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Mr X

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Monday 4th April 2005

 

Aylestone Park Old Boys  1   Kirby Muxloe  0

 

The popular resort of Playa de las Americas in Tenerife and Aylestone Park in Leicester have something in common, and I bet you can’t guess what it is!

 

It’s not that they both have an unusually large number of prostitutes walking the streets, nor is it the suggestion that a cheap supply of cocaine might be readily available! The taxi drivers, while similarly unhinged in both places, is not the answer, nor is it the buzzing nightlife that never stops until dawn! They are both linked by an individual, and a famous one at that. Mr Gary Lineker MBE.

 

Not a lot of people outside Aylestone Park know his, but Gary Lineker played his junior football for the Old Boys between 1971 and 1979, before joining Leicester City after leaving school. He subsequently had the bar at the ground named in honour after him, ‘The Lineker Suite’, and of course anyone who has ever been to Tenerife’s very own answer to Blackpool will be only too aware of ‘Linekers Bar’, the most famous football pub on the island, run by Gary’s cousin apparently?

 

The comparisons between the jewel of the Canary Islands and the Leicester suburb effectively end there, but with Monday night football back on the Leicestershire Senior League agenda, it was time to take a look at one of the more progressive outfits in the division.

 

I grabbed a quick look at the ground back in February when I was en-route to Friar Lane & Epworth, while I have had the good fortune to see them play away from home twice. I have to be honest though, they got well and truly mullered at league leaders Thurnby Rangers, while Birstall United had no major issues when it came to turning them over. I have to confess to not being overly impressed with them on the playing front, but as always, I was open minded about the facilities.

 

After curry and chips round the corner at a place I’d spotted after the infamous day dropping the birds off at Glen Parva nick, I got to the ground and paid £2 to get in, it should have been £2.50 but the chap on the gate had no change so we called it quits at £2! I walked up the stairs to the aforementioned ‘Lineker Suite’ and I have to confess to being somewhat gobsmacked by it. It’s probably the best clubhouse I’ve seen in this league, along with the facilities Kirby Muxloe who were tonight’s visitors.

 

It was large, clean, well decorated and warm, while at the same time it had the feel of a thriving club. Numerous trophies and photo’s decked the walls, while no less than three television screens filled the room! I had to have a couple of pints to steady myself after the shock. For all of my open mindedness, I expected a rickety old dingy shack that was freezing cold, selling weak tea and warm cans of lager!

 

The view from he clubhouse across the pitch was excellent, except just before kick off we were booted out as it was required for a meeting of the junior teams. So my plans of watching the game in comfort went out of the window, except we were directed to a smaller bar on the ground floor called the ‘Boot Room’, which also doubled up as the tea bar. This in itself was still better than most of it’s counterparts in the league, I can only assume they like a pint in South Leicester, or the pubs are just very rough instead!

 

The facilities were excellent, Life Member Mr Lineker would have been, and indeed probably is very proud of what Aylestone Park have done, especially with the huge number of youth and junior teams under it’s umbrella. Not only that, they have the honour of hosting the Leicester City Ladies side at their Dorset Avenue facilities as well.

 

The main pitch is set amongst three or four pitches, but is the only pitch that is railed off and floodlit. The floodlights were very good, while the spectators, of which about fifty turned up for the game, have a small covered shelter just on the half way line.

 

On the field, since getting promoted last season, Old Boys have had a mixed time of things. They look like finishing just below half way, whereas visitors Kirby Muxloe sit third, but are desperate to clinch a finish in the top two. Thurnby Rangers and Holwell Sports occupy the leading positions currently, but neither has applied to join the Midland Football Alliance, whereas Kirby Muxloe have. A third place finish would not be good enough to see the make the leap along with Leamington and Tipton Town from the other two feeder leagues respectively.

 

I was expecting the visitors to win the game, but in a fast and furious first half, Old Boys grabbed the only goal when the centre forward turned and volleyed the ball over the Kirby goalkeeper and found the back of the net via the underside of the crossbar. It’s debateable as to whether he meant it or whether it was just a hopeful punt, but either way it was a fantastic strike that stunned the visitors. This was on the half hour mark by the way.

 

The second half was equally quick in terms of tempo, and both sides tried their utmost to play good football and add to the goals tally. Having watched football in this league quite regularly throughout the season, in terms of quality, this proved to be one of the better games when compared to say the Downes Sports v Ibstock Welfare game the other week.

 

I expected Kirby Muxloe to offer more of an attacking threat throughout the game but they just didn’t seem to have the cutting edge, and they certainly didn’t seem to be the same side I saw narrowly defeated by Ratby Sports earlier in the season. Indeed, Old Boys might have scored more goals had they had a little more luck and a bit more composure in front of goal.

 

Kirby Muxloe will probably have to wait until next season now if they harbour hopes of progression, Aylestone Park Old Boys on the other hand will no doubt be satisfied with their first season back in the top flight of the league. I’m sure Gary Lineker will agree when he checks out the Leicestershire Senior League tables in next weeks Non-League Paper…

 

 

Tuesday 5th April 2005

 

Hallam  3   Sheffield  5

 

Nearly eighteen months ago when Mr X first appeared on Behind The Flag, Deano has since been trying to get me to attend a Sheffield FC game to put my ‘unusual’ slant on things.

 

Bearing in mind, the last time I saw the mighty club in action was a dreadful 0-0 draw at Eccleshill United, on a night when every road leading in and out of Bradford was seemingly blocked, I’ve not been going out of my way to pencil a fixture in the diary.

 

Nothing personal I might add, the banter at Eccleshill was great with the flag bearing Club-ites, but once bitten twice shy you see, and with 0-0 being a bit of a touchy scoreline with me at the moment bearing in mind my proud record, I’ve been putting it off.

 

However, the local derby between the two oldest clubs in the World, at the oldest football ground in the World, on possibly the biggest slope in the World, in the second best City in the World (after Derby), made me think it was time to bite the bullet.

 

I toyed with exercising the element of surprise, turning up un-announced in a kind of long lost relative style, but my urgent requirement to establish whether Hallam had a bar on the ground meant an email to Deano in the afternoon. Deano always inspires me with confidence, suggesting the game had 0-0 written all over it, but he wasn’t going to put me off, I was finally going to meet up with my co-correspondents from the best non-league club website around, or at least Deano says it is!

 

I last went to Sandygate in the Spring of 1997 as Belper Town hurtled towards promotion from the Northern Counties East League, but working in this neck of the woods meant I’d passed the ground on numerous occasions since and seen the improvements that had been made. Trips to Hallam back then were always highlighted by a visit to the pub over the road, ‘The Plough’, and tonight would be no different as I looked out of the window as the rains fell. In the past I’ve always been with a group of Nailers fans, but tonight they were all at the Derbyshire Senior Cup Final down at Gresley Rovers, more on that later…..

 

Once in the ground, I did notice that a number of modern structures have been built since my last visit, such as the elusive clubhouse, a new dressing room block, a smart seated stand and some cover behind the goal. The slope however, had not been addressed.

 

After returning from the snack bar with a good old slice of meat pie, I spotted Deano, and a number of individuals who I recognised from photographs on the website. However, within minutes I’d been introduced to Trev (Trev’s Travels), Shep (Shep’s Shorts), Marilyn and some chap called Clunesy, who I think is one of the prominent forum posters on BTF. However, something was missing, and that something was Lord Jamesie of Gleadless, a chap who I’ve corresponded via email with over the last few months.

 

I was assured he was coming though, and after a brief chat with Deano, it was time to take up position in the ‘away’ supporters section of the main stand. Around 250 souls had ventured out for this historic fixture, and I would imagine that after ninety minutes of action, you would be hard pushed to find anyone who felt it wasn’t four quid well spent.

 

Hallam took the lead after eight minutes when the boy Smith rose unchallenged to head home, but on the 24 minute mark the scores were level when Caine Cheetham produced the kind of poachers finish that he has been renowned for in a career that seems to have spanned the last ten years at least.

 

Some neat play within minutes of the re-start saw Richard Carrington display touches of the skill that he is more than capable of, when he produced a neat finish to but Sheffield in the lead, but the scores were level within a minute as Franklin took advantage of some pedestrian defending to slot the ball agonisingly wide of Darren Bonnington.

 

The first half wasn’t finished though, and right on the stroke of the interval, Carrington conned a Hallam defender into making a desperate lunge in the penalty area, and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Former Belper Town target Rob Ward stepped forward to confidently blast the penalty past the hapless Danny Spooner.

 

Just seven minutes into the second half and game looked all over when a clearance landed at the feet of Darren Holmes who fired an unstoppable drive into the top right hand corner of Spooner’s goal. Sheffield’s lead was further reinforced when Chris White slotted home a rebound, but within two minutes of opening a three goal lead, Hallam had scored again when Franklin bundled the ball following a melee in the visitors goalmouth.

 

With eight goals scored after little more than an hour, we had visions of a double figure tally, but Sheffield seemed to sit back, perhaps to conserve energy, while Hallam didn’t have enough potency in front of goal to further trouble Bonnington.

 

 

The double for Sheffield over their deadliest rivals, and that, I’m told, doesn’t happen very often. Not only that, over the course of the two games they’ve notched ten goals. However, it may all be in vain because as results have panned out over the last couple of weeks, the championship and of course promotion to the UniBond League might be just beyond them.

 

Jamesie turned up at half time and finally we were introduced, he couldn’t resist a little friendly dig though,

 

“What’s up Mr X, couldn’t you find a Welsh Third Division game tonight?”

 

I bided my time before sniping back a while later, publicly announcing the details of his recent postings on one of the webs true anorak sites. He smiled, I winked back, mutual respect I’m sure. Although those around us probably had no idea what we were talking about.

 

Anyone who has spent time with the Behind The Flag posse will soon realise that it’s very much a family. Sweets are passed around, lifts are shared and story’s told with humour and wit. Men, women and children mix in perfect harmony, but they don’t lose sight of the most important aspect of following a non-league club, winding up the opposition players after a victory!

 

Hallam’s players copped for it tonight, and they couldn’t resist a dig back. Danny Spooner played the old, ‘I’ll stare at you as long as I can to try and scare you’ game. And it was me who caught his eye line, I couldn’t help but laugh at him, Spooner uttered an expletive and was ushered back to the dressing rooms by the referee.

 

I was asked to pen a piece about the game for the site, and I kind of think that they are expecting an offbeat, humour filled essay. It’s very hard, because sometimes the game itself is the overwhelming highlight, and everything else becomes secondary. Tonight that was definitely the case, the humour within the BTF posse is very hard to encapsulate with words, all I can say is that you have to be part of it to appreciate it.

 

Upon leaving the ground, despite the piss-taking that had drifted backwards and forwards between myself and Jamesie, he told me he was off to Kirby Muxloe next Monday night, I was going to Holwell Sports. We compared notes, he told me the bar was good at Holwell, I told him the birds were quite attractive at Kirby! We have the priorities right at least…

 

I got home curious to know the Belper scoreline from Gresley, but I couldn’t get on the net due a message on my landline, I discovered it was a ‘voice text’. In other words, someone had sent a text message to my landline, and when you pick up the message a posh female voice talks in a robotic fashion,

 

“Lost, five, one, fucking, shit”

 

I was still laughing half an hour later, someone had posted on the Nailers forum and asked what the game was like, I felt like replying with the lyrics of a Beautiful South song,

 

“I don’t know, I don’t care, I’m just glad that I wasn’t there!”

 

Didn’t want to rock the boat though so I refrained, besides, unlike the rest of the Nailers fans, I’d had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Thanks Sheffield.

 

 

Saturday 9th April 2005

 

Nelson  2   Oldham Town  1

 

I must confess to knowing very little about the East Lancashire town of Nelson. My knowledge is restricted to a recollection that they were once a footballing force in the early part of the twentieth century, while the place itself is nestled in between Burnley and Colne on the M65 corridor.

 

Having been to Colne earlier in the season and sampled it’s delights, I kind of expected Nelson to be a traditional northern mill town, with rows of cobbled streets, which carried with it a sense of being trapped in a time warp. Burnley is a famous place though, but I’ve never actually been to it, so in an attempt to do a bit of background research before my trip up t’north, I went on the web.

 

My research led to me a website called www.craptowns.com, and on the site was a link to Burnley, I read the piece with a mixture of hilarity and horror in equal measure, see it for yourself below, it was penned by a former resident of the town,

 

Burnley – A Guide


Tolerance: Race Riots, note the subsequent election of four British National Party councillors.

Peace: The "Burnley Suicide Squad" were feared hooligans in their day. Don't look at anyone's woman, or pint for that matter!

 

Sobriety: Burnley has some claims to being the heroin capital of Lancashire.

 

Weather: The Pennines are immediately to the East. An educated layman’s guess at the meteorological effect is "Huge great clouds come in from the Atlantic, hit the Pennines, slosh back and empty all over Burnley". Living in Leeds is substantially drier, despite the fact it's only forty five minutes away.


Class: White trash to the max, and not as portrayed by John King either - expect sickness. Thousands of ‘teen mothers / Kappa Slappers, with gold sovereign rings. Ratboys who'll ‘twock’ anything that's not welded down, and make you buy it off them at knifepoint. So they can buy crack, or indeed tentacle rape some poor unfortunate.


Achievements: Burnley traditionally always makes the top ten in any list of suicides and divorces per capita.


High Spots Include:


The Stoops Estate - I once waited for a bus coming out of Stoops, it came past at 60mph, on fire. Then a car down the road exploded. I decided to walk.

 

The New Bus Station – An architectural monstrosity.


The Red Light District – Scabby, skag head, whore bonanza.


The Burnley Express Newspaper - I can guarantee that I'll be able to identify at least one of my old classmates in a fair-sized story about drug dealing / arson / glassing someone for looking at their bird / pint / BNP tattoo.

 

Bloody hell, it sounded a truly awful place to visit, and as I reached the end I was just glad I wasn’t having to actually enter the town, but then, I spotted with horror the final sentence…


The one redeeming feature of Burnley is that it isn't Nelson, no point researching that, because anybody entering it wouldn't last ten minutes………..

 

Shit! So if Burnley is hell on earth, Nelson is seemingly worse. I was becoming genuinely worried about visiting this place. I decided to adopt another approach to find solace, and that was via the official website of Nelson Football Club, and I have to admit it’s a superbly designed and regularly updated site. The photo’s of the ground suggested it was in an alright area, whereas nothing on the forum suggested a trip to Nelson was like a visit to the English equivalent of Galatasary……

 

The opponents for the game I wanted to see were Oldham Town, and as I read through some old stories on the site, I noticed that the game at Oldham Town in January had been abandoned after 84 minutes, and I was curious to know why. I read the story, reproduced below, and began to wonder whether this was a good idea after all……

 

“Both sides were reduced to ten men midway through the second half. Nelson's Brad Pates mistimed a challenge, which sparked a mini-brawl in the centre of the pitch. The referee sent off Pates and the Oldham number 10, but only yellow carded the Town number 8 who had rained in a few right-handers to the heads of Nelson defenders.


With six minutes remaining news came through of a physical assault and possible CS Gas attack on two of the substituted Nelson players in the dressing room. The referee suspended proceedings to investigate, and a few minutes later abandoned the match and called in police. The League will now be called on to make their judgement on the game and the incident, but hopefully Town - run by a genuinely decent and affable gentleman - will not be hit too hard by any ruling.”

 

Right, so if I survived the town itself, the game had the makings of a war! I did wonder whether any ill feeling was likely to be carried over from the abandoned game, and if so, in what form would revenge be meted out? Shotguns maybe!

 

Bugger it, I decided to go, at least if the whole game and occasion was truly uneventful, at least I’d got a story in itself with the build up! The journey took just under two hours, and to be fair, you don’t actually have to enter the town of Nelson to get to the ground.

 

Victoria Park is located on the outskirts of the town on the North side of the motorway, and is literally just a stones throw from the M65 itself. The ground is well signposted and was no problem to find, and once inside the first thing that strikes you is the vast size of the place. You enter behind the goal and a large expanse separates the turnstiles from the pitch.

 

The only stand on the ground sits back from the pitch and is quite literally on the banks of the river, which flows directly behind it. The stand is split into a number of sections, with terracing at either end and about a hundred or so seats in the middle.

 

Opposite the stand is an expanse of grass that has a ‘see through’ metal fence running the length of it. Behind this fence is a row of terraced houses, with a small alleyway dividing them from the ground. The residents of the houses have got a perfect view of the action, although no one seemed to be watching.

 

The dressing rooms or located in the bottom corner alongside a small clubhouse and a couple of other buildings, one of which was a shop. The ground instantly reminded me of another I’d been to recently, and that was Alveston from the Midland Combination. I think the reason I drew similarities was because of the size of the place, the distance everything seems from the pitch, and the fact that the wooden stand was not dissimilar in design.

 

I decided to take root in the bar as it was truly hammering it down outside. Reading Nelson’s history in the programme was quite interesting. They talked of crowd trouble in the early days following a visit to Southport Centralians in 1893, apparently the local 17-23 year olds had consumed too much ale and were both rowdy and obnoxious. The birth of the Nelson chav maybe??

 

The club had a brief Football League career, playing on a national stage, but that all came to and end, and the former ground at Seedhill was eventually demolished to make way for the M65. Since joining the North West Counties League the club have never threatened to emulate any former glories, and it was interesting to listen to an elderly fan as he entered the bar,

 

“Fifty years ago our biggest rivals were Wigan Athletic, last week we got seventy watching us, they got twenty thousand. Eight leagues between the two clubs now, and that’ll be nine if they make the Premiership.”

 

Gradually the bar started to fill up, and as more locals came in, the chap kept repeating his observation, word for word, and by the time I left for the kick off, I must have heard the opening line, “Fifty years ago……”, at least half a dozen times.

 

Nelson’s supporters are stereotypically northern. They are all men in the 50-70 age group, and they all wear sensible shoes along with the obligatory flat cap. They like to drink bitter, eat pies, and moan! Given the weather, the crowd of around eighty decided to huddle together in the stand, and God forbid anyone who incurred their wrath, be it home player, away player, or official!

 

Any thoughts of battle recommencing were soon dispelled in what was a pretty uneventful first period played in truly dreadful conditions. The pitch held up very well, and I could imagine that other surfaces might have struggled to cope with the deluge that Nelson came under during the course of the afternoon. The only goal of the half came right on the stroke of half time when an Oldham defender could only turn the ball into his own net while under pressure in his six yard box. It was a little harsh on the visitors who I felt had been the better of the two sides.

 

The second half was a bit more entertaining and Oldham could count themselves somewhat unfortunate not to have equalised before the hosts effectively sealed the game. The second goal came courtesy of a superb half volley from Chris Ridehalgh in the 85th minute, who beat the goalkeeper from all of thirty yards.

 

Oldham pulled a goal back in injury time, and missed a chance thereafter to equalise but it was not destined to be their day. I suppose in what was Nelson’s last home game of the season, with nothing for either side to play for, it was fitting that the hosts took all three points. I’m sure Oldham will be looking for revenge though when they meet in the replayed game at Whitebank Stadium, I just hope they leave the CS Gas at home!

 

So I never did get to sample the apparent delights of the hell-hole that is Nelson town centre, nor did I get to witness war on the football field. In fact it was all a bit non-descript to be brutally honest.

 

Having said that, I’m not sure if you know but,

 

“Fifty years ago……”

 

 

Monday 11th April 2005

 

Holwell Sports  0   Ellistown  0

 

It had to end some time didn’t it?

 

A proud record of not having witnessed a 0-0 draw since the day England won the Rugby World Cup on 22nd November 2003, ended 145 games later, on the day that Sir Clive Woodward named his squad for the British Lions tour of New Zealand this Summer!

 

It’s ironic that the record started and finished on landmark occasions for the ‘other’ type of football, but looking back on it, I can’t see myself ever managing to strike up such an impressive run of games again. Bearing in mind I lead the www.footballgroundsinfocus.com ‘anorak’ table by a good distance in comparison to the rest of the incumbents, I have to admit to being mightily impressed with myself over this.

 

What is a bit annoying though is it was ended not by two poor teams, but by a referee. A referee who decided to stop play late in the game when an Ellistown player was free on goal, because he thought an opponent was badly injured, but in reality he was just knackered! It was also the referee who decided to disallow a goal for Ellistown in injury time for what looked like a very innocuous aerial challenge.

 

Gripes aside, at least the 0-0 is out of the way now, and knowing my luck I’ll probably go on a run of them, a goal drought from now until the end of the season probably!

 

It wasn’t a bad game though, Holwell Sports are currently level pegging with Thurnby Rangers at the top of the Leicestershire Senior League, and they really needed a win to maintain the pressure. It was never going to be an easy game though against an Ellistown side who are more than capable of mixing it with the best sides in the division. I sensed before the game that the hosts were more than a little annoyed at Ellistown’s decision to draft in a couple of players from a higher level who had signed via the dual registration rule. One of those players was Chris Gray, who only a fortnight ago was starring in the midfield for Gresley Rovers. Gray, by my calculations has now played for Hednesford Town, Gresley Rovers, Redditch United, Coalville Town and Ellistown this season. That’s five clubs, in five different leagues, at five different levels! Maybe he’ll make his mind up next season as to where he wants to settle down, or more to the point, where he can earn the most money and look the biggest star!

 

Chances were at a premium, but the pace of the game was furious. Both sides were hell bent on winning it, but defences were always on top, and well organised for that matter. I suppose on balance of play a draw was fair, but compared to the rest of the games I’ve seen in this league so far, the quality that these two sides produced lead to probably the most entertaining football spectacle as yet.

 

The more I see of Ellistown though, the less I like them. They weren’t in any way dirty tonight, but as I’ve mentioned before, the bench were simply awful. I’m amazed no one has highlighted their behaviour in the Non-League Paper, as seems to be the thing to do these days with their campaign to clean up the game. The language was shocking, and their countless attempts to invade the pitch to remonstrate with the referee were bordering on the ridiculous. I’ve said it before though, the referee’s in this league are simply weak and clubs know they can get away with it.

 

Holwell Sports though? What are they all about, you might be thinking?

 

They are based in the village of Asfordby-on-the-Hill, which is about four miles to the West of Melton Mowbray. The village of Holwell is a couple of miles away, but the Holwell Works, from where the football club originates, is located in Asfordby. It’s not the easiest place to get to though, I was torn between going round the Nottingham ring road, cutting through Loughborough, or going all the way down to North Leicester and travelling back up again via the ring road.

 

In the end I went the latter route, and found the place quite easily, but when I got there, with still an hour until kick off, the place was rammed! Finding a parking spot was difficult, I didn’t think Holwell had that good a following, but when I entered the ‘Stute’, or Holwell Institute to give it the proper title, it all became clear.

 

Bingo! At 7pm on a Monday, the entire population of Asfordby who are over the age of 50, descends on the club to get a prime seat for eyes down and two fat ladies. The lounge area of the Institute was packed solid, and as a ‘footballer’, I was directed to the bar area, which was populated by just two old men. Holwell Sports v Ellistown was very much second billing tonight………

 

After a couple of pints I went into the ground to be pleasantly surprised. In terms of Leicestershire Senior League standards, this place was one of the best. A covered stand with a low roof occupies the area behind the goal at the top of the ground, while the dressing rooms are in a pavilion adjacent to it. In between the stand and the dressing rooms are the turnstiles and a tea bar. The rest of the ground is open but work looks to have started on a further stand on the touchline, while the ground itself is fully enclosed on all four sides.

 

A crowd of around 100 had also turned up, and it struck me that Sports are one of the few clubs who have a genuine fan base. But, like many clubs in this league, they didn’t apply for promotion to the Midland Alliance. The ground can’t be a million miles away from getting the grading though, and I wonder if the new stand is the final piece of the jigsaw? Given time, they appear to be one of the clubs who will look to make the move upwards, along with the likes of Ellistown, Kirby Muxloe and Ibstock Welfare to name but a select few.

 

0-0      though, I’ll never forgive them! 

 

 

 

Saturday 16th April 2005

 

Kington Town  1   Coseley Town  3

 

I have to admit to feeling a bit sorry for Kington Town.

 

You might wonder why? Well it’s simple, nobody likes having to travel to play them. Kington is located on the Welsh border between Leominster and Rhayader, and to be frank, it’s not the easiest place to get to.

 

As a result, some of the less professional outfits from the West Midlands Regional League have almighty problems when it comes to fulfilling fixtures with them. For Kington to travel to an away game, it never seems to be a problem, but once it’s the other way round, it’s a bit of a gamble as to whether the opponents are going to show.

 

Back in February I was on my way to watch them play Wednesfield, only to get a phone call to say that the game was off as the visitors couldn’t raise a team. Then the re-arranged fixture last Tuesday also went by the wayside when the visitors failed to arrive in time for the 8.15pm kick off time imposed by the referee. I understand Wednesfield have a four figure fine coming their way after failing twice now!

 

You may recall it was touch and go in March as to whether Smethwick Sikh Temple were likely to arrive at Wellington in time, so I’m now more than a little apprehensive about making the trip into Herefordshire when the opponents are from more than fifty miles away!

 

My Groundhopper / Bank Manager mate who has saved my sanity on a couple of occasions this season, was telling me about his trip to see them play Coseley Town the previous year. Apparently that was touch and go with the visitors arriving extraordinarily late, so I assumed that on their second visit, today, they would have planned it a little better and we would have no hitches……

 

I decided to change my route, and went via Shrewsbury before dropping down the A49 through Craven Arms and Ludlow to Leominster. It was then onto the A44 and straight into the small town of Kington, that’ll describe shortly. I set off at 11am, and arrived at the ground around 1.30pm, but no one was around, not a soul.

I’d rang Pauline Shaw when I set off to leave a message for her to contact me should a problem occur, but I’d heard nothing, however just as I walked onto the ground the phone rang, it was Pauline,

 

“Hi Neil, the game is on. It was off about an hour ago when Coseley claimed they couldn’t raise a side but they’ve now got eleven players and we’ll be kicking off an hour late.”

