It was that time of year again. The lower echelons of football’s very own day of celebration: Non-League Day! For those unaware, Non-League Day has now become an annual event in the football calendar during one of the international breaks to celebrate all things non-league football-related. The event began as a social media experiment by QPR fan James Doe in 2010, who came up with the idea after a trip to Tavistock, and since then the event has exploded into life with many in the football world backing the campaign to promote non-league and grassroots football for the day.
Last year, my Non-League Day was spent in the charming town of Glossop, located East of Manchester and right next to the Peak District. For the 2013 edition of Non-League Day I opted to go for somewhere as equally scenic with a trip planned north of Manchester and into the heart of Lancashire to visit Ramsobttom. Ramsbottom: doesn’t it just sound like the most Northern of places? It almost sounds satirically Northern – like something out of a Dickens novel. The trip to Ramsbottom had been touted a few times, as a whole load of people had told me how it’s one of they’re favourite footballing trips, only for me to get my head turned on each occasion and head elsewhere. I’d also been told that there is only one way that you are really supposed to travel to Ramsbottom and it’s certainly a novel one.
Shortly after 10am on Saturday morning, I found myself outside Bury Bolton Street station in Bury ready to make the final leg of my journey to Ramsbottom. Bolton Bury Street station is not home to your usual train station – no, instead it is the home of the East Lancashire Railway: a heritage railway line. Today i would be travelling to Ramsbottom by steam engine train. However, as novel a mode of transport as this was, it soon became clear why we have now moved away from coal power in this day and age with the train arriving 15 minutes late and then, after finally setting off, having to halt for ten minutes half way between Bury and Ramsbottom, as there was some sort of issue with the brakes. We soon got going again and after the supposed 15 minute journey took a little closer to 30 minutes, I arrived into Ramsbottom shortly after 11am.
Instead of heading straight into one of the several pubs I encountered on my saunter through the centre of Ramsbottom, I had another target within my sites – quite literally as I looked up at the mountain above the small Lancashire town. During my usual bit of research before visiting the town, I came across the various relics that make up Ramsbottom’s points of interest, which included the Peel Tower that sits on top of the mountain overlooking Ramsbottom and Lancashire itself. For whatever reason, I had made it my mission for the day to get up to the tower.
My ascent began after walking through the town centre, through the rising streets of Ramsbottom and then up a ridiculously steep road intimidatingly called ‘The Rake’. As a South Wales Valleys boy, I’m used to steep gradients, but ‘The Rake’ was definitely an arduous task. More soul destroying was that the Peel Tower had finally come into sight as I I made it to the summit of the Rake, yet it almost taunted me with how it stood still further above me atop the mountain. Still I carried on my walk through the pleasant Holcombe Village, which was offering great views of Ramsbottom below. The rise up the hill continued until I finally found myself on the mountain itself and walking up the side of it. Finally, after around 45-50 minutes of walking, I reached the top with a few other brave souls who had also made the pilgrmage and Peel Tower was right in front of me with some stunning views of Lancashire below. I could quite easily make out Manchester 15 miles away and even the power plants around Runcorn in the distance; I’d even been told that when the tower is open to visitors you can make out Blackpool from the top of it. For those wondering, the Peel Tower is a monument to the late Sir Robert Peel (hence the name), the former 19th century Prime Minster who was from nearby Bury and was most famous for creating the Metropolitan Police Force (interesting fact: the reason why Police Officers are referred to as “Bobbies”is because Robert Peel founded the force).
With my small spot of tourism done for the day, it was time to begin my descent back down to the town itself. As I made my way back down, I found myself distracted by the Shoulder of Mutton pub and could not resist a quick pint to help me on my way. The Shoulder of Mutton is a quality pub that sits in the heart of Holcombe Village and it is a delightfully cosy and welcoming affair. I didn’t have food there (apart from a packet of Jalapenos Pepper flavoured crisps with my pint), but apparently the pub also holds the title of ‘Manchester Pub Food of the Year 2012’ – quite an accolade!
Shortly after 1pm, I found myself back in the town centre of Ramsobttom having made my way back down ‘The Rake’. Ramsbottom high street is not your typical town high street, as I could genuinely not spot a single recognisable shop chain name in sight (apart from Tesco, of course – they are everywhere) and instead the high street consists of a plethora of independent shops, which is always a nice thing to see, including the famous Ramsbottom Sweet Shop and Chocolate Cafe.
My next stop was The Oaks pub on the main street for a quick pint of Peroni. To be honest, The Oaks wasn’t the most interesting of pubs and my pint did taste a bit ‘iffy’, so I didn’t hang about too long and instead I carried on towards the ground and found myself back at the train station and in The Railway pub opposite it. The place was rammed with many people enjoying a mid afternoon drink and lunch; I even got chatting with a former Ramsbotton player who gave me a bit of a lowdown on the club and ground before I made the 5 minute walk just past the train station to the ground itself.
