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Reds, blues and everything in between – In depth with new Clitheroe man Billy Priestley

Photo: Julia Urwin

Clitheroe announced the signing late last month of Billy Priestley, a player who has seen the non-league limelight at close quarters in the past. Red has signalled success and a touch of misfortune for the former Salford City defender through the years, but there is one particular rub of the green the new Blue is always likely to be grateful for.

He was part of a North West contingent who thrived with current Chester bosses Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley at Ramsbottom United, and famously, under the burning documentary spotlight at Salford City. Billy Priestley says he is never hesitant to talk – “I’m one of them characters where I’ll speak all day to people and peck their heads off.” – but by the same token, the Colne lad would never be near the front of the queue to get himself on camera.

Almost three years since he left Salford, the 31-year-old has just signed for Clitheroe, linking up with his former Southport teammate David Lynch, who has taken the Shawbridge reins as player-manager. While there are undoubtedly differences between ex-Port skipper Lynch and Billy’s aforementioned former managers, he notes a similar eye for sincerity and desire in players.

“I’ve played with Lynchy at Southport and I know exactly what he’s like; he always wants hard-working lads willing to put their body on the line to win. He’ll get a few decent lads in and he’s got the young lads to fit in there as well.

“He’s played at a lot of clubs in that league and I don’t think he’s made many enemies in football, so I think he’ll do really well.”

Lynch, who only turned 27 last month, takes over from Phil Brown at a side who were 6th in the Northern Premier League North West Division prior to the 2019/20 season shutdown. His latest capture is experienced frontman Craig Hobson, following on from Ross Dent, Danny Pilkington, Danny O’Brien and Billy.

Like Lynch, Billy’s former managers Johnson and Morley started out in their 20s, and you can’t really tell his story without them.

He could well be reflecting on some entirely different playing days now – surely less colourful – had it not been for their crossing of paths. A Barnoldswick Town player at the time, Billy recalls the day a not-so-shy-and-retiring young joint-manager from Ramsbottom came calling.

“Jonno rang Paul Fildes, the manager, and said ‘do you mind if we borrow Billy for a week, we’ve got a game against Darlington and we need a centre-half?’ He thought he meant Bill Williams, who was the other centre-half; he was on the bench and they weren’t using him.

“They sent a form in and it said ‘Billy Priestley’ on the front, so Fildes has rung Jonno and said ‘you can’t have Billy, I thought you were on about Billy Williams.’ Jonno’s head’s gone then!

“He’s said ‘if we’re playing tomorrow I can’t get another form out to you, it won’t be back in time, send that one back!’ So he’s sent him the form back and said ‘you can have him for one game.’”

The opportunity for Billy also owed to a long-time former Colne manager who sadly passed away four years ago at the age of 53.

“Jonno had asked Nigel Coates, who signed me at Colne, about centre-halves in lower leagues and he put my name forward. I played for Ramsbottom against Darlington and I can remember their striker elbowed me full whack and all my teeth crossed over; I went over to the sideline and said ‘my teeth have all moved.’

“They said ‘there’s nothing we can do about it now,’ so I pushed them back myself. I played really well, got Man of the Match, and Jonno said afterwards, ‘right, you’ve got two options: you’re not on a contract at Barnoldswick, you can go back there, or I’ll give you a bit more money and you can come and play here.’

“I was like ‘I’d love to do that but I can’t drive!’ My mum always drove me round before I could drive.

“He said ‘don’t worry, I’ve got Gaz Stopforth.’ He got Gaz to come over from Burnley to pick me up.

“That was the lucky break; that was what got me through the leagues. If he hadn’t made that mistake, Fildes, I don’t think he’d have got me.”

As we speak now, he has just returned to work as a plasterer after an extremely challenging couple of months during the COVID-19-enforced lockdown, with income also drying up from his non-contract arrangement at Bradford (Park Avenue) in the National League North. Although he lives minutes from Colne’s ground, Billy explains why a return to his local club wasn’t viable.

