What’s next for FC St Helens after 10 years of amazing progress?

Thu 18th January 2024 | FC St Helens
By Jay Cooper

The story of the formation of FC St Helens is actually one that I’ve told previously in a feature article for the NWCFL, which you can read here, so I’ll make this introduction brief. Following discontent among some of the players and management team involved with the youth setup at St Helens Town, an idea was created to start a new brand – a new football team – that would focus on the talent within the immediate area of the town of St Helens. The man who would become the first, and still current, chairman at the new club, Steve Leather, left St Helens Town in 2012, and, by 2014, this group were united under a new entity – FC St Helens.

And united they would stay, with even the club crest showing the Latin phrase “Simul nos firmiores”, which translates as “Together, we are stronger.” And to be fair, they were. Certainly too strong for the lower, lower leagues of English football. The 2014/15 season would be the clubs’ official debut in the expanded English Football Pyramid, and would come in the West Cheshire League Division Three. A strong 6th placed finish in their maiden campaign would be enough to impress the executives in the larger Cheshire League system, who accepted the Saints as a member club ahead of 2015/16.

Going up against the reserve sides of NWCFL regulars such as West Didsbury and Chorlton, Cheadle Town and Litherland REMYCA, FC managed a 4th placed finish – even higher in the league than the previous season in a lower division, and were duly awarded with an immediate promotion to the renamed League One of the Cheshire League system. This would be the first league which the Saints would spend more than one season involved in. In two consecutive campaigns, FC managed back-to-back 5th placed finishes, with current NWCFL Premier Division side Pilkington right alongside them for both of those campaigns.

Of course, heaven forbid that FC St Helens go more than two seasons without making some sort of concrete progress. It was during the 2018/19 season that the club made their Cheshire League Premier Division bow, and this would seemingly pose as the clubs’ first real threat in terms of on-field results. From a table of 16 teams (that Pilkington would go on to finish top of, just for completionists and Pilks fans), FC could only manage a 14th placed finish, losing 17 matches from 30 in league play. Not to worry, though – the club avoided an immediate reality check relegation back to League One, and would go again next season, right?

Well, no, but that wasn’t exactly their fault. FC St Helens had managed 17 league games in the Premier Division as 2019 turned into 2020, and we all know what happened to grassroots football in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world by its throat, and that grip was too tight to allow lower league football to continue in a safe, profitable way. At the time of the Cheshire League’s abandonment in 2020, FC St Helens were on course for a course correction after 2018/19’s blip, sitting pretty in 5th.

As I’m sure we all want to forget, the 2020/21 season only brought more of the same as its predecessor. Non-league matches were attempted, and maybe a few league games went down on the record, but certainly nothing rock solid happened in terms of determining which teams earn promotion or are subject to relegation from a league table or points point of view.

There were a handful of teams who did switch divisions after this quickly expunged effort at a season of lower league football, such as in the NWCFL, where promotion and relegation were determined on an expected points-per-game system. In the Cheshire League, FC St Helens would not be one of those teams given this luxury. They didn’t know it at the time, but they would have to wait just one more year.

The 2021/22 campaign, the clubs’ third (kind of) in the Cheshire League Premier Division would finally be the one that saw them make the next step in their journey. A season of 34 games saw the club absolutely storm to the league title, winning a whopping 26 games during that time and racking up a points tally of 82 from a possible 102. For context, their closest challengers were Broadheath Central FC, and their points tally by the season’s end was 70.

With such a commanding league title victory, FC St Helens were granted promotion to the NWCFL for the first time the following season. What perhaps made this occurrence all the sweeter was that, over the course of that same summer where FC made the jump to the NWCFL, St Helens Town, from whom the club was split off and originally formed, would be heading the other way. They dropped out of the NWCFL First Division North to make room for their noisy neighbours.

All things considered, the only way that the Saints’ NWCFL debut could have gone any better would have been if they’d managed a second consecutive promotion. In an 18-team table, they shot right the way up to 3rd and were the home seed in their play-off tie against Ilkley Town. In a tight game, they squeaked into the final on penalties, where they narrowly lost to Chadderton, also on penalties.

On the balance of the season as a whole, 2nd placed Chadderton – a full 14 points ahead of FC in the table – probably deserved the promotion more, but take nothing away from the effort carried out by the Saints here. 16 wins, an impressive goal difference of +26, as well as 14 draws, which absolutely make the world of difference when the gap between 3rd and 6th is just 5 points at the end of the season.


So, that was then. What about now, for FC St Helens? What is the next step that the club want to take from the position they’ve got themselves to in such a short period of time? Maybe no one knows the answer to that question better than the FC gaffer himself, Mike Smith, who I caught up with earlier this week.

What was it that sold you on taking the manager’s position ahead of this season at FC St Helens?

“A manager’s job is something I've tried to get for a while, I've never been interviewed for one, I'd always been looked past, probably due to experience and being unknown. When I applied for the FC St Helens job, they asked to speak to me straight away. The strides the club have made in 10 years and the ambition of the people around the club was enough for me. It’s an excellent family friendly club and I was delighted to be offered the job.”

Was promotion an expectation going into this season?

“With missing out last season, I knew there was a hunger in the players to try and go one step further this season. From a club point, there was also a bit of nervousness around second season syndrome. For me, coming in as the new manager, in my first managers role, my personal aim was to go for promotion. I felt we had a group capable of it too. With a couple of additions and tweaks to the style of play, it was the target.”

Did you have a concrete plan for the season going into it? Or did you want to take it game by game?

“With the number of games in the first month it was just about getting as many points on the board as possible and then see where we found ourselves. To take 28 points from 30 was incredible. It gave us a massive foundation to build on.”

What's morale like in the dressing room at the moment, with you guys flying at the top of the table?

“Morale is good - the lads look forward to training, they look forward to games. The group messages are non-stop with banter. We've got some great characters in the dressing room and some experienced heads too that keep it buzzing.”

Does the gap you've created between yourselves and the chasing pack encourage you to take your foot off the gas at all?

“No, I won't allow complacency. The lads are well aware that if they switch off or allow complacency to set in, they'll be sat behind me in the dugout. We have to stay focused and keep ticking the games off. They know if they're having a bit of an off day on the pitch then the minimum I expect is hard work and I'll accept that. They're not going to be 7 or 8 out of 10 every week with performances but they should be 9 or 10 out of 10 every week with work rate. One poor result can change everything. We have to stay 100% focused.”

What's dialogue like between you and the board with regards to on-the-pitch progress?

“They're happy with the progress. They can see a completely different style of play to last season, and it's brought the best out of a lot of players, and that in turn has put us in the position we're in. They also know that there is still a long way to go, though, and nobody can get too excited.”

How do you plan to keep this momentum all the way through to the end of the season?

“I'll keep doing what I've done all season - keep the lads focused. Keep sticking to our principles. Keep training fun and competitive. We approach every game now as our biggest one yet and see where it takes us. There is still a lot of football to be played, and one slip up can undo everything.”


When FC St Helens won the Cheshire League Premier Division nearly 2 seasons ago, they did it with a comfortable 12-point cushion between themselves and their compatriots to rest on. We’re around the halfway point of this NWCFL First Division North campaign, and FC St Helens have found themselves in an all too similar position – 13 points clear at the top of the table.

Nothing was going to stop this team achieving promotion back then, and, with the attitude of manager Mike Smith and the precedents that this club has set in their short history, you might be a fool to bet against them crowning themselves as league winners this time around. It’s not guaranteed, sure, but anything less at this point would be considered a real catastrophe, such is the incredible effort by all involved in the club up to this point.


Image credit: fcsthelens.co.uk, home page

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