He said he would never tell the tale, but twenty years on former PA Announcer David Westbury reveals why our historic first match in the Football League was perilously close to being postponed, just hours before kick off.
The story is one which exemplifies everything which is good about Macclesfield Town, everything we should be proud of, and the things we do to overturn the odds despite them being stacked against us.
So without further a do, I will pass you over to the legend that is Mr David Westbury –
Having been cruelly denied promotion from the Conference in 1995 due to ridiculous ground criteria, nothing was going to stop Macc taking their rightful place amongst the elite 92 clubs in the English Football League two years later when the Conference title was secured again in 1997.
Or so we thought!
The day before our highly anticipated debut in Division Three against Torquay United, the town was buzzing. Flags were flying, the media were in town and season ticket sales were at their highest. The club had spent the entire close season installing a new PA system, improving signage, marking gangways, painting, replacing electrical cabling, installing CCTV, introducing electronic turnstile counters and generally sprucing the Moss Rose up for the biggest day in its history.
As the PA Announcer at the time, I was asked to attend a meeting of the “Safety Committee” on the Friday afternoon before the game, to run through all of the heightened safety procedures required to host a Football League match.
The Safety Committee consisted of representatives from MTFC, Macclesfield Borough Council, the local Police Authority and the Ambulance Service.
As the meeting commenced, we were informed of a “snag list” that had been produced by the Safety Committee two months previously. The Committee was assured that all necessary actions had been taken.
However, as we took a tour around the ground, a number of “snags” were identified by the representatives which hadn’t been completed (protracting nail heads, exposed barriers and an electrical wire dangling down from the roof of the Star Lane End – I think that’s still there but that’s a story for another day!).
So, already, we were in a fix, and the Safety Committee decided that they were unable to sign the “official document” to confirm the Moss Rose as a designated sporting arena. The Committee were assured by Chairman Alan Cash along with Directors John Brooks and Harry Armstrong, that all work would be completed immediately – and before the turnstiles were opened the following day.
Next, we went off to test the PA which had been relocated from the back of the London Road stand (the main stand in those days), to a newly erected Stadium Control at the corner of London Road and Star Lane.
Despite a couple of Norman Collier moments, the PA worked well and the Safety Committee were “happy” that it would work effectively in the event of an emergency.
The Police then checked the CCTV in the same Stadium Control. It worked perfectly and the police confirmed they were prepared to attend the stadium and take control of crowd control on match day.
It was all going well – until the Council representative asked to see documentation to show that the new Stadium Control had been given planning permission.
Cue an unbearable silence!
Was that required?
According to the Council representative, it was! On that basis, the police stated they would be unable to attend the ground on match day, as they couldn’t be directing crowd control activities from an illegal building!
“What do we do?” asked Alan Cash.
The Council representative stated the club would need to get retrospective planning permission, and that it would take a few days to achieve!
It was currently 4pm on the Friday afternoon – twenty three hours before the biggest day in our history, and an hour before most of the Council Planners were about to leave work for the weekend!
A decision was made to adjourn the Safety Committee, and re-convene at 9am on Saturday morning to review progress.
We will never quite know how much work was done by John, Alan, Harry, Roy Higginbotham and numerous other unnamed heroes that night, but I can say that local residents confirmed that the Moss Rose floodlights were switched on until at least 2am on the day of the match.
As planned, the Safety Committee reconvened at 9am on the Saturday morning and an inspection of the “snags” took place. Everything had been rectified (including the loose wire in the Star Lane End – apparently), so we were good to go on that front.
Now, what about the planning permission?
John Brooks had completed the necessary paperwork overnight and the Council representative had managed to contact a Planning Officer who was prepared to come into work on Saturday morning to assess the application.
The wait was unbearable.
Just after 11am, confirmation was received that retrospective planning permission had been granted for Stadium Control. We had a legal building!
Shortly after that, the Police confirmed that they were able to attend the match and direct crowd operations – with the assistance of Safety Officer Sandy Black.
Less than four hours before kick off and at last, the green light was given for the match to go ahead!
The rest, as they say is history. But I can’t help wondering what might have happened to that glorious day had Alan, John, Harry and Roy not been working until the early hours of that morning.
And, as for the Planning Officer at the Town Hall – God bless you, and I hope you at least got overtime for your efforts!