“I’ve grown up in Colne, I’ve played there, but they’re getting a 3G pitch in this year. Bradford Park Avenue’s a great club, I loved being there, but they’re getting a 3G as well and I’m getting to that age where it’s starting to hurt my knees on them pitches.

“With Clitheroe, Lynchy knows how I play, he knows what he wants and we play the same kind of football. It’s a lot more local (than Bradford) as well, so it’ll be a great move for me really.”

The artificial surface also effectively put paid to his time at Buxton, he says, having joined the Northern Premier Division side at the beginning of last season under Paul Phillips, with high hopes for a side that had made the play-offs three months earlier.

“Phillo was good, the club was good, but it was just the pitch for me; two or three games in, my back and my knees started playing up. It was a hard thing because they had so many good lads, good players there, but it just wasn’t gelling for some reason, I don’t know why.”

If non-league has increasingly changed at surface level, it has arguably switched even more beneath that, Billy feels.

“I think the younger lads now, they can be more about putting it on social media that they’re a footballer when they play in amateur leagues. They can be a bit more dramatic.

“When I was at Ramsbottom, you knew every lad had your back. You knew you had Jonno, Bernard and everyone to back you up if anything went wrong, so if someone had threatened you on the pitch, you knew you weren’t gonna get battered after the game, which spurred a lot of those lads on to be successful.”

Under Johnson and Morley, Rammy won a pair of promotions, and three more followed with Salford. Billy joined Salford ahead of the second of those, scoring the equaliser in the unforgettable 3-2 Northern Premier Division play-off final win over Workington in April 2016.

Many of the characters in that group have featured on here in recent years, with Salford City’s BBC and Sky Sports’ documentaries after the ‘Class of ‘92’ takeover undoubtedly helping shed a lot more light on those personalities. For lads who had simply played the game at the end (or slap bang in the middle of) their working week for years, to suddenly have a modicum of fame thrown into their path was an unusual thing to contend with.

While there may seem a stroke of fortune in being at the club who had just had a famous takeover, those players would not have been brought on board without their ability and/or prior successes. On Billy’s happiest time in football so far, Salford is understandably mentioned, though he also explains why he feels the dice hasn’t always rolled in his favour in the game.

“I’ve met a lot of good lads on the way at different clubs, but it’ll probably be Ramsbottom, Colne and Salford. I enjoyed it at Salford but I’ve always had a bit of a nightmare when things are getting good; we start moving places and they usually kick me out!

“They start going for a better calibre of player; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. With Salford it obviously did.

“I signed a two-year contract there and then they obviously brought a lot more lads in from higher leagues. That was my first time of full-time football really, and then I moved to Alfreton, before Southport.

“That was another good club, but I got a red card; red cards have cost me my career really! I had one at Salford, it was leading up to the end of the season and Josh Hines got into a bit of a scuffle with a lad.

“I got him off Josh and then all their fans thought I was starting something, and the ref said I used excessive force; I got sent off and they had to loan a centre-half in. Then they played him until the end of the season.

“At Southport, another red card cost me my career there (a mistimed, last-man challenge), when we were playing against Stockport. After Kevin Davies, Liam Watson brought lads in, and they said I’d lost my legs, I was past it, but I knew I weren’t.

“I said ‘I’m not gonna go, I’m gonna fight for my place.’ Liam said ‘fair enough’ and he gave me my shot, to be fair.

“Came to pre-season, got really fit, and he said I’d earned my place. Then I’ve got the red card against Stockport, Liam put his other lad in and I went on loan to FC United.”

Recalled in November 2018 from that stint at FC, at the time also in the National League North, he says he was disappointed to then not be playing back at his parent club. He would later return to hometown club Colne.

There was a former Salford teammate who had left Colne a few months earlier; a player who must be on course for his 500th interview mention on here soon. The artist informally known as ‘G Stop’ was briefly spoken about earlier on, but Billy has another recollection of the midfielder that sounds perfectly true to form.

“Gaz Stopforth, you’ll never get another character like him. We went on a (team) run, we’d done a few miles, running over hills, all this stuff, we’re running back and Gaz Stopforth’s hurdling over chip shop signs – ‘come on boys, keep going!’

