counter and win a free kick which the Purps defence deal with comfortably.
Atherton with a great chance, Theo Kidd manages to cause some chaos in the COL box but instead of shooting, he passes it and the chance goes begging.
COL with another go, COL's #7 uses his strength to pave a way into the box but Alex Guest gets a great tackle and dispossesses him.
There’s some great defending from the home side, it’s on the other side of the pitch they're having problems.
Following a COL foul and a dispute on where the free kick should be taken from, the visiting manager is sent off and told to leave the dugout.
Match has really livened up since the penalty, a lot of attacking play from both teams.
Make that two penalties! Atherton break from the left into the box only to be brought down and get a penalty for their troubles.
For the Laburnums, this is for all the marbles!
Theo Kidd calmly runs up and hits THE POST!!! With his hands on his face, the number 9 cannot believe it, heart-breaking for Atherton!
With the striker still in COL box, the Purps don't waste any time and go on the counter. Good play from the right leads to a shot that's saved by Goodwin in the Atherton goal, the loose ball is picked up by another COL player who can only put his shot above the post. Terrible miss!
Both teams are out for glory. COL wants a second, Atherton are trying to get an equaliser, really end to end stuff.
COL come close to a couple of chances only to be judged offside.
The ref blows for the final time and there are some happy COL supporters as they nearly saw their win become a draw at the later stages of the game.
Atherton can be pleased by the way they played if not by the final score, coming into this match as huge underdogs, they did well to block the barrage of attacks from COL and almost got a draw which would have been a great result from. You can't tell Atherton lost the reverse fixture 8-0, this was a good performance from both sides.
Post Match Interviews
I’m loving every minute of this at the moment, I’m always up for a challenge.. when I joined Atherton Town they had about two teams, when I left it, they had about thirty.
The club was bottom of the pile last season, I played here as a junior so one of the challenges is to bring this club to what it once was 10-15 years ago on and off the field, it needs a lot of work on both but I really think we can do it.
Hard work and signing better players and that’s what we’re doing. Our last six or seven games there was one goal in between each win or defeat. We’ve now signed a goalscorer, Theo Kidd who’s come in and done really well for us, he missed a penalty today which is unfortunate but the lad’s great.
We’ve played a team that is the biggest spenders in our league and it was an equal game. Earlier this season they beat us 8-0 and there are only three players who played in that game who played today, so that’s a turn around in the squad that we have and we signed good new lads.
We’re also missing 5 good lads from today, Ed Walker, Andy Miller, Joe Shambar and Yann Pohl, all missing today and two others and this squad is really strong. Once we get those players playing regularly with one or two additions in key areas and I think we’ll be fine.
The game plan was to make it hard work for City of Liverpool. Don’t let them go down our sides, play three centre-halves, nice and solid.
The back five worked really well as a unit, the other five had a chance here and there I think the penalty was the only clear-cut chance they had in the game and our penalty miss was probably the same for us. So I think a draw would have been a fair result.
They were the better side first half down hill and we were the better side second half downhill but that just shows how far we’ve come in a short space of time against a team like City of Liverpool with their financial power so I’m really chuffed in today, chuffed at defeat.
A lof of games this season we created a lot of chances but we’re not taking them, Theo (Kidd) is a goalscorer but our wide men have to score goals as well, they don’t score enough which is another area we need to look at.
We’ve had one lad who’s missing today Connor Miller who scored a few this season I think six or seven, Adam Owens played most games this season and he had a couple but he needs to score more thought some of them are young and sometimes players score more later in their career as they gain more experience and get into a better position.
We’ve got a lot of contacts and know a lot of players in the area. We’ve just brought Dave Potter from New Mills, he knows a lot of player from the Stockport area, John Brannigan is a scouser so he gets players from the Liverpool area so it’s a good combination between all four of us.
I don’t mind sitting down with the Physio and taking it easy and let them two get send off and I’ll stand behind. The team selection is down to me, they bring me ideas but the final team selection is on me, that’s the way it works.
