Dan Whelan writes:
FC St Helens stand between Whaley Bridge and a fourth consecutive JB Parker Cup success.
Whaley Bridge beat Knutsford 9-8 on penalties in the 2015/16 final and have refused to relinquish the trophy ever since.
They swept aside local rivals Poynton 3-1 to retain the title the following season and last year they made it three in a row with a Sam Leadbetter inspired 2-0 win over Rylands.
This week they will be looking to add a fourth title to their collection when they take on Steve Leather’s team at Trafford’s Shawe View ground on Thursday night.
Whaley manager Darryl Hall is looking forward to the game and believes his side have shown that they are capable of writing their names into the history books.
‘I think we’ve got a very competitive spirit and we have done for many years now and I think we’re an extremely difficult team to beat, in any kind of cup competition.
‘What’s interesting for us is that we’ve encountered three different types of finals, and fortunately we’ve come out winners in all three. One final we’ve had to play some football, one final we were backs to the wall and another final it was a physical battle.
‘We’re confident we can win every game that we walk out to. Confidence isn’t necessarily the problem,’ Hall said.
With an opportunity like this, comes pressure and Hall admits that the onus is on his side to perform rather than the opposition.
‘They’ve come up into the division and they’re going to be safe so they can go out and enjoy the final.
‘I’d probably say the pressure is on us really. It’s history if we do it. They don’t have anything to lose,’ he said.
FC St Helens pose the final test in what has been a challenging run to the final for the Derbyshire club.
‘It’s been a real tough run. Poynton away for starters, who were going for the league and then Altrincham, which went to penalties. Egerton was on a 3G which we’re not used to so it was a difficult run in this time round.
‘It was a really tough game at Altrincham but it was probably the best I’ve seen Whaley take penalties. Everyone was smashed into the corner.
‘We’ve given ourselves every chance and we’ve just put a really good run together. We’ve become a very difficult side to beat,’ he said.
The Saints had their survival confirmed on Saturday despite not playing and will be looking to spoil Whaley’s party on Thursday. Leather, like his opposite number, believes the pressure is all on the reigning champions.
‘I think all the pressure is on them, and I would argue all day long with someone who says it isn’t. It’s fair to say that Whaley Bridge, for the last few years, have always been in the top two or three in the league. The pressure is on them, we’re the newcomers to the Prem and I think all expectation will be on Whaley Bridge,’ Leather said.
It has been a mixed first season in the Cheshire Premier League for FC St Helens who have confirmed their safety, and place in the Division for 2019/20.
A change of manager, after a poor run of results earlier in the season, saw Leather take charge and since then results have improved.
‘At the end of the day it’s a result driven game, especially in the Prem. Our remit at the start of season was just to stay in the Division. We have worked hard in a very short period, to get where we are and we’re almost a victim of our own success. Certainly, from the club’s perspective, we got there too quickly but when you’ve got it, you have to keep hold of it.
‘By the beginning of November we had had two league wins since the first of September and you could feel the vibe around the place. I just felt at the time changes needed to be made just to up the ante a little bit. I think our win rate pre November was something like 33% since the 1st of Nov we’ve got that up to about 67%,’ he said.
After a difficult start to the campaign, success in the JB Parker Cup final could put the gloss on their debut Cheshire Premier League season, and top off a successful few years for the club.
‘We’ve developed at a remarkable pace really considering we never kicked a ball in anger until five years ago. We’ve progressed quite well through the ranks with little or no money to spend. So we’ve done quite well, we’re pleased,’ he said.
Hoping that they end the season empty handed is Hall, who is determined to get the job done and secure Whaley’s fourth consecutive JB Parker Cup crown but, as is often the case in amateur football, he is at the mercy of player availability.
‘The problem that we’ve got is availability. It looks, on the registered players list, like we’ve got a massive squad but that isn’t the case. We’re down to probably 15 first teamers. We have tried one or two of the 16 year-olds this year and that has been a plan so they’ll come through,’ Hall said.