“Just energy at a different level.”

Another pick undoubtedly from the ‘character’ category is Richie Allen. An incessant grafter in a game, maybe not, but the ex-AFC Fylde star’s match-changing ability has never been in question.

He also came up with a winning touch in an off-field moment Billy remembers.

“Salford had brought a load of new defenders in. If they said ‘they’re a lot better passer than you, they can play out from the back better, I can take that, because I’ve not had that in my locker ever!’

“Can't pass it two yards, but it was said ‘they’re faster, stronger than you,’ and I thought ‘I’m not having that.’ After that, we went for all these training tests, with the Salford University people there, the scientists, and they had us doing jump tests, sprint tests, and I was doing better than them.

“It frustrated me that they’d said they were physically better than me when they obviously weren’t. The lads had heard there were clubs looking at me and wanted me to go, Salford wanted me out, and after that day we were just sat around in a hallway, just sitting around waiting to go, and Jonno said ‘Billy, do you wanna come over here for a chat?’

“Richie Allen came out with a comment, he said ‘Billy, let me know how that Alfreton pie tastes!’ I think he knew what was going on.”

The glitz they would get to experience sometimes at Salford he says was appreciated, though always something he never truly identified with. At a hotel function from the club, he says he would be more likely to be seen talking to the chef than anyone they had as a special guest.

It links back in very obviously with his background, from which he also shares a significant setback in his late-teens.

“My mum always looked after me but we didn’t have a lot of money growing up, and I didn’t grow up in an academy and that kind of mindset. I was at Accrington when I was younger, they let me go, and I went to Colne, and I was playing and enjoying it, and I was working then as well.

“When I was 18/19, I got put in a coma, beat up on a night out, and after that I had a year out of football. Accrington released me; I was captain of the second years then and they said if I gave them a ring back in a year they’d give me another try.

“When I got back in touch and told them my situation, I never even got a letter back off them.”

He is, though, undoubtedly glad of some of the live wires he has encountered over the years, and the trips along the way.

“Jordan Hulme was the best for coach journeys. Steve O’Halloran, that boy can drink; he was doing Amy Winehands (someone tapes a wine bottle to each hand and can’t remove them until both have been finished) and doing it no problem!

“I went to Bradford and 90 per cent of lads had their earphones in, watching films on their phone, and it was just a completely different thing for me. If it’s someone like Chib Chilaka, who gets on the coach and falls asleep, I can deal with that!

“He’ll literally walk on the coach – wide awake, ‘alright lads?' – you’d turn around and he’d be sparked out! I didn’t mind that, but when lads just put their earphones in and didn’t wanna talk to people, that’d just drive me mad more than anything.”

While we continue to hope the ‘away day’ routine is not a million miles away from returning - for players, staff and fans all across the game - Billy is another who can’t wait for that piece of normality to reappear. An experienced head at Clitheroe next season he may be, but as long as there’s a place to play – or a natural surface – he’ll be around for a decent while yet.

“When the ball goes over my head, the winger’s got five yards behind me and a second later he’s running past me, that’s when I’ll give up playing. I haven’t got to that point yet.

“With everything going on, not working, stress, I was thinking ‘I’m just gonna sign somewhere local, see my kids more’, because I’ve got four children. I’ve got a few more years of playing; I don’t know if managing will be for me.

“I had my kids pretty young, which is a nightmare. I wish I had them a bit later and I’d be able to see them grow up more, because going out playing football on Saturdays, I could have been at home with them really.

“Now when I give up football they’ll be 13/14 and be like ‘don’t wanna see you any more’! I’m not putting my roots down thinking ‘this is it now, I’m retiring at Clitheroe,’ I know I can still go up those leagues, but I want to take a club there.

“I wanted to do it at Colne, but they’re getting that 3G pitch. I’ll be ringing clubs saying ‘have you got a grass pitch? Yeah? I’ll come then!'

"I think that’s when I’ll give up, when they all turn 3G!

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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