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"Hello, I'm the new Celtic Manager" (Editor's cut)


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"Hello, I'm the new Celtic Manager!"

It sounded good, and it got me quite a few friends down the pub. To be honest, it was a winner with the lasses as well, and to my shame I used it more than once. But in the cold, or rather very warm, light of an August day, as I sat with one of the club's representatives for a home friendly against inferior opponents, the truth of the statement hit home to me.

As we went 4-0 up in the first half hour, I looked at the inane scribblings on my notepad. It was time to put names to faces, or at least to numbers.

"Who's the number 9, he looks quite good?"

"Leon Kelly. Promising young forward..."

I didn't let him finish his sentence before butting in. "Yes, he took the penalty well. And he can score with his head as well! At least the club has something going for it."

"For a couple of months anyway" replied the official.

"You what?"

"If you'd let me finish, I was about to say he's on loan until the end of September. From Cambridge."

"Arse." I replied, scribbling out a note I had made. "Don't tell me that number 7 is on loan as well?"

"No. Richard Peacock is one of our summer signings, from Lincoln. He's 29 and has plenty of experience. He's two good for this level of football, but Lincoln had to trim their squad."

The referee blew his whistle for half time. I joined the official who had sat with me in the bar. We had a pint and discussed some of the other players.

"The right back looks OK." I said

"Chris Perkins? He's another experienced league footballer, and he can play either side as well."

"Not so sure about the left back. Any chance of seeing another option there?"

The official called over another blazered gentleman and whispered a message to him. He rushed off in the direction of the dressing room. I called him back. "We may as well see our other options up front, seeing as Kelly's only a short term solution." The man nodded and disappeared.

"Let's get back to it!" I suggested.

The stadium announcer's microphone crackled into life. "Substitutions at half time. Replacing number 3, Andrew Scott, is number 12, Dominic Crookes. And replacing number 10, Gerard Courtney is number 18, Winfield Steele."

I was settled in my seat just in time to see Kelly convert a Peacock cross for his hattrick. The crowd were going wild. "Centre backs look OK, especially number 5."

"On loan." my new friend prompted.

"Until September?" I asked.

"No, Oldham will let us keep Ben Futcher until the end of November."

"Oh, well, let's be thankful for small mercies shall we."


Fifteen minutes to go, and I had seen enough to make me realise that there weren't many more strong points to identify. At least, given the current FA rules, I wasn't going to unearth any more loan players. As I was studying my notes I heard the referee blow his whistle, and the crowd jeering and booing. I looked up to see the physio helping the right back (Perkins? Was that his name?) off the pitch.

"That's not good." My new friend commented. It was the first piece of information he had voluntarily given me all afternoon.

"And why might that be? Other than the fact the poor guy has obviously got a bad knock of course."

"Er. Cover is a bit, er, light in that department."



The final whistle was blown, the crowd cheered and applauded both sides from the pitch (the visitors had performed above their standard to keep us to one goal in the second half) and I folded away my notebook. Turning to my rapidly departing chaperone I asked, "Incidentally, why were there only 8 subs on the bench?"

Without turning round he answered, "That's yer lot."

This was no ordinary Celtic.

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"Hello, I'm the new Celtic Manager!"

It sounded good, and it got me quite a few friends down the pub. To be honest, it was a winner with the lasses as well, and to my shame I used it more than once. But in the cold, or rather very warm, light of an August day, as I sat with one of the club's representatives for a home friendly against inferior opponents, the truth of the statement hit home to me.

As we went 4-0 up in the first half hour, I looked at the inane scribblings on my notepad. It was time to put names to faces, or at least to numbers.

"Who's the number 9, he looks quite good?"

"Leon Kelly. Promising young forward..."

I didn't let him finish his sentence before butting in. "Yes, he took the penalty well. And he can score with his head as well! At least the club has something going for it."

"For a couple of months anyway" replied the official.

"You what?"

"If you'd let me finish, I was about to say he's on loan until the end of September. From Cambridge."

"Arse." I replied, scribbling out a note I had made. "Don't tell me that number 7 is on loan as well?"

"No. Richard Peacock is one of our summer signings, from Lincoln. He's 29 and has plenty of experience. He's two good for this level of football, but Lincoln had to trim their squad."

The referee blew his whistle for half time. I joined the official who had sat with me in the bar. We had a pint and discussed some of the other players.

"The right back looks OK." I said

"Chris Perkins? He's another experienced league footballer, and he can play either side as well."

"Not so sure about the left back. Any chance of seeing another option there?"

The official called over another blazered gentleman and whispered a message to him. He rushed off in the direction of the dressing room. I called him back. "We may as well see our other options up front, seeing as Kelly's only a short term solution." The man nodded and disappeared.

"Let's get back to it!" I suggested.

The stadium announcer's microphone crackled into life. "Substitutions at half time. Replacing number 3, Andrew Scott, is number 12, Dominic Crookes. And replacing number 10, Gerard Courtney is number 18, Winfield Steele."

I was settled in my seat just in time to see Kelly convert a Peacock cross for his hattrick. The crowd were going wild. "Centre backs look OK, especially number 5."

"On loan." my new friend prompted.

"Until September?" I asked.

"No, Oldham will let us keep Ben Futcher until the end of November."

"Oh, well, let's be thankful for small mercies shall we."


Fifteen minutes to go, and I had seen enough to make me realise that there weren't many more strong points to identify. At least, given the current FA rules, I wasn't going to unearth any more loan players. As I was studying my notes I heard the referee blow his whistle, and the crowd jeering and booing. I looked up to see the physio helping the right back (Perkins? Was that his name?) off the pitch.

"That's not good." My new friend commented. It was the first piece of information he had voluntarily given me all afternoon.

"And why might that be? Other than the fact the poor guy has obviously got a bad knock of course."

"Er. Cover is a bit, er, light in that department."



The final whistle was blown, the crowd cheered and applauded both sides from the pitch (the visitors had performed above their standard to keep us to one goal in the second half) and I folded away my notebook. Turning to my rapidly departing chaperone I asked, "Incidentally, why were there only 8 subs on the bench?"

Without turning round he answered, "That's yer lot."

This was no ordinary Celtic.

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Notes: If you think you've read this before, you might be right. The original version has been inexplicably lost from the board at some stage within the past three months or so. This can be viewed as a "Complete and Uncut" version, in that it has material not included in the original, and editorial changes in places as well.

Although effectively a repost, I hope those that read the original enjoy the extra material and edits, whilst any new readers simply enjoy the experience. If I'm allowed a moment of big-headedness, the first two seasons or so of this story are my best work. It's not just a matter of reposting, either, as there are two new seasons to the storyline, which should see it brough to conclusion.

This is done with Raptor's blessing. Thanks, Mark.

Now, enjoy!

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I was less than happy to find out that Stalybridge Celtic, my new baby, my project to try to steer into league football, had a squad strength of 20, including the two loanees. I was absolutely fuming to find out that one of the clubs main assets, a young goalkeeper by the name of David Fish, had been sold the day before the friendly match in an attempt to balance the books and make the club a viable proposition. Apparently the buoyed finances had appeased the league's auditors, but they didn't do much for me. The club was still nearly £150k in debt, a sum which, quite frankly, we might just recover if we sold the entire squad at market value.

The available pool of players was reduced to 18 as Peacock picked up a training injury, and to be quite honest there wasn't any point making anything other than enforced changes for my first competitive game in charge. Fortunately substitute striker Matt McNeill popped up with a second half equaliser to salvage a home point.

Conference Game 1. 18th August 2001.

Stalybridge 1 Dover 1 McNeill 65 / Carr 2

The players were shocked by the pace of the game in this division. Shocked into absolute knackeredness, and captain Steve Bushell and his midfield colleague Mark Stuart were too tired to play. I would be having words with the coaching staff. If I ever found them. The two of them would have to make up the numbers on the bench, of course. At least Peacock was back. In a thrilling game we were 1-0 down in the first minute, 2-1 up only to be pegged back to 2-2 a minute later, then 3-2 down but managing to pull off an equaliser.

Good things: 2 more goals for McNeill, some promising set piece play, Futcher proving he can score as well as defend, a good performance from Peacock and, of course, we're still unbeaten.

Bad things: The players were horrendously unfit. Especially Peacock. And there was another game to come in 4 days.

Conference Game 2. 21st August 2001.

Doncaster 3 Stalybridge 3 Milligan 1 Barnes 43, 69 / McNeill 23, 42 Futcher 80

I was asking for volunteers by the following Saturday. Everyone was tired. Well, everyone apart from the two players who I had decided wouldn't get a game unless every available person in Stalybridge town was declared crippled. It's not good when one tenth of your squad aren't fit to grace a football field. Anyway, as everyone was uniformly knackered I fielded 10 out of 11 of what I was beginning to see as my strongest squad. Perkins being the absentee, obviously.

It was Kelly who decided now was the time to show his quality, with another goal from a corner. And defender Matt Williamson led the back line to our first clean sheet of the season, claiming the man of the match award along the way. Still unbeaten, and maybe things aren't as bad as they first appeared

Conference Game 3. 25th August 2001.

Stalybridge 1 Forest Green 0 Kelly 42

I've always been taught to stick with a winning formula, so it was unchanged again for another midweek game. Again we went down to an early goal, and had no sooner equalised than we conceded two more. We, or rather Matt Woods, got one back, but we couldn't find a third. And we managed to get yet another injury, with fringe player Ged Murphy getting a knee strain.

Conference Game 4. 29th August 2001.

Hereford 3 Stalybridge 2 Piearce 5,24 Robinson 29 / Kelly 21 Woods 45

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Into September, and amazingly we bounced straight back with a home win. I was impressed not only with how the first team were managing to stay healthy, but also how the goals were getting shared around. This time it was captain and man of the match Bushell's turn to get both goals, and our turn to get the early break.

Conference Game 5. 1st September 2001.

Stalybridge 2 Hayes 1 Bushell 1,31 / Clark 23

Unbelieveably, we had to head off to the Lancashire coast as soon as Monday for another game. Peacock couldn't believe it either, and told me there was no way he would be fit. Matt McNeill agreed. I told them both to sit on the bench and not to be surprised if they were on in the second half. Even with both of them playing half an hour we were pants, but somehow kept the score respectable.

Conference Game 6. 3rd September 2001.

Southport 1 Stalybridge 0 Grayston 47

At least playing on the Monday game me some free time in the week to pursue other matters within the club. It was time to swell the playing ranks, but also to bring a little bit of quality into the backroom staff. So 41 year old midfielder Steve McCall and 37 year old left back Neil Pointon joined as player coaches. Neither expected to play too often. Assistant Manager David McMahon and Coach Paul Lodge turned up to welcome the newcomers and show them the ropes, and in a fit of pique at the state they had let the club get into I dismissed both of them on the spot.

Steve McCall had a shock for me though when he refused the Assistant Manager's job. It wasn't as big a shock as Pointon got when I told him to put on his boots and play as, to be honest, he couldn't be any worse than incumbent left back Scott.

It was a long but worthwhile trip to Kent. Courtney had been begging all the way down the motorway to be given a chance, and to be honest I told him he could start just for a bit of peace and quiet. He repaid me with his first two goals of the season and walked off with the man of the match award. I was gobsmacked. Peacock and his replacement Parr both got their first of the season as well.

Conference Game 7. 8th September 2001.

Margate 0 Stalybridge 4 Peacock 25 Courtney 38,57 Parr 68 (Margate's Paul Lamb sent off, 46)

Keeping up the run of two games a week saw us playing an across-Cheshire derby at Northwich. With Mark Stuart tired and his backup still injured, Steve McCall was told to hunt out his boots as well. It wasn't the most stunning performance of his very long career, even he will admit.

Conference Game 8. 11th September 2001.

Northwich 2 Stalybridge 1 Barnard 10 (pen) Garvey 80 / Kelly 57 (pen)

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More backroom changes as Tony Barratt took up the Assistant Manager position. whilst Spencer Field took up the Scouting role, with Ben Heywood leaving in the same taxi. With that sorted, I could concentrate on preparing for the visit of bitter local rivals(!) Chester. Courtney proved that the Margate trip was indeed a one off, putting in a second poor performance in a row, with Leon Kelly attempting to no avail to keep us in the game single handedly.

For a couple of weeks I had been expressing disbelief at the number of premiership players who were popping up in the conference on loan. I vowed, as a joke, to keep an autograph book for those we met in action. This game allowed me to start that promise with my first autograph. Kevin Kilbane. He had a stinker by the way.

Conference Game 9. 15th September 2001.

Stalybridge 1 Chester 2 Kelly 10 / Wright 12 (pen) Spink 50

At last we had a full week between games. However, this was not a good thing as I started thinking about how to tweak our playing style and formation. Thus, for the visit of Barnet, Crookes replaced Williamson in defence, Bushell took up Woods' defensive midfield role, and Parr (who was starting to show unhapiness at his bench warming role) came in. It wasn't, shall we say, a complete success. Bushell and Crookes had nightmares, and Woods couldn't perform when he came on either. Parr did little better, and got himself booked in the process. However, we looked to have grabbed a shock win until giving away another penalty.

Conference Game 10. 22nd September 2001.

