Rainworth Miners Welfare – The Little Big Club

It was just a couple weeks into the 2014/15 campaign when we heard ‘the managers job’ at Rainworth Miners Welfare was up for grabs.

Then playing in the Northern Premier League Division One South, the start to the season (having finished a credible fifteenth the year before) hadn’t been going too well for the Wrens, we went to watch an early season game against Mickleover (the eventual champions) at Kirklington Road when Scott Rickards was in charge, I didn’t like the whole ‘Manager in waiting scenario’ and going to watch a club in the hope that they lose to potentially get a job at someone else’s expense, but that’s football, that wasn’t my choice, but I agreed we had to at least have a look at the team if we were to apply for any upcoming vacant role.

In the end it was a 1-1 draw and we were made to wait a few weeks until we were needed, to apply, and then take charge of a club at the bottom of the league, but one that I knew plenty about due to its remarkable history within local football.

Apparently formed as Rufford Colliery in 1922, the club became Rainworth Miners Welfare in the 1970’s and with that name change came almost unprecedented success. Managed by Brian Phillips, a former Mansfield Town and Middlesbrough central defender, the club achieved six successive Notts Alliance League Championships with a few League Cups and a couple of Notts Senior Cups on top, the club famously one of four (that I’m aware from this county) in reaching a Wembley final (the others Forest, Notts County and Mansfield Town), eventually losing against Forest Green Rovers (now of Football League status) 3-0 in the 1982 FA Vase.

After three more Notts Alliance titles in the 1990’s, the real rise of Rainworth was in the early part of the latest Millennium, when it was Rudy Funk and Bill Millar who achieved three promotions to see the side climb to step four of the pyramid, and in doing so becoming the first-ever ‘still named’ miners welfare to play in English football’s eighth tier.

That historical note of a local ‘welfare’ team punching well above its weight was a reason of many, why I was intrigued to come and work for the club, having driven past Rainworth on many occasions, the modern little ground viewable from the A617 always impressed me, and from the moment I walked through the doors, I was made to feel most welcome, by the humbleness and generosity of North East born Chairman Les Lee, by the warmth of Gordon Foster, Dabber and co, the whole place just felt right.

We went straight to action in our first game in charge against Chasetown with little preparation and lost 1-2 at home. That day our goalkeeper Harry Andrews (son of former Leicester City stopper Ian), who we signed on the eve of the game, was phenomenal, but an injury to him had us desperately loaning Liam Roberts from Walsall just a few days later, a young goalkeeper thought of very highly at the Bescot Stadium, later proved so by playing over 100 league games for the Saddlers before joining Northampton.

With Roberts in goal, we won our second game 2-1 at Brigg Town, in a match that was already billed as a six pointer, the Zebras at the time were also fighting relegation to avoid dropping out of the Northern Premier League.

That following weekend, Tommy Brookbanks brought his impressive Loughborough Dynamo side to Kirklington Road and played us off the park, we lost 1-2 (a familiar scoreline you’ll see) again, but a week later we beat Market Drayton Town 4-3 before an impressive performance that stands out for me at Stocksbridge Park Steels, a 2-0 win away from home where we had to dig in under the lights, Kieran Coupe who’s still in fact playing for Rainworth these days, magnificent on the night, the classy Alex Ford scoring as well as the terrifically talented Triss Whitman (who Doncaster Rovers fans will never forget).

It felt things were going well, but a run of eight games without a win, including being knocked out of the FA Trophy in a replay, after originally conceding a last-minute penalty and being reduced to nine men at Market Drayton, had us under real pressure for our status. Thankfully we beat Brigg in the return league match to end that particular bad run of results and stay clear of bottom, but by Christmas, we knew we were in a real tough fight to stay up.

Players came and went, too many, Gary Sucharewycz who had originally agreed to take the joint-Managers job with Ian Robinson (myself as Coach), was replaced by John Knapper, all while those in the background, kept everything ticking with a smile on their faces.

The club unlike any other I had been at previous, had a real family feel to it… In some ways, it wasn’t really about the result of matchdays, but instead more about the social aspect of everything that went with running a football club.

