The Hallmark Security Football League (North West Counties Football League) was formed in 1982 with the amalgamation of the Cheshire County League and the Lancashire Combination. Initially there were three divisions, but at the end of 1986-87 season, this was reduced to two as a result of ongoing ground grading and the formation of a First Division of the Northern Premier League, now the Evo-Stik League.
This year also saw the implementation of an automatic promotion and relegation arrangement between the two competitions with the Champions or second placed club being entitled to promotion, subject to receiving a satisfactory ground-grading.
Our sister leagues, the Northern Counties (East) League and the Northern League, both now enjoy similar arrangements, and all four competitions are members of the Joint Liaison Council which administers the Northern arm of the National Football System in England.
The Hallmark Security Football League covers a geographical area stretching from Cumbria in the North, through Lancashire, Cheshire, Liverpool, Manchester, Shropshire and parts of Derbyshire, down to Staffordshire in the South, but the League has also welcomed clubs from North Wales and the West Riding in the past. Altogether, almost 100 clubs have enjoyed membership of the NWCFL, with 16 of our current constitution being founder members.
The League operates Premier (First Division until 2008/2009) and First Division (Second Division until 2009/2010) competitions plus the League Challenge Cup open to all clubs and a First Division Trophy.
We also have formal promotion/relegation arrangements with the Liverpool Premier League, the Manchester League, the Mid-Cheshire League, the Midland League, the West Cheshire League and the West Lancashire League.
The League gained it's first commercial sponsor in 1986 when major brewing concern Bass came on board, supporting the League until 1995, the longest running sponsorship in non-league football at that time. In 1998, the regional rail operator First North Western Trains became the competition's sponsor in a two year deal. Previous sponsors Vodkat became sponsors in 2007 and the deal lasted four season's before it came to an end in 2011. For the next three seasons, the League will be sponsored by Cheshire based Hallmark Security.
The League is administered by a committee of unpaid officers and members, drawing on a wealth of experience and skills. Canon Reg Smith (famous after dinner speaker and Vice-Chairman at Bury FC) was our President until April 1997 when he sadly passed away. Our next President was Eric Hinchcliffe TD, our founder Chairman and a model servant to the League, until April 1999 when he died, to be replaced by Bill King.
In the short history of the League, many clubs have excelled in our own, and national, competitions, particularly the FA Vase where we have provided a host of finalists and four winners; St Helens Town, Colne Dynamoes, Nantwich Town and Kirkham & Wesham claiming the prestigious silverware. Fleetwood Town was our first finalist in 1985, losing to Halesowen Town, before the all-North West Counties Final between St Helens Town and Warrington Town in 1987. Next were Colne Dynamoes who beat Emley in 1988 and then Clitheroe, who were beaten by Brigg Town in 1996.
The league waited ten years before producing their next winner in 2006, when Nantwich Town lifted the trophy after beating Hillingdon Borough 3-1 in the final at Birmingham City's St Andrews ground.
The league has continued to deliver a steady stream of teams in the final rounds of the Vase competition over recent years, with member clubs reaching the final in 2008 and 2009. Kirkham & Wesham (now AFC Fylde) became the first of our clubs to grace the hallowed turf at the New Wembley when they defeated Lowestoft Town 2-1 in front of 19,537 spectators. In 2009 Glossop North End reached the final only to lose 2-0 against Northern League opponents Whitley Bay in front of a crowd of 12,212.
In the FA Cup, the League is regularly represented in the latter qualifying rounds, and Newcastle Town became the last of our clubs to reach the First Round Proper in 1997, bowing out to Notts County at the Victoria Ground, but ex-member clubs Horwich RMI, Penrith, Colwyn Bay and Stalybridge Celtic have also reached this stage.
In county cup competitions, our clubs figure prominently in the various county cups across the whole region, regularly accounting for clubs from higher leagues.
In domestic action, the fiercely competitive nature of the League is reflected in the fact that only three clubs have ever completed a League and Challenge Cup double, Ashton United in 1992, Kidsgrove Athletic in 1998, and FC United of Manchester in 2007. Atherton LR are the only club to claim consecutive Championships, in 1992 and 1993, whilst Workington became the first club to regain NPL status at the first attempt in 1999.
The outstanding achievement of Clitheroe in the 1980's when they collected each divisional Championship in successive seasons between 1984 and 1986 was matched by FC United in 2006-07, and only St Helens Town have competed in the First Division in every season since the League's formation.
