THE RAINWORTH MINERS’ WELFARE STORY
By Gordon Foster
WEMBLEY AND THE EARLIER HISTORY
Rufford Colliery FC, as they were styled until the 1970s, were founded in 1922, but it was not until 1976 that they really began to take off with the arrival of Brian Phillips, the former Middlesbrough and Mansfield Town centre half, as manager. Phillips succeeded the club’s first ever manager, Tony Porter, whose appointment made Rainworth the first Notts Alliance club to take this step, although it was a move which other clubs in the league soon copied.
Phillips, whose death at the age of 80 was mourned by the club during the 2012 close season, led the side to runners-up spot in 1976, and then followed six successive league championships. They also enjoyed consistent success in the League Cup, and won the Notts Senior Cup twice.
The League, League Cup and Senior Cup were all won in 1982, but the icing on the cake came in the FA Vase. It was only the third time the club had entered the national competition, but they went all the way to the Wembley final before losing 3-0 to the upwardly mobile Forest Green Rovers - who now play at the highest level of non-League. A crowd officially returned as 12,500 (many still believe this was woefully understated) at Wembley included 10,000 who made the journey down from Nottinghamshire, and although in the end they could not lift the Vase itself they did have the honour of being only the second true amateur club, paying subs to play, and the only Miners’ Welfare team, ever to grace the final.
The home leg of the semi-final was, in its own way, even more memorable than Wembley itself. After a goalless first leg draw at former finalists Barton Rovers, Dave Hallam popped in two goals in the home leg to give the side a 2-1 victory before a crowd of 5,071, which remains a competition record outside the final to this day.
The 1980s saw Rainworth, reach the last 16 of the Vase on three more occasions, plus further appearances in the Notts Senior Cup final, but after 1983 it was not until 1991 that silverware again graced the trophy cupboard in the form of the Notts Alliance championship, as Rainworth became the club everyone wanted to beat.
Successive managers had to work in the shadow of that great side. They included former Bolton, Burnley, Birmingham, Oxford and Mansfield forward Neil Whatmore, John Slater - himself a member of that 1982 team - who after leading Clipstone Welfare to three successive titles made it a nap hand by winning the next two as Rainworth manager - and another former Mansfield player, Gary Saxby. In between, Brian Phillips also had another spell in charge aided by Mick Gould and John Wallhead, whose contacts brought a number of new and fondly remembered players to the club.
The arrival of Sandy Pate heralded the dawn of the 21st century, and although his first season in charge saw the club down to 10th place - the lowest position for at least 20 years - the up side of the story was the number of promising youngsters he brought to the club to replace the aging old guard. The following season those young players, aided by a touch of experience, came of age and mounted a serious title challenge before finishing second.
In their final Alliance season before joining the Central Midlands League they finished fifth, and reached the League Cup semi-final before bowing out to eventual champions Radcliffe Olympic.
By this time many of the established Notts Alliance clubs had seen greener grass in the Central Midlands League, and while Rainworth remained faithful to the Alliance which had served them so well for so long, the loss of so many of their traditional rivals to the CML made it perhaps inevitable that they should ultimately follow suit.
OUT OF THE SHADOWS WITH FUNK AND MILLAR
In the five seasons leading up to promotion to the Northern Premier League, Rudy Funk and Billy Millar had brought about a revolution at the club with those three promotions, to lift the Wrens to their highest ever level of competitive football, making them the first and still the only Miners’ Welfare club in the country to achieve Step 4 status, and finally bringing the club out of the shadow of that 1981-82 achievement.
Rudy and Billy arrived during the summer of 2005 when the club was at a very low ebb. Previous manager, former Mansfield Town favourite Sandy Pate, had led the club from the Notts Alliance into the Central Midlands Premier Division and then won promotion to the Supreme Division in third place at the first attempt.
But midway through that first season in the Supreme Division the club was devastated by the sudden and unexpected death of highly-rated coach Mark Hallas. It was a blow from which they could not recover, they plummeted down the table, and finished in a relegation position - the only time in the club’s history until last season that this had ever happened. Fortunately for Rainworth the failure of other clubs to meet the floodlighting deadline meant that they were reprieved and preserved their Supreme Division place.
A brand new start was desperately needed. Sandy, broken-hearted, stood down from the club he had come to love, and Rudy - a former coach at Rainworth during his predecessor’s period in charge - returned as manager vowing to turn the club around and ultimately bring what was then UniBond League football to Kirklington Road—a promise he fulfilled before his shock resignation.
In their first season Rudy and Billy steadied the ship and achieved ninth place, before going for and winning promotion to the NCEL Division One the following year, finishing third behind Bottesford Town and Barton Town - all three made the step up, fully 12 points clear of the rest of the pack. Third place qualified for promotion that season only because of a restructure at step 4 with the Northern Premier League's First Division splitting into North and South.
A successful first season in the NCEL saw the Wrens finally finish fourth, falling away slightly at the death, largely as a result of an horrendous injury list, after looking likely promotion contenders for most of the campaign. That season also marked the first year back in the FA Cup for over half a century, and they reached the penultimate qualifying stage before very unluckily bowing out at then Southern League Chasetown - who went all the way to the third round proper and lost to eventual finalists Cardiff City.
