The Neal James Website



Neither Tobias French nor David Samson went looking for absolution. Never in either of their wildest nightmares had they contemplated it. Both approached the situation from different perspectives, but in the end absolution came looking for them.

The code didn’t break when they found Mary Andrews hanging from a cord in the rented house on Tower Close in 1989. It didn’t break when her mother, Margaret, passed away in 1995. It was only just before George Hayward died in 2017 that the truth that had lain buried for almost fifty years finally emerged.

Gillian Rodway had sat at the blank computer screen for many a day waiting for a flash of inspiration that would signal the beginning of her next novel. Ramsey and Macdonald, her two feline companions, had failed miserably to provide any ideas. The woman struggling through the snow to her door had a story to tell.

One million pounds. The prize hung tantalizingly close, and Judith and Edward Breen were on the verge of taking down the TV network’s top game show and exposing its host, Mike Barton, for the charlatan that he was. Just sixty seconds separated them from that dream.

ISBN 9781387716098


In completing this, my latest anthology, a number of readers have aided the process by suggesting story titles. They are:

Deafening Silence (Linda Bennett), The Last Train (Alistair Blackett), Mind My Toes (Julie Brown), Why Me? (Mitchell Chanelis), Do It Again (Karl Clements), Stunned (Sheila A Donovan), Absolution (Matt Earl), Blood and Sweat (Julie Finlay), Never Too Late (Prissy Govender), When I'm Gone (Marinda Hatcher-Grindstaff), Thunder and Rain (Terry Hetherington), Parrots and People (Julie Hunt), Life's An Illusion (Jenny Jeffrey), The Lion and Harriet (Geoff Kirkman), Interstellar (Danny Marland), L'Appel du Vide (Jessie Masoner), Time To Travel (Heather McBain), The Long Mile (Guy McKenna), The Ghost in the Garage (Yvonne Moore), Revenge Time (Sandra Nelson), Winters Creeping Chill (Angela Shepherd), Bridge of Dreams (Ankush Soni), The Optical Road (Deidre Stephenson), The Lemon Tree of Life (Amie Taylor), Red Shoes (Sharon Teece), The Dancing Clouds (June Wayland).


Never Too Late

“Referee!” I yelled in frustration. “Are you blind?! He must have carried the bloody ball five yards!”

I’m Ian Hancock and I’ve been watching Highridge United with my mate, Colin Butcher, for the better part of fifty years. We’ve suffered some ups and downs with the team in that time, and this season was having its fair share of the downs. My anger had been simmering all through the first half as the inept official seemed incapable of spotting even the most blatant of rule breaches. He took no notice of my latest outburst, which was clearly audible in a crowd of less than two hundred on a cold, wet Wednesday evening at the Town Ground.

“Save your breath, mate,” Colin said. “It’ll only give you an ulcer. I don’t know how these guys get their badges, but it’ll even out through the game.”

His words, wise as they were, did nothing to quell my annoyance and I shoved my hands deep into the pockets of my overcoat and prayed for half time and a hot cup of tea. Thankfully the whistle signalled the end of a tedious first half that had been completely devoid of any meaningful action. We trudged off to the tea bar, got our brews and returned to the terrace at the half way line.

“Remember the old days?” I said. “Back in the sixties when we really had a proper team; not one like these comedians now.”

“I do,” Colin said with a sigh. “Then came the Northern Premier League and we, in our wisdom, said a polite ‘No, Thank You’ to the invitation to join and it was all downhill from there. It’s too late to do anything about it now, though.”

“It’s never too late, Colin,” I said with a wink. “Mark my words; it’s never too late.”

Highridge was a club with a proud tradition. Sadly, and to most supporters’ dismay, that ended back in 1968 when the club turned down the opportunity to join the fledgling Northern Premier League. Many of the Midland League teams that had formed the backbone of a very tough competition had joined, leaving Highridge behind in a poorer division. The club lost many of its players as a result of the committee’s decision, and fortunes went downhill. Colin and I stuck with it through thick and thin, but it was a torrid time. The current fixture against Chelsworth Town was fairly typical of where the club presently stood.

The League system runs to over twenty levels with the Premier League at it summit; Highridge was currently playing at level nine – not bad, but not good either. Our league position of tenth summed up the abilities of the present team; on a good day we were a match for anyone else in the division; on a bad one we were abysmal. Chelsworth were propping up the table with almost half the season gone, and Highridge was making heavy weather of putting them to any kind of sword.

