It's the first Question Time of the season, so in anticipation for Bolton Wanderers XI's friendly with Atherton Collieries tomorrow, at Alder House, I asked Colls media officer/fan/Bolton fan/non-league ground hopper, Joe Gibbons, if he could share some insight into the Atherton club.
For those unaware, just who are Atherton Collieries?
The football club was formed in 1916 as part of the Atherton Collieries Joint Association which organised sports and events in the town for local miners. The association also had a cricket and rugby team amongst others, with all going under the Atherton Collieries label. The club play their matches at Alder House which is named after the historical building just behind the clubhouse. They have played there since around the time of formation, and the clubhouse building was originally erected in 1920 (we learnt that this week when doing a research day at Leigh Library!)
Collieries will start the upcoming season in the NWCFL Premier Division which is the ninth level of English football (if you treat the Premier League as the first level). We gained promotion from the NWCFL First Division last season after a number of seasons of falling just short of an automatic promotion place.
Alongside playing in the league, we also enter the FA Cup - starting at the beginning of August in the Extra Preliminary Rounds - The FA Vase, Lancashire Trophy, NWCFL Challenge Cup and the Bolton Hospital Cup... sometimes we don't play in the league for weeks on end!
The last few years have seen the club go from strength to strength both on the field and off it. Over the last two years for instance our attendance have risen by nearly 130%.
Colls smashed the league last season, what was the key to the success?
Michael Clegg was brought in as manager (read our interview with him by clicking here) from our local rivals Atherton Laburnum Rovers. He immediately set about restructuring the team making sure the vast majority of players lived within three miles of the ground. This did wonders for the team spirit as you can imagine! The players felt a real sense of pride in playing for their local team and put their all in every single week.
We had a number of lads who had been released from football league clubs a couple of seasons prior to joining Collieries. Many of them had stated how they fell out of love with football having been released, but Collieries brought back the love of playing again. In essence, the local spirit and togetherness won the league in the end.
What style do Colls like to play?
At this level you do play teams who stereotypically hoof the ball up front and kick try to kick you off the pitch. Admittedly, we have to play like that sometimes if we want to succeed; it's a case of grinding the results out when there are so many matches.
Traditionally, we like to keep the ball on the floor and pass it around which can be problematic come the dark winter months when the ball gets stuck in a puddle or takes an unfortunate bounce. I like to think that at the moment we have the right mixture between possession and long ball. It's an exciting brand of football at Alder House; rumour has it Barcelona watch videos of the men in black and white stripes!
Which players should Bolton fans look out for on Saturday?
Our striker Mark Battersby was - as far as we know - the top goalscorer in English football last season, scoring over 60 times. He joined us from Stockport County and settled in with his new team mates immediately despite not doing pre-season with us. He claimed league awards and has caught the eye of a lot of teams in higher divisions but he has decided to commit to Collieries for another campaign.
Goalkeeper Danny Taberner played a few first team matches for Rochdale a couple of seasons ago. Having had spells at Salford City and Stockport Sports he joined us last summer and was a huge part in our successful season. Deservedly he won the NWCFL Goalkeeper of the Year award so please be nice to him if you're behind the net!
The player who will be looking forward to this match the most is Mark Truffas. The winger is a huge Bolton fan and he often shows off his Wanderers tattoo. A consistent performer for Collieries over the last three seasons, he is currently sponsored by the Colls Crazy Gang! A fans favourite.
How will Colls be approaching the game with Bolton?
In the build up to competitive matches the lads are usually encouraging each other for days. Not a day goes by where they are not in contact with each other on Whatsapp and this week has been no different.
I'd say the main thing they want to take away from this match is the experience. Being able to play in front of a large crowd, against the team a lot of them support with their friends and family in attendance will be a great feeling. Bolton only returned to pre-season training on Monday, while we have been back for three weeks now which may be a decisive factor in the outcome of the match.
Win, lose or draw we will all be immensely proud to see Bolton Wanderers playing on our pitch.
With Colls' promotion to the NWCFL Premier Division, how do you think they'll do next season?
The NWCFL was founded in 1982 and we have been in their respective leagues ever since. We have never finished higher than 7th, so anything higher than that will be absolutely fantastic for us. A lot of clubs set the goal of simply staying up following a promotion and then building upon it year upon year, but we believe we can do better than that. We beat a number of higher division opposition last campaign and we will be facing these teams again this season.
At a national level we would love to do well in the cup competitions. The FA Cup starts at the beginning of August for clubs like Collieries. That means that in order to reach the Third Round where the likes of Bolton enter the competition we have to win six matches. We won't go into detail... but the last two seasons we have been dumped out of the FA Cup by Radcliffe Borough.
