FA Cup glory was distant dream for Pontefract in 2008

Pontefract Collieries manager Craig Rouse in action for them in 2008, side by side with Mick Long and Simon Houghton

Pontefract Collieries have enjoyed some phenomenal success in recent years and the FA Cup fourth qualifying round showdown with FC Halifax Town tomorrow is the biggest game in the club’s history.

But there is a strong argument that the 2008/09 season is the most important campaign in Pontefract’s history as it lifted them out of the doldrums, restored the pride in the Colls badge and laid the very early foundations in many ways for future glories.

One connection with 2008 is very much still with the club as Craig Rouse, the mastermind of the cup run, was the club’s top-goal-scorer with 26 goals that year.

Non League Yorkshire has spoken to two of the protagonists from 2008 in former manager Simon Houghton and attacker Mick Long about that season and how amazing the present day team’s achievements are.

Rewind to the summer of 2008 and even winning an FA Cup tie was a distant dream for Pontefract Collieries, never mind the thought of reaching the fourth qualifying round.

Now they stand on the brink of a potential dream first round proper tie against a selection of Football league giants such as Sheffield Wednesday and a possible reunion with Lee Gregory – an old adversary from the 2008/09 campaign.

“Going back 13 years ago, winning a couple of games in the FA Cup would have been seen as a fantastic achievement,” says Houghton who managed Ponte for almost three years and remains very highly-regarded at Ponte despite ten years passing since his controversial departure.

“In the two seasons (after 2008/09) we seemed to be always drawn against teams from the North East and we couldn’t compete with those teams.”

Simon Houghton enjoyed huge success with Kinsley Boys in the mid-2000s before moving on to perform miracles at Pontefract Collieries
Mick Long is involved with the Yorkshire Representative Team which aims to provide players with chances to play abroad against professional players

Long signed for Pontefract in September 2008 so missed the early work done by Houghton and his assistant Darren Smith but he agrees that the heights Ponte have reached were unimaginable back then. 

“I would say (the FA Cup fourth qualifying round) was a long way off (in 2008),” says Long who is assistant head coach of the Yorkshire Representative Team – previously YIFA.

“I started that season at Nostell where I had been for nine years and a couple of my team-mates had moved over to Ponte – Matthew Wilkinson and Ben Gilbert.

“When I joined they said that it was a bit of a project.

“In terms of where the club was, they had a lot of work to do.

“They actually had a pretty good start to the season which nobody expected given what had happened before.

“Simon and Daz had put a decent squad together under the radar and what they had already built a really good dressing room in a short period of time and that was one of the key elements of the success that season and the building of the club going forward.

“But I wouldn’t have thought back then that they would be at the reaches of where they are.

“What I would say is that it is brilliant to see Rousey who was in that changing room with us now at the forefront and leading things.”

The seeds for success were sown at the end of a disastrous 2007/08 season.

The Colls had finished rock-bottom of the NCEL Division One with just nine points and one win.

A young visionary in Trevor Waddington, who became chairman, a role he holds in 2021, led an overhaul of the club’s committee who in turn sacked manager Roly Lanes and appointed Kinsley Boys boss Houghton who had played for the club under Jim Kenyon in the 1990s.

There is no suggestion that the club could have ceased to exist but further on-field disasters would have increased the pressure. 

Just 28 people watched one of Lanes’ final games while 75 witnessed Houghton take his bow in the Collieries dugout after pre-season results indicted an upturn in fortunes,

“I suppose it was vital that we started dragging the club up,” Houghton says. 

“It could have folded.

“If they had another season finishing bottom with nine points it could have done.

“Nobody would have been coming through the gate.

“I don’t think the gates increased massively (during the 2008/09 season) but they did increase because you get a few wins and people come to watch.

“But if we hadn’t taken over and hadn’t been successful, it would have been literally one man and his dog or two men and their dogs.

“There would have been hardly anyone and the club could well have gone.”

Only 13 years have passed since the dark days and 1500 people are going to pack into Beechnut Lane for the visit of Halifax. 

“What they are doing there on-and-off-the-field is brilliant and it is bringing the crowds in as well,” Long says.

“I think they have always struggled from a fan perspective but now the facilities are improving.

“They have done well, not just this season, but when Paz (Craig Parry) and Rousey were in there before.

“They had a fantastic few seasons and thankfully it has brought local people in which it is what the club needs.”

The ground has slowly improved over-time. 

The new-look car park and fence around the junior pitches under-line the progress made but in 2008, the club was in a poor way in all quarters.

“Good god, I’ll try to put it in a nice way,” says Houghton who recently saw first hand how the ground has changed when he watched the Colls play Liversedge on Bank Holiday Monday.

“The club was rock bottom, that’s the easiest way to put it.

“They had nine points the previous season and the club was not in a good state.

“Not many volunteers and it wasn’t in a good state on-and-off-the-field.

“Obviously Mr Waddington had a vision but with every vision you have to put some serious money behind it and I think Trevor has been quite astute really. 

