As with everything else its always best to start at the beginning (unless you're a proctologist where it's better to start at the end), so it's back to those heady and never to be forgotten days of August 2002. Darius was Colourblind at top of the hit parade and Burberry was the craze with the trendy youngsters around town.
First of all I have to start with a confession. It was my fault that we didn't win the league. I jinxed it before the battle had even begun. You see I usually go into every season not expecting much as I'm a natural born pessimist. Having really low expectations means that no matter what happens, barring relegation, you're never disappointed. It's almost like a sort of reverse psychology where voicing the worst means the opposite is going to happen. But after the final friendly game against Burnley the thought, albeit for one very brief moment, entered my head that this may be our season. Immediately I returned to a more natural state of pessimism believing that mid-table would be okay but the damage had been done. Destiny was already tippexing out Mossley's name from the 'Big Book Of Footballs Future League Champions' whilst, at the same time, sending his friend round to the NWCL fixture secretary to become the voice in his head that said, "letting Prescot play the majority of their games before anyone else is a good thing."
It was some good results and performances in the pre-season friendlies that brought about this millisecond of optimism. Now I know that you should never read too much into these fixtures but the games against Stalybridge Celtic, a 4-2 win, and strong Oldham and Burnley XI's, 1-0 and 0-0 respectively, showed a Mossley side that had come on leaps and bounds from the one that finished the previous season. The only defeat coming at the hands of Ashton United where we relinquished our stranglehold on the Willow Wood Hospice Cup with our one game dominance of the competition ended by a narrow 1-0 loss. So with a promising pre-season under our belts we embarked into, what was at the time, the uncharted waters of the 2002-2003 football season…
It's fair to say that by the middle of last October I don't believe that I was alone in thinking that winning any silverware at the end of the season was an unrealistic possibility. You'd have probably got longer odds on (insert a witty simile of your own choosing here). Pre-season optimism was being slowly replaced by a feeling that we were once again going down the path often trod by Mossley teams in the past, the one that teams who fail to live up to their potential amble down.
The opening week of the season had proved to be a taster of how the early stages of the season would play out. A couple of good results and decent performances, Newcastle (1-0) and Prescot (0-0), followed by a display at Skelmersdale (0-1) that was the footballing equivalent of this years UK entry in the Eurovision Song Contest - dull, flat, out of tune with one another, performing like it was their first time at it and, more importantly, nil points. This sequence was then played out continuously like some sporting Groundhog Day (though more like a Groundhog 7-10 Days), with only the names of the opposition varying. For every great string of results and performances the team put together, you instinctively knew that there was an unmitigated disaster awaiting us in some upcoming match. What made it worse, though atypically Mossley, was not only were these defeats against some really poor quality opposition, e.g. Curzon, but that we didn't deserve to win them at all. Apart from the Alsager (1-2) game at home not once did we come away from a match feeling that we were unlucky to have been beaten. All the hard work in getting great results in the matches where we played potential title rivals, Clitheroe away (2-1) and Prescot (3-2) was almost instantaneously being thrown away at other teams cannon fodder such as Curzon and Warrington. While the defeats at Curzon (2-3) and Warrington (2-4) were due to differing circumstances, e.g. losing Rob Hackney due to injury within the opening ten minutes of the game, the feelings at the end of the game were the same; one of glorious opportunities being urinated up a wall.
The two FA Cup games during this period are a perfect example of the Jekyll and Hyde performances the team were putting in. The draw for the preliminary round saw us travelling eastwards along the M62 to take on our former adversaries from our NPL days and fellow victims of Terry Curran, Goole. At the time they were top of the NECL so a tough game was expected especially as we were undergoing an early season injury crisis. We needn't have worried though as the only fit players we had pulled off a near comfortable 3-0 win. A fortnight later however with the majority of the squad having returned to full fitness it was the complete opposite. For this tie we had to face Workington for the first time since they pipped us to the league title a few years earlier on the same ground. It would be a chance of gaining a small amount of revenge and hopes were high as, although a league higher, Workington were struggling to find any kind of form and found themselves languishing around the foot of the table. Suffice to say that even after going in 1-0 up at half time Mossley somehow conspired to let the poor opposition score two goals and claim a place in the next round. Not only had another erratic performance cost us a fair amount of prize money and the chance of a good cup run, it had also deprived the club of a money making match against a similarly struggling Stalybridge in the next round. A game that Workington would go on to win convincingly after a replay. I can't imagine how the management team felt about this inconsistency but as a supporter it was infuriating as we just seemed to be going round in circles.
