This is the third 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 First Division South throughout the entirety of the season.
Just as was the case in the Premier Division and the First Division North, last season saw one team at the top of the table in the First Division South, and that was Chris Rowley’s West Didsbury and Chorlton. However, for the first time last season, both teams that got promoted stayed within the NWCFL system, with FC Isle of Man beating New Mills, Abbey Hey and Wythenshawe Amateurs to the punch in the play-offs and joining West in the Premier Division for 2022/23. Another talking point from 2021/22 was the team that finished bottom, with St Martins breaking all sorts of records that you really don’t want to break on their way down to the Shropshire County League via relegation. The sides who replaced them in the division for this season – those being Ashville, Foley Meir and Stockport Georgians – were hoping not to succumb to any similar fate.
Wythenshawe Amateurs were determined not to miss the promotion train for a second year running, and started the season with 5 straight wins, only conceding twice in that time, to cement themselves as the pacesetters. Their loss to Cheadle Town in October would be their only league defeat between the start of the season and early December, and in that time they racked up impressive victories against some of the league’s new boys, including a 5-0 destruction of Ashville and a 7-2 demolition of Foley Meir. However, by the time the year started coming to a close, despite their incredible start, they were not top of the league come Christmas. That honour would be bestowed upon Paul Turnbull’s Stockport Town. A fixture of the middle of the table in the previous campaign, Town got off to a blistering start in 2022/23, same as Wythy, only lost 2 league matches before December 25th, same as Wyhty, but drew fewer matches than their adversaries, so took top spot going into the new year. Some of their wins were just as staggering, too, with the most notable of those being an 8-0 drubbing of Abbey Hey. The play-off picture was a bit of a fluid one by the new year. Some fast starters, such as Barnton, had fallen slightly out of favour owing to poor ends to 2022, but the likes of Brocton, Cheadle Town, Ellesmere Rangers and Sandbach United had recorded more wins than they had draws or losses put together by this point, and nothing was really set in stone.
As for the bottom of the league, one name that started circling the drop early and would never really recover was Rocester. They were never going to fall victim to the same weekly treatment that befell St Martins last season, but just 1 win and 2 draws from 21 games in 2022 did not see them head into the new year with much conviction. The same could’ve been said for Foley Meir, who were having a tough go of things in their debut NWCFL season. Sam Golden’s side had managed an inverse of Rocester’s record, with 2 wins and 1 draw, from fewer matches due to postponements, but still kept the Romans in close company at the foot of the league. Also in the relegation mix by the halfway point were the likes of Stafford Town and Cheadle Heath Nomads. These two were trading places above and below the dotted line seemingly week by week, but, come the turn of the year, it would be Stafford Town who had the edge, but there was still plenty of time to go.
A few other stories from teams in the First Division South were also emerging at this time in the season. In cup competitions, there were a few teams that were worth keeping an eye on. Firstly, Eccleshall were proving themselves to be a force when it came to penalty shootouts, winning 4 from 4 in 3 different cup competitions. It would take stubborn performances from Abbey Hulton United, Abbey Hey and NPL Division One Midlands side Coventry Sphinx to beat them in 90 minutes and eventually knock them out of the Macron Cup, Edward Case Cup and FA Vase, respectively. Speaking the Edward Case Cup, by the time the final 8 was decided, there were still 4 First Division South sides in contention. These sides were Stockport Town, Abbey Hey, Abbey Hulton United and Ellesmere Rangers – remember that last one, they might be important later.
One of the more wholesome tales from throughout the entire NWCFL came from newly promoted Ashville in January this year. The CH45 side were adjusting themselves to NWCFL soundly enough, but this story took place away from the field of play. Ashville’s 98-year old club founder and still a regular fixture at matchdays, John Dennett, was awarded with an MBE in the first New Years’ Honours list ever to be submitted in the reign of HRH King Charles III. This came from the fact that Mr. Dennett is a veteran of WWII, as he was a member of the Royal Navy from 1942 until 1947, between the ages of 17 and 21, and was even a part of the historic D-Day landings at Normandy in 1944. This MBE was certainly an award well earned.