 

I thanked Pauline, who had been more than helpful once again, and at least I could head into the town with some confidence. The trip to Kington Town has been planned into the diary by my calculations on at least five occasions now this season, and for one reason or another it’s had to fall by the wayside. So as you can perhaps imagine, my eagerness to get to this place was at bursting point, but not only for the football, as I shall explain.

 

I challenge anyone to find out any kind of information about Kington. Ok, a web search will give you the basics, but try and find some pictures of the place, not least the ground, you’ve got no chance! This place is a mystery, it’s like Atlantis but above sea level, the only way to find out about the place is to visit it, and even then, things transpire to stop you from getting there.

 

I almost felt sick as I entered the town, I’d been counting down the last five miles, feeling more and more nervous as I got closer, it was like meeting a long lost ex-girlfriend who had requested a meeting all those years later. You enter the town to be greeted with a road sign, ‘Welcome to Kington – The Home of Walking’. Yes, it did say ‘Walking’…. It appears Kington is a haven for ramblers and their ilk, due to it’s proximity with the Mid-Wales mountain ranges I can only assume.

 

As you drive through the town centre, it’s easy to be dumbstruck by what you see. The best way to describe this place is to compare it to a setting for a seventies TV programme set in a rural town location, miles from anywhere.

 

Some would say it’s retained it’s authenticity, I would say the place is stuck in a bit of a time warp. The shops are old fashioned, the wares they sell are traditional, and any trace of modernity has been positively discouraged. It was almost as though a snapshot had been taken from an April afternoon in 1976, and nothing has been changed since. I half expected to see a Triumph Herald pull up outside the newsagents while the owner got out to buy a copy of the Daily Sketch and twenty Park Drive.

 

I did find an incredible collectables shop, selling everything from cigarette cards, to old comics and vinyl records, but what intrigued me the most was the display of old bank notes in the window. The old pound notes that I remember my Mum getting out of her purse to give to my Dad when he went to the pub, I’d forgotten what they looked like, big and green! This sight in itself was almost like an attempt to retain the sense of being still in the seventies, that Kington seemed to revel in, but then I found the kebab shop……

 

I sat and ate some chips on a bench in the town centre, and watched the slow pace of Kington pass me by, but to truly appreciate the Kington psyche I had to go to a local pub. I found a smart hotel on the end of Mill Street, and within it was a bar area that looked a bit more appealing than the more ‘locally’ orientated pubs I glanced through the windows of, which served pints of Skol for 87p no doubt!

 

I had a pint and listened to the locals, they spoke with an accent that seemed a cross between West Country and Wales, but what was also apparent was a distinct lack of anyone under the age of 60. Not even a chav was in sight to spoil the place. I hate to sound prejudicial, but I started to think about certain things. Did they have the internet in Kington, what sort of haircuts did the youth have, what shops did the locals buy their clothes from? Where do you go for a good night out?

 

 

It would be wrong to describe Kington as weird, but if you are the nostalgic type, go and see it for yourself, as you’ll instantly get lost in 1976.

 

I got to the ground at about 2.45pm, the scheduled kick off time, and the home side were starting to arrive. It was a beautiful afternoon, and the ground was like the town, the perfect setting if anyone wanted to do a feature on a small town football club in the seventies, as it looked as though nothing had been touched since then.

 

I have only ever seen one photo of the Mill Street ground, and that was in Kerry Miller’s ‘History of Non-League Grounds’ book, and what struck me about that was not the stand it depicted, but the bus depot behind it. Sat to the rear of the stand was a very old fashioned bus, and bearing in mind the photo was in colour, I assumed it was either taken in the seventies, or, more likely, they still used antique buses in Kington!

 

So when I walked through the gate the first place I looked was behind the stand towards the bus depot. The buses were all modern, and I have to admit to being a little disappointed not to see the one depicted in that photograph, although the chances of it still being there were slim. The stand was exactly at it was in the photo, about thirty yards long, on the half way line with bench seats. The façade was a dull shade of yellow with the name Kington Town Football Club picked out in black letters. The clubhouse was in the top corner by the turnstiles, while the dressing rooms were at he same Mill Street end but in the opposite corner. The rest of the ground is open, but behind the bottom goal is a strangely located caravan park.

 

The visitors turned up just before 3.30pm and we eventually got underway just before 4pm. I think anyone would have to agree that Coseley Town turned up with one thing on their minds, kick the home team off the park for having the sheer audacity for being in the league and making everyone have to travel so far.

 

I saw nothing other than a home win to be fair, especially with Coseley being bottom of the league, relegated, and having won only two games all season. Kington have had a poor run since the turn of the New Year but I saw no reason as to why they wouldn’t win today.

 

They took the lead early in the first half and missed numerous chances to add to their tally as Coseley looked awful at the back. What Coseley lacked in quality, they made up for in sheer crudity. How they ended the first half with eleven men on the pitch is anyone’s guess. They kicked, punched, verbally abused, and got away with it. Now that brings me nicely onto another problem Kington Town face, to save on match officials expenses they draft in local referees, many of whom are not up to the standard required. It’s exactly the same as what happens at Holker Old Boys, they have to sacrifice quality and experience because they can’t afford to keep paying for it, and as a result they just get some local kid who has no hope of being able to control a semi-professional football game.

 

Coseley decided to play some football in the second period, and their somewhat direct approach saw then firstly equalise, and then grab a second goal shortly afterwards. They did grab a third late in the game but by this stage Kington had effectively given up the ghost, and they weren’t helped by their manager.

 

He lost the plot, and I can’t blame him. The match officials were truly awful, getting the most basic of decisions wrong, and not only that, a shocking two footed challenge that saw a Kington player carried off, went unnoticed. The Kington manager was over the edge, he was going crazy, he wasn’t threatening, nor was he especially abusive, but he was also right. He hit the nail on the head with one comment he made to the linesman,

 

“That tackle, and that decision just makes me want to give up football. I see no point in carrying on when you just stand there, after seeing a leg breaking challenge, and haven’t got the balls to even raise your flag.”

 

It was met with a ripple of applause from the fifty or so in attendance, including, rather strangely, the Coseley manager who had previously been berated by the Kington manager for allowing his players to adopt such underhand tactics.

 

The Coseley goalkeeper turned round and said to the fans behind the goal,

 

“Your gaffer is spot on!”

 

No one argued.

 

It finished 3-1, and finally I could say I’d seen a game at Kington Town. It was the last venue in the league I needed to get to, and at the end I was in an unusual hurry to get out. Probably as I felt the need to return to the twenty first century.

 

And that’s another reason why I feel sorry for Kington Town, when the likes of Coseley Town do eventually turn up for a game, they have no sense of respect for the way the people of Kington have managed to take a moment in time, and preserve it for nearly thirty years. The goalkeeper epitomised their attitude at the final whistle when he turned to the Kington fans,

 

“3-1, fucking job done!”

 

No son, if it had been left to you this morning, you wouldn’t have even bothered to turn up to start the job, would you?

 

 

Wednesday 20th April 2005

 

Newark Town  3   Yorkshire Main  2

 

Have you got any idea who the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes are?

 

Well the guy pictured below is The Grand Primo Brother John Herbert ROH, and as far as I can gather, he’s the ‘top man’ where they are concerned.

 

But what is it all about? I checked out the website and found the following definition of what the organisation stands for.

 

“The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes is a Charitable Organisation which is active, not only in its local community, but, at all levels of Society.  It is non-political, nor does it look to religion to inspire participation. It does, however, inspire members to commit to a peaceful and meaningful way of life. It is often described as an extended family, a social organisation or a mutually supportive group of like-minded people; each true in its own way”

 

And what do they set out to do, I wonder?

 

“The image we would wish to present is of a group, who, by their works, encourage members of the community to lead satisfying and enjoyable lives and who provide our members with a sense of belonging. Tangible assistance is provided when needed. Importantly this support is not dependant on what a member puts in, rather what is needed.”

 

Well, thank Christ for that, because when I was queuing up at half time for a cup of tea at Newark Town, I looked at the wall and saw a large commemorative plaque depicting the local support and membership of this organisation. Being a rational and intelligent individual with an open mind, I thought of one thing and one thing only…

 

Satanism!

 

Yes, Satanism was obviously alive and well in Newark, but I’d obviously stumbled across the headquarters of it on Station Road in Collingham. However, bizarre rituals and illicit practices aside, lets talk about Newark Town.

 

I touched on this earlier in the season when I visited fellow Central Midlands League newcomers Newark Flowserve, but the town of Newark really ought to have a team competing at a much higher level.

 

Interestingly enough, in the programme for tonight’s game, it was produced as a topic, and the Town officials felt that Newark should have a club at least comparable in size and strength to Hucknall, Grantham or Stamford, who are all near neighbours.

 

But the answer, or at least the suggestion, was a merger. That’s fine, but the questions remained, where would they play, who would be manager, who would make up the committee, and which clubs colours would be used! It’s all conjecture though, both clubs, while friendly, are still rivals, and for a merger to take place, a lot of water would have to pass under the bridge. Not really true buffalo ethics methinks?

 

Newark Town play about four miles North of the town, in the village of Collingham. A few years ago Collingham FC played at the same ground, in the same league, but they subsequently folded. However, Town have risen from the Notts Alliance, and upon gaining acceptance to the Central Midlands League, they took up residence at the impressive Station Road site.

 

When I say impressive, it’s got a large two-storied dressing room and social club complex, with what is akin to a large bus shelter to one side, which is the only cover. The ground is fully enclosed and also floodlit, so irrespective of their league position at the end of the season, I fully expect them to get promotion to the Supreme Division as the league tries to get it’s top flight fully floodlit.

 

They actually sit just outside the top three, so a genuine promotion position is not out of the question, but they do have a rather more startling problem, their attendances.

 

Ok, the first ever local derby between the two sides last month attracted 180, but a good number of Town’s gates have been around the ten to twenty mark. No gate appeared to drop below ten according to the programme, but to be fair, you’re not going to own up to that fact are you?

 

The visitors Yorkshire Main have struggled this season, lying in the bottom three, but they put up a good fight in the first half, and after going a goal down they scored just before the break to gain a deserved equaliser.

 

Once the teams emerged for the second period, one of the warnings I’d read about Newark Town proved to be correct. The floodlights are crap, well, they would probably be better if all of the bulbs worked, but with at least four of the sixteen bulbs out of action, it was gloomy to say the least.

 

Yorkshire Main surprisingly took the lead early in the second period but two well taken goals saw Town through and the crowd of at least twenty (of which ten were reserve team players who turned up after training), celebrated at the final whistle.  I think personally that promotion is a cert anyway, what with a number of teams set to fall out of the Supreme Division due to a lack of floodlights.

 

No sign of any buffaloes though, apart from the referee who was of similar build! Having said that, it might explain why a merger will never take place, if Newark Town really are a ‘secret society’, they aren’t going to want a neighbour infiltrating their sect. No matter what it says on the tin……….

 

Warm, yet unusual, handshakes all around then………….

 

 

 

Tuesday 26th April 2005

 

Santos  4   Thorne Colliery  5

 

For my one hundredth game of the season I wanted to go somewhere a bit special, somewhere unique, somewhere I could watch football in it’s purest form.

 

I chose to go to Santos, not the Brazillian giants who introduced Pele to the World, but Santos of Bilsthorpe who have made their debut in the Central Midlands League this season. Anyone who has been to the self styled ‘Dragons Lair’ on Eakring Lane will notice the clubs motto, which adorns the club crest,

 

‘Football In Its Purest Form.’

 

Sounds grand doesn’t it? I’d read good reviews about Santos this season, and with a name like theirs they were bound to attract attention. However, their profile was ‘enhanced’ last Saturday when the Central Midlands League took their ‘Bonanza’ to the Mansfield area.

 

Bilsthorpe is just to the East of Mansfield, and is a small pit village who used to have Bilsthorpe Colliery Welfare as their incumbent football club. But when Santos took up residence, and the Bonanza came to town, they were bound to get a visit, especially with being the new kids on the block so to speak.

 

The Bonanza is in reality a groundhoppers convention, it started last season when they managed to play five games in a day, taking in Dunkirk, Pelican, Greenwood Meadows, Graham Street Prims and Sandiacre Town. It got the league tremendous publicity and also saw some of societies most bizarre characters convene in the region.

 

It was always going to happen again, and with Mansfield being selected geographically, they chose to do four games this season, starting at Santos, before moving on to Forest Town, Rainworth Miners Welfare and Welbeck Colliery.

 

Being at work, it gave me a superb opportunity to avoid it, and speaking to a couple of people in the week, they were of a similar opinion. It was something to avoid like the plague, as it would be heavily congested with some of the saddest characters in society. It would also be made up of people who both didn’t understand football, and by the same token, didn’t really care about the game either.

 

Stu James and myself had nicknamed it ‘Freak Show’, but Stu was risking the last game of the day, and when he emailed me on Monday it appears our worst fears had been confirmed. While it was only ever going to be hailed as a great success by the powers that be, the reality was that it was a nigh on impossible task to watch a game without being interrupted by some outcast who wanted to discuss which clubs in the Middlesex County League didn’t produce programmes.

 

I had thought about turning up proclaiming the virtues of the Leicestershire Senior League, a competition avoided by the outcasts as you very rarely get a programme, and as a result being ostracised by the huge bulk of the crowd. But I just couldn’t bring myself to go in the end. I did take a look at a few of the photo’s that had been posted on the websites, and while the clubs involved will have done tremendously well financially, it must have been a bit weird for the players. Simply because, they were in some cases, performing in front of the biggest attendance they’d ever been subjected to. While at the same time it would probably be a very strange, indeed subdued, atmosphere. Imagine playing football in the confines of a asylum??

 

 

I have wanted to go to Santos for some time though, so I thought it would be a good idea to go just after the loonies had landed and gauge the feeling. With a 6.30pm kick off against Thorne Colliery it was perfect. I was off work the following day, and could be back home before 9pm to sink plenty of lager!

 

Finding the place was dead easy, but I was concerned on two fronts. Firstly, for a two hour period in the afternoon it had pissed it down in dramatic fashion, but on arrival the pitch was in excellent condition. Secondly, given the kick off time, I was wondering about the visitors from North Doncaster arriving in time, but to be fair to them, they arrived at the same time as me, just before 6pm.

 

The ground is on the way out of Bilsthorpe, and is well appointed if a little unspectacular. The car park is on the opposite side of the road, and once through the gate the pavilion is on the right hand side. The dressing rooms are at either end of it, with a tea-room in the middle. An overhang at the front provides the only shelter, while the rest of the ground is totally open, with a number of other sports pitches on the far side.

 

 

 

 

About a dozen people had turned up to watch, most of whom were club officials and players parents, but it didn’t take long before the stories started to creep out about Saturday. Santos were quite pleased, they made £1,250 on the day, and apparently the groundhoppers had told them they had produced the best game. Well, it had the most goals anyway and I suppose that’s what they mean by that!

 

However, some Thorne fans were talking about the possibility of the Bonanza moving to the Doncaster / Scunthorpe region next season, and they had reservations,

 

“Most of those bloody groundhoppers have an attitude problem, they want to be treated like royalty, demanding programmes, demanding team sheets, and then never watching the sodding game anyway. Oh, and to cap it all they then try and get some soft bastard from the club to give them a lift back to the railway station!”

 

I smiled to myself, it was spot on!

 

It was an excellent evenings entertainment on the pitch. Neither side has had a great season, and both of them has managed to concede over a hundred goals each, so it came as no surprise that chances were plentiful. The visitors took a deserved two goal lead just before the break, and with the light fading, the players virtually turned round at half time to get the second period underway, and it was from that point on that it went crackers.

 

Santos pulled a goal back, but Thorne made it 3-1 with an excellent lobbed goal. Santos then got a bit excited and scored twice in two minutes to make it 3-3. I started to think about Stu’s early season visit when he witnessed a 7-4 victory for Bolsover Town, and at one stage it looked like we might match it. Thorne re-grouped and scored two more quick fire goals, so with more than twenty minutes to play it was 5-3 to the boys from Donny. As the gloom deepened a brawl broke out, but in true Central Midlands League style, the referee did nothing. But it didn’t stop Thorne having to endure a nervous last couple of minutes when Santos bundled the ball home from a corner to make it 4-5.

 

Thorne celebrated wildly at the final whistle, as they move clear of the relegation places (but no one ever goes down anyway!), while Santos, sporting to the very end, congratulated Thorne on a fine performance and their contribution to a super game of football.

 

What I liked best was that I saw as many goals in tonight’s game as the freaks saw in all four put together on Saturday. 5-4, now that’s what I call a display of football in its purest form…………………… 

 

 

Wednesday 27th April 2005

 

Oldham Town  0   Nelson  0

 

When I was a sixth form student, the cult magazine that was then an essential purchase was Viz.

 

It was effectively a comic, but an adult version, and one of its star characters was a young man by the name of Finbar Saunders.

 

‘Finbar Saunders and his Double Entendres’ was the actual title of the strip and it was about a young boy who saw innuendo in everything he heard. Also in the comic strip were his mother, and the machiavellian Mr Gimlet, who spent most of his time trying to get into mothers knickers. In one edition it produced an innuendo ridden quote that surpassed anything that had ever been written before in the strip, and to my knowledge, ever since. It came from Mr Gimlet as follows,

 

“We’ve got some driving to do today, Greater Manchester to begin with and then North Wales. First I’ve got to get Mrs Saunders to Oldham, then I’m going to Bangor as fast as I can!”

 

It was a classic line, and years later, from time to time when I overhear a conversation amongst thirty-somethings, if either Oldham or Bangor is mentioned for any reason, usually someone follows up with that line!

 

So obviously whenever I’ve been to Oldham at any time since, Finbar Saunders hasn’t been too far from my thoughts. Just after Viz produced that classic, I saw reason to go to Oldham when my Grandma talked me into taking her to see some relatives of hers who didn’t live from Athletic’s Boundary Park home.

 

It turned out to be a useful exercise on my part as only a year later Derby County were drawn away at Oldham Athletic in the F.A. Cup, and my generosity got me a parking space on their drive, a free feed, and a short hop over the fence to the turnstiles at the away end! I can’t remember their names, the husband has since died, but I do remember that they insisted on calling me Ian! I didn’t have the heart to tell them it was Neil as I was tucking into my home made rice pudding.

 

I’ll be honest, I don’t remember an awful lot about Oldham, other than it had a dingy market, and it was a bit run down in a mill town style. Since those glorious student days of the early nineties, the football club has gone into decline, and the town of Oldham has received quite a bit of adverse publicity. Racism has reared it’s ugly head, especially in the Glodwick area of town which suffered race riots less than five years ago when the local Muslim community went to war with the BNP.

 

Oldham Town have been on the agenda all season, and with a day off work, it was a short hop across the Snake Pass from Sheffield, and I was soon in Ashton-under-Lyme. Being early, I took a look at Curzon Ashton’s new ground on Richmond Street, which looked mightily impressive, albeit in a very dodgy part of town!

 

Oldham Town are famous, for two reasons. Firstly when they managed to concede twelve goals at Stocksbridge Park Steels in the F.A. Cup a couple of seasons ago, but more impressively, they were TV stars once, children’s TV that is!

 

“Football’s just a branch of science…” sang the Geordie kids in the theme tune to the BBC’s legendary Jossy’s Giants! Jossy Blair’s football team plied their trade at the Whitebank Stadium, but they were better known as the Gipton Giants, and naturally in their black and white stripes, the programme was meant to be set in Newcastle, albeit filmed in Oldham at the home of town!

 

More about the Whitebank Stadium later though. As I approached Oldham from the south, it quickly struck me that the place was an utter dump. The ground was in Hollins, and that itself was a shithole, made up of a desperate housing estate, populated with boarded up shops and white trash single mums! (the locals were hardly going to be of mixed race origin were they??)

 

I decided to drive straight out of Oldham again, after locating the ground, and headed into Manchester for a McDonalds. I write this as ‘Supersize Me’ is on the TV in the background, it’s the last McDonalds I ever eat!

 

After a bite to eat, I decided to head back to Oldham to find a decent looking pub for a pint. I found a nice looking one on the Hollinshead Road called the Falconer, and it proved to be a good choice, as it was a J W Lees pub that sold their home brand of lager for £1.90 a pint. The local paper had nothing to say about Oldham Town I noted, as I browsed the sports pages.

 

As the evening drew in, I decided it was time to head to the ground and find a safe parking space. I opted for the car park, which backed onto the Oldham Town Sports Club, and surveyed the scene. The ground was off to the right, while in front of me was a row of council houses, albeit painted in a varying array of garish colours. The odd Kappa-Slappa walked past with a pushchair, but generally all was quiet. To my right was a detached house, which had a large number of bull terriers penned in the garden. Obviously this was one of the wealthier locals who had a bit more than usual to protect.

 

 

I had a quick look in the ground and was pretty dismayed with what I saw. The pitch was overgrown, and bobbly, while the facilities were terrible. The dressing rooms are in the club, and the walkway to the pitch is quite a long one, so they’ve built what is effectively a huge chicken run covered in tarpaulin as a players tunnel.

 

Adjacent to the players tunnel is the snack bar. I had a cup of tea that was served in a mug that was filthy. The snack bar itself was grubby, as was the middle aged slapper that ran it. I wanted to get away and quickly. A fifty seated concoction sits behind the goal, with some ramshackle cover to one side. A couple of disused portakabins then run down to the corner flag, until a small seated stand appears at the junction of the touchline and the by-line (see photo above).

 

The rest of the ground is open to the elements, apart from a few bus shelter flip up seats that sit in the opposite corner to the stand I’ve just mentioned. The ground was vandalised, pieces of stand roof were missing, while the litter around the ground was just a simple sign of a lack of care. The outlying areas of the ground were overgrown and various forms of waste were simply dumped in areas that seemed appropriate as a tip. Behind the stand was a huge pile of tyres that someone had obviously tried to set fire to, without success.

 

I tried to use the toilet, but it was used as a storeroom for some old bags of cement and some wood, so rather than put myself through more torture I decided to head into the club for a drink.

 

The club was quite nice, although the visitor is welcomed by the kind of multi-coloured flashing lights on the rim of the roof that welcome visitors to Peter Kay’s Phoenix Club. The club was decorated quite nicely and had a sporting theme, but to be brutal, the inhabitants were just local council estate scum. I never at any stage felt comfortable and was just glad to get into the ground for the kick off.

 

Thirty or so people turned up for the game, and I’ll not harp on about it, but it was simply dire. It finished 0-0 and I can barely remember a goal scoring chance created by either of the two teams, who seemed to just be playing out the remains of the season.

 

I spent the first half stood away from any proximity of human contact, except for one fat kid who spent the entire half gobbing on the floor and belching. I decided to move in the second half to the stand on the touchline, only to lean on the solitary crush barrier (which looked distinctly like a barrier from a bus stop, perhaps the same bus stop that provided the seats?) The barrier almost collapsed so I moved again, only to then have to listen to three female Nelson fans whinging about the shite season they’ve had.

 

I’ve not been so thankful for a final whistle all season, and I say this as an open minded individual, but I never ever want to have to go to Oldham again. But I will make an exception if it’s followed by a trip to Bangor in double quick time……

 

 

Saturday 30th April 2005

 

Blaby & Whetstone Athletic  1   Birstall United  3

 

Attending your first football game is as big a rite of passage as you can get in life.

 

Forget your first kiss, your first car, or the first time you got a good kicking at the hands of the school bully, its football that really matters!

 

A trip to Blaby, which would see me complete a full set of Leicestershire Senior League grounds, wasn’t something I expected to be overly spectacular, or memorable for that matter. But then on the Thursday night before the game, while picking the kids up, I was told that no one was available to look after George until fairly late on Saturday afternoon. The ex-missus was waiting for my less than positive reaction, but the one she got was probably not the one she was expecting,

“I’ll take him with me.” I said.

 

It just struck me that as it was only one of the kids to deal with, it would be no problem to take him along. The weather was nice, it wasn’t too far away, and also, I’d been conscious of the fact recently that at nearly three, it was time to introduce him to the beautiful game.

 

I was strangely excited by the prospect, so after dropping Grace off at a birthday party, we picked up some sandwiches and headed off to Leicester. George was soon asleep, and it gave me the chance to think back to the day I was taken to my first football game.

 

I was a little bit older than George, four to be precise. It was an Easter Monday afternoon and Matlock Town were at home to Barrow in the Northern Premier League. My memory is a bit sketchy, but I recall it being a hot day, and I sat under the old barrier at Causeway Lane, spending most of my time digging away in the sand that had been spilt by the touchline. It finished 3-2 to Matlock, and by my reckoning it was nearly two years before I went to another game.

 

As my Dad became involved with Belper Town, my interest in football really came into it’s own in 1980, when I was seven, but in terms of actually starting to attend games, it wasn’t until 1983 that I could start to call myself a ‘fan’.

 

Like every Dad, I would love it if George was good enough one day to play football. Not professionally as such, but maybe one day I will have the pleasure of seeing him pull on a Belper Town shirt. Given the Laughlin family connections with the club, it would be lovely in years to come if my Dad was Chairman and he oversaw his Grandson playing for the club. Not sure what I would be doing though, stood behind the goal probably, moaning about the clubs mis-management!

 

George was still asleep when I arrived in Blaby, so I took the opportunity to view the other two of the three grounds in the village, or should I say villages as Whetstone as the two effectively merge. Yes, Blaby (and Whetstone) has three football grounds, although only one is currently in regular use. First of all I headed off to Winchester Road to take a look at the old ground that was used by Leicester United. The ground is now in the hands of the local Scouting Association, and it looks as though it’s used for junior football. The back of the main stand is plastered with graffiti art, and I’m not too sure whether it’s deliberate or just plain vandalism. Judge for yourself below.

 

 

 

I then moved back across the village to Dog and Gun Lane to find the home of the Leicestershire Football Association, Holmes Park. Holmes Park is well appointed, modern, and has a superb pitch, not surprising though as it’s only used a few times a season for cup finals! It has been the subject of many barbed comments, mainly due to the way it’s been funded, effectively by players indiscretions!

