Cunningham keen to right the ship at Rammy after rollercoaster decade

Thu 29th February 2024 | Ramsbottom United
By Jay Cooper

There are a great number of examples of a “rollercoaster” time period in football, and, more often than not, they refer to a club’s adventures (or misadventures; or both) over the course of a certain time period – a season, a calendar year, a decade, etc. Off the top of my head, the most unbelievable rollercoaster period of time for a football club in recent memory involves current EFL Championship side Leicester City. The Foxes were promoted to the Premier League in 2014; won the Premier League in 2016; made the Champions League quarterfinals in 2017; won the FA Cup and Community Sheild in 2021; and were relegated back to the Championship in 2023 – all this over the course of just a decade.

The reason I’m telling you all of this is because, if you make your way further down the English Football Pyramid, and to our corner of the country, you’d find a rollercoaster period for a football club that is arguably just as interesting as Leicester’s. That club is Ramsbottom United, and the time period spans all the way back from the present day to October 2013 – the time when Tony Cunningham was first appointed as club secretary. Tony was kind enough to speak to me about his earliest memories with the Rams earlier this week.

I have been secretary at Ramsbottom United now for 12 years, and I’ve loved every minute! There are times when it can be frustrating, but it’s a great way of putting something back into football in exchange for all the pleasure the game has given me. Also, it allows me to meet so many good “football” people. The seasons seem to be coming around quicker each year! Hopefully my health will remain good, and I can continue for some time to come.

“The club hasn’t changed that much, being honest. Stadium-wise, small changes have been made, but the ground was always of a decent standard. Personnel have changed off the pitch, but we have a great, but small, band of helpers who are invaluable at this level of the game. I think the game has changed more than the club – I’d say more professionalism has been introduced, and the media side of football has grown too. We now have an excellent media team in place, who are valuable members of the club and do a great job.”

Of course, the changes detailed here don’t include one key thing – results on the pitch. In the 2013/14 season, with Tony comfortable in his role as secretary, the Rams, who had only spent the one year prior in the NPL Division One North, snuck into the play-off places for a chance to join Curzon Ashton in promotion to the NPL Premier Division. Away wins over both Warrington Town and Bamber Bridge saw them do just that. The club spent the 2014/15 campaign mixing it up with the likes of FC United of Manchester, as well as recent FA Cup underdogs Blyth Spartans and Marine.

During the next season, they would share the pitch as equals against now-EFL League Two side Salford City. Unfortunately, though, the 2015/16 campaign would not be a fruitful one for the club. Rammy would be relegated at the end of the season, propping up the rest of the table in the process. The NPL Division One North, later reformatted as the Division One West, would become Rammy’s home for the next few seasons, and, by 2018/19, the club would be right back up towards the promotion places. They finished 5th in that campaign, losing out in the play-off semifinal to eventually promoted Radcliffe, and hung around in 2nd place right up to March in 2019/20… but we all remember what came next.

I don’t want to waste any more time than necessary on the two non-seasons of grassroots football due to COVID-19, so, instead, we’ll pick up 2 years later, where, after a pretty unremarkable 2021/22 season, the Rams endured hell and high water in 2022/23, as Tony Cunningham explained to me.

“Last season was a disaster, and relegation was thoroughly deserved! We had finished a disappointing 15th the year before after three thwarted promotion bids, but last season began badly, and we never recovered. We changed the managerial set-up in February, but that was too late. The damage had been done, and there was insufficient time for the incoming manager to change the fortunes. We had accepted that we were likely to go down as far back as Christmas. It was probably the worst season that I had seen in my 25 years plus of watching the Rams.”

Needless to say, the club were relegated from the NPL setup, bottom of the table. They rejoined the NWCFL system for the first time since 2011/12 - before Tony came in as secretary - and became part of a 24-team league alongside fellow relegated sides Colne, Glossop North End, and Skelmersdale United. Last time the club were playing at this level of the English Football Pyramid, they won the Premier Division as Champions with an impressive 96 points from 42 league matches. Runcorn Town were their closest challengers on 92 points, before a sizeable drop to 3rd placed Bootle with 85. Despite all the changes in the decade plus since the Rams’ last NWCFL appearance, expectations were still lofty for the club on their return, according to their secretary.