“What this bloody club needs is an injection of money,” I said to Colin. “We’re never going to get anywhere with things as they are.”

“Yeah,” he replied. “But who’s going to be daft enough to plough cash into a setup like this?”

I nodded towards the far end of the main covered terrace and he followed as I wandered away from anyone who might be within earshot. I looked around to make sure that we were alone.

“Somebody with a shed load of cash and nothing to spend it on,” I said, quietly.

“And just where do you think that we’d find that kind of idiot?” he asked.

“Remember last month’s Euro Millions Lottery?”

“Yeah,” he said, frowning in concentration. “It was a rollover, and a mystery winner scooped the whole lot. Can’t remember the exact amount, but it must have been about…”

“One hundred and thirty-three million, four hundred and twenty-five thousand, four hundred and two Euros,” I finished the sentence.

Colin stood, momentarily, stuck for something to say. Then he asked “How do you remember that?”


“Bloody hell!” he hissed. “Not you!?”

“Me,” I replied. “And it’s been sitting in my bank account just waiting for this kind of opportunity.”

“What are you going to do, exactly?” he asked.

“Tell you later over a pint in the supporters’ club bar,” I said. “They’re coming out for the second half; stand by for more torture.”

It wasn’t quite as bad as the first period, but missed chances and a clear penalty appeal denied had us both heading slowly through the sparse crowd towards the exit. Suddenly, a murmur of anticipation ran through the terrace like some scared rabbit. We turned to see our winger clear of the covering defender and haring off for the edge of the Chelsworth penalty area. Pausing just long enough to look up to see who had been running up in support, he fizzed a wicked cross towards the penalty spot where it was met with a diving header from one of our strikers. The net bulged before the goalkeeper had even had the chance to move. One flash of brilliance and the three points were ours; you had to feel a little sympathy for Chelsworth – just a little, and not for too long.

Feeling more relieved than happy, we took a couple of pints to a table in the bar at the end of the room.

“Okay, Rockefeller,” Colin said. “Spill the beans. What is it that you’ve got planned?”

“I’m going to buy the club,” I said, smiling and taking a large swig of my beer. “The Chairman’s over there talking to Tommy behind the bar. I think we’ll invite him over here for a quiet chat, don’t you?”

“Me?” Colin said. “What’s it got to do with me?”

“Because, my old friend, you are going to be my financial advisor. You’re still an accountant, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” he replied. “But I’m retired.”

“Still got the certificate? Still paying your subs?”


“Then it doesn’t matter. You are who I say you are, and I’m the man with the money. Come on – no time like the present.”

“Mr Hanley,” I said, holding out my hand. “Ian Hancock – season ticket holder.”

Patrick Hanley looked at me suspiciously but took the hand offered. He glanced over my shoulder at Colin and frowned. “Who’s he?” he asked.

“This,” I said, standing to one side, “is my friend, Colin Butcher; also a season ticket holder.”

“Look,” Hanley said. “If you’ve come to give me some grief about the state of the first team and the way that they’re playing, you can forget it; I’ve heard it all before.”

“Not at all, Mr Hanley,” I said, holding up my hands in mock surrender. “In fact, if you’d like to join the two of us for a drink there’s something that I have to say that may well be of interest to you.”

“You want to do what?” Hanley looked at me in astonishment. “Have you any idea what it is that you’d be taking on?”

“Yes, Mr Hanley,” I said. “I’m quite aware of the enormity of the task that I’d be facing.”

“Where on Earth would you get the money?”

“That’s not something that you need to worry about. Are you and the rest of the board of directors prepared to sell your shares? That’s the only question facing you. If not, I go away and the club would probably fold within three years. If you agree, I’d take over the club and the limited company, and set them on the road upwards through the Football League Pyramid.”

“I can’t make that decision here and now,” he said.

“Of course you can’t,” I replied. “Take the time to put the proposal to the board and let me know. Shall we say in one week’s time?”

“All right. I’ll convene a special board meeting early next week and let you know.”

“Good,” I said. “If the board agrees, then my friend, Colin, will conduct a Due Diligence exercise in order to value the assets that the company has. Then I can table an offer which the board can consider.”

Shocked as he was at my unexpected proposal, but buoyed by the win which had pushed Highridge United two places higher in the league, Patrick Hanley spent the rest of the evening contacting the rest of the members of the board of the limited company which owned the football club.

