Situated just off the long stretch that runs through the Cheshire village, the journey of Helsby’s amateur football club can be traced back to 1895 with the team currently competing in the Chester & Wirral Premier Division. As Treasurer and Secretary, Paul Nicholls is part of a team of local volunteers who have steered the club through the past two decades. A banker for Santander by trade, the 52-year-old has witnessed just about all the fortunes this level of the game can bring. When we meet on a leaf fallen autumn Sunday morning, he pulls up in his car on the verge above the club’s pitch and is straight to business – for the countless time disassembling the nets and corner flags from yesterday’s battlefield. At the Factory End, as it is affectionately known, we follow his routine to the shed behind the stand which beams the three words that mean so much - Helsby Football Club. As he unlocks the padlock you get the impression only he has the knack to do so.
We cross the pitch and then join him as he clocks up another journey down the gravel path, past the tennis courts where it all began during his teens. We then enter his ageing and soon to be vacated second home, Helsby Sports & Social Club. After two invaluable hours spent in his company, it is clear to see how ingrained Nicholls is within the game. His dedication has gained huge respect on the local amateur football scene, overcoming some tough battles along the way here - in more senses than one. It was upon returning from university in Manchester during the early 90s when his involvement with Helsby's football team began, firstly as a player, before hanging up his boots to take on responsibilities behind the scenes as the club embarked on a gold trail of success.
“I was a pretty average right back. My biggest attributes were that I was fairly quick and committed but give me the ball and that’s probably when things fell apart.”
In a four-year spell starting in 1998, Helsby rose through the West Cheshire League Divisions, winning every competition they entered along the way. This included both the prestigious Cheshire FA Cup and Northern Counties FA Trophy for a side Nicholls hailed as ‘exceptionally good’. It was also around this time that Nicholls' influence on the club helped further its identity. In line with the community - the club would wear green.Previously having no set colours, green is the predominant colour on railings in the village as well as the being used by Helsby High School. He shies away from the suggestion he is the heart and soul of the club, putting his effort down to the simple fact he got so much out of it and wants other people to follow suit adding that the birth of his son Jack, also a full-back who he has seen come through the junior teams to play for the first team, only added motivation.
“I think because I enjoyed so much the time I played here and because I had friends from the club and living locally I just wanted to put a bit back into it and I’ve never given it much thought beyond that. I just wanted the club to be successful. It’s a good facility that offers things to people. When Jack was born I thought it would be nice to be able to offer him the chance to be able to play at a decent standard for his local club. Without ruling out seeing his son wearing all green again in the future, Nicholls adds. “Although he’s not currently playing for us, it’s nice for me and my dad that we have seen him do so.”
He can roll off results and goal scorers from years gone by with a focused gaze as he pulls out each individual memory, telling himself ‘I should know this’ for those he can’t recall within five seconds. For a reserved, clever, quick-witted man, he becomes passionate and animated once that whistle blows come Saturday afternoon. Relegations, Promotions and Cup wins have all been part of the journey. He has run taps to fill the water bottles and laid the kit out in changing rooms stretching all four corners of Cheshire and beyond, witnessing a catalogue of epic battles but non greater than the personal duel he had to overcome during the 2009-10 season when Nicholls was diagnosed with lymphoma.
“The sense of community around the club and the support I received helped me so much during that time. It’s been a massive part of my life. It’s the people you meet that make it. The camaraderie. It’s just extended my circle of friends massively. I still came down every Saturday that season which looking back may have been a stupid thing to do. It kept me sane and gave me something to focus on other than not being very well.”
It was fitting then that in the Runcorn & District FA Cup Final that season, Helsby would go on to beat a much fancied Runcorn Town FC at Pavilions Sports Ground. Captain and match winner Conor Taylor lifting the trophy aloft together with Nicholls after a 1-0 triumph.
“I’ve witnessed success over the years but lifting the cup with what was going on was really special. It was an emotional moment personally, coupled with it being a great result for the club as we were big underdogs on the night.” Helsby Sports & Social Club, despite all the memories is falling apart and needing constant repair. Drawings for a new impressive multi sports complex can be seen on display in the function room. In a long drawn process, which has lasted 13 years, it is believed that they are not far away from a spade entering the ground at a new home just 400 yards away. He says due to the current team’s energy and enthusiasm in fundraising, the club finds itself in as good a position financially as it’s ever been and is confident the current crop of players will represent Helsby for years to come.
“The new ground will bring great facilities for local people and allow us to raise more funds for the club. It will give us the option to progress up the pyramid should we ever be in a position to do so. The 4G pitch will also mean we won’t have to worry about the tractor going on the blink! I just hope there’s an option to retain some of the character from this building. Some of these new facilities can be a bit too clinical.”
As we finish the interview and walk into another room, it is clear what he means. The décor and details give it an immense sense of nostalgia. There’s horse racing showing on an old television set and you just know that everyone and everything in the room has been a permanent fixture here for years.
He stops at a table, joining other committee members who greet him by his nickname ‘Nicks’. Together they will carry their legacy into a third decade, navigating the next chapter of this proud, traditional club into a new home.
Words by Alan Bond
Illustration by James Starkey