Bamber Bridge - A Brief History
Football in Bamber Bridge can be traced back as far as the late 1800’s. However, the present club was established in the summer of 1974 when the old Bamber Bridge club amalgamated with neighboring outfit Walton-Le-Dale. The new club played at the King George’s Playing Field and the early years were marked with a high degree of success on the local football scene.
The first sixteen seasons was spent in the Preston & District League Premier Division and many honours were gained. The 1975-76 season saw the fledgling club finish 5th in the table and they won their first piece of silverware, when lifting the Lytham Medal competition. The Premier Division championship was won for the first time in the 1980-81 season and was the first of four title successes. This honour was also achieved in 1985-86, 1986-87 and for the last time in 1989-90. The club also finished as Premier Division runners-up three times in 1978-79, 1982-83 and 1984-85.
During those sixteen seasons spent in the Preston & District League ‘Brig’ also enjoyed success in the League Cup competition, the Guildhall Cup. They emerged winners of the tournament on four occasions; firstly in 1978-79 and again in 1980-81, when they achieved the ‘league and cup double’ for the first time. They won the Guildhall Cup for the third time in 1984-85 and again in 1989-90, when winning the ‘league and cup double’ for the second time. The club was also Finalists in 1977-78, 1979-80 and 1987-88. Along the way, the club finished as finalists in the Premier Division Ward Shield in 1983-84.
In those early years Bamber Bridge won the prestigious Lancashire FA Amateur Shield in 1981-82 and was finalists in 1980-81 and 1989-90.
Throughout this period, the club committee had dreamt and worked towards establishing a football ground of their own and in 1983 a piece of derelict land was purchased with the help of South Ribble and Sports Council’s. It took four years of dedicated work and considerable expense to change this overgrown land into a football pitch, which was named “Irongate” after the local area. It was indeed a proud moment to see the team play on the club’s own ground after having played on a park pitch for so long. The first game at Irongate was played in August 1987 and since then continual development and improvements have taken place at the ground to enable the club to enjoy a place within the National Leagues System.
Sustained success in the Preston & District League prompted the club to seek progression and at the beginning of the 1990-91 campaign the club joined the North West Counties League. In their first season, in what was in those days, the first rung of the National Leagues System, ’Brig’ finished in a creditable 4th spot in the Second Division. Twelve months later and the club won its first honour in the semi-professional game when taking the North West Counties League Second Division championship and with it promotion to the top flight. The 1992-93 campaign proved to be a storming success with a runners-up spot in the First Division which was to see the club promoted for the second season running with a place in the First Division of the Northern Premier League. That memorable season the club reached the Semi-Final of the FA Vase, only one step away from the famous Wembley Stadium. Then just to top things off, ‘Brig’ were finalists in the North West Counties League Floodlit Trophy.
During this period floodlights were installed at the Irongate ground and further ground improvements were made to facilitate promotion to the Northern Premier League. In their first season in the NPL, the club finished in a creditable 13th place in the First Division and was finalists in the First Division Cup. In the following term, 1994-95, the club won promotion for the fourth time in its history, after finishing runners-up in the First Division. Also that term, Brig captured the Northern Premier League Challenge Cup when overcoming those famous cup fighters, Bishop Auckland, by 2-1 at Bolton Wanderers old ground, Burnden Park, before lifting the Lancashire FA Challenge Trophy, with a 2-1 victory over favourites Morecambe at Deepdale.
Against all the odds in 1995-96, their first season in the Premier Division, the club won the Northern Premier League title beating off late challenges from Hyde United and Boston United, the final outcome depending on the results on the last day of the season - a history making season for the club. ‘Brig’ reached the Lancashire FA Challenge Trophy Final for the second time on the trot, but this time finished as runners-up, losing 0-1 against Morecambe; the Final once more being played at Deepdale.
Bamber Bridge entertained the Czech Republic International team in a friendly game prior to the Czech’s opening game against Germany in the European International Championship Finals in 1996. The successful Czech side had used Irongate for some of their preparations for the tournament in which they eventually finished as finalists.
In 1999-00 the club enjoyed an excellent run in the FA Cup, reaching the Second Round Proper for the first time in their history before bowing out by a narrow 0-1 margin at Football League Second Division side Cambridge United, the result decided on a disputed penalty. The club made it to the Lancashire FA Challenge Trophy Final for the third time that season but once again finished as runners-up after going down heavily by 0-5 against Marine in the Final at Chorley’s Victory Park.
After enjoying seven years in the Premier Division, the 2001-02 season proved a disaster finishing bottom of the pile, and the club experienced relegation for the first time in its 27 year history. Restructuring of the National League System at the start of the 2004-05 season saw the club regain Premier Division status after two years in the lower tier.
Time spent back in the higher grade lasted only twelve months though and the club once again experienced the bitter pill of relegation at the end of the 2004-05 season, after finishing second from the bottom of the table. The season however, was not a complete disaster and despite the loss of Premier Division status, the Northern Premier League, League President’s Cup was lifted with a 3-2 aggregate win over Witton Albion.
