Skelmersdale United FC – JMO Sports Park

Skelmersdale – or ‘Skem’ – as it is abbreviated to in both speech and on road signs, is essentially an overspill for Liverpool despite being geographically closer to Wigan as well as sharing the town’s postcode. When the new inhabitants of this previously small, mining village, arrived in their droves in the 1960’s they were already set in their ways when it came to football. They all supported Liverpool or Everton. Red or blue. They most likely had no knowledge of their new local football club that had been founded back in 1882.

That began to change in 1967 – six years after the place had been designated a ‘new town’ – when the club reached the FA Amateur Cup final.  Playing against Enfield Town in front of 75,000 people at Wembley was undoubtedly an achievement of mass proportions. Then the following season, they met Football League side Scunthorpe United in the FA Cup First Round. Both of these occasions helped put the new town and football club on the map.

In football and especially at non-league level, I think we all subconsciously place clubs into different categories. There is of course no right or wrong way of viewing clubs and there is no definitive list available. During this period of isolation, I’ve been thinking about how I view different clubs from the outside and while I’m an admirer of many and a stern critic of a handful, Skelmersdale United are a strange entity to weigh up. A label of ‘unstable’ I think would be fair and not many would argue.

United’s recent history has been a tale of highs and lows; tough to watch at times. Promotions and relegations. A nomadic existence with four different home venues and a fluctuating fan base often perturbed by the shadow of uncertainty off the football pitch.

Less than ten years after their Wembley exploits and battle with Scunthorpe United the club had dropped into the Lancashire Combination, allowing them to become founding members of the North West Counties league in 1982. Years of competing at that level saw them eventually gain promotion into the Northern Premier League in 2006.

They became a solid fixture in the league. Led by Tommy Lawson, who is now a scout at Southport, they finished in the play-off places in all but one season out of five. A brilliantly consistent record but it was never going to be enough. During this period, they became well known for their fast attacking football, solid defending and their ability to win matches in impressive fashion.

What do you do though when you come so close to success but fall at the final hurdle, time and time again? It is a concern that many clubs are faced with. Do you keep plodding on, hoping that next season may be a little kinder to you and you finally gain your reward? Or more naturally, do you push further, feeling that you’re only a new signing or two and a cash injection away from claiming that league title?

Stormy Corner

United stuck with their project. By the end of the 2012/13 season, they had finally won the league and had done it with by an impressive 16 point margin, scoring 110 goals in the process. They had assembled a ridiculously strong side with a list of names that would strike fear into the opposition. Up front they had more options than Lawson could fit into the starting lineup with the likes of Gary Burnett, Josh Hine, Adam Morning and Mike Phenix. So much was the talent in that squad, Phenix rarely featured but had signed for Barnsley for £25,000 within two years.

That lethal strike force was complimented by an exciting young talent who they had plucked from Cheshire League side Golborne Sports in the shape of Matty Hughes, who would go on to sign for Fleetwood Town. Add in the likes of local lad Kenny Strickland, who made over 300 appearances for the club and non-league supremo Sam Ashton in net and you can see why watching Skelmersdale was so exciting at that time. But at what cost did all of this come?

It became common knowledge that players would often have their heads turned by Skelmersdale in pre-season, with the club offering wages that many – even with bigger crowds – were unable to offer. Then a few months later if they weren’t in with a fighting chance of silverware, the players would be offloaded and so the process would start again. It was all pretty unsustainable and short-sighted.

The whole setup felt out of touch with the local community, which they should have been relying on to support the club. Even the Stormy Corner ground that was built in the middle of an industrial estate in 2004, seemed distant and hard to understand.

It’s a shame because this club had the ability to secure itself as a stable Northern Premier League side. It could have built a reputation of being one of those horrible, detestable places where you turn up as an away side and feel like you’re up against the whole town. But there was something about Stormy Corner and the setup at the club that made it feel like it wasn’t designed to be permanent. Walking around, you were in a pop-up, temporary setting that had sprung up pretty quickly. Scaffolding supported covered areas and the seating areas were all modular, looking like they could be moved if ever needed.

By October 2017 it was announced that the football club had been unable to extend their lease at the ground. Their league cup clash against Atherton Collieries turned out to be the last at Stormy Corner, as the following morning the land had been seized by bailiffs on behalf of the owners and the locks were changed on the gates. Within weeks, Southport FC, were using the ground as their training facilities.

On the pitch, the instability had proven too much. A high turnover of players and subsequent poor results, as well as having to play home matches 12 miles away at Prescot Cables saw Skem finish second bottom and they were relegated back into the NWCFL. 

It was a huge fall for a team that just five years earlier had played Luton Town in the last 16 of The FA Trophy. For some measure of the turning fortunes in football, there’s now a seven division gap between the two clubs. None of that mattered now though. The only thing that mattered to the handful of volunteers and supporters who had stuck by the club through this tumultuous period was that it survived. That was all that really mattered, whichever form that came in.

By December 2019, Skelmersdale United had been very proactive and they were back playing in the town. After various suggestions, which included a fan owned phoenix club, it was agreed that the club would move to the JMO Sports Park which is just a stones throw from where the club had played at White Moss Park.

