With the start of the 2015-16 National League North season fast approaching, Adam Higgins takes a look at Stalybridge Celtic’s chances ahead of the new campaign.
After narrowly avoiding relegation on the final day of last season, Stalybridge Celtic are casting their eyes higher up the National League North table ahead of the upcoming campaign.
Despite a run of just one defeat in eight games since Liam Watson replaced Keith Briggs as manager in March, Celtic survived only on goal difference at the expense of Colwyn Bay following a dramatic 4-4 draw against Gainsborough Trinity.
But the squad is shaping up nicely and optimism is unusually high at Bower Fold ahead of a realistic promotion push in Watson’s first full campaign in charge.
The 44-year-old is no stranger to success at this level having won the Conference North three times as a manager, twice with Southport and once with AFC Telford United.
Now the former Warrington and Preston striker will be hoping to guide Celtic, who have been in the sixth tier since 2004-05, into non-league’s top division for the first time since 1998.
There have only been two occasions when the Tameside club have seriously threatened to gain promotion, when losing the play-off final to Barrow in 2008 and finishing just below the play-offs in sixth place in 2011-12 following a bright start to the season.
Preparations are already well underway with a packed pre-season programme designed to build team spirit as the players get to know each other and seek to hit the ground running, starting at Hednesford Town on August 8.
There is a typical new-look to a squad bearing an average age of 23 following the close-season clear-out although Watson acted prudently to do business early with 14 signed up by the end of May and a further three additions since.
However, it excludes the signing of Danny Gregson, who has since departed to take up a full-time coaching position at League One club Fleetwood Town just weeks after joining from SK13 rivals Stockport County.
Meanwhile, with a target of between 80 and 90 league goals set for the forthcoming season, three new strikers have been recruited alongside the retained Chris Simm as they bid to improve on a record of just 12 league wins from 42 games last term.
Celtic have undoubtedly watched on with envy as Tameside neighbours Curzon Ashton and Ashton United maintained play-off charges in the division below last term.
Having eluded the drop to the Evo-Stik Northern Premier by the finest of margins, it will be a tough ask for Bridge to compete with the likes of FC United and Stockport for two promotion berths, irrespective of their summer recruitment.
Nevertheless, an intriguing battle in the upper echelons of the table is in prospect and Stalybridge will be desperate to be among the chasing pack at the very least.
Steve Tames (striker from Hyde United): The 23-year-old arrives with an encouraging goal-scoring record in the lower leagues having scored 19 times under Liam Watson at Southport and 11 in 25 games for Vauxhall Motors. The former Prescot Cables frontman will be keen to put last season behind him after just two goals in 21 outings for Tameside rivals Hyde.
Danny Wisdom (full-back from Skelmersdale United): The highly-rated left-back has ended his season-long stay with the Evo-Stik Premier Division club to take on a fresh challenge at Bower Fold. The 6ft 1in player was regarded as one of the manager’s top targets and will provide much-needed pace and energy down the left flank for Celtic.
Tony McMillan (goalkeeper from Barrow): The former Wigan and Preston trainee will be hoping for back-to-back promotions after his 17 clean sheets helped Barrow to the Conference North title last term. The 33-year-old, who was Barrow’s player of the year in 2013-14, has played for a host of non-league clubs including Ashton and Altrincham therefore his experience could be valuable.
Ryan Wade (midfielder from Airbus UK Broughton): The 27-year-old rose to prominence with Prescot Cables before spells at Burscough, Skelmersdale and Northwich Victoria prior to his move to the Welsh Premier League, where he established himself as a box-to-box player renowned for tough tackling and late runs into the box.
Alex Johnson (striker from Guiseley): The 23-year-old caught the attention of Guiseley after scoring against them in a play-off semi-final for FC Halifax Town in 2013 and joined on a permanent basis following an initial loan spell. Described as a strong and industrious forward, he made the number nine shirt his own during his two-year stay at Nethermoor Park with a flurry of goals.
Bohan Dixon (midfielder from Salford City): The 25-year-old, who has Football League experience with Accrington Stanley, has signed a one-year deal after ending his five-month stay at Moor Lane. The 6ft 4in powerhouse has been likened to Manchester City’s Yaya Toure by Liam Watson and will want to play in non-league’s top tier again following his spell at Lincoln City in 2013-14.
Jack Higgins (defender from Ashton United): The 6ft 2in centre-back, 23, was much wanted after captaining the Robins to the Evo-Stik Premier Division play-offs, earning a place in the league’s team of the season and being named the club’s 2014-15 player of the year. He was close to joining Southport but makes the short trip across Tameside and step up to the National League North.
Adam Farrell (striker from AFC Telford United, undisclosed fee): It’s the second time Liam Watson has signed the 25-year-old after bringing him to Telford from AFC Fylde in the summer of 2013 where he scored 17 goals in their Conference North title-winning season. He is described as a quick and athletic frontman with the ability to play in a number of positions across the attack.
Matthew Hughes (defender from AFC Fylde): The 23-year-old Salford-born central defender was tempted by the lure of full-time football and joins with a vast array of experience which include spells at Colwyn Bay, Fleetwood Town and as captain of the Glasgow Celtic reserve team. Now he has signed a new deal, his authoritative presence will help Celtic shore up their leaky rearguard.