The road to the ground runs directly alongside the train track, until it turns off into Ramsbottom Cricket Club. Fortunately, the guy I had been chatting to in the pub had already prompted me that to get to the football club you had to enter through the cricket club entrance as Ramsbottom’s Riverside Ground sits directly next to the town’s cricket club. Soon enough I paid the usual Evo-Stik First Division ticket price of £7 and I was into the ground.
The Rams were formed in the same year as England’s World Cup triumph in 1966 by long serving chairman Harry Williams, who is still chairman to this day. The man is so much of a Ramsbottom institution that the ground is even now officially titled the Harry Williams Riverside Ground. The club began life residing in a number of amateur leagues, such as the Bury Amateur League, Bolton Combination and eventually the Manchester League, before stepping up to the higher leagues in the 1990s; after making significant ground improvements, ‘Rammy’ were admitted into the North West Counties Football League. The turning point in the club’s history would come in the 2009/10 season with the appointment of two former players as a young management team: Anthony Johnson (25 years old) and Bernard Morley (26 years old). The rookie managers guided Ramsbottom to an impressive 4th place finish in the NWCFL Premier Division in their first full season, before eventually leading Ramsbottom to the title in 2011/12 and with it promotion to the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League Division One North for the first time in their history – the league the club find themselves playing in today.
My first call on entering the ground was to pop into the tea hut on my right as I entered for a pie and some coffee. The small, blue cabin not only housed the food and drink, but also had room for a couple of tables and chairs (strangely, cinema-style fold up chairs) as well as club memorabilia adorning the walls and merchandise on sale behind the counter. The prices were very reasonable and the meat and potato pie I had was a delight. However, the real highlight of the tea hut (perhaps even of the day) was the fact that the coffee I purchased came in a mug! Yes, I’ve had coffee in a mug at football before, but this is certainly the highest level of football I’ve enjoyed such a luxury. With me now fed and watered, I headed out to pitchside shortly before the usual 3pm kick-off.
After walking down the alley-like path to the ground, the first thing you are encountered with is the large white dugouts and the side of the pitch with no stand or cover at all. To the left of this standing area is the Jack Wolfenden Stand (according to Wikipedia: “named after the hard working stalwart of Ramsbottom United Football Club, who can still be seen on the ground selling programmes on match days”) behind the goals, a covered standing terrace, which features no seating apart from the random garden benches placed about at the back of it. Behind the opposite goal there is another standing area with the only cover coming from the overhanging trees; this is also the perfect standing area for a spot of trainspotting if the football isn’t doing it for you, as the East Lancs Railway runs directly behind this area. Finally, down the other side of the pitch are two small, covered seating stands either side of the halfway line: one is the Ellis Timlin Stand and the other is the Main Stand.
At one point it looked like the game was going to kick-off earlier than scheduled, as the Ramsbottom team all ran out in their kits, only for me to realise that they were jogging up to some benches placed in front of the Jack Wolfenden Stand for what appeared to be their official team photo. Clearly, Rammy were worried someone might try to poach their players before the transfer window closed and held back on the team photo!
Soon enough, the two teams were lining up together, Ramsbottom United in their usual all blue kit and their opponents Northwich Victoria in a yellow shirts and green shorts à la Norwich City, ready for the kick-off. The club even had the local BBC cameras inside the ground for today’s game with the local news opting to choose Ramsbottom as their club of choice to report about Non-League Day from.
I’d positioned myself next to the dugouts for the opening minutes of the game and what an opening it was! Both teams came out of the blocks at a frantic pace with Northwich wanting 3 points to break into the league playoff places, whilst Rammy were just seeking their first points of the season. After some initial good football from Ramsbottom, Vics found themselves getting the better of the home team and after 12 minutes they had taken the lead. It seems I’m a good luck charm for Keiran Lugsden, as last time I saw him play, when he was playing for Buxton, he also scored. However, I felt his goal today was contentious, as I found myself right behind the goal as his ten yard effort rolled towards the line, yet I felt it was cleared off the line just in the nick of time by the Rammy defence – the assistant ref disagreed and the goal was given (admittedly a Vics player did follow the rebound up and put that in so I guess it didn’t really matter).
Ramsbottom woke up following the goal and began to put a lot of pressure on Northwich Vics. Whilst the match was going on, I was completing a lap of the ground taking photos until I stopped behind the goals that Ramsbottom were attacking, just as they were awarded a freekick 25 yeards out from goal. The goalie took his time carefully positioning his wall and he seemed happy with his setup. It wouldn’t matter. Owen Roberts stepped up and superbly curled his low shot around the wall, taking the goalie by surprise, placing the ball perfectly into the bottom corner to make it 1-1. I was right behind the goal and he had hit it inch perfect, giving the clearly frustrated keeper no chance. It seemed that every time I got myself behind the goalposts, a team would score!