 

About two minutes away from Holmes Park is Warwick Avenue, the home of Blaby & Whetstone Athletic, who play on the ground owned by the local boys club. As far as grounds go, it was probably the most basic of the three on offer in the village. It’s typical Senior League stuff, no one takes admission, the pitch is properly railed off and has floodlights, while the dressing rooms and club are all part of one complex at the end of the ground. They do have a ‘stand’, but in the loosest possible sense, it’s effectively a very small block of terracing on the half way line, minus a roof at this stage!

 

We had a wander round only to find the bar was shut, so George and I decided to have a walk over the road to the Kaffir pub. Behind the pub was a huge beer garden, with loads of things for kids to play on. The lad was in his element, while I sat quietly and watched him, with a pint for company.

 

Twenty minutes before kick off we went back to the ground and sat on the terrace steps. George was a little restless, and couldn’t understand why he couldn’t go on to the pitch and join in! He spent most of the first half trying to swing on the railings, something his Dad was pretty good at as a youngster at Christchurch Meadow!

 

At half time we found a training ball, and George loved kicking it backwards and forwards with me, while he was remarkably calm about having to hand it back to a Blaby player as they came out for the second period. The second half was harder work as George was obviously getting bored. We had a minor tantrum when he was prevented from going into the dressing rooms, while the only way to calm him was to go from end to end of the ground in the pushchair as though we were driving a car!

 

In the last ten minutes he settled a little, and was happy to sit on my knee to watch the closing stages, at the same time finding it funny to keep elbowing me in the face! At the final whistle he was allowed to sit in the front seat for the journey home. That in itself was a bad move on my part as he insisted on having his window and the sunroof open all the way back, and on the M1 at 70 miles an hour it can get both noisy and very windy.

 

His grasp of English is ok, but my efforts to talk football with him weren’t getting very far. He was more interested in asking what the buttons in the car did. As I dropped him off he quickly ran into the garden to play with his sister, no doubt very quickly forgetting the fact that he’d just been to his first ever football game. He’ll thank me one day, I hope…..

 

As for the game, it was 3-1 to Birstall, typical end of season Leicestershire Senior League fare. Under normal circumstances, it would have been consigned to the history books as just another game, but for one reason, and one reason only, it will always mean much more than that.

 

Monday 2nd May 2005

 

Dudley Sports  2   Shifnal Town  0

 

I do love Bank Holiday Mondays, especially when I can arrange it so that I have a full day left to my own devices.

 

I used to make sure in the past that I always avoided having the kids on such days, to allow me to watch football and drink heavily. However, the kids mother this season has been a bit unhappy about that, so I made sure that on the last two Bank Holidays I was back to have the grasshoppers during the evening.

 

It was all a cunning plan though, because May Day, I had decided, was going to be my day. I haven’t done a double header since this time last year when I took in Tividale and then the Belper Nursing Cup Final, so it was time to get one in, and with the kids safely despatched by noon, it was off in the direction of Birmingham for what promised to be a busy afternoon.

 

If you take the West Midlands Regional League, the Midland Combination and the Leicestershire Senior League as a feeder league grouping, I only had one more ground to visit to complete the full set, and that was Dudley Sports. It hasn’t been an easy one though, to start with they’ve had problems with the pitch, and then with the floodlights, which means they’ve been playing a good number of their ‘home’ games at alternative venues. I had virtually given up hope, until they arranged an afternoon kick off for their last game of the season, it was finally game on!

 

The big problem with Bank Holidays is the traffic. It’s hard to predict, so after setting off just after noon, I was on the M5 by 1pm, and then up into Dudley by quarter past. Dudley Sports ground isn’t the easiest to get to though, you have to head out of Dudley on the Stourbridge bound road, before taking a tour through the grim looking centre of Brierley Hill. Once you’ve got out of Brierley Hill with your car intact, you head up High Ercal Avenue and the ground is at the top behind the houses.

 

Dudley Sports are based at the Dudley Metropolitan Borough Employees Sports & Social Club. Since that’s a bit of a mouthful, they’ve abbreviated it somewhat to Dudley M B  Employees S & S Club. A smart club sits just inside the entrance, and was my first port of call as I was at the ground by just after 1.30pm.

 

It was a smart place, although it wasn’t exactly booming with drinkers. The locals that were in have a superb Black Country accent, and it’s a good job I can make sense of it, because as I walked to the bar I was asked,

 

“What yam like love?”

 

Oh yes, this was true yam-yam country, and judging by the posters on the wall it was a bit of a Baggies stronghold also. They were at home to Arsenal that evening and the chat all seemed to centre around that. I had a couple of pints and a couple of cheese rolls, while watching a sudden rainstorm engulf the place. A gateman appeared half an hour before the kick off so I nipped out, with the weather once again beautiful, and paid a paltry £2 to get in, which included what can only be described as a shite programme!

 

The ground is approached across a large expanse of grass, and on the road side of the ground is the small Joe Forrest Stand, which contains fifty or so bench seats. The far end of the ground is virtually inaccessible due to the overgrown nature of the grass, but the only thing that occupies this area is a huge net to prevent the ball from straying into the houses.

 

Opposite the stand is a small area of cover, which sits behind the dugouts. The view to the rear of this is quite spectacular as the ground is effectively perched on the top of a valley, although not everyone is going to be impressed by fine views of Gornal, Coseley and Sedgeley!

 

In the corner of the ground is the dressing room complex, with a tea bar sporting a fine young female who was serving the beverages, tagged onto the end. I ended up having two cups of tea purely for the view it offered, which was considerably more attractive than the one of the Black Country behind the stand!

 

Sometimes I get things horribly wrong though. At the start of the season after seeing Shifnal Town in action at Bolehall Swifts, I suggested that they were a better side than Leamington. Leamington have since won the league by a country mile, while Shifnal are on their second manager and sit in the bottom half of the league! I overheard some of the officials talking, and it appears that the side put out today was going to be ‘experimental’ to say the least.

 

Around fifty or so had turned up by kick off time, about a third of whom had travelled from Shifnal, and while sat at the back of the stand I spotted a chap in his fifties, ambling around, talking to himself, and then bursting into song from time to time. I hate to be prejudicial, and I know it’s the wrong attitude, but as I suspected he was the local nutter, I was determined not to catch his eye.

 

He sat two rows in front of me and was joined by a Shifnal fan. I listened to the conversation for a while, only to learn that the nutter in question was the referee’s assessor! Finally, it all makes complete sense………

 

The quality of the football was poor, and Dudley went in at half time leading 1-0,  deservedly so I might add. Shifnal were crap, and looked very much like a side that had been thrown together on the morning of the game. I found myself strangely taken by the floodlights though, I mentioned earlier that they’ve had problems, and I’m not surprised! They were only about twenty feet high, and perched on what could be best described as flagpoles. Apparently the issue has been to do with the quality of them, and given their appearance, which, I might add, can be deceptive, I’m not surprised!

 

Dudley made it 2-0 early in the second half when their captain slammed home a superb drive from 25 yards, but then the real entertainment came off the pitch! A stray shot landed on the grass behind the goal, and some kids who were hanging around, tried to do a sneaky runner with the ball.

 

They were getting away with it nicely until a Dudley official spotted what was happening and gave chase. It was like the keystone cops, a group of half a dozen kids being chased by two middle aged, unfit, yam-yams, who were never going to catch them in a month of Sundays.

 

They gave up chase as the kids disappeared into the housing estate, it was hugely comical, with most of the crowd chuckling away as the kids made their escape. We shouldn’t laugh as footballs aren’t cheap for clubs like Dudley Sports, but sometimes, just sometimes, someone else’s misfortune is another persons entertainment!

 

The game ended in sorry circumstances as a Shifnal player was carried off with a suspected broken ankle, and it effectively petered out after that to the inevitable 2-0 win for the hosts. It had been a poor game, and probably won’t live long in the memory, but I had a feeling that what was about to come next would make up for it……

 

 

Monday 2nd May 2005

 

Cadbury Athletic  1   Atherstone Town  2

 

The fixture stood out a mile, the top two sides in the First Division of the Midland Combination, both already promoted, slugging it out toe to toe for the championship.

 

Not only that, with a highly acclaimed ground set in the works of the huge Cadbury factory in Bournville, a 6.45pm kick off just across the M5 was an absolute must.

 

Again, I peaked far too early, leaving Dudley at 4.30pm, I had negotiated Stourbridge, crossed the M5 and got to Cadbury by 5.15pm. The journey took me past the pitiful sight of the huge MG / Rover plant at Longbridge, which has been in the news due to it’s tragic demise, but once in Bournville, the ground was easy to find, assuming you have a Birmingham A-Z of course!

 

Although set in the factory grounds, the place is beautiful, and I don’t say that about many football grounds, certainly not in Birmingham anyway! The approach to the ground comes via Bournville Lane, which has some superb properties on it, and once past the factory gates the ground appears on the left. Set in something of a bowl, the ground comprises a football pitch and cricket pitch, while at the same time, despite it’s very urban setting, it’s enclosed nature courtesy of some huge trees, gives off a rural feel at the same time.

 

For the first time this season I regret not taking a camera to the game. You enter the ground down a zig-zag walkway, which is definitely a temporary structure that has been installed, probably due to some building work taking place on part of the adjacent factory. Once at the bottom of the walkway the gateman relieves you of £4, which includes the proggie (twice as expensive as Dudley Sports but a league lower!), and to the left is a huge bank of steep terracing that joins onto the Tudor pavilion. The pavilion is one often pictured in football ground books, and is a quite stunning structure. Set on two levels, the bottom floor contains the toilets and the away dressing rooms, while the second floor houses the home dressing rooms and the canteen area.

 

All of this sits behind the goal, and to the left is the cricket pitch, although to be fair from the bank that overlooks the cricket field, some benches offer a more than adequate view of the proceedings on the football pitch. Looking out to the right from the pavilion is another bank of terracing that runs the length of the pitch, and while not as steep as the terracing behind the goal, it still offers an excellent view. The huge Cadbury factory runs parallel to this and also behind the far goal, which in terms of spectator accommodation provides just a small walkway in what is a confined space.

 

I stood on the steps of the pavilion and gazed out in admiration with the evening sun beating down. It was a truly breathtaking setting, but sadly, Cadbury Athletic won’t be playing at it next season. They need lights to take up their spot in the Premier Division so they are going to ground share at nearby Pilkington XXX. I only hope that they can get planning permission and eventually return to Bournville Lane, because it would be a tragedy if senior football should be lost to such a venue.

 

Sentiment aside, as I admired the view, and watched the unusual sight of a marching band begin to strike up its chords, I heard a familiar voice. Decked in a Manchester City coat was the mystery man from Shawbury, Hinckley and Thurmaston. He’d been to Knowle in the morning, and that was it, I had a companion for the evening.

 

I had read on the Atherstone Town website that the re-incarnated Sheepy Road club were going to bring up to 250 supporters to the game tonight. The Adders needed only to draw to seal the title, but by kick off time, with a crowd of approaching 350 in the ground, it became obvious that they would accept nothing less than a victory.

 

As the teams emerged from the dressing rooms, a group of thirty or so Adders fans emerged from a nearby pub. It was a comical sight, not only could some barely put one foot in front of another, they looked like a bunch of convicts who had been let out for the day. Not the typical Burberry boy types, but men in their forties and fifties with bad teeth, dirty hair and very little in the way of social skills. I suppose the best image to plant into your mind is to imagine the front page of a tabloid when it’s exposing a bunch of paedophiles that have been released into society.

 

They weren’t nice, their language was appalling and I had a feeling that if things didn’t turn out as they would have hoped, it could get very messy on the terraces. One other thing struck me as well when we moved into the vicinity of the factory, the overwhelming stench of chocolate (combined with that of alcohol from the Adders bunch!). It was enough to put you off for life, and it makes sense how chocolate factory workers never touch the stuff.

 

Cadbury Athletic have got a sponsorship deal with the chocolate firm as you would imagine, and they play in the corporate colours of all purple, which from an aesthetic point of view was certainly unusual. The Adders were in the traditional red and white, and as the teams were announced, I noticed a familiar face in goal, that of Dale Belford. Belford is an Adders hero, but only a couple of weeks ago he was playing in the Derbyshire Senior Cup Final for Gresley Rovers at Belper Town. It had been noticed that he had left the field that night without celebrating the victory, and hasn’t played for them since so maybe the move has been a long time in planning. That’s two Gresley players I’ve seen ‘moonlighting’ in recent weeks, what with Chris Gray turning out for Ellistown! I wonder if Gary Norton is aware?

 

In a lively atmosphere, the Adders mob were far from impressed when Cadbury took an early lead, but they did calm down a little when the equalising goal came within a few minutes of the game re-starting. The play was end to end but with what looked like a more potent strike force available, it came as no great surprise when the Adders took the lead late in the first period. Just before half time the Adders hardcore headed off to the pub again, they finally re-emerged mid-way through the second period…..

 

The second half didn’t provide as many chances as the first period, but with Cadbury needing to score twice, and then have to win two days later at Stockingford to take the title, the Adders were happy to sit back and soak up the pressure without feeling the need to go out and score more goals. The overall quality of the game was much better than that seen in the morning, and with both sides guaranteed promotion, I would expect both of them to be up with the leading contenders next season in the Premier Division.

 

At the final whistle anyone and everybody connected with Atherstone Town poured onto the lush playing surface to congratulate their team, and at that point it was time to make an exit and leave them to it. I don’t do celebrations very well, probably because I can’t remember when I last had anything to celebrate with any of my own teams! Usually it’s a case of sitting mournfully and letting someone else celebrate in front of you….

 

During the second half, myself and ‘Steve’ (I think that’s his name!), talked about our pastime, and what heartened me a little was the lengths he also went to, to cover up for what he did. He too admitted to telling people that he was in the area on business and was just taking in a game, he too has lied through his back teeth and said he lives an awful lot nearer to the places he travels to than he actually does, and he too cannot understand the mentality of some of the clowns who terrorise poor unsuspecting football clubs the length and breadth of the country in their pursuit of the trivial!

 

Once again, combined with what had been a fantastic day out, he made me feel a whole lot better about my pursuits, so much so I didn’t care that I managed to get lost in Birmingham City Centre on the way back, attracting the attentions of a large mob of Asians. So much so, that I treated myself to a four pack of Carling and a large donner kebab as I landed in Belper just before ten o’clock.

 

Groundhopping, lager and large donner kebabs, it’s what Bank Holiday Monday’s are all about is it not? But don’t tell anybody, only it’s still a secret…………….

 

 

Tuesday 3rd May 2005

 

Wyrley Rangers  1   Eccleshall AFC  0

 

I made the fatal mistake while at Cadbury, in telling my mate that over two seasons I’ve suffered very few ‘blow outs’ when travelling to games.

 

Even when I’ve got to grounds and games have been postponed, which has been once this season and once last season, I’ve always managed to find a back up to get to without too many problems.

 

I can honestly say that when I set out tonight to go to watch West Midlands Regional League First Division Champions, Great Wyrley, in action against neighbours Walsall Wood, it never crossed my mind that we would have a problem. I arrived at the Hazelbrook ground in Great Wyrley at about 6.30pm, and noticed it was all locked up, but as it was early it didn’t concern me too much. I went back into the village and had some chips, only to return fifteen minutes later to see that it was still deserted.

 

I had a plan though, also in the vicinity were Wyrley Rangers, who play in the same league, and tonight were scheduled to be at home to Eccleshall AFC. Luckily I’d got the A-Z in the car still, following the previous day in Birmingham, and recalling that Wyrley play on Long Lane, I had a look in the index and noticed that Long Lane was about ten minutes away in Norton.

 

So I set off to have a look, and noticed as I turned off the A5, after driving up and down a country road for a while, that the apparent turn onto Long Lane didn’t exist. I thought it was a bit odd, but then noticed that the opposite end of Long Lane could be accessed from just behind the ground of Heath Hayes, which I know well.

 

I shot of up to Heath Hayes, turned down the road to the ground, and where Long Lane should have been was a dead end. I suddenly dawned on me that since my A-Z was published in 1976, Long Lane has now gone!

 

I had one hope left, I had to head back to Great Wyrley and hope that someone had turned up to play football. When I got to the ground it was now twenty past seven, and still no life. My luck had seemingly run out, I had to go home and settle for watching Liverpool v Chelsea on the box. For the first time in two years I had been beaten.

 

I started to wonder why the game wasn’t on? It had been in all the publications, it had been on the league website, so why was it off? It was certainly not the weather as the pitch was fine, so what could it have been, I considered a few options.

 

Liverpool v Chelsea: Maybe the clubs had asked to have the game switched late in the day to avoid clashing with the big Champions League semi final at Anfield.

 

Someone couldn’t raise a team: Possibly the case but as one club is top of the league and the other fourth, and given that the two are ten miles apart it seemed unlikely.

 

It had been switched to Walsall Wood: Again, possible, but for what reason as the ground at Great Wyrley was fine?

 

Someone has died: This is something that cannot be legislated for, club official, fans and sadly sometimes players pass away suddenly, and this usually leads to a postponement. If that has happened then we have no arguments.

 

I was about to turn round and go home when I picked up the A-Z one last time and looked in the index for Long Lane. I suddenly spotted another one but on a different page to the one covering Great Wyrley, it was actually the page which joins on to the bottom of the page I was looking at, and effectively covers the area to the north of Bloxwich. More importantly, it was probably no more than five minutes away, it was my last hope.

 

With ten minutes to kick off I sped out of Great Wyrley, turned right onto Long Lane, went through a built up area and then suddenly found myself with open fields on either side, my heart sank, a ground could not be found. I crossed over a canal bridge and then behind some trees I was sure I spotted some floodlight pylons. A couple of seconds later and I could see a sign, ‘Welcome to Long Lane, the home of Wyrley Rangers Football Club’

 

I drove in parked up, asked a guy if a game was being played, as opposed to something daft like a training session, and he confirmed to me that Wyrley Rangers were indeed due to kick of in five minutes against Eccleshall AFC! I asked him if they had a bar and he pointed me towards a door. As I approached the bar a chap came up to me and asked me if I had come for the game, he then relived me of £1.50 and handed me a very impressive glossy programme to boot, finally I could relax with a pint of lager.

 

Just after kick off I walked out to the pitch, which was in good condition, and observed the facilities. The bar and dressing room complex was relatively modern and indeed very smart. The ground itself is enclosed by a temporary metal-mesh fence, while two small areas of cover had been built out of wood and scaffold to either side of the dugouts. It was basic, tidy and also had floodlights, effectively it did the job for Wyrley Rangers at the level they are performing.

 

Tonight’s visitors were slightly unique in the sense that they are a reserve side. Eccleshall AFC are the reserve side of Eccleshall FC that play in Division Two of the North West Counties League. They did originally play in the top division of the Midland League (the old Staffordshire Senior League), but when they barred reserve teams, they opted to move to their current league, but decided to drop the reserve team tag. It strikes me that they operate as two separate units, and reasonably successfully with it.

 

Wyrley Rangers needed to win the game to move into third place, which they duly did 1-0 thanks to a close range header in the second half. Just above them in the league are obviously Great Wyrley who have the facilities to go up to the Premier Division, and Bewdley Town who seemingly don’t. I’m not sure if they will promote a third placed club, but they seem to be heading in the right direction, and it would be great for the village if both clubs could be competing in the top division.

 

Only about thirty people witnessed their latest victory, but I’m sure a few more will be at the ground in a couple of weeks time when the two neighbours meet for the last game of the season. I was probably the happiest spectator in the ground tonight, even more so than some of the jubilant Wyrley fans, because by luck or by judgement, I’d avoided the unwanted prospect of drawing a first ever blank. I don’t suppose though that I’ll ever uncover the mystery of why Great Wyrley and Walsall Wood simply didn’t bother turning up!

Saturday 7th May 2005

 

AFC Barnsley  8   Blidworth Welfare  0

 

I can’t exactly remember which game it was, but during Derby County’s relegation season from the First Division (as it was then), we were sat watching another inevitable defeat, when someone to the rear of us started to sing.

 

“Que sera sera, whatever will be, will be, we’re going to Barn-s-ley, que sera sera…”

 

The rest of the crowd in the surrounding area joined in, no doubt appreciating the humour. You see, from being used to going to places like Anfield, Old Trafford, and Highbury, we now had to plan visits to Port Vale, Swindon Town, and of course, Barnsley!

 

I went to see Derby play at Oakwell on a couple of occasions after that, one of them being a dreadful display on the opening day of the season by the Rams, but little did anyone appreciate that day that Barnsley were about to embark on the most famous period in their history. They made it to the Premiership, and no one who watches football will ever forget the song they used to sing as they made their way to the promised land,

 

“It’s just like watching Brazil!”

 

Of course it didn’t last, and the inevitable decline began, culminating with the proud Yorkshire club dropping all the way back to the third tier of English football. I suppose for most Barnsley fans that was the reality of it all, the second or the third division, but for some, things were not right. The inevitable financial meltdown came post-Premiership, and the club were heavily in debt, rescue plans came and went, and for one reason or another this lead to a number of their fans becoming deeply disenchanted by it all.

 

No doubt inspired by what happened with the formation of AFC Wimbledon, they decided to form AFC Barnsley. An application to join the Central Midlands League was rejected so they joined the Sheffield County Senior League last season and played their home games at the Dorothy Hyman Stadium in Cudworth. They won the league at a canter and finally this season took up their place in the league they had aspired to at their formation.

 

At first, relations between Barnsley FC and AFC Barnsley were strained, but over the course of the first season it obviously improved because the fledgling club started it’s second campaign playing on the Academy pitches at the rear of Oakwell. They’ve won the league by a country mile, scoring 150 goals in the process, and as a result the Supreme Division beckons. It was time to take a look.

 

The Academy at Oakwell is to the rear of the away end, and as I drove around to the back of the ground my memories of previous visits came flooding back. Paul Kitson’s winner on Boxing Day in particular is a moment I can recall to this day stood on the packed terraces. The terraces have gone, the away end is now a smart seated stand, and just behind this is the car park to the very impressive facilities Barnsley FC have developed for their young talent.

 

It’s a bit confusing at first though because the main Academy pitch has a large seated stand (as can be seen above), but because the playing surface is artificial the club cannot play on it. Behind this pitch is the pitch that AFC use, and the first thing that strikes you is the quality of the surface, it’s immaculate.

 

The Academy is built into a natural slope so upon reaching the correct pitch, a large bank slopes down to the playing surface. Built into the bank are about 300 tip-up red seats, and I understand that these are going to be covered in pre-season to enable the facilities to meet Supreme Division grading standards. The rest of the ‘ground’ is hemmed in on two sides by further pitches, while at one end are the fields that lead into the land once occupied by Barnsley Colliery.

 

Before the game, AFC were presented with the Premier Division trophy by Eddie Pearce and Jeff Worrall of the league, and with around 150 people in attendance for the game, most of us were anticipating a goal-fest, especially with visitors Blidworth struggling this season.

 

AFC have got some quality players in their squad, namely goalkeeper Stuart Ford who has played for Doncaster Rovers, Gresley Rovers, Ilkeston Town, Hednesford and Alfreton Town, while striker Gavin Bassinder who is the leading goalscorer this season has played for Mansfield Town, and Farsley Celtic amongst others.

 

Former Nailer Pete Stubley has also been amongst the goals for AFC this season, but the one name who caught my eye was that of Gary Hatto. Hatto has played professionally for both Doncaster Rovers and Huddersfield Town, but he is most famously known for his lengthy spell at Frickley Athletic.

 

I follow Frickley’s fortunes quite closely as I’m quite friendly with their manager Gary Marrow, who was with Belper Town a couple of years ago. Obviously he has a few players at Frickley who were once at Belper, and it’s fair to say that a good number of Belper fans were quite pleased to see him keep the club up this season.

 

Marrow’s arrival in October saw the end of Hatto who was at the time the caretaker manager. You only have to read the hugely entertaining Frickley Forum though to see that Hatto is truly a legend in South Elmsall. Fans talk of statues being built to remember the great man, while it’s very rare that a Frickley follower will omit him from their all time Frickley XI.

 

 

I’ve probably seen him play before, but never properly paid attention, but as he’s now in his fortieth year, I suspected that today would be my last chance to see him in action. He still looks a very fit man, and his ball control and touch was sublime, he even lasted the full ninety minutes, which brings me nicely onto the game.

 

It’s been a complete mis-match n the Premier Division this season as AFC Barnsley are far too good, and with thirty wins from their thirty five games before today, no one seemed in any doubt as to what the outcome would be.

 

By half time it was 3-0, and AFC’s quality on the ball had been far too good for a determined Blidworth side. They were fit, organised, and played the ball around with patience and ease, it was at times a master class.

 

The second half was completely one way traffic as AFC ripped the visitors to shreds. Five more goals followed, and the ease at which Barnsley were scoring suggested that if they really stepped up a gear they would get double figures. To be fair though, they have hit double figures three times already this season, and indeed in the past month they’ve doubled up against both Newark Flowserve (10-0) and Santos (12-1).

 

Bassinder scored at least four of the goals, Stubley got a couple, but the best goal of the day came just before half time to make it 3-0. A bit of neat play on the right saw the ball crossed from the by-line to the far post. A Barnsley player watched the flight of the ball before unleashing a sweet volley from twelve yards into the back of the net.

 

He didn’t celebrate his wonderful strike, he just turned and walked casually back to the half way line, being patted on the back by his team mates as he made his way.

 

The player? Gary Hatto of course…..

 

 

Tuesday 10th May 2005

 

Yorkshire Main  2   Grimsby Borough  4 

 

It started out as a serious question, but after a bit of email banter with Jamesie it turned into the usual piss taking session.

 

I asked him a reasonable question, as to which teams were joining the Central Midlands League next season, and he replied with Clwb Peldroed Tref Belper. Apparently they are a newly formed team, from Belper, created by a disenchanted Nailers fan who had a passion for all things Welsh (wonder who that might be??)