The record attendance for a North West Counties League fixture stood at 1,353 for sixteen years, Radcliffe Borough's First Division Championship decider with Caernarfon Town attracting this gate in 1982-83 season. Workington's pulling power saw them exceed this in their 1998-99 Championship season, the deciding fixture with Mossley seeing 2,281 spectators through the turnstiles at Borough Park.
In season 2005-06 the phenomenal popularity of new club FC United of Manchester's Division Two championship winning team set a new record with 6,023 spectators attending their last home game of the season versus Great Harwood Town. Ironically, Great Harwood won 1-0 on the day and it turned out to be the Lancashire club's last ever game in the league, as they folded a few weeks later.
FC United's successful side of season 2006-07 continued to cause attendances to soar, both in the Challenge Cup and League competitions, with 4,058 spectators at Salford City for their NWCFL Premier Division fixture - the best ever attendance for a "night match". This season saw them become the only club since the league's inception to win all four league competitions they competed in during one season - First Division Championship, Reserve Division Championship, League Challenge Cup, and Reserve Division Cup.
The league continues to provide a stepping stone for ambitious clubs, and this was highlighted with the arrival of AFC Fylde (formerly Kirkham & Wesham) in the league for the 2007/2008 season. As well as lifting the F.A Carlsberg Vase they also gained promotion, finishing runners-up to New Mills after a close fought battle.
Both sides rekindled their rivalry for the Premier Division Championship title the following season in 2008-09, when the league's two divisions were renamed the Premier Division and Division One.
The Premier Division title race went to the wire, with AFC Fylde taking the crown on goal difference, after a final day 5-0 victory over New Mills in front of over 1500 spectators. Both sides amassed an amazing 104 points each, scoring 214 goals between them! New Mills' disappointment at missing out on the title and promotion was alleviated a little when they lifted the North West Counties League Challenge Cup two days later thanks to a 2-0 victory over Runcorn Linnets.
The 2009-10 season will be remembered for Newcastle Town's record breaking Premier Division championship campaign, which will go down as one of the best ever in league history. The records they achieved were:
Season 2010-11 finally saw New Mills clinch the Premier Division title after two successive seasons as runners-up, following a promotion campaign that saw them clinch the title with just a couple of games to go after being pushed all the way by Ramsbottom United.
In season 2011-12, Ramsbottom themselves won the title and promotion to the Evo-Stik League, after years of steady progress developing the club on and off the field. The Premier Division promotion race was widely regarded as being one of the best in many years, as six clubs had a realistic chance of winning the title with only a few weeks of the season remaining.
Season 2012-13 saw the North West Counties Football League celebrate its 30th anniversary, with a new League crest being specially commissioned to commemorate the event. It turned out to be an extremely successful season for Padiham, who won the Premier Division title and promotion to the Evo-Stik League, while the club's reserve team completed a league and cup double.
Season 2014-15 turned out to be an extremely successful one for Glossop North End who not only secured a Premier Division and League Challenge Cup double, but also enjoyed a trip to Wembley in reaching the final of the FA Vase, where they lost 2-1 after extra time to North Shields of the Northern League.
The last few seasons have seen a number of new clubs join the league, with Hanley Town, Widnes and 1874 Northwich joining in 2013-14, and Barnton, Litherland REMYCA and Cammell Laird 1907 coming on board in 2014-15 and Stockport Town and Whitchurch Alport in 2015-16 - the latter being the first ever club from Shropshire to play in the NWCFL.
This season we welcome seven new clubs to the competition, as we welcome the maximum number of clubs to the competition, the first time we have had 44 member clubs since 2000. New Mills return to the competition after relegation from the Evo-Stik League, while Carlisle City, Charnock Richard, Prestwich Heys and Sandbach United are promoted from Step 7. We also welcome our second Shropshire club in FC Oswestry Town and newly formed City of Liverpool FC.
Despite many changes in clubs and personnel over the years, and on-going challenges presented by the economic climate the League's competitions continue to thrive and attract interest both locally and further afield, which is borne out by the ever rising number of visitors to the league website, and the continued demand for information from media organisations.
Most important of all, the League's competitions continue to provide excellent entertainment on the field, and foster friendship and camaraderie between clubs and their supporters off the field and long may that continue.