Season Summary 1994/95
There was great excitement at the arrival of the new season, with Northern Premier League football beckoning. The team was confident after winning the North West Counties League for two consecutive seasons with almost all the players remaining at the club. The most notable departure was Lee Unsworth who moved to Ashton United, eventually ending up playing in the Football League for Crewe Alexandra. Off the pitch, the ground had been brought up to the required standard with the most notable change being the large new stand constructed through the efforts of Chairman Derek Halliwell. The stand was officially opened by Nat Lofthouse before the pre-season friendly against Bolton Wanderers. Initially, there was an extra charge for sitting in the new stand, with a standard season ticket for the stand costing £50.
As well as the impressive new stand, other ground improvements had been completed as requested by the Northern Premier League. The turnstiles had been revamped during the 1993/94 season along with various other jobs. Over the summer months male and female toilets were constructed and three new buildings put in place which were to serve as a Boardroom, kitchen, toilet, players lounge and a club office. The clubhouse was also refurbished. As well as hard work by club officials, the probation service provided workers who built a concrete path around the ground and repainted. Car parking was also changed with the erection of the new stand, with supporters now having to park outside the perimeter.
With Lee Unsworth moving to Ashton United, Dave Morris brought in some new faces to bolster the squad for the new venture. Goalkeeper Paul Horridge joined to cover the early season absence of Andy Hills (Horridge was to have an impressive career in non league football in the north west), Ian Lloyd and Phil Donlan joined along with ex-Bacup striker Brian Livesey. Other players to at least come to pre-season training were Andy Noone who had spent a two year YTS at Manchester United, Tony Cullen who had been released by Aston Villa and two ex-Bolton Wanderers trainees, Lee Hughes and Wayne Antrobus.
One area which did suffer a bit this season was the pitch. A lot of hard work was put into keeping it as good as possible, but it needed money spending, money which had been used for ground improvements to ensure promotion to the NPL could take place.
After witnessing two seasons of unparalleled success, supporters were more than confident that their team could do well in the higher League, but there was some disappointment at the poor start and erratic performances. There were reasons for this. A number of suspensions were carried over from the previous season ranging from two to five weeks. In addition, referees had received new guidelines for this season, which meant more offences received bookings rather than just being given a lecture by the official. It took the Atherton players a little while to get used to this, so more suspensions came later in autumn. On top of that, the usual injuries so manager Dave Morris used more players in the first team than he ever had before. Another factor was simply the different style of football played in the Northern Premier League compared to the North West Counties League. Once again, it took the players a little time to adjust.
A perfect example of the topsy turvey season came in four consecutive games in the October. Atherton beat the eventual Champions, Blyth Spartans but then just three days later lost to Mossley who hadn't won a League game up to that point. The following weekend Atherton defeated Fleetwood 7-1 and on the same day Great Harwood lost 8 - 1 at home to Caernarfon, but 72 hours later Great Harwood won 2 - 0 at Crilly Park!
The season started at Bamber Bridge where, with half an hour left, the score remained 0 - 0, but once the home side made the initial break-through it was all one way traffic and a 6 - 0 defeat to start life in the NPL. The following Tuesday the team collected their first win, 3 - 2 at home to Caernarfon and it seemed the team was up and running. Unfortunately it wasn't to be. As the suspensions and early injuries kicked in, the team drew two and lost four of their following six League games and sank to second from bottom of the League. However, as players returned and the management started to get the team playing the right style of football for the League, things improved with six wins and a draw from the following thirteen games, taking them to 13th by the turn of the year.