Further restructuring of the National League System in season 2007-08 saw the club placed in the First Division North of the Northern Premier League. ’Brig’ reached the play-offs in the first season of the new regionalised set-up; losing out by 2-3 to F.C. United of Manchester in the Semi-Final at Gigg Lane, Bury. ‘Brig’ once again reached the Lancashire FA Challenge Trophy Final for the fourth time in 2010-11 but lost out by 0-1 against AFC Fylde in the Final at Bolton Wanderers Reebok Stadium
Due to financial restrictions the season 2012-13 was one of consolidation in the 1st Division North and by Easter saw a change in manager, with Tony Greenwood leaving the club and Neil Crowe who was Tony's assistant stepping up to the manager’s job, Neil Reynolds was appointed as assistant manager. Neil had re-joined the club at the start of 2009-2010 season and joined the coaching staff the following season. The season proved to be a very hard one both on and off the field, but a 13th place reflected all the hard work that the management and players had put in.
Season 2012-13 started off very slowly with win consistency very hard to come by. However, the period after Christmas saw an improvement with new signings, and two great runs (especially the last one which saw Brig lose only 3 games out of the last 17), which helped contribute to the club finishing the season just outside the play offs in 9th place.
After suffering the defeat at the hands of Ramsbottom United in extra time of the play off final, in what turned out to be the last game to be played at The Irongate Stadium, as local legend Sir Tom Finney passed away in February, the club kindly obtained permission to rename the ground The Sir Tom Finney Stadium, it is a name that is world famous in football and all at the club feel very proud and humble that Sir Tom’s family agreed, whilst also making his son Brian a honoury president of the club.
After the worst possible start to season 2014/2015, when Brig conceded 7 goals on the 1st match of the season, the only way from there was UP. With one or two changes in the playing staff, things got much better with new signings and the club became a force at both home and away. In the middle of October of that season, Brig made the signing of what was thought to be one of the best players to wear a Bamber Bridge shirt in the vastly experienced ex-Preston North End and Nottingham Forrest midfielder Paul McKenna. After a couple of games, Paul settled in and results improved from there. So much so that, apart from a blip in form around Christmas, Brig finished in third place, and after beating Northwich Victoria in the semi-final of the play offs, the team heartbreakingly lost the final for the second season in a row, this time to Darlington 1883.
Season 2015/16 was an indifferent season with regards to the league, but an F.A Cup campaign that saw the Brig reach the 4thQualifying round brought in some much needed revenue. After one of the worst December’s on record for rain, Brig did well to finish the season at The Sir Tom Finney Stadium due to a collapsed drain and that hard earned revenue in the F.A Cup was soon spent on repairing the pitch. There was some consolation however when Brig won the prestigious Fair Play Award for the three divisions, which came with a cheque for £1000.
2016/17 was a bit of a roller coaster season to say the least, from the first match at Scarborough, when the coach broke down on the way home, to the Integro Final when Brig beat 4 Premier Division teams on the way to lifting the coveted Trophy. League form that season was one of those were the team seemed unable to put a run of wins together to fulfil the expectations of pre-season. After a poor run of results in November and December there was a change of manager when Neil Crowe, after over 10 years loyal service stepped down, and his assistant Neil Reynolds took over and, as in most cases when a change of manager takes place, the league form picked up, only to be out of contention of the play offs by the middle of March.
Number one priority from then on in the 2016/17 season was the League Cup, which Bamber Bridge won on Wednesday 19thApril at Leek Town Harrison Park, beating Grantham Town 2-1, with goals from Jamie Milligan and Regan Linney. The run in the league cup where the club beat 4 Premier League Clubs along the way has proved that all the hard work that the players & management had put in, not only in the latter part of the season, but throughout the season put the team in the right frame of mind to have a good season in the league in 2017/18.
That good season did indeed follow and promotion to the Premier League was won via the playoff final with a hard fought 1-0 win over Prescot Cables. In front of a crowd of 1628, the only goal was scored in the second half by local boy Chris Marlow, with the celebrations going on long into the night and a day remembered fondly by those within the club.
The current management team of Jamie Milligan (an ex-Brig player himself) and John Hills took the helm at Irongate in the late autumn of 2019 and set about his managerial career trying to put in practice his football philosophy built up over many years in the professional game. He seemed to galvanize the teams on pitch performances with only one or two additions to the squad and the future was looking bright. Then Covid struck and the season was ended prematurely.
Following the early termination of the 2020/21 season due to the global Covid Pandemic, Milligan and his assistant John Hills lead the team into the 2021/22 season, with the bookmakers having ‘Brig’ as favourites for relegation, in a league with some much bigger, more fancied teams, with larger budgets. However, with some clever recruitment, use of their footballing connections, and by galvanizing both the team and the club as a whole, Milligan and Hills led Brig to a 6th place finish, missing out on the play offs by only 2 points. The team received many plaudits for their attacking style of play, and even spent a short period at the top of the table during November 2021. Milligan was rewarded for his impressive work with a 2.5 year contract extension from the club.
The 2022/23 season proved to be even more memorable for the club, as Milligan led Brig to an even more unimaginable 3rd place finish in the Northern Premier League, which was the clubs highest league finish in the football pyramid in 26 years. This included a remarkable joint-league-best home record, with the team making the Sir Tom Finney Stadium a fortress, losing only 2 league game on home soil across the season. After a memorable Playoff Semi-Final penalty shootout victory against a strong Gainsborough Trinity side at the ‘Irongate’, Brig suffered heartbreak in the Final, agonisingly losing 1-0 against Warrington Town at Cantilever Park in a very even, tight contest. Although ending in disappointment, it will be remembered fondly in years to come as one of the clubs best ever seasons!
The club now heads into the 2023/24 season, with Milligan & Hills at the helm once again, as they look to build on last season’s success and go one better than the previous campaign, with a number of strong additions to a new look squad.