This is the first of three articles covering the major talking points surrounding the all the divisions in the NWCFL throughout 2022/23. This piece will focus on the Premier Division throughout the entirety of the season.
In the season prior, Macclesfield were the heavy favourites to win the Premier Division, given their status as the phoenix club of a former EFL side. They did just that, and were promoted alongside Skelmersdale United. Going into the new campaign, to the untrained eye, it could be said that the same expectations would be on the shoulders of Bury AFC, who joined the Prem having trounced the First Division North in the 2021/22 season. They, alongside both West Didsbury and Chorlton and FC Isle of Man from the First Division South, and Kendal Town from the higher Northern Premier League, made up the new teams in town as the ‘22/23 campaign got underway.
However, the early pacesetters in the division would actually be 3 sides who all came into the season with the potential for promotion very much at the forefront of their minds – after 5 weeks of action, all 3 of Vauxhall Motors, Avro and Wythenshawe Town had 100% win records to their names. It would largely be Vauxhall and Avro going neck and neck in the opening months of the season, with both Wythenshawe and Bury AFC trailing slightly behind due to game postponements, of which there would be plenty, due to frozen pitches, and, more sombrely, the passing of HM Queen Elizabeth II.
By Spooky Season, it was also emerging which sides would be in the thick of things at the bottom of the league. Ashton Athletic had spent almost all season to this point in the bottom 2, but all of Burscough, Winsford United and Longridge Town were also too close to the drop zone for comfort at this time. Burscough had also played more league matches than all of their compatriots by mid-October, meaning that an early attempt to rise from the base of the league would be reliant on those other teams dropping points – it was a bad omen, but rather apt for the time of year.
Whilst losing in football is never fun, I’d argue it’s better than not being able to play at all. Unfortunately, coming to Christmas in 2022, a harsh winter would put a lot of NWCFL league action on ice (literally), with one weekend of scheduled fixtures only seeing one single game from the Prem take place, and only two from the whole NWCFL. We were semi-back on track by Boxing Day, but the same could not be said for Avro, who had fallen a little behind in the charge for the top of the table, and had been replaced as Vauxhall Motors’ closest challengers by fellow Manchester side Wythenshawe Town. There were only 3 points in it going into the new year, and Wythy had a game in hand, too.
At the base of the division, Burscough climbed out of the drop zone in the first week in January. Ashton Athletic were propping up the table, but it was now Litherland REMYCA who were being dragged into the relegation dogfight, just as they were in 2021/22. Winsford United, by this time, had put a bit of daylight between themselves and the foot of the division, and Longridge were still not safe by any means, but looked safer than any one of the Green Army, the REMY or the Yellows. Newly-promoted FC Isle of Man were also in more danger than they might have liked to be in by the time 2023 came around.
Speaking of newly-promotes, Bury AFC were somewhat languishing in mid-table as we entered the new year, but that was less to do with the fact that they had lost key games, and more to do with the fact that they hadn’t been able to play many games at all. Groundsharing with NPL side Radcliffe FC meant that the pitch at the Neuven Stadium took twice as much of a beating as most other NWCFL pitches, and more games were postponed as a result. By the first week of fixtures in the new year, Bury AFC would’ve seen 12 league games postponed – an absurd amount. It also meant that they were keeping the likes of Prestwich Heys, Congleton Town, Charnock Richard and West Didsbury and Chorlton company in the lower end of the top half.
By the end of January, Vauxhall and Wythy would go toe to toe in the league itself at Wythenshawe’s Ericstan Park. By this time, the hosts had finally unseated their visitors in 1st place – it was the first time since the opening weeks that someone else had topped the pile – but the Motormen would win the day and charge back to the pinnacle of the division, coming away with a 3-0 victory. Wythy then embarked on a bit of a barren run after this defeat, not winning in the league for the best part of a month.
January was also a poor month for Avro, who didn’t win in the league for the whole of the month, but rediscovered their spark in February, going on a 7-game winning streak from the 1st of the month, that included a win over Wythenshawe Town in early March. This was the start of Avro’s push back into the title race, and Wythy also got back on the horse after their drop in form, with that defeat to Avro being their only one in a run of 9 games that saw them win the other 8.
Bury AFC were still in the race, too, but would be slightly pre-occupied in the latter months of the season by their impressive FA Vase run. After falling just short in their quest to reach the FA Cup first round proper in late 2022, losing to National league side York City in the final preliminary round, they were on quite a journey in the FA Vase – and they weren’t alone. Both Congleton Town and West Didsbury and Chorlton had been helping carry the NWCFL torch, too. West would be the first of the remaining Prem teams eliminated from the competition, falling to a 4-3 defeat against Ascot united in the quarter-finals.
