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Most successful Linnets manager John Williams dies at 88

Updated: Mar 14

By Dave Bettley

We are deepy saddened to report the death of legendary former Linnets player and manager, John Williams.

As boss, John led our predecessor club Runcorn AFC to the summit of English non-league football as Alliance Premier League champions and also their first Wembley appearance.

He died at Countess of Chester Hospital on Wednesday, having collapsed at home.

John, who was 88, transformed the Linnets in his six years as manager in the early to mid-1980s.

He had returned to the club, which he had popularly served on the field in the late 1950s and early '60s, after a stint as manager of Winsford United and with Linnets in disarray.

After a run of success under Stan Storton from the early 1970s, they had endured a difficult period with former Scottish international, Jim McCalliog as boss.

Very much a favourite with the fans for the job, John arrived in March 1980 to immediately revive their fortunes.

He rescued a disastrous 1979-80 season by inspiring the Linnets to a 2-0 victory over Lancaster City in the Northern Premier League's Challenge Cup final at Manchester City's then Maine Road home before starting the rebuild in earnest.

1980-81, his first full season in charge, was memorable for an historic treble of Northern Premier League championship, NPL Challenge Cup (in a 4-3 Maine Road thriller against Marine) and the NPL Challenge Shield (champions versus cup winners).

Linnets would retain the Shield the following season, Mossley the runners-up both times.

The 1981-82 campaign was remarkable as Runcorn landed the APL title by seven points, losing only five of 42 games.

Rebranded as the Gola League during John's time at Runcorn, the competition became the (GM) Vauxhall Conference and is today known as the National League.

The next step up, as now, was the Football League but promotion wasn't yet automatic and Runcorn's home ground did not meet the required grade.

John Williams was an astute manager and a master tactician.

His teams, particularly those early in his tenure, were extremely well drilled and prepared.

He turned Canal Street, with its sloping pitch and close surroundings, into a unique Runcorn fortress and when scoring first away from home, a win would almost be guaranteed.

Runcorn punched above their weight in competition with clubs of greater financial clout and this was largely due to the nous and knowhow of their meticulous manager.

Double success followed in the Bob Lord Trophy, the APL's challenge cup, in the 1983 and 1985 finals at Scarborough and at home to Maidstone United.

The James Thompson Shield was first lifted in 1983 when as league champions Runcorn overcame visiting Bob Lord Trophy holders Weymouth 4-0.

In 1985, Linnets repeated the feat as league cup holders themselves with a 5-4 away defeat on penalties (after a 2-2 draw) of Wealdstone who had the previous season not only won the league title but also the FA Trophy.

Two winning Cheshire Senior Cup finals in 1985 and 1986, against Altrincham (2-0) and Northwich Victoria (3-1) respectively, launched Runcorn's run of five successive triumphs in the competition.

1986 also saw the Linnets' debut beneath the famous twin towers of Wembley in the FA Trophy final.

They lost 1-0 to Altrincham but nobody will ever forget the elation felt after their two-legged semi-final victory over Kettering Town. After being held 0-0 at home, Linnets triumphed 2-0 at Rockingham Road.

The previous decade had brought three agonising losses at the same stage of the competition.

The '86 Trophy final defeat denied Runcorn's most decorated manager the one piece of available silverware missing from his collection.

In a shock postscript to the Wembley showdown, John Williams left the club to take over as Altrincham boss.

John King (the Robins manager, who had wrecked Runcorn's Wembley dream) moved in the opposite direction to succeed him at Canal Street.

John Williams went on to also have a spell as Director of Football at Northwich Victoria but there is no doubt that his best years in management were with the Linnets.

As manager, he achieved top-six league finishes in five seasons out of six and took full-time opposition Burnley and Wigan Athletic to replays in the FA Cup.

John landed several Manager of the Month accolades and in 1982-83 a Personality of the Season award from Rothmans, sponsors of the Non-League Yearbook.

As a player, John's five years at Runcorn were over two spells - firstly under former Everton player Cyril Lello, who he followed to New Brighton, and then Jack Boothway.

He was a Cheshire Senior Cup winner in his second stint.

A tricky left winger (pictured extreme right, front row), John later returned to New Brighton before moving on to Ellesmere Port.

Injuries at the back end of his career prompted thoughts towards management.

John cut his teeth as a boss in the Welsh League with Holyhead and then Porthmadog, where he was player-manager until a broken leg forced him to finally hang up his boots.

His playing days had begun in his native Shropshire with hometown club Market Drayton in the county's league. In the mid-50s, national service saw him represent the RAF at football.

On returning to civilian life, he joined Everton as a full-time professional, later transferring to Crewe Alexandra, then members of the old Third Division North.

While manager of Runcorn, John worked in the offices of Liverpool City Council, living in Maghull. He and his wife Rena later relocated to Frodsham and then on to Tattenhall.

John was among the guests of Runcorn Linnets in 2010 when as successors to Runcorn AFC, we opened our stadium. He is seen here with former players Ossie Smith (left) and Tim Rutter.

John last visited us in December 2019 with son, Nigel to present the club with the personal memento he had received for winning the APL title 37 years earlier.

John said: "It was an amazing time in the history of the club and we think it would be better kept by the Linnets to allow new generations of supporters to see it and older supporters to remember that fantastic season."

Being the No.1 non-league club in the country was an achievement which many of our supporters still cherish and John's legacy gives us much to aspire to as we continue our rise in the National Leagues System.

John brought fans so much pleasure as a player and manager that he transcends his obvious status as a Linnets Legend.

Our deepest sympathies go to Rena and Nigel at this desperately sad time for his family and many friends, including those at Runcorn Linnets.

Tribute will be paid before this Saturday's home game against Bootle in Northern Premier League West.

RIP John. Your contribution to the Linnets will never be forgotten.

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