“What were our expectations going in? Promotion! OK, so we all expect that in July, but we were given a shock from the very start. Our first game was away at Division One champions Wythenshawe. We had assembled a new managerial team, and an almost entirely new squad, with just two remaining from last year. A 4-0 humbling had us realising that this was not going to be a walk in the park."

One could not ask for more of a baptism by fire. Wythenshawe FC came into the NWCFL Premier Division in quite literally the opposite way to Rammy at the start of this season, and they turned up on week one with something to prove, and proved it. And, they’ve continued to prove it, currently sitting 3rd in the table. Ramsbottom, meanwhile, have settled into mid-table, with almost an exactly equal gap between themselves and the promotion play-offs, AND between themselves and the potential relegation spots at the time of writing. To still be expecting promotion would be a little unrealistic by now, and the club are aware that they may have to play the long game during this NWCFL stint.

“The management team have introduced a revolving door to the dressing room as the season has progressed! Some players have proved to be not quite up to our high standards, whilst others have moved on themselves. It has been a big learning curve, and we accept that there are some very good teams in this league. We knew from our last spell at this level just how hard it was going to be to gain promotion, and with the ridiculous make-up of 24 teams, the chances of going up are much less than in the equivalent NCEL and Midlands League. This is an issue that the FA must put right in the near future.”

Other potential bones of contention to one side, one thing that a 24-team league does mean is that there will be 46 league games that need to be completed by each club. That’s already destined to put the strain on clubs with less squad depth, especially at a level of the game where playing is not a full-time career, but what makes it worse is when you can’t even play half of these games due to the British weather!

At the time of writing, Ramsbottom, 16th in the table, on 40 points, have played 31 matches. AFC Liverpool, 15th in the table, on 43 points, have played 37 games – that is 6 games in hand that the Rams have, for the mathematicians amongst you, and a full 15 matches remaining before the season is completed. With the calendar turning to March in very short order, we are 8 and a half weeks from the allocated end of the 2023/24 NWCFL season. So, in short, the club have to play 15 league games in 8 weeks – nearly 2 a week, and that’s still subject to change if the Winter rainfall decides to stick around into Spring.

One thing that Tony Cunningham did tell me, however, was that, despite all of the above, the pressure on players and the ideas of an immediate promotion fading rather quickly, there are still positives he has been able to pick up on. In addition, most of these positives are being considered with one eye on the 2024/25 campaign, and they seem have an air of determination about them.

“We brought in the experienced Steve Wilkes last summer, on the basis that he knows this league well. To be fair to him, he had to start from scratch, and he will be the first to admit that everything has not gone according to plan. We were expecting to be challenging at the top and this has not happened. I will confirm that the standard of football we have seen this season is a massive improvement on last season, but the results have not always followed. I have enjoyed the matches more though, despite the disappointment.

“We’ve accepted for some time that we are likely to be in this division next season. Steve has used the last few weeks to strengthen the squad with an eye very much on next season and a positive attempt to knock on the promotion door. No disrespect to the NWCFL, but having been in the NPL for so long, as a club we feel we should be in that league, but we accept that performances next season need to be better and more consistent.”

Just how successfully Ramsbottom United will be able to complete their crammed-in fixture list before the anticipated end date of the season remains to be seen. However, it does seem that the club are destined to remain in the NWCFL pyramid for at least another year. It is worth considering that, before their promotion to the NPL system over a decade ago, they had spent a massive 17 years straight in the NWCFL. If they can achieve that same feat of promotion in just 5 years this time, or maybe 3, or even 2, then that will be a story worth telling. And it’s one that I’d be happy to speak to Tony Cunningham again to do so. Let’s see where the club are at in 12 months.


Image credit: Twitter, @RamsbottomUtd, 31/01/2024

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