Dave Potter has done really well for us so far, he brought in a lot of players from his area like Ed Walker who didn’t play today, Sam who played centre midfield for us today and did well, he brought him in too. Dave knows his footballing stuff, I’m really impressed with him and what be brings to the club.
I think in this league it’s got to do a lot with connections. I think the former management team maybe didn’t know enough players and this standard. Obviously, there are tactics as well. I don’t know what that management team did for tactics but you have to be solid as a team.. we’ve learned from our mistakes, we were battered at Prestwich, we were battered at Liverpool and you’ve got to work out quickly, in this league, what players to well to the standard and fair play to them, Keiran (Halliwell) himself brought in a few players from the Manchester area who he knows, so the players are getting involved with bringing players around which is really good and I’ll always encourage that because players know other players, they always do. So if they bring someone through we’ll have a look at him and see what their capable of. We've signed a lot of players it’s now up to us to get a settled squad. I think we’re about three or four players short of a really strong squad but we have a lot of contacts in this area and we can probably bring them here before the transfer window closes.
Atherton LR have their own junior set up, I think they have about ten teams but the link between juniors and seniors is non-existent at the moment, so that link has to be closer and I will be attending the junior meeting myself and try to get them back involved with the club which is a big thing for us, Especially on the social side having fundraisers in the clubhouse and creating more finance through the juniors as well. Obviously, the playing side is important, the U21 are doing really well at the moment, they’ve got a couple of lads I’d be interested in next season.
We made giant steps this season, the results don’t really reflect what we’ve done as a club. I’ve done a report to the board on ways we can improve. Mainly, it’s off the field in the financial matters. Hopefully, they’ll take some of my ideas on board.
We’ve been averaging about 50 supporters a game, Atherton Collieries across the road have a lot of fans in the area and fair play to them, they’ve got it right off the field, they’re commercially set up, got a nice wage bill and they’ve done a great job and that’s something we have to aspire to.
They can pay good money for players, if you do that, you get a good team but it’s not the be all and end all, we’ve brought in players that other clubs went for, Adam Long that just went to Northwich Victoria, it shows we’re bringing in players that are good and other teams are looking at. If other clubs weren’t looking at our players, that’d be a bad thing as it means we’re bringing in rubbish players into the club so it works both ways.
But Atherton Collieries is something we have to aspire to be right now, Atherton LR were bigger and better than them for years but now Collieries are doing better, so it’s a cycle. They’re up there now and we have to try and catch up to them.
Any thoughts on the game you just played? :“Tough one to take really, first half we defended a bit slow and they had all the ball but they only had one chance which is how we wanted it really. We know we’ll be up against it when we’re up the slope. The second half was fifty-fifty. The penalty was a bit soft I think, I was next to him when he went down but I’ve seen them given and obviously we missed our penalty with 10 minutes to go but the lads did very well and held their heads high. We’ve got beaten 8-0 by this team earlier this season so we’ve just shown the progression we made in the last 6 weeks, we’ve won last week hopefully a few more and we’ll get ourselves out.”
What’s your history with the club: “I’ve been around the club in and out for about 10 years now. I’ve been elsewhere and come back but I think now I’m here until the end.”