Missing out at the end of that season made the management all the more determined to go one better next time around, and they won promotion as runners-up to runaway champions Scarborough Athletic - who had risen out of the ashes of the former Football League club.
Rudy boldly proclaimed prior to the start of the next season, in the NCEL Premier Division, that Rainworth were not in the division just to make up the numbers and, after a slightly uncertain start, they embarked on a club record breaking 16 successive league wins which saw them top the league.
Unfortunately, with the league record of 21 straight wins held by Guiseley in sight, they then hit an indifferent spell and played 10 games in all competitions without a win, before ending the season with another run of seven victories on the bounce to claim runners-up spot behind Bridlington Town.
There was only one promotion place, but Brid, who finished the season 11 points clear after the Wrens hit that sticky patch, declined it because of the expense of travelling, so Rainworth gratefully accepted promotion instead.
THE EVO-STIK LEAGUE YEARS
Rainworth were placed in Division One South of the Evo-Stik League, and the management team opted to give the promotion-winning squad a chance to prove themselves at the higher level, but they made a difficult start to life at Step 4, and Rudy decided to step down part way through that first season. He had led the club from the bottom of the Step 7 Central Midlands League Supreme Division to the Evo-Stik League winning three promotions in four years so, although they were finding it hard going and had lost nine successive matches, the manager’s decision to go was a bolt from the blue. It was a sad end to a great era, but life went on, and between them Billy and promoted club captain Lee Wilkinson set about a massive repair job. At the time the Wrens looked deep in relegation trouble, but so much did the tide turn under the new management that, although they only finished one place above the relegation zone, there was a 19-point gap over next to bottom Shepshed Dynamo by the end of the season. And, for good measure, the club won the Fair Play award for Division One South.
Unfortunately hopes that that improvement could be carried into the next campaign were unfulfilled. Indeed, between Kevin Gee’s appointment as manager and his first match in charge the club slumped to the bottom of the table. Gee was given just one task to fulfil – to avoid relegation. Although the club still struggled to score goals mathematical safety was achieved by the end of March, thanks largely to the best defensive record in the division outside the top three. The previous season’s league placing was bettered by one, and 14 points parted the club from the bottom two.
Season 2013-14 had marked the start of yet another new era in the club's chequered history. Towards the end of their third season in the Evo-Stik NPL the Wrens took stock, faced up to the agonising realisation that in their circumstances they were punching above their weight financially at Step 4 of the National Leagues System, and notified the league of their intention to withdraw at the end of the season and take a voluntary drop to Step 5.
It was not that the club were in debt – far from it. But some key funding initiatives were drying up, and it was felt that to continue and remain competitive in Step 4 was unsustainable.
It was ironic that it had been the Wrens’ best season since their promotion from the Northern Counties East League. But when the story of their resignation broke it was read by Mansfield Town director Mark Hawkins, who resigned his post at the One-Call Stadium, just as the Stags regained their Football League place from the Conference as it was then called, and offered his services to Rainworth, saying that the club had worked too hard in achieving their status to let it go.
Mr Hawkins’ arrival marked the start of a closer relationship with their Football League neighbours less than four miles away, and among the new initiatives brought about by Mark’s arrival was a brand new major sponsorship by Green Energy Power Solutions.
Rainworth made a sound start to the next season as Gee brought in a number of new players, but a disappointing run of results during early September culminated in Gee's resignation after he had turned the club from perennial strugglers into a respected Step 4 outfit. Scott Rickards, who had joined as a player during the close season, was handed his first taste of management as Gee's successor, after a short but successful caretakership.
Money was still tight though, and a cut in the playing budget midway through the season meant the departure of several of the experienced Northern Premier players that Gee had brought to the club. The fact that neither Rickards nor his assistant Matt Clarke lived locally hampered their ability to bring in suitable replacements, and the season petered out to a disappointing conclusion with a 15th-place finish, having looked like potential play-off candidates earlier in the campaign. And while a successful Notts Senior Cup run to the final provided some welcome relief, the final itself was a disaster as a badly depleted side scored first and last against Carlton Town, but conceded six in between.
With Clarke moving on at the end of that season he was replaced as Rickards' number two by Dean Short, who had some success as Sutton Town manager. The hope was that Short would fill the blanks in Rickards' knowledge of local players capable of making the step up, but Rickards himself stunned the club just two days before the start of last season by walking out of the job. Most of the remaining senior players left with him, and Short was left in an impossible position with a team of basically Step 6 players with no more experienced men to guide them. Short brought in Dean Mitchell to help him, but with the two Deans not familiar with Step 4 football and therefore unable to attract enough of the right calibre of player, results suffered dramatically, to the extent that they and the club parted company by mutual agreement in mid-September.
A new management team of Gary Sucharewicz and Ian Robinson were quickly appointed in their stead, and within a couple of days they had recruited several new players who they believed were able to be competitive at this level. Although it was largely a new team thrown together without the benefit of a pre-season, results immediately improved, and the club were optimistic that they could achieve respectability again.
