Prescot and the Lancashire Combination

Watching your team being relegated is bad enough. But imagine it going broke and having to resign from the league midway through the season. A messy business. Teams who had played and beaten or drawn with you would forfeit the goals and points, causing possible resentment at the end of the season when every goal and point matters. Such a fate befell Fleetwood during the 1927-28 season, quitting the Lancashire Combination after 22 matches played (out of 38 scheduled). Enter Prescot AFC of the Liverpool Combination, who threw caution to the wind and agreed to take over Fleetwood’s remaining sixteen fixtures. It was a novel and ambitious way for Prescot to step up to a higher league without the usual election process. The Combination agreed but insisted that Prescot rode two horses at once, taking over Fleetwood’s matches, yes, but also completing their fixtures in the Liverpool Combination. What was more, the club was forced to assemble a second squad of players focused exclusively on the Lancashire Combination. The new squad was acquired ‘in a few days’ according to Neville Walker (From Slacky Brow to Hope Street). The ‘Lancashire XI’ lost its first match against Southport Reserves but won at home against Wigan Borough Reserves, Atherton and Great Harwood, away at Bacup Borough and scored double victories against Burscough and Barnoldswick. The season ended with the combined  Fleetwood/Prescot force in sixteenth position out of twenty and 30 points from 38 matches. The ‘Liverpool XI’ finished third out of eleven with 28 points from twenty matches and then resigned from the league.

The Lancashire Combination had been formed just three seasons after the Football League in 1891 and went on to become the longest-surviving non-league set-up in the northwest of England, reaching the grand old age of 91 when it folded in 1982. Its early success was due in part to opening its doors to Football League reserve teams – unlike its rival the Lancashire League, which excluded them. Until the creation of the Central League in 1911, which accommodated reserve teams from the north and midlands, the Lancashire Combination was dominated by Football League reserve teams. Indeed, the first eleven championships were won by second elevens from Everton, Blackburn Rovers, Preston North End, Liverpool and Manchester City. The first non-reserve champions were Accrington in 1903. Everton Reserves were very much the dominant force during the early years of non-league football in the northwest, winning not only the Lancashire Combination six times but also ‘The Combination’ (yet another rival division) seven times.

A total of 34 teams won the Lancashire Combination during its 81 seasons. The most successful was Chorley, winning the league ten times followed by Everton Reserves (six), Accrington  and Morecambe  (five), and Lancaster Town/City, Wigan Athletic, Darwen and South Liverpool (four). In the 1921-22 season the Lancashire Combination Cup was introduced with Lancaster Town winning a league and cup double, an achievement emulated by five other teams once and a further three teams twice. In addition to its ten championships, Chorley won the Combination Cup four times. The club’s league record is impressive, achieving most points (2,391), most goals (4,635), second most matches played in the combination (1,972), second most Combination Cup finals (eight), third highest number of goals per game (2.35) and fourth highest number of points per game (1.21). High achievers in the Lancashire Combination Cup also included Accrington Stanley (with a record six victories), Morecambe (five), Fleetwood and Horwich RMI (four) and Nelson, Darwen and Marine (three). Prescot Cables won the Combination Cup and League Championship once each: the cup in 1948 (thanks to the efforts of our good friend Harry Boydell on the left wing) and the league in 1957 (thanks largely to Bill Watkinson’s 65 goals).

The Combination’s history included two spells during which it boasted a second division: 1903-04 to 1914-15, the ‘B’ division materialising from the old Lancashire League, and 1947-48 to 1967-68. Cables had the bitter-sweet experience of playing in the second division during the 1951-52, 1954-55 and 1966-67 seasons. The Combination’s death knell came with the creation of the Northern Premier League in 1968. In one fell swoop it lost such stalwarts as Chorley, Morecambe, Fleetwood (which recovered pretty well from its problems in 1928 and is now in Football League Division 1), South Liverpool and Netherfield followed soon after by Great Harwood and Lancaster City. A number of other Combination teams opted for Lancashire’s historic rivals the Cheshire League, including Skelmersdale United, Horwich RMI and Droylsden (1968) and Great Harwood (1969). By the late 1970s many more teams had transferred to the Cheshire League, which attracted eight Lancashire teams in 1978 alone. The end of the league came at the conclusion of the 1981-82 season with all 18 members admitted to the new North West Counties League.

