I’ve seen Skelmersdale United play three times.
The first two times I was very young. Four of us bunked in at half-time once and stood behind the goal of the Liverpool Road end, fetching wayward shots from the bushes and cracking massive sheets of ice that had formed on a large puddle over each other’s heads. The visiting team’s goalkeeper hated us.
The second time, Liverpool Reserves were in town, and I watched as a team in red captained by Paul Stewart (I know) dismantled United in a pre-season friendly. Jamie Redknapp, on return from one of many injuries, was an unused substitute that day and a group of my school friends ran on at half-time, stole the match ball, and volleyed it high in the air as a rotund referee watched on helpless.
In the intervening years between my first two brushes with my hometown club and the third, my interactions with them were brief.
One of my friends unsuccessfully tried to burn down the main stand after school one day. A group of us were once chased off the pitch by a man brandishing what looked like a shotgun, but looking back was probably a broom. During one summer holidays, I went to a Halloween party in the clubhouse. Eventually, their historic White Moss Road home was bulldozed to build a new housing estate on which my parents bought a four bedroom detached.
This, despite being raised in the Lancashire town and living there for almost 25 years, was the closest I ever came to Skelmersdale United. Annoying a goalkeeper, attending a friendly, and living where the penalty spot used to be.
Skem, as it’s affectionately known, was developed from a mining village in the 1960s as a new town haven for expat Scousers. Its new population, my parents and grandparents included, arrived with their own dialect, values, and football clubs. This meant that by the age of one I was in a Liverpool kit, and by four or five I was watching football in the more salubrious surroundings of Anfield, just half an hour up the road.
The town, over the course of its first two decades, would become a cultural battleground between Scouse, Woolyback, and everything in between. The quaint village slowly transformed into a sprawling mass of second and third generation Liverpudlians, grasping for identity, a motorway away from the closest place that felt anything like home.
Alongside all of this, the following decades saw Skelmersdale United experience undulating fortunes. Several trips to Wembley through the second half of the 60s were eventually rewarded with an FA Amateur Cup win in 1971, just a year after Liverpool icon Steve Heighway departed for Anfield from Skem’s youth setup in 1970. The late 70s, 80s and 90s, however, saw a downturn in fortunes for what was a renowned force in non-league football, and Skem’s glory days disappeared as quickly as they had arrived.
The big boys up the road were flying high in the first division of English football, and the town was split into red and into blue, like its metropolitan cousin a few miles up the M58. Despite being around since 1882, and predating Liverpool FC by a whole 10 years, Skelmersdale United never stood a chance.
Almost twenty years after my second brush with them, and two days before Christmas, with Skem kicked out of their stadium and playing at the home of Prescot Cables, I went to find out what has happened to the club that could, and perhaps should, have been my own
“After trying for almost two years to extend the lease on our ground, the owner of the site refused to grant a new lease or extension,” explains Skem’s voluntary press officer, Simon Driscoll, as we sit down in the bar ahead of the team’s home-away-from-home league tie against Brighouse.
“This put us in a very difficult situation and meant that we had to find a short-term solution for our home games, which led us here to Prescot. It’s obviously not something that we wanted to happen, and something we worked very hard to avoid but, in the end, we were left with no choice in the matter.”
Outside, in the freezing cold, a hardened band of Skelmersdale United supporters huddle around polystyrene cups of weak tea for warmth. By even Evo-Stik North standards, there aren’t many of them, no more than thirty. But they wear their heart on their sleeve.
Official club garb is ubiquitous, and in predominantly Lancastrian accents (these people are the old school, outcasts in their own town after five decades of Scouse expansion), they talk about the challenge today’s opposition will bring from Yorkshire.
It’s extremely, extremely War of the Roses.
They chat with the chairman, with Simon, and joke openly with the coach and players, they sell programmes and, when the game kicks off, one or two of them occasionally belt out “COME ON SKEM.” They are otherwise reserved.
Not one of them shows even a hint at the club’s current predicament. There is no undercurrent of doom, and the only gloom is provided by the bout of thick December fog that almost obscures both goalmouths.
Whilst in other leagues, and at other clubs, protest and dissent are commonplace, there is none of that here. Not two days before Christmas, and not with a game ahead of them. It leaves me with the feeling that Skelmersdale’s fans are perhaps resigned to their fate.
Have they given up?
Will their 135th year be their last, and will they go out with a whimper?
“There has been a division within our fans,” explains Simon when I enquire about what feels like a fanbase sleepwalking into the abyss, “you have people out there who have been with us forever. People like Kev Panther,” he gestures towards a jovial man pacing up and down in front of Prescot’s Main Stand, eagerly trying to sell the match day programme, “who are volunteers and keep this club going. Then you have people who have a real problem with how the club is being run, they have decided that they are unhappy with how this has panned out, and are staying away.
“We have never been the most popular club in terms of gate receipts. Even when we were at the top end of the NPL (Northern Premier League), we didn’t draw the biggest of crowds. Skelmersdale is a town of over 40,000 people, and we’ve never really got more than 300 or 400. Because of the obvious connections to the other big clubs in the area.
