I love football. I especially love non-league. If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you love it too. How much do you love it though?
Have you ever taken your family on a slightly disappointing autumnal caravan holiday to Lancashire, just so you can watch a team in the North West Counties League?
Or filled an Easter weekend behind a convoy of caravans so you can spend it nursing a Bovril in Birkenhead?
Have you ever turned down a ticket to watch Champions League football at Wembley so you can go to the Derbyshire Senior Cup Third Round?
Well I have, and if you want to experience all of these things without actually having to do them, this book is for you.
In 2015/16, New Mills AFC were relegated from English football’s eighth tier having failed to win a game all season. With national media attention descending and the unwelcome label of ‘the worst team in England’, a dedicated team of volunteers began to pick up the pieces.
Following their fortunes over the following season, I spent time with the players, managers, volunteers and fans who pulled together to restore pride to this small community club on the edge of the High Peak and rebuild their reputation as they attempt to end a 15-month wait for a precious three points.
Along the way, I chat to Manchester City legend Shaun Goater, come perilously close to wiping out a visiting team by dropping a massive gate on them, and meet some of the most passionate and dedicated people you’re likely to find; all of whom definitely love football even more than I do.
This is a book for the underdogs.
This is a book for anyone who loves proper football and what it stands for.
This is a book for anyone who ever stood in the rain week in week out, who has given their time, their passion and their love to a football team.
This is a book for anyone who failed, anyone who fell, and especially for anyone who got up again.
You spend months dreaming about it. Formations. Selections. Strength in depth or a splurge on a super striker? An annual dilemma that you’ll never truly solve. Opening day decisions that will shape the rest of your season. I plumped for Zlatan up front and Negredo as the bargain buy. Premier League Fantasy squad sorted, team name nailed. By the time you’re reading this, Xhaka Khan FC will probably be national fantasy champions.
This year, though, it wasn’t actually the opening day for many. Despite all the marketing, including a superimposed Thierry Henry ‘jogging’ down a street filmed near to New Mills’ Church Lane to promote Sky Sports’ ever-lucrative offering, a busy opening Football League weekend had been followed by the First Round of the rebranded EFL Cup.
Further down the ladder in the ninth tier, sides that hadn’t fallen victim to FA Cup Extra Preliminary replays had begun their league campaigns in earnest during midweek. For New Mills, though, having seen their scheduled game against Maine Road postponed, today would be their debut back in the artist formerly known as the North West Counties Premier League. Welcome back to the Hallmark Security League.
Bouncing back from the Congleton defeat would be tough. In just 90 minutes, I’d witnessed so much of the early optimism drain away from a side that looked low on confidence, short of ideas and scared of making mistakes. A postponement of what would’ve been their second away game in three days at Maine Road looked like it might be a blessing in disguise and now, on a warm August weekend, they’d be back in competitive action at Church Lane for the first time since April’s 2-0 defeat to Kendal Town.
Another side keen to confound the critics and get off to a good start were also struggling on their own much-publicised opening day. Leicester City’s 2-1 defeat against what appeared to be an imploding Hull City seemed an ominous start to the defence of their title. Maybe 16/17 would be ‘the year of things returning to just about normal again’. It could use some work as a tagline, admittedly.
So, football didn't come home after all then. It will be returning to Church Lane again really soon, though, which is why I'm getting in touch. Firstly, I'd like to say a huge, HUGE thank you to everyone who has pledged so far on this project. Your support is appreciated more than you know and every penny helps take this labour of love a little closer to publication.
These people are helping to fund Winless: My Year With Football’s Ultimate Underdogs.