Prior to its unusual entry into the Lancashire Combination in 1928, Prescot FC (during its pre-Cables days) made two brief appearances in the division: during the 1897-98 season, at the end of which it finished next from bottom and resigned, and 1919-20, when it suffered exactly the same fate. This was in marked contrast to the unofficial 1918-19 season. With World War One in its final throes, the Lancashire Combination decided to re-launch itself with two distinct divisions: one based on Liverpool and the other on Manchester. Tranmere Rovers Reserves won the Liverpool league with Prescot runners-up.

Prescot’s first experience of league football dates from 1889 (five years after the club’s formation) when it entered the Liverpool and District League. During the ensuing six seasons it kept its head above water, ‘almost always hovering around the top four places and [not losing] many home games’ (Walker). It finished in third place in 1892. In 1895 it transferred to the Lancashire Alliance, a league which included the likes of Earlestown, Skelmersdale United and old rivals Whiston. After its failure in the Lancashire Combination, it returned to the Alliance for two seasons and joined the Lancashire League in September 1901, finishing eighth out of thirteen at the end of the season. A dispute with Prescot Cricket Club, with whom it shared a ground on Warrington Road, made it impossible to complete the ensuing season, and between 1903 and 1906 the football club ceased to function. It was reborn as Prescot Athletic in 1906 when, having detached itself from the cricket club, it moved to its present location at the junction of Hope Street and Eaton Street. In its first season back in operation (1906-07) it won the St Helens and District League from which it progressed to the Liverpool League.  In 1910-11 Prescot joined the Liverpool Combination and remained there, apart from those two further seasons in the Lancashire Combination (1918-20) until rejoining the Combination in 1928. Few details are known about the club’s fortunes in the Liverpool League. It finished third in 1908, seventh in 1909, in a ‘respectable final placing’ (Walker) in 1910 and ‘mid-table’ in 1911. Even less is known at present about Prescot’s twelve seasons in the Liverpool Combination. It finished fourth in 1911 and 1914, eighth in 1922, in the ‘top half’ in 1923 and third again in 1927 and 1928.

Having finished in sixteenth position in that ‘partial’ Lancashire Combination season of 1927-28, the club started its first season proper with a new name: Prescot Cables, reflecting the growing interest of the town’s main employer British Insulated Cables (later BICC) Limited. In January 1928 (about the same time that Prescot took over Fleetwood’s remaining Lancashire Combination fixtures) ground improvements at the Eaton Street End of the stadium were ‘officially inaugurated’ (Walker) by BIC directors, with the opening ceremony performed by the company’s consultant engineer G. H. Nesbitt. Putting BIC’s interests on a more official basis, its superintendent Captain Woods became Prescot’s secretary, and company funding must surely have been behind the two new wings of the main Hope Street Stand, opened by Football League Vice-President Charles Sutcliffe on 26 October 1929. Meanwhile in the Lancashire Combination, the team achieved fourth place at the end of the 1928-29 season and sixth in 1930. The ensuing three years saw Cables on the crest of a wave. With a team bolstered by ex-Liverpool defenders Don McKinlay and Jack Bamber, talented goalkeeper Horace Whalley and phenomenal goal-scoring centre-forward Jack Roscoe, Cables played at its highest-ever level and finished runners-up three seasons on the run (1930-1933). These early Combination days also saw Cables win a hat-trick of Liverpool Challenge Cups (1928-30) and two unsuccessful applications to join the Football League (1929 and 1931). Its disappointment at the end of the 1932-33 season prompted Jack Roscoe to join up-and-coming Lancaster Town and the club to switch to the Cheshire League.

