Macclesfield were in financial disarray when they entered the Football League, but they still managed to win a second consecutive promotion, writes Michael Whalley
Just getting to the starting line was an achievement. One week before their first season in the Football League began, Macclesfield Town received a High Court writ from the creditors of their late chairman's business demanding more than £500,000. This is not generally how promotion seasons begin. Yet nine months later, Macc went up from Division Three at the first attempt. As cheesy as it might sound now, there were times during the 1997-98 season when it seemed as if the motto on Efe Sodje's bandana – "Against All Odds" – could have applied to the club.
Sodje headed Macc's first Football League goal, setting up a 2-1 win over Torquay on the opening day. The defender, making his League debut at the age of 24, had taken a roundabout route into the professional ranks. Born in south London and raised in Nigeria, he returned to England for unsuccessful trials at Wimbledon and Luton, before spending three years in the Conference at Stevenage.
Sodje arrived at the Moss Rose in the summer of 1997. The story goes that his mother Elizabeth told him to wear the bandana to ward off evil spirits. The slogan had nothing to do with Phil Collins. "'Against All Odds' is there because people have always doubted I could play at the top level," he said. Whoever those people were, Sodje proved them wrong. Within five years of heading that goal against Torquay, he would play for Nigeria against England at the World Cup finals.
Sodje's story was an extraordinary one, but it had nothing on Macclesfield's. The club faced going to the wall when their benefactor and chairman Arthur Jones committed suicide. With a lot of effort, they pulled through. Under Jones, Macc had become a leading non-League club during the mid-1990s. Manager Sammy McIlroy led them to the Conference title in 1995 but they were denied promotion because the Moss Rose was deemed not up to standard. It seemed a dubious decision, particularly as Chester had been allowed to play Football League home games there just three years earlier.
Jones funded improvements to the ground and the team, but in immersing himself in the club, he neglected his metal brokerage business. Eventually he lost hope of balancing the accounts. Alone in his town-centre company office on the morning of September 19, 1996, Macclesfield's chairman shot himself. While his death had a devastating emotional impact, the financial implications only emerged slowly. Jones had used money from his business to support the club. As his company was liquidated, creditors started chasing Macclesfield for the debts.
In the face of such huge problems, the club won the first of two successive promotions by claiming the Conference title for a second time in 1997, bringing access to a six-figure sum in Football League TV and sponsorship money that provided vital breathing space.
Even so, the High Court writ that arrived in August 1997 caused immense difficulties as the club were trying to make a transition to the professional ranks. Back then, the Conference was comprised of part-time sides. Macclesfield players faced giving up secure day jobs for the riskier – and not necessarily much better paid – life of a third division footballer.
Most took the jump, including striker Steve Wood, who signed his first professional contract at the age of 34. Some compromised – defender Darren Tinson, an anaesthetist's assistant, went full-time with Macclesfield but was permitted to continue his medical work outside of club hours. Two players, striker John Askey and defender Cec Edey, stayed part-time. Edey managed only a few appearances before dropping back into non-League football with Hyde United, but Askey made it work, playing in 39 of Macclesfield's 46 league games that season while holding down a job as an insurance agent.
Amazingly, it all clicked. Macclesfield had a brief stint on top of the division in late August, but then slipped to 12th by the turn of the year. Then seven wins in eight games helped them rise to second. Goalkeeper Ryan Price did his bit, turning in a particularly impressive display as Leyton Orient were beaten in February, having dashed from the hospital where his wife Nikki had just given birth.
But the key result, in early April, was a spectacularly bad-tempered 1-0 win over promotion rivals Lincoln at the Moss Rose. Price was pelted with coins during the first half. Then Macclesfield mascot Roary the Lion was ejected at the interval after allegedly inciting Lincoln fans by making an obscene gesture with his tail.
An hour in, Lincoln keeper Barry Richardson collided with Martin McDonald and stamped on the Macclesfield striker, sparking a free-for-all involving players and coaching staff that held up the game for five minutes and required police intervention. Macc midfielder Ben Sedgemore was sent off with Richardson who, along with Lincoln team-mates Jason Barnett and Lee Thorpe, received FA misconduct charges. Victory came late and sweetly – Wood's 88th-minute winner was revenge for a broken cheekbone suffered in the reverse fixture five months earlier.
Wins over Barnet, Cardiff City and Chester secured promotion, but a division containing Manchester City, Stoke and Fulham proved too much. Macclesfield finished bottom. It remains their highest-ever League position.
Sodje went to Luton, then on to Crewe and the World Cup. He is still playing in League One for Bury as he approaches his 39th birthday. McIlroy was tempted away by Northern Ireland in January 2000. Askey went full-time, became manager at the Moss Rose for a while and remains at the club today as a youth coach.
Despite a few crises since, Macclesfield have found stability as the fourth tier's longest serving club. Crowds frequently dip below 2,000, but they have just kicked off their 13th successive season in the same division. As Sodje might say, they are still defying the odds.
From WSC 301 March 2012