I don't think that I'm telling anybody something they didn't already know when I say that this stuttering form so early on in the season was to cost us the chance of winning the league. Even the manager has admitted as much in some of the forums. There were many ingredients that led to this 'cake of performance paradox'. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, we had a couple of people new to the management side of the game. Very few take to it like a fat person to cake and the learning curve is so incredibly steep it's near vertical. Therefore mistakes are bound to be made, and the trouble with football is that mistakes and lapses can become almost immediately apparent. The sign of a good manager is one that can rectify them and learn from them and that is what we saw last year.
The first problem and cause for concern became evident after the first week of the season when with three games played we'd only scored one goal. Admittedly those three games were against teams that were strong rivals for the league championship, including Prescot who were most neutrals favourites, but the lack of goal attempts was worrying for a team with lofty ambitions. Most supporters knew before the very first match from previous experience that a forward line containing Mike Wolstenholme was never going to fill the Supporters Clubs 'Sponsor A Goal' scheme with money and, more importantly, win matches. Ally saw this, and to his credit, didn't persevere with it in the vague hope that it would come good as many of his predecessors had done. Instead, after the game against Skelmersdale where our solitary attempt on goal was a header from 18 yards by a centre-half, he went and signed a proven non-league goal scorer in Tony Carroll. And an inspired signing it was!
The problem with chopping and changing and bringing in players to improve the side is that you cannot have a settled team, one of the most important things in football. When you look back on the list of players who came and went during the first two months of the season you suddenly realise that we used a lot of people because they were simply not or never going to be good enough. Fair enough, you can blame the manager for signing bad players but it's easy to forget that a lot of these players came with excellent reputations on the non-league circuit and Impressive playing histories. In fact any manager would have signed them. As I said not a few paragraphs ago, the difference is a good manager is one that sees you can't just live off a reputation and cuts his losses. I'd rather have a higher turnover of staff than a Japanese Kamikaze squadron than a settled team with a squad of players who were simply not good enough and living off former glories.
The players that left during the season did so for many different reasons. The myth is that a lot did so because of reasons other than footballing ones but in actuality the number who did were surprisingly few. In the following little section I am going to use the word 'allegedly' rather liberally just to be on the safe side. :)
The Nearly Men
The players who moved on because they were never going to hold down a regular place in the side, only filling in when injuries or suspensions occurred.
In this category are Paul Barrow, Tony Gaffey, Mark Paver, David Wills, Eamonn Kelly, Leon Grandison, etc. All good players but in need of regular first team football. It is sad to see these types of players leave the club but the nature of non-league football is that you can't maintain a large squad so they were on their way.
The Onwards and Upwards Men
The players who had the opportunity to progress their careers on another level.
For the first time in a fair old while we had players who moved on to bigger and better things. First to go was Neil Tolson, okay so he only had one game, who moved to the Conference with Leigh RMI. He wasn't there long though before he moved from club to club around the north like a footballing version of David Carradine in Kung Fu. "Ahhh, gloundhopper", as nobody has been heard to say.
Next to go was Tony Ellis who after turning down an approach from , once again, Leigh RMI eventually retired from football and went to play for Hyde United, where he also got the chance to start his management career as an assistant.
Star pupil though was Ciaran Kilheeney who no doubt escaped the clutches of Leigh and signed for Exeter City.
The 'Mouths Slack In Disbelief' Men
The ones who were frankly not good enough.
Darren Wardle left after just over three years at the club where he had managed a season's worth of appearances. This was in part due to battles with injuries but battles with opposing players caused a lot of lost time through suspension. I don't think many people were sad to see him leave and he, allegedly, had an over inflated opinion of his worth as a footballer without ever showing it on the pitch. It's sad because there is a good player inside him wanting to come, the problem is that there is plenty of wrapping to get through before he does. Last heard to be keeping the treatment table company at Witton Albion.