Stalybridge 3 Barnet 3 Courtney 5 Stuart 58 Futcher 72 / Gower 13 McNiven 28 Midgley 83 (pen)

I tossed and turned the rest of the weekend away, and finally came to a concious decision that there were enough positives drawn from the tactical switches to try them again in midweek. Mark Stuart didn't think so, and declared himself unfit for the game. He was told in no uncertain terms to put the number 15 shirt on, sit down and shut up. Whether it all worked, or whether Leon Kelly just wanted to put himself a bit more firmly into the market place doesn't really matter. Three points does. As does returning to the top half of the table, just.

Conference Game 11. 25th September 2001.

Telford 1 Stalybridge 2 Fitzpatrick 19 / Kelly 67,90

Leon Kelly's Stalybridge fairwell was a disappointing affair. 1800 turned up, and they'd managed to concoct a banner between them which the lad appreciated, but the game was lost. The new tactics still weren't working as I wanted them to, and we were conceding for fun. Gerard Courtney's run in the side was probably coming to an end as well, as he broke a toe in the first half.

Conference Game 12. 29th September 2001.

Stalybridge 1 Yeovil 2 McNeill 49 / Alford 53 Crittenden 69

Leon Kelly (Stalybridge: 1/8/01 - 31/9/01) Played 12 Goals 6 Assists 3 MoM 1 AvR 7.58

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October started with a cup draw, and we were awarded a tricky away tie at Unibond League Emley in the FA Cup Qualifying round. There was a week to contemplate this, and for me to start negotiations with a whole gaggle of youngsters that Mr Field had identified as worth talking to, before our first league fixture of the month. I also started giving some thought to a replacement loan signing, so Tony Barratt and I paid visits to a couple of local Premiership sides' reserve fixtures. We weren't made overly welcome at either Manchester United or Liverpool, and we couldn't find Everton's training ground. All too soon the free week was over, even my birthday having passed without time for more than a quick beer.

There were murmurs of dissent from the stands as the fans lost patience with my persistent sticking with my tactical changes, and I was beginning to wonder if they were right as we conceded another soft goal. We picked up a potentially disastrous injury, just to make things worse, in the second half as Steve Heaton crumpled in a heap. Batty (did I mention our keeper is an international? OK, so it's only New Zealand. OK, and it means we'll miss him a couple of times in December. Oh ****, there aren't any other keepers at the club!) kept the score down and was the only player to have a decent game. With a makeshift attack of McNeill and Winfield Steele we never really looked like scoring.

Conference Game 13 (unlucky for Steve Heaton). 6th October 2001.

Woking 1 Stalybridge 0 Patmore 45

Our impotence in front of goal focussed somewhat my search for a loan player, and as non of the league clubs were playing ball (answering the phone would have been a start) I turned to look at options closer to our own level. Just in time to be registered for the cup game on Saturday, Steve Darlington arrived from fellow conference club Farnborough. I told concerned fans, who had been expecting a slightly higher profile signing, that this was a strictly short term arrangement, but I wondered if I was really trying to convince myself.

We made the familiar trip to Emley's Welfare Sports Ground as firm favourites for once, a position the Celtic had been unfamiliar with on past visits. However, we travelled without an acknowledged right back - a friend of the chairman had drafted his son along to aid the cause, and the chairman claimed he could actually play. So why, I had to ask, isn't he actually playing for someone? I suspected a "business deal" or a "favour" at work... In other team news, Woods returned to the side, but it was Bushell, not Parr, who dropped to the bench. Darlington started up front.

The game started well, with eventual man of the match McNeill doing the necessary and putting us in front inside 2 minutes. Jubilation was short lived, as Jason Batty signalled to the bench that he couldn't continue. No other keeper at the club (I might have mentioned that before) never mind on the bench meant it was time to draw lots, and it was Steele who pulled on the jersey. I spent the rest of the game worryingly partly about the outcome of the game, but mainly about what we were going to do without Batty in forthcoming games. Somewhat inconsequentially Peacock grabbed a second before half time, and the defence saved Steele the bother of getting his hands dirty by restricting Emley to no shots on target. We were through to the first round, however I didn't join the lads in celebrating, as I had other matters to attend to. The physio said 3 weeks for Batty, which our fixture list said would mean 2 matches missed, or 1 at best. Some sort of relief there at least.

FA Cup Qualifying Round. 13th October 2001.

Emley 0 Stalybridge 2 McNeill 2 Peacock 39

Number 56, Stalybridge Celtic, were drawn against number 17, Reading, in the televised first round draw for the FA Cup. This was where the television people started to take notice, and this was the big chance. Reading were no mugs, though, and it would be a very tough match. Of less interest was a home draw against Margate in the 2nd Round of the FA Trophy.

For some reason, known only to the sadists at FA Headquarters, after cramming midweek games in at every opportunity, we now had only one fixture in the next 25 days. Arriving in the intervening period before the 27th were the first tranche of what I hoped would become the future of the club:

Mark Peters, an 18 year old striker released by Southampton. Strong, fast and agile, the youngster had yet to pick up the killer instinct, but he was bound to get chances in this division. He would need to be introduced slowly into action.

Andrew Cameron, a 20 year old Scottish "traditional" winger released by Swindon. Cameron had the finishing skills I would have preferred to see in Peters, but also had tremendous pace and skill on the ball. Plus he could use either foot, a rarity in this division.

Darren Bastow, aged 20 and with two years experience already playing for Plymouth in the centre of midfield. Creativity is a strong point, but tackling isn't, so given our currently weak defence Bastow might find it rather difficult to see action.

There would be others. In time.

Eventually, it was time to play football again. The break had done us good as we welcomed back Heaton and Perkins for the short trip to the Lancashire resort of Morecambe. Another of the Chairman's acquaintances produced a relative with a pair of goalkeeping gloves, so Gareth Griffin became the latest temporary Stalybridge player. Before kickoff I went out onto the pitch and, in front of the band of travelling supporters, ceremoniously tore up my tactics sheet. Bushell and Woods would be back in the side, and we would play the style of football we started the season with.

If the fans thought this meant getting back to winning ways, they were going to be disappointed. Fast. Alleged keeper Griffin flapped helplessly at a strong shot early doors, but to be fair he had a decent game apart from that. Futcher had a stinker, but Bushell showed he was happy with things, getting the equaliser in first half stoppage time. And that was that, as we slipped to our lowest league position to date.

Conference Game 14. 27th October 2001.

Morecambe 1 Stalybridge 1 Arnold 9 / Bushell 45

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Thus ended October, and with the arrival of November came another new signing:

Straight off the streets of Glasgow came Kevin Aitchison, a 19 year old creative midfielder. He claims to play in the centre, but early impression suggest that his strength lies in crossing the ball, so he might find himself getting used to a new position or two.

Next up in our rapidly unfolding season were 10th place Scarborough. As optimistically predicted, Batty was fit to return and with Courtney claiming fitness as well all of a sudden I had a theoretical strongest eleven to field. As an even bigger bonus, Andrew Cameron's performances in training demanded that he be given a place on the bench. So I was quietly confident at kick off. Rightly so as it turned out as Bushell claimed another goal, a man of the match award and a great deal of praise from me for a cracking captain's performance. Crookes popped up to claim his first goal since signing from rivals Northwich Victoria in the close season. Cameron's half hour of action was an anti-climax by the way.

Conference Game 15. 7th November 2001.

Stalybridge 2 Scarborough 0 Bushell 4 Crookes 40

Despite my initial intentions of nursing my youngsters through training and reserve football for an extended period of time, it was becoming clear that I would be unable to ignore them for long. Cameron continued to astound the coaching staff, despite his poor performance on his debut, and Peters was also making a name for himself. Both would be on the bench for the visit of Boston United. Darlington for Courtney would be the only change. There was little between the teams on paper in terms of league position, and on the pitch there was nothing at all to seperate us, although there might have been were it not for a superb all round defensive performance, led by man of the match Crookes, and a "Roy of the Rovers"-esque winner from substitute Peters, on earlier than expected for an ailing Darlington.

Conference Game 16. 10th November 2001.

Stalybridge 1 Boston Utd 1 Peters 63 / Weatherstone 28

We could now forget about the league for the rest of the month, and prepare for two cup ties, and the chance to earn some cash for the club. Finances weren't bad. We were still in the red, but we weren't losing any more money. It was time to welcome another bright young face to the Fold as well:

At 17, John Willoughby was the youngest of my signings, and the Scottish Outside Left could probably look forward to a long period of training before making much impression on first team activities. He was fast, but he had a lot to learn about ball control. The lad was the hardest worker I had seen in training though.

With the squad now bulked out a little, it was time to think about trimming the wage bill. There were net savings to be made, as all five youngsters had signed low value part time contracts. So a couple of the relatively high earners who had failed to impress were made available. Unbelievably, people were queueing up to sign them, and agreements were quickly reached for Steve Wood to move to Queen of the South for a whole £1k (a bonus as far as I was concerned, as he was one of the "players" who would never have played under me) and James Turley to leave for Universidad de Oviedo for £10k once the international window opened in December.

Steve Wood (Stalybridge: 1/8/01 - 18/11/01) Played 0

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Unexpected news came via a phone call from the Farnborough manager, ex Ireland international Ray Houghton, to say that they had accepted an offer from Southern League side Crawley Town for Steve Darlington. Somewhat shocked, I managed to persuade him to stall them until after the Reading match on Saturday, but it looked like I would be out and about looking for more loan signings a bit sooner than I expected.

The visit of Reading, the biggest in my short career, meant that Darlington would get a better send off than the undeniably different class Leon Kelly got. 6451 fans, 49 short of capacity, packed the ground as cup fever took hold of the otherwise depressed Cheshire town. Futcher dropped to the bench after a couple of less than impressive performances, and Williamson was given the chance to stand tall. And stand tall my boys did. The southern professionals soon showed that they didn't fancy the driving rain and muddy pitch at the Bower Fold and we battered them constantly throughout the first half. You would have struggled to tell which team were the league outfit, and not because of the mud on their shirts! The breakthrough came just before half time, and it was fitting that captain Bushell was the one to head home a sweet cross by McNeill. The single goal was enough as the Royals stuttered their way through another 45 minutes, longing for the final whistle to come. The crowd went wild when the referee finally brought proceedings to an end. The perfomance could be neatly summed up with the award of the man of the match to the Reading keeper.

FA Cup 1st Round. 17th November 2001.

Stalybridge 1 Reading 0 Bushell 41

I let the lads, who had performed well across the board, off the leash a little as we drank the club bar dry along with those faithful fans who had the season tickets which allowed them access. There was a brief pause in the celebrations as on the portable TV in the corner the picture cut to FA headquarters for the Second Round Draw. Number 56, Stalybridge at home again, would play number 72, Barrow AFC. A brief murmur of anti climax before the bar erupted again, realising that this was a big chance to progress to better things in the third round. There was a knock on the door - the Sky man, looking bedraggled in the rain, wanted a quick interview about our giant killing and the next round. What could I say? I praised the lads, of course, but there were other games to worry about before Barrow. And there was a send off to give Steve Darlington that will ensure he remembers Stalybridge for the rest of his career...

Steve Darlington (Stalybridge: 7/10/01 - 19/11/01) Played 4(1) Goals 0 Assists 0 MoM 0 AvR 6.80

And other things, such as this mythical loan player spot I needed to fill. Fortunately, I hadn't signed anyone (not that they were queueing up to sign, you understand) when Batty took me to one side after training one afternoon and reminded me that he was due to ship out to his native New Zealand during December for their vital World Clup playoff matches. Turning my attention to the now urgent goalkeeping situation, I persuaded 34 year old Stuart MacKenzie, ironically another ex Farnborough player, now with Isthmian league Hampton & Richmond, to come up north for a stint between the sticks.

The Trophy was always going to be an anti climax after the Cup, and I think we were all suffering from a slight hangover when Margate arrived. Having gone out of the cup, they wanted the game more, and they beat an unchanged Stalybridge side by a single first half goal against the run of play in front of just 800 albeit drier fans. A disappointing end to the month, and a disappointing end to an otherwise successful loan spell for Ben Futcher, who sat out the game on the subs bench.

FA Trophy Second Round. 24th November 2001.

Stalybridge 0 Margate 1 Graham 30

Ben Futcher (Stalybridge: 1/8/01 - 31/11/01) Played 17 Goals 2 Assists 0 MoM 0 AvR 6.71

Futchers departure left me with another loan spot to fill, and a distinct lack of cover in defence. So I would be ending November doing what was rapidly becoming commonplace - watching meaningless reserve fixtures at cold, wet, miserable stadiums in the hope that I could catch the attention of some probably overpaid, underperforming wannabe professional footballer. It's easy to be a cynic at times like this.

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December started busily, and with 7 games scheduled it looked like it would carry on that way. On the 1st of the month alone I spoke to my keeper after New Zealand's 3-0 defeat against Brazil, and welcomed two more youngsters into the club. Batty sounded depressed, not so much at the loss, but at not being picked. Apparently, two home-based players had been given the shout. The new players, signalling the last of those initially recommended by Mr Field, were:

Phillip Salt, a local lad. At 22 years old, somewhat of a veteran really considering my other recent signings. Released from his professional contract by Oldham he was surprisingly anxious to sign part-time terms, but I wasn't complaining. The lad looked good in training, but he'd not be pulling up any trees this season, unless injuries and suspensions struck hard.

And finally, Mike Lewis a 19 year old Welsh right back. Again, signed mainly as cover and one who should definitely not be troubling the statisticians this season.