“You can set up a club tomorrow and fly through the leagues by paying lots of money out.

“Shaw Lane Aquaforce are a prime example of that.

“They got to the FA Cup first round but look at the money they were paying.

“It was silly money and it wasn’t built on a solid foundation whereas with Trevor and Ponte it has been slow and steady and about building and building.

“He hasn’t been crazy and he has been good with money and I think over the last few years especially, there’s a lot more volunteers down there.

“The set-up is far superior to when I was down there.

“The training pitch was; well it wasn’t a pitch, you couldn’t even training on it really.

“The main pitch wasn’t great, neither were the changing rooms and on-the-field it wasn’t either.

“I remember one game and we came and there had been some young lads playing on the pitch in the morning.

“We went barmy.

“The pitch was terrible, horrible but saying that it was bad when I played for the club in my twenties (in the 1990s under Jim Kenyon). 

“It looks a lot better now.”

A coach once got stuck on the back pitches at Ponte

Everybody has a Ponte facilities story.

One year the Runcorn Town coach got stuck on the back training pitches after an FA Cup tie.

You can definitely blame driver error for parking on there but it is an example of what could go wrong down there.

There was also the beaten manager who was memorably quoted several years ago as saying he “wouldn’t walk his dog” on the pitch. 

That is still referenced occasionally now by Colls volunteers.

Ironically Halifax manager Pete Wild watched the Colls on Tuesday night against Stocksbridge and told the Halifax Courier that they “have a decent pitch”. 

That shows the level of investment gone into the surface and how times have changed.

But let’s be honest it was bad in 2008.

“There was more craters than on the moon on the road when you drove in,” says Connor Rollinson who was 16-year-old whippersnapper in Houghton’s side after teacher and captain Nick Handley spotted some talent in him. 

“It was a bit run-down.

“If you were on the bench, if the ball went over you had to go through a gap in the fence and look for it.

“I didn’t want to be doing that for long so it made try harder to get into the team.

“Warming-up in the winter months we weren’t allowed on the pitch so we had to behind the pitch onto what is now the quite-developed training pitches.

“We had one light which was like a street light for midweek games and the pitch was bumpy.

“A few people used to get injured before the game because they couldn’t see.”

Long must have had a culture shock when he joined Pontefract from Nostell whose Crofton Community Centre facility was state of the art in 2008.

“Even though Nostell hadn’t been in the Counties long, their facilities were better than Ponte’s,” Long says.

“When you went to Ponte it was one of those grounds which people looked down on.

“It wasn’t through lack of effort from the club, it was through lack of resources and funding.

“I always remember one of the evening cup games my car got stuck along with a few others so we all had to help each other.

“Where the training pitches are and where it is all fenced off now, all our cars were stuck on it because it had chucked it down.

“We were all pushing our cars as it was chucking down at half past ten on a Tuesday night.”

One person who hasn’t got a story from the car park is Houghton who claims he didn’t suffer the fate as Long and his team-mates.

“I think I’m a bit more savvy than some of them James,” Houghton quipped.

“My car wouldn’t have got stuck in there, put it that way.

“I always made sure I parked my car so nothing like that would have happen.”

Assembling a side 

Houghton and Smith had a blank canvas after accepting the manager and assistant’s job. 

But recruiting the right quality of player was not easy due to the club’s poor reputation. 

“I think most of the players we brought we knew and we trusted them,” Houghton says.

“I remember our first training session and there must have been 40 players there.

“There was this one kid from Grimsby.

“You get messages and he asked if he could come for a trial and I said ‘you live in Grimsby’.

“He said ‘I know but I want to come and give it a try’.

“I was fair with him and told him to come down and we’d have a look at him.

“He came down and he seemed a nice kid and I showed him around the club.

“I pulled all the stops out because you thought we may have found a gem.

“He came to the first training session and as soon as he came onto the training pitch, that was it, we knew after 30 seconds that he wasn’t a player.

“We basically said halfway through the training session ‘you aren’t going to cut it mate you’re going to have to get off’.

“So you knew then that any player who approached us around that time wasn’t very good.”

Nick Handley was part of the furniture at Pontefract for seven years as captain, assistant manager and joint manager
Pontefract celebrate a goal during the early Houghton-Smith days
Assistant Darren Smith, seen here as a paramedic, was a big part of Pontefract’s success under Simon Houghton
Pontefract on the attack in Simon Houghton’s first season
A later team photo of Simon Houghton’s Pontefract
Few pictures survive of Houghton during his Ponte days but here he is juggling balls

Clearly, the dynamic duo assembled a formidable side. 

Former North Ferriby defender Handley joined and would become a Colls legend in his own right as their captain and future promotion-winning manager with Duncan Bray in 2015.

Adam White, the future Athersley Rec great, was a key man.

Andrew Joburns, the star cricketer, kept goal. 

Ben Gilbert scored a lot of goals and Houghton was gutted to lose him midway through the season.