Ramsbottom carried on pushing for a second goal and shortly after their goal they hit the crossbar for the thrid time in the first half with Andy Dawson reacting quickest in the box to drive a header onto the woodwork.
Earlier I had noticed one spectator in the ground wearing the very same orange and black Salford City scarf that I own (for those that don’t know, Salford are my local team these days), something which I thought was a bit odd for a Ramsbottom v Northwich Vics game. I then recalled that a lad on Twitter had said that he was brought up near Salford CIty and was also planning to attend Ramsbottom’s game today. When the Salford City scarf lad walked near me I thought I better introduce myself to him and fortunately I was right in my presumption and this was indeed Chris, the lad who’d contacted me on Twitter the night before. Sadly though, he let himself down a bit when he informed me that he was a Norwich CIty fan thanks to his stint in the East Anglian city’s university.
Just as I was berating the fact that Swansea just can’t seem to beat Norwich, Ramsbottom finally took a much deserved lead. The tricky Lee Gaskell beat his man out on the right wing, swept in a great low ball into the box, which was then moved onto Phil Dean for him to simply finish past the Vics keeper to make it 2-1.
Shortly after basking in the glory of Ramsbottom’s second goal, we were joined by Andy who had recognised me from Twitter. Andy is the man behind the official Ramsobttom Twitter account (@RamsbottomUtd) and he’d encountered a few groundhoppers over the past few months it seemed. I declared how much I loved the town and the ground to him (I wasn’t being sycophantic – I genuinely did love the place), but I reserved my most gushing praise for the whole “coffee in a mug” arrangement. As he was telling me that everybody mentions that when they visit, one of the girls from the tea hut began circling the ground with a basket to collect the empty mugs of today’s spectators.
Andy left us to perform some of his matchday duties just as the half-time whistle was blowing. Just before he left, I asked him was there a clubhouse and he informed us that most of the fans go to the cricket club next door at half-time. We thought we may as well go with the crowd, so after claiming our raffle ticket at the turnstile to ensure we’d be allowed back into the ground, we found ourselves sitting in the cricket club clubhouse with a pint of Fosters and Jeff Stelling excited face on the TVs around the room. As the bar slowly emptied, we realised we must be approaching the kick-off to the second half, however, me and Chris took our times finishing off our pints. I even smuggly thought to myself, “We’ll be fine. I never miss goals at football games.”
On returning to pitchside, only a few minutes into the second half, it was all Northwich Victoria, as they repeatedly bared down on Rammy’s goal. However, after a frantic opening, the second half died down and to be honest it wasn’t a patch on the first half.
As the uneventful half unfolded, something suddenly struck me about the way both teams were attacking in the closing 15 minutes. There was something not quite right considering Ramsbottom were 2-1 up. Then it occurred to me: Ramsbottom were playing like a team searching for a winner and not defending a lead; neither did Northwich look like a team trailing by a goal. A quick peruse of Twitter confirmed my suspicions: the score was actually 2-2! It turned out whilst we were finishing our pints in the clubhouse at the start of the half, Northwich were busy equalising with a freekick floated over the wall and into the top corner (apparently). For whatever reason, I didn’t think to ask anyone had we missed a goal. Nevermind!
The closing stages of the game saw both teams getting wound up by controversial refereeing decisions. Firstly, Northwich felt they warranted a penalty after Lugsden was brought down in the box, only for the ref to ignore their calls. Then it was Ramsbottom’s turn to be outraged. The home team and fans had already lost their tempers with a few refereeing calls during the game, but the worst was to be left until the final ten minutes when Gaskell’s goalbound shot appeared to be clearly blocked by an outstretched Northwich hand. Despite the outbursts of anger from on and off the pitch, play resumed and no penalty was given.
Full-Time: Ramsbottom United 2 – 2 Northwich Victoria. A very enjoyable first half, perfect for the BBC cameras to capture the joy of non-league football, but the second half was a much more drab affair.
Chris was in a rush to catch the last steam engine of the day back to Bury, but I was in no hurry and so I headed back to the clubhouse (via a convenient little escape hatch in the side of the ground’s fence) with Andy to learn the rest of the day’s other football scores in the clubhouse. In fact, even after leaving the clubhouse, I decided I’d hang around a bit longer and enjoy the town a bit more. Clearly the town of Ramsbottom had won me over, as I did not end up leaving until the 19:30 bus back to Bury arrived – two and half hours after the final whistle.
Highlights: the steam engine journey, the pilgrimage up to Peel Tower and the views from up by it, The SHoulder of Mutton pub, lovely town, friendly club, good pie, coffee in a mug, excellent first half of football.
Low Points: the steam engine issues, missing a goal.