It had been just over a month since Arsenal courageously beat Chelsea behind closed doors in the delayed 2019/2020 FA Cup Final. Admittedly, I didn’t watch it. Did anybody? I didn’t even know it was taking place. Once the plucky underdogs are knocked out one-by-one, I tend to lose all interest. In a good season, I can follow the competition through to the Second Round before begrudgingly shrugging my shoulders and eagerly anticipating the restart of the competition in early August.
This time around, there were a couple of changes. The competition had started slightly later and a total of 737 clubs were accepted into the world’s finest cup competition; an increase of two places on last years allocation. Don’t say the FA don’t spoil us! With so many changes having to be made to cram the fixtures in, the entirety of this years Extra Preliminary Round, First Round Qualifying and Third Round Qualifying stages are to be played midweek.
Here we were at the Extra Preliminary Round stage, the opening round of the competition and with all 184 matches taking place under the lights, it presented football supporters ample opportunity to get out and watch their local clubs in action, especially as all ‘professional’ and ‘elite’ sides are still playing behind closed doors… although how the government can label clubs such as Curzon Ashton as ‘elite’ is both bewildering and laughable… and they would agree.
Earlier in the week, I had been part of the ‘lucky’ 300 who watched Colne stroll past Daisy Hill at New Sirs. Then again, it’s nothing to brag about really as I don’t think anybody was turned away. It was pleasing to see that the FA Cup was certainly benefitting from boosted crowds, fed through the undeniable thirst for live action. My trip to St Helens Town was no different. Boosting interest further was the fact this match was the only action taking place on the Thursday night, making it the final tie of the round to be staged.
St Helens Town were, it is fair to say, extremely lucky to be in the FA Cup. They are one of the few clubs who had benefited, in a roundabout way, from the previous season which had been curtailed. They had finished at the very bottom of the NWCFL First Division North (English football’s 11th tier) having won just seven league matches all season. Normally, entry into the FA Cup is based on where a club finished in the league… but with all of that out of the window, the FA decided that the fairest way to allocate teams was to draw sides from that level at random until all spaces were filled. So, St Helens, who hadn’t qualified for the past five years and had no real expectation or hope of being in the FA Cup this time around became the lowest ranked side to enter the competition.
Ruskin Drive, the shiny new home ground of both St Helens Town and fellow NWCFL side Pilkington, was only allowed to host 150 spectators for this match as per council guidelines. Tickets, priced at £6 each, had sold out days beforehand and there was a great deal of excitement around this clash against Cammell Laird who were making the short trip across from Birkenhead.
There was slight drama in the build up to the match, as Lairds had arrived two hours before kick-off, to find the changing facilities and pitch out of bounds before going on to complain to the competitions secretary; they were annoyed and it set the tone for an evening which would see a bruising and fiesty battle play out. Anybody could have predicted that.
This was my fourth visit to Ruskin, which has been the club’s home since 2016, when they finally moved back to the town following tumultuous and nomadic few years. A large flag, found amongst an impressive collection, celebrates the fact that ‘the boys are back in town’.
For some context, St Helens Town had played at their Hoghton Road ground from 1946 through to 2000, when the land was eventually sold off for housing. In 2002, they moved across to Knowsley Road, the home of Super League giants Saints and groundshared with them until they decided they had to move to Langtree Park in 2010.
In a nutshell, issues started when the football club, who were originally informed they would be moving to Langtree Park with the rugby club, were told the deal had changed and they would not be allowed to play there.
With nowhere available to stage matches in the town, the football club were forced to call in favours from other nearby clubs. Atherton Collieries, Ashton Town, Ashton Athletic and Prescot Cables all stepped in and acted as host to St Helens, albeit the club were paying out rent and playing in front of dwindling crowds. It was a perilous position to be in.
In reality, if the rugby club really wanted to help their counterparts, they would have done… but they simply didn’t. The whole situation drew similarities from the demise of Leigh Genesis but in this case, the football club hobbled on, determined not to allow decades of history to be thrown on to the sporting scrapheap.
Conversations between the rugby and football sides of this town still happen – occasionally – but most bridges appear to have been burnt, which is a shame. Everything that happened was a major kick in the teeth for the football club but those behind the scenes never gave up and while Ruskin Drive isn’t owned by them, or ran by them, they know that they have successfully fought for and gained a base in the town and that is something that they should be very proud of.
