“I’VE got more keys than Strangeways Prison,” says Jack, as he opens the rusting padlock strapped to the main gate and when he gestures towards the pitch, he adds, “That’s where the magic happens, lad.”

He’s 81 on Christmas Eve and there’s not a day thatpasses when Ramsbottom United’s octogenarian is not to be found keeping the Harry Williams Riverside Stadium spick and span.

“My sister Margaret says I’ll die down here,” he chuckles and wanders off in search of the chairman, a man whose name will always be linked with the club. The stadium, after all, is named after him.

As ever, he looks manically busy. Williams, who has missed three matches in 47 years, is on his knees, dipping a brush into a giant tin of white paint.

He is boldly painting the word - Press – on a tiny desk in the stand, shoehorned between the East Lancashire Railway and the River Irwell.

“Have you heard, Harry? Banbury United away in the FA Trophy (third preliminary round) “That’s a trek and a half isn’t it? Near Oxford I think. Good heavens, be about five hours that. I’ll be giving that one a miss I reckon.”

Jack briefly parks himself in one of the shiny sky blue seats, donated by Manchester City, before the wrecking ball levelled Maine Road.

The floodlights arrived from Oldham Rugby League Club while a couple of portakabins from Boundary Park double as Rammy’s sponsors’ lounge.

“Look at all this, we’ve built this ourselves through blood, sweat and tears, and the village of Ramsbottom has bought into the dream,” added Jack.

“Come down here on a Saturday and the place is alive. I mean crowds of 300, people just loving their football.

“The professional game is incoherent nonsense. The Premier League. No. That’s not for me.

“It is £9 admission at Ramsbottom, and £160 for a season ticket. We had a ‘fella here the other week, said he had paid £750 for a season ticket at Manchester United, but enjoyed coming here more.

“I stand at the gate on match days, selling programmes, greeting people with a handshake and making sure they have a nice time.

“I’m not sure what I’d do if I didn’t come down here.

“It is such a big part of my life and in many ways it is my life.

“They call me the oldest ball boy in non-league and as far as I know I am.”

Jack recalls how he forged his connection with this remarkable village club, one that saw him invited to Buckingham Palace last summer in recognition for his outstanding services to sport in Ramsbottom.

“It was 1979, against Blackrod Town - an amateur cup final - and I asked if I could bag a lift to the game. They were playing on Nuttall Park then, all we had was a pair of goalposts and a muddy pitch.

“Harry said anytime you fancy helping out just come on down, and here I am 35 years later.”

Jack’s off again, this time through the knee length grass on the banks of the Irwell, a penalty kick from the main stand.

“When the ball pops into the river I use this (a cattle manger welded to a pole).

“I stand on the railway bridge and scoop the ball out - it has saved us hundreds of pounds over the years.

“Last year the river flooded and the water was as high as the corner flag.

“You wouldn’t believe the strength of it. It flows from Bacup to Salford, but the streams pour into the river a mile away, so when it gets here it is raging.

“I’ve never fallen in, though.”

Jack, who worked in the cotton industry before his Rammy adventure, added: “I just love pottering about and keeping things clean.

“The other week I went to the doctor for a check up and he said, ‘You’re right as rain Jack.’ What’s your secret?

“I’m 10 stone, I never eat chips, fatty stuff or drink beer.

“But most of all the fresh, Ramsbottom air keeps me young.”

It is a remarkable back-story, from the foothills of the Bury Amateur League where they started in 1966, to just a couple of steps from League Two.

Ramsbottom tackle Grantham Town today, perched in fifth place in the Evo-Stik Premier League.

FA Cup fighters Blyth Spartans, and ex-Football League outfit Workington trail in their wake, while FC United of Manchester, with their vast resources, are just a point better off this term.

Six months ago, Rammy won promotion via the play-offs, shortly after their elevation from the North West Counties League.

“Where the ground is now, that was the tip for the cricket club, strewn with glass, rotten wood and rubbish, so all this is a miracle really,” he said. “I really don’t know how far we can go. Who knows?"

He talks about his visit to Buckingham Palace and the royal garden party in hushed tones.

“See that post over there, I got as close to the Queen as that,” he said.

“I still don’t know who nominated me for the award.

“It made me so proud that, just as much as it did when they named the Jack Wolfenden stand after me.”