Unfortunately Lee Blackshaw made his debut at the same time as Rob Matthews so anything he did in that game would be overshadowed by the others performance. He came with glowing praise from many at Ashton United but his only other appearance ended in a toe curling-ly embarrassing way when he was substituted 15 minutes after coming on himself in the Vase match at Salford when he seemed to have the complete opposite of the Midas touch. I do feel sorry for him and I hope he goes on to better things somewhere else.
Leon Mills arrived from Droylsden with glowing references and a reputation as a powerhouse. The truth did have 'house' in it but it was preceded by 'built like a brick sh…', you know the rest. His main asset seemed to be the hope that opposing players would tire themselves out running around him such was his… er…, being kind, girth. Possibly the least fit footballer I have seen at Mossley in a long time and he lasted only two games before disappearing elsewhere. Probably to a pie shop.
Like Mills, Nigel Evans had a wonderful reputation in Tameside football circles having played for most of the teams in the area. Unfortunately the Nigel Evans that turned up at Mossley was a shadow of the player who had terrified defences in leagues higher than the NWCL. It may have been down to rustiness, a lack of match fitness but he rarely looked likely to perform his role of putting the ball into the back of the net. With time and a regular starting place he may have got his sharpness back but time was something Mossley didn't have if they wanted to keep up with the pacesetters at the top of the league, so he departed to pastures new as well. Fortunately for us though he did manage to score once. It may have been in the awful defeat at Curzon but without it we wouldn't have made it to 100 for in a season.
So thank Evans for his little goal.
The 'Allegedly' Men (Not in an Alan Partridge Bangkok Chickboy Type Allegedly Men Way)
The players who left through 'alleged' differences with the management. Stars in their own eyes.
Sammy Harris was the first to leave after spitting his dummy out at being substituted in the cup match at Goole. Supporters shrugged their shoulders and promptly forgot him. Last seen skulking back to Hyde whom he had left not weeks earlier to join us.
Next up was John Foster who allegedly left cursing the manager. While we missed having a right back who would belt up the wing his departure meant Robert Trees could drop back to his more favoured right back role after stinking the place out with some of his early season midfield performances. What we lacked in attacking options from the loss of Foster we made up with somebody in the role who was committed to the club. Until May anyway.
Of all the departures the one that upset the fans the most was Matty Taylor's. Along with Rob Hackney he was our best performer in the early stages of the season, often providing the only attacking option on the team. It came as a shock though to suddenly find out that he had been given his marching orders from the club because he was a disruptive influence in the dressing room. As a supporter he certainly didn't seem the type of person who would cause trouble but we're not privy to what goes on in the dressing room, certainly the rest of the team didn't seem too upset to see him go. Of all the players who left this season I think Matty was the one we missed the most and it's a shame that it didn't work out. He reportedly went back to his former club Hyde, before moving temporarily to one of the Atherton teams and then onto Trafford to join up with his old mentor Mike McKenzie and other Mossley old boys John Foster and…Ryan Hevicon.
At the time I thought the departure of Hevicon would be a great loss to the team but the passage of time has made my opinion change to "probably for the best that he went." There's no denying that when he was good he very, very good but when he was bad… you know the rest. Even though he scored a goal every 2 games his work rate at times made Darrell Dicken's off day efforts look like those of an overworked junior doctor. He will probably be remembered at Mossley for the away game at Curzon. Not for being dragged off the pitch by the manager for lack of effort and leaving us with only 10 men on the pitch but for his haircut. Allegedly, that word again, he had decided to cut his own hair but given up part way through leaving him looking like one of Jack Nicholson's fellow inmates from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Fortunately for him though, and the club, an American Indian threw a chair through a window allowing him to escape to Hyde United.
Ask yourself this question. Playing wise are we better off now or would we have been better if we'd kept a lot of the aforementioned players? Personally I think we are. If you looked at the squad at the end of the season at Bury and the presentation night, even as far back as December, it was obvious that there was a real team spirit at the club. Compare it to Benny Phillips last few seasons in charge when it was transparent on the pitch that some players didn't like one another one bit! Ally and Jason should be congratulated for engendering this spirit with the team and hopefully it will continue next season.
As ineffective as he was for Mossley Nigel Evans certainly didn't deserve the treatment he got off Esh Winning in the First Round Proper of the FA Vase