Did you know the manager before he came here? “I knew Shaun because when I was in my early twenties he was the manager of Atherton Town and I was playing for another team In the Manchester league so we’ve been sort of rivals but we’ve been around each other and I knew him by name. Only worked with him this season and it’s going great. the last two months have been a complete turnaround. The last two months we probably should have gotten something out of every game we played. we’ve struggled to put the ball in the back of the net, obviously today you’ve seen it happen. We lost to Eccleshall where they scored in the 90th minute and we had 6 or 7 chances that you just don’t miss. We lost one nil to Holker when they scored in the 90th minute and then as well we had chances you should not miss. We’ve signed Theo (Kidd) who is just quality. He missed a penalty today but he will put the ball in the net like he did last week so things are looking a lot better and we can get a good ending to this season it will set us up well for next season. “
Is the current manager the reason you’re doing well in comparison to last season? “Last season the manager was a very good manager, he maybe a little bit too loyal to players he brought, maybe a little too long. Obviously, we didn’t win a game until Christmas and they stuck with the same players right until the end which I thought was wrong and I did say a couple of times as I have a bit of experience in this league. He made his decision and you have to stick with it. We had a difficult start to this season again but Shaun is a listening and he’s taken on board some advice from people and Dave (Potter) has come in in the last six weeks and I think he made an absolute complete difference. hE brought in some North West counties semi professionals and great attitude and I think the lads have taken to it well.”
You were much better in the 2nd half of the match, what did the manager tell you in half time? “We know that .we all played here a long time. if you can defend a slope, going into halftime losing one nil at worst, you’ll always have a chance in the 2nd half so we all knew what we were doing. In the first half, we were under the cosh. They had all the ball but only had one or two chances and we know second half is going to be totally different. It’s an extreme slope in footballing terms and I think we were unlucky to not get a point. “
Are you confident in staying up? “I’m confident in staying up which really, a club of this magnitude historically shouldn’t be down there which is why it’s really important that we kick on now, once again, another fantastic performance today against a really good club that’s going to be up there. We’ve got to continue with this and we’ve got to continue building. We’ve got to take this to next season and hopefully we can play like we have the last couple of months, next season which is obviously a long way away and players will change but if we take the same attitude and a bit more professionalism as we have then we’ve gotta be looking at top half and maybe promotion even. The playoff has been a fantastic idea for the league, unlike the Premier divisions. Once you get past Christmas, if you’re not in the top four, or the bottom four, you season is over and in division one, if you’re in the top 10 up to about 10 points behind, your season is still alive.. as long as you’re doing half decent then you’re likely to be in there with half a shout. It feels like we’ve got a cup final every week because you’re playing against relegation. Maybe if we were five or six places above where we are, our season would be over in a way but it’s obviously the wrong type of pressure, you don’t want that.”
City of Liverpool brought quite a lot of supports with them today, Atherton.. not so much.. How do you bring more people in? “I had the dubious pleasure of playing for our rivals Atherton Colleries who are doing fantastic at the moment and are a fantastic club.. some of the people here might not like me saying this but we need to take a leaf out of their book really, we’ve got a really good example at where a football club should be at our level a mile and a half away from us so let’s look at what their doing and let’s copy it. They’re probably getting 100-150 people watching them per game, we could quite easily come watch us and we can get some new supporters but ultimately for me, people want to watch a winning team, people want to watch a team that’;s competitive and doing well and for me that’s where we’ve got to start. I don’t think we’ll get a half decent fan base before we get a competitive squad in this league which hopefully be next season. Hopefully, I can get another season out of myself as well!
The end of the match signals everyone to return to the cosy bar and have a pint with the other supporters.
Later on, Shaun, Dave and John Brannigan sit down to watch the late game and discuss the match they just played and the things they can improve on.
It’s easy to see what Atherton are doing at the moment, the key words here are building and developing. Everyone understand this season hasn’t been the best but there’s a passion here to keep plugging away and get the points they need to ensure survival in this league and there’s a lot of anticipation for next year when Shaun will have a settled squad and more time to work with the players he brings in. With that said, everyone who are a part of the Atherton set up know what to look for, it’s all about the big picture and the long goal, it’s all about getting Atherton LR back to what it used to be.
From the Chairwoman to the supporter, including the players, everyone’s committed to this cause. Even without too much money and what has to be essentially a shoe-string budget, Atherton are a great example of what passionate individuals can do with a football club, what it can achieve and how much it means for the people involved. The volunteers who work on the grounds like Keith and Andy do it for the passion and the love of the club, even if they’re not Atherton LR veterans. Everyone pitches in here and they do it because it means something