And all that before we welcomed Stevenage to the Bower Fold on the afternoon of the 1st! Stu Mackenzie made his debut, whilst a training injury ruled out Stuart with Steele taking his place. Peacock walked away with the man of the match award, mainly for popping a perfect ball onto Gerard Courtney's right boot just after half time. Unfortunately, the defence fell asleep in the last minute and conceded a headed goal to the unlikelily named DJ Campbell. You can understand why the guy picked such an unusual monicker when you find out his real name is Dudley Junior. Oh dear. Still, not a bad result against the 2nd place team.

Conference Game 17. 1st December 2001.

Stalybridge 1 Stevenage 1 Courtney 48 / "DJ" Campbell 90

Wonders never cease. Not only was I welcomed into Oakwell for a Barnsley reserve game, but I was even allowed to approach Keith Brown with a view to a loan move. The £70k rated Scottish defender almost snapped my hands off, having played only once for the Yorkshire outfit in the last two seasons. Brown looked equally at home at left back and on the left side of the central defence. He would go straight into the side to face Barrow.

Also into the side came Phillip Salt for his full debut in the place of captain Bushell, and he soon snagged his first goal for the club after just two minutes. This was going to be too easy. But all of a sudden the visitors moved up a gear, and on the quarter hour mark they had equalised. For the rest of the first half, and the first 15 minutes of the second our on-loan stopper earned his meagre corn as the lower league side had the best of the play. It was clear that Woods was not happy out there, and so I had to bring him off, but the bench was full of youngsters and now was not the time to be blooding a new player. However, Darren Bastow stood up well, even though he wasn't involved in the winning goal - another piece of solo brilliance from Peacock. Mackenzie deservedly won the man of the match award.

FA Cup 2nd Round. 8th December 2001.

Stalybridge 2 Barrow AFC 1 Salt 2 Peacock 87 / Duerden 14

The Sky cameras joined us in the bar for the 3rd round draw, presumably to gauge our reaction, although there were 7 other non league sides still in the competition. Maybe their managers were getting the same treatment! Everyone wanted a big club, but there were only so many to go round. We weren't going to get Manchester United, as the poxy red devils came out of the hat early with a home tie. Boston United would be celebrating, with a home tie against Liverpool, whilst Nuneaton would visit the other Merseyside premiership club. Halesowen would have a money spinning tie against neighbours Birmingham. It was becoming a big round for conference teams, as Morecambe pulled out an away draw at Charlton. Hereford vs Millwall marked the halfway point in the draw, and I realised I had been holding my breath the whole time. Taking a deep breath I took in the complete silence in the bar. You could, quite literally, hear a pin drop.

I filtered back into the tv just as Burscough were drawn away at Notts Forest and Chester drew Southampton at home. Only six clubs left now, and three of them were premiership sides. Four left, and two big boys. Then, it came.

"Number 47."

"That's Stalybridge Celtic, Gary."

"Will play number 11"

"That's Leeds United. Stalybridge will play Leeds."

There was a moment of silence. Then.





Fans were hugging each other and standing on the tables. Chants of "we all hate Leeds" rang out around the bar. The players sat in awe of what they had just heard. They would be mixing it with one of the best teams in the North of England. I was just glad to see my team and my supporters enjoying themselves. Deep down I knew that there were a lot of games between now and the first week of January.

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<BLOCKQUOTE class="ip-ubbcode-quote"><font size="-1">quote:</font><HR>Originally posted by Gricehead:

_"Number 47."

"That's Stalybridge Celtic, Gary."

"Will play number 11"

"That's Leeds United. Stalybridge will play Leeds."_

There was a moment of silence. Then.






I remember that bit from last time icon_biggrin.gif

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<BLOCKQUOTE class="ip-ubbcode-quote"><font size="-1">quote:</font><HR>Originally posted by Raptor:

Do you take bets on upcoming fixtures? I have a gut feeling SCFC will do fairly well pretty soon icon_cool.gif <HR></BLOCKQUOTE>

this is the only way your bets will pay off :p

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<BLOCKQUOTE class="ip-ubbcode-quote"><font size="-1">quote:</font><HR>Originally posted by Raptor:

Do you take bets on upcoming fixtures? I have a gut feeling SCFC will do fairly well pretty soon icon_cool.gif <HR></BLOCKQUOTE>


Wouldn't bet on them quite just yet icon_wink.gif

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After an evening like that, I had to let the lads cut loose a little. Of course, we had a league match to contend with on the Wednesday, and it was a long trip to Farnborough. Peacock was the only one not to recover sufficiently, but Stuart was fit again so it was on the right wing that Cameron got his full debut. It was one of those games you had to keep your eye on all the time. Three goals in three first half minutes put us 2-1 up, with the third marking Stuart's 100th League goal of his career. A goal each in the second half and we snuck away with the three points. Barratt pointed out to me that we were now unbeaten in 5 Conference games. With all the cup activity I hadn't noticed, but the league table didn't lie and we were up to 8th.

Conference Game 18. 12th December 2001.

Farnborough 2 Stalybridge 3 Riddell 25 Rose 60 / McNeill 24 Stuart 27 Woods 75

Batty arrived back from Brazil, where his country had lost the second leg 1-0 without his assistance, and immediately announced that he wanted to move to a bigger club to resurrect his international career. I told him that if someone came in with the right offer, something approaching £100k, he could go, but that he had to understand that he was a valuable asset. He wasn't happy, but he didn't want to complain too loudly, especially when he learned about our forthcoming cup showdown.

And out of the revolving door went James Turley, as the International Transfer window opened.

James Turley (Stalybridge 01/08/01 - 15/12/01) Played 7 Goals 0 Assists 0 MoM 0 AvR 6.29

As the days rolled relentlessly by towards Christmas, an out of form Nuneaton Borough came to town. Cameron stayed in the side, but swapped wings with Stuart resting and Peacock returning. Goals early in each half meant we could relax and rest weary legs, and even though the visitors got one back they were never going to equalise, especially with only ten men.

Conference Game 19. 15th December 2001.

Stalybridge 2 Nuneaton 1 Bushell 3 McNeil 58 / Hamon 64 (Peake sent off, 47)

A trip to rock-bottom Leigh RMI should have been an easy three points, but as is so often the case in these games we got a little lazy. Three times we held the lead, and three times the relegation favourites equalised. I was livid with the defence, who had fairly average games all round, but I also knew that we had had the chances to put the game beyond reach, and some poor finishing had let us down. Shooting practice all round I think.

Conference Game 20. 22nd December 2001.

Leigh RMI 3 Stalybridge 3 Hallows 38 Coote 54,90 / Courtney 23,49 Peters 83

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On Christmas Eve, as I was clearing up papers before heading off to catch the last of the late night shopping, the Chairman stopped by at my office. He congratulated me on my work so far, and we chatted about the big cup game at some length. He commented that he was pleased to see the clubs accounts heading in the right direction. Almost casually he added that he had decided to put in some money to aid the day to day running of the club. He tossed a bank statement on the desk, wished me a Merry Christmas, and walked out.

Abandoning all ideas of getting the Christmas shopping done, I opened the statement and reached for a pencil and paper. A few quick scribblings showed that I had probably £90k of transfer kitty, with a little more (if I played cards right) for signing on fees. I rang up Mr Field, told him that yes I did know what day it was, and asked him if he wouldn't mind getting out and about after Christmas to find me some players who's contracts were almost up. I'd keep the £90k secret for now.

Christmas Day came and went, and a tired bunch of players assembled at 6am on Boxing Day for the long haul down to Dover. Stuart was absent with turkey-related injuries, and Peters got a start because Courtney seemed to have put on about 10 pounds! It was another game we could have won, but our defence just wasn't sharp enough and, very much in the Christmas spirit, we gifted two goals to Dover who not surprisingly seemed more "with it" having not had an 8 hour coach journey to endure. Cameron celebrated his first goal for the club though.

Conference Game 21. 26th December 2001.

Dover 2 Stalybridge 2 Strouts 30 Carr 38 / Cameron 14 McNeil 67

As December, and the year, drew to a close, excitement around the Bower Fold was building. Tickets were on sale, and by and large sold, for the Leeds game and the team were playing well. Eight league games unbeaten cannot be sniffed at. The final action of the year would be against 3rd place Doncaster. Batty returned to action, having cheered up somewhat since his earlier whinge session, and Steele came in for Cameron, with Peacock still sidelined. Five goals in the first half kept the attention of the fans, whilst a yawn fest of a second half probably sent them all to sleep. Still, the result was right and Courtney celebrated a man of the match award for his efforts.

Conference Game 22. 29th December 2001.

Stalybridge 3 Doncaster 2 McNeil 9 Courtney 23,33 / Tierney 12 Miller 30

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Welcome to 2002. Welcome, that is, to another 400 mile round trip, this time to league leaders Dagenham & Redbridge. Despite poor performances from Perkins, Peters, Cameron and Peacock, we completed a 1-0 smash and grab raid, with a goal in injury time from substitute Steele. Was this just the boost we need in time for Saturday?

Conference Game 23. 2nd January 2002.

Dag & Red 0 Stalybridge 1 Steele 90

It was no good, the excitement was getting to me. Even I couldn't sleep, so goodness knows how the players were feeling. Especially those who had to hold down day jobs whilst living for the dream of playing against Premiership opposition. Giving up on sleep for the night, I pored over my drafted teamsheet for the big game. How was I going to make a decision to ruin some lads dream, telling him that he would not even make the bench? Casting the paper aside I picked up a sheaf of scouting reports, the latest batch from Mr Field. A quick scan through, and a few jotted notes later, and I felt a lot better. I wrote a note for the club secretary, detailing which clubs to make approaches to, and returned to bed. Just as it was getting light.

The big day arrived. In the end I took the easy option team-wise, naming an unchanged side from the last league game. That way, no-one could really feel hard done by. The Leeds teamsheet indicated that they were doing us the unspoken honour of naming a strong team. Household names such as Martyn, Mills, Woodgate, Ferdinand, Keane, Dacourt, Fowler and Kewell figured in the starting eleven. 6474 fans crammed into the tiny Bower Fold stands. Presumably the other 26 fans who had tickets either got lost or broke down on the way over the pennines. Soon enough, three o'clock arrived and referee Mike Tingey blew his whistle to commence possibly the biggest game in Stalybridge Celtic's history.

The dream lasted 15 minutes. That was the time it took Bridges to get onto the end of a Bakke cross to put the favourites 1-0 up. We had no answer, although we appeared to be doing well to restrict any further chances. Until stoppage time that is, when Bakke pounced on a deflected freekick to double the advantage.

A dejected bunch of players trudged into the dressing room. I knew how they felt, yet it was up to me to try and motivate them. I concetrated on the basics, told them to mix it a little and not be intimidated, however it was all in vain when 6 minutes into the second half Bridges scored his second to put the result completely beyond doubt.

FA Cup 3rd Round. 5th January 2002

Stalybridge 0 Leeds 3 Bridges 15,51 Bakke 45

The players were depressed. The fans were depressed. I was depressed. Even the chairman looked depressed. How could I lift the club after this? We had a 10 match unbeaten league run to maintain! The answer came to me on Monday night at a reserve game where my assistant and I were scouting for players to take on loan when Mackenzie's spell was up. Having already been refused the rights to talk to the player we were there to see, we were about to leave when my eyes were drawn to the subs bench, where one very unhappy player sat in the knowledge that he was never going to get on the pitch. 12 hours later, for a club record £60k, and albeit on a relatively short term contract, Leo Fortune-West was a Stalybridge player.

This was one big gamble.

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There would be non-league representation in the fourth round, but it would not necessarily come from the Conference, as the giant-killing act of the round was produced by Unibond League minnows Burscough, beating Nottingham Forest 1-0 at the City Ground. Southern League Halesowen would have a second bite of the cherry against Birmingham, continuing a run which had seen them go to a replay in each of the previous three rounds, whilst Hereford and Chester both earned themselves replays. Burscough would travel to Stockport in the fourth round.

21st place Forest Green had the misfortune of being the first team to see Fortune-West in a Stalybridge shirt. Loanee Brown took up a new position in central defence, at the expense of Crookes, whilst Cameron and Peacock formed their midfield partnership again. Our record signing had to wait a whole 45 minutes before opening his account, by which time we were already 2-1 up. McNeil reached ten for the season in the second. The new man took the man of the match award, hopefully the first of many, and I started to feel a little better about my gamble.

Conference Game 24. 9th January 2002.

Forest Green 2 Stalybridge 4 Heggs 38 Daley 89 / Bushell 13,27 Fortune-West 45 McNeil 66

If the Hereford scouts had been doing their jobs, their management team must have been just a little worried about the trip to Bower Fold. Rightly so. With Stuart and Parr in for Cameron and Bushell, it was the quickly gelling partnership of Courtney and Fortune-West who destroyed the visitors.. Courtney took the Man of the Match award, although it must have been at the toss of a coin.

Conference Game 25. 12th January 2002.

Stalybridge 4 Hereford 1 Courtney 15,64 Fortune-West 43(pen),65 / Robinson 90(pen)

We lost Peacock with a badly strained groin during training as we endured another 11 day gameless stretch. The physio's report didn't make good reading, with the influential midfielder not due back in training until the end of February. A lot of pressure was going to be put on young Cameron's shoulders then, starting with the visit to 17th placed Hayes. News travels fast in this division, and Hayes' defence had turned up in numbers to mark Fortune-West out of the game. This defensive attitude led to a very boring first half, in which the few chances each side created were repelled by two in form keepers. The second half saw us concede a soft goal, and there didn't look to be a way back into the game. However, with the opposition defence concentrating so hard on one man, I was able to sneak on an attacking substitute almost unnoticed, and Matt McNeil snatched an equaliser with 3 minutes to go. Fortune-West still got the man of the match award, presumably for managing to get two shots on goal despite the attention been shown.

