Expectations can be a difficult thing to manage, but for FC St Helens this season, their own expectations have been relatively modest in comparison to some observers at the start of this season. However, the next ten days or so will see the Division One North Club compete in a Macron Cup Semi-Final away at Bacup as well as take part in two local derbies that will define a potential place in the play-offs and a final position.
The club from Windleshaw have come a long way since their inception in 2014 where they started in the West Cheshire League, moving over to the Cheshire League shortly after and then subsequently dominating that in recent seasons to see themselves promoted to Step 6. It has been a learning curve for the club, but they have had some really eye catching results under the stewardship of managers Ollie MacBride and Jack Graham and that’s been particularly satisfying for Chairman, Steve Leather who has taken time out to speak to the League website this week about the culmination of an eight year pilgrimage.
We asked Steve about his general feelings on how the season has gone so far?
"Well, to be honest it has been like a breath of fresh air, a fresh challenge and one that has perhaps gone better than we anticipated. It has perhaps also been vindication to myself personally about how well organised we were in the Cheshire League, we put so much in to those campaigns on and off the field and you do wonder when making the step up, if we will be competitive and if our aims are realistic. This squad and the club as a whole have been together for a long time and those who have come in to join us along the journey have always bought into the ethos of what we are trying to do. It’s not just about the 90 minutes out on the pitch, it’s about the club and the community as well as playing some decent football. I think we have to reflect on that and say that by the time we made it here, we felt we were ready to have a go at it."
"When you look at some of the clubs that have come into the Counties either by promotion or letteral moves, some have perhaps underestimated its strengths and been under prepared somewhere, some clubs have come in and excelled but the feedback we have been given about the strength of Administration and logistical arrangements really gave us something to think about and we did not apply until we felt we were ready."
Pressing Steve about the behind the scenes administration, we asked him about how he had found that, as it’s a point that we do stress to clubs when they arrive at the league about how to set out an administration plan and prepare.
"Well. Admittedly it’s fair to say that at Step 7 there is a certain amount of flexibility, not a lot, but enough at times but at Step 6 and in the NLS as a whole there is none. We were sort of aware of the higher expectations, it comes with the territory and I think that for the whole of the season so far we have paid out around £75 in total in fines. One of those fines was my own fault too as we were late in reporting our win over North Ferriby (Winners of the NCEL Premier Division this season!) as we were celebrating, that set us back £25 but lesson learned!"
Speaking of enjoyable experiences, would you say you have enjoyed your season – so far…..
"I have 100% enjoyed it! Never in my wildest dreams did I picture us in the National League System, I’m the North West Counties Football League in a Top Three position in just 8-9 years. Our goal at the start of the season was to stay out of the bottom three. That was the mission statement given to the Coaching staff and Management team, lets stay out of trouble and see how far we can get from there. When we got into the Counties, there was of course a small fear factor, would we be competitive, would we be up to scratch on the admin side, would the fans and commercial partners enjoy what was on offer and we have all got on with what we have needed to do and we’ve enjoyed it for sure, but there is still a job to be done over the coming week."
Stay out of the bottom three? There were pundits and observers who must have been in on the secret as you had been tipped to do well, surely you suspected you would do well?
"The success we are having so far was not planned but very welcome nonetheless and perhaps we knew in ourselves that we had/have the potential to achieve something special. When we got the great results and performances against the likes of North Ferriby and Rossington Main in the Isuzu FA Vase, we realised that we may be able to do something here and if you look at games on a 90 minute basis we in effect went on a run of around 26 games unbeaten."
Ok let’s look at the next week, three massive games coming up, there is the Macron Cup Semi-Final away at Bacup Borough, the El-Gla…. (We won’t call it that as I know you’re not a fan of the unofficial derby title…) the derby against Pilkington on Bank Holiday Monday at home and then the final league game of the regular season a Week Saturday at Ashton Town. Do you go into that optimistic, nervous or respectful of the challenge and do you feel that you have the backing of the townsfolk with the project?
"This next week to ten days is huge! By the time a week Saturday comes we will all know where we will be and if there are any further opportunities ahead for the 2022-23 season but looking first at the Bacup game, the chance to reach a final in our first season in this League is massive, but we are not underestimating Borough at all. If I was being honest, that’s probably the least fancied of the possible draws we could have got as we know Brent will have his team well set out, motivated and highly competitive on the park, so we will have to at the very least match that if we are going to get to the final."
"That said, I already have half an eye on the league game against Pilkington on the Bank Holiday Monday too. The league position is what we have been working towards all season and it is still very much in the mix. I’m aware of the presence of Holker and last season showed how good they are, and if it wasn’t for a few unfortunate results mid-season they would have their play-off place in the bag by now. We need to secure ours and to do that we have to try and get something from the Pilks game and then go to Ashton Town who have their own end of season challenge and they will be equally as motivated as Pilks. The challenge is there for our players though, we are very close to achieving something really special, yes we have had some great victories and titles in the Cheshire League but to get something in The Counties represents that step up and development we have all gone through as a club. We will take each game as it comes, but what a great finish to the season.
"The games will be well supported, we have found that when we are at home and Pilkington are away, we get bigger gates, and that happens in the other direction when we are on the road. We are making strides to try and appeal to a town that is still very much dominated by Rugby League but has a small, but loyal percentage that will seek out the round ball and get behind a team. We will continue to try and get people in to see us play and we will play the type of football that will hopefully attract people to keep coming back but the battle against the Oval ball is one that is a long one!"
Steve, looking ahead, how far does the development plan go?
"The plan to develop the club, its facilities and the team doesn’t stop. We will always have a plan, even if that plan is a mid to long term aim, we will always have objectives and be looking to achieve them. An example of which is where we are now, we have been lucky enough to have some funding from the Football Foundation and not a penny of that has been wasted, its all gone in to the facilities that we provide for our various teams, our competitors, supporters and guests who come along every week to watch football. We know that if we can pull off the dream of a promotion to Step 5 we will have some work to do to the facility, but we will make that work happen."
As we round up the interview, we put to Steve the immortal question… You get to the end of the season, you have a sit down and look back, what does success look like to FC St Helens this season?
I will take you back to the start of this interview, when we look back at whatever we may achieve this season, the whole experience has vindicated where we are at as a football club. We have looked the part and if we finish top 6 then I will happily raise a Glass of Red in toast to that, but the main aim was to avoid the bottom three and that is the challenge we set ourselves at the start of the season and we haven’t done too bad on that!