As I mentioned before, this was my fourth visit to Ruskin Drive, so I was pretty familiar with the half an hour drive over to Merseyside. St Helens is a town I know little about, despite the fact I went to college halfway between there and Wigan. I survived the experience despite being caught up in and subjected to tedious ‘banter’ between inhabitants of the two towns on a daily basis. It all peaked whenever the two towns’ rugby sides clashed in one of their many derby matches.
It’s at this point of this blog post I realise that already, I have mentioned rugby on a number of occasions and I suppose that is one of the major problems facing the football club. St Helens is the definition of a ‘rugby town’ along with the likes of Wakefield, Castleford and Widnes to name just a few. Wigan has always held that label too but it can be argued that is slowly diminishing with every year that passes, thanks to a long stint in the Premier League and an FA Cup win.
Another issue is, that if you do prefer football in St Helens, you’re more than likely going to support Liverpool or Everton who are found just down the road. Both St Helens Town and Pilkington are trying their best to captivate what should be a large pool of customers but you can’t help but feel they have more barriers to fight than most other clubs at this level. The sad truth is, St Helens Town could reach the Football League and they would probably still struggle to reach the same crowds they were attracting at various points throughout the 20th century.
They were originally formed in 1901 but were thought to have folded by 1928. Reformation occured in 1946 and two years later, the club signed their most famous player – a player who a solitary information board by the entrance at Ruskin Drive just didn’t seem enough for.
Bert Trautmann’s story is a captivating one. Born in Bremen, Germany in 1923, he joined the Luftwaffe in 1941 before serving in a number of countries during the war. He was captured by British forces but escaped twice before being caught for a third time and was imprisoned, eventually in a prisoner of war camp in Ashton-in-Makerfield, Wigan.
During his time as a prisoner, the inmates were regularly allowed to play football. While playing against Haydock Park FC, Trautmann became injured while playing as a centre half and swapped with the goalkeeper. He remained in that position for the rest of his playing days. Following his release, he declined the offer of repatriation to Germany and opted to stay in England, working on a bomb disposal site in Huyton.
Football wise, he joined St Helens Town, who at the time played in the Liverpool County Combination, eventually marrying the club secretary’s daughter. Large crowds began to watch St Helens, with word of the German’s goalkeeping performances sweeping through the town. It culminated in a 9,000 strong crowd watching Town defeat Runcorn in a cup final at Prescot’s ground.
By this stage, Trautmann had gained the attention of a host of Football League clubs and Manchester City were the first to offer him a professional contract, moving to Maine Road in 1949.
There was some discomfort amongst the City fanbase when it was announced that they had signed a former Nazi but during his time at the club, he won over the fans and went on to become a club legend following his performance in the 1956 FA Cup Final. It was in this match against Birmingham City that he famously played the last 15 minutes with a broken neck, with two of his vertebrae cracking following a challenge with Peter Murphy. It was a remarkable story, going from prisoner of war to FA Cup hero in the space of eight years. It is something which St Helens Town are rightly very proud of.
Another part of St Helens history which they are proud of is their 1987 FA Vase victory at Wembley. In beating Warrington Town in front of over 4,000, Town became the first club from the North West to lift the trophy before Colne Dynamoes joined them in doing so the following year. En route to the final, they played Falmouth Town and Emley with the latter match attracting a crowd of over 2,000 at Hoghton Road.
This Thursday evening, in contrast, I had never seen Ruskin Drive so quiet. Just 150 tickets were allowed to be sold and this was done online with a QR code being e-mailed out. These were then scanned at the gates, making the whole event feel more like a gig for a local band than an FA Cup match under the lights. In fact, while we’re on the topic, one of the nation’s best tribute acts, The Clone Roses, had chosen to come along to the match but passed up the opportunity to sing ‘Mersey Paradise’ at half-time.
Club volunteers were out in full force, all sporting their fluorescent yellow stewards vests. They probably didn’t want to wear them but in times like this, you’ll do anything to help your club out.
From all of the matches I had been to recently, St Helens were definitely the most proactive in ensuring everybody was ‘safe’ as per recent guidelines. Recently appointed club chairman, Gary Langley, seemed pretty calm but I always believe that if you’ve put in all the effort beforehand, there’s nothing else you can do on the night.