Conference Game 26. 23rd January 2002.

Hayes 1 Stalybridge 1 Spencer 66 / McNeil 86

FA Cup Third Round replays ensured that no other Non-Leaguers would progress, but full credit to Southern League Halesown for taking Birmingham all the way to penalties, especially playing the whole of the second half and extra time with only 10 men.

Three days later and we faced 4th placed Southport at home. Steele started for the knackered Cameron, and again all the goals came in the second half. The introductions of Cameron and McNeil making the differece. With 15 minutes to go, the score was 1-1, but a manic last 10 minutes made it 3-3, with my lads having to fight back and equalise twice in quick succession. Although not strictly one for my Premiership autograph book, the presence of West Bromwich Albion's Russell Hoult in the Southport goal bares mentioning...

Conference Game 27. 26th January 2002.

Stalybridge 3 Southport 3 McNeil 59,82 Fortune-West 84 / Elam 74 Collins 80 Whitehall 83

As the month drew to the end, so did Stu Mackenzie's loan spell, and he returned south with, in my opinion, a solid set of performances under his belt. The fact that hs isn't getting a game at that level is somewhat criminal.

Stuart Mackenzie (Stalybridge 22/11/01 - 31/01/02) Played 6 Conceded 10 Assists 0 MoM 1 AvR 7.33

Non league interest in the FA Cup ended, as Burscough found themselves steam-rollered at Edgeley Park, 4-0.

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Another training injury ruled Cameron out of the short trip to Chester. So we were unchanged. It was a good job I'd brought my autograph book this time, though, as lining up for the opposition were Middlesborough's Phil Stamp and Sunderland's Michael Reddy. We weren't in the mood to let that distract us, as we steam rollered our near neighbours with two second half goals, and Leo walked away with another man of the match award after scoring his 5th goal of the season and setting up the second. The result lifted us back to 6th, the highest we had been all season.

Conference Game 28. 2nd February 2002.

Chester 0 Stalybridge 2 Fortune-West 60 Bushell 79

News filtered through that Leo Fortune-West had been awarded the Conference Player of the Month award for January, a first for a Stalybridge player. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, I invited the walking-on-air striker into my office to begin negotiations on a new longer-term contract. Much to my surprise, he agreed almost immediately. Much more to my surprise was that I didn't have to completely destroy the wage structure to do it. OK, so it wiped out the savings I had made by selling Woods and Turley, but it kept the weekly bill down to a respectable £7250.

Keeping conference affairs in Cheshire, we played host to Northwich Victoria, and there was more thrilling football on offer. Fit again Cameron returned to give Stuart a break, and Matt McNeil replaced Courtney in the second fiddle role. Just for a change Leo snaffled the Man of the match award, and took his goal tally to 7, single handedly bringing us back from 2-1 down.

Conference Game 29. 13th February 2002.

Stalybridge 3 Northwich 2 McNeil 15 Fortune-West 28,57 / Walsh 17 Meaker 21

A phone call the day after the match from Barnsley boss David Platt told me what I didn't want to know. Hayes had been that impressed by the performance of Keith Brown that they wanted him, and they were willing to pay the full £75k for the privilige. Brown, surprisingly, accepted a permanent move to the Conference, even though this meant a significant wage cut, and so he left us without even as much as a fairwell match.

Keith Brown (Stalybridge 1/12/01 - 16/02/02) Played 14 Goals 0 Assists 1 MoM 0 AvR 6.93

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All of a sudden I had no loan players again, and not only that but I was getting extremely negative responses from my enquiries. Still, I couldn't let this bother me too much. I had a game against our Trophy foes Margate to deal with. Williamson earnt a recall to the defence, where we now had a serious lack of cover. Things were looking good, with another Fortune-West goal, but it all went pear shaped in the last five minutes when the visitors suddenly started to play and sneaked an undeserved equaliser. Although the result extended our unbeaten sequence to a frankly quite amazing 17 games, we missed the chance to go 4th.

Conference Game 30. 16th February 2002.

Stalybridge 1 Margate 1 Fortune-West 59 / Adedeji 86

However, all good things come to an end, and even with Peacock and Stuart both fit to play, goals from Fortune-West (there's a surprise) and Cameron in the first half were insufficient to keep 9th place Barnet at bay. Two goals from Loanee Paul Brayson in nine second half minutes not only ended our undefeated run, but also knocked us straight back down to 8th place.

Conference Game 31. 23rd February 2002.

Barnet 3 Stalybridge 2 Bell 4 Brayson 69,78 / Cameron 23 Fortune-West 45

Still, 8th place in the league going into March was more than the chairman could have realistically expected, I suppose. Although personally I was disappointed. We had been steadily mounting a challenge on the leaders of the league, and now we sat a whole 10 points adrift with eleven games to play. Mathematically, there was still that chance to creep up on the rails, but it was looking unlikely. We had drawn too many games - 11 out of the 31 played. Even when we were playing well, we had conceded silly equalisers. Still, I had to snap out of this depression. It was only one loss, and it was time to bounce back.

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My mood was lifted slightly with the news that Leo had scooped his second player of the month award. The ability to select an unchanged side for the visit of 13th place Telford helped as well.

The Stalybridge forward line heeded my advice, and gave Telford keeper Sam Turner hell in the first half, snatching a goal each, the 15th of the season for McNeil and the 10th of the season for Fortune-West. Cameron joined in as we generally steam rollered the visitors. That, however, was only the start. Fortune West grabbed his second 5 minutes into the second half, and Woods made it four, before Leo completed his first Stalybridge hat-trick. Two minutes later he had a fourth. Unbelievably, in the final minute, Leo was barged down in the area. Guess who converted the penalty. A clue - the same player got the man of the match award.

Conference Game 32. 2nd March 2002.

Stalybridge 7 (Seven) Telford 1 McNeil 14 Fortune-West 29,51,74,76,90(pen) Woods 63 / Martindale 82

In the grand scale of things, the result did nothing other than improve our goal difference. We remained in 8th place. Boy had we bounced back though. That was most definitely the striking sorted out, now I just had to find some cover for my defenders. A situation which got worse rather than better, as Perkins picked up a training injury, albeit a short term one.

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At last, a saviour was found, in 34 year old Colchester Centre back Simon Clark, an experienced head with some 240+ league games under his belt. He would be on the bench for the trip to Yeovil, and coach Pointon would have to find his playing boots again in Perkins' absence. Fortune-West started the game as he left the last one, with a goal inside five minutes, but this tie was a much more difficult proposition. Yeovil were level before half time, and it was the man at the other end of the pitch, Jason Batty, who earned his man of the match award by keeping the score that way throughout the second half.

Conference Game 33. 9th March 2002.

Yeovil 1 Stalybridge 1 Davies 39 / Fortune-West 4

A poor performance by Woods against Yeovil, and a match just three days later, made me think about changing the midfield again. Time to try Bushell in the holding role again, and Parr in Bushell's place. Woods wood be on the bench just in case it all went horribly wrong. Simon Clark would get a debut at the expense of Williamson, marginally the lesser of my central pairing. The visitors Woking were struggling just outside the relegation zone, so they would be battling for every point they could get. The plan was to hit them hard and early.

The plan went wrong. Off all people to let me down, one of my coaching staff, Pointon, got himself sent off as early as the 3rd minute, so McNeil had to be sacrificed for Williamson, who would have to get used to playing out of position. Woking were intent on hitting us hard as well, although they were concentrating on Fortune-West, and it was from one of a series of freekicks for this offence that Crookes popped up in the box to open the scoring. The referee gained some credit for himself as he evened up the score by sending off Woking's left back to make up for his horrendous dismissal of Pointon. It wouldn't stop me complaining at his performance though. An injury to Peacock was not the best way to end the first half.

The second half was much quieter, Fortune-West making the keeper work with a couple of well taken headers, but the score remained the same, and Batty took his second man of the match award running, although debutant Clark probably deserves a mention as well.

Conference Game 34. 12th March 2002.

Stalybridge 1 Woking 0 Crookes 28 (Stalybridge's Niel Pointon Sent off, 28. Woking's Steven Clark Sent off, 42)

No change in the table, as only the leaders out of the top 7 failed to pick up points. As I filled in the paperwork for Pointon's red card appeal, the physio came in to my office to tell me Peacock's twisted knee would probably keep him out for the rest of the month, but at least Perkins would be back for the weekend.

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In Saturday morning's big game, 3rd Place Doncaster hammered 1st Place Stevenage 5-1 at Broadhall Way, opening up the top of the table a little. We had a trip to the Yorkshire coast to play Scarborough, and a couple of changes were necessary. Perkins would replace Pointon whilst Stuart would come in for the injured Peacock.

I can't actually bing myself to talk about the game, even now. Suffice it to say that there will be some big changes before the next game as not one player played to the standard I expect.

Conference Game 35. 16th March 2002.

Scarborough 4 Stalybridge 0 Dickson 19 Windross 50 Pattison 78 Blunt 84(pen) (Stalybridge's Matt Williamson Sent off, 83)

Matt Williamson earned himself an official warning for his cynical challenge, sending off and subsequent 3 match ban.

Those changes for the visit of Morecambe saw Bushell and Woods restored, Steele replacing Stuart and Peters appearing on the bench again. Disappointingly, we threw away more home points. Morecambe got the early goal, and even with them down to 10 men it took us until 67th minute for Bushell to equalise with his 10th of the season. Fortune-West couldn't hit a cows arse with a banjo, although he did set up the goal. Peters came on in search of the winner, but it didn't come and Perkins picked up another injury in stoppage time.

Conference Game 36. 23rd March 2002.

Stalybridge 1 Morecambe 1 Bushell 67 / Quayle 8 (Morecambe's David Hall Sent off, 23)

Other results meant that Leigh RMI became the first club to be relegated from the conference. Perkins, like Peacock, was suffering from a twisted knee, which would keep him out for two weeks.

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Totally out of the blue, 11 new players turned up for training on Monday morning. After asking a few questions, and making a few deductions, it became apparent that they had all graduated from the club's youth system. All at the same time. It must have been a good year for breeding football genes in Cheshire! Of course, whether they turn out to be any good remains to be seen. To be totally fair, all eleven were offered contracts, although some negotiation was necessary to accomodate them within our wage structure.

This unexpected period of administrative work distracted me from the small matter of an away trip to 4th place Boston United. The autograph book was required again to capture the signature of Leicester's Lee Marshall, but the real problem was who to play in defence. Perkins was injured, and Pointon and Williamson were both suspended, meaning a recall to left back for the almost forgotten and transfer listed Andrew Scott. With no defenders left to put on the bench, young keeper Peter Brown, one of our youth system products, occupied the seat.

Fortune-West continued with his goal drought, but he did manage to set up Cameron for an all too rare goal from the winger. From then on it was always going to be a case of hanging on, which we did, for almost three quarters of an hour, but Boston were stronger and they got their equaliser almost out of nowhere. Batty won man of the match, which gives another indicator of which way the pressure was being applied

Confernce Game 37. 30th March 2002.

Boston Utd 1 Stalybridge 1 Laurie 60 / Cameron 16

To end the month, Forest Green are the second side to bow out of the Conference. At least we're not in their position.

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The Conference Awards kick off April, and Jason Batty is honoured with a place in the Select XI, whilst good news comes in the form of a clean bill of health for Perkins and Peacock. So it was full strength for Farnborough's visit, but it still set out looking like the same old story. Big Leo missed a couple of chances before getting on the end of a poor goalkeeping clearance. All of us on the bench held our breaths whilst he controlled the ball and struck it, and then breathed a sigh of relief as he scored for the first game in five. More hanging on ensued, and as expected, an equaliser came in the second half. But the difference this time was self belief, presumably from Leo's return to form. Cameron scored an excellent solo goal to retake the lead, which went a long way to earning him his first man of the match award, and just as I was preparing to substitute him, McNeil slotted a third home. Credit to Matt Woods, too, who controlled the midfield for large parts of the game.

Conference Game 38. 6th April 2002.

Stalybridge 3 Farnborough 1 Fortune-West 27 Cameron 56 McNeil 62 / De Souza 54

Doncaster's win against challengers Dagenham & Redbridge means that not only are they 6 points clear at the top of the league, but also we cannot mathematically finish any higher than 2nd. Preparations start here for another season of Conference football!

The Easter weekend means another game on Monday, and it's a tough one, away at Stevenage. As usual, Cameron can't manage two games in such a short period of time, so Stuart comes in. The defence are struggling for fitness as well, but I don't really have any options there. It didn't matter really, as this was to be the Steve Bushell show. Numbers eleven and twelve of the season for the club captain, supported by Matt Woods who kept things tight behind him again. Man of the match to Bushell.

Conference Game 39. 8th April 2002.

Stevenage 0 Stalybridge 2 Bushell 57,70

A training injury to Crookes demonstrated our continued weakness in that department, whilst a 1-0 win for Doncaster, live on Sky, on Saturday morning sealed a return to League football for the South Yorkshire side. Demoralised second placed Dagenham & Redbridge visited the Bower Fold, and probably found out about their fate on the way up north. Cameron's return marked the only change. Could we make it two out of two against teams above us?

