Clitheroe FC history (August 2023)
The club starts its 20th season at Level 4 of the non league pyramid in the Northern Premier League Division 1 (West). Having narrowly missed out on promotion last season, having finished fourth and gone down 0-2 in the play off semi final against eventual winners, Workington, the drive for promotion is even stronger. With season ticket sales nearing 600 and a new ground improvement initiative, Shawbridge 100 launched at the start of the season, the club’s ambition is clear for all to see.
The early years of Clitheroe FC are shrouded in mystery, although it is clear that we do not have an unbroken lineage all the way back to 1877. That said, in that time, a number of teams could claim to be the town team and several of them plied their trade at Shawbridge. However, it took over 40 years for the confusion to be settled, with matters not being helped by the Clitheroe Advertiser not being around in the very early years.
What is clear is that in 1877 the first town team, called Clitheroe FC, took to the field for the first time. As legend has it, they did indeed play against Blackburn Rovers at Swan Meadows (off Kirkmoor Road) and carried on for several years before closing down. They then reformed in 1890 and went on to win the Lancashire Cup in 1892 and took their place in the North East Lancashire League. Not long after, they disappeared but this was not the end of football in Clitheroe. Far from it – indeed several teams could lay claim to being the intermediate predecessor to our current club, before a Clitheroe FC team stepped out at Shawbridge in the Lancashire Combination in 1925-26.
In 1899, Market Place Rovers came into being and played their football at Shawbridge, before becoming Clitheroe Congregationalists the following season. This was always assumed to provide a religious fig leaf to allow them to take their place in the Blackburn Sunday League. In 1902 they became Clitheroe Central, playing in the Lancashire Combination, before going bust in 1910, as a result of their goalkeeper breaking his leg and suing the club. As the club had neither insurance nor assets, they declared themselves bankrupt, a fact which was reported in The Times.
Around the same time, a team called Clitheroe Amateurs had started up in 1909 and whilst records are almost non existent from this point until after the 1914-18 Great War, records show that they sought permission from the FA to use the name Clitheroe FC in 1921. This was granted and in 1924-25 they won the North East Lancashire Combination. After a well attended public meeting, the club decided to apply to join the Lancashire Combination. A supporters’ club sought 1,000 members to fund developments and on 29 August 1925, the mayor opened the stand and dressing rooms at the newly enlarged Shawbridge ground. Darwen were the visiting club for the opening game.
The Lancashire Combination Cup in 1934-5 and the League Championship in 1979-80 was all that the club had to show for its efforts before the creation of the North West Counties league in 1982. That was soon to change. Although Clitheroe were put into the Third Division of the NWCFL at its inception in 1982 due to the state of the ground, there followed the most successful period in the club’s long history under the stewardship of Eric Whalley, subsequently manager and Chairman of Accrington Stanley FC. He assembled one of the best non-league sides in the North of England and won back to back Championships in the Third, Second and First divisions, as well as securing the Lancashire Cup for the first time in 50 years, thanks to a solitary strike from local lad Eric Geldard. This was all the more impressive when one considers that the Division 1 was effectively Level 3 in the non-league pyramid. Captained by Mick Ashcroft and containing extravagant talents such as John Taylor and Steve Mullen, possibly the best player ever to play for the Blues, Clitheroe regularly attracted bumper gates, with the championship winning season seeing three crowds over 1,000. Cracks started to appear when Whalley took over the manager’s seat at Accrington. To compound matters, the new Northern Premier Division 1 was formed, but a lack of floodlights meant the Blues could not take their rightful place and they found teams effectively leapfrogging them.
It was not until the mid nineties that the Club recovered from this setback and started to fulfil its potential. It became a force in the NWCFL Division 1 again and also made itself known on the national FA Vase stage. Having been pipped to the title in 1994-95 by Bradford PA in controversial circumstances, the following season saw possibly the highlight of the club’s history when the Blues reached the Vase Final under the joint managership of Dennis Underwood and Gary Butcher after an epic two legged semi Final win against Mangotsfield United of Bristol. 2,000 people were on Shawbridge for the second leg when a deflected goal saw the Blues home with seven minutes of extra time remaining. The Final pitted the Blues against a powerful Brigg side and a 3-0 reverse in front of 7,500 fans was a fair reflection of the play. In the close season, Clitheroe also received their record transfer fee, £45,000, from Crystal Palace for goalkeeper Carlo Nash.