It was actually Gary who brought me along to my first match here, back in 2017 when Town took of FC Oswestry. Ruskin is quite a hike from the town centre, so he offered to pick me up on a frosty and bitterly cold December afternoon. Back then, he was acting in an official league role – as he still is – but it was nice to see him being really enthusiastic and happy to be playing his part in running a well respected local football club.
Every time I catch Town play, I always walk away reflecting on how much I’ve enjoyed my time watching them, with the likes of club secretary, Jeff Voller and programme creator supreme John McKiernan, always great to chat to. They always seem so laid back and calm, no matter what nonsense is happening on the pitch and tonight was no exception. A ridiculously harsh red card for St Helens’ Neil Weaver would have seen a barrage of abuse towards the match officials at other clubs but not here. John, who I was stood next to at the time, took it in his stride. I think I was more annoyed at the injustice I was witnessing.
As kick-off approached, I got chatting to possibly the FA Cup’s biggest fan; Phil Annets. He’s the knowledgeable bloke behind the FA Cup Factfile account on Twitter and his written work has been featured in the last four FA Cup Final programmes. It really is a labour of love for him but I bet there isn’t a non-league club out there who hasn’t been tagged in one of his tweets at some point, showing just how wide his breadth of knowledge is. He had travelled up from Oxfordshire for this match, conveniently coinciding it with a trip to see family in Southport, which was handy. As the two sides lined up for kick-off, it was just as well that he was positioned behind the far goal with me as he noticed that the goalposts hadn’t actually been put into position.
The linesman also hadn’t noticed this issue when he came to do his usual pre-kick off checks. I suppose, as a match official, you wouldn’t normally have to check if the goalposts are actually on the goal line. “I could do with a bit of help to be honest,” said the linesman in a manner to suggest that if neither Phil or I jumped over the fence to help shift it, then the match would be kicking off late. Cammell Laird goalkeeper Richie Cowderoy acted oblivious as myself and the linesman gave the goals a massive shove and lined them up perfectly on the artificial surface.
I jumped back over the fence knowing that I had just played (probably) my biggest ever role in an FA Cup. Both proud and then deflated at the realisation that my cup career had peaked, I slumped on the barrier behind the net and braced myself for what I hoped would be a well contested and bruising encounter. The prize for the winners? A trip to scenic Seel Park, the home of Mossley, in the next round.
The first half was pretty even with St Helens shading it with chances on goal. Half-time team talks took place on the pitch, with the council owned changing facilities out of bounds. Players kit bags and other gear all had to be stored by the perimeter fence, making it look akin to a high school PE lesson on that side of the ground.
Whatever was said during the interval went out of the window for the hosts within two minutes of the restart with Lairds taking the lead through Paul Bathgate. Town responded well, with chance after chance flying just wide or hitting the crossbar. It seemed like it wouldn’t be their night, until Colyfa Kamara grabbed an equaliser with 20 minutes left on the clock.
The match became a little physical, with Lairds players trying their best to get St Helens players in trouble. It worked when Weaver, who was fouled, was somehow picked out of a large melee to be the guilty party and was shown a second yellow card. A lad who threw a punch and made a decent connection, which reverberated around the ground, evaded any punishment and was allowed to continue playing. Staggering really.
A concern shared by many in attendance was whether the match would go to penalties or not. In a previous match, there were issues when the floodlights flicked off at 22:00 on the dot as per council regulations. With no way of turning them back on, the match was abandoned. After a large stoppage in play and the scores level, panicked phone calls were taking place to double (and triple check) that the manual override option was available incase proceedings went past the cut off point.
By the time the final whistle blew and penalty takers had been selected it was 22:00. Manual override worked and it was just as well for St Helens that it did as they prevailed 5-4 on penalties. The vociferous gang of suited officials from Cammell Laird were finally lost for words and shuffled out of the ground, knowing that they were marginally close to progressing into the next round. As for the home side, the lowest ranked side in the whole competition went marching through and they deserved to.
I’d always recommend a trip to watch St Helens Town. While their ground may not be much and they can’t physically offer much in the way of hospitality, they always look after you. They try their best and are a true example to all clubs, not to give up when the going gets tough.