Guy Heffernan with a Maine focus on the Road to promotion

Wed 25th October 2023 | Maine Road
By Jay Cooper

There are a handful of clubs who are undoubted staples of the NWCFL. We can go all the way back to the first ever iteration of the league and find familiar names from the then-called Divisions One and Two. Get ready for a long list - the likes of Atherton LR, Ashton Athletic, Ashton Town, Bacup Borough, Chadderton, Daisy Hill, Darwen, Droylsden, Glossop (later North End), Nelson, New Mills, Padiham, Prestwich Heys, Skelmersdale United and Winsford United were all present in the 1982/83 campaign, and all of these teams have left the league and eventually returned in the time since.

One name that wasn’t mentioned there (mainly because they weren’t founder members of the league) but are a pillar of the NWCFL nonetheless is Maine Road. The side that started out as ‘City Supporters Rusholme’ in 1955 officially became members of the Counties League 31 years later, in 1987, and, from that point on, they have been an unmoving part of this pyramid.

And a lot of that time was taken up by a presence in the NWCFL Division One, later the Premier Division. They first made the Counties League top table in 1990 as champions of Division Two and stayed there for over a decade before relegation in 2002. They wouldn’t be away for long, however, forcing their way back to Division One by finishing as runners-up in 2004, and maintaining their position for another 13 years, actually outdoing their first tenure in the top tier by an extra season. In 2017, they were relegated again, this time to the First Division South, as, by this point, the old Division Two had taken on the current North and South format.

Since then, and especially since the eventually successful implementation of the play-off format in 2021/22 (let’s ignore the 2 half-seasons we were afforded by the pandemic that shall not be named), Maine Road have been fingertips away from making a third return to step 5 of the non-league system. Rees Welsh was appointed to the dugout ahead of 2021/22, and, after the new year, a new assistant manager was also appointed, that being Guy Heffernan.

Over the course of almost 2 full seasons under the stewardship of Welsh and Heffernan, Road managed very competitive 6th and 7th placed finishes in the First Division South. Given that their competition during that time included the likes of now-established NWCFL Premier Division sides like West Didsbury and Chorlton, FC Isle of Man and Wythenshawe (formerly Amateurs), as well as consistent also-rans like Abbey Hey, Stockport Town and last season’s play-off winners in Cheadle Town, it’s a credit to Maine Road that their push for promotion has been a sustained one, and not just a flash in the pan whilst clubs recover after grassroots football was forced to stop for the best part of 2 seasons.

Their history and recent league position seems to really support the idea that Maine Road can definitely hang with the best that this league has to offer, if they can only get over that promotion line. For 2023/24, that responsibility falls upon the shoulders of former assistant gaffer Heffernan, after Rees Welsh left the club in June. Since taking the reigns, Guy has gotten the club to their familiar 6th position in the league, and, at the time of writing, they are level on points with the last play-off place, with a single goal separating them from Sandbach United in 5th.

From being at the club for almost 2 years at this point, Guy also knows better than most on the outside looking in about what happens off the pitch and behind the scenes at Brantingham Road. Speaking to him last week, he told me that “I think there's a lot of people outside of the club that might just associate Maine Road as a club that’s not really going anywhere, maybe due to the facilities we have. But I really beg to differ with that, as, off the field, we have volunteers who work tirelessly to make sure that the facilities we have are always there for us to use as efficiently as we can.”

He also spoke about how he plans to take the club that little bit further in the league now that he is first team manager. “I've had sole charge, if you like, of the team since the summer and there wasn't much to majorly change, really. The main work Rees and I did as a team was centred around creating a good foundation. Yes, of course, I do want some little things to change, and to make my own stamp on this team, but I know I'm not going to do that overnight or anything because some building blocks will need to be put in place for things to change long-term. 

“For me and my personal standards, I’d say play-offs should be our bare minimum goal for this year. I'll almost class myself as a failure to the club if we don't make those play offs, because we absolutely have all the capabilities to do so. I’m not over-confident to the point where I’ll say we’re going to win the league – I think, from the way things have gone so far, Brocton will win it this year and I probably wouldn't be surprised if they do that by maybe 10+ points. But I absolutely want us to be as near as we can.”

A high league position is not the only potential marker for a successful season, however. Maine Road, as a First Division South side, are a feature of both the Macron and the Edward Case Cups, as well as their own regional county competition – in this case, the Manchester Premier Cup. And Guy also had some words for what he would expect in those competitions from his team.

“I want to win every game - friendly, cup, or league. But, if I was to lose a game this season, I would mind the least about the Macron Cup. The league is the important one for us, and the Manchester Cup is another one I want us to do really well in. Abbey Hey will be a hard game. They have good managers and players - that will be a tough game. The ideal tie would probably have been FC United of Manchester, but we can always dream of playing in the Final against them!” 

FC United of Manchester, as a lot of lower league fans will know, are a club made up by mostly Manchester United fans. On theme with that fact, I mentioned, somewhat innocuously, earlier in this article that Maine Road as a club began life as “City Supporters Rusholme”. And, despite how far away the gap between Road and last-season’s treble-winners may seem at first glance, there is a connection maintained by the continued sponsorship of the club by the Official Manchester City Supporters Club. As was mentioned on the NWCFL website on September 1st, “the parties have been collaborators for a considerable length of time and the renewal of the arrangement is good news for the South Manchester side.”

Of course, as first team manager, Guy is well aware of this partnership, but is also hopeful for even more of a connection between both sides of this agreement in future. “I get the impression that a lot of people think we are close to things with Man City’s community, but we have no real ties with them, apart from their Supporters Club, of course. I do think we as a club ought to be more proactive to go out and embark with that community, and further explore our ties with Man City. And that's something I'm planning on doing in the future.”

Perhaps that will go hand-in-hand with the gaffer’s bottom-line ambition to make and, ideally for Road, win the play-offs for 2023/24. Being one goal behind that dotted line right now must change if this ambition is to be realised, and Guy knows that all too well. “As I said, it would be a failure from myself to the team or club if we didn’t make those play-offs. I'll be honest - we haven't really played as well as we’re capable this season, probably apart from Droylsden away (a 3-0 win), which was a massive professional performance. But, other than that, we haven't. We’ve only just gotten over the line in some games, but I think, when we get into our groove, we can beat anyone in the league. It’s all about the consistency of the team.”

Maine Road are one of six teams currently within 4 points of one another that stretch from 2nd to 7th in the First Division South table. The opening months of the season have made for a top half of the league table that’s very susceptible to some twists and turns, and Guy Heffernan and his team are very much a part of that potential. If they can ensure that consistency that the manager wants from his players, then perhaps those potential twists could see Road make their return to the NWCFL Prem for the first time in what will be 7 years by next April. Only time will tell.


Image credit: Twitter, @MaineRoadFC, 14/10/2023

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