ASK anybody at Ramsbottom United what has been the biggest influence on the club in recent years and they will have just two words for you: Ken Bridge.

Bridge took the club from the Manchester League to the first division of the North West Counties League in just over six seasons in charge at the Riverside.

Harry Howarth, who was a friend of Ken's for most of his life and was converted to the Ramsbottom cause during Ken's stint in charge, said his death from a heart attack, almost a year ago, was a great loss to the club and football in general.

"He always blamed me for getting him into management," said Harry, who went to school with Ken.

"I was the manager at Radcliffe St Mary's, a Sunday League side, and when Ken retired from playing he helped me out there.

"Then he went to Radcliffe Borough and eventually Ramsbottom.

"But whenever they had a bad result he'd walk off the pitch telling me it was my fault he was the manager anyway!

"Anybody who played with him or against him remembered him. He was a devoted husband, father and grandfather too.

"He never got past hacking status as a golfer although we had some fun on the golf course.

"We'd pick football teams during a round on Saturday mornings."

It was February 20, 2000 when Ken collapsed just moments after his side had been beaten 2-1 at home to Cheadle Town.

Club secretary John Maher recalls: "I'd been in to pay the officials and when I came out all the lads were standing in the passageway.

"Steve Orrell said there was something wrong with Ken, they thought he had fallen over and bumped his head.

"Kath, our physio, was trying to resuscitate him and it was obvious he hadn't banged his head.

"The paramedics arrived and took him to hospital.

"I set off home and when I got there I said to my wife 'Something terrible has happened' and she said 'I know, but it is worse than you think'.

"We had a couple of weeks off from the football because no one was interested.

"It illustrated that football is just a game and there are more important things."

In his six years at the club, Ken had led Ramsbottom to league and cup success and had built a side worthy of pushing for the North West Counties first division title.

But off the field the club hadn't moved fast enough and the ground wouldn't have been accepted by the UniBond League even if they had won the first division.

"It is difficult to quantify Ken's influence on the club," said Maher. "He took us from the Manchester League to the North West Counties first division and took the club to a higher league position every year he was there.

"In many ways he was a very private man. He had vast experience of the game and some of the players he attracted to Ramsbottom were quite outstanding and could have earned more money playing elsewhere.

"He wasn't just a manager who turned up on match days, he was involved off the field with dinners, fundraising and things like that.

"At the end of every season he would organise a trip to Ireland for the team and officials at the club.

"He got the camaraderie going but he didn't socialise with the players. They knew he was the boss but they knew they could trust him.

"He didn't have any favourites. If he thought he needed to replace a player for the sake of the team he did.

"The players knew he was an honest guy."

After Ken's death his assistant Mike Kelly took charge of the side.

"It was very difficult to take over because it was an emotional time," said Kelly.

"He was a friend of mine as well as the manager and I would have a drink with him in the week and we played golf in the summer.

"Ken had a very dry sense of humour. There'd be six or seven of you out together and Ken would just throw a one-liner in and sit back and let everyone else argue about what he'd just said.

"He would just sit there and giggle. He was a lovely person and there won't be too many people would say bad things about him. He was a genuine man and a family man."

As is rare in football now, Ken rarely lost his temper with officials - although he often told them if he thought they were wrong.

"It was rare for Ken to become involved in confrontation with officials and the number who turned up at his funeral was a good indication of how he was seen by them," said Maher.

There is always an exception to prove the rule, though, and one outburst cost Ken £30.

"It was a cup replay at Gretna and the ref got it completely wrong.

"He thought we were taking too long to take a free kick we'd got for an offside decision so he awarded the kick to Gretna instead.

"We won the game but as the players were coming off the pitch Ken went to the ref and said 'What was going on with that free kick?' and the ref said 'Go away, I am going to report you'.

"Ken said 'I'll hang you from the floodlight pylons if you want and really give you something to report me for'. That cost him £30."

After Ken's death, it was decided that the wrought iron gates that now stand next the turnstiles at the entrance to the ground would be a fitting tribute.

"Hopefully it will be a lasting tribute," said Maher. "It was something everyone at the club wanted to do."