 

And from that point it carried on, I suggested a Skegby based side who were going to play on the local Miners Welfare, and in the spirit of Santos, call themselves Boca Juniors! I also wondered whether some disaffected AFC Barnsley fans were going to form AFC Barnsley AFC, in protest at AFC’s now amicable relationship with Barnsley FC!

 

Of course, no league would be complete without the student team, and in this instance Clowne Adult Learning Centre FC would ground share at Bolsover Town for the coming season, while Clay Cross Clap Clinic FC would be obligatory team that folded mid-campaign.

 

It did turn mildly serious when Jamesie gave me the benefit of his insider knowledge, and it appears that Athersley Recreation from Barnsley are on the way up, developing some good facilities in what is regarded locally as a ‘shit hole’. Geoff Horsfield is from the village and it is understood that he’s ploughed some of his signing on fees into the club as a thank you to them for starting him out on his path to glory.

 

The only other team that Jamesie knew about was a set up from Grimsby called LSS Lucarlys, who currently ply their trade in the Lincolnshire League. Now then, I challenge you, say LSS Lucarlys to yourself a couple of times, and then try and get the name out of your head! It’s sodding well impossible!

 

A couple of days after the initial banter we exchanged emails once again and both of us had LSS Lucarlys on the brain, I lay in the bath and it was spinning through my head so much that I had to go downstairs and do a Google search to see what I could find. Absolutely nothing!

 

That was it, we set each other a challenge, to go away and find out what we could about this club, but being a bit sneaky, I had a cunning plan.

 

Provisionally I’d planned to head off up to Edlington to watch Yorkshire Main play Grimsby Borough, and what with LSS Lucarlys being a Grimsby based side, it struck me that someone from the club might know something about them, if I found the right person to ask of course.

 

With a 6.30pm kick off I left Dronfield at 4.45pm, and was in Edlington an hour later, so with the sun beating down I went into the ground and had a couple of cans of Coke while reading the programme. Did well with that as they only printed three, and two of them got nicked!

It wasn’t a bad ground either, two covered shelters on either side. While a small tea bar contained within the dressing rooms, sat alongside one of the stands. In between the football ground and the road is a cricket pitch, with the Miners Welfare at the top, although given the early kick off I wasn’t able to get a pint.

 

It was a typical Central Midlands League set up, not spectacular, but did the job for which it was intended. The most impressive feature though was the pitch surround, it was a post and chain affair, but the chains were huge, straight from the pit shaft cage winding mechanism. Not a sight you see at many football grounds I must say. Not in Bedford anyway!

 

Yorkshire Main have had a poor season, along with a lot of the Donny based clubs, as with Harworth Colliery and Thorne Colliery they make up the bottom three of the Premier Division. Askern Welfare have finished bottom of the Supreme Division to boot, so assuming no one gets kicked out, and they never do, quite a few local derbies are in prospect next season in the lower section of this league.

 

Grimsby Borough on the other hand have had a superb season finishing runners up behind AFC Barnsley at the first attempt, and ground permitting they’ll be in the Supreme Division next season. The ground is an interesting one, as it appears their current facilities are not up to scratch, so a new ground is planned.

 

However, no one seems to know anything about it as Borough are being deceptively coy about where they will be playing. Put yer money on either a return to Louth United (as the club came out of United’s demise), or a dramatic ground share at Grimsby Town! The other option I thought they might have considered was a move to the old ground used by Immingham Town, but I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

What a dramatic first half it was. Borough took the lead but then had their goalkeeper sent off for the most blatant foul I’ve ever seen on, an onrushing Main striker. The right-winger went in goal, only to see Borough then make it 2-0 moments later.

 

Main won a penalty after a fairly innocuous ankle tap in the box, especially as the player never actually went down, he just stopped and appealed. However, the replacement goalkeeper pulled of a superb save to deny Main. Within ten minutes another very generous penalty was awarded to Main and on this occasion we had the bizarre scene of no one actually wanting to step forward and take the kick. The Main bench, in typical South Yorkshire fashion were unimpressed,

 

“Someone just tek the cunt!” was the cry.

 

And taken it was, despatched into the bottom corner to reduce the arrears. It didn’t last though as two goals just before half time gave ten man Borough a seemingly unassailable lead.

 

They did pull another goal back just after half time to reduce the arrears, but to be fair, it was a forgettable second half of football, which was good, as I had an objective.

 

I had to find a Grimsby Borough fan / official to pump for information about LSS Lucarlys, without coming across as either sad, or, a lunatic! I did manage to find one of the players Dad’s, a kid called Danny Pawson’s Dad to be precise, and as we got talking it turned out that the other son has been playing for Spalding United this season. The conversation flowed quite easily

 

I started off by slipping in a question about where Borough might be playing next season, and he had no idea at all, so I wasn’t overly confident that he could help me about LSS Lucarlys, but with ten minutes of the game remaining, it was a case of now or never!

 

“Who are this LSS Lucarlys side who are coming into the league next season?” I enquired.

 

His eyes lit up, and he replied enthusiastically,

 

“Lottery winner from Grimsby decided to pump some money into his local club, they aren’t a works side, more of a social club in Humberstone. Should do well, they’ve had a good season in the Lincolnshire League. Keep an eye out for them, they’ll be a side to watch out for next season”

 

And that was enough for me, the season is as good as over now, and I’ve just decided upon my first port of call for next season. Oh, and Jamesie, I’ll race you to it, unless of course Clay Cross Clap Clinic FC get an early season fixture that diverts my attention, bearing in mind they won’t last much longer than October!

 

LSS Lucarlys, here we come!

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Saturday 19th March 2005

 

Holker Old Boys  0   Padiham  1

 

Barrow-in-Furness holds quite a history as far as I am concerned, and it’s not just due to the fact that it’s commonly known as the largest cul-de-sac in Britain!

 

It all started on April 17th 1978, the first football match I ever went to was between Matlock Town and Barrow AFC. I don’t remember much about it, I was only five, but I recall sitting underneath the railings alongside my Dad on a red hot Easter Monday afternoon

 

The next contact with Barrow came in pre-season 1999 when the club were controversially booted out of the Conference due to financial issues, surrounding the likable chap that is scouse boxing promoter Steven Vaughan, now Chairman of Chester City for their sins! I’d read on a website that a group of Barrow fans were heading for the Altrincham v Stalybridge Celtic game in the Challenge Shield to protest at the fact that the UniBond League were digging their heels in and not allowing them to join the competition at a late stage.

 

Before the game I was stood in the pub just down the road from Moss Lane when a lad in Barrow shirt came to the bar, I got talking to him, his name was John Little, and he invited me to join his two mates. His two mates were brothers Dave and Richard Ingham, and we had a right old laugh at the game, parading placards, taunting the UniBond League officials and attracting some very mixed comments from the two sets of fans at the ground! I kept in touch with them, meeting up with them at a couple of Barrow games later that season, but the real fun came in between, just prior to Millennium Eve to be precise.

 

Barrow managed to scrape into the UniBond League, following a ruling by the Football Association, while at the same time my Dad became UniBond League correspondent for Non-League on the Net, a fledgling website for semi-professional soccer. With 1999 coming to a close, Barrow had the idea of playing what they believed to be the last ever game of the millennium, on the night of 30th December 1999, against hapless Winsford United.

 

Given the fact that Barrow had managed to actually survive, under the stewardship of Chairman Brian Keen and the management of local hero Kenny Lowe, it was a great opportunity for my Dad to do a feature on both the club and the significance of the game. He was also personally invited to the game by one of the clubs Director’s to boot, so off we went, with me charged with the driving.

 

I remember it well, it hammered it down with rain all day, we got into Barrow mid-afternoon, had a meal in the local Pizza Hut, checked into the hotel, had a couple of pints and began the walk down to Holker Street. Thankfully the pitch held up well, and as we got into the ground, it was obvious a big crowd was going to be in attendance. We met up with the lads I’d met at Altrincham, watched a pretty drab 0-0 draw, interviewed a few people, watched the celebrations of the occasion and sunk a few more pints.

 

We left the ground pretty late on with the party seemingly going on until the early hours, managing to get a taxi driver to take us to a curry house that would actually stay open and serve us! Eventually we got to bed, and then I was faced with the drive back the following day while my Dad prepared his copy!

 

It had been a great occasion, which lead nicely into the celebrations as the New Year came and went, but I was harbouring a secret that was killing me deep inside. A couple of weeks earlier my girlfriend had announced that she was pregnant, and to put it bluntly, I was in tatters, totally confused by it all, and absolutely dreading telling my folks. I had thought about telling my Dad in Barrow, and came close on a couple of occasions, but I didn’t want to spoil his big day. I eventually left it until early January, after getting back from watching Sutton Coldfield Town play Cirencester Town. My Mum was ok about it, my Dad, well I had to wake him up, I told him, he said very little, and went back to sleep again! So much for the worry on my part……….

 

Every time I hear about Barrow, or indeed think back to the time we went to watch the historic game, I think about the mental torture I was putting myself through. That mental torture eventually produced my wonderful daughter Grace who will be five this year, and I suppose it backs up the old adage that things always work out one way or another, and in this case it certainly did as I would never be without her.

 

But the thing about Barrow is that it’s not the only semi-professional club in the town, they can also boast the mighty Holker Old Boys, and in my quest to get through the North West Counties League, a visit would have to be made at some point. My original plan was to leave it until the last game of the season, as it was by far the longest journey I would have to undertake (148 miles), with a view to stopping overnight and perhaps re-living that night back in 1999. However, the way the fixtures have worked out, in conjunction with my work, it had to be now or next season, and with the weather taking a turn for the better, I decided to head off on a lovely March morning.

 

I decided to set off a bit earlier than usual, given the distance, and the 10.30am start meant I was on the M6 within an hour. It was a bit sluggish up to Knutsford, perhaps due to Manchester United being at home, but I was turning off at junction 36 by just after 1pm, taking in the fantastic countryside that is the gateway to the Lake District.

 

The drive into Barrow is a pleasant one, made up of dual carriageway, pretty villages and some breathtaking views. Last time I did this it was pissing it down so I had all on concentrating on the road, but on this occasion, the hour it took to get into Barrow was very pleasant indeed. I eventually got onto the dual carriageway that dissects the industrial estate and the shipyards as you enter the town, and climbed the hill that leads to the Old Boys ground at Rakesmoor. Again, from the top of the hill upon which the ground sits, it’s a fantastic view over the golf course onto the estuary, with the shipyards dominating the skyline. Heaven for someone like me who’s aesthetic pleasures derive from the most bizarre of landscapes!

 

I got into the ground, it was lovely weather, paid my £2, and despite it being 2pm they’d sold out of programmes. The print run of ten had been snapped up by the visiting Padiham officials! I’m not at all concerned by such trivialities, unlike some of my fellow followers, so instead of pestering club officials for a spare copy, I got myself a pint, a cheese cob, and surveyed the scene.

 

The ground is entered from the top corner, with the clubhouse and dressing rooms sat alongside the pitch, stretching down as far as the halfway line. Below the halfway line is a piece of cover that goes down to the corner flag, with a row of seats right at the very front. The only other cover is behind the goal, but right in the corner where a seated stand proclaiming ‘Holker Old Boys Welcome You To Rakesmoor’ on the fascia, greets the visitor as he stumbles through the turnstile.

 

The other two sides of the ground are open, and when I say open, I could only imagine how cold a place this would have been less than a month ago on a blustery Tuesday night!

 

Old Boys have been sat in mid-table for most of the season, while visitors Padiham had lead the league for some time before falling away recently. Promotion is probably out of the question for both sides now with Cammell Laird almost certain, and probably Silsden or Winsford United joining them.

 

I stood behind the Padiham dug out for what was quite an entertaining first half. Padiham won a penalty in the sixth minute and took the lead through Paul Fildes who put the spot kick away with ease. The visitors could have grabbed a couple more, but the highlight was no doubt the characters on the bench. The Padiham boss, Steve Wilkes, is a passionate guy, who can’t help but voice his opinion. Not in the way the Non-League Paper would have us believe most managers are raving lunatics who spout vitriol and abuse at all and sundry, but in a funny way. He’ll have a go at an opposition player for kicking one of his, the opposition player will have a go back, and then Wilkes will put a smile on everyone’s face with a bit of quit wit and self deprecating humour. The rest of the bench are in the same mould.

 

The second half saw Old Boys pile on the pressure, hitting the woodwork three times, while Padiham had chances on the break to sew the game up. The Padiham bench had again been entertaining, twice being warned about encroaching on to the pitch for disputing decisions (shocking ones I might add), while at the same time engaging in a bit of friendly banter with a very young, and nervous assistant referee who was doing his best to control them.

 

The game took on an unpleasant side in the closing minutes though when the Old Boys captain decided stupidly to land with both feet on the back of the prostrate Padiham player who he’s just fouled. It was with both sets of studs and warranted the red card that was dished out. As the incident happened just to the right of the Padiham dug out, Wilkes charged to the scene, and just as we feared he might land one on the Holker captain, he stopped, turned away, managing to count to ten just in time. A full scale melee broke out, and in fairness to the Holker skipper, he started to walk before the card had been produced. Once the Padiham player was back on his feet, the referee strolled over to Wilkes to inform him that he was going to be reported for continually entering the field of play! It was a bit of a joke really, but some Holker fans didn’t seem to think so, they were hurling abuse over the dugout at the Padiham bench. One fan, middle aged with a decidedly dodgy looking tan from a bottle, was being particularly vociferous, but Wilkes picked his moment and calmly replied,

 

“Steady on lad, you’ll get a sweat on, and that’ll make your fake tan run!”

 

It was hilarious, and made even the most vociferous Holker fans chuckle, and as the chap walked away chuntering, Wilkes had managed to calm the situation with his own brand of humour. It’ll be a shame if the authorities come down too heavily on him, especially as he had recently been commended by his own club for sacking two of his star players who had refused to turn out for the reserves.

 

At the final whistle it was time to embark on the long journey back to Derbyshire, safe in the knowledge that the big journey was now complete. Another one to add to the catalogue of Barrow memories, I suspect, as it’s a good 150 miles away, there won’t be many more to add to the list….

 

 

Friday 25th March 2005

 

Gresley Rovers  2   Kendal Town  2

 

I had to change my plans on more than one occasion as Good Friday threatened to become a damp squib on the footballing front.

 

The original plan was the eagerly awaited first ever game at the Victoria Stadium, the home of Northwich Victoria, who were due to entertain Gravesend & Northfleet. However, such has been the shambles that has been Northwich Victoria this season, I was acutely aware that despite every intention of getting the ground open for the game, the actual chances of it happening were somewhat slim.

 

As the week wore on, questions remained unanswered, the clubs official website refused to even discuss the subject, but eventually I spotted on the BBC website the announcement that the club weren’t now expecting to make their debut until next season.

 

So I had to find an alternative, and one that sprung to mind when I checked the fixtures was the Welsh Premier League game at Connahs Quay Nomads, who were due to entertain struggling Llanelli. However, I checked the unofficial website of the league, and also my latest copy of Football Traveller, only to find the game had been moved. The official website of the league said it was on though, while neither club site had been updated for ages. I tend to trust the unofficial site more, strangely enough, and correct it turned out be. So I had a dilemma, what was left?

Simple, Rainworth Miners Welfare v Dinnington Town, except on further investigation I found that to be a 7.30pm kick off, and as I was due out for a few pints and a curry later, it was a no go.

 

Three choices then, I could go and watch the Nailers at Mossley, Willenhall Town v Clitheroe, or, Gresley Rovers v Kendal Town. I didn’t fancy Mossley as I was due up that neck of the woods the following day anyway, so I decided to plump for Gresley, partly because of one individual.

 

Playing in goal for Kendal Town this season is Mark Thornley. When I first got interested in Belper Town back in 1984, they had a young goalkeeper called Mark Thornley, who eventually went on to have a hugely successful career in non-league football, playing for Sutton Town, Alfreton Town, Fleetwood Town, Morecambe, Barrow and Lancaster City.

 

As a mere twelve year old I saw Thornley as something of a hero. He won the Player of the Year Award as Belper went on to clinch the Northern Counties East League championship, and has been regarded ever since as possibly the best goalkeeper the club has ever had. When I edited the fanzine a few yeas ago I managed to get his phone number, and he agreed to do an interview for us. During the same season the club held a reunion for the championship winning side, and despite having played up at Lancaster on the same day, he drove down that night for the celebrations.

 

He stated during the interview that he hoped he would have the chance to play against Belper before he retired, and to be fair, within a season the Nailers did draw Lancaster City in the League Cup but he was injured for the game. The chance looked to have gone, but when his manager at Lancaster, Tony Hesketh, landed at Kendal Town in pre-season, the chance was on again.

 

Thornley played in both games against Belper, receiving a tremendous reception when he turned up at Christchurch Meadow, but having not seen the game myself, today was an ideal chance to see him action, perhaps for the last time.

 

I must confess to enjoying going to the Moat Ground, it’s a tight and compact arena, with a number of features, and a good atmosphere to go with it. I arrived early as I wanted to get something to eat, and having found a pretty good chip shop outside the ground I decided to have fish and chips (it was Friday!). I had a walk around the streets of Church Gresley on what was a glorious afternoon, before entering the ground and sampling a couple of pints in the clubhouse.

 

Gresley’s clubhouse is great. The walls are decked with press cuttings, pictures, programmes and all kinds of memorabilia which depict the clubs very eventful history. I used to listen out for Gresley’s results as a kid, during the Mark Thornley days as it happens. They used to reported on by a chap called Brian Spare on Radio Derby, and while Brian is sadly no longer with us, his reports were unique,

 

“In the 23rd minute Brian Berresford scored from a corner to make it Gresley 1 GKN Sankey 0….”

 

“In the 34th minute Paul Acklam scored a free kick to make it Gresley 2 GKN Sankey 0….”

 

“Then in the 43rd minute Tracey Norton ran through to make it Gresley Rovers 3 etc, etc……

 

He basically used to give a chronological rundown of the game, but one thing was always apparent, in the good old days of Rovers in the West Midlands Regional League, they used to thrash the likes of GKN Sankey five or six nil every week!

 

This season though, Rovers find themselves in the UniBond League, and along with the visitors, they sit well placed in the play-of places. It was to be a superb game. In front of a crowd of around 350, Jamie Barrett fired Rovers into the lead with a precision drive from the edge of the box, only for experienced striker Lee Ashcroft to equalise for the visitors who had brought a healthy following with them from Cumbria.

 

Barrett then scored a superbly taken second goal following neat work from Chris Gray to make it 2-1 to Rovers, only for Dene Whittal-Williams to capitalise on a lack of communication between Jamie Hood and goalkeeper Dale Belford to make the score 2-2, and it was only half time.

 

It struck me at half time that a number of former Nailers players were involved today. Not only was Thornley in goal for Kendal, but in the Rovers side was Niall Hudson, Mickey Lyons and of course Aaron O’Connor who turned out for the club in pre-season. All arguably better than what Belper currently have on display!

 

Inevitably, while the second half was equally entertaining in an end-to-end fashion, no more goals were forthcoming. Rovers had some good chances, but they were mainly squandered by new signing Paul Edwards who really should have sewn the game up. A number of Rovers players impressed me, Barrett was superb in midfield, while Jamie Hood was excellent at the back along with Hudson. Also playing well in midfield was the distinctive figure of Chris Gray, with his flowing peroxide blonde locks. Gray has had a chequered career, moving between Coalville Town, Ibstock Welfare, Shepshed Dynamo, Hednesford Town (where he won an F.A. Trophy winners medal), Redditch United and of course three spells at Rovers!

 

Thornley had a busy day, having no chance with the goals but pulling off a number of point blank saves. Shot stopping was always his forte, as was bravery, and that was tested in the first half when he got a nasty boot to the head while diving at a players feet. Groggily, he got back to his feet, and with a smile on his face he engaged in a bit of banter with the Rovers fans behind the goal. He might be in his fortieth year, but certain things you never lose.

 

A true legend, in my eyes at least.

 

Saturday 26th March 2005

 

Chadderton  2   Holker Old Boys  2

 

A word of advice for anyone contemplating going for a curry at the Maharaja Restaurant in Belper. Be very careful of the Fish Karahi.

 

I should have known when the waiter asked me if I minded it being hot, but bearing in mind I was well oiled, I was in the mood to tackle anything. Tackle it I did, consume another three pints of lager to keep the temperature down I had to, suffer the day after I certainly did, with a vengeance! 

 

The plan was to travel up to Oldham for the 1pm kick off between Chadderton and my old friends from Holker Old Boys, the reason for the early kick off was the England v Northern Ireland game at nearby Old Trafford. However, when I rolled out of bed at 9am, and stumbled to the bathroom for a drink as my mouth was like the proverbial badgers arse, the full effect of the Karahi hit me in style.

 

I sat down, only to feel the full force of something that could only be described as ‘volcanic’. A short while later, after further ‘eruptions’, I decided to have a bath, purely to try and sooth my now painful rear, and it seemed to do the trick, at 10am I decided to risk the journey, with the safety net of a spare toilet roll in the car just in case.

 

Bearing in mind it was Easter, and a large number of cars would be heading towards Manchester for the football, the only traffic I hit was in the usual hotspot between Glossop and the M57. The M60 was as clear as I’d ever seen it, and as I journeyed up the Middleton Road into Chadderton, the trip had taken me less than an hour and a half.

 

I found the ground with ease, and drove into it, surveying the scene. The Chadderton players were pissing about with a football in the goalmouths, while an old bloke was still trying to mark out the pitch. I did take a look at the ground in passing a few years ago now, and I have to confess to being slightly let down by it this time round. A large stand occupies the Middleton Road side of the ground, with some bench seats in the centre of it. The roof at one end had been caved in, courtesy of a disastrous attempt by Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council to fell some nearby trees. The club are in talks apparently with regard to a compensation package!

 

The Andrew Street end of the ground housed the dressing rooms, and above them the clubhouse, while the rest of the ground was open, and unkempt. It struck me as being a ground that desperately needed a bit of TLC, and perhaps a period of mercy from the local graffiti artists that prey on the facilities.

 

I had a walk up to the clubhouse, grabbed a copy of the well impressive programme, and while waiting for the chap to change the barrels, I started to read some very interesting stuff. Two of the articles in the programme alluded to ‘trouble’ at the game at the ground on the previous Tuesday against New Mills. Now I know New Mills have good support, but they are certainly not troublemakers, especially the knife wielding types that the article suggested blighted the game.

 

Once the bar man returned and started to pour me a pint of lager (which I thought might cure my arse!), I asked him about it. As I thought, it was nothing to do with New Mills, but what had happened was the former manager of Chadderton had turned up, bearing a grudge, threatening all and sundry. What is slightly alarming, was that he is still actively involved in North West Counties League football, as assistant manager of Trafford! Whether the incident has been formerly reported is not known to me, but if it has, and the case is proven, Mr Mike Lester could be out of football for a good while.

 

I got chatting to the bar man, Dave Greaves, who was also Programme Editor, Public Address Announcer, Press Officer, Matchday Secretary and anything else that needed doing, and he went on to talk about the troubles Chadderton have had to face.

 

For the past five seasons they have only finished outside the bottom two once, and this season they have already used over sixty players. The club are trying desperately hard to integrate with the community, developing a junior section amongst other things, but they struggle for support, struggle for sponsorship, have to battle vandalism, and in the past week, they’ve suffered the final straw.

 

“We have the idiot down here threatening all and sundry, he wants to look at himself, he never finished higher than second from bottom. And then we get a tree collapse on our stand when some clowns are trying to cut them down. God knows how long that will take to sort out. We’re only trying to run a football club!” he said.

 

Holker were running late, only arriving at the ground fifteen minutes before the game due to road works around Ulverston. Also in the bar was the Holker reserve team manager who was in Manchester for the weekend for an Anastasia gig, and we compared notes on their recent game with Padiham. He did warn me that Holker would be under strength today for a variety of reasons, which made the bar man smile, for he perhaps sensed that a point could be possible today!

 

So when Chadderton took the lead thanks to a dubiously awarded penalty, you could fully understand why the gaggle of Chaddy fans went crazy. They have very little to celebrate these days, so the odd goal is warmly received. It didn’t last long though, and another penalty was also dubiously awarded to Holker, which was put away. 1-1 at half time was fair, but things didn’t seem too happy in the Chadderton camp, players had been falling out sporadically during the first half, notably the centre half, who was one of the biggest dicks I’d ever seen on a football pitch. He wanted to fight all and sundry, seemingly since the moment he stepped out of his hot hatch before the game and set foot on the pitch in his chav style clothes for a kick around.

 

As the players walked out for the second half, the centre half decided to have a verbal pop at the Holker subs who were warming up, resulting in the Chadderton manager apologising to his Holker counterparts for his behaviour. Within minutes of the re-start he’d took a swipe at someone while already on a yellow card, and even though he stayed on the field after a stern warning from the referee, he was sensibly withdrawn. He didn’t take it well, issuing a volley of obscenities at his own bench, and I suspect he’ll be another one to add to the list of ‘former’ players this season.

 

It got quite exciting as Chadderton took the lead thanks to a well taken half volley from the edge of the penalty area, but in the final quarter of the game Holker got what was probably a deserved equaliser from close range. It had been eventful, but I have to admit that the quality on display was not great, indeed, a Holker fan stood near to me shouted at one point in the second half,

 

“Two Sunday League sides, playing on a Sunday League pitch!” was his cry.

 

It was difficult to argue with him. I tried to envisage, as I often do when I’m at a ground, what it would be like to ‘have’ to be a fan of the home club. In other words, to feel obliged to turn up every week, and I have to be honest, Chadderton would not be somewhere I would want to return to regularly. The people were great, don’t get me wrong, but the club is on its uppers, constantly fighting on all fronts just to keep it’s head above water. It must be soul destroying for those involved, as attracting anyone on board to help must be nigh on impossible.

 

I drove home while being entertained by England stuffing the Northern Irish, and when I got back in the house I had to quickly rush to the bathroom. Five minutes of pain later, and I turned the bath taps on again, today is not a day that will live long in the memory for various reasons. Like Chadderton Football Club, it will probably be forgotten sooner rather than later.

