Nestled at the foot of the Pennines – with Manchester and Liverpool to the West, and Yorkshire to the East – the small mill town of Stalybridge has more than its fair share of successful footballing neighbours to contend with. But that hasn’t stopped the local football club making a name for themselves in their own right, even if their time in the Football League has been somewhat limited to say the least.
There is some debate, even to this day, as to the origins of football in Stalybridge as a side calling itself ‘Celtic’ appears in the archives dating back to 1906, though it seems this outfit only played a number of friendly games against local opposition at that time. If anything they were the seed for the team which were formed in 1909 and that we now know as Stalybridge Celtic.
After their formation, Stalybridge Celtic played for two seasons in the Lancashire & Cheshire Amateur League, before turning professional and joining the Lancashire Combination and becoming second division champions at the first attempt. However, due to some petty local bureaucracy, if Celtic were to climb the pyramid, they would have to join the Southern League first and travel huge distances by train to every away match. Fortunately, this ludicrously inconvenient arrangement didn’t last long as they finished runners up at the first time of asking; meaning automatic promotion was quickly assured.
Their march was only really halted by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 as the sporting calendar was understandably put on hold for the next few years; but the delay in proceedings didn’t seem to faze Stalybridge, who in the years following the resumption of full-time football pretty much carried on where they left off in their pursuit of league status.
By the 1920-21 season Celtic had rejoined the Central League and at the end of that campaign became one of the founder members of the Third Division (North); making them a fully-fledged Football League outfit for the first time in their history.
So, on August 27th 1921, Stalybridge Celtic ran out to face Chesterfield on the opening day of the new season, duly demolishing their opposition 6-0. They would go on to win 18 games and finish in a very respectable seventh place in the Third Division (North) while the following season they consolidated their place in the league with a more than passable eleventh place finish and beating a number of their local rivals along the way.
But despite a more than respectable showing as a fledgling Football League club, the prospect of competing at this level was simply too much for those in charge, who resigned from the division, claiming that it could not generate enough money or attract enough support to justify a League side. Something of a bizarre announcement seeing that their average attendance in 1922 was 5,480, almost 2,000 more than neighbouring Rochdale, who played in the same Division.
They immediately joined the Cheshire County League where they remained for the next 60 years winning the title just once in 1980. But with the league’s merger with the Lancashire Combination in 1982, they became founder members of the North West Counties League, winning the title in 1984 and 1987 – the latter triumph resulting in them being promoted to the Northern Premier League. In 1992 the club won the league title and was promoted to the Football Conference, playing at that level for six seasons to 1998 before being relegated to the NPL again, after finishing bottom.
The 2000-2001 season was one of the best seasons in Celtic’s more recent history, achieving a treble of the Cheshire Senior Cup, the President’s Cup and the Northern Premier League Premier Division, being promoted back to the Football Conference as a result; before being relegated just 12 months later.
But when the conference added a second level in 2004 the club became one of the founders of the new Conference North where they now reside, perilously close to the foot of the table, as they look to once again reclaim their status as a league club after an absence of almost a century – assuming they want to that is.