“Think they’ll bite?” Colin asked me when we’d left the ground.

“Almost certainly,” I said. “Just from the size of tonight’s crowd I can’t see how the club’s doing much more than paying the players’ wages. Where are we now? Ten home games into the season and an average attendance of around two hundred. Taking into consideration that half of those coming through the turnstiles will be either kids or pensioners, I reckon that the takings can’t be more than a thousand quid.”

“And they still have rent, repairs, loan interest… they’re in deep, aren’t they?”

“They sure are. They’ll be crazy if they don’t snatch my hand off.”

“So we wait,” Colin said.

“Yeah, but don’t be surprised if you get a phone call from me before the weekend. You’d better brush up on those accounting skills of yours.”

As it turned out, I got a call from Patrick Hanley on the Friday after the midweek game: the board meeting was set for the following day – a Saturday! Things were certainly moving fast.

I stayed close to the phone that afternoon, watching rugby on the TV and trying not to think about Highridge United’s plight. It was around tea time that Patrick Hanley called: Colin and I were invited to attend a meeting of the full board on Monday morning at nine.

“Mr Hancock,” Hanley said as we entered the board room. “It’s very good of you and Mr Butcher to come along at such short notice, but bearing in mind our brief discussion last week, the board felt that it would be in the interest of all to get this matter sorted out as soon as possible.”

“I agree,” I replied. “When would my associate be able to carry out the Due Diligence?”

“Immediately,” Hanley replied. “I’ve spent some time with members of the board compiling the records that we feel you’ll need, and they’re all here.” He waved a hand to the end of the table where a stack of papers had already been prepared for us. “Would you be able to begin right away?”

“If I may interrupt,” Colin said. “I’ve already taken the liberty of checking your company records at Companies House and have the files relating to the last six years of trading for the limited company.”

“How can you…?”

“I subscribe to the Companies House site, and for a fee can request the accounts for any company registered with them. I’ll still need to see the detailed schedules prepared by your accountants, but essentially I already know what the state of affairs of the company is. I won’t need more than a couple of hours to confirm the reports that I already have.”

“If you could let us have use of the board room in private for the next few hours,” I said, “I think that we could have a firm offer to put to you by the end of today.”

The board members looked stunned at the news, but Hanley merely smiled and nodded. Opening the board room door, he ushered the others out of the room and closed it behind them all.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s get down to it, Colin. Shall I make some coffee?” I pointed at the percolator on a corner table and he nodded.

It took a little under two hours for my friend to confirm what he already suspected. The limited company was teetering on the brink of insolvency, and if it failed it would take the football club down with it.

“So, what’s it worth?” I said, as Colin put the last of the reports back into order.

“Well, according to the last six year’s accounts, the balance sheet’s been weakening each time. They’ve got assets all right – there are the new changing rooms for a start. However, the directors have been pumping in money over five of those years just to keep things ticking over.”

“And last year?” I asked.

“No fresh injections of cash and the balance at the bank has gone into overdraft. There’s no problem right now – it’s within agreed limits, but I suspect that it won’t be long before they’re invited to have a chat with the manager about the company’s plans for the future.”

“So, the ball’s in my court?”


“What’s the net worth right now?” I asked.

“Twenty-five thousand,” Colin said, grim-faced.

“That all?”

“Yes. What do you plan to offer?”

“What’s the combined value of all of the directors’ loans to the company?” I asked, steeling myself.

“A shade over fifty grand,” he replied. “Not pretty, is it?”

“Actually, it’s not as bad as I’d thought.”

“What do you plan to do?” he asked.

I thought for a moment. I wanted this club. I wanted to take it out of the league where it was floundering. I wanted it back to the days when I cheered them on when I was at school; most of all, I wanted it in the EFL – football league status: an unfulfilled dream, and it was never too late to dream.

“I’m going to make them an offer that they can’t refuse. I’ll give them back all the money that they’re ploughed into the club plus a bonus. If they don’t take it I’ll just wait until the company goes under and buy it from the liquidator. Trouble is, by that time there won’t much left to work with.”

“Shall I see if Patrick Hanley’s available?”

“No time like the present, Colin,” I said.

The reconvened board took only moments to agree to the terms of the offer, and by the looks of relief on their faces I’d worked out that they’d already kissed goodbye to any chance of getting back any of the money that they’d lent to the club. I was an instant hero.