The other two sides, Congleton and Bury AFC, would face off against one another at the same stage of the competition. A 1-1 draw saw the game proceed to penalties, and, in front of a home crowd, the Bears won 5-4 in the shootout to send the Shakers home and set up a meeting with the trophy’s current holders, Newport Pagnell Town, in the semis. That game took place on April 1st, and another draw led to another penalty shootout, which, unfortunately, Congleton failed to win on this occasion. Despite not quite making it to Wembley, the Bears have had a season to remember, thanks largely to this cup campaign, and have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
Back to the league, and, as we closed in on the final day, at the top, Avro briefly took the driving seat when they overcame Wythy Town at Ericstan Park, in a weekend where both Vauxhall Motors and Bury AFC dropped points. It looked for all the world like the title would be coming to Manchester, with Avro first and Bury AFC, forever with games in hand, seeming like their closest challengers, but then something strange happened. In late March, Vauxhall Motors beat Bury AFC 2-1 in a crucial match, and were given the chance to right an earlier blip in the days leading up to that match – a game against Winsford United, that the Motormen had lost, was to be re-played due to a local county suspension being in place at the time of the original fixture, which was news to Winsford.
Vauxhall won the rearranged game 4-1 on April 8th, and had full control, with only Bury AFC still mathematically able to catch them at this point, despite losing again to the Motormen earlier that week. It came down to Monday, April 10th, when Vauxhall won 4-1 again, against AFC Liverpool this time, and Bury AFC drew 3-3 with Wythenshawe Town, which confirmed Mick McGraa and his side would be the Champions of the NWCFL Premier Division! Bury AFC were still best placed to take the inter-step play-off spot, but a dismal run of 5 games without a win, sparked by that defeat to Vauxhall at the start of April, would see Avro seal 2nd place on the final day when they smashed Barnoldswick Town 4-0. They went on to face Lincoln United in the play-off, and scored a 2-1 victory to join Vauxhall Motors in promotion. Wythy Town nabbed 3rd spot in the end, having scored a whopping 109 goals throughout the season – a full 23 more than the second most prolific side in the league, which was, curiously enough, 11th placed Charnock Richard, with 86.
Down at the bottom, before April even began, we knew one of the sides that would unfortunately be relegated this season. Ashton Athletic’s fate was confirmed in March after a 3-0 defeat to Litherland REMYCA at home. Going into April, Burscough had a mountain to climb of they wanted to avoid the same outcome, especially since their last 2 defeats were heartbreakers against the some of the league’s top sides – a 5-4 defeat against Wythenshawe Town, and a 1-0 loss to Vauxhall Motors was how the Green Army rounded out March. However, April began with a bang, with Burscough brushing Ashton Athletic aside 2-0, smashing past Squires Gate 5-1, and even blitzing Bury AFC 3-0. Gate were actually the side closest to the drop in the closing weeks of the campaign, but their five-point cushion on Burscough proved to be enough when Kendal Town beat Todd Blayney’s side to confirm their relegation. However, it’s always worth remembering that the option for a reprieve is there for the best-placed relegated teams across step 9 – that late renaissance that Burscough went on in April might just yet come in clutch.
The new boys in the league fared very well on the whole. With Bury AFC doing as well as they did, little comparative attention was given to West Didsbury and Chorlton, Kendal Town and FC Isle of Man, who finished comfortably in 8th, 12th and 13th respectively. There were also two teams who quietly had fantastic seasons, and deserve a mention – Northwich Victoria came 5th in the league, and finished a mere 3 points behind both Wythenshawe and Bury AFC, despite never being as hands-on as either of those sides were in the title race. Alongside Vics, Litherland REMYCA, who were only saved from the drop last year by a reprieve, and were very much a part of the relegation dog fight in January, mustered up a 10th placed finish in the end.
The league title was not the only silverware handed out to NWCFL Prem teams this season, though – far from it. As mentioned earlier, Congleton managed a phenomenal run in the FA Vase, and apparently the 2022/23 season was just their season for cup competitions, as they won both the Macron Cup and the Cheshire Senior Cup, both on penalties, against fellow NWCFL side Bacup Borough and National League Altrincham, respectively. Also, alongside their mid-table comfort, Kendal Town defeated Penrith 2-1 in the Westmorland Senior Cup final to bring home some silverware of their own.
It has been a fantastic season in the NWCFL Premier Division. Last time out, it was all about having the league back for a full season after the pandemic that shall not be named finally stopped getting in the way, and this time, the action on the pitch has been incredible. There’s been goals galore, drama, controversy, points deductions, and 22 teams leaving everything out on the pitch. Congratulations to Vauxhall Motors, and to Avro; commiserations to Ashton Athletic and Burscough; and thank you to everyone in between for such a great season.