Mark Lafferty and Dean Helliwell, whose son Jordan has played for Barnsley’s first team, were instrumental as well.

That’s only naming a few.

Rouse was the goals man and he has served the Colls as a player, assistant manager and now manager over the last 13 years – bar a three-year spell as Kinsley player/manager.

“When he was manager of Kinsley he did something historic with them,” says Rollinson who would join Kinsley from Ponte in 2013. 

“He took them to the furthest round of the FA Vase they have ever got to so he likes a good cup run.

“But I wouldn’t have thought he’d have got to the brink of the first round of the FA Cup, it is a brilliant story for him.

“I just like the fact he used to tell everyone to calm down and he’d be the one getting sent off.”

Rouse during his later playing days for Pontefract
Craig Rouse scoring a penalty for Ponte
Craig Rouse led Kinsley Boys on a memorable FA Vase run several years ago

Houghton can also relate to the red cards as well. 

“He’s done really well,” Houghton says. 

“Him and Craig Parry did a really good job and he’s taken on that mantle himself.

“To get the club where he has in the FA Cup in his first full season is fantastic for him.

“He was a very important player for us in that first season because if you look at his goals record he was one of the league’s top goal-scorers and he was suspended for about 12 games.

“He kept getting sent off, especially early doors.”

Despite losing the first league game of the season – a 4-1 defeat to Rainworth Miners Welfare – the Colls had surpassed the previous season’s nine points total after just five games.

By the 18th match at the end of November they were second after a long winning run.

But the loss of Gilbert and bad weather, their form slumped and the Colls finished up in ninth – still a fine achievement.

Reaching the Wilkinson Sword Trophy Final where they faced then-Staveley striker Lee Gregory was also a huge accomplishment.

“I think it was £10 a win (for the players), something as daft as that but basically there was nothing,” Houghton says.

“That first season we got to the Wilkinson Sword Trophy final and we lost to Staveley over two legs.

“Our lads had obviously played for nothing and you could see the bulge in the packets given to the Staveley players.

“We pushed them hard in both games and a certain Mr Gregory played in those games and if he hadn’t had played we’ve have probably beaten them.”

The Colls remained a force in the Division until their long overdue promotion in 2015 to the Premier Division under Handley and Bray.

Relegation followed 12 months later but the Colls bounced back with force – with Parry and Rouse guiding them to back-to-back promotions to reach the Northern Premier Division for the first ever time.

That’s where they are still in 2021.

But the 2008/09 season is still fondly remembered as it put the club back on the map.

“They’re come a long way since but I’m pretty sure everyone who was involved would say (that season) was the turning point for the club,” Long says.

“Credit to Simon and Daz (Smith) because they turned the club around.

“That season was pivotal as it made Ponte more of an attractive proposition when they started to get a good results on-the-pitch.

“They put together a good squad on an absolute shoestring and we finished ninth but we were knocking on the door for promotion for a long time.

“The squad was quite thin so we didn’t have the resources in the end.

“We also so unlucky against Staveley in the Wilkinson Sword Trophy Final and I still look back and think that we shouldn’t have lost that.

“To say that they were rooted to the bottom of the table the season before, you would have never imagined that in the space of 12 months the difference in the club.”

Houghton is in equal agreement with Long.

“I’m extremely proud of what we did because you look at what we had (in resources) and we had a fantastic group of people and they worked for each other,” he says.

“The remit was to get off the bottom of the league and get up the table.

“I think if we had finished fourth bottom it would have been seen as an achievement because of where they were and where they were going.

“We had some really good results that season.

“We finished in mid-table, got to the Wilkinson Sword final, blooded youngsters and it was a massive achievement.

“Myself and Darren and Trevor as well; we started building the foundations for the club to go and build off.

“The second season we did better than the first and third we did better than the seconds so the Football Club was progressing in the right direction.

“I think since then the club has built on those foundations as not many people wanted to come and play for Pontefract Collieries in the summer of 2008.

“There was nothing to attract them but I think we changed that.”

The legacy of Rouse and his side’s achievements so far will be seen in improvements to the facilities. 

If they beat Halifax and draw a big name then the sky will be the limit for the club. 

Houghton and Long will be rooting for the Colls tomorrow. 

“I would have thought it will be a great atmosphere and I just hope they can do well,” Houghton says. 

“If they could get to that first round it would be fantastic.

“There’s some proper big teams in that round and they could earn some proper big money.

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed and I’ll certainly raise a glass to them on Saturday night if they win.”

The same goes for Long.

“I’m sure Rousey wouldn’t have imagined a few months ago that he would have the opportunity to be locking horns with Halifax,” Long adds.

“The fact that it is a home fixture it gives Ponte that extra edge.

“Theoretically they shouldn’t have a chance against Halifax but that’s the beauty of the FA Cup isn’t it.

“The FA Cup loves an underdog and what a story that would be if little old Ponte could pull off an result.

“It would be amazing.”

It certainly would.

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