The JMO Sports Park is a large development which was built by J. Mallinson (Ormskirk) Limited in February 2011. It is a vast site, used by many clubs in and around Lancashire for training and matches. The site includes eight small training pitches and crucially two full sized pitches. Close to the entrance there is a licensed bar area and changing rooms, making the transition from sports facility to football ground achievable.

After discussions with the NWCFL and The FA It was the pitch closest to the main entrance that was chosen to be Skelmersdale United’s new home. Stands and terracing needed to be built from scratch and the perimeter fence needed to be altered so spectators couldn’t simply watch matches from the car park. The club estimated that this work would cost around £500,000 to complete, with the majority of that coming in the shape of grants.

I had watched Atherton Collieries play against Rylands in a friendly at the JMO Sports Park just a few weeks earlier and there was no sign that Skelmersdale were going to be moving in any time soon. I was astonished when I turned up for this Tuesday night league clash against Congleton Town to find that so much work had been completed in such a short space of time.

While many groundhoppers will descend on new ‘ticks’ as soon as they can, I often prefer to wait. There are usually teething problems and you don’t get a full sense of what the club is capable of as they are still learning themselves. Car parking was unavailable, with the facility overwhelmed by the number of people using the place. Entering the ground was done through the main reception of the centre, with a Skelmersdale United volunteer struggling to distinguish between paying fans and users of the other pitches. He had to bank on the honesty of those watching the match to part with their money; in years gone by I perhaps would have swerved him but I knew my money was going to good use on this occasion.

The weather had been awful all week, which is what took me to Skelmersdale in the first place. It was about the only match definitely on as it was on an artificial pitch. The ground offered very little in the way of protection from the elements but they had worked hard to provide what was available. It was only their third match at their new ground, with the first arriving a couple of weeks previously when a crowd of 266 witnessed a 4-0 victory over local rivals Burscough.

Despite the issues I’ve listed, it really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. A historic club, that had been around far longer than the town itself, had fought back from the brink of extinction and they now had their own ground, of sorts.

It didn’t matter that the stand had a restricted view. Nobody cared that the corner flags kept blowing over. They didn’t have their own clubhouse. So what? They had a club. They had a team and the people behind the scenes were once again able to concentrate on matters on the pitch, which they hadn’t been able to do for quite some time.

With Skelmersdale and Congleton being 15th and 16th in the league respectively, it was going to be a tight match and it was the home side who came out on top with a 2-1 victory.

Congleton took a slender lead into the interval when they scored from the spot on the stroke of half time. We of course were in the bar by this point as we were soaked down to our final layer; the skin. A ball to the edge of the area was chased by Dan Cope who was clattered into by Skem goalkeeper Ben Barnes. The referee had little option but to point to the spot and book the stopper, while the forward picked himself and fired the penalty home.

The second half belonged to the home side and they equalised on 69 minutes when Emini Adegbenro – who is one of my favourite all time NWCFL players – ran through the defence and finished smartly.

It was a shame when fan favourite Richard Brodie departed the field, having achieved nothing other than being caught offside on numerous occasions. He didn’t look too happy to be taken off either. The journeyman striker has made a grand total of 26 transfers throughout his career, including two spells at York City where he scored 58 goals. He’s a bit of a legend up in York and I had the honour of watching him at Bootham Crescent a handful of times during my time at University. 

I just wish somebody would answer my question. I find it totally puzzling that a lad from Gateshead who had played for 21 different clubs, would suddenly find himself ‘at home’ playing for Skelmersdale United in the NWCFL. Were they holding him hostage against his will?

Bringing off their talisman, however odd it seemed at the time, did the trick as the home side went on to batter the Bears. To top off the entertainment, in the final minute of the match Skelmersdale grabbed all three points. Congleton were struggling to get hold of the ball as the home side piled forward. Craig Ellison got down well to make the original save but couldn’t hold the ball and substitute, Gabriel Ellis who had replaced Brodie, fired home from close range.

The Skelmersdale players charged towards the side of the pitch to celebrate with a group of 20 teenagers who had been singing songs in the shed throughout the match. I found it quite heart warming that after everything the club had gone through, they had attracted a new generation of fans who were able to cheer on their hometown team in the driving rain with so much passion.

What does the future hold for the club? Well, they will most likely never scale to the heights that they had done previously. Would they want to? Perhaps not. I think they’re just grateful that they’ve got their club and can be proud of the work they’ve put in to ensure it is here not just for those young lads but the old guard who have witnessed so many twists and turns over the years.

From a neutrals perspective, the JMO Sports Park really is mind-numbingly dull. As dull as the town’s most notable product, Leon Osman (who went to my college actually). It’s one of those grounds you want to “get out of the way midweek” as you wouldn’t want to ‘waste’ a Saturday afternoon on it. Then again, I’m led to believe that the bus ride from Wigan is rather scenic and could indeed spice your matchday experience up a little bit.

If you want to read about Stormy Corner, the club’s old ground, then you can find my blog post by clicking here. I must warn you though, it was one of my earlier blogs so it isn’t as well written as more recent posts. 

 

 

 

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