Mark Ross will have nothing but fond memories when he looks back at his fantastic playing career with Chorley Football Club.
The 27-year-old defender called time on his long association with the club this week after agreeing a move to fellow National League North outfit Stockport County.
Barring a brief stint at AFC Halifax Town around three years ago, Ross has spent the past six years at Victory Park.
He signed for the Magpies at the same time as previous boss Garry Flitcroft took charge of the club in the summer of 2010.
Having worked under Flitcroft and his assistant Matt Jansen at Leigh Genesis, Ross had no hesitation in following the pair to Chorley six years ago.
Since then he has been integral to Chorley’s rise through the non-league pyramid under Flitcroft and has remained a focal point of the team this season under Jansen, who took over the Victory Park hotseat last summer.
Over the past six years, Ross has won promotion twice, progressing from the NPL First Division North to their current position which is just a couple of steps away from the Football League.
Ross admitted that he has grown to love the club and leaves Victory Park with a heavy heart, but has decided now is the time to seek a fresh challenge.
“I love the club – it is what I have known for the past five or six years,” Ross said.
“One of the main things is my best mates are there at the club.
“Three days a week for the past five years we have been playing and training together so I think that is the hardest part – to be leaving them.
“That is the one thing I will probably miss the most – and the fans, of course, they have been great.”
Ross revealed there were a number of little reasons behind his decisions to leave Chorley.
Although the attraction of playing for the Hatters – once of the Championship and former League Cup semi-finalists – was obviously too good an opportunity to turn down.
“There hasn’t been one big reason why I have decided to leave, else it would have been a easy decision – instead it’s been one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make,” he said.
“There’s’ a number of little reasons really why I have decided to move.
“I am moving over that way – I’m moving to Manchester with my girlfriend.
“Stockport is a big club and I have been offered the chance to go there over the past few years.
“But they’ve either been coming down after relegation or the club just has not been financially stable.
“This year it does sound like the club is on a much more stable footing.
“They are looking to win promotion next season – I know every club is – but there seems to be a bit of backing behind the club.
“I want to be at a club who wants to do that and progress although I’m not saying Chorley aren’t.
“It’s just that I really think Stockport is a club which is going to progress now and I want to progress myself and try something new.”
Contracted to the Magpies this season, Ross’s departure has caused a minor storm between the two clubs.
Jansen has been less than impressed with the way County have conducted themselves in their pursuit of the Chorley defender.
He accused the Hatters of unprofessional conduct and making an illegal approach for the 27-year-old.
County have refuted such a suggestion and Ross admitted the storm had come as something of a shock to him but he has nothing but respect for Jansen
“Matt’s been great to be fair,” said Ross.
“I wanted to get the point across to him that me leaving had nothing to do with him.
“He’s been great with me. He gave me a contract last year and he’s been the only manager to do that.
“Previously, I did not have a contract and so I suppose that was a little bit in my head.
“But I have had a great season working under him this year – he’s been a big help to me.
“As a manager, he has done nothing wrong – he’s been brilliant. The training has been brilliant – I just fancy a change of scenery and a different challenge.”
Despite being well into his mid-20s, Ross – who has his own business working as a fitness instructor – has not given up on his dream of playing in the Football League.
Having never been attached to a professional club in his youth, Ross moved to the USA to study and play football as teenager.
He spent a couple of years playing for New Orleans in the North America Soccer League, but decided to return to play in England.
Ross believes playing in front of a few thousand supporters every week and on a big stage like Edgeley Park could still yet give him a route to playing professionally.
“Every lad who wants to play football wants to play as high as they can,” he said.
“They want to play on a good pitch in a nice stadium in front of a big crowd – not necessarily a better crowd because you get a good crowd at Chorley, who are well supported club.
“But of course to be playing week in week out in front of big crowds is what you want
“I think I raise my game when I’m playing at grounds like Edgeley Park.
“To be doing that every week, who knows what could happen?
“There might be a better chance of getting spotted.
“I just want to do well for myself and get myself known.
“I don’t think about it selfishly – I think every player is the same and I am ambitious.
“I want to play as high as I can whether that will be by winning promotion with Stockport or doing it by myself.
“I am 27 now, but as a defender I feel like I am at my best and I would love to play one or two divisions higher.
“ I don’t think I have ever kind of regressed as a player – I like to think I have always built on from the previous season and got better and better.
“So I want to keep doing that and just see where playing on a bigger stage takes me.”
Ross has proven his quality and consistency this season by featuring in every minute of Chorley’s games whether they have been in the league or the cup.
The Magpies finished eighth in the league and won the Lancashire FA Challenge Trophy for a record 16th time in their history thanks to a penalty shootout win over Lancaster City at Bolton Wanderers’ Macron Stadium.
Ross is proud of his appearance record this season.
“I’d like to know if that is a record for an outfield player for the club,” Ross said.
“But I think it’s something that my job definitely helps me.
“I am able to train at times when the other lads are at work and can’t.
“Although it can work the other way because some times I can be working and teaching classes on a Saturday before a 3pm kick-off.
“But my appearance record this season is something I am really proud of.
“I feel like I have been really consistent with my game and that is hopefully something I can maintain going into next season.”
After such a long season, Ross is suffering from a little bit of fatigue although he joked he can’t afford to stop training as he has his ‘beach body’ to maintain.
“I am feeling a little bit tired but we have got the summer holidays coming up shortly, so I’ve got to make sure I get back in training so I look good for that,” he added with a chuckle.
“Seriously, I just love playing football and I want to get back playing – I never want the season to finish.
“Even now I just love watching and seeing all the play-off games and it’s given me that bug to start playing again. I wish I was involved in one of those play-off games.
“It feels a bit weird right now not to be in the play-offs because at Chorley we have been involved in them most seasons.
“But I am just looking forward to having a little bit of a break and then getting back into pre-season training.”
After all the promotion successes, near misses and cup victories with Chorley – which particular memory stands out for Ross?
“There were so many highlights at Chorley – it’s hard to say which one was the best,” he said.
“Obviously winning promotion was great especially automatic promotion when we won the 2014 NPL Premier Division title – beating Buxton 2-0 on the final day.
“That was especially memorable because we had the trip to Benidorm planned if we won it and we did.
“That season was just a bit special.
“We had a good team – we were all mates and everything just went well. We were leading the division for a long time and then we dropped back a bit, which made it a bit more exciting.
“We won the last game to seal the championship and I suppose that’s how winning promotion should be – exciting. But there’s been a lot of highlights. Adam Roscoe’s last minute overhead kick in the play-off semi-final last season.
“That goal helped us draw 2-2 and we then went on to win the penalty shootout.
“It is probably one of the best things I have ever seen at any level of football. We still talk about that goal now and it will get talked about for a long time to come.”
As he embarks on a new chapter in his career, Ross had a message to all the fans at Chorley.
“I would just like to thank all the Chorley fans,” he said.
“I have had lots of messages of support and phone calls from them. Nobody has had a bad word to say about me which I appreciate.
“I hope Chorley do really well next season – I think they will do. I will probably still speak to the lads every week and I will be following their progress.”