“What will you do with the club?” Patrick asked as we toasted the deal with the last bottle of wine on the premises.

“I’ll take all the shares that the board hold and become Chairman. I’ll need some of the members to stay on, at least in the short term, and that will include you. Once the club is back on a stable footing I can look at the way that the company’s structured to ensure that it never gets into this state again.”

“What about the staff?”

“Nobody’s going anywhere, at least unless they want to leave; I’ll need everyone around me on the admin side who knows how things run. Then I’ll start to modernise – the club can’t stay on this site. It’s old-fashioned and three-sided grounds aren’t allowed in the EFL.”

“EFL?” Hanley said in surprise. “Are you serious?”

“Deadly serious, Patrick. The decision that you guys made today is just the beginning. I’m going to talk to the coaching staff as soon as we’ve tied up the legal formalities. Things are going to change radically after the end of this season. We’re going up the pyramid – call it the Holy Grail if you like, but in five years I want us in League Two.”

Colin and I had already primed a Derby solicitor to handle the transfer of ownership, and two weeks later I was the sole owner of Highridge Ltd and Highridge United Football Club. I spent the first part of the following week briefing all of the employees from the cleaner to the accounts staff; after that, I had a long talk with Charlie Statham, the team manager. Charlie had been a semi-professional with a number of local teams before a broken leg ended a promising career – he had been the manager for the past three seasons and, in my opinion, had done well to keep the club where it was. He had little in the way of resources to attract a better class of player and had tried desperately hard to instil a sense of pride and enthusiasm into a team made up of raw youngsters and ageing journeymen.

“I’m leaving at the end of the season, Mr Hancock,” he said. “I’ve been offered the Assistant Manager’s position with a team in the National League.”

He told me the name of the club, and I had to admit that it would have been looking a gift horse in the mouth. They were an outfit going places and currently sat just outside the play-off places with games in hand on all of the teams above them. I was sad at the news, but told him that Highridge would be unable to match the terms that he was being offered. I now had a new team manager to find before the season ended in May. On the bright side, I knew precisely where to find one. I made the phone call that evening.

“So, what did he say?” Colin asked when I told him a couple of days later.

“He’s coming to see us on Friday.”

“You managed to get Bob Hart interested in managing the team?”

“He’s curious to say the least,” I replied.

Bob Hart had managed teams in the lower reaches of the EFL for a number of years and had taken one or two of them way beyond their abilities on paper. He was a tough, uncompromising coach who demanded total commitment from his players and complete trust and loyalty from his chairman. There had been occasions in his recent past where these two components had not worked smoothly together, and his latest position with a League Two team up north was a case in point. In answer to my question on that very subject, he was quite open with his answer: the chairman, whilst initially enthusiastic about the Hart philosophy, had relented when complaints from some of the team’s senior professionals had the board of directors doubting the wisdom of his appointment. When confronted with the issue, Hart had refused to budge and he and the club parted company. He seemed to be just the type of manager that we needed.

“He’s coming to the game?” Colin asked.

“What better way of assessing the problems that we may be facing?” I said. “We’ll leave him on the terraces to make his judgement, and talk it over after the match.”

“As I see it,” Hart said, putting his pint on the table at the Hare and Hounds after the game, “you’ve got a couple of decent young lads at centre back, a pair of strikers who should be putting the fear of God into any defence in this league, and a midfielder who, if he can get his arse into gear, could split any side wide open. That’s it; five players out of eleven worth keeping on. The rest seem to be just cruising; if the ball doesn’t come to them they can’t be bothered.”

“Our manager’s a good lad,” I said. “He’s been here for a few seasons but he’s been given precious little to work with. He’s leaving at the end of the season, so you’ll have carte blanche as far as I’m concerned with regard to the playing staff. What do you need?”

“A decent goalie – one who’s not scared to come off his line, a pair of wing backs who can actually run for ninety minutes, a stopper in midfield and another defensive guy to play alongside him. Then you need another pair of creative players to supplement the only guy who can make the team tick. The final piece of the jigsaw will be an experienced target man who can hold the ball without being pushed around.”

“Where do we find them?” I asked.

Hart smiled. “Oh, I know a few blokes who’ll come and play for me. They’re the kind who aren’t scared of a bit of hard graft and as long as you’re straight with them, moneywise, they’ll walk through fire for you.”

“What about you?” I said.

