December is often seen as a period of time to come together with those closest to you and be thankful. NWCFL Premier Division side Charnock Richard decided that December was their time to make a real statement, and that statement was that they are coming for the league's elite.
As the country began to open their advent calendars, Ryan Donnellan's side were dusting themselves off after a 2-4 home defeat to struggling Runcorn Town, with a month of exclusively away games staring them in the face.
They promptly went unbeaten over the whole of this month, claiming 2-0 victories over both Northwich Victoria and Padiham, with a 1-1 draw at Squires Gate sandwiched in between. For the way they faced down what looked like challenging few weeks, they were awarded the NWCFL's Premier Division Club of the Month award for December.
There was some individual recognition for December as well for one particular member of the Charnock Richard team - goalkeeper Callum Jakovlevs picked up the NWCFL Goalkeeper of the Month award after only conceding the 1 goal in 3 games throughout the festive season.
In what is now their 5th consecutive season in the Prem (give or take 2 half-seasons due to the pandemic), the side from Mossie Park currently sit 5th the table, trailing leaders Macclesfield, Skelmersdale United, Wythenshawe Town and Avro, all of whom they have already fallen to defeat to this season.
That said, they do have games in hand on all of the teams above them - as many as 3 on Wythenshawe. They are also the division's top scorers, with 72 goals for in 25 league games thus far. They've proven that they're certainly not a team to sleep on.
At the time of writing, they are currently 10 points shy of the table topping Silkmen, but another competition in which they are also eyeing glory is the LFA Challenge Trophy.
So far in this competition, they have faced Nelson, of the NWCFL Division One North, and Kendal Town, of the Northern Premier League West, 3-2 and 4-1 respectively. Now they face their biggest challenge yet - Southport, currently 6th in the National League North, in the quarter-final.
Unlike the FA Vase, the LFA Challenge Trophy goes well beyond steps 5 and 6 of non-league football, meaning that Charnock are something of a small fish in a big pond. However, a NWCFL team making it to the latter stages isn't exactly out of the question. As recently as last season, fellow NWCFL Prem side Prestwich Heys made it all the way to the final.
This match began with a very quiet first 25 minutes. For a game pitting the top scorers of their division against an opposing side from higher in the football pyramid, neither goalkeeper had to be too on their toes in the opening stages.
Comfortably the closest either team came early on was a Southport free kick taken by left-back Jack Doyle. From slightly off-centre to the right, a few yards behind the box, he bent a shot goalwards that forced Charnock keeper Callum Jakovlevs into a fingertip save onto his own crossbar and out.
Just before the half hour mark, Southport took the lead. Connor Woods, who'd been key to their midfield play thus far, ran onto the long ball down the left from Doyle. He cut inside of the Charnock man and placed a shot in the far corner that Jakovlevs couldn't quite parry away.
However, Charnock Richard certainly weren't ready to roll over. The came extremely close on 35 minutes, when a half-clearance fell to Nathan Nickeas. The number 11 had to stretch for it though and couldn't quite fire on target from close range.
Less than 5 minutes later, Charnock Richard really thought they had equalised. A cross on the right from Daniel Regan was converted at the back post, but the referee, Mr. Alexander Beckett, blew his whistle to promptly cancel the celebrations. No offside, but the man in black had seen a foul in the box on a Southport defender as the delivery came in from the right.
Half time rolled around with the visitors still a goal up, but almost immediately after the restart, Charnock hit the base of the post thanks to deflected effort on the left side of the penalty area from Nickeas.
These chances going awry were proving to be the deciding factor in the end, and Southport punished their hosts just before the hour mark. Isaac Buckley-Ricketts spearheaded a quick Southport attack on the right flank and was able to squeeze the ball beyond Jakovlevs from the edge of the box to make it 0-2.
There wouldn't be a long drought between that goal and the next - it was 0-3 ten minutes later. Buckley-Ricketts was involved again and switched the play beautifully to Doyle out wide with the outside of his foot. The left-backs cross was pinpoint and substitute Jordan Archer stabbed the ball home on the slide at the far post. A brilliant bit of play from the National League North side.
It was at this time, with the game seemingly out of reach, that Charnock finally broke the Southport resistance. Jordan Darr burst through the back line almost immediately after kick-off and was dragged back by a retreating Southport defender - unquestionably a penalty. Darr himself stepped up to the spot and fired the ball into the top left corner with the Southport keeper Toney McMillan-Snelson diving the other way.
Charnock had a renewed vigour with that goal, and they managed to essentially keep Southport in their own half until full time. However, they still weren't taking their chances. Jordan Darr had a some of excellent chances in the final 15 minutes but was unable to really trouble McMillan-Snelson. On two occasions after receiving the ball on the edge of the area, Darr could only muster a tame, low strike that was food and drink for the goalkeeper.
That would be all she wrote for the night, and for Charnock in the LFA Challenge Trophy this season. On the whole, Southport certainly had the better of the ball but, credit where it's due, Charnock Richard weren't going to give up without a fight.
But at the end of the day, it's was clear to see that one team was above the other in the football league pyramid with the way that Southport better converted the opportunities that they had created. In games like these, where you're the underdog, it's unbelievably important to take every chance and half-chance you get, because it might only take one break for your opponents to teach you a lesson.
Post-match, Charnock boss Ryan Donnellan was pleased with his players' attitude. "I think, in the first half, we went through the motions a bit and didn't get out of gear one", he began, "but, in the second half, I was quite happy with the performance. We got at them and created a couple of good chances that we probably should've taken, but when you don't take those kinds of chances against higher opposition, you get punished."
After such a noteworthy December, to falter and lose momentum now would be dreadful for Charnock Richard. Donnellan, though, isn't worried. "It would've been nice to play on Saturday (after their game against Avro was postponed), but we've had some good sessions in between. We draw a line under today, as a cup game, and take our league momentum into our next game."
"I'm a winner, and I always have been. We're still in the mix, and that's the most important thing going into the last 12/13 games. The highest we've finished in the league is 5th, so if we can match that or go even higher then that'd be good for the football club."
Charnock Richard are an established NWCFL Premier Division side by this point, and a key focus of their recent run has been momentum. They're determined not to stagnate after an excellent few games, much in the same way the manager, and his staff, don't want the club as a whole to stagnate after their promotion in 2017. They're sitting comfortably near the top of the tree in the NWCFL this season, and this match against Southport, despite the defeat, proves they aren't going to contend with a glass ceiling overhead forever. Watch this space.