The world of football is never dull, and that can certainly be said for non-league. The FA had released their league line ups for the 2014/2015 season and all looked to be settled. A pantomime then started and suddenly nobody had a clue what was happening. Worksop Town resigned from the Northern Premier League, before then pleading to be reinstated just 48 hours later.
This one event up in Nottinghamshire rocked the non-league scene and a quick reshuffle was ordered. 153 miles away, Wingate & Finchley were reprieved in the Ryman Premier. In the midlands, Halesowen Town and Stourbridge moved in a parallel direction into the Northern Premier League with Corby Town moving in the opposite direction.
Nearer home, Kidsgrove Athletic received a reprieve in the Northern Premier South, with Bacup & Rossendale Borough surviving in the NWCFL Premier Division for another season. As you can see, one resignation or financial cock up can lead to pandemonium throughout the football pyramid.
The NWCFL appeared to have got away lightly with controversy and drama this season. Yes, we had lost Leek CSOB, but they’ve moved to pastures new and have found their own facilities away from Harrison Park. We had been informed that Litherland REMYCA and Barnton were joining our ranks and we were eagerly awaiting news about Cammell Laird – who had resigned from the Northern Premier League – and a newly formed, unknown entity in Stockport Town.
We were sat in the Atherton Collieries clubhouse preparing for the upcoming season when news filtered through on Twitter that Formby had resigned from the league. A statement read “The club has been put in sudden, unanticipated turmoil. We are currently looking at our other options but at this stage we are not hopeful for the continuation of the club.”
Two days later, the club folded. 94 years of history gone in two days of madness.
Formby is a small town on the coast and sits roughly halfway between it’s larger and more famous neighbours Liverpool and Southport. One of the most affluent areas in Merseyside it is home to some of Liverpool’s finest. The likes of Steven Gerrard, Brendan Rodgers and Raheem Sterling currently reside there. Alan Shearer, Wayne Rooney and Sami Hyypia have also spent time in the sand dune surrounded settlement. In fact, so many footballers have lived in the town over the years you’d have assumed the place would have a strong tie to it’s community club.
The football club was formed at the end of the First World War in 1919 as Formby United. They played at various locations in the town for a year before finding a permanent home at Brows Lane; a location which would be their home for the next 80 years.
In 1982, Formby became founder members of the NWCFL when the Cheshire and Lancashire leagues joined forces. The Squirrels had mixed fortunes during their time in the NWCFL before they moved to a new ground in 2002. This is where the clubs troubles started.
The club were forced out of their Brows Lane ground which was demolished and subsequently redeveloped as a swimming pool in 2007. The Lane had played host to arguably Formby’s proudest day in the 1973/1974 season when they reached the FA Cup Third Round and faced the highest ranked team in the competition; Oldham Athletic. Over 2,500 spectators piled into their home with a temporary stand to see the Latics triumph 2-0 in the world’s best cup competition. So high was the excitement surrounding the fixture a bulldozer had to be hired to create grass embankments so spectators could see over one another.
The new ground at Altcar Road saw the club marginalised and distanced from the heart of the town centre. Positioned next to a dual carriageway in the middle of a field, attendances were going to drop. The new facilities weren’t up to the expected standard and the club were kicked out of the NWCFL, into the Liverpool County Combination. A 9th placed finished followed before they were re-elected into the NWCFL the following season after improvements had taken place.
Success followed as they were promoted into the NWCFL Premier during their first campaign back at that level. The club performed well during their time in the top division of NWCFL football, but found themselves demoted at the end of the 2010/2011 season after an administrative error. A new management team in Jim Shirley and Kevin Dally arrived at Altcar Road and The Squirrels began to take Division One by storm. The duo attracted some of Merseyside’s best talent at this level, and the club went from strength to strength with their financial know how.
The 2012/13 season saw numerous records broken as they stormed to the league title and finished runners up in the League Challenge Cup. However, despite running away with the title, Formby were denied promotion after their Altcar Road home once again failed to meet the required ground grading standards.
In preparation for the 2013/14 season, Formby announced that they would be ground sharing with Northern Premier side Burscough at their Victoria Park home, which is where this particular visit took place. This further distanced the club from their now dwindling fan base and also meant that the ten junior sides which were under the Formby FC banner dissolved.
I had last been to Victoria Park the previous season where I saw Burscough lose 3-1 at home to Trafford. You can read about that visit and see more photographs from the ground by clicking here. My overall impressions of Burscough were quite good, but I was keen to see how Formby had settled in at their new home.
The match was a First Division Challenge Cup Round 1 fixture. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t care less about this competition, but I had nothing else to do and besides, I had a Northern Rail voucher which was reaching its expiry date. I had waited a whole year to travel somewhere useful with it on the Northern Rail network, but I ended up travelling to an Atherton away match. Typical really.
I made the short walk around the corner to Atherton train station where I got on the Southport train and got off at Burscough Bridge. An even shorter walk followed in Burscough before I arrived at the ground. Overall, I had spent nothing and had walked about 50 metres to get to the match. Everything was going well so far.
As I had made the journey by myself I wasn’t sure whether I had turned up too early. Fortunately the Atherton Collieries players arrived at the same time so I went inside with those lot. I had lost a little weight since my last visit to Burscough, but I still could not fit through the turnstiles which I maintain are the smallest in world football.
