The North West Counties Football League was founded in 1982 following the amalgamation of two of the most historic leagues in the North West, the Cheshire County League and the Lancashire Combination, whose own history stretched back to 1919 and 1891 respectively.
Initially the North West Counties League operated with three divisions and 58 clubs, but at the end of 1986-87 season, this was reduced to two as a result of ongoing ground grading and the formation of a First Division of the Northern Premier League. The League continued with two leagues until 2018/19, when it expanded to three divisions consisting of 60 clubs.
The NWCFL covers a geographical area stretching from Cumbria in the North, through Lancashire, Cheshire, Liverpool, Manchester, Shropshire and parts of Derbyshire, down to Staffordshire in the South, and goes East into West Yorkshire. From this season, the League also see representation from the Isle of Man for the first time in its history. Previously the League has also welcomed clubs from North Wales prior to the formation of the Welsh Premier League in 1991 (now the Cymru Premier). Altogether, 149 clubs have enjoyed membership of the NWCFL, with 17 of our current constitution being founder members.
The League is at Steps 5 & 6 of the National League System and operates one of the 14 divisions at Step 5 and two of the 20 divisions at Step 6 across England. The League operates a Premier, First Division North and First Division South division plus the League Challenge Cup (The Macron Challenge Cup) open to all clubs and a First Division Challenge Cup, which is open to the 40 sides playing at Step 6.
The League is a Limited Company (The North West Counties League Limited) although administered by a Board of Directors and a Management committee of unpaid officers, drawing on a wealth of experience and skills.
Many of our clubs have excelled in our own, and national, competitions, particularly the FA Vase where we have provided a host of finalists and four winners; St Helens Town, Colne Dynamoes, Nantwich Town and Kirkham & Wesham claiming the prestigious silverware. Fleetwood Town was our first finalist in 1985, losing to Halesowen Town, before the all-North West Counties Final between St Helens Town and Warrington Town in 1987. Next were Colne Dynamoes who beat Emley in 1988 and then Clitheroe, who were beaten by Brigg Town in 1996. The league waited ten years before producing their next winner in 2006, when Nantwich Town lifted the trophy after beating Hillingdon Borough 3-1 in the final at Birmingham City's St Andrews ground.
The league has continued to deliver a steady stream of teams in the final rounds of the Vase competition over recent years, with member clubs reaching the final in 2008, 2009 and 2015. Kirkham & Wesham (now AFC Fylde) became the first of our clubs to grace the hallowed turf at the New Wembley when they defeated Lowestoft Town 2-1 in front of 19,537 spectators. In 2009 Glossop North End reached the final only to lose 2-0 against Northern League opponents Whitley Bay in front of a crowd of 12,212, and they returned to Wembley in 2015, only to lose 2-1 after extra time against North Shields in front of 9,674 spectators.
In the FA Cup, the League is regularly represented in the latter qualifying rounds, and Newcastle Town became the last of our clubs to reach the First Round Proper in 1997, bowing out to Notts County at the Victoria Ground, but ex-member clubs Horwich RMI, Penrith, Colwyn Bay and Stalybridge Celtic have also reached this stage.
In county cup competitions, our clubs figure prominently in the various county cups across the whole region, regularly accounting for clubs from higher leagues.
In domestic action, the fiercely competitive nature of the League is reflected in the fact that only four clubs have ever completed a League Championship and Challenge Cup double, Ashton United in 1992, Kidsgrove Athletic in 1998, FC United of Manchester in 2007, and Glossop North End in 2015. Atherton LR are the only club to claim consecutive Championships, in 1992 and 1993, whilst Workington became the first club to regain NPL status at the first attempt in 1999.
The outstanding achievement of Clitheroe in the 1980's when they collected each divisional Championship in successive seasons between 1984 and 1986 was matched by FC United in 2006-07.
The record attendance for a North West Counties League fixture stood at 1,353 for sixteen years, Radcliffe Borough's First Division Championship decider with Caernarfon Town attracting this gate in 1982-83 season. Workington's pulling power saw them exceed this in their 1998-99 Championship season, the deciding fixture with Mossley seeing 2,281 spectators through the turnstiles at Borough Park.
However in season 2005-06 the phenomenal popularity of new club FC United of Manchester's Division Two championship winning team set a new record with 6,023 spectators attending their last home game of the season versus Great Harwood Town. Ironically, Great Harwood won 1-0 on the day and it turned out to be the Lancashire club's last ever game in the league, as they folded a few weeks later.
FC United's successful side of season 2006-07 continued to cause attendances to soar, both in the Challenge Cup and League competitions, with 4,058 spectators at Salford City for their NWCFL Premier Division fixture - the best ever attendance for a "night match". That season saw them become the first club since the league's inception to win all four league competitions they competed in during one season - First Division Championship, Reserve Division Championship, League Challenge Cup, and Reserve Division Cup.
Another side who experienced considerable trophy success in their short stay with the League is City of Liverpool FC. Having won a ‘treble’ in their inaugural season, lifting the League Challenge Cup, the First Division Cup and the First Division Play Off trophy, they went on to lift the Champions Cup (League Champions v Cup Winners Cup) in 2017/18, the Premier Division Championship last season and the Champions Cup for a second time at the start of the current campaign.
Newcastle Town's record breaking Premier Division championship campaign of 2009/10 still remains one of the best ever in league history. The records they achieved were:
Given the reduction in the number of clubs in our Premier Division it seems almost inconceivable that these records will be broken any time soon.
The League has consistently provided the launch pad for new clubs looking to enter the National League System, with many going on to grace the higher echelons of football. Three former clubs have achieved Football League status, with Accrington Stanley (1982-1987), Fleetwood Town (1997-2005) now competing in League One, and Salford City (1982-2008). No fewer than 28 former member clubs currently playing at a high level of football.
Season 2018/19 was historic for the League as we were given the green light to expand the competition back to three divisions. The expansion to 60 clubs saw the arrival of 17 new clubs, many of whom went on to success, with eight newcomers finishing in the top 5 of each our First Divisions; Longridge Town finishing at First Division North Champions and Rylands at First Division South Champions. The competition in all three divisions being extremely high, with two of the three titles going to the final day of the season!
Last season was historic for the wrong reasons, when the Coronavirus pandemic curtailed the season in March, leaving the competition unfinished. The Football Association declaring the season null & void as a result, much to the disappointment of everyone concerned.
The start of this season was delayed due to the ongoing impact of the Coronavirus, but an October start will see the competition once again compete with 60 clubs. Despite no promotion or relegation taking place due to the previous null & void decision, two new sides join the competition. Bury AFC are a newly formed fans owned club whose formation came from the expulsion of Bury FC, while FC Isle of Man join as another new club, becoming the first side from the Island to play in the English system.
Despite many changes in clubs and personnel over the years, and on-going challenges presented by the economic climate the League's competitions continue to thrive and attract interest both locally and further afield.
Most important of all, the League's competitions continue to provide excellent entertainment on the field, and foster friendship and camaraderie between clubs and their supporters off the field and long may that continue.