FOR fans of Burscough FC, the thought of a Boxing Day league fixture against Skelmersdale United must feel like evidence of just how far their club has fallen in recent years.
It is less than a decade since Linnets supporters - around 6,500 of them - witnessed their club's greatest hour, their 2003 FA Trophy victory over Tamworth at Villa Park.
Two years later they were in the draw for the FA Cup second round, beating a Gillingham side containing future England international Matthew Jarvis at Victoria Park. The following season saw them clinch an unprecedented 'treble', winning the Northern Premier League, the Lancashire Senior Cup and the Peter Swales Shield.
But the higher you climb, the further you can fall.
Yesterday, weather permitting, the Linnets assumed the role of underdogs at Skem's West Lancashire College Stadium. Their near neighbours are the Evo-Stik First Division North's form team, unbeaten in 15 games this season and, like Burscough all those years ago, embarking on a memorable run in the FA Trophy. Luton Town await Tommy Lawson's men in the third round.
For Burscough, consolidation is the buzzword. The years since that treble season have not been kind. Relegation from the Evo-Stik Premier last season hurt – Burscough won just one home game all season, finishing 14 points adrift at the bottom of the table – but could it be blessing in disguise.
It could give the club chance to breathe out, to fall back in love with the game.
Their manager, Derek Goulding, inherited a sinking ship when replacing Chris Stammers in September 2011.
The former Southport defender has seen the good times at Victoria Park – he was in charge for that Gillingham victory – but this is a different club.
“The whole scene has changed here,” he admits. “I knew what I was walking into when I took the job – I probably got the job because of the problems at the club, to be honest – and I knew that the club had been on the decline for quite a while.
“Some things still surprise you. Things like the training facilities, signing players, the pitch. You don't expect to be worrying about those as much as you do.
“It's a world away from my first spell at the club. The club had great momentum then thanks to the work of John Davies, Shaun Teale and the likes. From there to now, it is a massive change.
“The aim then was to aim big, now it is about consolidation.”
There is that word again; consolidation. And to be fair to Goulding, this season has been reasonably encouraging. Burscough lost 26 league games last season, conceding 104 goals.
This season, with a largely fresh playing squad, they are a more solid unit.
They sit 11th, nine points short of the play-off places, but have lost just four of their 19 league fixtures.
A recent 5-1 win over a Farsley side whose budget dwarfs most in the division shows the potential which lurks within the Linnets squad.
“It's about finding our feet,” Goulding says.
“When you get relegated, it can be hard to shake off that losing habit.
“But we ended last season with a seven-game unbeaten run, and I think it did a lot for the players' confidence. And mine as well, probably.
“We are still not winning enough games yet, but we've cut the defeats out.
“We've made a lot of changes to the squad since I came in, some experienced players have left and we've taken one or two risks with players, but I feel we are heading the right way.”
Off the field, of course, progress is rather harder to gauge.
Burscough survived a winding-up petition in 2009, and were forced to spend the first half of last season playing at Skelmersdale's ground due to an issue with the owners of their Victoria Park home.
The move caused a rift between the club and its supporters' club, who withdrew its funding in the wake of the news.
But they returned to 'The Vic' in February, and say the intention is to move to a new, purpose-built stadium in the town soon. As yet, though, there is no timeframe in place for this scheme.
In the meantime, then, Goulding and his side must try to keep their heads above water.
“We know the situation we face at the club,” he says. “It's difficult because everyone wants to win and be successful. But we're just grateful to have the club, and to have a side that can compete”.