The Wembley experience turned the Blues into a Vase side and a Quarter Final defeat against Tiverton in 1998/99 and a two leg reverse against Taunton in the 2000/01 semi-final gave the Blues national prominence. Dave Burgess stood down at the end of the season and central defender Lee Sculpher took over as player manager. In 2002/3, Clitheroe again finished as league runners up and lost to Mossley at Gigg Lane in the League Cup Final. Early cup exits the following season enabled the Blues to concentrate on the league and superb away form saw the Blues capture the 2003/04 league title on the final day of the season at Nantwich where Blues legend Neil Reynolds sparked bedlam when he thumped a 25 yarder into the top corner with six minutes of the season remaining.
High hopes accompanied Clitheroe’s first foray into the Unibond League in 2004/05, but the club never fully recovered from manager Lee Sculpher resigning after a handful of games into the new season. He was succeeded by Paul Byrom who then quit in the close season. Tommy Lawson was appointed manager for the 2005/06 season but he was relieved of his duties in early 2006, to be replaced on a temporary basis by Mark Smitheringale. He too left before the 2006/07 season started and his assistant Chris Stammers stepped up to the plate before resigning after a 10-1 thumping away to Conference North Kettering in the FA Trophy in November 2006. The then chairman Carl Garner offered the job to Neil Reynolds and Pete Smith at the turn of 2007, before the latter took on the role in his own right at the end of the 2008/09 season. 2009/10 and 2010/11 saw Clitheroe finishing in eight and sixth respectively, the highest league placings in the club’s history. The end of the 10/11 season also had a unique twist with Carl Garner stepping down as chairman after four years to replace Pete Smith as manager, in the process going unbeaten throughout April and taking the manager of the month prize. Garner was replaced in the role of chair by his long-standing deputy Anne Barker.
Despite the great end to the previous campaign, the 2011/12 season under Garner’s leadership was ultimately disappointing, although it had started so brightly with another manager of the month award. Form quickly tailed off and huge player turnover ensued, before Garner resigned and the managerial Vase duo of Burgess and Sculpher ensured survival on a temporary basis, having taken over with less than 10 games to go. Paul Moore, the ex Leek Town and Warrington Town manager, took over the reins in 2012/13 and led Clitheroe to their record points total in Division 1 in finishing eighth, with the play-off push only ending over the final games of the season. However, the loss of key players in the close season led to a woeful start in 2013/14 and to an early exit from the FA Cup and Trophy, and the committee replaced Moore mid season with ex Blue Simon Garner.
Garner steadied the ship and Clitheroe finished the season in 17th position, with Garner setting his stall out in 2014-15 to create a more east Lancashire focussed team. A 13th place finish and an appearance at the Reebok in the Lancashire Trophy against Chorley represented good progress, whilst the 7th place in 2015-16 continued the good work, and the push for the play-offs only faltered in the final weeks. Following Garner’s resignation, the club moved quickly to appoint ex Wales international Simon Haworth to the manager’s role. He moulded a team from scratch into genuine play off contenders, only faltering in the penultimate game of the season to a 90th minute goal at rivals Colne. 2017-18 could not quite recapture these heights although both Kurt Willoughby and Alex Newby featured prominently in the league goal-scoring charts. When Howarth announced he was leaving, the club appointed former Warrington Town manager, Stuart Mellish. After an unhappy, short tenure, his assistant, former Ossett Town manager Lee Ashforth, was handed the role six games into the season. Unfortunately, Clitheroe endured their worst season at this level and Ashforth’s tenure was brought to an end. Former Lancaster manager Phil Brown steadied the ship in the truncated 2019-20 season, with crowds averaging back over 350 and the Blues hovering around the play off places. He left for personal reasons at the end of the season and the club appointed former Blue David Lynch as player manager for the 2020-21 season, who in turn left after a promising truncated season.
Billy Priestley led the club in the 2021-22 season as player manager to its joint highest placing and points total in the NPL, before he was replaced by former Blue David Dempsey after stepping down around New Year of the 22-23 season. Dempsey inspired a superb run in and led the club to fourth place and to the play offs. Hopes are high for another stirring campaign.