THE DOMESTIC football season in the Dispatch district could not have wished for a better send-off.
A local-derby cup final between two clubs on the crest of a wave.
And one that should have local supporters flocking in their hundreds to Arnold Town’s Eagle Valley Stadium non Tuesday May 15.
Twelve months ago, the prospect of Bulwell and Linby Colliery Welfare meeting in a showpiece showdown would have been unthinkable.
Linby finished rock-bottom of the Notts Senior League’s (NSL) Senior Division table with only seven points from 30 games and a goal-difference of minus-83. They were spared relegation solely because other top-flight clubs quit the league.
Meanwhile Bulwell were not far above them, fourth from bottom in the table and on the verge of folding — only two seasons after winning promotion.
Now the two rivals are set to contest the NSL’s Senior Cup final after a campaign in which they have been miraculously transformed by new management teams.
Under Dave Bradshaw and Dave Marlow, Linby have swept into the top four and overtaken Hucknall Rolls Leisure as the Hucknall area’s top amateur outfit.
And under Steve Osborne and Terry Witts, Bulwell have romped to the Senior Division championship by a record points’ margin.
Osborne and Witts reserved a place in footballing folkore for ever more after their exploits with Scots Grey, who won the FA Sunday Cup at Anfield three years ago. But their revival of the sleeping Bulls is from the same stuff of fantasy.
“It’s not been a bad season,” says Osborne, who daringly predicted they’d win the league before a ball had even been kicked.
“We wanted to do the treble but we can still do the double.
“What we did at Greys will take some beating. But we are trying to emulate it.
“The main plan is to become bigger than Hucknall Town. We are going for the Notts FA Senior County Cup next season and see if we can build on that.”
Amazingly, Bulwell are unbeaten since August, apart from a blip when they suffered a shock defeat to Southwell St Mary’s in the semi-finals of the Notts FA Intermediate County Cup. So what has been the secret to Osborne and Witts’s success?
“He’s as hard as I am, so if I miss ‘em, Terry gets ‘em!” jokes Osborne, a former professional boxer. “They can’t argue too much!
“But it helps that we are good mates. We have the energy and we love the game.
“Our job is easy, though, when you have a good group of lads and good backroom-staff, such as secretary Andy Radford and his family. We are lucky to have a good bunch of lads.
“We are always trying to attract players and we will definitely strengthen again next season.
“We won’t sit on our laurels. We have three or four definites joining us and we’re hoping for a couple more.”
Off the field, Bulwell are still trying to piece the money together to move to their own ground within the town. Hempshill Lane remains on their radar, although more than £100,000 needs to be spent to bring it up to scratch.
But they are switching to a more suitable base next term, when they will play their home games at Basford United , and they are also re-launching a reserve team.
“Nuthall, where we have played this season, have been great to us,” says Osborne. “But it’s not within our postcode.
“As for next Tuesday’s final, I am looking forward to it. Both teams are in form and it should be a good game.
“In the league matches, we beat Linby 4-0 at their place in November but they gave us a good game in March when we won 1-0.”
For a team who have plundered more than 140 goals this term, it’s hardly surprising that Bulwell are odds-on favourites for the game.
But Linby are hopeful of springing a surprise, especially as they are able to name a full-strength side.
“Bulwell are a powerful side who must be respected,” says Linby’s veteran boss Dave Bradshaw.
“They are a quality side with quality players and are worthy champions.
“Full credit to Steve, Terry and their squad, who have done a fantastic job. They have won the title easily and in style.
“But I believe we have quality too. We know we have our work cut out but we are confident we are good enough to be there.
“It will be an interesting night and I am looking forward to it. Hopefully it lives up to its billing and is a good final. It will be a great occasion for everyone connected to Linby.”
Linby, of course, is one of the great names of Nottinghamshire non-league football. In a vintage era between 1949 and 1954, the club won the senior county cup three times and they are still the only side from the Dispatch district since 1898 to have reached the First Round proper of the FA Cup.
Talk to anyone connected with the club now and you get the impression they are, at long last, threatening to replicate those achievements.
Bradshaw and Marlow have built a powerful squad in a very short space of time, while progress on the field has been matched by developments off it to ensure ‘promotion’ to the Central Midlands League next term.
“The season has been absolutely fantastic,” says Bradshaw.
“It has all knitted together nicely — the team spirit, the camaraderie, the coaching, the training, the support of the committee and the backroom staff.
“It has been very enjoyable and long may it continue.
“We have a great bunch of guys who respect each other and have not let each other down. There is no baggage with them.
“We have signed some really good players who have the right attitude — and the beauty of it is that a lot of local lads are playing for us.
“Of course, you still have to get results but this group have responded excellently.”
Like Bulwell, Linby have even built a solid army of fans, who watch them each week. And Bradshaw is full of praise for them too.
“They have been absolutely superb,” he says. “They have seen us through the bad times. Now they are saying the passing football we are playing is exceptional.”
However Bradshaw reserves most praise for his secretary Ady Ward, who rebuffed approaches from Hucknall Town last year to stay at the club, and his joint manager Dave Marlow, a former Town player.
“You have to take your hat off to Ady,” he says. “He is Linby through and through.
“He inspires everyone with his commitment to the club.
“As for Dave, he has been like a breath of fresh air for the club. It has been great to work with him.
“He is an excellent coach, manager and motivator and such a likeable fella too.
“He is so committed and 100% into it. He has the enthusiasm and drive and all the qualities you need. He is largely responsible for the kind of football we play.”
Listening to Bradshaw and Osborne, it’s clear that quality will be the key word next Tuesday night.
Who wins? Well, that might well depend on which of the two clubs’ red-hot strikers, Connor Carter and John Manders for Bulwell, and Matt Murphy and Baz Payne for Linby, fire best.
Most importantly of all, at a time when Hucknall Town are struggling to keep the flag flying for local football, it’s a match that gives us a chance to salute a couple of clubs restoring the faith.