It started well. We had the earliest chance and the opening goal, both falling to Leo, but with 15 minutes of concerted Dagenham pressure inbetween. And rather than crumbling, we built on the lead, with two excellent second half goals, including a first for Simon Clark. Excellent performances right across the park, by Perkins, Clark, Cameron and Bushell, but Leo took the Man of the match award, again.

Conference Game 40. 13th April 2002.

Stalybridge 3 Dagenham & Redbridge 1 Fortune-West 25 Clark 62 Bushell 84 / Hill 90

The win took us up to 6th, at least temporarily, whilst Halifax would be rejoining the ranks of the Conference.

Carrying on our defensive problems, Steve Heaton picked up a training injury. He would miss what remained of the season, although we may get Crookes back for the last two games, especially as our penultimate game is postponed 4 days due to Nuneaton's progression in the Trophy. With the other games completed, a win against Nuneaton would see us move up to 5th.

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Of course that meant beating Nuneaton, and we didn't really get anywhere near that. In fact we were stuffed again. Despite good play from Bushell and the two wingers, we couldn't convert any of our chances. At the other end, our defence looked tired.

Conference Game 41. 1st May 2002.

Nuneaton Borough 3 Stalybridge 0 Ryan 45 Walker 56 McGregor 74

So there was not much left to play for when relegated Leigh came to Stalybridge. With nothing to lose, I made a few changes. In came Scott, Crookes, Murphy, Courtney and Parr. Parr it was who had the ball in the net in the first half, but the goal was ruled out for offside. But in the second half, Woods stepped up and fired a sweet freekick past David Felgate. Courtney added a second, set up by Fortune-West who claimed the man of the match award again. That guy is so popular, it's not like he really did anything else!

Conference Game 42. 4th May 2002.

Stalybridge 2 Leigh RMI 0 Woods 52 Courtney 65

Finishing with a win is always good, and this handed us 7th place. The Chairman was pleased, especially with the £80k prize money. Hereford, the former league club, were relegated from the conference.

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<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">STALYBRIDGE CELTIC 2001/2002 Player Stats

Club Goalscorers:


1. 17. Leo Fortune-West (10th in Conference)

2. 16. Matthew McNeil (18th in Conference)

3. 13. Steve Bushell (31st in Conference)

4. 11. Gerard Courtney

5= 4. Andrew Cameron

5= 4. Matt Woods

Club Assists:


1. 11. Richard Peacock (18th in Conference)

2. 8. Steve Bushell (29th in Conference)

3. 7. Winfield Steele (51st in Conference)

4. 6. Matthew McNeil

5= 5. Andrew Cameron

5= 5. Leo Fortune-West

Club Average Ratings:


1. 8.26. Leo Fortune-West

2= 7.19. Steve Bushell

2= 7.19. Matthew McNeil

4. 7.17. Jason Batty

5. 7.07. Gerard Courtney</pre>

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  • 4 weeks later...

Personal notes on Close Season happenings:

1st June

Andrew Scott left the club when his contract expired.

Andrew Scott (Stalybridge 1/8/01 - 1/6/02) Played 8 Goals 0 Assists 0 Man of the Match 0 AvR 5.88

4th June

My first Bosman arrives - Centre back Rob Cousins from relegated Forest Green. Hardly a major coup.

7th June

Simon Clark returns to Colchester after putting in a series of good performances for us.

Simon Clark (Stalybridge 9/3/02 - 7/6/02) Played 9 Goals 1 Assists 0 Man of the Match 0 AvR 7.00

19th June

The supporters club voted Matt McNeil the player of the season. Batty and Perkins both have release clauses (that I was unaware of) activated in their contracts, because we didn't get promoted! Which fool agreed to that?

24th June

A second Bosman arrives, 24 year old Dutch striker Sergio Ommel from Bristol Rovers.

27th June

Kenny Munro arrives on a Bosman from East Fife,

30th June

Gary Hart arrives from Brighton on a Bosman.

1st July

Wayne Allison arrives from Tranmere, Matt Hocking from York and Lee Collins, also from York

Mark Stuart retires from the playing staff.

Mark Stuart (Stalybridge 1/8/01 - 1/7/02) Played 27 Goals 2 Assists 3 Man of the Match 0 AvR 6.70

6th July

Friendly vs Halifax.

Munro, Hocking, Cousins, Hart, Collins and Allison make their debuts. Fortune West scores two in the first 20 minutes, but Halifax get one back in the second half. Hocking and Allison are most impressive of the new players.

7th July

My two coaches hang up their boots.

11th July

Friendly at Hampden Park vs Queen's Park

Big changes as fringe players and youngsters come in. Not an awful lot to learn from this game, although youngsters Clemence and Brown were promising, whilst Mark Peters picked up an injury. 0-0 the final score.

12th July

Dean Harris, a promising left winger spotted by Spencer Field, joins the club.

20th July

Friendly at Rock Stadium, Dumbarton

More or less what I consider my strongest team out again, but we went down early to a surprisingly strong team. I stuck with my first choices for more than half an hour, but eventually I had to bite the bullet and make changes. Still no luck until tactics were switched to 4-3-3 mid second half. Two goals came, for Ommel and Williamson, both substitutes. Impressive were Hocking, Allison, Williamson, Woods, Ommel and Heaton.

21st July

Doncaster invite us for a frinedly on the 28th. Having no better plans, and knowing that we must be at their standard to achieve this seasons unspoken aim, I accept. In the mean time, my youth facilities are going mad, throwing out another two players.

28th July

Friendly at Belle Vue, Doncaster

A hard, fast paced match, which is probably what we needed at this stage, but it cost us two injuries. Only time will tell how badly that will affect the start of our season, as Peacock and Collins get crocked. We lost the game 2-1, and the formation I played with last season seems to have been sussed. A switch to 4-3-3 again seemed to work better though.

Collins will miss 3 weeks, and Peacock 2.

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So here we were again. a home friendly against Accrington, and with a team unbelievably different from the one who won 5-0 last season. Only 5 of the first eleven remained, and some big money players (by conference standards) had replaced them. However, that does not mean that things went well. In the death knell of my favoured formation, the once great minnows took the lead and held out for the whole first half. A Switch to 4-3-3 at half time, and goals from the big boys, Fortune West and Allison, sorted things out.

Right, 4-3-3 it is then. Lets get going!

Friendly. 3rd August 2002.

Stalybridge 2 Accrington 1 Allison 66 Fortune-West 85 / Tolson 21

So the big day approaches, and Dagenham & Redbridge, a strong side who nevertheless caused us no problems last season. Yet with the big guns from League football, Fortune-West Allison and Ommel, up front, we couldn't hit the back of the net. Fortunately, neither could they. And we did outplay them. Crookes took the man of the match, but my personal vote would have gone to the opposition keeper.

Conference Game 1. 17th August 2002.

Stalybridge 0 Dagenham & Redbridge 0

Fitness problems (already) mean Salt, Courtney and Collins come in for Cameron, Ommel and Bushell as we take the short trans-pennine trip to Halifax. The Conferences newest entrants from above are also amongst the favourites to go back up. They also have Steve Kerrigan, a potent striker in the third division, and expected to be highly placed in the conference scorers list this year. So it's up to my own potent scorers, Fortune-West and Allison, to show him the way.

With such attacking prowess on display, maybe 4-3-3 was a mistake away from home, a lesson I can probably learn for the next match. With all those heavyweight strikers on display, who should pop up to open the scoring? Gerard Courntey, a player with only one full season behind him. Halifax were stung by the opener, and it took them 15 or 20 minutes to react, but for the last 10 minutes of the first half they applied immense pressure, and an equaliser was inevitable. The source, Kerrigan, was no surprise either. Scoring just before half time is always a bonus, so it was really no surprise that Halifax added to their lead soon after the break through Kerrigan again. With our midfield getting overrun, I was forced to switch things, and Courtney was sacrificed in favour of Woods and a more solid midfield outlook. The trick worked, as an equaliser soon came with ex Brighton forward Hart opening his account, but it was only temporary as Halifax got a winner before shutting up shop for the last 20 minutes.

Conference Game 2. 20th August 2002.

Halifax 3 Stalybridge 2 Kerrigan 45,50 Harsley 71 / Courtney 11 Hart 62

Shooting was a problem. We created more chances than Halifax but only 50% were on target, whilst they hit over 95% on target ratio. We sit in 17th with only a point to our name, playing catch up already.

Another youth player joins the setup, and it's really getting quite crowded out there on the training pitch. I am going to have to have a cull at some point soon, as the wage bill is now nearly £12k per week.

Still trying to sort out some sort of consistency, Munro and Perkins switch flanks, whilst Peacock, Cameron and Ommel all return. But it doesn't work, and with Dover getting an early goal we're floundering. I must admit to feeling a little panicked, as there is obviously so much expectation in the crowd. I switch us to our old formation, but that doesn't change things before half time, so at the break I switch things in a bigger way. Frantically rushing round the dressing room, I try to sort out a sort of 4-4-2, with the emphasis on the wingers getting forward and crossing the ball. Allison is sacrificed for the extra midfielder, Bushell and yellow carded disappointment Peacock is swapped for Hart. The best I can say is that at least we didn't concede any more. We put enough crosses in the box, but Dover keeper Trevor Wood was having a brilliant game and claimed man of the match

Conference Game 3. 24th August 2002.

Stalybridge 0 Dover 1 Thew 9


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Glenavon and Mansfield are competing for the services of Leigh Bradley, one of the youth system products who my staff don't reckon will make the grade. I try to persuade the lad to go to Glenavon, as he's less likely to come back to haunt me that way!

I gather the players before our midweek trip to Morecambe, who are struggling as much as us at this early stage, to discuss our start to the season. Surprisingly, many of them claim that they are lacking in match practice, a fact I find hard to believe given our pre-season. At least it gives me hope that there is a reason for our current dismal performance, and that therefore there is a chance of improvement. It must come soon though. We discuss formations, and it's clear they prefer the old formation, so it's back to that. I do try a little tweak though, with Hart (who I hold out much hope for to be one of the best players of the season) moving into the middle. This leaves no room for Bushell at the moment, but I suspect the club captain will get his chance.

Morecambe have obviously been spying on our lack of fitness, and try to run us off the park early on, but it's our turn to get the lucky break, as the referee awards a penalty for barging on big Leo. The man himself thankfully steps up and converts for his first of the season. Our luck doesn't even hold to half time, as a freekick for a foul by Collins allows Morecambe to equalise. Heads are down in the changing room. What do we have to do to buy a bit of luck? I try my best to inspire the lads, but it's difficult at best. The game degenerates into a midfield battle in the second period, and irony of ironies, it's a freekick that lets Leo's head put us back in front.

Conference Game 4. 28th August 2002.

Morecambe 1 Stalybridge 2 Gouck 40 / Fortune-West 12(pen),69

After the match, Leigh Bradley comes and thanks me for his advice. He's off to Glenavon, and has packed his bags already. I wish him all the best, and tell him I'm sorry we couldn't keep him on. I really think that given a few years he might have made it at this level. Hopefully, of course, in those few years we will be above this level so it's probably better for the lad that he goes. It's more money for the club as well, in the long term anyway. We get £5k up front with £10k more appearance money! Don't laugh, it's a weeks wages!

What must Mansfield be thinking, being beaten off by an Irish side to sign an English player?

Only one change for the visit of Hayes, with Heaton coming in for the drastically out of form Perkins. Hayes have amongst their ranks one Keith Brown, and if that is the standard of all of their defence they will be quite difficult to break down. Cameron opens his account with the first goal of the game, getting on the end of a set piece delivery from Heaton, but Hayes are level just three minutes later. Fortunately, it appears the big man has found his touch again, as he puts us back in front in time for the break. Enjoying the feeling, he gets up onto the end of a Collins chip in injury time and all of a sudden we are cruising.

Only Allison is disappointing, so Ommel replaces him at the break. With Ommel now providing extra ammunition from the left, Leo is on the hunt for his hattrick, and he only fires a couple of blanks before getting it. This is the sort of performance the fans were expecting! Easing back, Bushell and Woods come on. Ommel comes close on a couple of occasion to opening his account, butthe Hayes keeper is up to it. Perhaps a little disappointingly, we concede late on, but the result is still an enormous improvement. Leo takes his second Man of the match award of the season, and has snuck on to 5 goals already!

Conference Game 5. 31st August 2002

Stalybridge 4 Hayes 2 Cameron 20 Fortune-West 42,45,49 / Currie 23 D.Warner 90

The result rockets us 9 places to 8th in the table, and I suppose we can't be disappointed with that at the end of the first month. You always seem to get a little bad news after a game though, and it's during the warm down that the physio informs me that Collins has twisted his knee. We could miss the influential midfielder for 3 games.

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Almost forlornly, the head of the youth production line comes to me at the start of Novemeber, to tell me that he has another player who has graduated. I wince visibly. Surely he knows we can't afford to keep taking these players on? I'm getting to the stage now where I don't even pay any attention to them, just pass them onto my coaching staff and ask them to report back when they've had a good look. I have more pressing things on my mind, as it's that time of year when we are expected to turn out on a monday night. Not only turn out, but turn out all the way to Margate. Of course, Collins misses the game, and any regular follower of my career will know that Cameron wouldn't be fit either. So in come Woods and, perhaps somewhat more surprisingly, Winfield Steele. Ommel starts instead of Allison as well.

