Telegraph and Argus reporter Nathan Atkinson visited Thackley to see how the Northern Counties East League Premier Division side are undergoing a major transformation on and off the pitch.

THACKLEY hosted West Auckland Town in the FA Vase last Saturday in one of their biggest games of the season.

As winners of the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy in 1909 and 1911, representing England in what many consider to be a precursor to the FIFA World Cup, Town arrived with a prestigious history behind them.

Yet just over 40 years ago, Thackley's Dennyfield played host to arguably the biggest club in the world when the mighty Barcelona trained on their pitch.

Club stalwart Stewart Willingham remembers the occasion back in 1975 well when the story made the front page of the T&A.

He laughed: "I came home from work and the phone rang.

"The guy on the other end said he was a representative of Barcelona and he wanted to use our ground for training. I thought it was a wind up.

"They were playing Leeds the following night in the European Cup semi-final. They'd arranged to train at Bradford City but they had a reserve game and they put the representative in contact with me.

"We had Johan Cruyff training on the pitch and I had a long conversation with their manager Rinus Michels, who also managed Ajax and the Dutch national team.

"Afterwards, what struck me was that all these world-class players came into the bar, drinking Coke, and they were just like our team.

"Messing about, taking the mick out of one another. They acted just like normal lads and it was a real eye-opener for me. It's the highest point in my career at Thackley."

Willingham has been with the club since 1970 and is part of a loyal bunch of volunteers who have helped run it for many years.

But the Dennyboys, who had won three games to reach Saturday's second round stage of the national FA Vase knockout competition, have been boosted by an influx of young blood this season.

Chairman Ben Oliver is a Leeds solicitor who took over in the summer along with some friends. Having been born in Thackley, Oliver feels a special attachment towards the club.

He said: "It's my local team and it was a privilege to get elected and have the opportunity to make a difference. There's been some real positives in these first three months."

One of those positives has been establishing close bonds at the club, with Oliver enthusing: "We travelled to Merseyside to face Litherland REMYCA in the last round of the Vase and beat them 4-1.

"It was great because we had committee members, supporters and volunteers all on the coach down there together. I'm actually jealous that West Auckland get that away day experience."

Willingham, aged 75 from Baildon, is one of those committee members and believes the club is in a healthy position following a rocky period.

He said: "It's the same group of people who've run the club for many years now. We're all mates and we're realistic with our ambitions.

"Things got out of hand a few years ago though, and we almost went out of business in 2014. Some of us had resigned but when we realised there were financial difficulties, we came back and resolved the situation.

"We're now in a better position financially than we've ever been and Ben and his friends coming in is massive. They'll be the future of this club."

Saturday's opponents West Auckland may have beaten Brazil to the punch by nearly 50 years with their World Cup exploits, but one thing they don't have is a stand sponsored by a local casino.

Napoleon Casino were awarded that honour last weekend, and Oliver said: "They've been sponsoring the club anyway but welcomed having a bigger opportunity.

"We've been having a bigger impact off the pitch. Our social media output has improved and we're getting good attention."

Social media would have found it hard to sell a niggly opening 45 minutes here though, with both sides struggling to fashion chances in a goalless first half.

Thackley Ladies manager Michelle Woollias brought her side to the game, and speaking at half-time, she explained the importance of the women's game to the club.

She said: "It's important that we're seen as one club and that the men do well.

"The facilities that the ladies team use are all driven by the investment that we get for the level that the men play at. It's important that we get that one club image, whether it's the men's, ladies or juniors."

"The vision when my daughter Megan was here was to have that pathway for the girls to go from the juniors into the open age game because lots of them drop out at that stage.

"I've built relationships with Horsforth St Margarets and Bolton Woods Juniors. It's trying to get lots of clubs to feed into one adult team. It's part of a six-year plan to develop Thackley to a much higher level.

"We've introduced a second team and with our facilities now, the FA National League is the long-term aspiration. I'd like us to be alongside the biggest clubs in West Yorkshire."

The men have a while to go before they reach that level. In a far more exciting second half, home striker Luke Robinson missed a penalty, before West Auckland netted a late winner to dump Thackley out of the cup.

Player/manager Pat McGuire was despondent about the result, but was more upbeat when discussing the club's future after the game.

He said: "I've said since joining five years ago that this club has massive potential as I think it's gone under the radar.

"Our Twitter and Instagram accounts are helping us get our name out there. Everybody who comes to Thackley says how nice the club is.

"Hopefully, with that big crowd today, they'll go away and think about visiting Thackley again some time. They'll always be looked after by our committee and facilities, and we're also trying to play a brand of football that people want to watch."

McGuire laughed when asked how he juggles his dual role, saying: "I'm lucky because I've got tremendous staff in Joe Brown, who I've known since I was 10 when we came through the ranks at Bradford City together, and Nathan Priestley.

"Nathan is the Under-21s manager but he's first-team coach too and I trust them both to make the decisions on matchdays, because that's when I have to fully concentrate on playing."

McGuire and his players are being helped off the pitch, with Thackley securing what is surely the most comprehensive physiotherapy network in Step Nine of the English leagues.

Former Thackley player Carl Clifford runs 33 North Mobile Physiotherapy, which is based in Idle, and he explained his role at the club at full-time:

"I supply injury advice and provide rehabilitation and treatment. With the first team especially, it's almost predicting and stopping the injuries, putting them through their paces in training, seeing what they can cope with.

"We run a clinic on training nights which is available to the juniors and ladies team. I've got a team of five physiotherapists who join me to provide assessments and help players back on to the pitch as soon as possible.

"At this level, it's almost unheard of. We try and provide evidence so I'm always using the research out there to get up-to-date treatment strategies and programmes.

"It's proving positive because we've been getting key players back out there, whereas Thackley have suffered with injuries in the last couple of seasons."

Steve and Carolanne Robinson, parents of Thackley striker Luke, were crestfallen after their son's unfortunate missed penalty, but took plenty of positives from the game.

Steve said: "The missed penalty gave them a lift while our heads dipped and they sneaked one late on. I'm gutted because the lads gave everything today.

"It was a good atmosphere and two excellent teams playing a competitive game."

"It's a really welcoming club. Everyone is very friendly. The committee, the players, the fans, everyone's united and talks to each other."

Carolanne added: "We've only been coming since Luke started playing here last season but we definitely consider ourselves fans now.

"It's like a family set-up, right down to the kitchen and bar staff. There's not one bad lad either, they're all really nice boys."

Thackley's FA Vase dream may have died on Saturday, but it seems that the club, from top to bottom, is more alive than ever.