Season Summary 1997/98
It was all change at Atherton LR over the summer months. Following their relegation from the Northern Premier League, manager Dave Morris had moved to Flixton, almost the entire team left and a new Chairman came in. Brian Horsburgh came to the club from Haslingden in May 1997 and an agreement was reached that the current Directors would resign their position, but carry on working for the club. Horsburgh took over as Chairman with the remit of turning around the clubs fortunes both on and off the pitch. The cost of playing in the Northern Premier League had been more than the club could afford. Attendances hadn't increased following promotion and the club had hit financial problems.
Gerry Luczka was appointed first team manager, having had two previous highly successful spells at Crilly Park as coach under Dave Morris. He brought in Ian Senior and Steve Walton as his assistants and began to build a new team from scratch. The Reserve team was managed by Tom Foster and Steve Hilton and remained in the North West Alliance League. They wanted to encourage the younger players in the 16 - 18 age group to give them experience of open age football. There was also a new programme editor in Mark Salt, who also ran the club website, one of the first non league club websites. His job was made easier come September when the club invested in its own printing machine which could be used for the programme, posters, lottery leaflets etc.
As well as concentrating on building a new team, Luczka set up a Saturday morning soccer school with a lot of help from Bernard Lynam from the Preston North End School Of Excellence. A great pre-season coup was a friendly for the Youth team against Manchester United Youth. The pre-season friendly against Bolton Wanderers first team wasn't going to happen this season, despite the great success and popularity of the fixture over the previous few years. Wanderers manager Colin Todd pulled the plug on the fixture. Atherton officials wanted to find another match to replace it and were thrilled at this opportunity. It took a lot of work on the part of Harry Dainton, Jack Rigby, Roy Cavanagh and Mark Salt but it was a great day for the Atherton youngsters. The score ended 2-2 with Steve Trow and Steve Cunningham scoring Atherton's goals and the attendance was recorded as 1,239.
The first half of the season went well, especially considering it was a completely new team. Only eight games were lost in the 22 League matches played up to the end of the year and six of those were by one goal. This was despite selection problems come October when injuries and suspensions meant that the managers were constantly having to shuffle the side. There was some disappointment though as the team went out of every cup competition at the first hurdle. They had a chance in the League's Floodlit Trophy as they played a two-legged first round match against Nantwich. Atherton won the first game 3 - 1 but it transpired that they had fielded ineligible players and were removed from the competition. The second leg was due to be played by the time this had been sorted, so the match went ahead as a League game.
Things changed after Christmas with the team only gaining one win from nine games. At the end of February, the financial situation was such that the club decided they had to stop paying players expenses. The situation was explained to the management and Luczka agreed to carry on, with the players all agreeing to stay in support of their manager. However, after a 3-0 defeat at St Helens things came to a head. As well as the financial problems, Luczka felt that club officials were trying to interfere in his decisions and although a meeting was organised for the following day, the manager sent his resignation instead. By now, the Reserves were being run by Steve Cunningham and Peter Rust and when Luczka resigned the club asked the reserve team managers to step up and take over the first team. Neither had any experience at that level of football, but were happy to rise to the challenge.
With the manager leaving, a large number of players left the club and a number of young reserve players were promoted into the first team. Their first match saw them return from Chadderton with a 1-0 win and although the youngsters took time to find their feet, losing five of the next six games, they ended the season on a strong note, with three draws and a win. The team had performed well enough for the club to ask Cunningham and Rust to carry on as managers for the following season, which they agreed to do.
The Reserves did reasonably well in a very strong League. They started the season with Tom Foster in charge with Steve Hilton, but in November he moved to Daisy Hill, leaving Steve Hilton and Paul Jones to run the second string, but by Spring Steve Cunningham (Snr) and Peter Rust were in charge.
There were major problems off the pitch and as always in these situations, everyone had their own viewpoint. The best I can offer is to present the statement issued by the club at the time.
Club Chairman Mr Allan Grundy issued a statement which said;
"In May 1997 when Mr Horsburgh joined the club, we all resigned as Directors but agreed that we would continue to help to run the club. We had a signed agreement with Mr Horsburgh with terms and conditions. We would resign as Directors and turn our allocated shares over to him. We, the ex-Directors, fulfilled our side of the agreement. In return, Mr Horsburgh would take our names as guarantors off the bank and brewery and pay for the shares. In September 1997 I wrote to the bank and brewery to enquire whether our names had been taken off as guarantors and they had not. After this shock, I started to do some research into Mr Horsburgh's last club, Haslingden FC. I found out that he was not a Director of the club and that it was owned by a company called Ewood Leisure who had called the receivers in. To this day Haslingden's previous committee members are still going to court over debts incurred during his reign.
In January 1998 I contacted our Football Club's bank manager who informed me that the loan was not being paid and no transactions were going through the bank. He was thinking of foreclosing on the club. I had been in touch with our ex-Chairman, Derek Halliwell and informed him of the circumstances. Derek found out that the shares had not been transferred to Brian Horsburgh because he had not paid for them. A glimmer of hope emerged to save the Football Club. We quickly had several meetings of ex-Directors and guarantors along with the bank manager, solicitor and some of Haslingden's committee who could give us an historical insight into happenings at their club.
We, the shareholders, then voted Mr Horsburgh out and the Directors voted me in as Chairman. The bank account was overdrawn and the Saturday Yankee money has not been seen to this day. The club itself has a list of debts and court judgements against it. It has taken a lot of hard work to satisfy our creditors, but we can see some light at the end of the tunnel. It would have been quite easy to call in the receivers and then try to reform as Atherton LR 1998 but none of our creditors would have got anything.
The Board have made a promise to try and pay all our creditors off slowly but surely so that the club can hold its head up again and can be proud once more in what it has achieved. What we need now is stability in the club, patience from our creditors and support from all the people who have the club at heart. I would like to thank Ken Hewitt for helping the Directors in this period and he fully deserved to receive the Clubman of the Year award."
The only reply in print from Mr Horsburgh appeared in the clubs programme in the Autumn, which addressed the accusations made by Haslingden officials but unfortunately there's no record of any statement regarding the situation at Atherton. There's always two sides to every story, even if after reading both people come down heavily on one side. However, with no way of contacting Mr Horsburgh to get his thoughts on what happened it's not possible to give both sides. What is certain is that when the ex-Directors took over, the club had a number of large debts to clear. As club officials were against the idea of doing what a number of clubs now do, close down and reform debt free leaving their creditors out of pocket, there was to be a long term consequence. Any money the club had spare after paying the current bills had to go towards clearing the debts. That left nothing to pay out on the playing side other than basic expenses. Ex-Chairmen of Atherton LR, Derek Halliwell and Harry Dainton stepped in temporarily to help the club out until the new Board was organised.
There was a terrible end to the season with the sudden death of Mark Salt. He had worked hard behind the scenes at the club and had agreed to take over as secretary from Steve Hartle for the following season. He was diagnosed as having 'flu by both the hospital and his doctor. Mark died a few hours after another visit from his doctor from Meningitis.
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