The game starts with the home side attacking. For some reason all teams seem to think they can attack us off the park this season. The match turns out to be a somewhat stifled affair. The Margate attackers are stifled, on the few chances they break through the defence, by a man of the match performance from Batty, whilst our strikers are stifled by their inability to hit the target with any frequency. Higlight of the match is probably the amusement caused by Margate having a midfield combination of Carr and Barr, and a defender called Lamb. Yes, it was that dull.

Conference Game 6. 2nd September 2002

Margate 0 Stalybridge 0

Cameron back is the only change for Nuneaton's visit, and he's in the mood with an excellent run and shot in the first minute that opens the scoring. Two minutes later, and Leo's in there again from a corner. What a start. Things quieten down for a bit, but the first half scoring isn't over, as Ommel finally gets his first for the club on the half hour mark. There's time for 4-0 before the break as well, from that man Fortune-West. Scout Spencer Field has identified winger Jason Peake as a potential threat, and Woods does a great job in the first half of marking him out of the game. Over 2200 fans cheer as the referee blows for half time. I'm lost for words, as I can't really see a single area in which we can improve!

Leo waits all of six minutes before completing his hattrick and the inevitable man of the match award, but other than that the second half is a bit of an anti-climax!

Conference Game 7. 7th September 2002

Stalybridge 5 Nuneaton Borough 0 Cameron 1 Fortune-West 4,39,52 Ommel 30

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Unchanged for the long midweek trip to Yeovil, who we didn't manage to beat last season. I try to drum into the lads that all they need to do is replicate Saturday's performance...

...however, I'd left the all important scout report on the coach, so I couldn't give the players any specific markers to watch out for. So it was rather embarrasing for me, personally when Crookes was easily beaten by the obviously dangerous striker David Whyte. I immediately dispatched a message to Woods to double up on him and help the defender out, which did seem to tighten things up a little. By half time, in fact, we were 2-1 up thanks to Peacock and Fortune-West. Leo helps himself to his 10th of the season, and his 4th man of the match award, in the second half's only action.

Conference Game 8. 10th September 2002

Yeovil 1 Stalybridge 3 Whyte 28 / Peacock 36 Fortune-West 45,59

We get back to Stalybridge to find a letter from Wrexham with a formal approach for the services of my assistant Tony Barratt. Depressing news at a time when the league table shows us in a lofty 4th place.

Suitably on Friday 13th, Tony Barratt accepts Wrexham's offer. He heads off to the Racecourse Ground to work alongside new manager Mark Harrison. He will be a great loss, and it's obviously the season for staff appointments, as Sheffield Wednesday approach Spencer Field.

Trying to concentrate on matters on the field, it's an unchanged team again for the trip to Stevenage. Collins is back from injury, but not fully fit so sits another game out. Their strike partnership of DJ and Martin Williams are on fire, and will need careful attention. In fact even two markers can't keep Williams quiet as he opens the scoring. We find no way back until the second half, when Ommel heads home after a penalty box melee. Less than ten minutes later Williams has escaped his marker again. Worse is to come as Fortune-West is dismissed for a second yellow card. Woods is sacrificed for Allison, and DJ Campbell takes advantage of the lack of marking to score a third for Stevenage. There is a brief glimmer of hope in the last five minutes, as Stevenage keeper Afandiyev is given his marching orders for bringing down Allison. The ex Tranmere man gets up and buries the penalty with some relief, to claim his first goal for the club, but time has run out.

Conference Game 9. 14th September 2002

Stevenage 3 Stalybridge 2 Williams 18,58 "DJ" Campbell 64 / Ommel 50 Allison 88(pen) (Stalybridge's Leo Fortune-West sent off, 63, Stevenage's Farhad Afandiyev sent off, 87)

The defeat pushes us down to 7th and Stevenage up to 5th, and Spencer Field is off to the Owls. Unknown 58 year old Ashley Wilson joins as a coach, and I will internally assess him alongside Pointon and McCall to choose my next Assistant. Soon after, Barry Smith joins as a replacement scout. Neither are as good as the original, but they're all that is available at the moment!

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With no scout report to work with, I am left reading a newspaper report of 3rd place Woking's last league match to try and figure out their strengths and weaknesses. Collins comes in for Woods, who is unfortunate to miss out, but the rest of the team remains the same, and it looks like it's the fowards we really have to watch out for.

We open strongly, as Heaton crosses for Fortune-West to head in, an endlessly repeatable action, is seems. Try as we might, we couldn't add the second to get daylight between the teams, and in first half injury time Warren Patmore, perennial Conference striker, found space in the area and scored his first of the season. Collins is released from his out of position marking job on winger Edge to mark central midfielder Walker, and celebrates by getting forward and blasting home his first goal for the club. Woking missed some good opportunities as the injury time minutes piled on, but we held out magnificently. Leo gets the man of the match award, mainly I would suggest for his first half performance.

Conference Game 10. 21st September 2002

Stalybridge 2 Woking 1 Fortune-West 9 Collins 54 / Patmore 45

Another player who hasn't played a part for the club for a while is Ged Murphy. I call him into the office and ask if he thinks it's to move on. He agrees and I put out the word he is available. Elgin City snap my hand off, and he's off to the Highlands for £6k.

Ged Murphy (Stalybridge 1/8/01 - 24/9/02) Played 7 Goals 0 Assists 0 Man of the Match 0 AvR 6.29

Woods comes into central defence for Crookes, as I give the player a run due to his recent good performance in midfield. He's not likely to get Collins' place from him, so he better get used to defence! The rest of the team remains the same. New scout Smith cannot pick out an attacking threat from Scarborough, so no extra marking is specified. Which is unfortunate, because with their first attack Scarborough score. Two goals in three minutes give the scoreline a more favourable view at the quarter hour mark, and Cameron marks the half hour with a third. But, by halftime it's 3-3, with Darryn Stamp the hattrick hero for Scarborough. Neither side could break the "deadlock" in the second half, and it's 2 point dropped as far as I am concerned.

Conference Game 11. 24th September 2002.

Scarborough 3 Stalybridge 3 Stamp 5,36,43 / Hart 10 Fortune-West 13 Cameron 30

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Our reserves hammer our next opponents, Stafford Rangers, 6-1, with some excellent performances from our youngsters. I'm more concerned with the their first team Striker, ex Blackpool man John Murphy. Rangers are doing well, sitting one place behind us in the table. Crookes back in for Woods at the back, whilst Leo is serving his ban so Allison comes in. The third choice striker gets a quick goal thanks to a dubious penalty decision, and Cameron backs it up with a second two minutes later. The winger is scoring some quality goals at the moment. Despite some double marking, Murphy gets one back, before we have a more genuine penalty claim turned down. We restore our two goal lead before the break, when the Stafford keeper drops the ball at Gary Hart's feet. Hart may not be scoring many this season, but he isn't going to miss a chance like that! Ommel has a second half goal turned down for being offside himself, and it's the last action he sees in the game. As usual, the second half is a quiet affair and Hart gets the man of the match award.

Conference Game 12. 28th September 2002.

Stalybridge 3 Stafford Rangers 1 Allison 7(pen) Cameron 9 Hart 42 / Murphy 27

Stafford were clearly a one man side, and I fear for their season if they lose the services of Murphy.

September ends with us lying 5th, 9 points behind early pace setters Dover and Barnet, with 3rd and 4th place Woking and Stevenage within 3 points.

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The 1st of October brings me not only a lot of birthday presents, being the very popular manager that I am, but also a player of the month award for Fortune-West. It also brings the Qualifying Round draw for the FA Cup, and yet again we have a tricky away tie against Southern Premier side Moor Green. We travel to Slough for our first game of the month, and again it's a striker we have to watch. Ex Crewe man Paul Tait is in his second season at the club and put away 23 goals last season. Fortunately, on loan Reading midfielder Joe Gamble is suspended.

Fortune-West returns from his enforced rest, and replaces Ommel as Allison did enough in the last game to retain his place. He does enough again early on, popping up in the box unmarked in the first minute. 1-0 the visitors. Once the home team get into the game, it's clear that the threat is going to come from midfielder Scott Bettney, so Collins is deployed to keep an eye on him. We struggle to create chances for the rest of the half, and the one goal lead is looking decidedly dodgy, as Tait is seeing a lot of the ball. Fortunately he fades out of the game in the second half and we can hold on, forcing the Slough keeper into some good stops. Allison carries away his first man of the match award, being the only player to really go out of his way to play well for us.

Conference Game 13. 5th October 2002.

Slough Town 0 Stalybridge 1 Allison 2

Defeats for Barnet and Stevenage, and draws for Dover and Woking mean it is a good day all round for us. We're up to 4th, and 7 adrift of Dover. With a bit of time to spare, I decide to take a quick look at the club accounts. We're in the black to the tune of around £90k, which is good, however I am made suspicious by some very strange entries for this month. So far there is Income of £0, Expenditure of £57, but a documented loss of £279. Curious.

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The coach report for Southport is also curious, as it highlights the threat posed by strikers Sullivan and Burns. However, on closer examination Burns has never played a senior game for the club. My coaching team do a job on the reserves though, as they rack up another big win. Notably, they are picking youngsters in front of some of the more experienced players, so I decide to trim the squad by listing unhappy Courtney and Parr.

It feels good to be able to field unchanged sides, and I have the pleasure again for the visit of Southport. We struggle in the first couple of minutes to adapt to Southport's formation, and just as we seem to be settling down and pushing out, Collins goes eyeball to eyeball with a Southport defender. Not content with receiving a yellow card, he kicked the ball away and got a second for his trouble. I seethe to myself on the touchline, and bring Woods on for Hart. Bushell replaces Cameron shortly afterwards, in an attempt to tie down the strong Southport midfield. It looks like we've got them stumped, as we are starting to look the better side, even a man light, but when Batty elects to punch a Jones cross five minutes before half time, the ball drops to danger man Sullivan and the result of that particular play is inevitable.

After the break, Southport tighten things up, making the man advantage count. We stutter and struggle, but we can't get past their defence. With 15 to go I play my last roll of the dice, replacing Allison with Ommel. Still nothing. The clock ticks down and the fourth official indicates 2 minutes to play. Sullivan breaks free, and this looks like game over, but instead of going round the keeper, he blasts it from outside the area and it sails over the bar. From the restart, there is an obstruction offence awarded. Bushell dinks the freekick out wide and Ommel spins on a sixpence, curling the ball into the top corner. The ten men had equalised, and with virtually the last kick of the match! Unimaginatively, the man of the match award is given to big Leo, who admittedly ran himself into the ground the whole game.

Conference Game 14. 12th October 2002

Stalybridge 1 Southport 1 Ommel 90 / Sullivan 40 (Stalybridge's Lee Collins sent off, 10)

Dover won heavily, but Barnet and Woking drew, so we didn't lose any ground on 2nd or 3rd. Bids come in from Hayes and Southend for Parr. I'd prefer him to go outside the conference, and Hayes aren't happy when I ask for a delay. Fortunately, that is not a big concern, as Southend stump up the £50k asking price. The deal is done and dusted by the end of the week, and the 28 year old steps up a division.

Kevin Parr (Stalybridge 1/8/01 - 18/10/02) Played 26 Goals 1 Assists 1 Man of the Match 0 AvR 6.77

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With that out of the way, it's time to focus on the Cup. We need to take the game seriously, as a good cup run will do us wonders like last year. The scout report for the opposition not surprisingly tells us that they are nothing special, but I'm not resting players in this competition, so it's unchanged again. It was as easy going as I hoped. Cameron, with his 5th of the season, and Allison got early goals, and Crookes made it 3 with his first of the season. We eased off in the second, but sub Matt Woods was unlucky not to open his account for the season when his headed attempt was ruled out for the slightest of offside infringements by Allison, who was later awarded the man of the match award.

FA Cup Qualifying Round. 19th October 2002

Moor Green 0 Stalybridge 3 Cameron 2 Allison 9 Crookes 35

The good thing was that we had come through the tie unscathed. The draw for the First Round proper will please Matt Hocking, as we travel to his old team York, currently 15th in Division 3. I'm quietly confident, although we've not played at a league ground before during my short time at the club.

Remember Darren Bastow? Well he's off on loan for the rest of the season, to play at Roker Park. Roker Park, Stotfold that is, which is apparently somewhere in Hertfordshire. They play in the United Counties League, level 8 in the footballing pyramid, and he should really be a star at that level.

So. Telford next. Boy are they going to be up for this match, after the 7-1 drubbing we handed out to them last season. Their 33 year old winger, Martyn Chalk, is identified in our scouting report as the biggest threat, but he hasn't pulled up many trees yet this season. He does have league experience though. Woods comes in for the suspended Collins, and we're one up through Leo within 10 minutes again. Determined to make things difficult for ourselves again, Heaton loses control and headbutts a Telford player. Obviously he is sent off, and Allison makes way for Williamson to play out of position again. We're really under pressure now, as if Telford needed another reason to come at us. Martindale is firing shots in from all angles. Fortunately most of them are going wide or high, but he does manage to make one count in injury time.

Martindale gets two more in the middle of the second half, and Telford have their revenge

Conference Game 15. 26th October 2002.