Due to the odd number of teams in Division One of the NWCFL, six teams were randomly selected to play in the first round of this competition. Formby v Atherton Collieries, Daisy Hill v Nelson and Eccleshall v Hanley Town were the three fixtures at this early stage of the competition. The draw for the following round had already been made, and Colls knew that a win would set up a Flatcap Derby against their local rivals Atherton Laburnum Rovers.
Going into the match, Colls sat second in the table; behind leaders Hanley Town by two points with a game in hand. Formby meanwhile sat in fifth place having played three games less than everybody else in the promotion hunt. Both teams were level in the form table with Colls unbeaten in ten matches and Formby having won eight of their last ten.
It began to pour it down in Burscough as the Colls Crazy Gang arrived. Fortunately the Barons club was open next door so we could head for some warmth and something to drink. It isn’t the best clubhouse/pub in the world, with its lack of natural lighting and claustrophobic scarf collection, but it does contain a certain charm.
The adverse weather subsided and we went back into the ground to set up shop for the afternoon. I purchased a matchday programme for £1.50, and as usual, it was a great effort by the Formby programme team. It was awarded the NWCFL Division 1 programme of the year award last season, narrowly pipping myself and Emil to the title which would have made our season slightly more bearable.
A double rainbow hovered above Burscough as the two teams emerged on to the field of play. Formby were in their shiny yellow kit, whilst Colls were in the previous campaigns green shirts with this years home shorts. Apparently our blue kit was still at the dry cleaners in Atherton, meaning that we were in our Norwich City inspired shirts for the afternoon.
Despite enjoying a fair share of possession and chances Colls were unable to score against a well disciplined and highly organised Formby side. In testing conditions, neither side could settle into the match as a tedious affair unfolded.
The first attempt of the afternoon came on nine minutes when Jake Patton fired at goal from the edge of the box. Tom Simpson saved comfortably though, before he continued to have a chat with us Colls fans who were stood behind the goal. I’d never met such an unattentive goalkeeper before. He continued to talk to us about his course at university before talking about his commute back to Burscough to play for The Squirrels. Lovely lad, just not sure about his attention span.
The home side registered their first attempt on goal five minutes later when Matt Kirby charged down the wing. He pulled the ball back across the face of goal, where the Colls defence could only clear to Kieron Brislen who smashed his effort into the side netting.
Colls continued to press, but Formby cancelled them out and vice versa. Both formations seemed to counteract each other whilst gaping holes were left in midfield. Eventually, and thankfully, the referee blew for half time. We headed into the hospitality at half time where we shared a few sandwiches and a brew with the Formby officials Adrian and Merrick. You’re always guaranteed a warm welcome when those two are around, even if they do wear yellow and blue striped scarves like our rivals from Atherton.
Unfortunately it was soon time to head back into the elements. Usually it doesn’t bother me, but I wasn’t in the mood for the weather. I can’t remember now, but I must have had a rough time the night before.
With nothing to separate the two sides in the first half, Formby broke the deadlock on 49 minutes with a Mikey White penalty. The awarding of the spot kick came when Franny Smith sent John Prescott through on goal. Prescott took the ball around Colls keeper Joe Brobbin who brought him down for a stone wall penalty. Brobbin was lucky not to have been sent off, but he lived to fight on as White smashed the ball into the net off the underside of the crossbar.
Colls responded and went in search of an equaliser but couldn’t get an effort on target. They were duly punished and found themselves further behind on 82 minutes when John Prescott broke free to finish superbly past Joe Brobbin.
Atherton may have lost, but one good thing did come from the match. Three sets of brothers featured during the 90 minutes for Colls; something which the BBC Non-League show soon cottoned on to. We had Paul Atherton and his twin brother Karl. Gaz and Josh Peet along with Jake and Daryl Patton.
I wasn’t in the mood to stick around after the match after a fairly dismal day in Burscough. I made my way back to the train station where I caught the next train back to Atherton.
As I was leaving the ground little did I know it was the last time I would watch Formby play. I always hoped that I’d one day see the club return to Altcar Road so I could tick that ground off my list, but that now seems to be a dead and buried dream.
I feel sorry for the likes of Adrian and Merrick who have put so much time and effort into the club over the years. Having to move from Brows Lane was the first nail in the coffin, but I feel the move from Altcar Road could have been avoided. The thirst for success on the pitch appears to have led to money being pumped into a playing budget rather than ground repairs.
Playing miles away from home, aiming for promotion and performing in front of limited crowds simply isn’t a sustainable way to run a football club. With Jim Shirley and Kevin Dally leaving the club, the main source of finance had disappeared, and so had The Squirrels.
Formby’s final match turned out to be at Victoria Park against Atherton Collieries on the final day of the season, where an own goal by Colls defender Chris Lawton turned out to be the club’s last.
Hopefully a phoenix club will be set up in Formby at some stage in the not too distant future. The disappearance of another club in Merseyside is a worrying trend. Vauxhall Motors and Cammell Laird both dropped out of their respective divisions in the months leading up the the folding of Formby. Let’s hope clubs can win back the support of their local communities and national football association before we see another casualty in the north west.
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 20.4 miles
- ADMISSION: Free with Atherton Collieries
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £1.50
- PIE: Still on a diet