Cammell Laird's Andy Cass is saddling up for a survival scrap

Mon 19th February 2024 | Cammell Laird 1907
By Jay Cooper

A relegation battle is simply an irreplaceable part of football, and it can make for some of the most incredible stories that the beautiful game has ever seen. At the elite and semi-elite level, no one will ever forget the time that Carlisle loanee goalkeeper Jimmy Glass saved them from relegation out of the Football League with a last-minute goal in the 1998/99 season. As famous as that moment was, I bet you can ask a thousand Carlisle fans if they’d like to re-live the drama and tension of the situation leading up to that moment, and nine-hundred and ninety nine of them would say “absolutely not”.

My point is that a relegation battle is relieving when you win, but to feel your team’s league position is in jeopardy for several seasons in a row doesn’t make for the most consistently happy viewing. This is a situation that Cammell Laird 1907, and manager Andy Cass, are determined not to be in for much longer.

The club from the Wirral have been a permanent fixture of the NWCFL First Division South ever since the league system changed in 2018 to create that particular division. From an initial table of 20 teams in that first 2018/19 campaign, Lairds finished 15th – a cool 16 points ahead of second-bottom Ellesmere Rangers, who were given a reprieve from relegation that year, and a comfortable 4 places above the potential relegation zone. This was also a league table that consisted of current NWCFL Premier Division sides like Wythenshawe Town and then-called Wythenshawe Amateurs, as well as current NPL Division One West outfit Vauxhall Motors, and even NPL Prem side Warrington Rylands.

The next two seasons are not even worth taking into account – I’m quite sure no one reading this wants an in-depth reminder of what the COVID-19 pandemic did to grassroots football and the rest of the world for nearly 2 years – but when we finally got back up and running in 2021/22, Lairds managed a slight improvement on what they had done 3 years earlier. They finished 14th, but their margin of safety was lessened slightly to 14 points, and, in this season, there were 3 potential relegation places, so they remained just 4 spots from reliance on a reprieve.

Cut to 2022/23, and this is the closest that Lairds have ever come to relegation from the NWCFL – 17th in a league table consisting of 2 relegation places (two places that actually did result in relegation, with neither Foley Meir or Rocester earning a reprieve), and a mere 8 points ahead of the drop zone. To be fair to Lairds, as close as they were to the bottom two places on paper, they never really seemed in great danger of dropping out of the league throughout the campaign. It always seemed that 2 of 3 teams would be the ones going down – the two that did, and 18th placed Stafford Town. Regardless, the cushion between the club and the relegation places being smaller than ever was enough to encourage the board to bring in a new gaffer ahead of the 2023/24 season. That manager would be Andy Cass.

“It certainly doesn’t feel like I’ve only been at Lairds for only 7 months! I was delighted when Lairds asked me to come in, it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down as I have personal aspirations and always want to test myself. And this certainly is a test! Lairds is a great club with great history and being given the opportunity to build something at Lairds was something I was keen to get stuck in to. We’ve put together a really good group in a very short space of time and there is a positive atmosphere around the club/team even despite our current position. We will continue to try to build on the foundations we have put in place.”

To come in at the helm of a club who’ve not finished in the top half of the table since a formatting change to the league they’re in, which was 6 years ago this year, is a tricky ask. Instant gratification and a rocket boost up the league table would be a very unrealistic expectation, and both Andy and the rest of the club seemed to know it going in.

“For expectations, it was a bit of a free hit to be honest. In recent years, Lairds have been consistently fighting down the lower end of the table, so a rebuild was always the plan, which of course can take time and for now, given our league position, it is all about staying in this league. But I have confidence in the squad we have put together.”

So, what has that led to on the pitch? Well, to say that it has all gone swimmingly would be contentious. There have been some impressive results that have taken place at the KRCT Stadium so far this season that have gone in favour of Lairds, including a 4-2 win over newly-relegated Winsford United; a 4-1 win over newly-promoted Market Drayton Town; and, despite this match being away from home, I’d be remiss not to mention the club’s relatively recent 5-1 victory against Stafford Town. However, these results seem to come too few and far between, be that because of inconsistency, or because mother nature woke up on the wrong side of the bed that particular morning.

“The facts are there in black and white, we have been far too inconsistent this season and conceded far too many goals. We could talk about particular fixtures, our lack of financial support in comparison to other teams, or the fact that we have only played 6 fixtures in 3 and a half months, but the league table doesn’t lie, and we must take responsibility for it, which we will.