Telford 3 Stalybridge 1 Martindale 45,67,75 / Fortune-West 10 (Stalybridge's Steve Heaton sent off, 22)

Steve Heaton accepts a one week fine on top of his three match ban, and you can almost hear Perkins rubbing his hands together in anticipation of getting his first team place back. Things aren't looking healthy in the league, where we have been pushed back to 6th, 10 points behind the leaders.

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November starts with one of those odd blank weeks, but it's been anything but relaxing:

Winfield Steele comes to me demanding a new contract, but he's picked the wrong time to mess with me, and he leaves the office having been transfer listed. The next player to come and complain at me might not be so fortunate. Fortunately, for him, the messenger delivering the Northwich scouting report had the sense to wait until I was out of the office. The report reads rather strangely, as the player highlighted to watch is a defensive midfielder.

Can the week get any worse? Well, coach Neil Pointon pays me a visit to give me an update on the latest youth products, but he looks somewhat uneasy. Insisting that he spills the beans, I find out that he has been offered a coaching role at Colchester. I don't expect anything other than for him to accept it. Derby, Hull, Rotherham, Oxford, Tranmere, Leicester and Stockport (in no particular order, and over the period of a week) soon catch on to Pointon's availability and table offers. Expecting the worse, I offer a contract to Craig Madden, who I'd been looking at as a possible when Wilson was signed. He accepts.

Meanwhile, someone gives Allison a kick in the ribs in training, and he'll be unavailable for a week as a result. Perkins also gets a knock in training and books himself 10 days sick leave, losing out on that first team opportunity he was releshing.

But at last it's time for a football game. Collins returns in midfield, in what is a relatively easy choice, but I have a severe full back problem. Young Mike Lewis was handed his first start for the club, begrudgingly, because I'm not sure he's ready for it. A nightmare start leaves us 1-0 down after just two minutes, having been caught fast asleep. We battled and battled to try and get back into the game, and slowly we inched possesion up the field. Having gained the upper hand in midfield, we started creating chances, but Northwich keeper Lee Ellis was having an excellent game. He could do nothing about a point blank header from Fortune-West as the half drew towards a close, and the whole Northwich side were left helpless by a trademark Cameron run and shot which sent us into the break 2-1 up.

Cameron repeats the trick in the second minute of the second half, and it looks like we've averted another disaster. Collins makes sure in the dying minutes, as he finishes off a parried Peacock shot. Andrew Cameron was the obvious choice for man of the match, but working away quietly in the background, and earning himself 3 assists, Sergio Ommel could have had a claim

Conference Game 16. 9th November 2002

Stalybridge 4 Northwich Victoria 1 Fortune-West 36 Cameron 45,47 Collins 87 / Baldwin 2

Young right back Lewis had a surprisingly good game. I take back everything I said about him!

Unbeknown to me, we're in the Vans Trophy draw this year. I was of the opinion that only the top 6 from the previous season qualified, but what do I know. It'll be another opportunity for the youth team to get a run out. Meanwhile, in the important competition we are back up to 4th. We drew Wigan (2nd in Division 2) away, by the way.

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Having found out they've drawn us, and quite obviously running scared, Wigan manager Steve McMahon makes a £75k bid for Steve Bushell. This is over his listed value, so they obviously want him, so I request his release clause plus a bit, to cut out the painful, drawn out negotiations.

The FA Trophy draw gives us an all Conference tie at Woking. Another run out for the reserves then! First of all, we have the FA Cup at York to deal with. Scout Dolan is telling me that they're not much different from the conference sides we've been encountering recently, and there key player is a defender!

A little late for the party, Portsmouth table a bid for Pointon. If only I could play these sides off against each other, I could make a fortune for the club. It looks as though I might just make that fortune anyway, as Wigan happily stump up the £300k for Bushell! Unbelievable! The stupidity of football club staff sometimes!

Terrible news before the York game though, as we lose in form Cameron with a strained neck. I ask him if he could just avoid heading the ball for 90 minutes, but the physio just shakes his head and smiles. I hate doctors. Perkins will be back though, and Pointon has finally made his mind up to go to Division 1 Leicester. The starting eleven for the York game includes some surprises. Lewis holds on to his place, despite Perkins being fit, and another youth player, Dean Harris, gets his first start in place of Cameron. Most surprising of all, perhaps, is that Gary Hart is dropped to the bench to allow club captain Steve Bushell to take the field for what will most likely be his last game for Stalybridge. I'm expecting miracles from him, what with being "worth" £300k and everything!

Stalybridge fans have made the trip in numbers. It's our first big FA Cup way day as a family, and there are flags and banners festooning the Bootham Crescent away end. The first half is a tight affair, with first Harris and then Bushell having chances to open the scoring for us, whilst at the other end Alex Mathie and Lee Nogan look dangerous. Bushell was warned by referee McGrath after a bad challenge in the centre circle. A case of big headedness maybe, but I suspect that if this wasn't his last game at this level it would have been a yellow card offence. He got himself a yellow card 10 minutes later, and will have to watch himself in the second half. The half was settled by a penalty in the last minute. Leo was pushed over in the area and got up to score his 15th goal of the season in front of the 5100 plus crowd.

We are beaten back in the second, and it's only a matter of time before the equaliser comes. But we hold on, and get the draw. Leo takes the man of the match, and it'll be a replay at the Bower Fold.

FA Cup 1st Round. 16th November 2002

York City 1 Stalybridge 1 O'Kane 65 / Fortune-West 45(pen)

Steve Bushell's probable last match was not one for him to remember. He was one of the less impressive players on our side. I hope Wigan know exactly what they are getting!

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It's a good weekend for money. Pointon eventually heads off to Leicester, netting £26k compensation, whilst Leigh Bradley plays his 10th League game for Glenavon, triggering £10k appearance money. And then there's Steve Bushell, who accepts Wigan's offer and trundles off to the JJB Stadium for a cool £300k. Three Hundred Thousand Pounds. Read it and weep. Oh, and if we beat York in the replay, we'll have Blackpool (21st in Division 3) at home.

Steve Bushell (Stalybridge 1/8/01 - 18/11/02) Played 55, Scored 13, Assists 9, Man of the Match 4 AvR 7.05

A loan request arrives for Kevin Aitchison from Cheltenham Saracens, another level 8 club playing in the Hellenic League. They're willing to pay a whole £20 p/w towards his wages, and he needs the match practice, so I agree. He ought to run the game at that level, I just hope he doesn't get injured.

I waste no time in spending some of my now sizeable pile of cash, approaching Blackpool for Attacking midfielder Neil Mackenzie. He is more than a match for Bushell, and may even challenge Hart for a first team place. To my surprise, they agree and negotiations begin for his contract. Even more surprising is that I manage to negotiate down his salary request to £675 p/w. He's taking a £225 p/w pay cut to come to a Conference club. The price? £22k icon_biggrin.gif If we get as far as playing Blackpool, it will be even sweeter.

Cameron is back and fit, but he won't play in the Trophy game, as it's a reserve team that I field. This was the plan all along, but is made even more important because of the FA Cup replay on Wednesday. Keeper Brown, Centre backs Howells and Roberts, and winger Clemence all make their debuts, whilst Peters, Salt, Courtney, Woods, Lewis, Harris and Perkins get rare starts. Experience comes on the bench. Mackenzie will get a run out at some point, all being well.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Woking open the scoring. The goal comes from a corner as the unfamiliar defence struggle to deal with a set piece. But the youngsters react with passion, Harris and Peters combining to equalise within 3 minutes. In the second half we continue to struggle from set pieces, and more disappointingly, Woods is not performing, obviously trying to make a point that he shouldn't be playing with this team. So when Howells is injured I throw on the heavyweights. Allison, Mackenzie and Cousins for Peters, Clemence and Howells. Within a minute we are 2-1 up, Mackenzie setting up Salt. Courtney had the ball in the net again, but the referee ruled it out for no apparent reason. Woods, of course, was made to stay on until the end.

FA Trophy 2nd Round. 23rd November 2002.

Woking 1 Stalybridge (Reserves) 2 Evatt 23 / Peters 26 Salt 74

They will face an even trickier away tie at Stevenage in the Third Round in January.

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There are some tricky decisions to be made before I can announce my team for the York replay. Mike Lewis' recent performances at right back make it difficult to drop him, but Heaton is back after serving his suspension, and Perkins is champing at the bit and whinging that he should be a first team regular. Meanwhile on the other side of the pitch new club captain Kenny Munro is struggling for form (it must be something about the captain's armband!). Perkins will, therefore, play. But not in his preferred position. The rest of the team picks itself, with Mackenzie getting a full debut after his run out in the FA Trophy. Batty will carry the dreaded armband.

We are labelled as favourites by the press because of our record against league clubs at The Barrow Fold, a fact which annoys me as I preferred the underdog status. News from York suggests that striker Alex Mathie might miss the game, after being injured at the weekend, with new signing Scott Oakes set for a debut.

We kick off at a gallop, with Cameron setting up Ommel for a goal withing 2 minutes. 6457 fans, 43 short of a full house this time, go wild. They're cheering again shortly afterwards as it's 2-0 after 15 minutes, with another trademark Cameron goal. It remains 2-0 until half time, and we can't c*ck it up from here can we? Indeed not, as Mackenzie hits his first for the club after an hour. We play out the last third in simple fashion and it's a bit of an anti-climax really, as I expected a bit more fight from York. Cameron took the man of the match award after a performance which may have opened the eyes of a few league managers, especially when they see his goal on match of the day! It's difficult to pick out a bad performance from the lads today, although Perkins and his left back replacement Munro left a little to be desired.

FA Cup 1st Round Replay. 27th Novemeber 2002

Stalybridge 3 York 0 Ommel 2 Cameron 16 Mackenzie 61

Bring on the seasiders.

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But first it's back to league business, and the Scout report for conference newcomers Blyth Spartans indicates a threat from the wings. The North-east team lie in 13th, after a recent drop in form. In the Saturday morning TV game, Slough Town do us a favour, beating 3rd place Southport.

Despite some tiredness, I make no changes to the team, as it would probably ruin a players confidence to drop them after such a good performance. Cameron will probably only manage half the game though. Disappointing finishing in the first half sees the score remain goalless, and although Blyth have clearly come for the point, they look quite lively on the break. It takes until the hour mark to break the deadlock, with Cameron and Leo combining again. Relief is evident throught the team, and we cut loose now, with first Mackenzie and then Collins adding to the scoring. Another good alround performance is culminated with Neil Mackenzie getting his first man of the match award. He'd swap it for one next Saturday, I suspect.

Conference Game 17. 30th November 2002.

Stalybridge 3 Blyth Spartans 0 Fortune-West 59 Mackenzie 63 Collins 65

The win lifts us to 3rd, whist draws for Dover and Barnet also bode well for the future.

Much to my annoyance, Barnet make an £80k bid for Watford's young attacking midfielder Sam Swonnell, a player I have been watching for about 6 months, and who I have tried to take on loan on quite a few occasions. The fact that all my approaches were refused, yet Watford let him go to Halifax for the whole season, adds to my irritation. £80k would be over half my transfer budget, and the player wouldn't immediately fit into the lineup. What the hell! Things may be balanced out a little if I can persuade Queen of the South to give me £50k for Gerard Courtney. They are offering £40k. Only time will tell...

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According to the club scout, Niall Quinn(!)'s Blackpool are a bigger problem to deal with than York. Striker Brett Ormerod has nearly as many goals as big Leo, so we can't afford to let him get the ball too often. Something must be wrong though, what with them languishing at the foot of the league. If only my scouts would tell me what the weaknesses were.

Sam Swonnell claims not to be interested in joining us. I wonder if he is saying the same to Barnet? Apparently not, as he signs for them on the 2nd, so I put my chequebook away again. It is clear that Swonnell was thinking of his wallet, as he somehow manages to negotiate a £1300 p/w deal with Barnet, making him easily their top earner! Queen of the South stump up that £50k I wanted, so another Stalybridge player leaves the Fold. Whilst we gain a whole £4k as Port Vale sell on goalkeeper David Fish to Derby.

Gerard Courtney (Stalybridge 1/8/01 - 4/12/02) Played 35 Goals 12 Assists 4 Man of the Match 3 AvR 7.00

The local rag rings me up, and tells me they think Leo is playing the best football of his career so far. Talk about stating the bloody obvious. I considered responding that maybe that was because he was playing below his level in the conference, but you know what reporters can be like. Instead I just agreed and said that he has been putting in high standard performances.

We are unchanged (what, again?) for the visit of Blackpool, as there is no point in doing anything different at the moment. Neil Mackenzie is virtually climbing the wall by 2:30, eager to impress against his ex-colleagues, and the cameras. With so much at stake by getting through to the third round, it's a tight affair. Player Manager Niall Quinn hits the bar on 5 minutes, and Collins, another ex Blackpool player of course, hit the post after 24. Peacock also hit the post on the half hour mark, continuing his run of games without scoring. Young right back Mike Lewis picked up an injury which means that Kenny Munro has to take to the field. 0-0 at half time.

Other than the first half woodwork shots, our shooting was dreadful all game, and it took until the 63rd minute for Ommel to force the Blackpool keeper into a save. A quiet match for the Blackpool attack meant that 0-0 was almost inevitable. Another replay, then, but this time away from home. Mike Lewis will miss it, and the other matches in the next 3 weeks. At least it's a record attendance of 6480.

FA Cup 2nd Round. 7th December 2002.