“Our main goal now, through the ongoing crowdfunding is to raise money to play our home games here at Prescot and to allow for players to travel to away games by coach. We know that we have to look to build a new ground, and we want to return to Skelmersdale, but our short-term goal is simply survival, week by week.”
It’s hard, in the era of non-league success stories of Clapton, Dulwich, FC United, and Billericay Town (I know), to not feel that the attitude around Skelmersdale is defeatist. That those in charge have abandoned bigger picture thinking and are happy to function week-to-week. To survive, but to never thrive.
The short-termism is frustrating, but it’s also understandable. As a local, who lived for the best part of 30 years within a stone’s throw of the club’s ground, I have been tempted across the threshold less than a handful of times. How long could United fans bang the drum? How long could people like Simon Driscoll and Kev Panther, and the rest of the depleted blue army reach out to people like me, to be ignored and rejected, in favour of Goodison, Anfield and, on the rare occasion, Old Trafford?
Perhaps Skelmersdale were fighting a losing battle from the moment the town expanded, and it’s taken this long for the perfect storm to occur. As their fans died off and football from further afield became more accessible, it was maybe natural that a grand old club like Skelmersdale couldn’t thrive, could only function, and that circumstance would eventually get the better of them. That they would eventually, and tragically, disappear.
Outside, for the hardcore, it is of course business as usual. As Skelmersdale trot out in their traditional blue and white kits, I mingle with the fans and watch as a cagey first half passes by without a goal, or even a flicker of a chance of one.
The football is as you’d expect, and both teams have the requisite blend of big, massive tackling bastards and skilful lads in Nike Mercurials to satisfy even the most casual of fans.
Friends laugh and drink pints of flat lager pitchside, have conversations with the linesman and, in one brief, fantastic moment, a ball careers towards me after a wayward Brighouse clearance. I catch it not very sweetly on the volley, and it flies into the sheet metal shutters of the hole-in-the-wall cafe, before being deftly controlled by an elderly man in a flat cap.
Half-time rolls around and I sheepishly return to the bar, which is alive with chatter of the first half performance. The muted, hushed tone of pre-kick-off has been abandoned, and people are enjoying themselves, there’s a community, a camaraderie and a spirit that betrays the current situation United find themselves in.
It’s hard not to feel a pang of guilt. To understand the part I have played in Skem’s demise, by completely ignoring their plight, and with this in mind, ahead of the second half I completely abandon the journalistic credentials expected of an extremely serious MUNDIAL journalist and decide that, for the first time in 30 years, I really want Skem to win.
They lose, of course. 1–0.
As I leave Prescot that day and head back to Skelmersdale for Christmas however, I do so with the hope that United will survive. That things can be turned around, and that the community I grew up in will eventually turn their attention to their local club, now they are in need.
It’s hope more than expectation though, and it’s hope that is dulled over the next few weeks as Skem go on a run that sees them beaten 5–0 by Glossop, 3–1 by Tadcaster and 6–1 by Prescot Cables. At home. Sort of.
Rumours circulate that the club’s former ground will be utilised by another local club, that the aforementioned fan group have set up an FC United style splinter club and, to add insult to injury, United’s official Twitter account is mysteriously hacked by someone in the Netherlands, and the bio is changed to 1882–2018. An obituary. Stories are impossible to verify and even those closest to the club seem confused by the daily developments. Every time I get close to an answer, or reasoning, I am reminded that all of the ongoing discussion and rumour-mongering is happening “on Facebook.” Not ideal and not really becoming of a 135-year-old football club.
It’s bizarre, it’s disheartening, and it’s extremely non-league. However, nobody at the club seems to be distracted from their cause by any of it, which is either brilliant commitment or a worryingly passive attitude towards a club in decline. Which brings us again to the idea of a short-term fix for a long-term problem. What can be done?
It’s almost certainly too little too late for people like me, those who rejected Skelmersdale in their youth and had their head turned by family allegiance, and it’s easy to be a non-league tourist, to visit every now and again. To get dewy-eyed over Bovril and old lads in scarves and hats, to write big, long pieces about fog and goalmouth scrambles to disguise your own guilt, and to wish everyone all the best and head up the road to watch Mo Salah.
But in a football-mad town of 40,000 people, Skem United will need tourists and casual fans as much as they need the hardcore. If the club wants to finally make a stamp on its home, it will have to embrace long-term thinking alongside its short-term fixes. Those in charge will have to reach out to young people and follow the model set by its trendy southern counterparts. It’ll be difficult, and it will feel unnatural for a while, but it’s possible.
Like the mining village from which the club sprung in 1882, Skelmersdale United will have to accept outside influence in order to not only survive but to grow. They, like innumerable non-league teams up and down the country, need to embrace the changing face of football and make it work for them. Or, ultimately, they won’t be here much longer.
Images: Alex Wormald