By John Baron
Farsley Celtic boss Russ Wilcox must surely be a contender for National League North manager of the season after guiding his team to safety for the second year running.
Of course, the footballing gods on high will look to towards the top of the table instead of the bottom, but let’s be clear – in reality what Wilcox, his staff and players have achieved for the second season running is nothing short of a footballing miracle.
To use a cliche, it’s been a rollercoaster of a season – both on and off the pitch – but be in no doubt that Farsley Celtic are punching above their weight in the National League North.
As Farsley fans are fond of saying: “We’re just a small village in Leeds.”
The club’s squad is so small that they haven’t been able to fill the bench for a number of occasions this season. The semi-professional club’s average attendance is a little over 450 and is one of the smallest in the league. It’s no surprise the club’s budget – in a league increasingly dominated by much bigger full-time or hybrid clubs – is stretched.
The ground is also desperately in need of investment.
The club is powered by a dedicated and awe-inspiring band of volunteers who love and give countless hours to the club. What they help achieve on a weekly basis is a testament to their loyalty and hard work.
It’s against this David versus Goliath backdrop that Wilcox and his players have achieved what, at times this season, looked impossible. The club couldn’t have had a better group of players and management team.
They got off to a slow start, with only one win in the first ten league games (travelling fans will recall the trip home after a sunny August opening day 4-0 defeat at Leamington and the overwhelming feeling of doom for the season ahead).
Curiously, the Celts have also beaten most of the top seven sides but somehow not managed to beat many of the bottom seven teams. The team seemed to pull together at the start of the year and began turning promising performances into points. Arguably it shouldn’t have gone to the last day to secure safety.
The Celts also had a great FA Trophy run that ended only on the lottery of a penalty shootout in the quarter finals at Gateshead – a match they should have won inside the 90 minutes.
Keeping the team together over the summer will prove an obvious challenge for Wilcox and co on a limited budget. Andy Butler may have turned 40, but he’s been a rock in the heart of the defence alongside Tom Allan. Bobby Johnson was a major loss in midfield through injury and up front talisman Frank Mulhern has stepped in to lead the goal-scoring threat, alongside inspired loanee Theo Williams.
It would be remiss not to mention the outstanding successes of Farsley Celtic’s Deaf Team, who have won cups and are set for a summer Champions’ League appearance. The impressive women’s side have also won their league and have another final to look forward to. All in a season which saw Farsley pay an emotional farewell to former owner John Palmer, whose family did so much to support the club, on and off the field.
But it’s off the pitch which have caused fans the most concern this season.
There have been difficult times where players haven’t been paid on time and cash-flow has been an issue, leading to owner Paul Barthorpe issuing an unprecedented ‘we’re not going bust’ statement over what he called ‘gossip’ over the club’s finances in January.
Whether it’s gossip or not, a number of appointments have since been made to strengthen the board, which is to be welcomed. Only time will tell whether the new appointments and restructure produces much-needed stability for the club.
Mr Barthorpe’s tenure as owner started in 2019 to appearances by fire eaters and stilt walkers at the first home game, as well as a club re-brand. Optimism cautiously seeped through the club at what appeared to be the start of a bright new era.
This was accompanied by talk of building a covered ‘next generation’ artificial pitch on the site of the current training pitch to help boost the club’s finances and provide a useful community facility. Former boss Adam Lakeland even claimed in 2019 there was ambitious talk of going full-time.
Four years on and nothing tangible has materialised.
While the team on the pitch may – by the skin of their teeth – be National League North standard, the set-up off it is still playing catch up. It’s going to be a big few months for the owner if he is to stop the increasing ‘Barthorpe out’ chants of the Farsley faithful.
All eyes are now on you, Mr Barthorpe…