Antonie Boland (to Tranmere Rovers, end of loan spell): The 20-year-old centre-back has returned to National League newcomers Tranmere after a brief stint at Bower Fold.
Paul Ennis (to Hednesford Town, free transfer): The 25-year-old former Stockport County midfielder, who was Celtic’s player of the season in 2013-14 and top scorer last term with nine league goals, has departed to join fellow National League North outfit Hednesford and could make his debut against Stalybridge on the opening weekend of the season.
Lewis King (released): The former Stockport, Boston United and Sunderland keeper, 22, departs having been named Stalybridge’s player of the year last term despite keeping only three clean sheets in his 35 appearances since arriving last summer.
Stefan Galinski (released): The 21-year-old ex-Derby County academy defender left at the end of May after just six months having made an initial three-month loan spell permanent. The ex-Boston United centre-back scored once in 11 appearances.
Nathan Heath (released): The 19-year-old Bolton-born defender is out of the exit door at Bower Fold following a one-year stay. He was sent off once but failed to score in 26 appearances having joined from Cambridge United last summer.
Kelvin Bleau (released): The 24-year-old right-back, who scored once in 94 appearances after joining from Frickley Athletic for a nominal fee three years ago, left Celtic at the end of last term and is yet to find a new club.
Scott Kerr (released): The 33-year-old former Leeds and Hull trainee midfielder was deemed surplus to requirements despite only joining from Bradford Park Avenue last November and taking over the captaincy, having set up three goals in 24 appearances.
Darius Osei (released): The versatile 18-year-old attacker departs having not made a significant impact at Bower Fold. He mainly played in the reserves but scored once in two first-team appearances, in the 7-1 derby thrashing of Hyde on New Year’s Day.
Harley Wigley (released): The highly-rated defender, 19, joined last summer after graduating from the Rotherham academy but most of his 24 appearances for Celtic came from the bench and he has since been let go.
James Cadman (to Harrogate Town, free transfer): The 19-year-old midfielder, who netted three goals in 24 Celtic appearances since arriving last June, has joined the Yorkshire outfit.
Jamie Allen (released): The 20-year-old former Fleetwood Town striker leaves Celtic after just three months but netted three times in his 13 appearances for the club.
Michael Potts (to AFC Fylde, end of loan spell): The 23-year-old ex-York midfielder returns to the Coasters after making 15 appearances during a productive loan stint at Bower Fold.
Ross Etheridge (to Accrington Stanley, free transfer): The 20-year-old goalkeeper kept just one clean sheet in his 10 appearances during a two-month loan at the end of last season but did get an assist for the winner against Gloucester. He returned to parent club Derby County, who released him and he has since signed for League Two side Accrington.
Josh Ollerenshaw (to Hyde United, free transfer): The 6ft 5in former Colwyn Bay and Oldham goalkeeper, 24, leaves after a two-month stay at the club having signed a dual registration with Skelmersdale in March prior to the transfer deadline.
Aidan Chippendale: The ex-Ashton United and Curzon Ashton midfielder was inspirational during Stalybridge’s survival run at the end of last term and stood out throughout, chipping in with seven goals and six assists in total. His wizardry, guile and ingenuity will be even more vital next season if the club are to sustain a promotion charge.
Jack Higgins: Possessing all the characteristics required of a top quality centre-half, the former Ashton stalwart was a cut above the rest in the Evo-Stik Premier Division last term and will relish the opportunity to show his ability at a higher level. If he stays injury-free and displays the same attitude and consistency as 2014-15, Celtic’s shaky defensive record is guaranteed to be much improved.
Ben McKenna: Making more appearances than any other Celtic player last term, the lively former Carlisle player proved why the club were desperate to extend his contract with a series of excellent displays in a variety of roles across midfield. The 22-year-old still has more to offer and will want to improve on last season’s respectable record of five goals and seven assists.
Subs: Michael Powell, Oliver Crowley, Dale Wright, Matt Regan, Alex Mudimu, Steve Tames, Ryan Wade.
Transforming a team from relegation candidates to promotion contenders cannot be done overnight and takes a lot of hard work from the players but, if any manager can achieve it, Liam Watson and his assistant Dominic Morley can. His track record at this level and ability to attract experienced non-league players is outstanding therefore Celtic have a huge advantage and it could give them the edge over other teams who are also targeting a challenge at the top. Everyone starts off on a level playing field and a positive start to the season for the Bower Fold club will be important. They cannot afford to play catch up at any stage especially from the off. Stalybridge lost half of their league games last term so drastic changes will have to be made to address this particular statistic having struggled to find a way to win for much of the campaign. Missing Alex Mudimu for the first few weeks of the season with a fractured metatarsal won’t help matters either. However there is newfound belief around the club, one of the founder members of the Conference North, that this could be the year they make the step up. It will be incredibly tough and luck will have to be on their side but they have the resources to make it happen and, although automatic promotion is seemingly beyond their reach, the play-offs are a tangible possibility if the team effort is good enough over 42 games.
Verdict: 5th (Play-Offs)