THE new season at Ramsbottom United began with hopes of an improvement on recent 14th-place finishes in the Evo-Stik League’s second tier.

But as September turned into October, such hopes appeared to have been already dashed, as a league record of three wins, three draws and three defeats from nine games seemed to indicate that another campaign of mediocrity was unfurling.

In addition, the Rams had already been knocked out of the FA Cup and League Cup which added to the general air of despondency amongst the faithful supporters.

Then came news that the management team had decided to move on, with manager Mark Fell departing for Lancaster City.

Chairman Harry Williams contacted former player Chris Willcock, whose managerial record included a promotion and trip to Wembley for Glossop North End.

What happened during the next six months was more than most supporters could have dreamed about.

Although the ultimate prize of promotion was missed, the FA Trophy run, and the race up the league table ensured that the club had its most entertaining and successful season since the days of Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley.

Willcock’s reign began with two draws but, having gone behind in the opening minutes at Trafford in the preliminary round of the FA Trophy, most supporters had resigned themselves to exiting yet another cup competition at the first hurdle.

Not so. Signs that this new-look Rammy team would have a little more bottle shone through as the club fought back for its first knockout success of the season.

In the league, four successive victories were achieved, all with clean sheets. Two visits to Prescot Cables’ Hope Street ground within four days certainly lived up to the name as hope began to surge through the Rams. Tenants Skelmersdale were easily cast aside in a 3-0 win, and the landlords were put to the sword more emphatically, 4-0.

The FA Trophy brought a trip to Frickley Athletic, and again, the team responded with a fine 3-0 win, setting up an away day to Yaxley, near Peterborough. As one of the club’s longest ever-trips, the original Saturday date eventually turned into a Tuesday night, despite protestations made to the FA, but it did not deter the players from returning home in the early hours on the back of a 2-2 draw.

Attempts by Yaxley to play the original game to a conclusion were brushed aside, and in the midweek replay, which saw the visitors having to endure the same journey in reverse, Willcock’s men dominated proceedings, and moved onto the next round courtesy of a 5-1 hammering.

This was quickly followed by a another away draw, this time sending the club up the country to North Yorkshire and Pickering Town. An uneventful goalless draw was followed by a 2-1 win on home turf.

In the league, a disappointing and highly controversial home clash with Runcorn Linnets saw the team register their only league defeat in seven games, with two Ramsbottom players – Kyle Jacobs and Kieran Lugsden – shown red cards by the referee.

However, the Rams would go into the new year with seven wins and two draws from 10 league games under Willcock, with 22 goals scored and eight conceded.

The rise up the table from the lower reaches to the edge of the play-offs had been both dramatic and entertaining. As was the FA Trophy run.

Another away draw, the fifth on the trot, brought a long journey up to Evo-Stik Premier side Workington, and another replay courtesy of a 0-0 draw on the Cumbrian coast, with Ramsbottom winning the replay 2-0.

At last, the club’s name came out first when the draw was made for the second round.

And what a tie it was. Weymouth, riding high at the top of the Southern League Premier Division, had the long journey to contend with.

Although many expected the former Conference club to see off Ramsbottom – now the lowest-ranked side still in the competition – a stoppage-time equaliser by Iyrwah Gooden was met initially with rapturous joy, before the realisation sunk in that it now meant the team would have to make the 500-mile round journey four days later.

That trip was worth making, given it brought one of the club’s best-ever victories, a thoroughly-deserved 3-1 win, even with a missed penalty.

The next round would bring the visit of EFL-chasing AFC Fylde.

But, back in the league, the first home game of 2019 proved a disappointment, as Atherton Collieries deserved their 3-0 victory. After a home draw with Leek Town Willcock’s side went on another impressive run, winning 5-0 at Glossop and thrashing Skelmersdale 6-0.

Then came the Fylde game that attracted much media attention, with the BBC cameras and various radio stations present.

And they were not disappointed as the Coasters strolled into a two-goal lead, and after coming back, the Rams took a 5-4 lead before being pegged back late on.

The run into the last 16 came to an end in the replay as Fylde finally ran out 4-1 winners.

The 12-game FA Trophy run saw Rammy compete in 12 matches with more than 1,300 miles of travel.

The primary task returned with a home win against Colwyn Bay, which was followed by two more emphatic victories, 6-0 at Newcastle Town, and 4-0 at Trafford.

Hopes were high that the automatic promotion spot was within the club’s grasp.

Those hopes were dented by defeats to Colne and Widnes, though aspirations were raised once again with three wins and a draw in the next four matches.

Then came the biggest blow. Newcastle Town arrived, still smarting from the hammering they had received in Staffordshire, and avenged it with a 2-1 victory.

Disappointing as that was, the team completed the remaining five fixtures with three wins and two draws.

The last of those, at home to Kidsgrove, saw the visitors notch a last-minute equaliser, which dropped the Rams into fifth place, meaning they would go to local rivals Radcliffe in the play-off semi-final the following Tuesday.

On the night, in front of a large crowd, the Rams failed to perform at their best, and few would argue Radcliffe deserved their 3-0 win, which led to them earning promotion by beating Leek in the final, with the Rams forced to watch on and lick their wounds.

Although promotion eluded the club, much can be gained from the campaign as a whole.

With a great run in the FA Trophy – six wins, five draws and one defeat – Willcock’s stewardship saw 18 league victories, six draws and just five defeats, a massive improvement on recent years.

Hopes at the Riverside will be high come August that next season can see Ramsbottom make a successful push for promotion.