The tea ladies behind the bar were all wives of those who ran the show, the groundsman cutting grass one minute, on the gate the next, Les Lee the Chairman taking scratch cards around the ground, Gordon on the PA before interviewing players and managers after the game with his Dictaphone, and when Les has swept up the changing rooms (hopefully remembered, sometimes helped by me), the last to leave and lock up, he’ll follow everyone else across the road to the Miners Welfare where they’ll be a pint waiting for him, chips laid on for both teams, home and away, with all the wives of the old guys sitting together and having a laugh, win, lose or draw.

In fact I remember a draw at home to Goole on New Years Day, like us they were scrapping relegation with financial troubles and Curtis Woodhouse, their manager, came in after the game and sat down and had a pint with us. “Oooh a Mickey Mouse” he said in a thick East Yorkshire accent. “Not had one of them for years. Get me one”.

Sitting in a Miners Welfare with a pint of half bitter, half lager on New Year’s Day, talking old football stories with a load of old ladies on the table next to you having a sing song flirting with the young lads who awkwardly just grin before patting them away and getting back to looking at the screens on their phones, nothing better, the place just had that feel that no matter who you are, you’re more than welcome… One more for the road.

We won our next game against Romulus (2-1) but went on another disappointing losing run before a shock (but not un-deserved) 2-1 victory against high flying Sutton Coldfield Town, had us believing we could perhaps avoid the drop. We drew at Tividale on a Saturday afternoon (before our mini-bus broke down on the M5) and lost by the odd goal against Newcastle Town (0-1), Leek Town (0-1) and Chasetown (1-2) before a 0-0 draw against Carlton and a 1-0 away win at Norton.

All season we were hugely competitive, and every game was tight, an honest bunch of players who worked hard off the ball, we defended well, Tommy Hannigan, Dean Freeman, Dan White, Elliott Hodgett-Young, four recognised centre halves playing across the back four, but we lacked that cutting edge to score regular goals, despite having pace in attack through Romaine Graham, Darren Mansaram and Leon Osbourne. Losing far too many games by the odd goal, we however needed just three points from the two remaining matches of the season to ensure we would be safe outside the bottom two. And we were confident we could do it.

It was the morning of Kidsgrove Athletic at home, the second to last game, against the team a place below us with points level pegging, who we needed to beat, to stay safe, to stay up, but on that very morning of April 18th 2015, a bombshell was dropped, Chairman Les Lee telling us, ‘regardless of whether we win or not, that the club had asked to go down.’

The club’s status, understandable, they couldn’t afford to stay in the division, the higher wage budget and travelling distances, coupled with the fact the Northern Counties East (the division below) had more potentially attractive ‘derby days’ to increase gate revenue, it made sense, if only I wish Les had held his breath to tell us after the Kidsgrove match.

We eventually lost 4-3, after leading at half time 2-0, both Robinson and Knapper rightly wanted out, there and then, but we all agreed to see the season out against Coalville which in a deflated performance, we again lost 2-1, those odd goals getting the better of us the story of our unfortunate season… Parting company was sad but amicable, we all knew what was coming post Coalville, I don’t think we stayed long or for more than one drink, but one thing about Rainworth Miners Welfare, despite how it all ended, despite us not achieving what we wanted, that in my memory of this great little club, it’s always been a club that knows where it’s at, it knows how to punch and it knows the boundaries it can push… This isn’t an overnight success, or a one season wonder that wanted to throw cash at seeing how far it can get, but instead, a proper run establishment, one that the people of Rainworth can look back on and be very proud of. A Wembley finalist in 82, a team who peaked at the eighth tier of English football… The best Miners Welfare Team in the country? Not many have achieved such success…

To Les to Gordon, to all the wives, to the clubs first ever manager Tony Porter and his predecessor Brian Phillips, to Rudy and Brian in years gone by, the team of 82 and to all those involved that have made it such a special little club punching well above its weight time and time again, well done, and thank you, because football needs establishments like this beautiful little place on Kirklington Road, and anyone that’s been a part of it, or been to it, will know and understand, that Rainworth Miners Welfare has certainly done Nottinghamshire Football proud over the years. I imagine it will continue to do so too.

*Article provided by Daniel Peacock (Editor).

*Main image @dannypea the Managers Office which involved many a debate back during our time.

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