“If you’re serious about league status in five years, I want a contract that long and the freedom to pick my own backroom team. There won’t be many – just a couple of guys that I know: one to scout for talent and the other to check up on the next opponents.”

Colin and I hammered out a deal with Bob Hart that evening and he went away to make some phone calls. When we saw him again on the Friday evening he was in the company of two other men. They stood on the terraces at the end of the main stand and just watched, making a series of notes as the game progressed. The result, not that it mattered, was a two all draw in which we threw away two points in the final five minutes due to some dire defending and a horrifying goalkeeping error. Hart and the other two signed contracts the following week and we waited the season out.

May came and Highridge’s final game of the 2021/2022 season was a home fixture against Woodborough Athletic, our near neighbours and fiercest rivals. They stood second in the table and were heading for a play-off slot for promotion to the Northern Premier League’s Division I (North). Contrarily, the whole team chose that very match to reveal what they should have been capable of all season. We outplayed our more skillful rivals in every area of the pitch and ran out easy winners 4-0. The attendance was also a very satisfying 1,385. We had a leaving ceremony for Charlie Statham after the game and introduced Bob Hart to the players as their new gaffer for the 2022/23 season. With the evening drawing to a close and the players beginning to head for the door, Hart called them all back.

“Okay,” he said. “Now that we’ve been introduced, I think that it’s a good idea to let you all know how the land lies. This club is going places; it starts here and now. I want you all back here tomorrow for a training session.”

“Season’s over,” one of the older guys said. “What’s the point?”

“The point is whether or not you want to be a part of the team next season. You were all lucky tonight; Woodborough are already in the play-offs so they didn’t need to try too hard. If you think you played well, think again; those eleven against you were more interested in avoiding injuries than getting a result – they didn’t need a win. You were lucky.”

“There’s no alternative,” I said, stepping in. “Bob’s in charge now, and anyone not liking the idea has the club’s full permission to look for somewhere else to play. Highridge United is changing – there are no soft options now that the season’s over. Next year we’re going to win this league instead of finishing up as also-rans; clear?”

The majority of the team filed out in silence, but I found it curious that the five who Bob Hart had singled out for next year all remained behind and were now involved in conversation with their new boss. I smiled at Colin and we headed to the bar for another drink.

May ended within Bob Hart conducting a series of training sessions aimed at integrating his new signings into the team. Those sessions were tough – I watched them all; aimed at increasing levels of fitness, they involved long runs through the local country park and intensive tactical routines focussed at keeping the ball and wearing out the opposition by making them chase, chase and then chase again. The sharpness of the eleven that Hart singled out as a potential starting line-up was amazing when compared to the previous season. By the beginning of June, when Bob gave them all a month off, I had started to believe that we were on the cusp of something really special.

“How are you planning to keep up the momentum?” I asked him during the week before pre-season training was set to begin.

“Incentives,” he said, bluntly. “Keep the players hungry; not physically but mentally. Make them want to win, but also make them desire to win well.”

“What kind of incentives?”

“When I was a teenager I thought that I was good at this game,” he said. “I was at Forest when Clough and Taylor were there. Never made the first team, but we had some decent kids in the reserves. Clough took me to one side one afternoon in training and said ‘You’re a decent player, son, but you’re lazy. Look over there at John McGovern; watch what he does when we lose the ball; see? He’s back in front of the central defenders. You don’t do that; unless you’re prepared to work, you won’t be here long.’ He was right; I didn’t listen and they released me at the end of the season.”

“I’m not following you,” I said.

“The point was, that McGovern and the rest of the team would walk through fire for Cloughie. The club paid the players a decent basic wage, but the bonuses and incentives were phenomenal.”

“Okay, say I agree,” I said. “What did you have in mind?”

“Don’t starve the team – pay them like Clough and Taylor did, but dangle the carrots before their eyes. Don’t just pay win bonuses; supplement them with extra money for goals scored beyond a certain number each game – say three. Now pay them for each clean sheet; pay the goalkeeper extra if he saves a penalty. Incentivise them for bigger crowds.”

“What about the downside? There needs to be something for breaches of discipline,” I said.

“Fines for yellow and red cards; fines for arguing with the referee or abusing his assistants. Fines for missing training or misbehaving in public. Don’t turn them into monks, but don’t stand for any nonsense either. The players will respect us for it and we’ll reap the benefits.”

I loved what this man was saying and we drafted out a scheme for carrying out just what he had suggested.