 

 

Monday 28th March 2005

 

Padiham  4   Darwen  1

 

The planning had been meticulous, and thanks to a mixture of both good judgement and a little luck along the way, I’d got the run in to the season set up perfectly.

 

By that I mean that I’ve managed to schedule in a visit to every single ground I set out to the start of the season. Around eighty different venues in total, and only by regularly scouring websites, newspapers and magazines have I managed to do it. At one stage in January I thought I might be five venues short, by February I was down to just looking like missing two, and then as March has unravelled I’ve managed to set it up to perfection.

 

It is of course dependant on external factors, like the weather, fixture changes, and of course ‘issues’ outside of football! Well, it nearly went pear-shaped today thanks to the kids mother………

 

She’s been suffering with a heavy cold, and when I picked the kids up last night she looked rough. The plan was to take them back at 11am, and head off to Padiham, a bit earlier than would usually be required due to the unpredictability of the Bank Holiday traffic.

 

However, and just after ten o’clock last night, I rang her mobile to check she was ok, only for her own mother to answer it,

 

“She’s not very well, the paramedic is with her now and they are going to take her to hospital. I’ll have the kids tomorrow for you but you’ll have to pick her up as I’m not driving to Derby…….”

 

And that was it, my day was now looking as though it would be solely dependant on the whim of the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary and the speed in which they decided to release her. I immediately gave up on Padiham, and looked at other options.

 

If she got out before 2pm, I could perhaps get to a game in the Central Midlands League, but any time after that and I was going to have to ask her to have the kids the following night so I could get to a local evening game, like Belper Town v Ilkeston Town for example.

 

I went to bed feeling a bit annoyed, thinking my careful planning had all gone wrong because of a sodding chest infection! Anyway, the morning came, and I rang her mother at 9.30am to see if she had a report from the hospital, only to hear the following,

 

“Oh, sorry, they let her go almost as soon as they admitted her, she was back home for just before two. I forgot to ring you……”

 

Typical, but great news, I could get to Padiham, the ex-missus sounded rough, but was ok for having the kids as long as I got back to have them that night. It was off to Burnley.

 

I had been wondering about the route, simply because of the unpredictability of the traffic. I eventually plumped to go M1, M62 and then M66, as the motorway was the least likely road in the morning to be blocked with caravans and old twats in Austin Maxi’s. However, as I got to the Sheffield area I had the cunning plan of nipping along the Stocksbridge bypass and getting on the M60 at Hyde. It turned out to be a good move, as the weather started to clear and the scenery along the Woodhead Pass looked fantastic. By the time I’d done the M60, and got to the end of the M66 at Accrington it was only 12.45, I was going to be very early indeed.

 

I got to Padiham, one of the satellite towns of Burnley, by one o’clock and found the ground with ease despite the maze of side streets that lead to the Arbories Memorial Ground at he top of the hill. I parked up, and as I walked towards the ground I heard a voice,

 

“So you got to Padiham then?”

 

I looked up and spotted Alan Smith, the Secretary of Padiham who I’d had a chat with at Holker Old Boys just over a week ago. I’d told him I was planning to get to the game, and as we chatted, he told me just to wait a second while he nipped to his car. He came back with a copy of the programme from the game at Holker, where they’d sold out by 2pm,

 

“My mate never turned up at the game, and I remember you asking for a programme at the bar just after they’d run out, so you can have this one if you want?”

 

It was a nice gesture, I thanked him, paid my pound, and got directions to a local pub which Alan assured me would serve a good meal.

 

That was at 1.30pm, it’s now 9pm, and I’ve not had to eat since I sat down to a plate of sausage and mash in the Hare and Hounds! I’m not joking, I got six sausages, a mound of potato, and I just couldn’t finish it, all for just £3.25 as well! It was truly awesome, and I could sense that what looked like being a bad day last night, was quickly turning into a good one.

 

I had a walk back up the ground and surveyed the scene. The stadium is built into a hillside, with a very impressive new clubhouse and dressing room complex in the corner by the turnstiles. The building is on two floors, with the dressing rooms underneath and the clubhouse on top, but due to the slope, the clubhouse is at pitch level. Alongside the clubhouse is a small seated stand as pictured above, with a further area of covered terracing sat to the right hand end. Behind the goal at the clubhouse end is some covered terracing that steps upwards in line with the slope, while the opposite end is open with a huge net to stop stray shots from disappearing down the hill into the town centre.

 

Opposite the main stand is a natural grass bank, which offers the best views in the ground. From the top of this bank you can get some outstanding views across the valley towards both Burnley and the infamous Pendle Hills, with its witch population. Pendle Hill itself was made famous by Yvette Fielding and Derek Ackora in the now legendary episode of Most Haunted Live that was screened on Halloween. I recall sitting at home watching it, torn between sheer terror and complete amusement! However, in the bottom of the valley is the traditional centre of Padiham, characterised by its rows of terraced house which are associated with the mill towns of East Lancashire. And today was a traditional East Lancashire derby game against neighbours Darwen.

 

A crowd of just over 200 turned up to see a resurgent Padiham side, who had started the season superbly, but had a terrible run just after Christmas, take on a Darwen side that were seemingly playing out time in mid-table. Padiham need to keep winning and hope that a couple of other teams slip up if they want to secure one of the two promotion places available.

 

Stood on the top of the bank I watched the hosts take the game to Darwen, and grab a deserved opening goal when the visitors defence stood and watched as a Padiham striker waltzed in front of two strikers to poke the ball home following a cross.

 

Padiham continued to apply all of the pressure but couldn’t add to their tally, and as often happens in these instances, Darwen got a breakaway and equalised through a close range header. At half time with the scores level I bumped into Alan who did wonder if they would live to regret missed chances, but he confessed to not having seen much of the game as the higher than average crowd had resulted in car park congestion. He’d spent a good twenty minutes trying to find the owner of a blue Fiat Panda that was blocking the exits. Such is the life of a club official, you are often relieved when you have an away game!

 

I stood behind the goal for the second half and watched Darwen go down to ten men following a second booking for their centre forward. It did look as though they would then try and sit back to preserve the point, but within minutes Padiham had found the net to make it 2-1, and as a result the visitors were going to have to come out and try to salvage something from the game.

 

Padiham’s class told thereafter, with Gareth Seddon, the recent signing of a local boy from Rushden & Diamonds on the pitch. Two more goals followed as Darwen folded, and the outcome was both deserved and inevitable in the end.

 

Alan came and stood with me for a spell in the second half, in between retrieving balls from various gardens around the ground as they left the stadium. We chatted about the league, his side’s fortunes, and the character that is the Padiham manager, Steve Wilkes!

 

When I mentioned him, he paused for a moment and smiled, before telling the story of his first game in charge against Cammell Laird on the opening day of the season. It appears he’d been the victim of a punch by a Laird player, only to retaliate and precipitate a mass brawl involving both benches, both teams and a number of fans! The club were charged with failing to control it’s staff and supporters, Wilkes, while admitting to the retaliation, had initially been the victim so it seemed, but he too was carpeted by the Lancashire F.A. It lead me to asking about the aftermath of the Holker game where the referee made it clear that Wilkes was going to be reported for constantly encroaching onto the pitch.

 

“We’ve not had that one through yet, but I suspect he could be in trouble as it’s his second of the season!” said Alan with a chuckle.

 

It reminded me of a moment in the first half when the cry of “You useless fat bastard!” was aimed at the portly linesman from the vicinity of the Padiham bench. The referee looked across sternly, but obviously couldn’t distinguish who said it. Wilkes chirped up while pointing behind himself to the crowd who were assembled close to the dugout,

 

“It was one of them not me!” he pleaded.

 

The referee turned away, obviously in no position to do anything, when Wilkes decided to add further comment.

 

“It doesn’t mean to say I didn’t agree it though!” he quipped.

 

The referee could be seen trying to suppress his smile. Wilkes is the kind of character that has a love-hate relationship with officialdom, and from what I’ve seen of him, he’s quite a personality, and one that is obviously seeing his undoubted enthusiasm rub off on his players.

 

Alan bade me farewell and suggested I get to another Padiham game at some stage, leaving me to escape the car park and try and force my way past the stray Fiat Panda! The journey back was a doddle, less than two hours from Burnley to Belper, and as I got back to blighty it was just less than an hour until the kick off at Christchurch Meadow. I had toyed with ringing my Mum to see if she would babysit and let me go to the game, but it all seemed like a lot of hassle so I just picked up the kids and took them back to my house. This despite the attempts of a couple of my mates who rang me from the pub suggesting I joined them.

 

I did ask my Dad to text me score updates, and as I write this, he’s just informed me that the game ended 0-0. It’s a good job I didn’t go, I couldn’t have tolerated my impressive 140 game record being broken by Belper Town, as it was those bastards who started it back in November 2003!

 

Just ten more grounds to go now, let’s hope no one throws a spanner in the works at the eleventh hour. Bearing in mind I’m going to be attempting to get to Kington Town tomorrow night, it might be worth a call to Pauline Shaw in the afternoon. I’ve got a funny feeling that visiting Gornal Athletic just aren’t going to fancy a journey to the Welsh border on evening of the first day back at work, especially if they’ve been out on the pop today.

 

Watch this space…….

 

Tuesday 29th March 2005

 

AFC Telford United  2   Willenhall Town  2

 

I didn’t need to ring Pauline Shaw from Kington Town because moments after I’d finished writing the piece about yesterday’s game at Padiham, I decided to have a glance at the Bank Holiday Monday results.

 

Kington Town  0  Gornal Athletic  1

 

Thanks to Lord Tony of Kempster, I quickly discovered that in their wisdom, the two sides in question had done what I suppose was sensible at the end of the day, and moved the game from the Tuesday to the Monday, when people have got pretty much all day to travel to a game.

 

Ok, so its buggered up my plans to get to all the grounds planned, but by the same token, it gave me the opportunity to get to another game that really tickled my fancy, at a ground that has been surrounded with controversy in the recent past.

 

We all know the story about AFC Telford United, and of course their predecessor, Telford United FC. The new club have acquitted themselves well to UniBond Division One football, and sit in the play off positions. Their opponents were second placed Willenhall Town, who have hardly endeared themselves to the league with their ‘cynical’ methods this season, and to add a bit of space to the occasion, the two clubs have become fierce local rivals.

 

It hasn’t been helped by the fact that when the two teams met at Christmas, Willenhall basically took the piss by raising their admission charge to £8, in line with what it is at Telford, but allowed their own fans in for the regulation £5 due to a voucher scheme! This went down extremely badly in Shropshire, as did the 1-0 home victory.

 

The game tonight proved to be equally controversial, but more on that later.

 

It was the kids mother’s birthday the following day, and as of yet I’d done nothing on the present front. As she’d specified that she wanted a ring with the word ‘Mum’ on it, I knew what I was getting, but actually getting off my arse to do it was proving a problem.

 

However, Telford was the answer. I was off work, go early to do the shopping, and then head to the ground, it was all so simple…..

 

It never is though is it, for a start, Telford town centre, what a load of bollocks that is! As you drive down the M54, you expect to see a sign pointing to the town centre, but from my understanding of the map, the bulk of Telford is to the north of the motorway, so when the sign pointed me in a southerly direction I was a bit confused.

 

It’s weird, they have built what is effectively a town centre, out of town! The concept is quiet clever I suppose, cut down on congestion and the usual town centre problems by building what is the main shopping area, out of the way of any residential areas or through routes.

 

The big advantage is that it’s all in one area but I was kind of hoping of having a stroll round the town, taking in a few sights, trying a couple of pints, having a bite to eat, but what I really got was a smaller, and much more chav ridden version of Meadowhall.

 

It was altogether uninspiring, so after suffering a McDonalds with the rest of the urchins that congregate in the precinct, I decided to get that elusive ring, but the first two jewellers I tried had no such item. I got to the third place, and as luck would have it, they had one, so I asked the price, bearing in mind I was looking at thirty quid tops.

 

“It’s sixty pounds sir.” said the prim, but polite, shop assistant (even in Telford!)

 

Now then, it was a bit too much for me, but rather than look like a chav-esque cheapskate, I didn’t want to reject it purely on price, for I had a far more cunning plan. She needed a size ‘Q’, and if it wasn’t as such, I would make my excuses. Had the price been ok, I would have just had it altered anyway!

 

“It’s your lucky day sir, it’s the exact size!” she said with a smile that suggested she had me by the balls.

 

“Bollocks!” I thought, but I had no choice, I was running out of options, time, and more importantly, I didn’t want to look as though I was just another scrubber doing things on the cheap.

 

I paid up, coughed up a bit more to have it wrapped, before walking out of the shop wincing. I needed to get out of this shit hole, and I needed a pint, it was time to go…..

 

After eventually finding my way out of the maze that is Telford town centre, I got back on the M54 and headed for Wellington. I’ve actually been to Wellington and the Bucks Head before, in pre-season to see them play Hartlepool United about six years ago. I seemed to recall that the place was ok, but back then it was a lovely hot day and a Saturday afternoon when the town was bustling. But they always say, it’s best to judge a place when it’s empty, because only then will you appreciate the reality and see the things you wouldn’t see under normal circumstances.

 

Fucking hell, what a shit hole! The town centre is about ten minutes walk from the ground, and I’d arrived just after everyone had shut up shop and gone home. It was horrible, the only signs of life were some teenagers arguing, while the streets were dirty and the shops, well, cheap! After looking at a couple of pubs that were wholly unappealing, I settled upon the Charlton Arms, which was very nice. It was funny though, I heard a bloke sat near to me say to his mate, who was obviously not local,

 

“This pub is about as good as it gets, you wouldn’t even walk through the door of 90% of Wellington’s pubs!” 

 

After a couple of pints I walked back to the ground, and observed what is a mighty fine set up. The ground is dominated from the exterior by the Telford Whitehouse Hotel, which seemingly encloses two sides of the ground. The hotel bar ‘Joshuas’, doubles up as the supporters drinking den, but once you’ve paid £8 to get, and £2 for a programme, does the sheer magnificence of the place hit home. The main stand engulfs one side of the ground (as pictured below), with the best part of 2,000 seats in it. To the rear are the executive boxes, while underneath are various bars and food outlets.

 

At either end are large covered terraces, but tonight only one end was open for fans, which is par for the course at Telford, while the opposite side to the main stand is some uncovered terracing, and tonight only half of this was open.

 

I had a superb chicken balti pie, and got myself positioned at the rear of the terrace, only to have it announced that the game had been delayed until 8pm due to crowd congestion. When it was finally announced, via the impressive electronic scoreboard, 2,232 were in attendance, which was the second highest gate in the league for the season, beaten by the same club on their fun day back in March when over 4,000 turned up! The atmosphere, as you can imagine, was superb, proper Football League stuff.

 

When the game kicked off, Telford started like a house on fire and took the lead in the opening minutes from Kyle Perry who tapped home from close range. It was 2-0 mid-way through the first half when Sean Parrish rifled home from the edge of the box. From then on, Willenhall dominated the half and really should have scored at least once, if not got the scores back level. Only a bit of luck, good goalkeeping from Stuart Brock and poor finishing kept the ball out of the net for Telford.

 

The overriding theme of the first half was the extremely cynical and physical nature of Willenhall’s play. They had countless booked as they set about trying to intimidate and injure their opponents. Numerous melee’s broke out, and to list the catalogue of incidents would be just too much, suffice to say that the first half ended with a stewards escort for the match officials. Willenhall were jeered off, and reacted accordingly, it wasn’t cricket by any means!

 

John Quilt scored a superb free kick in the opening minutes of the second half, and from that point onwards Willenhall hammered Telford. I might be critical of their methods, but when they do try and play football, they are as good as anyone at this level. Chances came and went begging, and as the fourth official signalled three minutes of added time, it looked as though the three points were staying at the New Bucks Head.

 

Willenhall had other ideas, Quilt missed a one on one, and then in what is reported to have been the fourth minute of injury time, former Telford player Martin Myers bundled the ball home from close range for the equaliser. Cue chaos.

 

Myers ran up to the Telford fans in a Jose Mourinho ‘shush’ style, and was subject to a torrent of abuse. The Willenhall bench invaded the pitch, while the rest of the Willenhall players decided to gesticulate at the Telford fans.

 

The whistle for full time blew almost as soon as the game kicked off, and the visitors celebrated on the pitch as though they’d won the league, although to be fair they had just gone top! This went down very badly with the vast majority of the crowd, and the repercussions were to follow.

 

I couldn’t help but have a read of the forums the following day, and crikey, I hadn’t appreciated how badly Telford were going to react to it! ‘Thugs’, ‘Animals’, ‘Scum’, were just some of the names attributed to Willenhall’s players, management and fans. Willenhall reacted by accusing Telford of arrogance, but the neutral views were the most interesting.

 

You would have thought the neutrals would have sided with the smaller club, especially as Telford entered the league under a cloud in the Summer, but not so. Willenhall were vilified by all and sundry. Fans from North Ferriby United, Kendal Town. Mossley, Woodley Sports, and even Belper Town jumped on the bandwagon to condemn the approach adopted by Willenhall throughout the season.

 

Gary Hayward was far from impressed with their dressing room wall thumping antics and personal abuse that was dished out from their fans after the two games with Belper, while I also know that their approach has been ‘discussed’ unofficially at recent UniBond League management meetings.

 

It’s a shame, because they are an excellent side, but their reputation is going before them, and they do nothing to expel the myth. For example, at Telford the manager told one of his players to ‘break Parrish’s fucking legs’, while centre half Mark Creighton is alleged to have gobbed on an elderly Telford fan as he left the pitch. This was off the field stuff. Never mind the punch that caught Kyle Perry while he was minding his own business in the centre circle. I can imagine that the Willenhall ghetto blaster was in full force in the dressing room after the game. I wonder what they played, a Brummie version of “No one likes us, we don’t care?”

 

It all added up to a mighty fine evening’s entertainment though, and to put the icing on the cake, the ring went down well, as will my next credit card statement……

=======================================================

Tuesday 1st March 2005

 

Massey Ferguson  1   Southam United  3

 

I try not to let the bastards defeat me, and after suffering a wasted journey to Massey Ferguson for the game with Southam United last month, I was determined that once the game was re-arranged, I was going to sodding well make it!

 

However, with the game on the following Tuesday, I picked up the Non-League Paper on the Friday only to notice with horror that the infamous ‘Diary of a Groundhopper’ featured a visit to Coventry’s most famous works team. I’ll be honest, I don’t much care the chap that writes it, his articles are very much the same, and contain very little originality, while at the same time he does nothing to destroy the stereotype of the groundhopper being a sad obsessive who publicly ridicules clubs without having the faintest idea he’s doing it.

 

So lets pull his article apart, while at the same time adding my own alternative slant to it…………..

 

'I follow the directions I copied from the Midland Combination website to Banner Lane, Coventry, and find Massey Ferguson’s ground easily. It always helps us Hoppers when clubs provide clear instructions.'

 

Not that simple my old pal. Ok, having been to the ground before, I know exactly where it is, but we had to firstly establish if the game was on. So I took advantage of the fact that the Midland Combination website provides email addresses of club officials. I managed to get hold of Charles Hill, the Southam United Chairman, who told me the game was subject to a very late pitch inspection, 5.45pm to be precise. He told me to ring him at that time and he would be happy to confirm.

 

I decided to locate myself at Tamworth Services on the M42, handily placed for the Belper game at Gresley Rovers if it went ‘tits’. Anyway it was on, so off I toddled, only to find the M42 blocked from the M6 junction, so I had the bright idea of getting on the M6 and heading for Coventry that way. It was a bad move…..

 

I entered Coventry from the North, found the ring road, got lost and ended up in what appeared to be a red light district, without a map. With no clue where to go, and not daring ask anyone, I decided to follow the signs back to the M69 on the other side of the City and take the outer ring road from the East to the West. It took an age, but eventually I spotted some familiar sights in the Tile Hill region and got to the ground fifteen minutes before kick off. A complete ballache in all!

 

'The football ground is set within the compound of the tractor factory, and is not visible from the main road.'

 

Not strictly true my bobble hat wearing chum, it might not be visible from the road, but the tractor factory has been bulldozed, presumably in the space of two weeks as the ground is actually located at the back of what now is a fenced off demolition site! I’m beginning to wonder if Massey Ferguson are on the way out!

 

'The place seems deserted, I then notice he clubhouse away in the distance and head for it.'

 

Deserted, no shit mate! It was freezing cold, in the middle of nowhere and the team are doing shite, of course, they’re going to be queuing at the gates ! It’s not a clubhouse, it’s a shed containing a couple of dressing rooms and a cubby hole doubling up as a tea bar and hospitality area. You could get half a dozen people inside at a push.

 

'I notice the power lines running above the pitch, I look forward to a high clearance hitting them…….'

 

If any player can either manage a shot bad enough, or a clearance wayward enough to hit the power lines which just cut across the corner of the pitch, they ought to consider retiring. In ninety minutes of football, the ball went absolutely nowhere near them and consequently the National Grid in Coventry was safe!

 

'I am not expecting a programme tonight so I am delighted when I am told they are on sale in the refreshment area….'

 

True, available on the table propped up by crates where the tea is served in re-cycled plastic cups. To be fair, the guy from Massey’s who served me was very apologetic about the poor facilities and shite hospitality. He was honest enough to admit that few people actually cared any more, and he was as good as running the show alone!

 

'I take my place in the stand by the entrance, trying to shelter from the strong biting wind'

 

After traipsing through three inches of mud and nearly ending up on my arse, I managed to take my place at the back of the spacious shelter. It was still bastard cold though, and they didn’t sell any food whatsoever so I was starving to add to my woes. They did have a few seats, but they were mostly broken. Good floodlights though, and a very good looking playing surface??

 

'It was all one way traffic and the visitors should have been four up at half time.'

 

Southam were 2-0 up in this particular game, and it should have been six. Massey’s simply couldn’t defend, but did have a couple of lads upfront who looked to pose a threat, on the rare occasions they actually saw the ball. Southam made it 3-0 just after the break but then the home side put up a good fight, scored, and then for spells looked like the better team. The Massey’s manager, John Temple, a pony tailed mad Scotsman, was hugely entertaining to listen to as he growled in an incomprehensible Glaswegian drawl. He was also at Alveston on Saturday, along with the Southam boss incidentally, as I recognised both of hem

 

'There is a girl behind me wearing sequined, slipper style shoes with no socks. She is soon shivering uncontrollably.'

 

Lucky bastard! I would dearly have loved to have seen a bird in slippers shivering uncontrollably behind me. I admit that one or two nice specimens turned up, but they didn’t last long due to the weather, not so much as a tremble though, let alone an uncontrollable shiver!

 

And that was pretty much it, the harsh realities of it that is, as opposed to the monotone chronological breakdown of Mr Hopper’s evening out. What was interesting though was my chat before the game with Charles Hill from Southam, the guy who very kindly helped me out.

 

He walked into the cubby hole as I was pouring my own cup of tea (the chap from Massey’s was too busy trying to do the team sheet and sign on a goalkeeper!). He immediately came over to me to ask if I was who he thought I was! We had a brief chat and then I mentioned to him how surprised I was about the pitch. Despite the late inspection and doubts throughout the day, it looked excellent. I also mentioned how surprised I’d been that the game had been called off a few weeks earlier.

 

“Between you and me, they didn’t want to play this game tonight, they’ve got major problems on and off the pitch. The pitch was passed as playable last time in the afternoon by the referee, but after he’d gone they rang the league and called it off ! I was amazed when they called tonight to say we were playing.”

 

Very interesting, I thought, a bit of skulduggery from the Tractor Boys ! I chewed the fat for a little longer with Charles, but never spoke to him again during the evening.

 

As I didn’t speak to him again I decided to email him the following morning to thank him for his help, he replied, asking me if I would like to travel to a Southam United home game later in the season as a guest of the club. I was flattered, and surprised, and I will take up the kind offer.

 

I just wonder if our friend ‘the groundhopper’ has ever been afforded such hospitality on his travels by a visiting official? I think I can imagine what the answer would be….

 

 

Tuesday 15th March 2005

 

Wellington  5   Smethwick Sikh Temple  2

 

The one memory of Wellington that I will take to my grave is the overwhelming smell of cow shit!

 

But more on that later, because I think it’s perhaps pertinent to point out one of the pitfalls of midweek football in Herefordshire, the inability to get a pint of lager when one is so desperately required.

 

The story starts back in September! You may recall I travelled to Ledbury Town, and vowed never to venture such a distance in midweek again, only to repeat the exercise in February with a trip to neighbouring Bromyard Town, this time during a midweek snowfall!

 

Ledbury and Bromyard are two of the four clubs in this County I wanted to visit, and after I’d done them both, it left just Kington Town and Wellington. Kington Town, after an aborted Saturday attempt only recently, is now pencilled in for Easter Tuesday, while Wellington, after originally being the Easter Saturday fixture until it got changed, became the first choice for this evening.

 

If someone had told me when I got back from Ledbury that I would be going back to Herefordshire three times in midweek again, I’d have laughed, then swore, before perhaps head butting my computer screen. But as I said, changing the subject swiftly, getting a pint of lager in Wellington was far from easy as I shall explain.

 

After getting stuck in traffic on the last two visits, I decided to set off ultra early, and as a result I was on the outskirts of Hereford by 5pm due to sods law giving me no hold ups whatsoever. Wellington is a small village six miles North of the town, just off the Leominster Road, so as you can imagine I’d arrived in the village, found the ground, surveyed the scene, and looked for refreshment options before most people had finished work.

 

Wellington is a beautiful village, quaint and expensive looking. It’s the sort of place that requires prospective new residents to undergo an interview in the local parish hall before being allowed to purchase property. They had a very smart looking pub as well, The Wellington, but it was shut, so I decided to head out of the village to see what I could find, and the answer was nothing.