Stalybridge 0 Blackpool 0

Dover, uninvolved in this stage of the FA Cup, win their conference game. It's getting to the stage now where they are going to have to have a dramatic collapse in form for us to clinch promotion.

I hate seeing Cup Draws when I'm not certain of being in the next round, but the media expect it. Especially the third round FA cup draw. At least we come out of the hat fairly early this time, and should we see off the seasiders, it'll be Premiership opposition at the Bower Fold again, but from the right side of the pennines. Bolton Wanderers. They're not exactly setting the Premiership on fire either. Of course, I shouldn't be getting my hopes up like this, so it's back to the draw to see what lies in wait for the other non-leaguers.

Northwich Victoria get a plum money-spinning tie away at Goodison Park, with Nuneaton travelling to Leicester for a Midlands derby. If Margate beat Torquay in a replay, then Liverpool will be making the long trip to Hartsdown Park and Isthmian league side Hendon will face Manchester City.

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It's the reserves' "cup final", a cliché to be proud of, as they travel to Wigan in the Vans Trophy, and to add to the spice, Steve Bushell is making his Wigan debut. There's no big cup shock to be had here, as the lads go down 2-1, but they held the Division 2 opposition for a long time. It is a big day for Matt Williamson, however, as the defender scores his first goal in 30 games for the club.

Vans Trophy 1st Round North. 10th December 2002

Wigan Athletic 2 Stalybridge (Reserves) 1 Henderson 6 Russell 85 / Williamson 60

Boston next at the Bower Fold, and the Lincolnshire outfit aren't the force they were last season, when they finished 2nd and I considered home and away draws to be good results. My scount identifies another potent strikeforce of Weatherstone and Town, so the defence can expect another battering. Second place Barnet win the Saturday morning Sky match, to keep the pressure on. Every game in the leage is now a must win game.

Lewis' injury means Perkins and Munro both start, but otherwise it's a familiar line up. It's also a familiar start, with an early goal from Mackenzie as we absolutely pummel the Boston back line. The attack are obviously up to the task, but are the defence? It would seem so, as Boston haven't got a shot on target when Ommel knocks home his 5th of the season for 2-0. Of course, their first shot on target goes in to make the scoreline tighter at the break. The equaliser, still against the run of play, comes 5 minutes into the second half. Although we wake up and absolutely batter them again for the last half hour, there's nothing we can do about the scoreline, and I'll have to settle for another draw. I can't begin to express the frustration I feel at the fact that 20 minutes of completely out of character play throughout the team, not just by one or two individuals, has cost us two points.

Conference Game 18. 14th December 2002

Stalybridge 2 Boston Utd 2 Mackenzie 5 Ommel 30 / Weatherstone 36 Wood 52

I can't decide whether my mood is made better or worse when the results come through, and I find out that Dover and Stevenage both lost. It means the gap isn't as bad as it might have been, but then it means we could have really closed it up with a bit more concentration. Back to the office, and Belper Town are interested in Winfield Steele. They are willing to splash around a reasonable amount of cash for a level 6 club. I'm considering getting my cheque book out as well, in an attempt to stop the slow leak of goals. Dave Challinor, out of favour at Tranmere, is my target, and a ridiculously low offer of £24k is accepted. Of course, we're talking big money wages.

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I could have done with getting the cash out earlier, as even if Dave agrees, it will be too late for our cup replay. For the first time in my, and his, career I find myself dropping Peacock on form basis. Hart comes in, and to make it all change down the right, Heaton comes back in for Perkins. I'm hoping he can create something with freekicks and corners.

Disgusting refereeing leads to Blackpool being awarded a penalty in just 12 minutes. Brett Ormerod doesn't miss those, and we are struggling. The ref is also insistent in booking our players for every single incident. But we manage an equaliser on the half hour mark, and it does come from a corner! Just as I thought we were going to go in level, up popped Ormerod to head home right on the whistle. It's all to do in the second half. Right from the kick off we just can't get hold of the ball, and although it took a quarter of an hour, Blackpool get the killer third. Frustration starts to show, as ex Blackpool players Collins and Mackenzie both try that little bit too hard and pick up bookings. Mackenzie, in particular, has a shocking game.

FA Cup 2nd Round replay. 18th December 2002.

Blackpool 3 Stalybridge 1 Ormerod 13(pen),45 Caldwell 61 / Crookes 29

At least Niall Quinn didn't score...

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Spirits are lifted a little with the news that Dave Challinor will become a Stalybridge player, but the down side of the rollercoaster is that Jason Batty will be out for about a week and Winfield Steele will not be moving on. At least we actually have a reserve keeper this time! The trials and tribulations of the cup replay have taken their toll on the rest of the squad as well, with Cameron well below full fitness and Hart dead on his feet. So Peacock comes back after missing only one game. Challinor makes his debut, even though he is lacking in match fitness.

It's a Cheshire derby, and it's the Deva stadium, but Chester are languishing on the edge of the drop zone. After what seems like an age, but is really only three games, Leo gets his goal after a tight opening. The rest of the teams confidence is boosted accordingly, apart from Andrew Cameron who, having just signed a new and extended contract, gets himself injured close to half time. Challinor's performance in defence, without having played a game all season, is making Hocking and the full backs look decidedly amateur, whilst up at the other end Ommel is doubling our lead. There'll be time for him to get his second, and tie up the man of the match award, as well before the ref puts the couny town side out of their misery.

Conference Game 19. 21st December 2002.

Chester 0 Stalybridge 3 Fortune-West 22 Ommel 80,90

Having accepted our early Christmas present from our neighbours, Barnet deliver us a cracker by losing at home. Dover win again though. Cameron will only miss a week, thankfully. A damaged heel will prevent him doing a Christmas jig!

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In another attempted raid on Blackpool, I table a £20k bid for Tommy Jaszczun, the 25 year old left sided defender with probably the hardest name to spell in the squad, if not the division. This, too, is accepted (Blackpool, it turns out, are in financial strife as well as a poor league position) but Tommy tries to sneak in a ridiculously low release clause into his contract, which will require some negotiation. Surprisingly, he accepts my counter offer (a £500k release clause, and £75 per week less basic) and will join former team mates Collins and Mackenzie. It could spell the end for either Perkins or Munro, as the wage bill has now risen to the uncomfortable level of £12,500 per week.

The Turkey sandwiches are all packed up again for another long Boxing day trip, to Dagenham & Redbridge. the Essex side are also struggling to reproduce the form that saw them achieve 3rd place last season, and the hurriedly drafted scouting report, on the back of some wrapping paper, singles out defender Lee Goodwin for praise. That's fine by me, as I have my own defensive solidity to test. Jaszczun is registered in time to travel and plays. Harris starts his first league game in place of the injured Cameron.

Steve Heaton has the dubious pleasure of carrying the captain's armband. Let's hope it doesn't affect his ability to cross the ball!

In possibly the quietest first half of a game this season, it takes us until the 44th minute to get a chance. We still force keeper Quy into two good quality saves before halftime. The home side waste no time after the break though, as a mispaced pass in midfield sees McAuley clear on the break. He sets up Aldred for the goal, but we go straight up the other end and equalise through big Leo's head. It's looking like another 2 points dropped as we faff about for the entire second half. But out of nowhere, substitute Gary Hart pops up on the edge of the box and blasts home in the 93rd minute. How important could that goal be?

It's not hard, given my current first team selection, for an ex Blackpool player to gain the man of the match award. This time it's Collin's turn.

Conference Game 20. 26th December 2002

Dagenham & Redbridge 1 Stalybridge 2 Aldred 47 / Fortune-West 50 Hart 90

Leo's booking is his 5th, and means a suspension. He will miss the visit of Morecambe on the 11th January. Dover won, but Barnet's form continued to dip with another draw. We're now four points behind them, but ten behind Dover albeit with a game in hand.

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Two days later, pre season favourites Halifax come to town, carrying their excellent 17th position for all to see. They still have Steve Kerrigan, and he still looks dangerous, but I'm quietly confident. The players are appreciative of my quietness, as they are trying to sleep. Mackenzie has no chance of making the game, and Hart comes in. Fortune-West drops to the bench with Allison given a start.

Despite giving Challinor the job of man marking Kerrigan, the irritating striker pops up to open the scoring after just 3 minutes. Quarter of an hour has gone before we've had enough possession to be worth mentioning, but Allison manages to get on the end of a through ball to equalise on 20 minutes. 5 minutes before half time, Dean Harris gets on the end of a palmed away Allison shot and scores his first goal for the club. Looking to keep players fresh for the next game, I sub off Hart and give Matt Woods a run out. It looks like a mistake, as Halifax find an equaliser whilst we are busy reorganising. Lee Collins is in the mood again though, and makes the most of his advanced position by scoring at the second attempt. He sets up the fourth for Allison in the last minute to guarantee the man of the match award.

Conference Game 21. 28th December 2002.

Stalybridge 4 Halifax 2 Allison 20,90 Harris 42 Collins 62 / Kerrigan 3 Chapman 58

An outstanding performance, and we got the break we've been looking for as Barnet and Dover both lose. I can't think of a better way to end 2002.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">


English Conference - Saturday 28th December 2002



2002/3 Table


Pos Team Pld Won Drn Lst For Ag Won Drn Lst For Ag Pts


1st Dover 22 9 1 1 25 9 6 2 3 16 12 48


2nd Barnet 21 6 1 3 20 14 6 5 0 21 12 42

3rd STALYBRIDGE 21 7 3 1 28 11 5 2 3 19 15 41

4th Stevenage 22 7 2 1 27 15 5 3 4 26 25 41

5th Southport 22 6 1 3 19 13 6 2 4 18 17 39

6th Slough 22 4 5 2 11 8 6 3 2 18 16 38


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Cameron and Batty would both be recovered from their injuries for our New Year excursion to Farnborough, another team we managed to beat twice last season. It was more good news to follow a double for the club in December's awards. The manager of the month award came to sit on my desk for the first time in the season, whilst Lee Collins won an extremely deserved player of the month award. Chris Perkins' days at the club may be numbered, however, as he is repeatedly complaining about not getting first team action.

Andrew Cameron would miss the cut, as he was short of fitness, but Batty returned, as did Mackenzie and Leo after just one game missed. The first half was tight, and although we would probably have won it on points it was Farnborough who ended the half on top with a shot from left back Justin Gregory clipping the post with Batty helpless. With the team suitably fired up, we started the second period better. Leo hit the bar and pulled a good save out of the keeper, but it was the turn of Dave Challinor to step up and score his first goal for the club to put us ahead. It was backs to the wall defending from then on. Farnborough threw the kitchen sink at us, and even Leo was back defending. We hung on and, of course, Leo got the man of the match award, although on this occasion it was more for his tackling than his scoring.

Conference Game 22. 1st January 2003

Farnborough 0 Stalybridge 1 Challinor 53

It wasn't the world's most convincing result, but it was good enough. If we could carry on winning, even when playing badly, then we had a chance. Especially as Barnet lost at home, continuing their appaling run of form. They were now four without a win. All we needed now was a slip up or two from Dover. One of them would have to come in the next game, though, as we were due to make the long trip down to fortress Crabble to play the league leaders.

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Three days after the tough encounter at Farnborough would not have been when I would have chosen to face Dover, and a complicated offer from Spanish side C.F. Gandía for Chris Perkins was an additional distraction I didn't need. I negotiated a week's delay with them, after which I might have more idea where our season was going. On to the team selection, and Cameron would have to come in to the side even though he wasn't fully fit. The real question was where. Both Peacock and Harris were knackered. Mackenzie, too, wouldn't be up to a full game. This wasn't good, as we would need to keep it tight.

In the end I decided to ask Collins to step up into a more forward role and allow Woods to come into the Defensive midfield position. Hart would play on the right, and Cameron in his favoured position on the left. Surprise choice on the bench was 18 year old Alex Hutchinson, who had been having an excellent run in the reserves.

As you would expect for such an important game, it's very tight from the kick off. Dover have the best of a few clear cut chances, but we play well and create plenty of set pieces. The defensive formation is working, but probably restricting our normal attacking play somewhat. We're doing quite well at frustrating Dover's key creative players Allen and Place. 0-0 at half time is good enough for me.

We come out fired up, but without any changes in the second half. Woods cleared well from a Dover corner before we hit Dover on the break. Leo, Cameron and Hart combined well, with the ball ending up back with Leo. He was unlucky to see it flash inches past the post. The breakthrough finally came when Lee Shearer brought down Ommel on the edge of the area. The combination of Heaton and Fortune-West worked once again to give us the lead. I sent the subs out to warm up, ready to tighten things up for the inevitable onslaught, but it soon became clear that changing things wouldn't be necessary, as the league leaders had nothing to offer. I was right as, with ten minutes to go, the Dover keeper turned away an Ommel shot for a corner.

Steve Heaton delivered the corner, and for once it didn't find a Stalybridge head. Hedley cleared, but only as far as Challinor. Big Dave played the ball back out to Heaton who delivered another wonderful ball into the box to find Woods unmarked. The midfielder may not have scored all season in his 15 appearances, but he made no mistake this time. 2-0! The whole bench were on their feet, as the players mobbed Woods. The game was safe!

Conference Game 23. 4th January 2003

Dover 0 Stalybridge 2 Fortune-West 63 Woods 81

The table now showed just a single point gap between Dover and us, with Slough Town the new third place team. In the FA Cup, all non-league interest ended without as much as a whimper.

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