The Cheshire League had been formed in 1919 and functioned as the Lancashire Combination’s chief rival in northwest non-league football until both divisions merged to form the North West Counties League in 1982. Cables couldn’t have picked a worse time to join the Cheshire League, thanks to the emerging Wigan Athletic, formed one year earlier and turning heads in the Cheshire League. Wigan went on to monopolise the league’s championship for the ensuing three years. Prescot Cables hightailed it back to the Lancashire Combination in 1936 after completing the three seasons in fifth, seventeenth and eighteenth places. By the way, Wigan proved to be the most successful team to play in both the Lancashire and Cheshire divisions, emerging as Lancashire and Cheshire champions four times each and Lancashire cup-winners twice.

Once back, Cables stuck with the Lancashire Combination for 33 unbroken seasons. The late 1940s and early 50s brought Cables mixed fortunes, winning the Lancashire Combination Cup at Lancaster in 1948, suffering relegation to Division 2 in 1951 and 1954 but promotion back to the top flight in 1952 and 1955, third position in Division 1 in 1950 and runners-up (to arch-rivals Wigan Athletic) in 1955. The team during this era was graced by the likes of goalkeeper Alf Hobson, defender Bert Jelly and attacking midfielder Sandy Lyon. Driven by the coaching skills of Harry Toppng, the solid custodianship of Frank Garton in goal and the versatility of Harry Grisedale all over the pitch, the mid-50s proved a real hotspot. Cables won the Lancashire Combination championship for the one and only time in 1957, thanks to 65 goals from ex-Liverpool forward Bill Watkinson, and finished runners-up in the two ensuing seasons (1957-58 and 1958-59). 1957 and 1959 were marked by the team reaching the first round proper of the FA Cup only to lose away at Hartlepool and Darlington. The destruction by fire of the main stand in the summer of 1960 – the same stand opened with such pride by Charles Sutcliffe thirty years earlier – led to a decline in the club’s fortunes. The team’s best seasons in the Lancashire Combination during the 1960s and early 70s were eighth in 1961 and 1972 and ninth in 1971. Trading as Prescot Town rather than Cables, the team finished the 1965-66 season in bottom place and spent the ensuing season in Division 2. As with 1952 and 1955, the team returned to the top flight a year later. The same fate befell the team in 1975, when it finished bottom of the league and failed to be re-elected. But by this time the introduction of the Northern Premier League in 1968 had led to the abolition of Lancashire’s Division 2 and without this cushion Cables were despatched to the Mid-Cheshire League. After a gap of 43 years the team returned to the main Cheshire League in 1978, winning its Division 2 a year later. After two seasons of modest success (eighth and ninth in Cheshire’s Division 1), the club, with its name restored to Prescot Cables, joined members of both the Lancashire Combination and Cheshire League in the newly-created North West Counties League.

Overall, the combined Prescot AFC-Cables-Town team completed 45 seasons in the Lancashire Combination. It played 1,476 games and scored 2,823 goals (nearly two goals per game). More importantly, it accumulated 1,398 points in the league (just under a point per game), making it the tenth most successful team in the league’s history. Glory days may have been few and far between, but the club’s story contains many memorable highlights: the opening of the new stand in 1929; Jack Roscoe’s 59 goals two years later; the Lancashire Combination Cup win of 1948; crowds of over 3,000 at Hope Street and convoys of double-decker buses setting out to big away games; the championship win of 1957; Bill Watkinson’s 65 goals from the same season; FA Cup campaigns in 1957 and 1959; Whalley, McKinlay, Lyon, Jelly, Grisedale, Garton, Finlay and many other fine players. These are the stuff of legends and will remain in our memories as long as football exists and there is a team in Prescot to play it.

I am indebted to Peter Holme of the National Football Museum for information on the Cheshire League and for statistics relating to the Lancashire Combination

Glyn Williams