 

I went back onto the Leominster Road and spotted signs for a pub in a small village three miles away called The Railway, but when I arrived at the very plush looking place, it was also shut, so I turned around and headed back in the direction of Hereford. On the opposite side of the main road to Wellington were signs to a couple of villages, so I disappeared down the country lane to find yet another smart looking pub, but once again, it was shut. I decided at this point to head back to Wellington to see if the original boozer was open yet, but it wasn’t, and at that stage I made a split decision to head out of the village again and take the one route I hadn’t tried.

 

Eventually I found a place called Canon Pyon, and spotted a couple of pubs, one in particular called the Nags Head was very nice looking, but again, both were shut so I decided to go to the local Spar, get a sandwich and some crisps, and head back to the ground, which I knew hadn’t got a bar on it either! Lo and behold, as I was about to turn towards Wellington, I noticed the lights were on at the Nags Head…….

 

Bingo, it was 6pm, and the pub was open, where I was greeted by a cheery yokel landlord who served me a marvellous pint of Carlsberg, and talked me into buying a cheese and onion baguette. I was overwhelmed by the fact I’d found a pub that was open, and with a log fire to boot, I could finally smile, so after ordering I picked up a copy of the Hereford Journal.

 

I could have dropped my pint, because like blokes do, we turn to the back page first and I read the headline,

 

‘Moss’s Men Out To Shock’

 

Hereford United had played Hucknall Town the previous Saturday in the F.A. Trophy, and the local paper preview had got it’s facts wrong, they assumed Ernie Moss was still the Hucknall manager!!

 

Ernie is of course the manager at Belper Town, ever since Gary Hayward’s departure, and I thought about mentioning the blooper on the Nailers website forum, but then people would want to know how I got the information, and that would have opened a whole new can of worms. I decided against it in the end, but it was comical all the same.

 

My food arrived, and like a twat, when I’m the only one in the pub, with the landlord desperate to chat, I decide to miss my mouth with it and pour cheese all over the floor. He watched me do it, I apologised in a pathetic fashion, only for him to try and play it down by suggesting that his cat was hungry anyway!

 

He was a nice bloke though, we talked about football, he admitted to being a Manchester United fan, but he’d never seen them play. He also admitted to being a Hereford United fan, but he’d not seen them play for twenty years ! When I told him I was going to watch Wellington play, he told me that they were a good side, had a good ground, but, he’d never seen them play either….

 

Typical landlord, knows everything about anything, mainly from what people have told him, but has never experienced anything himself because he’s been too busy catering for other peoples needs ! That aside, we talked about the Cheltenham Festival, the SAS being located in Hereford, and then the fact that I wouldn’t mind another pint.

 

I admired the foaming pint, while our friendly landlord picked up his dustpan and brush to clean up my mess. Just as he was bending down I moved the glass to my mouth, tipped it, only to miss my mouth and pour it all over my trousers ! The landlord looked up, but perhaps feeling as embarrassed as I was, he quickly looked away, pretending he’d not seen my latest indiscretion. I could have died, I drunk up quickly, thanked him for his kind hospitality and headed back to Wellington.

 

Nice ground, set behind the local school, they’ve obviously built it up bit by bit as the team have progressed through the local leagues into semi professional football. I parked in the car park and headed in the direction of the pay hut at the side of the bowling green.

 

Cheap it was too, £1 to get in and further quid for a glossy programme, but something wasn’t right, because the big fear I had on the way to the game was looking like coming true. I had no doubts over the weather, but I had doubts about the reliability of the opponents, Smethwick Sikh Temple. After almost having my fingers burned by Wednesfield’s no show at Kington Town, I did wonder about the possibility that Smethwick might decide not to bother.

 

By 7.45pm they had two players at the ground, the rest of the team turned up just before 8pm after taking a wrong turn and ending up in Ledbury. We kicked off just after the hour on a cold night when perhaps fifty or so had turned up, so I decided to brave the elements and stand on the side that backs onto the ‘sheep pen’. Behind the goal is the dressing room complex and a small stand at an angle, almost on the corner flag. The other end is open with a field behind, while the opposite side to the ‘sheep pen’ has another football pitch on it, some floodlit five-a-side courts and an identical stand to the one in the corner.

 

I decided to stand alongside the dugouts, with the bleating of sheep behind me, and being a Derby County fan that’s a most welcoming sound indeed ! However, with the wind in the wrong direction, the local farmers prime cow dung was hanging well in the air, it stunk horrendously and can’t have helped the opposition players who would have had to breathe in the stench. The smell never went away all night, and I suppose a local would describe me as a typical ‘townie’ who didn’t understand the ‘woys of the cunndrry!’ I’ll tell you what though, I lived in the ‘country’ for 27 years but I don’t recall a permanent smell of shite as I left my folks front door!

 

The game was very entertaining, as Wellington took an early lead following hesitancy at the back by the visitors, but Smethwick equalised with a well taken half volley from the edge of the area that beat the home goalkeeper from the moment it left the strikers boot.

 

Wellington won a penalty after the kid in the Smethwick goal clumsily pole-axed an onrushing striker, only to be spared a card by the lenient referee. The penalty was converted, and then just before half time a well taken goal made it 3-1 to the hosts and the points did look safe.

 

Smethwick came out in the second half with plenty of spirit and pulled a goal back, only to see Wellington go straight down the other end and find the back of the net, but on this occasion it disallowed as the linesman had deemed that the ball had previously gone out of play. Within a minute it was 4-2 though thanks to another well taken finish.

 

The game was now over as a contest, and in a relatively meaningless last fifteen minutes, Wellington scored once more, and the game finally finished at ten to ten. Why does the late kick off always have to happen when I’ve travelled for miles??

 

I finally arrived home just after midnight, it is a long awkward route into Herefordshire, but then again, after checking the websites when I got back, I noticed that travelling the opposite way to me were the fans of Hereford United who were playing at Hucknall Town in the F.A. Trophy quarter final replay. They lost 1-0 which means we have two local teams in the semi-finals, with Hucknall joining Burton Albion. And to think, Hereford United have to travel all that way back after defeat, and re-acquaint themselves with the smell of odorous cow shit! And furthermore,  the pubs will have shut again by the time they get back…………. 

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Tuesday 4th January 2005

 

Rothley Imperial  0   Ellistown  3

 

How the hell do you get lost in a village?

 

Quite easily is the simple answer, because that’s exactly what I managed to do in Rothley, and it’s population of around 600 people!

 

The Leicestershire Senior League had a full programme scheduled for the Tuesday evening after Bank Holiday Monday, and I decided to take the opportunity to visit it’s newest recruit, the delightfully named Rothley Imperial.

 

Rothley – pronounced ‘Row-thley’ – won the First Division last season, and subject to them getting floodlights installed in time, they had won promotion to the Premier Division for the first time in their history. I must confess to having known very little about the club before my visit, except for a piece penned by Martin Wray who edits the ‘Football Grounds In Focus’ website, and from that article I learned that the club were located just off the A6 on the border between Rothley and Mountsorrell, on what is known as Loughborough Road.

 

How hard can it be? I mean, one main road, and all I had to do was find a set of floodlights or so it seemed.

 

I drove down the A6 Quorn / Mountsorrell bypass, which confused matters as this was the genuine A6, but the ground directions said the A6 was called Loughborough Road? I then spotted a sign for Mountsorrell and found the main road that runs through the village. I took a guess that the ground would be towards the Rothley end of the village but when I got to the end I noticed the road was called Leicester Road.

 

Common sense told me to turn round and head towards Loughborough, as this would surely be Loughborough Road, which it was, but no ground was to be seen, and I was to end up back in Quorn. I turned round and got back on the bypass hoping to get an elevated view and maybe see some lights, which I did, those of Barrow Town! But then some floodlights appeared in the middle of Mountsorrell, however as I got nearer I noticed it was an all weather five-a-side court!

 

I felt like giving up and buggering off to Holwell Sports or somewhere like that when I had a flash of inspiration, why didn’t I ask somebody? So I did, a couple of women out walking dogs, and they directed me straight to the ground. It turns out that when I first entered Mountsorrell and headed for Rothley I didn’t go far enough, as the ground, despite being advertised as being just in Mountsorrell, is actually in Rothley, and it’s almost on the roundabout at the end of the bypass (just off the A6 of course, which explained that bit of confusion). As for Loughborough Road, well it appears it’s in two parts, Loughborough Road in Rothley becomes Leicester Road in Mountsorrell which then becomes Loughborough Road in Mountsorrell.

So that’s how I got lost in a village, easy done when you consider all of the facts!!

 

Rothley’s ground is basic to say the least, from the car park you walk up some steps  on a bank to quite an impressive social club, while the dressing rooms are underneath and literally cut into the bank. The club have installed floodlights, but that’s about it. They have no cover whatsoever, although the pitch is fully railed and one side is all hard standing. I’m not sure what the ground grading requirements are in the Leicestershire Senior League, but Rothley, while neat and tidy, must have just scraped the required pass mark.

 

At only £2 to get in I wasn’t going to complain though, and I sat down with a pint in the spacious club. It turns out that the club is effectively the focal point of the village of Rothley, and I wondered if it subsidises the football club. Certainly to be able to afford floodlights they would have needed to have got the money from somewhere, and nothing pointed to any grants or funding, so I could only assume it’s all been done via private funds, be it the cub or a rich benefactor.

 

By kick off time around 70 or so had turned up, half of whom must have been groundhoppers, and my how did they all look like clones of each other. Bag, tatty old coat, woolly hat, spectacles, and the ability to form a huddle amongst themselves quicker than Glasgow Celtic in a pre-match warm up! In fact two of the funniest things I saw all night involved the groundhoppers.

 

First we had an argument amongst some of them because one guy, who appeared to be the ringleader, had been misinformed over a game being off on the previous day. He was blaming all and sundry for being given the wrong information, and it appears that a form a Chinese Whispers had take place whereby a call to a ground had resulted in a game being off, but by the time it reached the big chief, it had been put back on again.  He turned up, only to be disappointed. When he went to the bog all of his menials started chatting amongst themselves, discussing who was to blame for the gross indiscretion, and no one wanted to let the buck stop with themselves!

 

Then in the first half we had the kids playing football at the side of the pitch, and as the ball flew in the direction of the pitch, one of the kids hurtled after it, but he was wearing football boots. He hit the hard standing and flew feet first into a groundhopper with what could only be described as an ‘over the top tackle’. The groundhoper was well and truly skittled, with spectacles, woolly hat and pre-packed sandwiches flying everywhere. I found it hilarious, the groundhoppers less so, I half expect a letter of complaint in the Non-League Paper shortly.

 

The game was pretty even for the first half an hour, but then the visitors Ellistown, who sat third in the league, got an opening goal following a quick break. Ellistown are a club who’s fortunes I’ve followed for a couple of years, I’ve never been to the ground, but they play in a village just outside Coalville. They’ve been consistently one of the better sides in the league and in striker Carl Eagling, they also have one of the hotter properties. They gave higher ranked Long Eaton United a rough ride in the Vase this season as well, so I did expect them to be a half decent side.

 

They went on to prove that they were a good side in second half by scoring twice to seal the game. Eagling grabbed the second from close range, while the third was a well taken half volley that saw the hosts goalkeeper rooted to his spot.

 

Rothley looked pretty average in their modified Barcelona away kit, but they have adapted quite well to their new league, and before the game lay eighth. It’s got to be about consolidating this season for them, and then building on their good work. Ellistown will be looking to catch Holwell Sports and Thurnby Rangers who sit above them in the league, and I guess their ambition is to make it to the Midland Alliance and follow the path trodden before them by their near neighbours Coalville Town who came out of the Leicestershire Senior League only two seasons ago.

 

I may well go and watch them at home to Oadby Town next Tuesday in the Westerby Cup, but this time, I won’t let the fact that Ellistown is only a village make me think it’ll be easy to find. Apparently it’s on the main road, and they only have two roads in the whole village.

 

Should be a piece of piss…………..

 

Saturday 15th January 2005

 

Thurnby Rangers  3   Aylestone Park Old Boys  0

 

A couple of years ago, when Coalville Town were winning the Leicestershire Senior League, they were run close by an outfit called Thurnby Rangers.

 

It was quite an achievement for Coalville to win the league because Thurnby had a reputation for being big spenders. I don’t mean that they were offering a few quid more than the rest, they were offering the kind of money that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Dr Martens or UniBond League. How did I know you might wonder? Well, Richie Butler, Belper’s former left back, joined them after leaving Eastwood Town when they cut the money, and he was quick to express his surprise at the impressive terms he’d been offered.

 

It went pear shaped though, the money man left at the end of the season, no doubt annoyed that his investment hadn’t paid off, and ironically defected to Coalville of all places. As a result, Thurnby just escaped relegation last season after a dreadful time, but this time around, they lead the league and haven’t lost a single game.

 

I wondered if the money man was back on the scene, but apparently not, they’ve just regrouped and built a pretty useful side, so it was worth a look.

 

The problem with the Leicestershire Senior League though is the public relations, it’s crap! They don’t have a website and neither do any of the clubs, except Ibstock Welfare but that’s hardly ever updated. Very few of them do programmes so it’s impossible to find out what’s happening, except for whatever snippets can be found in the Non-League Paper.

 

The clubs don’t exactly go overboard when it comes to providing details to the Non-League Directory either, and Thurnby were no exception, all we got was a secretary’s name and number, plus a ground address. So when it came to planning this trip, it was pretty hit and miss to say the least.

 

As I’ve now ‘done’ all of the grounds I want to visit down to Level 5, barring Total Network Solutions, I’ve decided to devote January to this particular league. It would be a good league for midweek games due to its proximity, but as midweek games are few and far between, I’m having to diary them in for Saturday’s instead. So what it did mean was a leisurely lie in on Saturday, followed by a noon start. I was down in Leicester by one o’clock, passing the grounds of Highfield Rangers and Thurmaston Town as I made my way towards the very eastern tip of Leicester and the beautiful village of Thurnby.

 

I did have a pre-conceived idea of Thurnby, and that was of a nice secluded setting within what is a very exclusive village. Bearing in mind someone had pumped a good deal of money in a couple of years ago, I suspected it wasn’t going to be dissimilar to Ardley United in the sense that one mans wealth had lifted a village club to a level that in all honesty they wouldn’t have achieved had it not been for his help.

 

Having said that, I’d also got some nagging doubts. A couple of weeks ago I was reading one of my football hooligan books which described the Baby Squad from Leicester City. Apparently the gang is split into sub groups from differing parts of the city, and one of these is named the Thurnby Republican Army! Now that didn’t make sense to me, unless of course the T.R.A. was made up of rich people with an underlying need for violence when they weren’t striking property deals or performing open heart surgery at Glenfield Hospital!      

 

I got into conversation with a Shepshed Dynamo fan at Ellistown during midweek and told him that I was planning to go to Thurnby the following Saturday,

 

“I wouldn’t bother mate, it’s a shithole, and if that club wins the league they’re going nowhere, it’s a field with a railing and some crappy floodlights.”

 

I didn’t take it altogether too seriously as Shepshed fans do have a slightly uncomplimentary attitude to clubs from a lower level to themselves. I think it’s a fear factor of ending up playing with them at some stage, which is strange because the Leicestershire Senior League is exactly where they came from back in 1981 when they were rising through the ranks as Shepshed Charterhouse.

 

I found Thurnby fairly easily and admired the stunning properties, but where was the ground? I opened up the trusty A-Z and found Dakyn Road, it wasn’t in Thurnby itself, but in Thurnby Lodge which was back towards the city. I found Thurnby Lodge and looked in horror at the place. It was basically a huge council estate on one side, flanked by a series of grotty looking flats on the other, while sandwiched in between was the tin pot ground.

 

I was genuinely surprised but slightly un-nerved at the same time, especially as I was pulling into the car park and I saw two kids, aged about 14, riding a moped up the road without crash helmets. It was straight out of a ‘Police, Camera, Action’ programme where they focus in on estate and highlight it’s many problems, usually with the help of the Police Helicopter!

 

I got out of the car and surveyed the scene, it was literally a pitch, with a railing, and some floodlights. They had no cover, while at the top of the bank behind the goal were some dressing rooms and a small tea bar. I asked the gateman if they had a club house, but he just directed me to the pub at the top of the road, ‘The Manor’, claiming it to be the unofficial home of Thurnby Rangers……

 

I thought about giving it a miss, but at the same time my warped sense of curiosity saw me trundling up the road to try a pint. It’s one of those huge places that are often found on council estates with a massive car park, full of white vans and old Ford Escort’s. I spotted the door for the lounge, but as I approached I could feel the crunch of broken glass under my feet, I couldn’t turn back now though, especially as some chaps looking through the window had clocked me.

 

As I walked in I could hear plenty of noise to my left, I waited until I got to the bar and then glanced around. To my left was a group of about twenty blokes dressed in stereotypical football hooligan gear. You know the stuff, Burberry, Aquascutem, Henri Lloyd etc, etc. I think I’d found the Thurnby Republican Army.

 

I bought a pint and moved as far to the back of the lounge as I could, well out of the eye line of the T.R.A. who were getting more than a little excited by the Liverpool v Manchester United game on TV. In the lounge were the occasional couple, and a number of middle aged blokes drinking themselves silly at the bar. It was rough, and I could only just imagine what it would be like later on that night. I did manage two pints though, before walking back to the ground just in time for kick off.

 

The opposition, Aylestone Park Old Boys won promotion last season along with Rothley Imperial, while this season they’re comfortably mid-table. They ran out in their all blue kit, while Thurnby appeared in a Portugal kit! Now I’ve got nothing against the Portugal kit, it’s very smart, but this is semi-professional football, and you would have thought they could at least afford a kit that is unique to themselves.

 

It’s little things like that that let the league down, especially when you compare it to the Midland Combination and the West Midlands Regional league’s which it’s on a par with. To my mind, the Combination is by far the best in terms of standards and professionalism, the Leicestershire Senior League is without doubt the worst.

 

A crowd of about fifty or so saw Thurnby take the lead mid way through the first half, and then they grabbed a second towards the end of the period when a hopeful cross from the left drifted over the Old Boys goalkeeper and into the back of the net.

 

The floodlights flickered into life for the second half, with half of the bulbs out, and it wasn’t long before the third and final goal arrived. It was scored by the Thurnby number eight who ran from just inside the Aylestone half before beating three men and shooting low into the net. It was a lovely goal, and it effectively ended the game, Thurnby were to remain unbeaten at the top of the league.

 

I have to be honest, I’ve seen better sides in this league this season, Ratby Sports are one of them, but you can’t argue with the league table. Thurnby played ok, but they weren’t outstanding. If anything, I would describe them as slightly cocky, especially after they took the lead, while the population on the bench was a pain in the arse but that seems to go with the territory in this league.

 

I was quite pleased to get away, with car intact, and as the players left the field whooping with delight it all began to make sense. Thurnby’s money man probably pulled out because he quickly realised that the club is going nowhere. Develop the facilities and they’ll only get vandalised. Indeed, the rich men of Thurnby wouldn’t be seen dead in Thurnby Lodge so he was also unlikely to get any support from the wider community either.

 

I would also imagine that your average Dr Martens League player would look at the place and think ‘fuck that’, no matter how much money he was being paid.

 

Having said all of that, those currently involved have to be congratulated for turning things round and doing so well this season. But as an outsider looking in, what is the point of winning the league if you aren’t going anywhere? The players will get frustrated and leave eventually. They aren’t going to worry about that right now at Thurnby Rangers though, it’s all back to The Manor for a night of drinking, eating, and throwing pint pots at each other no doubt!

 

I’m so disappointed I’m going to miss it…..

 

Wednesday 26th January 2005

 

Total Network Solutions  2   Rhyl  1

 

As far as eagerly awaited trips go, this was the most eagerly awaited of the lot. I’ve mentioned before that when I looked through the list of venues that were on the agenda for this season, one or two didn’t fill me with great joy, but one sprang out a mile in the ‘looking forward to it’ stakes.

 

Total Network Solutions, or TNS as they are more commonly known, the rich village club currently topping the Welsh Premier League, has been pencilled in for a while, but for a variety of reasons, not least the weather, it hasn’t happened until now. On top of that, it finishes of my primary objective of the season, getting to all of the grounds within 100 miles of my house up to step four of the pyramid. I include the Welsh Premier League within that as I do regard it as being on a par with the UniBond Premier, if not in some cases to the Conference North.

 

It’s a pretty well known story by now about a small village club from Llansantffraid – ym – Mecham. As the following extract from the clubs website summarises perfectly.

 

LLANSANTFRAID FC paddled in the quiet backwaters of amateur football for more than 30 years until, as the FAW began to build a pyramid system in Wales, the Saints began their climb. With an ambitious and innovative committee, and galvanised by the possibilities opening up for Welsh clubs, the club won three promotions in four seasons to reach the League of Wales in 1993.


Observers of the Welsh soccer scene predicted instant relegation. But the club defied the odds to survive in the top flight. Every step of the way, the club grew in stature and the Treflan trophy cupboard began to fill. The League Cup was won in 1995 and then, at the old National Stadium a year later, Llansantffraid triumphed in the Welsh Cup, leading to a first European experience in Poland.

 

In 1997, computer company Total Network Solutions, from their base on the border in Oswestry, made Llansantffraid an offer no club could refuse. In the absence of sponsorship, TV revenues or public assistance, WP clubs cannot afford to reject a helping hand. In a shoestring league you don't need a fortune to get ahead - any investment will lift you ahead of the pack. The price of the deal was a change of name to TNS. In most countries businesses support clubs, in many countries clubs are businesses, but only in Wales could it happen that a business IS the club!


When TNS wrestled the championship title from Barry Town's grip in 2000, their astonishingly rapid rise to the top was not complete. Managing director Mike Harris never rests on his laurels. A new stand, fully professional status, a youth structure and a twinning deal with Chelsea have followed and TNS are now regular title contenders and European qualifiers.
Now, the merger with Oswestry Town has given the club further impetus with plans for a 3,000 seater modern stadium over the border in a far more populous area, with the opportunity to develop and increase the club's fan base.

 

So TNS are a big player, but last season they got a proverbial kick in the knackers when Rhyl surprised many by taking the league title, which was effectively sealed live on BBC when they beat TNS 1-0 in a dour game at Belle Vue. To cap it though, Rhyl went on to beat TNS again the League Cup, and that stung TNS, big style! This season TNS lead the way, having won 1-0 at Rhyl earlier in the season, and just three days before this F.A.W Premier Cup quarter final, they scored a late equaliser at Treflan to gain a point from their now bitter rivals.

 

I planned it well, a day off work, no stress, and a steady drive down early afternoon to the village. I wasn’t sure of the quickest way so I went over to Stoke on Trent, on to Market Drayton and then to Whitchurch. I then went down to Oswestry, had a bite to eat and then made the final stage of the journey over the Welsh border.

 

How beautiful that stage was too, following the route to Lake Vyrnwy through some picturesque countryside, I finally got to Llantsanffraid around 5pm, with the kick off still two hours away. No mobile reception, so that was bliss, and all I did was sit in the car in a car park just off the main road in this tiny village, watching the time pass by. I felt incredibly relaxed and contented, I could definitely retire to Wales, I genuinely have begun to love the place, and only really through my football travels as before that I was as prejudicial as the next Englishman.

 

I decided to head to the ground just before 6pm, noticing immediately that the game was being televised due to the large number of BBC outside broadcast vehicles in attendance. That was to take a strange twist that I’ll come onto later. The ground itself though is rather strange.

 

The car park sits just behind the TV gantry, which is a huge double decker thing on what is an open side of the ground. I say open, it’s a short path with a fence, and the changing rooms are located in the corner to the left, which appear to be in the local Community Centre that backs onto the ground. Behind one goal is a small path and a large fence designed to prevent the ball front going into the adjacent five-a-side court, while on the side opposite the TV gantry is a small stand on the half way line seating about 200, which is cut into a steep grass bank. The path continues along the top of the bank before turning round to the other goal, behind which sits a huge 500 seater cantilever stand. A small hospitality box sits alongside the stand, while in the opposite corner are the turnstiles and the clubhouse, which was to be my first port of call.

 

The clubhouse was still entitled ‘Llantsanffraid Football Club Social Club’, and I arrived just as the bulk of the TNS team also made an appearance. They were mainly scousers, but professional footballers with it so I was hoping that some of their rougher edges had been smoothed off. It appears that they train on the Wirral on a full time basis, and then travel the fifty or so miles for a home game, and in many cases, an awful lot more for an away game. Having said that, the Rhyl team turned up shortly afterwards, and guess what? Yep, John Hulse’s men were as scouse as the Mersey Tunnel, and their was me thinking that Cammell Laird would be the last time this season…………

 

Sat enjoying a pint and reading the excellent programme, I suddenly sensed someone watching me. I glanced up only to see a TV camera less than two feet from my face.

 

“Excuse me mate, can we just film you reading the programme, it’s for tonight’s intro?” said the cameraman.

 

“Err, yes!” was my nervous reply.

 

I had to sit in silence for what seemed an age, while the cameraman kept making minor adjustments to the angle I was holding the programme. Those sat around me were passing comment under their breath, I was finding it difficult not to laugh. Eventually he departed and I glanced up to see those around me staring, I felt I had to say something to break the ice,

 

“Most entertaining advert I’ve ever read!”

 

It raised a smile in one corner, and a slight chuckle in another, but I was quite excited, I quickly got on the phone to ask the ex-missus to watch BBC2 Wales later that night, forgetting she doesn’t have satellite TV.

 

But we had a game a watch, and what a cracker it was too. I stood at the top of the bank during the first half, almost directly behind the Rhyl dugout, and I have to say that I was impressed with the atmosphere created by the Rhyl fans. In fact, I wondered how the TV sound man would cope with the editing, as every second chant during the first half seemed to refer to TNS boss Ken McKenna and his apparent ability to use his right hand in an illicit fashion! From reading the programme it also appears that a Rhyl fan got on the pitch at the end of the game on Sunday and confronted McKenna, the relationship it seems isn’t a good one between the TNS boss and the Rhyl following.