And that's how the League season continued. The team would win a game, lose a game. Win two games, lose two games. Early January again saw a player shortage with both Manager Dave Morris and coach Gerry Luczka having to be named as substitutes. One new player to join the club in February 1995 was Lee Cryer who was to become a popular figure at the club and have a long and successful career in non league football. Ex-Stockport County player Frank Harrison had signed for the club but not being a first team regular had played in local football and done some scouting work. He spotted Cryer playing for Rochdale Sacred Heart in the Manchester League and after Reserve Team manager Steve Capstick went to watch him play, Cryer was quickly signed on. He played his first match for the reserves the following Wednesday when he scored once and laid on the second goal in a 2-1 win over Netherfield. He was quickly drafted into the first team. However, things had settled into a routine and a run of three consecutive wins at the beginning of April took them to a strong mid-table position, though in true Atherton form they then drew two and lost two of their remaining four games.
Cup matches generally provided some entertainment. In the FA Cup the team made hard work of defeating Yorkshire Amateurs and were then held to a draw by Belper at Crilly Park. Although Belper were in the Northern Counties East League at the time, they were a strong Premier Division side and most expected them to win the replay, but Atherton put in a good performance to progress. They went out in the next round to Premier Division Guiseley, simply being beaten by a better side. The teams first venture into the FA Trophy saw them play on a Sunday as their hosts were operating a ground share with Moor Green and both clubs had been drawn at home. (As an aside, on the Saturday Moor Green had an amazing 8-4 win over Worksop Town). Atherton created plenty of chances but failed to take any and went out 1-0.
The League Cup saw the team defeat local rivals Radcliffe Borough before leading Barrow 2-0 away, only to be pulled back to 2-2 and going out 1-0 in the replay. The Division One Trophy was a disappointment, a lame defeat at Fleetwood, while the Lancashire Challenge Trophy saw a comfortable win at NWCL side Burscough before a narrow defeat to Lancaster.
The excitement of moving up a League meant that support for the team was still good and there was an active supporters club along with plenty of commercial activities. The club received a boost towards the end of the season when it was announced that after a lot of hard work by Jack Rigby, Norweb had agreed to continue their sponsorship for the following season.
In January 1995, local businessman Terry Poole was invited to join the Board and accepted the offer. A vacancy had occurred on the Board after the resignation of Paul Fitzpatrick.
More important negotiations were ongoing during the season and the club managed to secure a further 30 year lease on the ground from the local council. There was still nine years left on the original lease but to plan for the future the club felt they needed to be more secure.
The reserves had a torrid time. By 19th March they had only played half of their scheduled 24 League games and the managers had used 48 players so far! Hardly conducive for giving regular football to the lads or for bringing youngsters on towards first team football. With the first team concentrating on consolidating their position in the NPL, the Reserves entered the Bolton Hospital Cup this season.
Overall, it was considered to be a successful season. No-one at the club had been involved in football at this level either on or off the pitch, so it was a learning curve for everyone, the team, the managers and the club officials. The team had to learn a different style of play and once they'd got into the swing of things, they were more than good enough to hold their own. Had it not been for an odd few inexplicable bad results, such as handing Mossley their first win of the season, the match against Harrogate dominated by Atherton who led 2-1 with ten minutes remaining but still lost 4-2 and a handful of similar games, they would have had a top ten finish.
One slight negative which could mean something or nothing - in February 1995 Atherton LR and Atherton Town held a joint Sportsman's Dinner to raise money. Only two players from Atherton Town turned up, but that was two more than came from LR. Tales were told from this time about how everyone at the club was pulling together, on and off the pitch and that the clubhouse was a hive of activity. Perhaps there was a good reason for none of the players attending, or perhaps things weren't quite as described in later years.
A fund raising match was held at Crilly Park in the autumn for the Sylvia Pye National Appeal Fund. Sylvia was one of 20 people who staged a two year, round the clock protest outside the Parkside coal pit, Lancashire's last deep pit mine, to try and stop it from closing. She was taken to court in Warrington by British Coal and fined £16,000. The 300 who attended the All Stars game raised £500.
For this season the club had its own newspaper called "The Rovers Revue". It was a great idea, but relied on contributions and as almost any programme editor will know, that's a sure fire way for a project to fail. I believe 9 issues were produced, with articles from club founder Joe Riley and Brian Seddon, but mainly from Jack Rigby.
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