“Get all the players on contract as well; no more of this holding onto their registrations on a yearly basis – all that means is that some bigger club can pinch them at the end of the season.”

That was something that I discovered early on and had decided to reform, so Bob coming up with it merely served to reinforce my own thinking. When July arrived and the players reported back for training, all the incentives were lined up to present to them. It was hard to judge reaction but there were certainly no mutterings of discontent.

There were changes to the club outside of the playing staff. Marjorie, our senior admin lady, decided for personal reasons that she would no longer be able to run that side of the business. I brought Colin onto the board as FD and his wife, Angela, stepped into the breach to fill the hole that Marjorie left. Wendy, our younger admin clerk, took to the new regime like a duck to water. I offered her the role of Angela’s deputy with a view to her taking over the role in a couple of years – that was the limit of time that Colin’s wife had said she would be prepared to work. We started Wendy on an AAT course and she lapped it up.

Gradually, the former board members resigned as they felt that they no longer had any influence over the progress of the company. Patrick Hanley was the last to leave.

“I’ll stay until the end of this season if you don’t mind,” he said to me before the first game. “I want to see where you’re going to take Highridge, but I don’t fancy looking over your shoulder all of the time.” He was as good as his word.

“What are you going to spend your time doing?” Colin asked me when I broke the news to him.

“Me?” I said. “I’ve got other stuff that needs taking care of. We can’t stay on this site. The state of the ground will prevent us from going up the pyramid much further – we have to move to a new stadium.”

“Where?” he asked. “Surely we can’t move too far away from the town.”

“There’s a site just on the edge of Highridge and the council is wanting to sell it to plug a hole in their budget. It’s no good for housing because it’s a former industrial location and the clean-up costs for property development will be too high.”

“I’m guessing that a football stadium wouldn’t be out of the question, then,” he said. “Think you’ll get it?”

“I’ve already made an offer and they’re thinking about it. Should be getting an answer this week. If they give us the green light, I reckon we can be at a new ground in time for the start of the 2023/24 season.”

Oddly enough, we began our home league campaign of the 2022/2023 season against our old rivals, Woodborough Athletic. Their efforts at promotion through the play-offs came to nothing after an aggregate 4-2 defeat in the semi-finals. Most of their better players left and they were forced into a recruitment campaign from lower leagues. Bob Hart’s team was electric; playing in triangles, they pushed and ran until Woodborough were chasing shadows. The game ended up with Highridge celebrating a 5-0 win. The season had begun with three away fixtures due to the nature of the ground – it was three-sided, the other long edge being shared with the council-owned cricket pitch; those games had resulted in two wins and a draw, and the four games played saw Highridge at the top of the table.

“Looks like all your hard work’s paying dividends,” I said to Bob Hart after the Woodborough game.

“So far, so good,” he said. “Let’s see what happens when the bad weather sets in. Ask me what I think at the end of February and I’ll have a better idea.”

He did have a much better idea. At the beginning of March, with only a ten games left to play, Highridge topped the league by nine points. There had been defeats, of course, but the team bounced back with resounding victories each time. Discipline was outstanding – not a single red or yellow card had been handed out to Highridge players, and referees all reported on the exemplary behaviour of the team. Patrick Hanley died at the end of that month. His wish to end the season still on the board, and see how we fared, foundered as a massive heart attack took him whilst he and his wife were on holiday in Spain. Highridge won the league title and preparations began for life in the Northern Premier League Division I (North). It had taken fifty-five years to right the wrong of the decision on that day back in 1968.

The summer months were once again devoted to training and tactics after a four week break, and the addition of a few new players saw the first team squad expand to twenty-two. It was at this point that Bob Hart suggested that we look more to growing our own talent from within rather than spending money in an ever costly transfer market. With the end of the 2023/24 season approaching and the team once more top of its division, plans were prepared for the formation of both reserve and youth teams for the forthcoming campaigns. Patrick Hanley would have been well pleased by progress – Highridge won the divisional title and would move up into the premier division of the Northern Premier League in August 2024. As for the proposed new stadium, it was a proposal no more. The ten acre site had been acquired from the local council for slightly more than the company was initially prepared to pay for it, but work had started after the end of the 2022/23 season. Estimates were that all safety certificates would be in place in time for our new campaign. The ground would hold ten thousand to begin with, but groundworks had been laid to a high enough standard that we would be able to build on the original structures and increase capacity to thirty thousand in due course.