As the months continued to pass, the distance between the top 2 sides, Wythenshawe Amateurs and Stockport Town, and the rest of the league continued to grow, to the point that, by Spring, both sides were hoping that they might breach the 90-point barrier come the season’s close, whereas the sides directly below them might have been looking at 75 as a more realistic target. The two runaway teams would come face to face at Town’s Stockport Sports Village in mid-March, with the hosts having not lost a home league match that season at all, but with the visitors having won the reverse fixture in the opening weeks of the campaign. On the day itself, Shane Goldrick’s Wythy would be the victors, finally forcing their opponents to the sword in their own back yard and causing a change in the title picture. As mentioned earlier, at the turn of the year, Town were in the driving seat, but this result sparked a game of hot potato for top spot going into the final weeks of the season.
This game seemed as though it would culminate in the penultimate matchweek, when the Ammies travelled to Maine Road knowing a win would be enough to secure the title. However, the only goal of the day came from Road’s Josh Clegg, and Stockport’s same-day win over their local Georgian rivals took the title race to the final day. Wythenshawe had 90 points, Stockport had 89, and the former knew all they had to do was win against Foley Meir, who were already relegated by this time. Stockport faced mid-table Barnton on the final day, and smashed them 4-0, but their compatriots simply said, “anything you can do, we can do just as well”, beating Foley 4-0 and officially confirming not only their automatic promotion, but their status as First Division South champions.
Towards the base of the division, as April came upon us, it had been confirmed for about a fortnight that Rocester would be finishing in the relegation places. They would be officially joined by Foley Meir in the opening week of the month, upon a 4-0 defeat at the hands of promotion hopefuls, Sandbach United, at the McIntosh Arena. The 3 teams fighting for the 2 remaining safety spots going into the last couple of weeks were Alsager Town, Cammell Laird 1907 and Stafford Town. With an April Fools’ Day victory against Ashville, Alsager retained their league status 3 matches from the end of the season, and despite Cammell Laird not winning since mid-March, catching them would prove to be a task too difficult for Stafford to manage at this late stage of the campaign. Their fate was sealed in the penultimate round of fixtures, when they were beaten by, coincidentally enough, Ashville again.
I mentioned earlier to remember that Ellesmere Rangers were still kicking in the Edward Case Cup at the midway point in the season. Well, come May 1st, this was still true, as they’d advanced to the final by beating both of the NWCFL First Divisions runners-up – Stockport Town and Chadderton. It was in the final that they went toe to toe with First Division North side Bacup Borough, but they unfortunately fell short on the day, losing 2-0. That wasn’t the only post-season silverware on offer to a First Division South side, however. As league champions, Wythenshawe Amateurs went into the First Division Champions Cup against Pilkington. In this affair, a Saul Henderson brace would cancel out a Callum Laird strike and ensure that the Ammies would end the campaign with 2 trophies to their name.
Of course, not all was said and done with that match – bring on the play-offs. The league runners-up, Stockport Town, came into their semi-final match with eventual 5th place finishers Cheadle Town as the highest seed in the play-offs, and with home advantage as a result. However, they were stunned on their own soil for only the second time in a NWCFL match this season by two late goals, one from Ryan Usher and one from Martin Pilkington, and the away side advanced to the final. They would square off against Sandbach United, who had finished 3rd in the league and beaten 4th placed Brocton 3-1 in their own semi-final on home soil. As the new top seed in the play-offs following Stockport’s exit, Sandbach now held the home advantage for the final, but, lo and behold, Cheadle Town were not for giving up. Despite the opening goal coming from United’s Robbie Hatton, a Ryan Usher brace and a 97th minute Martin Pilkington goal for the second game running would see Paul Marshall’s side join Wythenshawe Amateurs in promotion.
It has been a fantastic season in the NWCFL First Division South. 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, a phenomenal title race between 2 incredible teams, some shocking upsets, and 20 teams leaving everything out on the pitch. Congratulations to Wythenshawe Amateurs, and to Cheadle Town; commiserations to Stafford Town, Foley Meir and Rocester; and thank you to everyone in between for such a great season.