As Worksop Town walked out at Armthorpe Welfare on the opening day of the 2014/15 NCEL Premier season, someone turned to me and said: “This will be interesting.”
It was as prophetic a statement as any, and encapsulated both the feeling of everyone around the club before a ball was kicked, and the reality of what was to follow.
No one really knew what to expect, of the league, the standard of opposition, of a very young team put together in somewhat of a hurry by Mark Shaw, on a budget set by the new financial backers – the supporters.
Tigers won that first game 3-2, and their next outing 5-3, in scenes reminiscent of the team who finished the previous season, with a ludicrous number of goals scored and conceded.
But that wasn’t to be the way forward for the new class at Sandy Lane, who went on to score 126 goals in the league, conceding just 38.
Shaw was able to instill a stubborn defensive mindset that meant Worksop didn’t concede more than twice in any game, all season.
Even when arguably the best two defenders in the league, Luke Shiels and Alex Pursehouse, departed for Conference North teams, Tigers didn’t miss a beat at the back.
Looking at those statistics you’d expect a team to be right up there challenging for a title, and Worksop were – right up until the final week.
The youngsters, who endeavoured to pass the ball out from the back in every game, often giving the older generation of fans a fright, were pipped by a well resourced and experienced Shaw Lane Aquaforce side.
Craig Elliott’s men finished four points ahead of Tigers, and deserved the league’s only promotion spot.
So where was it lost?
Some will say there’s no need for a post mortem because Worksop Town exceeded all expectations. And while they undoubtedly did, and should be incredibly proud of a fine season, if they’re to go on to win it next year then lessons must be learned from their NCEL debut.
I believe you can narrow down the league title to just two goals. Goals that Worksop Town conceded in crucial games.
The winning goal scored by Shaw Lane when they beat the visiting Tigers 2-1 was as avoidable as they come, then Worksop keeper Ben Gathercole needlessly clattering a forward to concede a penalty.
A draw in that game would have narrowed the gap between the Ducks and the Tigers by three points.
And victory at Cleethorpes, which looked likely until the 88th minute when Tigers conceded through poor marking at a corner, would have put Worksop ahead of their rivals.
Of course Shaw Lane will look at similar circumstances in their games and say they could have picked up more points.
And in the end, it’s all conjecture – what matters is that Shaw Lane will be an Evo-Stik side come next season.
But Worksop Town will be another year older, wiser and in some cases more physically prepared for what at times is a brutal league – the huge number of red cards dished out to last season’s opponents evidence of that.
If Shaw is able to keep a large element of continuity about his squad, they will be better equipped for a title challenge, and can set their stall out early as contenders.
That too, means we can expect another interesting season for the world’s fourth oldest club.
Best game - Worksop Town 2 Tadcaster 2, 29th November. Many walked away from Sandy Lane with a bad taste, following controversial moments both on and off the pitch. But for pure drama you couldn’t beat it. An early red card, to a former Manchester United star no less, a wondergoal from local player Matt Booth, some massive challenges and late, late drama. Memorable, to say the least.
Best win - Worksop Town 3 Shaw Lane 0, 14th March. The season didn’t get any better than this for Tigers. Humiliating their rivals, who lost their heads and had two sent off, with a mature performance and some lovely football. Over 500 people watched it and most of them loved every minute.
Best goal - Sam Liversidge, at Barton, 22nd April. Centre-halves are not supposed to score curling first time volleys from the far corner of the 18-yard box. Sam Liversidge did, hammering home Conor Sellars’ deep free-kick. He’ll probably never score a better goal, but if he does I hope I’m there to see it.
Worst goal - Andy Ofosu at Bridlington. The big man’s pace and strength gave Bridlington defenders nightmares, but the goal was as scruffy as they come. They all count, however.
Worst game - the Sheffield Senior Cup exit at Swallownest was pretty bad, in terms of Worksop’s performance and the temperature. Similar followed at Lincoln Moorland Railway in the League Cup. But the 2-1 win at Maltby, again in the freezing cold, was so bad I still don’t want to talk about it.
Best player - Tom Burgin. A deserved winner of the Worksop Guardian award for his commanding performances in defence. Rarely, if ever, met his match in the air, won seven Man of the Match awards and always let his team know his thoughts, in his own booming fashion.
Best emerging talent - Tom Elliott. A product of the Under 19s who had previously shown promise, but went on to make a starting berth his own and blossomed. An intelligent player who came up with some important goals and took home five end of season awards. One to watch.
Biggest surprise - Big Jon Stewart strolling into the ground at Long Eaton United in a signing that caught everyone unaware. The fact that Shaw was able to bring back players of the quality of Stewart, Phil Roe, Burgin and Conor Higginson said a lot about the draw of the club, and his man management skills.
Biggest body blow - The late goals conceded at Cleethorpes and at home to Tadcaster were hard to stomach. But losing 1-0 at Garforth in the first game of 2015, when the hosts parked the bus, the coach and the jumbo jet before scoring from a defensive mix up, was bitterly disappointing.
Best opposition player - There were some very talented players at Shaw Lane, Tadcaster, Cleethorpes, Heanor and elsewhere. But I really liked the look of Tom Fleming of Bridlington. Worked his socks off in both fixtures against Worksop. Looked like one of those midfielders who fights for every ball, and can pass it when he gets it too.
Worst ground - With the greatest of respect, there were some very rustic venues visited last season. Life is tough at this level for many teams, with money and support hard to come by. But the length of the grass at Glasshoughton was laughable, leading many to wonder if little Jack Hawkins would get lost in it. And watching Jake Scott being trundled up a steep cobbled path at Nostell, on a stretcher, because the ambulance had no access to the pitch, was painful.
Best atmosphere - Tadcaster on the final day of the season was brilliant. The Worksop fans won the singing battle, and their players won the game. Tigers fans got noisier as the campaign went on, having been outsung by Bridlington’s young bunch of cheeky scamps. Without going all ‘big time Charlie,’ it must have been novel for some players to see so many come through the turnstiles when they hosted Worksop. Taking close to 150 away would be a mean feat for some Conference North sides, never mind an NCEL team.
Best moment – a Worksop Town team, in that brand new Lee Westwood sponsored kit, striding out onto the field just a couple of months after the club went to the very brink. Everyone involved in the Team500 Club, everyone who sold a membership or bought a shirt could look on with pride and say: “We did that.”