“The bulk of this squad are new to this level and are learning every week. I genuinely believe our points tally doesn’t align to our performances over the season so far, but we find ourselves in a position we don’t want to be in, and we need to take ownership of that. We have 11 league fixtures to play, and I am confident we will put enough points on the board to avoid the drop.”

Speaking of this group of players that has been put together at Rock Ferry, one thing that a lot of them seem to have in common is their place of origin. For a club at this level to be keen on using local players and exploring the talent levels that are available to them on their doorstep is fairly common, but, according to the gaffer, that’s not a decisive factor in who makes the squad list every week.

“There isn’t a directive from the club to use local players, but we have built a squad predominantly of lads from the local area. And don’t get me wrong, having a local group is really helps with bringing people through the gate - it’s fair to say that supporters are being well entertained with plenty of dramatic high scoring games so far. Although, there’s been perhaps too much drama from a management perspective.

“But it really is great to see the support we have received at the KRCT Stadium so far. Our fans have stuck with us throughout and we hope this continues as they can make the difference during the run in. But these ‘local’ players are here because I believe they are good enough to make this club, at this level, successful again.”

Circling back to what Andy said about the facts being there in black and white, where does this season see Cammell Laird stand? At the time of writing the club are 14th in the table, which isn’t an all too unfamiliar position to be in, but never before has the NWCFL First Division South been an 18-team league with 3 potential relegation places. Currently, the team best positioned to get out of the bottom 3, Ashville, are a mere 3 points from catching up to Lairds, and they also have 2 games in hand on Andy Cass’s men. However, Lairds themselves also have 3 games in hand, and are 25 goals better off this season than current 15th placed side Market Drayton Town.

It does look like quite the fight to avoid the drop is brewing between these 3 sides, with even second-bottom Winsford United and bottom side New Mills probably also figuring they have nothing to lose by going for it, and with 13th placed Stockport Georgians also likely not considering themselves safe by any means. We are still 11 games from the finish line, and Andy Cass wants to take each and every second of those matches as seriously as necessary.

Our biggest test is the next 11 games, if we want to stay in the league we must perform and put the points on the board. It’s important to say though, there have been some great moments this season for us. We are a brand-new group, and we are always learning. We have beaten and taken points from some really strong and experienced teams, but we have also been our own worst enemy and given games to others. We will keep going. I won’t shy away of the challenge, and neither will my players. We can compete with anyone in this league, and we know what we need to improve on.”

To avoid relegation as comfortably as possible from here on in must absolutely be considered a success for Andy in his first season as Cammell Laird manager, and that would also provide a bit of ground for the club to build up from. Well, there is more than one way to define a successful season, because teams are always competing in more competitions than just their league. In the Wirral Senior Cup, Cammell Laird are in the final 8, and will play Mersey Royal at the KRCT Stadium tomorrow, at the time of this article’s release. Despite priorities for the club being NWCFL-based, the chance to lift a trophy is always one that will draw a manager’s eye, even if only temporarily.

Our focus is the league – it always will be, and even more so given our current predicament. But there is still an opportunity to lift a trophy this season, which, of course, would be superb, but there is a long way to go. Plus, we left it quite late to make the quarter-final, so we must improve if we are to overcome our next opponents.”

Can’t argue with that – it doesn’t get much later than the 94th minute of a match to bag the winning goal. However, like I mentioned all the way back at the top of this article, those dramatic moments are amazing when they go in your favour, but you’d surely rather not cut things so fine next time. And, in order to avoid this battle against the drop being cut fine, Cammell Laird have quite the task on their hands. The NWCFL 2023/24 season is expected to finish in mid-April, and the club still have 11 league games left to play in just 8 weeks (subject to change). Unbelievably, despite this heavy fixture crunch, they’re also in a position where most of the teams around them in this fight have more games to change their fate than Lairds do.

That said, the CH42 side do still have games against Stockport Georgians and Ashville both home and away – that’s essentially 24 crucial points that are still very much up for grabs – as well as an away trip to Winsford, who they have already proven they can outclass on the pitch earlier this season. None of this is guaranteed to go Lairds’ way though, and Andy Cass knows full well he needs to get the absolute best out of his players during this sprint for the finish line.

“It’s all about sticking together now. We have plenty of catching up to do, with both fixtures and points. But as previously said, I believe we have a very capable squad and with some recent additions we now have some more experience within the squad which should help. There are no hiding places, but we need to learn from previous experiences and keep fighting for every point - every fixture must be treated like a cup final.”


Image credit: Twitter, @David_JB_1965, 30/12/2023

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