“Where’s the money coming from?” Colin asked me as we sat poring over the plans. “I know you had that enormous win on the Euro lottery, but surely that can’t have been enough to fund all the plans that you’ve got.”

“Careful planning,” I said. “The majority of the winnings were placed in the hands of an asset management company that I use for my own pension funds. The portfolio I chose has grown the investments considerably over the last eighteen months. There’s no need for me to fret about money – this club will earn a good return by the time we’re in the EFL.”

Considerable interest in the new stadium had been shown by local media, and with a lengthy feature on East Midlands News just before the start of the new campaign, season ticket sales received a healthy boost as a fresh wave of interest from local football fans hit the club. Highridge began the new season with a disappointing 0-0 draw and, initially at least, results were not what Bob Hart had in mind when conducting his pre-season schedule. He shifted his team selections around and things began to improve. A record crowd of 9,800 on Boxing Day saw Highridge put Whitby Town to the sword to the tune of a 5-1 win; at that stage, the team stood fourth in the league – six points behind the leaders, Lancaster City, but with two games in hand. Excitement had begun to build, but a run of four games without a win had the side losing ground slightly. Hart’s team talk after the last of those games saw a dramatic improvement and the season ended with Highridge unbeaten in eleven games – ten wins and a draw. It was not enough to win the title and automatic promotion, but in a play-off final against Grantham Town, Highridge squeaked through 2-1 on aggregate. We were now only two steps away from the EFL.

“When you look at it,” Bob Hart said to me on the eve of the first game of the 2025/26 campaign, “Crawley Town set the trend back in 2012 and Salford did the same in 2019. It just goes to show that it’s never too late for a club like Highridge to shake the dust off their boots and climb the ladder.”

“It’s a fine line between splashing indiscriminate cash and going bust, and breaking the Fair Play Regulations,” I replied. “We’re limited as to how much we can pay players in relation to the company’s turnover. We’re doing fine at the moment, but I’m guessing that you’ll be wanting to plan soon for life in the Football league and its impact on player contracts.”

“I will, and it’ll go some way towards keeping our best players, both in the first team and the reserves.”

That conversation was to come back onto the board room table at the end of the season as Highridge won the National league (North) by quite a margin. The 2026/27 campaign was to be a momentous year for the club as it made its final assault on membership of the EFL.

As for the company as a whole, Colin had joined the board and I’d allotted some share options to him as a ‘thank you’ for the work he’d done since our days in the Midland Counties League, and he’d been joined by Bob Hart – my attempt to tie him to the club beyond the initial five year plan. Wendy Stenson, the junior admin girl, had sailed through her AAT qualification and, with the ‘retirement’ of Colin’s wife, Angela, she had taken responsibility for the entire admin/accounts department and now had a staff of three working for her; I had promoted her to Company Accountant reporting to Colin. She would be set to take over his role when the time came. Expansion of the non-playing staff had been carefully controlled – I’d seen too many clubs struggle after running before they could walk. Of the players that Bob had brought in to steady the ship in the early days, three had left and the remainder had joined the coaching team. The five that had survived Bob’s initial cull had, despite his efforts, all moved on, at considerable financial benefit to Highridge, to clubs at higher level; this is where Bob’s youth policy had paid dividends. Their places had been filled by young, hungry individuals from our reserves – we were truly an organically grown club!

So, where are we now? Well, the side won the National League outright in the 2026/27 season and the ground was extended during that summer to bring it up to a 20,000 capacity. Season ticket sales suggested that we would fill it with each game in our first season in the EFL, and so it turned out as the club embarked upon its first assault on league football since its foundation in 1883. Our opening game against Newport County was a sell-out and the gates were closed well before kick-off. Needless to say we won that game; it wasn’t easy and the 3-2 score line told the story of a cut and thrust encounter which was to be the hallmark of the first half of the season.

Highridge made it through the early rounds of the FA Cup and I sat in shivering expectation on Saturday 9th January 2027 waiting for the teams to come out onto the pitch. Our only previous incursion into the lofty heights of this cup competition had been back in 1965 in a 1-3 home defeat to the now defunct Bradford Park Avenue; I was at that game with my father and cried all the way home. Now Highridge had a real chance at giant-killing; West Ham United play the kind of football that suits us – an open, attacking style which tends to leave gaps that we can exploit. It’s never too late to dream, and I’ve done quite a bit of that over the years – this is where the dreaming stops and reality begins.