Pioneer sports editor CHRISTOPHER BEESLEY takes a two-part look at a remarkable season which saw the Motormen drop to third from bottom before soaring into a ninth-place finish with a 13-match unbeaten run. This week, he reviews the first half of the campaign.
AFTER several consecutive seasons of success under Alvin McDonald, hopes were high at Rivacre Park that 2003/04 would be another impressive year.
Since entering the UniBond League in 2000 as North West Counties' League champions, the Motormen had won promotion from the First Division at the first attempt and followed this up with second and third-place finishes in the Premier.
The club had also briefly captured the hearts of football romantics across the land in the previous year with a historic FA Cup giantkilling of QPR at Loftus Road which had led to a televised second-round clash on Sky at Macclesfield Town - the furthest any Ellesmere Port club had ever got in the competition and earned the club almost £160,000.
But over the summer, long-standing chairman Tony Woodley stepped down due to work commitments and McDonald seemed to be becoming increasingly frustrated with life at Rivacre Park.
With the cup cash earmarked for a new stand which would cost £250,000, Mc-Donald was unable to offer players wages that matched many of his UniBond counterparts and struggled to recruit the squad reinforcements he wanted.
Also upset by the continuing problem of poor attendances at Rivacre Park, his frustrations boiled over on September 13, following a 2-0 home defeat to Gains-borough Trinity watched by barely 200.
After the game, McDonald fumed that turning out at Rivacre Park was like playing at a morgue and that the town 'didn't deserve' his team.
Less than three weeks later, he had jumped ship to Northwich Victoria to fulfil his ambition to manage in non-league's elite division, the Conference.
Although Vics were ever-presents in the Conference since its formation, they were already in freefall when McDonald arrived and unable to stop the rot, and he saw his dream turn sour as he was axed after less than three months in charge.
Before he got the chop from the club that finished rock bottom and will be kicking off next season with their fifth manager in 12 months and in the same division as the Motormen, McDonald managed to take a couple of Vauxhall players with him.
The word around Rivacre Park at the time was that he would have snapped up several more if given the chance.
Following their former boss to Mid Cheshire were young keeper Andy Ralph, who had starred in the previous year's FA Cup run, and striker Nicky Young, who is married to McDonald's daughter.
Both were back in the UniBond before the end of the campaign with Young joining Marine and Ralph being loaned out to Stalybridge Celtic, although he has been retained by Vics for next season.
But there were also plenty of other problems closer to home for the Motormen.
Paul Rowlands took over as caretaker boss with his first game in charge a 4-3 last-minute defeat at Worksop Town.
Although the next home game was won emphatically, 6-0 against Runcorn, the result proved to be something of a blip as a series of disappointing defeats followed.
Bradford Park Avenue knocked Vauxhall out of the FA Cup at Rivacre Park while there was a 5-0 home loss to Radcliffe.
Rowlands didn't even make it to the final match before interviews for the new manager took place and Lancashire League coach Gary Siner took charge for the 6-2 league drubbing at Bradford.
In many ways, the club had been a rudderless ship both on and off the field for several weeks with a power vacuum at committee level following Len Jones' resignation as chairman.
But following Alan Bartlam's election to the chair, one of the new supremo's first tasks was to appoint Owen Brown.
At first, Brown, who retains his job at Liverpool FC as community development officer, struggled to stop the rot.
His first game in charge saw a 2-0 half-time lead at home to Droylsden turn into a 4-2 defeat, while Vauxhall suffered a 5-1 thrashing at Alfreton Town who also returned to Rivacre to dump the Motormen out of the FA Trophy.
There was a Cheshire Senior Cup exit to North West Counties League outfit Wood-ley Sports, and before the turn of the year, Brown had only one win to his name - a 3-0 success over Rossendale United in the UniBond League Cup.
Even by the end of January, the side was third from bottom in the table and averaging less than a point a game.
The top-13 spot needed for inclusion in the new Conference North for next season, what had seemed a formality back in August, now seemed a long way off.
Look out for part two next week as Owen Brown tells the Pioneer how he revived the Motormen's flagging fortunes.