It’s Saturday afternoon on the first day of May, and it’s Radcliffe 2-1 Leek Town, with just two minutes left on the clock. The nerves aren’t settling. Hands are in covering mouths, some Boro fans gripping pints, some fans chanting “We are going up!”. Some of the visiting faithful begging for their beloved club to find the all-important equaliser. You could have cut the tension with a plastic knife, never mind stainless steel.
Chairman Paul Hilton was hoping. Fidgeting. Restless. Hoping the work he and the Boro had put in for years, would pay off with one full-time blow of the referee’s whistle… and it did. The Boro were promoted to the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League for the first time in 16 years.
The planning, the changes, the sacrifice, had finally payed – not just the club – but the town a massive dividends. The town of Radcliffe had suddenly woken, in the eyes of the Boro chairman.
The pitch invasion, dressing room celebrations and the play-off trophy lift had already taken place before Hilton finishes granting his solicitude to a record attendance, the league officials and guests to finally find the time to take a breath, reflect and realise that the club deserves, and should be in the Evo-Stik Premier.
But Just how long has Hilton been tapping on the table, waiting for this very day to come? What’s been the secret, the methodology behind the success? When did the club decide to shake off the bottom-half shackles and start reaching for the top shelf? And are the Boro behind schedule?
“The Evo-Stik Premier sounds like where we should be,” said Hilton with a rapturous smile. “We deserved it against Leek (Town). We’ve worked all year for it. Despite the odd mathematics, the workings out and the crystal ball gazing, we have made it.
“I think we thoroughly deserve it and the lads do as well for what they have put in this year. I am looking forward to next season already. Our aim was to gain promotion at the start of the season. Absolutely it was. This (promotion) was part of a long-term plan.
“The plan started three years ago, when we had a change of leadership at the club. I came in, new board members came in and we started to look at how to change the club around and how to make it successful side – thinking also where to take it.
“We actually count ourselves as being a little bit behind schedule, to be honest. It’s been a lot of learning, a lot of changing the way the club works, bringing different people in who are going to help us to get to where we need to get to. I say all of this without any cockiness – this is where town should be.”
For Liverpool, it was the 2016 cold afternoon in Stoke. For Manchester City, it was the 1998 cold Tuesday night in York. For Radcliffe, it was the ‘2017 cold night in Clitheroe’ as Hilton describes, which sparked the new revolution at the Boro. To sum it up, enough was enough. The big name managers in ex-Premier League stars Jon Macken and Frank Sinclair wasn’t just the boost the club needed, but routines, training, and infrastructure was also completely revamped, alongside a much needed squad overhaul. The ground wasn’t hit running in the management’s first campaign when they took over in October 2017, but they knew all of the former was in the pipeline.
“People outside the club may think that it’s come quite quick because they look at the result the year before and the year before that and say ‘17th, 18th’,” added the Boro Chairman. “‘Then Jon (Macken) has come in and they have still finished near the bottom, so what’s the difference?’ there is a lot of difference.”
“Because, the infrastructure of the club has changed, the ground has changed, the way we train has changed, bringing in Jon, Frank (Sinclair) and Steve has taken us to that next level. It was always about building. I keep coming back to this and I suppose that the people from Clitheroe won’t thank me for it, but we had that ‘cold night in Clitheroe’ scenario that is similar to Stoke City for the Premier League.
“We got beat 4-0 last year in the Lancashire Cup away from home and we were awful. Jon and the management had just come in, and we knew that team wasn’t going to take us to where we wanted, and at that point – changes had to be made and that led us to now. We sacrificed last year for this year and the proof was the promotion.
Hilton isn’t stopping there… he wants more. The now-old mentality of just staying up isn’t acceptable at the Neuven Stadium anymore, regardless of what division they’re in. The goal for the club is full-time, and it goes without saying that a certain Salford City FC are a prime example of a team, that were lower than Radcliffe just six years ago, making it to the big time of the English Football League (EFL) in May.
The Boro will certainly take inspiration from their story, but not the type of free-for-all spending that the Greater Manchester club has had injected into it by the former Manchester United ‘class of ‘92’. It has to be more natural for Hilton, who also won’t stand to be ever-presents it seems. But the objective is clear – as speculative as it may sound.
