Saturday's final day point away at Stalybridge Celtic saw the Colls secure their Northern Premier League status in the most dramatic of fashion. In turn, Atherton secured their highest ever league finish. But the season wasn't quite done yet. Wednesday evening saw Cooke and his lads make more Colls history as they competed in the black and white stripes’ first Lancashire Challenge Trophy final against Southport FC.
Back at a sun-kissed Lancashire FA HQ, the County Ground, the Colls fans travelled in their hundreds to back the lads. A genuine thank you for your support, it has been pivotal to this historic campaign.
Proceedings started with the two teams walking out to the infamous Champions League anthem as composed by Tony Britton in 1992. I must admit, never did I think I'd watch Colls walk out to the glitz and glamour of the Champions League tinkles, but our Colls heroes deserve no less. They are champions in their own right!
The first half was end-to-end stuff - this was a game that both sides wanted to win. Buoyed by his outrageous strike at Stalybridge, Marcus Cusani was the first to the hit the target on five minutes. A dipped shot warming the hands of the Southport stopper.
Jay Fitzmartin produced the best chance of the half for Atherton, however. The young forward - who has firmly established himself as a fans' favourite this season - broke into the box after he latched on to a forward ball. Cutting inside, the energetic Fitzmartin found himself one-on-one with the Keeper. Unfortunately, the low and hard shot that followed was saved well and cleared away from danger.
A series of solid chances came and went for the black and white stripes. 403 games strong, Gaz Peet drilled a ball across goal which was just inches away from the advancing Clive Smith. And Bailey Thompson, carrying a knock after an earlier clash, curled a tame effort at goal.
With the scores at 0-0, Colls could be proud of an attacking first period the game and for sustaining a bout of Southport pressure towards the half's conclusion. Mackenzie Chapman made a wonderful save in what was to be his last game on loan as a Colls Mon, just as the whistle was being blown.
Second half and Jesse Ebosele replaced Thompson, Cooke and Co going all-out attack.
Ten minutes in and Hardcastle - a player involved in oh so many Colls Lancashire Cup outings in the past - swooped a deep cross into the area. So deep that it had a real danger of hitting the back of the net, only a clearance off the line prevented Atherton taking the lead.
Two minutes later and Colls again a whisker away from bagging an opening goal. Cusani slotted in Fitzmartin who was, quite simply, unstoppable in his forward runs. The striker bamboozled the Southport defenders before another low shot at goal. Smart goalkeeping saw the effort saved, but rebounded straight to Fitzmartin's feet. An unexpected opportunity, Fitzmartin could only watch as the ball struck the bar. How close could Colls get?
As the game skipped towards the 90 minute mark, Atherton were superb and looked the more likely to take the trophy. Joel Amado met a teasing cross with an over-head kick Rooney himself would've been proud of (Wayne, not Adam - sorry pal). Likewise, Peet dusted down one of his iconic box to box pelts, with his effort met once again by another smart stop.
Full Time. Penalties. Colls wanted this, but my oh my were the 200 strong faithful already proud of the performance they'd just watched.
Everyone knows that penalties are a lottery. The first three had been dispatched by both sides - Danny Lafferty, Hardcastle and Peet for the Colls. Southport added a fourth and the weight of the world landed on young Fitzmartin's shoulders. Unfortunately, the ball sailed just above the bar and Southport knew what they had to do. Their fifth and final penalty dispatched, the Yellows Lancashire Challenge Trophy Champions once more.
Fitzmartin was quickly embraced by those on the field, as the Colls supporters belted out a chorus of Super Jay Fitzmartin off it. Don't worry, Jay. Penalties are cruel. You are, and always will be, backed by all in black and white.
The highs and lows of a season can sometimes flash you by. But, despite the result, this has to be one of the highest moments of the campaign. A performance that saw National League North Southport taken to the wire.
Lads, thank you for a tremendous campaign. Historic in every sense of the word. This 22/23 squad will forever be remembered.
Colls: Mackenzie Chapman, Clive Smith (Adam Haw 90'), Gaz Peet, Joel Amado, Danny Lafferty ©, Adam Rooney, Ben Hardcastle, Jack Lenehan (Cesaire Lingouba 72’), Bailey Thomspon (Jesse Ebosele 45’), Jay Fitzmartin, Marcus Cusani. Unused subs – Scott Sephotn, Adam Haw, Luca Defreitas-Hansen.
Colls Mon of the Match Presented by Ben Cooper – Marcus Cusani
Report – Zach Pierce
Photo – Ben Roberts Photography