Manchester United

There are big plans afoot for football in a corner of Greater Manchester, Ashley Shaw explains

“Tameside is the largest Metropolitan Borough in England without a League team, that is a fact that we intend to correct as soon as possible.” This was how Peter Barnes, chairman of Conference hopefuls Stalybridge Celtic, helped kick up one hell of a stink in Tameside, East Manchester.

For the past century six semi-professional football clubs have represented the old East Lancashire mill towns, becoming symbols of civic pride and the subject of intense rivalry for the local populace. Now Mr Barnes along with Tameside council leader Roy Oldham want League football to come to the area regardless of cost or, it would seem, local feelings.

What makes the situation in Tameside unique is the fact that all six clubs have grounds that are owned by the Labour-led Tameside council, making the council leader the broker in any attempt to introduce League football to the area.

The Tameside Six – Stalybridge Celtic, Hyde Utd (Unibond Premier), Ashton Utd, Droylesden (both Unibond First), Curzon Ashton and Mossley (North West Counties) all have ambitious chairmen keen to reach the Football League. But not one has a large enough support to finance a Nationwide club.

The council leader and the Stalybridge chairman have therefore hatched a plan to reduce the number of clubs in the area to two or three at the most, one of which would be basically Stalybridge, renamed with ‘Tameside’ in their title, the theory being that the remaining fans would switch allegiance to this club.

Councillor Oldham explained: “We are talking to the clubs to see if they could at least ground share in the first instance. Then we could sell off the existing grounds and release the capital, concentrating it on one team with the best facilities. We could then market that club for the whole area and make sure Tameside has an impact on the national stage.”

The Macclesfield phenomenon has provided the council leader and the club chairman with the opportunity to go public with their plans. “The town of Macclesfield has received more publicity in the past six months than in the previous fifty years. It is this positive profile that we want to bring to Tameside. People think Tameside is down south somewhere near London. We want to change all that,” explained Stalybridge’s Peter Barnes.

But all the other chairmen are opposed to the imposition of a Five Year Plan for football in Tameside. The most vocal opposition comes from three miles down the road at Droylesden. There, double-glazing magnate Dave Pace, who is both chairman and manager, has transformed a club on the brink of collapse into a growing force in the non League game. As he explained, “It’s just Stalybridge getting out the begging bowl again. Mr Barnes wants to put his money where his mouth is rather than looking for others to find more supporters for him. We’ve got big plans for Droylesden. We’re investing in quality players from the Conference and trying to improve game by game. The ground has already changed beyond recognition in the past two years and has been passed by the FA as being fit for Conference football. Now we just have to get there.”

“He’s talking nonsense when he says we’ve got all this money from the council,” protests Peter Barnes. “All I want is for the idea of ground-sharing to be discussed – we can’t go on as we are on gates of less than 800. Besides which the council can’t afford to keep six grounds – it makes sense to ground share.”

Fans clearly don’t agree. A long time Mossley supporter described the plans as, “a complete joke. I’d rather not bother going to football at all than watch some artificial team representing the area.” In the Droylesden supporters’ club, the fans were if anything even more vehement in their opposition: “Look around you,” said one old hand. “This is the greatest ground in our league. Mr Pace has saved this club from extinction, so why should we give it all up when we’ll be in the League soon anyway?”

But as the non-League season kicked off with the usual bout of optimism and self-congratulation, the Tameside questions continues to fester. The only definite losers appear to be the fans of Mossley and the two Ashton clubs, the latter having now agreed in principle to groundshare. Without a millionaire backer or an attentive council, they may fall by the wayside for the sake of two men’s desire for a League football team.

But as Ashton United vice-chairman John Milne points out, “We are on principle opposed to these plans but I don’t know if we can afford to reject them out of hand, because financially the game’s getting harder every season.”

From WSC 129 November 1997. What was happening this month