The FA Vase is the other competition that we enter at a national level. This involves just teams at NWCFL level throughout the country and the final is held at Wembley in May. We reached the final 32 last year which was a great achievement, but we are confident of going further this time around as our young squad will be more experienced.
What will the Colls squad look like next season? Have any new signings been made?
We practically have the same squad as last season which is very pleasing. Midfielder Andy Heald who used to play for Leigh RMI played his final game for us in the Bolton Hospital Cup Final in May. Fortunately, he has stepped up into a coaching role which is a position he's familiar with as he spent a spell as Salford City manager a couple of years ago.
With Heald stepping up into a coaching position, we have brought in a like for like replacement with the addition of Matt Cross. A vastly experienced player in the NWCFL he has spent time at Warrington Town, Witton Albion, Mossley and more recently Runcorn Linnets. During his time at Linnets he scored one of the most popular viral goals when he scored his overhead kick against Barnoldswick Town:
We have also strengthened in defence with the signing of Jimmy Moore from Cheadle Town. He was a strong and physical presence when he played against him last season, but due to work commitments he rarely caught the eye of other teams. We're delighted to welcome him to Collieries and he's looking forward to making the step up into the Premier Division with us.
Last season we had an U18's side who also won their respective division. From that side we brought a few of them down to training a few weeks ago, with the intention of getting them up to match fitness with everybody else. Ahmed Sulay has performed incredibly well during all sessions and manager Michael Clegg says the midfielder "has thrown a spanner in the works". So it looks like we are going to be signing him for next season too.
There may be a couple more additions to the squad before the first game of the season, but we have a close team and there isn't much need for change.
With a big crowd expected for the game, how are you hoping the fixture will benefit Colls and non-league football in terms of attracting new fans?
I've written a brief article in the matchday programme where I try to discuss how Bolton Wanderers and Atherton Collieries could work together for the good of everybody. I don't think I hit the nail on the head as I could write a book on the matter. However, in a nutshell I think that if the match is a success, we as a club will raise an awful lot of money and this will help us be financially stable for another season.
It isn't all about the money though. If we gain 100 Twitter followers from the day, it means that when Bolton aren't playing and we are in action we may be able to entice a few fans back for the night.
The vast majority of Collieries fans also support Bolton and juggle watching the two successfully. A point I made in my notes was that Bolton could tweet to their 80,000 followers when the likes of Collieries, Radcliffe and Chorley are in action and can help boost their attendance for the day. This really would not take much effort and would make a huge difference.
My main hope is that people who haven't watched non-league football before are surprised by how professionally run the club is and how gifted and committed our players are.
We will be handing out vouchers at the match which will entitle spectators to come back to Alder House for another pre-season friendly at discounted admission. These matches include Stockport County and Salford City later in the month.
Joe, you once were a Bolton season ticket holder but you now watch far more non-league football. What swung you to the other side?
I started off ground hopping with Bolton. I went home and away for a few seasons and then started to wonder what other football I could go to when we weren't in action. I went down the leagues each week. League 2 seemed like a magical world and then I experienced the Conference and kept going further down each week. One evening after school I went down to Atherton Collieries v Cheadle Town, not really knowing what to expect.
The fans and committee treated me like I had been watching Colls all of my life and I found myself going back every once in a while. I still had my Bolton season ticket and then I was given an Atherton Collieries one. It was probably a couple of seasons ago when I was sat in my usual seat at The Reebok when I felt totally bored and disinterested.
I couldn't walk around the pitch having a pint. I couldn't argue with the opposition right back and then shake his hand when he was walking off the pitch. I couldn't stand with my mates. I couldn't even stand up at The Reebok. I was paying lots of money to watch Bolton and I wasn't enjoying the experience at all. At Atherton Collieries I can stand where I want, drink where I want and have a laugh with my mates and the players.
Finally, what score do you reckon the game will be?
I'm hoping for a goal fest to welcome in the new season. Atherton Collieries 4-3 Bolton Wanderers.
We thank Joe massively for his time and for being so in-depth with all his answers, we now ask you to follow him on Twitter @JoeBillGibbo. You can also give his ace blog a read at gibbos92.wordpress.com.
I'd also massively implore you to get yourselves down to Alder House Tomorrow! It's going to be a capacity crowd and no doubt a cracking afternoon. Tickets will no doubt be available on the day, but you can follow the club on Twitter @ACFC1916 for more information. I'll be there, and if that's not a reason to go I don't know what is.
Photo credit of Joe Gibbons.