Lancaster City’s Challenge Cup final victory over Bishop Auckland last week confirmed this as the club’s most successful ever season, adding to a record-breaking fourth place finish in the league and an appearance in the Lancashire Cup final for the first time in 26 years. In this special feature, RICHARD MACHIN looks back over another remarkable season for the Blues - and selects his end-of-season award winners.
AFTER the remarkable successes of last season, there was always a nagging fear that this campaign may fail to live up to expectations.
Talk had turned from survival to promotion in the space of a year, hopes had been raised following a record breaking sixth place finish and Challenge Cup honours. Tony Hesketh had to try and prove it had been no flash in the pan.
But, despite losing key players including the club captain, regular centre back, most experienced striker, goalkeeper and leading scorer to a combination of long-term injuries and untimely departures, his side defied the odds to not only equal, but better last season’s achievements.
By retaining the Challenge Cup last week after already clinching an improved fourth place league finish, Lancaster City officially crowned the new best-ever season in the club’s 100 year history.
As Challenge Cup holders. City began this season by taking on last year’s league winners, Leigh RMI, in the Peter Swales Shield curtain-raiser, losing narrowly to the new Conference side at Hilton Park.
Mark Thornley’s surprise summer move to Barrow meant the only new face in the side that lined-up for the opening game of the league season against newly promoted Burscough was goalkeeper Paul Horridge.
Elsewhere striker Neil Morton was restored to the starting line-up after an injury plagued year and things went to plan on August 22, as City crushed the newcomers 5-2, a certain Mr Ward bagging a brace.
Victory over fancied Gateshead the following Saturday kept things ticking along nicely, but defeats at Altrincham, Hucknall and Emley, followed by home defeats to Droylsden, then Brigg Town in the FA Cup and a horrible 5-0 mauling at Stalybridge after Paul Sparrow was sent off for deliberate handball after two minutes, saw City’s fortunes pitching around during September and October.
In the cup competitions there were mixed fortunes too, with defeats to lower league opposition in the early rounds of both the FA Cup and FA Trophy, but success came in the Lancashire Trophy and League Cup competitions.
There were some fine league wins as well, noteably a comprehensive 4-1 defeat of Bamber Bridge and a battling 2-1 win at Accrington, by which time Mark Thornley had returned to the fold after an unhappy stint at Barrow, to keep City in touch in the league.
But it was the defeat of Stalybridge at the start of December which really kick-started the season. The rousing 3-2 win at Giant Axe ended the eventual champions’ long unbeaten record and galvanised City’s charge.
It was no coincidence that this victory also coincided with the arrival of mercurial winger Colin Potts from Morecambe and Brian Butler’s return from injury, as Lancaster looked to have finally found the right balance.
Skipper Phil Horner had left to take up a job as Blackpool physio so Kenny Mayers dropped back into the centre of defence, opening up options for a formidable three man midfield of Martin, Haddow and Butler, or a two winger onslaught from Potts and Lee Clitheroe.
With Chris Ward steadily clocking up goals with able support provided by Welch, new arrival Phil Brown and occasionally Neil Morton, City were mining a rich vein of form which saw them race up the league on the back of a 17 game unbeaten run up to the end of February, while progress continued in the two remaining cup competitions.
Victories over Leigh in the Lancashire Cup, league wins over Altrincham, a 5-1 demolition away at Whitby and a magnificent defeat of nearest league rivals Bishop Auckland were highlights, and following a minor blip with the defeat by Hyde they were quickly back in the groove, rattling off 12 wins out of their next 13 games up to the end of April to raise hopes of a best ever league finish, meanwhile booking places in two cup finals.
Chris Ward had by now hit 43 goals and finally, after months of speculation and countless clubs checking him out, Birmingham City did the decent thing and gave the teenager a chance at league football.
The timing was a nightmare for City, coming on the eve of the Lancashire and Challenge Cup finals, and with Farrell Kilbane by now out for the season with injury, Lee Clitheroe aggravating a troublesome hamstring and at least three other players carrying niggling knocks, it was a patched-up side which faced Southport in the county cup final at Chorley on April 24.
City more than held their own against the side third in the Conference, despite losing their main striker Brian Welch early on, but a cruel Kenny Mayers’ own goal in the second minute of stoppage time ended their trophy double dreams.