 

On the field, it was quite fast and furious, TNS dominated play from the start, but they lost their way after gifting the visitors the lead mid-way through the first-half. There appeared to be little danger when John Leah headed into his own net from a corner, but he later stated that he lost the ball in the floodlights. Boosted by their lead, Rhyl had much the better of the remaining first-half play, but TNS came out with their sleeves rolled up for the second-half. Jamie Wood was unlucky to see his effort bounce down off the bar without crossing the line, and Steve Evans fired just wide when Mike Wilde flicked on a Naylor free-kick.


But increasing pressure finally gained its reward after 57 minutes, when a Greg Stones foul led to a free-kick and a corner, from which Marc Limbert could only clear off the line to the feet of Evans who delivered a six-yard shot into the corner of the net.

Rhyl keeper Paul Smith, whose error allegedly cost his side three points on Sunday, was a hero for the visitors with a string of fine saves but he could do nothing to stop Wood's winner after Scott Ruscoe had cleverly chipped a cross to the far post.
In a heart-stopping finish, TNS’s Chris King was lucky to escape a penalty shout after impeding Lee Hunt, but referee Lawlor waved play on and substitute Peter Smith somehow missed a gaping goalmouth with ex Derby County goalkeeper Gerard Doherty already committed.

I spent the second period stood behind the goal TNS were attacking, in a well disguised attempt to get myself on TV again, but alas I was never to find out if I did make it as I was never going to get back home for the 10pm highlights show. The Rhyl fans were again excellent in the second period, and created a great atmosphere in the cantilever stand. They did have some competition though from a bus load of local school kids who got free entry to the game, and thankfully they toned down the abusive chanting.

 

TNS thoroughly deserved the win and looked an excellent side, whereas Rhyl were just not good enough on the night despite a valiant attempt. It had been a superb game of football, and with a minimum of £25,000 at stake for the winners, who now go on to face Wrexham in a money spinning local derby, both sides had given their all. I sensed that this competition is the big one when it comes to the cups. The League Cup is a bit Mickey Mouse, while the Welsh FA Cup has prestige, but nowhere near the prize money. Put it this way, if TNS reach the final they get a minimum of £50,000, and if they win it, they get £100,000 plus a large slice of TV money.

 

I decided to take a different route back, via Shrewsbury and the M50, it was a shade quicker, but it flew by as I spent most of if thinking how great an evening it had been. I’d enjoyed every minute, and I think it will be hard to find a better ‘occasion’ than this during the current season. I spoke to a couple of TNS fans before the game who told me that they travel to every game from Birmingham after becoming ‘hooked’ after a visit last season. I can fully understand why, and judging by the stream of cars that followed me all the way back from Llansantffraid and over the English border, they aren’t the only ones either. I tend to follow the fortunes of most clubs I visit, but I’ll watch the progress of TNS with even more interest from now on.

 

Saturday 5th February 2005

 

Highfield Rangers  1   Thurmaston Town  1

 

At first glance, the Gleneagles Road ground of Leicestershire Senior League basement club Highfield Rangers, is uninspiring to say the least.

 

The ground is approached via a typical inner-city housing estate, and sits in a large green expanse at the end of a long and well secured car parking area. The playing arena is floodlit, railed, and has a very small covered stand which would hold twenty at a push, situated right on the half way line.

 

It’s fenced in on three sides, two of which are flanked by the main road and the Midland Main Line (the same one that runs alongside Friar Lane & Epworth) respectively. The remaining side is open, leading to a couple more pitches and a cricket square. The club house and dressing rooms are located in what looks like an aircraft hanger, which in itself is a good 100 yards from the pitch. Dotted around the ground are various ‘artefacts’ such as a broken mower, a hospital theatre trolley ??, and the obligatory collection of broken chairs.

 

It’s hardly Old Trafford, in fact it’s nothing more than a parks pitch which has been furnished with the bare necessities to allow it to remain in the league, and of course enter the F.A. Vase.

 

Don’t let it put you off though, because I was on the verge of turning round and heading off to perhaps nearby Birstall United, when I discovered a very unique charm. Part of that charm is the history of Highfield Rangers, which I’ll try and summarise.

 

Formed in the late sixties, the foundations of Rangers were built on the Afro-Caribbean population of Leicester. They retained their ethnic tradition as they slowly forced their way through the local leagues, before venturing into the Central Midlands League. That foray didn’t last too long and they eventually found their way into the Leicestershire Senior League, where they remain today.

 

During this period they have won the league twice, building excellent sides, and gaining publicity for their hard working efforts at providing a point of focus for the minority of the city who perhaps felt that the cards were stacked against them. A glance at the huge wall in the club house adds weight to the story.

 

Countless team photo’s show junior and ladies set ups amongst the traditional first team, and on one of the pictures I spotted a youthful Dion Dublin who started his career at Rangers. Two plaques on the wall celebrate the opening of the club house, the guests of honour were legendary black footballer Bob Hazell, and of course the West Indies cricketing icon, Gordon Greenidge. It was also interesting to note that the founding members of the club, are still involved all of these years later, and that is something Rangers are justifiably proud of.

 

Highfield Rangers were perhaps the pioneers when it came to ethnically diverse football clubs, outfits like Continental Star, Smethwick Sikh Temple and of course Barnt Green Spartak have emerged in the Midlands since. Nationally though we also now have Sporting Bengal United and London APSA, but it is worth pointing out a bit of sad news this weekend, the wonderfully titled Punjab United have had to withdraw from the Central Midlands League, lets hope its not a sign of things to come.

 

It’s not been a good season though, prior to last weekend the once mighty Rangers sat bottom of the table, and as the publicity machine at the Senior League is far from operational, I was to get a surprise when I arrived, as it appears things have changed a little in the past month.

 

I walked into the huge expanse of the bar, expanding upwards that is, it must be forty feet high, to be greeted by literally no one! It was nearly 2.30pm, and the place was empty, but then two chaps wandered in, talking in thick West Indian tones,

 

“De refaree has just condemned de pitch man.” said the slighter built of the two.

 

“Well, we need to get dat little bit more professional, we should have bin down at de ground dis morning to sort out de water and de markings man!” said the other chap who was pinning the latest press cuttings to the notice board.

 

“Anyway, I’d better go and serve de man.” his mate replied, spotting me at the bar.

 

I ordered a pint of lager, only to be joined by a middle aged couple who enquired about obtaining a cup of tea, the response was beautifully laid back,

 

“Well, de man who does the tea isn’t here yet lady, but he should be in de next ten minutes or half an hour or so, if you don’t mind de wait?”

 

It was wonderful, and almost impossible to complain about the complete lack of facilities, or seeming lack of concern about anything at all. I made my way to the pitch, no one bothered to collect and admission money, and I stood in the stand along with half a dozen Thurmaston Town fans and two or three Rangers fans. The Rangers fans had Rastafarian hair styles, and one of them was smoking a bifter, quite publicly, but no one seemed to care. As the players emerged, the Rangers fans saluted their mates in the team and vice versa, it was almost like a family gathering, but recent events have seen a change at the Rangers.

 

In charge now at Highfield is Kirk Masters, a former player who hit the non-league headlines a few years ago, for somewhat unsavoury reasons. Masters is a devout Muslim, who played at a good level for Gresley Rovers, Shepshed Dynamo and Halesowen Town amongst others, but while at Shepshed he was regularly subjected to racist abuse from opposition players. He eventually quit football at that level after a game which saw his opponent tug continually at his beard. His beard of course is symbolic of his religious faith. The story made national headlines, he was regarded as a pioneer amongst his people for being perhaps the first devout Muslim to play football at such a good level. Masters also played for the successful Rangers sides of the late nineties, and he had brought back a few old faces with him.

 

Former Highfield heroes Maurice Rowe, a talented midfielder, and Chris Tonge, a defender, returned from Barwell, while in attack was Damien Heskey, the brother of you know who! They were obviously looking to pull away from the relegation zone and retain their proud tradition in the top flight of Senior League football.

 

The first half saw Highfield pretty much batter the mid table opponents, but they simply couldn’t find the target. Masters looked in a different class on the left hand side, while Rowe was pulling the strings in midfield. The second half saw Thurmaston take the lead after some poor marking at a corner, and this certainly took the wind out of Rangers sails. Thurmaston then took control and looked the better side, squandering numerous chances to make the game safe. Just as it looked as though Rangers were heading for defeat, the game was well into injury time when they broke from the half way line, and the nippy centre forward, who’s name I do not know, showed great composure in rounding the visiting goalkeeper to score.

 

Not only that, Rangers had a chance to grab a winner in the very last seconds, but a superb diving save meant the points were shared. Rangers celebrated like they’d won the league at the final whistle, and I suspect that they have enough quality now to move away from the bottom of the table It appears they’ve decided to rely on a number of players who’s roots are at the club, and hope the passion that will rouse, will no doubt see them through.

 

A remarkable club really, and as the chap in the bar before the game suggested, it would be interesting to see what would happen if they did adopt a more professional attitude. But then again, to become more professional would surely see that unique charm disappear. I say stick to the amateurism Highfield, it suits you much better!

 

Tuesday 8th February 2005

 

Coalville Town  4   Stratford Town  1

 

I was glancing through my records at the weekend and as I often do when I carry out such tasks, I was curious to see where I was this time last season. On Saturday 7th February 2004 I saw Ashton Town beat Winsford United 5-1.

 

Nothing remarkable in that you might wonder? Well, not really, except I travelled north that afternoon expecting to see St Helens Town take on Fleetwood Town. I recall it well, sat in the car park at the huge Knowsley Road ground, wondering why no-one seemed to be arriving at the game, only to find it had been called off at 9am!

I had to hot foot it across the East Lancs Road, arriving at Ashton bang on 3pm, only to find that due to a lack of floodlights, the game had kicked off at 2.30pm! It was a classic schoolboy error, I’d assumed all would be ok and travelled without checking, I vowed never to repeat the mistake again.

 

I’d had a busy day, I’d been lumbered with a trainee at work who the compliance department felt would be best served spending a day in my company to see how the job was done. Properly apparently? I had no major exceptions, but the problem with having virgin employees on my case means I have to be seen to be whiter than white myself. That means no internet, no personal phone calls, and no mid afternoon exits to travel to football……………………

 

Massey Ferguson v Southam United was on the agenda, and it had been a fine day, so I never even thought it would be a problem. So with trainee dispatched back to Rotherham, I jumped in the car and headed for Coventry full of eager anticipation.

 

I got to the area of Coventry that the ground was located in for about 6.30pm, only to find the gates locked at the ground. I didn’t worry too much as it was a bit early. I gave it fifteen minutes and drove back only to find the gates still locked. It was now a bit concerning so I drove up to the gatehouse at the actual Massey Ferguson works and asked if the ground had another entrance I wasn’t aware of.

 

“They won’t be playing tonight mate, the pitch is fucked after Saturday’s game, they were talking about calling it off as soon as the game at the weekend was finished, and that was three days ago!”

 

That buggered that up then, but thankfully I was prepared, and while my preparations were useful, they were also a bit sad.

 

About a week ago I succumbed to something I vowed never to do, I subscribed to ‘Football Traveller’ magazine, which is a weekly publication of, for want of a better description, a fuck off great fixture list covering everything down to Belper Town Reserves level of football. It’s regarded as the ‘bible’ for anoraks around the UK, and I’ve always cringed at its mention, but I suppose I did it mainly out of curiosity. What a riveting read it’s been too, especially on the night I first got it when I lay in the bath with can of Carlsberg in one hand and the weekends Leicestershire Senior League fixtures in the other, how many other ‘travellers’ can say that the perused their copy in such surroundings…….

 

However, it did give me a number of options, but the one that stood out was at Coalville Town who were playing Stratford Town in the Midland Alliance. I left Coventry at 6.45pm, and within 35 minutes I was back up the M42 and pulling into the car park at Owen Street in Coalville.

 

Now I’ve been to Coalville before, last season when they played Boldmere St Michaels, fresh from their promotion out of the aforementioned Leicestershire Senior League. However, this season they hit the headlines when they reached the First Round Proper of the F.A. Cup, losing 1-0 at Wycombe Wanderers. It was a tremendous run, and they were the lowest ranked club at that stage of the competition, but it did come with some price. The Fourth Qualifying Round tie at Liversedge hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons when racist chants were aimed at one of the Coalville players, while the replay was marred when Leicester City and Sheffield United hooligans used it as an excuse to have a battle in Coalville town centre.

 

Having said that, the fixture backlog has seen Coalville go on a wining run that has taken them to the fringes of the promotion race, while the money made from the cup run has seen them able to sign strikers like Andy Tiday from Oadby Town. While at the same time, the club can plan for the required ground improvements to gain promotion should the opportunity arise.

 

Coalville’s ground is neat and tidy, with a small stand sat alongside the dressing rooms and clubhouse that consists of two levels on the very corner of the ground. On the opposite side is another stand comprising of both seats and cover, which runs about two thirds of the length of the pitch. Behind one goal sits a car park and the tea bar, while the opposite end is open. The only problem with the ground is that it’s set in a large grassy expanse, and as a result the fencing that encloses it is quite a way from the pitch.

 

Walking around the ground I spotted a few familiar faces, Glynn Rennocks, the Coalville Chairman nodded to me as I passed, no doubt spotting my Belper Town coat, but having said that we had a lengthy chat last season so maybe he remembered me. I also saw Brian Cleaver, the Ellistown manager, who was holding court with what sounded like a gaggle of Senior League players in the confines of the tea bar.

 

However, the real familiar face was the man in the middle, Steve Cooke from Belper, the erstwhile referee. Cookey is a good bloke, and when he’s not officiating he’s often down at Christchurch Meadow, indeed he’s often at the ground calling games off when perhaps the Chairman decides that he doesn’t fancy a game on a particular day (Rocester for example at Christmas…..).

 

I was curious though, because ever since Coalville’s cup run, a striker called Richard Saunders has been getting rave reviews, and numerous professional clubs have been reported to taking a keen interest in him. Within a few minutes he’d won a penalty for Coalville, but his attempt at putting the kick away was poor when he fired weakly to the goalkeepers left and saw his effort saved.

 

He didn’t let it bother him though as he scored the only goal of the first half when he showed tremendous composure in rounding the ‘keeper and scoring from a tight angle. Sheffield United, Stoke City and Chesterfield are reported to be latest clubs to show a keen interest, and it should only be a matter of time for this talented young player.

 

Just after the break, Tiday, who is one of the top scorers in the league, scored two excellent goals after some superb one touch approach play from Coalville and this effectively sealed the game for the confident hosts. I thought they played some great stuff, and quite obviously the team had a great understanding. Having said that, to go on and win the league will be a tough call as the gap between themselves and leaders Chasetown and Rushall Olympic is perhaps a little too vast, caused mainly by the fixture backlog Coalville have had to contend with.

 

Craig Pountney scored a penalty for Stratford late in the game, but as we approached the final whistle, Lee McGlinchey restored the three goal advantage for Coalville with a close range finish.

 

Despite the early evening set back, it had been an enjoyable evenings football, and the added bonus was the chat with Gary Hayward on the way back. We chewed the fat for a while before he suddenly asked me if I fancied going on holiday with him in the Summer. He mentioned Bulgaria (for the prostitutes), I suggested a city break in Madrid or Barcelona, but Gaz was not comfortable with that,

 

“Last time I was in Spain I got some free tickets for the Man Utd v Bayern Munich European Cup Final. We got them because we agreed to smuggle a big consignment of fags back to England. I got caught in a cave in the Andorran mountains, and to cut a long story short, I got deported. They tried to fine me but I refused to pay, the down side is, if I ever go back, I get banged up!”

 

I’ve got my sights on a May weekend in Londonderry, but more on that later, and I can assure you, Gaz will NOT be coming on that one with me. Besides, I would imagine his chances of getting into Northern Ireland are nigh on zero……..

 

Bulgaria it is for us then, better get myself a passport and some antibiotics, it sounds like it could be painful!      

 

Saturday 12th February 2005

 

Blackpool Mechanics  3   Darwen  2

 

It was towards the back end of March last year when I woke on a Saturday morning to discover the country was in the grip of some almighty gale force conditions. I couldn’t find a game on anywhere, except at Squires Gate in Blackpool who confirmed after a phone call that they would definitely be playing, despite the fact it was, I quote,

 

“Blowing a bloody gale up here lad!”

 

It was a comical occasion, I feared for the floodlights, while a section of the crowd had to be moved due to the adjacent stand roof at Blackpool Rovers looking likely to land on the pitch at any time! Squires Gate play next door to Blackpool Rovers, while less than a hundred yards away are Blackpool Mechanics.

 

I woke up today, or should I say I was woken up today by some pretty violent storms, which gave me cause to fear the worst when it came to the football. After dropping the kids off, I made just one phone call, if anything was going to be on today it was going to be in Blackpool. And it was.

 

Despite it being confirmed, I did start to fear for matters as I drove up the M6, the rain was intermittent, while the wind was proving to be a major hazard. I did have contingency plans though, Nelson were at home, as were Morecambe, while Colne had a big F.A. Vase game at home to Didcot Town. If the worst really came to the worst, Belper were playing at Kendal Town!

 

Once on the M55, it started to brighten up as Blackpool Tower came into view, I remembered the route to the grounds, and quickly pulled into the car park at Common Edge Road. Predictably, the floodlights were swaying, fences looked on the verge of collapse, but more importantly, players were arriving and the turnstiles were open. Barring a disaster, the game was on!

 

The most impressive sight of the day arrived in the car park just after me, a contingent of the Darwen players arrived in the monstrous beast that is the ‘Hummer’. For those unaware of the machine, it’s a car, or should I say tank! The noise it made as the engine revved was awesome, and it got some longing looks from those within proximity of it. I’m not sure what they cost, but they are serious money, and regarded as playthings of the rich and famous, not your average North West Counties League player!

 

Flash motors aside, I’d done my homework on the Mechanics, courtesy of my old scribe pal from Sheffield FC, Stu James. He had told me that they were a very friendly club, had a decent bar, the ground was good, but they had no fans, in his words,

 

“They might get fifteen on Saturday, depends on the weather.”

 

He was right on all but one count, which I’ll expand on shortly. The first thing I noticed though was the friendliness of the people at the club. I suppose my excursions this season have tended to be South, where in all fairness, the locals tend to be that little bit more aloof, perhaps even wrapped up in their own selves to a certain extent. However, head North and the attitude is far removed. Every visitor is welcomed with open arms, almost as though the casual spectator has paid the club a compliment by turning up at their humble abode! The food they served was first class, and at last a pie, I don’t see many of them South of Derby, but how welcoming they were on what was a bitterly cold afternoon.

 

It was a typical North West Counties League clubhouse, a large expanse, slightly dated furniture, drab décor, but homely all the same. It was warm, the lager was cheap and all of the locals wanted a chat, using the familiar local drawl, pronouncing Blackpool “Blackpewel”.

 

I have to mention the ground, which I thought was excellent, and this is where myself and my Dad differ. Had he been to Mechanics today, he’d have thought the ground a dump. I like grounds that have lots of facilities no matter how poorly put together or dated they look. I like to see stands, terraces and a ground that has a atmosphere. Places like Colne, Gresley Rovers and Woodley Sports spring to mind. My Dad likes places like Belper that are smart, clean, new and perhaps slightly minimalist. He doesn’t understand why Alfreton Town for example, put seats in for the sake of putting seats in. That’s his choice, nothing wrong with that, but I have to be honest, he would not have liked this place today.

 

You walk in and notice immediately that the ground has cover on all four sides. The side with the clubhouse and dressing rooms on has some overhanging cover with about 100 plastic seats in it stretching for about 75 yards. On the opposite side, which backs on to the airport is a narrow seated stand with about 200 seats in it, almost identical in length to the one in front of the clubhouse.

 

Behind one goal is a covered terrace with some crush barriers, which looked quite smart, but behind the opposite goal is another section of cover but this time over some flat standing. Some of the panels in this cover are missing and it looks a bit on the ramshackle side, but the club mentioned in the programme that it is next on the agenda for improvement.

By kick off time I was amazed when a crowd of 111 turned up (I didn’t count them, it was announced!). It was easily the clubs best gate of the season, and I couldn’t fathom out why. Ok, a lot of games were off, but Blackpool isn’t what you call ‘local’ to anywhere, but Blackpool I suppose! The weather was dreadful, and while Darwen bought a handful of fans, they hardly cleaned out the tea bar! Not only that, just ten miles up the coast, First Division leaders Fleetwood Town were at home, and they only pulled in 80 more fans!

 

I can only assume that they‘d pulled in some of the Blackpool Rovers and Squires Gate support, bearing in mind that the law of averages says Mechanics will always clash with at least one of these clubs, and as the other two are historically better supported, it makes sense. Neither side were at home today, so for many at the game, it was probably a lack of anywhere better to go that took them to see the Mechanics play!

 

Darwen have hovered just above mid-table this season, but Mechanics, after a poor start, have improved of late and are moving up into mid-table themselves. In biting cold wind and driving rain, Peter Zarac gave Darwen a 10th minute lead, and that was how the scoreline stayed until half time, although the hosts had perhaps had the better of the play.

 

It all started to get lively in the 66th minute when Fraser Cooke took advantage of the wind to score direct from a corner for the Mechanics, he’d also done this twice the previous week in a Cup tie at Maine Road so he was well versed in bending the ball home from the impossible angle!

 

Six minutes later and Ashley Delaney scored to give the Mechanics the lead, before Cooke again scored in the 75th minute to effectively make the game safe. Liam Taylor reduced the deficit in the 82nd minute to give Darwen hope, but a now confident home side did enough to see the game out and secure another three points that sees their revival continue.

 

I was glad to be back in the car, the weather was awful, I began to suspect one or two games fell by the wayside, and it was only when I checked the scores out later on that I’d realised how lucky a judgement I’d made. In my neck of the woods, Morecambe went down the tubes, as did Nelson, and virtually every other game in the North West Counties League. I had thought about going to Kington Town, but that was off, as were a good number of Leicestershire Senior League games.

 

It had been a good call, and probably overdue after the Massey Ferguson cock up. Not only that, it was a cracking day out, and maybe one day I’ll eventually get to Blackpool when the sun’s shining. I took a different route back via the M61, Bolton, Hyde, Glossop and Buxton - that was probably the only mistake I made all day………..

 

 

Wednesday 16th February 2005

 

Cheadle Town  1   Daisy Hill  2

 

“Before you go Neil, I just need a quick five minutes….”

 

Words I hear quite regularly from the boss, Steve, who I must say is a mighty fine bloke, a good boss and a great mate. Some people don’t like their bosses because they are corporate wankers, some don’t like them because they are simply in charge and it’s not the done thing to like them, whereas some people don’t like the boss purely because of the fact that they are, the boss!!

 

However, as much as I would happily be in the trenches with Steve, as much as I would always respect his decisions, no matter how much I disagreed with them, and no matter how many times he lets me stay at his house when we go out on the piss, I dread those words….

 

The problem with Steve is, he loves to talk, five minutes usually means at least forty five minutes, and this is mainly due to the fact that he simply loves his job, and wants to make all of his staff both successful and happy. But on this one occasion, an audience with Steve was not what I wanted…

 

It was all planned to perfection, I would get a lot of my paperwork done in the afternoon, and then head to our office in Sheffield City Centre to drop it off. I would subsequently chew the fat with the staff for a short while, and then make my way across to Stockport to watch Cheadle Town play Daisy Hill. Couldn’t be easier, and of course it was ultimately easy, but I hadn’t counted on Steve.

 

The first problem I encountered was actually finding out if the game was on. I pulled up in the car park at work and tried to ring both of the clubs grounds, without a response, before trying both secretaries, without reply again. So at 4pm, I still didn’t know if the game was on. I had back up plans at Walsall Wood, Shirebrook Town, Heanor Town and Kimberley Town, but really I wanted to go to Cheadle.

 

I went into the office, did my duty, and wandered down the stairs to the exit, only for a Scottish voice to beckon me from afar, it was Steve, he’d seen me, and he wanted a chat. I entered his office, took a seat, and waited, the usual friendly patter started before he moved on to the serious business, which in this case was me selling wills to all and sundry as part of our marvellous service.

 

By the time I escaped, and only thanks to Steve having to take a phone call, I had been with him the obligatory forty five minutes. I had to dash, get in the car, and somehow make contact with someone on the far side of the Snake Pass to see if the game was on.

 

I finally managed to contact the Daisy Hill secretary, and asked him politely if the game was on,

 

“I hope so mate, I’ve just got on the M60 and I’ll be annoyed if I get to the ground and it isn’t!”

 

That was enough for me, but I now had to deal with the traffic out of Sheffield, and that in itself can be an almighty ball ache if the timing is wrong. Thankfully I got out on to Manchester Road without too many problems and after negotiating two sets of road works, I was finally on the infamous Snake Pass. I don’t like the Snake Pass at all, for a start it can often be closed without warning, and then you have to face the unnerving experience that is the windy roads that seem to offer little in terms of protection from the deep plunge over what is seemingly a fifteen mile cliff edge. Every time I drive across it, especially at night, I do so with my heart in my mouth, and constant images of the closing scenes from ‘The Italian Job’.

 

I had made good time though, and by the time I’d negotiated Glossop and lowered my blood pressure, it was only 6.45pm, and once on the M60 I only had a few junctions to deal with. It didn’t go to plan though, as the directions I had said to exit the motorway at junction 2. The directions are of course written for the vast majority of North West Counties League clubs that travel anti-clockwise around the Manchester Orbital. I was travelling clockwise, and they don’t have a junction 2 when you go clockwise! I had to get off at junction 3 and take a very quick look at the A-Z while queuing in the traffic to get off the motorway. It seemed that the detour wasn’t going to trouble me too much, and thankfully it didn’t as I arrived at the ground at a refreshingly early 7pm.

 

I have been to Cheadle Town before, but not for a game. It was on that notorious day back in 1997 when me and my mate Tim decided to have a drive round the grounds of Manchester. Cheadle was the last stop if I remember, just after Altrincham, but I couldn’t recall an awful lot about it. I did take some advice though from Stu James who I remember going last season. He inspired me with confidence as usual,

 

“I’d keep a close eye on your car mate, dimly lit car park with loads of teenagers hanging around on bikes.”