He said: “The challenge is now to plan for next season, and to plan – making sure we are as competitive as the last eight months. We want to take this club professional, as quick as possible. And again, I say that with no ego, it’s just that the opportunity is here if we build it right.
“We have to build It organically. Lets be clear, we are not Salford (City FC), we aren’t FC United (of Manchester). We haven’t got those little bits and boosts that they had – plus all the little niches like money or a cause to build with that speed.
“We’ve been building this project for the past few years, organically and were going to carry on doing that. One thing is for sure is that we aren’t going to just sit in that Premier Division and try to stay in it – I tell you that now. We are going into that Premier Division to try and win it!”
Perhaps one complaint of the English Premier League is that an array of clubs may lack a sense of social and local belonging, due to the commercialisation of the professional game, post-1992. For Boro, it seems the community is their number one target market, in order for achievements to become frequent.
The Radcliffe chairman deems local pride as a big part in the Boro’s blueprint for the future and he believes, with the combination of the residents, steps have already taken place towards putting the town on the regional map. In his words – the place has awoken.
Hilton said: “Radcliffe is a town of 35,000 people and that for me is a good set of people. We are right in the heart of the community. The first thing we identified all those years ago was that we can be the thing that the town can shout about, but it’s going to take time.
“The reason why is that we were in decline for a long time. The people who were and still are here have done a great job of keeping this place (Boro) a float. We had that chance to turn it into something good, and together, that is what we have done – and continue to do.
“There is an on-tap resource here for the town, and we believe that we have really woken it up with the things we are trying to do. We are promoting the youth by joining up with the junior sides. We are now more prominent in the town itself and in terms of what we want to achieve, it’s a big part of it. We need to be in the town more and more, and we are getting there. The community is definitely responding.”
Macken’s men have come far in a short space of time, and doesn’t Hilton know it. “A couple of weeks back, I thought we were going to win the league, it was a simple as that,” he said, with a little laugh. Radcliffe pulled off a winning run, consisting of a Runcorn Linnets and Atherton Collieries away win to put Boro top of the league, but his speculative hopes were ended by The Colls, who for most parts of the season’s second-half, led from the front and resulted in winning the West Division title.
Albeit, the small sprinkle of table topping sparked title belief, but it’s said with confidence that it’s still been one successful season for the team in the Borough of Bury. Plus, it took a semi-final stormer and a final day comeback to gain the much-coveted status of promotion.
The chairman initially thought it wasn’t meant to be when Leek took the lead on the last day, but the main assessment of the season was the phenomenal goals record of 94 goals in the league, and it’s why Radcliffe were reliable in coming back to clinch it.
Was the plan to score that many in a single season? Hilton thinks so, to an extent. With the acquisitions in the pre-season of 2018 in Tunde Owolabi and former player Ben Wharton, came an instant spark.
From the speed and trickery of the Belgian, Owolabi, to the power, accuracy and technique of the former Warrington Town man, Wharton. The partnership was tried and tested variously over the course of the season, and it pull off. Together they have combined to score 52 goals in the previous campaign, toppling the 2017/18 team total of 46 goals. Hilton doesn’t hold back when waxing lyrical about his team’s traditional partnership.
“(On the game) When the leek town goal went in, I thought ‘here we go, this might not be our day’,” the 36-year old chairman said. “A couple of weeks back, we had that little wobble and results didn’t really pick up - for us and around us.
“So I initially thought ‘is it going to take the rug from under us?’ and that goal felt like it. But during the game, we were the better side, even when they opened the scoring. We maybe had a wobble for five minutes but we were instantly back on it.
“The thing with us is that we have always got goals in us, we’ve had goals in our team all year and we showed it in that second-half, as well as a unmatched mentality.
(On Owolabi and Wharton) “This is what I mean about planning. Here you have an orthodox, old fashioned number nine and a number 10 just off him. You have seen it countless times, in countless teams in football. You had Niall Quinn and (Kevin) Phillips. Tunde (Owolabi) and Ben (Wharton) have been fantastic in a partnership, but that is planning from upstairs.”