One man the manager will be hoping to have fit is 19 year-old Sam Leadbetter who, as the league’s top scorer, has proved a surprising revelation.
‘Sam is a cracking player and we’ve done well to keep hold of him really.
‘At left back he wasn’t getting a kick and we were struggling to score goals early on. It was the worst August we’ve had at the football club, with injuries and players not available for lots of reasons. So in the end, by accident really, we threw him up front because of his work rate and what he’s prepared to put into the game, and things have just escalated from there. He’s banging goals in virtually every week,’ he said.
As for FC St Helens, Callum Laird is in fine form in front of goal with seven goals in his previous five games and 20 for the season. Having him fit and firing for the final could be crucial if his side are to come out on top.
‘Like all centre forwards he is important,’ his manager said, ‘however a forward is only as good as the opportunities he is given by his teammates. His goals are a reflection of his ability to seize these opportunities.
Whilst Laird’s goals have been consistent, his side’s results have been anything but in recent weeks.
A 4-1 win over Poynton last time out, came after drubbings away to Pilkington and Crewe respectively, where they conceded a collective 12 goals.
Before that they had won three on the bounce, including a convincing 4-1 win over top of the table Altrincham. For the manager, their results against the division’s top sides are encouraging.
‘Yes we had a horror show against Pilkington but equally we responded very well by beating a very good Poynton side.
‘When it comes down to the crunch and when we have to deliver I think we’re quite good at that and I think the last few weeks have proved that.
‘In November, when we changed the manager, our first game was in the semi-final against Eagle Sports, who were going quite well at the time we pulled together and we dug in deep and we worked for each other and I think we’re pretty good at grinding results out,’ Leather said.
FC St Helens go into the final as underdogs, and they may have to contend with a degree of rustiness, having not played a competitive fixture since the 9th of March. Indeed Leather’s men have only played five times since the turn of the year.
He will be hoping that any rustiness may be cancelled out by heavy Whaley legs; they travelled to local rivals Poynton on Saturday and may still be feeling the effects of the seven-goal thriller - which they won 4-3 - when they take to the field on Thursday.
‘It could be a blessing in disguise I suppose. There’s two ways of looking at it. The fact that you haven’t got a competitive game, means that your players are a little bit protected and you’re not running the risk of any injuries or suspensions or anything like that, but also on the flip side you don’t really want to be going into a cup final, not having played for two or three weeks,’ Leather said.
Whatever the physical condition of the two sides, the chance to win a trophy should be ample motivation to energise even the weariest legs; the outcome may come down to who can show more guile on the night.
Whaley Bridge are a side with a cup pedigree. They know the way to Shawe View very well and, more importantly, know what it takes to win there.
And the JB Parker Cup is not the only trophy that Whaley could clinch before the season is over. They face Rowsley ’86 in the Derbyshire Divisional Cup final on the 17th April.
Should Whaley prevail on Thursday, their second final will present Hall’s side the chance to complete an unprecedented double quadruple.
The Derbyshire club won three consecutive Divisional Cups between 2009 and 2011 before being promoted to the Senior Cup. Their return to the Divisional Cup this year, and their subsequent run to the final, affords them the opportunity to make it four in a row, albeit after a four year break.
For now, though, all eyes are on the task in hand as Hall begins the process of preparing his side for Thursday’s final.
‘I’m conscious of giving minutes to the whole squad, so if we get suspensions and injuries prior to the final I want to make sure everyone in the squad has got enough game time, and they can play in that final comfortably.
‘Whatever eleven we get out there will not let us down in terms of their effort,’ Hall said.
FC St Helens’ preparation is well under way too and Leather believes that his side are capable of causing an upset.
‘I think we can pull out a bit of a surprise. We beat Altrincham 4-1 at our place, so we are capable of springing a surprise and anyone who thinks they are just going to turn up, look at our league position and think they are going to win are sadly mistaken. Those are the teams that generally fall foul to us,’ he warned.
The question that will be answered in Trafford on Thursday night is whether history will be made, or whether it will count for nothing.