Tony Hesketh rested key players for the following week’s Challenge Cup final and the reserves and under-18s drafted in the plug the gaps battled manfully, but lost, at Runcorn and Gateshead to effectively end hopes of overhauling Bishop Auckland to claim third place.
Some sort of revenge was exacted in the Challenge Cup final, however, as City capped the season with a thrilling penalty shoot-out victory over Bishop in the cup final at Giant Axe, Mark Thornley emerging as the hero of the hour with two crucial saves in the sudden death stage.
It was City’s third victory over Bishop during the season - the north easterners may have finished just ahead in the league, but everyone knew that, on their day, Lancaster were the better side.
So City finished fourth, won the Challenge Cup for the second year running and reached the Lancashire Cup final for the first time in 26 years.
The fantastic team spirit in the squad had carried them through some testing times and when Tony Hesketh, new skipper Kenny Mayers and Colin Potts all agreed new contracts towards the end of the season, they sent out a clear message that Lancaster City are a club with ambition to go even further.
They have surpassed most people’s expectations yet again - and if that improvement curve continues, the big promotion push for Conference football could be starting in earnest in August this year.
PLAYER OF THE SEASON
A few City fans had their doubts about Paul Sparrow when he first arrived at Giant Axe last season and was temporarily playing in a midfield role, but since moving into his preferred defensive positions he has excelled - quick, sure of touch and commanding in the air he is a player of genuine ability and quality in a league where you’re more likely to find artless giants dominating in defence. He has surprised more than one striker with his turn of speed and embarrassed more than one midfielder with his fine distribution and ability to run with the ball and beat opponents. I doubt there’s a more consistent or more technically skilful all-round defender in non-league football.
PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON
Lancaster City v Leigh RMI (Lancashire Cup, semi-final, and semi-final replay, January 30 and March 6)
The battling - literally - league victory over Stalybridge was a pivotal point in the season and heralded an incredible 17 match unbeaten run which set up the record breaking fourth-place finish, while the home win over Gainsborough Trinity in December, 3-1 away victory at Bishop Auckland in February and 5-0 demolition of Accrington Stanley in the Lancashire Cup in January were examples of Lancaster at their exhilarating best.
But it was another fixture from the Lancashire Cup which not only showcased Lancaster’s attacking flair, but showed that they could dig-in and mix it with the best. If anything the first game against Leigh RMI at Giant Axe was the pinnacle, even though a late equaliser denied City the win. Against a full-strength Leigh side City were simply superb and ran the Conference side ragged, going on to finish the job with a thoroughly deserved 3-0 win in the replay at Hilton Park. If anyone still doubted City’s credentials as a team capable of holding their own against the best in the non-league game, these two matches really made them sit up and take note.
GOAL OF THE SEASON
Chris Ward - Altrincham v Lancaster City, August 28
If Brian Butler’s ‘goal-that-never-was’ had stood in the Challenge Cup final, it would have been a close run thing. But in the final analysis, this is my pick of a very good bunch, Chris Ward’s fourth goal of a remarkable 43 goal season (49 goals if you count his Birmingham haul) was an absolute belter at Moss Lane.
A real team effort crowned by a stunning strike from the youngster, the 25th minute move started deep inside City’s own half, sweeping through midfield and finishing with Neil Morton’s defence splitting pass to Kenny Mayers who cleverly back-heeled the ball into Ward’s path, the striker hitting a ferocious 20 yard first-time shot that flew into the top corner. Pure class.
LOW POINT OF THE SEASON
Lancaster City v Bromsgrove Rovers, FA Trophy 2nd round, December 2
Fortunately there haven’t been too many this season, but, of course, no-one’s perfect, and Lancaster City have had the odd off-day. The league defeats at home to Droylsden and Hyde were pretty woeful, but it was in the two big cup competitions that the most difficult-to-stomach defeats occurred.
Brigg Town were a good side and after scraping a draw at their place the 4-3 FA Cup replay defeat at Giant Axe was disappointing but not entirely without compensations - it was an entertaining game and we did get seven goals.
But the 1-0 defeat in the FA Trophy by Bromsgrove Rovers, third bottom of the Dr Martens Western Division, was fairly dismal all round. City dominated but were caught with a classic sucker-punch goal, Chris Ward got himself sent off and dreams of a decent run in the competition came crashing down.
Not a good day at the office.