Sucharewicz unfortunately lasted only a few weeks before a change in his day job left him unable to continue, so John Knapper joined Robinson as his replacement. However, that early promise was never quite maintained as the managers were unable to establish a settled squad, and although the side were close to being capable of challenging at the top end too many unlucky single goal defeats cost them dearly .
Meanwhile Mark Hawkins had resigned from the chairmanship to return to Mansfield Town, although the sponsorship of Green Energy continued, but as costs of remaining competitive as a Step 4 club mounted the club again took the decision to resign from the league - and this time there was no going back.
Unfortunately the news of the decision was released by the league in a most unsatisfactory manner before the management and players could be informed, performances in the final weeks of the season suffered in consequence, and the club plummeted to next to bottom. While this was a relegation position a reprieve would almost certainly have been granted, but the resignation stood, and so ended five years of Step 4 football. At least now, if the chance ever presents itself again, the club will be more clued up about life at that level, and that knowledge will stand them in good stead.
A NEW START AS WRENS REGROUP
The Wrens had been proud to be the first and only Miners' Welfare club to have operated at step 4 of the National Leagues System but their heartbreaking decision saw them placed by the FA back into the NCEL Premier for last season.
The new start saw virtually a completely new team under new manager, former Sheffield Wednesday and Luton Town defender Julian Watts and assistant Ady Smith. It was this pairing, in reversed roles, that led the Wrens' reserve side to the Central Midlands Reserve Supreme Division title in 2014 before the side was axed as an economy measure. Their first season in charge saw them eventually finish ninth, scoring 98 league goals in the process.
Things grew worse though last season. The team struggled and only made certain of avoiding relegation after winning their penultimate match of the season. Watts and Smith departed, and new manager Craig Denton was installed with Rob Poulter as his number two for this season.
THE KIRKLINGTON ROAD STADIUM
At the time of the Wembley season there was no covered accommodation at Rainworth, and the main pitch was merely roped off.
Looking at the ground now it is hard to visualise how such a vast crowd could have been accommodated for that Vase semi-final, but in those days there were huge banks behind the Kirklington Road goal and on the allotments side - which included some rudimentary railway sleeper terracing—and ‘Health and Safety’ was not such a big issue then as it is nowadays.
The ground was essentially three sided, with a cricket square and a second pitch with training lights opposite. Eventually, in 1991, floodlights were put in - the club had a reputation as trail-blazers, having already been the first Notts Alliance club to appoint a manager, enter the Vase, and the joint first to begin producing a matchday programme, and now they were the first to instal lights. New FA Vase requirements meant that covered accommodation was needed so the small stand on the allotments side was put in, at a stroke cutting the ground capacity, and this eventually included seating.
When application was made to join the NCEL a number of grading issues were raised, not least the need for new dressing rooms adjacent to the pitch to replace those which stood some 25 yards away, and enclosure of the main arena which was made possible by the removal of cricket. All this was completed, along with a brand new seated stand, hard standing all around the pitch, a new pitch barrier acquired from Nuneaton Borough’s old ground, turnstiles, hospitality suites, tea bar, manager’s office, and press room. Few visitors to Rainworth fail to compliment the club on their excellent facilities. The old dressing rooms and second pitch continue in use by Sunday and youth sides, while the new dressing rooms are of Conference standard. Capacity is 2,201 with 211 seats (the seating capacity was cut to 159 from 221 when the 62 seats in the Allotments Side stand were removed at the behest of the ground graders to provide more covered standing space. Since then 52 of those seats, still to be covered, have been re-installed adjacent to the pavilion at the Kirklington Road end of the ground).
Rainworth is a large and growing village some four miles to the south-east of Mansfield in the heart of Robin Hood country. A former hamlet, it grew with the mining industry when Rufford Colliery was sunk, and the population rose to some 9,000. With the closure of the colliery in 1993 the place has become something of a ‘dormitory’ for Mansfield and Nottingham, but the old community spirit within the village appeared to disintegrate when the pit closed, and this is reflected in the difficulty that the club has in attracting attendances to match those old days. Apart from the exploits of its football club the village’s main claim to fame is probably as the place where the notorious mass murderer ‘The Black Panther’ was heroically captured and arrested. The popular local pronunciation of the village name is ‘Rennoth’, giving rise to the club’s nickname of ‘The Wrens’.
THE WRIGHT DYNASTY – A RAINWORTH LEGEND
No history of Rainworth MWFC could ever be complete without mentioning the immense contribution made over countless years by the late Alan Wright and his family. Alan served as goalkeeper, committee member, groundsman and secretary (taking over that position just in time to mastermind the administration of that amazing 1981-82 season) as well as being chairman of the Notts Alliance until he sadly died in 2002. Alan’s son Kim later became chairman and subsequently vice-chairman, and his support was immense. But he passed away midway through last season, followed five days later by his mum and Alan’s wife Eileen who had served as hospitality hostess. It is to their memory and lifetime of service the wrought iron gates at the ground entrance are dedicated.