 

Thanks for that Stu, and as I pulled into the car park I did notice that its certainly a prime spot for nicking a car, being surrounded by trees on all sides, and no lighting to speak of. But having had my motor for nearly six months now, I’ve gone past the paranoid stage and just dumped it in a poorly parked fashion!

 

The first thing to stand out about he Park Road home of Cheadle Town is the fact that it’s right under the flight path of Manchester Airport. At least every five minutes a plane flies overhead and this is a good way of spotting someone who is not a regular Cheadleite. The locals pay no attention to the planes, the visitors gawp at the sky as though an alien is about to land.

 

The ground is as one sided a ground as I’ve been to. Everything is contained along the eastern perimeter of the pitch, the large yet worse for wear main stand, the dressing rooms which sit underneath, the club house, the tea bar and the hospitality room. The rest of the ground is open to the elements, with just the southern end having a training pitch behind the goal. It’s a bit bleak and somewhat soul destroying, so for those feeling a bit on the depressed side, I’d avoid Cheadle, especially on a cold February evening. I’d almost recommend that the bar is kept away from, a reasonable looking local bird works behind the pumps and serves a mediocre pint of Carlsberg, however, she insists on playing ‘music’ that sounds like interference on a television set. It was freezing cold, grubby, and apparently broken into the previous evening (so someone could dump some old furniture by the looks of it!).

 

I did sample a couple of pints before heading for the tea bar, which I just knew would be a redeeming feature of the ground. They only had one type of food on the menu, meat and potato pie for 85p, and it was so good I had to have two of them! By the time I’d torched the roof of my mouth on the freshly cooked morsel it was time for the game, and what a moment the first half provided.

 

I saw a goal scored at Cheadle that is without doubt the best I’ve seen this season so far, and unless Marco van Basten makes a playing return at Castleton Gabriels, I can’t imagine seeing one any better.

 

Stand up Dean Martin of Cheadle Town, who picked up the ball some thirty yards from goal, beat two men with a quick shimmy, and then moving the ball quickly between his nimble feet he skipped past two more defenders, leaving one of them on his backside. He still had a final defender to beat and did so with a neat flick before finding himself one on one with the goalkeeper some twelve yards from goal. It was the kind of moment where everyone in the ground is praying that the lad keeps his composure and finds the back of the net, even the opponents. The ‘keeper closes the gap and Martin strokes the ball with his right foot, it beats the goalie, clips the inside of the post and trickles over the line. The fifty or so in the crowd, the Cheadle bench and all of his team mates rose as one to applaud what had been a superb individual effort.

 

It must have gone to his head though, as he did nothing for the rest of the game, and by half time the visiting Daisy Hill side had scored twice to take the lead. The equaliser came when a Cheadle defender could only slice a low cross into his own net and then on the stroke of the interval the boy Cartlidge stroked home a very dubiously awarded penalty kick when a Daisy Hill striker fell over what appeared to be his own boot laces.

I like Daisy Hill, they’re from the outskirts of Bolton, and if you shut your eyes and listen to them talk, it’s like being sat inside the Phoenix Club. In fact one Daisy Hill fan spoke exactly like Peter Kay’s character Max, the doorman, and I swear I heard him shout, “How dare you!” in a Max-like fashion when a Cheadle player had the audacity to put in a late challenge on one of his players.

 

The game ended with a flurry of Cheadle pressure as the planes passing up above grew more frequent, but Daisy Hill hung on for a hard earned victory. It had been a bitterly cold evening and I was delighted to get back to the car and head out of town for the not-straightforward journey through Stockport, Buxton and the Via Gellia. I managed to get slightly lost in the Stockport one-way system, and I can think of numerous places I’d be happy to get lost in and one of those is not Stockport, it’s a scary place when it gets dark!

 

Almost as scary as being summoned for a five minute chat with Steve, when you know that you’re on a parking meter…………

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Tuesday 28th December 2004

 

Southam United  0   Leamington  1

 

If you cast your mind back to my piece on Leamington which was composed in late August, I said that I didn’t think that they were that great a side, and that from what I’d seen in their league, Shifnal Town had looked a better outfit!

 

That was after a 3-0 local derby victory over Southam United at the New Windmill, and today it was time for the re-match at Southam’s Banbury Road ground. I’ll quickly present a few statistics.

 

Leamington sat top of the league with 19 wins from 22 games. They’ve scored 70 goals and have an eight point lead over their nearest rival. Shifnal Town are 12th, and on that note I’m going to stop predicting publicly on the possible fortunes of teams, particularly after just one game!

 

Leamington look to have finally got it right, and I did promise myself that I’d try to catch them again, preferably at an away game to see what their travelling support was like. I thought the fans had been a bit subdued, maybe even a bit blasé at home, but away from home I suspected they would be an altogether different proposition.

 

I wasn’t originally planning on getting to this game, but given that all Midland Combination games had 11.30am kick off’s today, and time was short, I needed to know what was on, and this game was confirmed to me early doors. Other options included Alveston at home to Massey Ferguson and Pershore Town at home to Dudley Sports, but I thought that given the money making potential of this fixture, they would pull out all the stops to get the game on.

 

Southam is located between Daventry and Banbury, and is easily found from either the M1 or the M40, I chose the M1 on the basis that it seems a more straightforward route. Added to that I had been on another boozy session the night before, waking up in a strange bed before hot footing it out of the door at just after 7am! Driving in a straight line was going to be the best option while I cleared my head, it had to be the M1……

 

I got to Southam about an hour before kick off, drove round for a bit until I found the ground, parked up and surveyed the scene. An hour before kick off it was still busy, obviously Leamington were going to make up the vast majority of the crowd, and plenty had arrived early for the pre-match pint. I did think about it but I settled for a cup of tea and a sausage roll instead. By kick off time a crowd of 420 had assembled, about 400 of those were from up the road, and I have to say, the car parking boys were doing a sterling job under extremely trying circumstances. Especially when you consider that you have to turn right off of the main road to get into the ground, the queues at time were horrendous.

 

It’s a weird ground to say the least. You enter it from the main road to be greeted by the steel mesh fences that are common on building sites. These act as the ‘enclosed ground’ measures that a lot of leagues are now insisting on, and on a day like today prevented countless people from just walking onto the ground. A small section of cover sits just in front of the car parking area, built from what appears to be corrugated steel, while on the opposite side of the ground are two very strange looking seated structures. It’s extremely difficult to describe them, other than to say they look as though they were once one stand that has been chopped in half. They are tall and thin, containing about fifty seats in each, while the clubhouse and dressing rooms are situated behind the goal, along with the resident DJ!

 

I have to talk about the DJ, he was very ‘local radio’, spinning his vinyl and trying to liven the crowd up, but at sleepy Southam on a Tuesday morning? It just didn’t seem right, especially when he went down the following route,

 

“I hope you all had a happy Christmas, unlike the guys out in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and because of what’s happened out there, we’re going to have a minutes silence before the game against our table topping rivals Leamington!”

 

It was so corny, as he was at half time when he urged the fans to applaud the players off for putting on such a fantastic performance! Unbelievable, given the fact that they were playing on a near swamp it was utter shit from a footballing point of view!

 

Anyway, the game. Roared on by a much more vociferous following, who had bedecked the ground with flags and taken over one of the stands, the visitors started by trying to play a slick passing game, but it wasn’t to be as under what looked a plush grassy surface was indeed a bog!

 

It soon deteriorated into a bit of a clogging game as both sides decided the best option was to win the ball at all costs and then get it forward as fast as they could. Leamington should have taken the lead early in the half when they were awarded a penalty after goalkeeper Pete Dye had dragged down Paul Nicholls. Nicholls spot kick was superbly saved by Dye and then he produced another excellent block from the rebound. It was to get worse for Dye moments later when he was adjudged to have handled the ball outside the area and got a red card.

 

Gary Puddifoot went in goal and in the remainder of the half he was barely tested as Southam closed ranks. It had been a poor footballing spectacle, but it hadn’t been without incident.

 

Leamington took the lead just after half time when leading scorer Josh Blake volleyed home from close range after an earlier effort from Nicholls had looped up into the air with the stand in goalkeeper stranded. It really should have been the signal for Lemaington to go on and sew the game up, but it wasn’t to be quite so simple.

 

Southam defended superbly and relied on breakaways to trouble their illustrious visitors, and from one of these as the game drew to a close they should have equalised. Neil Lissaman broke through on goal and looked to have the beating of the Leamington defence, but given the conditions it was difficult to move the ball forward at speed. He got into the area and just as he was about to put the full force of his right boot behind the ball he was tackled and his shot didn’t even reach the goal line, despite the fact that it beat the goalkeeper.

 

Leamington hung on though for a 20th win of the season, and extend their lead to eleven points at the top of the table following Coventry Marconi’s defeat. They hadn’t played well, but under the circumstances, just getting the points was all that mattered as no one could have played good football on the playing surface on offer.

 

Leamington’s fans breathed a sigh of relief at the end, and to be fair to them they had created a good atmosphere in the ground. Some of their songs were original, although they were sung at a few rpm’s too slow I thought, in that kind of amateurish way that football fans not used to singing at matches do!

 

Southam will be disappointed though. The last two seasons has seen them finish in the bottom two, but this season they sit in the top six, so in many respects they’ve come a long way in a short space of time. No doubt the income from the game today will help, but the non-appearance of the burger van didn’t help. Indeed, such was the humour of the Leamington fans, they taunted portly striker from Southam, Dan Cramp,

 

“Cramp ate the burger van, Cramp ate the burger van……..” and so on.

 

So I’ve still not seen Leamington play well, but it’s probably just that I’ve picked the wrong games. Their record speaks for itself, and barring a disaster they should win the league, especially as no one seems to be able to mount a serious challenge this season.

 

Personally that was the last game of 2004 for me, and incredibly it was game number 104. And the remarkable thing is, not one of them has been a 0-0 draw. The last 0-0 draw I saw was on 22nd November 2003, the day England won the Rugby World Cup, it was predictably Belper Town and Witton Albion that served up a feast of shite that day. All told it’s 113 games since a 0-0, and I’ll bet not many people can say that.

 

What are the odds on the New Years Day fixture being goalless I wonder? I won’t care though as I’ll be absolutely rat-arsed if previous years are anything to go by.

 

It’s time for a can of Stella methinks…………

 

Saturday 1st January 2005

 

Ilkeston Town  2   Belper Town  0

 

New Years Eve, possibly the most eagerly anticipated night of the calendar, unless you are Mr X of course.

 

It was always going to be tricky, because of the children. Ideally I would have liked to have gone out, but that would have meant that their Mother would have had to have stopped in to look after them. She too wanted to go out, but the same principal applied, I would have had to have stopped in. Neither of us had the balls to put our foot down so we reached an impasse.

 

The answer was simple, we had to go out together, one way or another, with both of us, at the end of the night, looking after the kids. After a bit of confusion it was agreed that the two of us would head off with her parents to a local pub, with the kids heading off to the delights of Holbrook Miners Welfare with their Aunty. Later in the night we would all meet up and make our way back to the kids Mothers where I would spend the night with them after seeing in the New Year.

 

It should have been simple, but it wasn’t. Sat in the White Hart at Bargate I was anxious about the kids, I’m not altogether trusting of ‘Aunty Charlotte’ the 15 year old bike of the local housing estate, while at the same time, the company I was in was far from ideal. I managed four pints, trying to integrate with the great unwashed of Belper who’s idea of a good night would be an evening of screeching, swearing, snarling, while culminating in a rousing chorus of “Who The Fuck is Alice!”

 

It was a bloody cold walk to the Welfare, where the fun started again. I was pleased to see the kids were ok, but crestfallen at the venue we had found ourselves in. Imagine a prison at Christmas, it was like that, three long rows of tables with seats at either side creating a regimental type set up, while the occupants looked like they had been let out (or locked in as the case my be) for the only night of the year. The sad thing is though, it was Saturday night, and for many of them it was perhaps just like any other Saturday night, sat in rows with the same people, talking about the same things, while having a fight with the same people at the end of the night.

 

I got to the bar, ordered the drinks, only to be accosted by a small woman,

 

“Are you a member?” she said.

 

“No I’m not, but I’m with that lot down there.” I said, pointing at a selection of chavs  and drop outs.

 

“Well they aren’t members either.” she curtly replied.

 

“So what are you saying then love, am I to leave?” I said with a tone of resignation.

 

“Well, please tell me you aren’t going to cause any bother?” she whimpered.

 

“I’m here with my two kids, and I’ve got a taxi in three quarters of an hour, please be assured, I’m not going to cause any trouble!”  I told her.

 

At this point the kids Mother turned up, explained that I was with her, and all of a sudden I was more than welcome. The old woman was very apologetic, I bit my tongue, but felt very much inclined to tell her to stick her dingy Miners Welfare and its retarded populus up her saggy arse.

 

I sat in the Welfare contemplating what it must be like to HAVE to come to this place every weekend, because that’s what it’s like, it’s almost compulsory to make an appearance, sit in the same seat, drink the same drink, etc, etc. I would have to kill myself.

 

Finally the taxi arrived and we got home, but settling the kids was proving difficult as Aunty Charlotte and the horrendous chavette Jenni had stayed behind and got into a fight over some tribal / chav dispute regarding the size of earrings or something. The phone was red hot, the kids Mother was upset because she felt responsible for her younger sister, I was beginning to lose patience, but that story was to have a comical end, which I will come onto later.

 

The kids fell asleep, it was 11.30pm, and so did their Mother, I saw in midnight with people snoring all around me. ‘Happy New Year’ I said to myself, for it could only get better…………….

 

The following day Belper Town were away at local rivals Ilkeston Town, a team that we’ve not played in a league fixture since 1986, which is remarkable given the proximity of the two clubs.

 

Belper have had a pretty good run since the defeat against Gresley Rovers. Indeed, they have gone unbeaten and only a couple of days ago were awarded ‘Club of the Month’ for December. Gaz Hayward was naturally delighted and bestowed the award on everyone but himself which was admirable of the guy, but ‘Ilson’ away was to be an altogether tougher test.

 

Ilkeston needed to win to go top of the league, they pay big money and recently signed striker Mick Goddard from Alfreton Town for a rumoured £10,000 transfer fee. What perhaps didn’t help Belper’s cause was that fact that a couple of weeks ago they put Ilkeston out of the Derbyshire Senior Cup with a 2-1 win, they would undoubtedly want revenge.

 

I quite like the New Manor Ground, it’s gradually been built up since it’s opening in the early nineties and is now perhaps the best non-league ground in Derbyshire. The focal point is without doubt the rather odd Clock Tower Stand which adorns the corner of the ground. It’s basically a very tall stand, with a clock tower built into it, while dressing rooms, a boardroom and some banqueting facilities are contained within the unusual complex.

 

Both ends of the ground are covered, with one end having banked terracing, while next to the infamous Clock Tower Stand is the original Main Stand comprising of a couple of hundred seats. Opposite is the impressive Social Club and a few other portakabins that serve as shops, first aid rooms and tea bars. All in all it’s very good, but the locals are a bit a tribal, in fact at one time in recent years when things were looking up on the field they had an element that was indeed feared. Times are a bit harder now, and thankfully they’re down to the loyal 350 or so regulars.

 

It was 0-0 at half time, but Belper can count themselves unlucky when a free kick hit the post and the rebound was cleared off the line. Belper certainly gave a good account of themselves, and that must have impressed Rudi Coleano’s girlfriend Lucy Pargeter (aka Chastity Dingle – Emmerdale), who was attending her first Nailers game!

 

The second half started with Ilkeston looking the better side, and sadly for Belper they took the lead after 70 minutes when Nigel Jemson bundled the ball home from close range. It knocked the stuffing out of Belper, and it came as no surprise when substitute Stuart Copnall scored a second goal close to the end.

 

Copnall was on for the ineffective Goddard, who had been superbly marshalled by Jordan Lambert who seemed more than effective in his new role at centre half. But at the end of the day, the curse had struck, the glory boys had been knocked off their perch and Gaz was left licking his wounds. The consolation for Gaz though is that he’s probably done enough to save his job until at least the end of the season after being so close to being booted out, while on the field the gap between top three and bottom six didn’t look that far apart.

 

I went back after the game to pick up the kids, only to be told that the chav dispute the previous evening had lead to someone called ‘Fat Chantelle’ being arrested for tearing Jenni’s earring out. This meant a member of Derbyshire Constabulary had to spend all New Years Day from 8am onwards taking statements from various parties, none of which corroborated, and in the end the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence.

 

All in a days work in the fight against the evil that is the Belper chav, and to think they were worried about me at Holbrook Miners Welfare! The bird they arrested strangely enough was in fact a member………………..

 

I chuckled all the way home, Happy New Year indeed………………………… 

 

 

Monday 3rd January 2004

 

Cammell Laird  4   New Mills  1

 

I saw a very, very good football team today in the shape of Cammell Laird, but more about the football team later.

 

When Belper Town had their F.A. Vase run in 1994-95, one of the teams they could have faced in the quarter final was Cammell Laird. It was a weird one because they were the lowest ranked team in the tournament coming from the West Cheshire League, yet no one wanted to play them. They had taken some impressive scalps, and eventually succumbed to eventually winners Arlesey Town, but Cammell Laird had a reputation of being a dockyard outfit from the tough shores of Birkenhead. A pleasant afternoon out it would not be!

 

It all went quiet on the Cammell Laird front for ten years, probably due to the demise of the shipyards on the Wirral from where they originate. But then they won promotion to the North West Counties League for this season, and you could almost hear the gulps of trepidation amongst the leagues members when their rise in status was confirmed.

 

My own experiences were limited of this part of the country. I’ve been to Vauxhall Motors in recent years and that was lovely, but they were based further down the peninsula in Ellesmere Port, while back in 1991 I went to see Derby County play at Tranmere Rovers in a bit of Friday night action. I don’t recall much about that other than Derby were awful and ended up being jeered off the field.

 

More recently though I’ve read a superb book called ‘Awaydays’ by Kevin Sampson, which chronicles the activities of a hooligan gang called ‘The Pack’ who terrorised football grounds in the late seventies while following Tranmere. It went into a lot of detail about the people, the pubs and the places in and around Birkenhead, and to be fair it sounded horrendous. It paints anything but a pretty picture of life on the ‘other’ side of the Mersey.

 

Cammell Laird are based in Rock Ferry, a place mentioned by Sampson in the book as being more than a little hostile for anyone who’s face doesn’t fit. And with all of this considered, I looked at a list of clubs at the start of the season who I’d try and visit, and this was a place that didn’t inspire me with any confidence. But then something happened.

 

Alfreton Town drew them in the F.A. Cup at their Kirklands ground and scraped through 3-2, while at the same time they were full of praise for the club, the people and the place. They even went as far as to say that they hoped that they won promotion, while Press Officer Gordon Foster tipped them for the Vase! That’s praise indeed from Alfreton, so with all things considered, it can’t have been that bad………

 

On the field they were unbeaten, winning thirteen and drawing two of their fifteen games, while they’ve scored almost seventy goals and conceded only nine. They are going to win the league I’m sure, and in Ronnie Morgan they have a hot striker who had 37 goals in all competitions to his name prior to the game so he was definitely one to watch.

 

I decided to take the plunge, Bank Holiday Monday with the visit of New Mills, it was to be now or never. I did have some doubts due to the weather so I decided to call the Cammell Laird Secretary, but his wife answered. Now this shocked me, she told me that she thought the game was on, but could she take my number and call me back when she had just rung her husband to check! Within minutes she called back to confirm, which I thought was incredibly helpful, I had a warm feeling inside, I suspected I was going to enjoy this!

 

I really enjoyed the journey if I’m being honest. I have a strange fascination with industrial landscapes set on rivers, I find them both ugly and beautiful at the same time. Travelling along the M56 as the River Mersey runs parallel is the ICI plant to the South of Runcorn which looked immense, while moving onto the M53 at Ellesmere Port is the huge oil refinery at Stanlow which again backs onto the Mersey. You can stick your John Constable and his Haywain, get me an oil refinery on canvas any time! Travelling back in the dark though was even more spectacular with the whole river bank seemingly lit up by these monstrous factories, I could literally have parked up and stared for hours as planes came down into nearby Speke Airport.

 

I started to feel a bit more wary though as I moved up onto the A41 and delved deeper into Birkenhead. It started off quite posh but as I pulled onto the dual carriageway that leads to the Mersey Tunnel I started to see the high rise flats and council estates that are stereotypical of the area I was in. I turned onto the Old Chester Road and drove down to the ground, it was in a poor area, predominantly council with the odd pocket of new private housing, combined with takeaways, pawnbrokers and second hand shops, boarded up I might add! I could see no car park, I was nervous, so I headed back to the KFC at the top of the dual carriageway for a bite to eat and a think.

 

This is going to sound really snobbish, but I found myself looking round for parked cars that were better than mine, their weren’t any sadly. My only hope of gaining some peace of mind was to see if I could park my car in what looked like the secure environment that was the Laird’s Social Club over the road from the ground. I drove down just as New Mills were arriving, and they were using the car park so that was one worry out of the way, but could I get a pint? Plenty of people were going into the club, but after my ‘member’ incident at Holbrook Miners Welfare I was still a bit unsure about places such as these. However, I got to the door and could hear raucous laughter and chattering from inside, but when the ‘Strictly Members Only’ sign hit me in the face I turned and walked away.

 

I sat in the car for a while, and saw them open the turnstiles so I quickly nipped over, bought a programme and asked them if it was ok to use the club,

 

“Course it is lar, just go straight in!” said the jovial Scouser on the gate.

 

In I strolled, no one batted an eyelid, I bought a pint and stood watching the Norwich v Liverpool game. It was quite nice, and full of people who were talking about the Cammell Laird game, and for the first time since arriving in Birkenhead I finally felt at ease. Two pints in all were consumed, and at ten to three it was time to cross the road and take in the pre-match atmosphere.

 

The ground wasn’t bad, it had a dressing room complex in the bottom corner by the turnstiles, and two small stands on opposite sides of the ground right on the half way line. One stand had a few seats in while the other was just some covered hard standing. Both ends were open, while one side of the ground was dwarfed by the huge bus depot, which on Bank Holiday Monday appeared to be lying dormant. It only cost £2 to get in as well, which I thought was excellent value.

 

A decent crowd had assembled, and amongst them were a family with two kids, both clad in shiny new Lacoste shell suits! Don’t they watch television and note the piss taking that takes place with regard to the stereotypical image of locals from this area? Or do they simply like to stick two fingers up at those that mock them? I’m not too sure.

 

Laird got off to a slow start but soon picked up the pace, and it was easy to see why they have done so well. The passing, movement and understanding was some of the best I’ve seen at any level this season, and all that on a very heavy pitch. Ronnie Morgan gave Laird the lead with a typical poachers goal which saw the hosts go in at half time with a slender lead. New Mills weren’t prepared to roll over though and twice they came close to scoring in the first period, mainly due to a couple of slips from the debutant home goalkeeper, but the game was effectively over just after half time.

 

Captain Derek Ward, who once got sent off at Wembley while playing for Northwich Victoria in the F.A. Trophy Final, rose to power in a superb header from the edge of the penalty area, while shortly afterwards a good run and shot from the edge of the box by Jamie McCoy made the game safe.

 

New Mills pulled a goal back in the 66th minute but Ronnie’s brother John Morgan slipped through as a substitute to score a fourth goal for Laird in the 75th minute. They could have gone on to get one or two more but they eased up a bit knowing the game had been won. I suspect that Laird could quite possibly ‘do an Arsenal’ and go a full league season unbeaten, with a little bit of luck of course. What with their fire power, and miserly defence, it’s difficult to see anyone stopping them. Gordon Foster did put the kiss of death on them though, they went out in the Vase shortly after his prediction.

 

It dropped bitterly cold as the game neared the end and the 109 spectators were keen to get away, myself included. The car was fine, the journey back was easy, and the views of the refinery sublime.

 

Still wouldn’t want to go their on a cold Tuesday night in February though, I remember what Sampson said in his book about what happens in Rock Ferry when the sun goes down and the local street urchins come out to play. I do wonder exactly what Alfreton Town would have said had they been beaten though, and I think I’ve got a bloody good idea………………….

==================================================

Saturday 11th December 2004

 

Newark Flowserve  1   Pinxton  0

 

It has crossed my mind over the years why certain places, large places at that, don’t have football teams of any significance.

 

One of those places was always Wakefield, until of course Emley signed their own death warrant by moving to the town a few years ago now.

 

More locally, I’ve mentioned already this season that Bolsover was somewhere I always thought could sustain a team, which they are looking to try to do now, but at the same time I’ve always thought Newark was a place that was large enough to produce a half decent soccer team.

 

Lo and behold, apart from in the local leagues, nothing doing for years, but then suddenly two arrive at once! Newark Town managed to get into the Central Midlands League via the back door, no doubt due to the floodlit facilities at the former Collingham ground, while the intriguingly named Newark Flowserve also appeared on the scene.

 

Newark Flowserve won promotion from the Notts Alliance last season, and they are probably better known by their former name of Worthington Simpson, a works side that had a giant killing reputation in he Nottinghamshire Senior Cup.

 

So Newark suddenly has two teams, albeit competing at Step 7, and as the Vicar of Cotgrave once said when he was guest speaker at a Sportsman’s Evening I attended,

 

“Newark now that’s an interesting anagram in itself!”

 

Now why have I decided to head out on a Saturday to a club at this level, so close to home? Well once a season, on or around the same Saturday, football plays second fiddle to the eagerly anticipated Blundells Christmas Bash! I have to make sure that I’m able to get to Sheffield by around 5pm to check into the Psalter Tavern, get changed, and be suitably inebriated in time for the taxi to the Bristol Hotel later in the evening.

 

I have to stay local, and ideally I needed a 2pm kick off, it could only be the Central Midlands League. I had two choices, Santos, and Newark Flowserve, but to be fair, the Newark option was always the favourite.

 

Completely unprepared, possibly due to having to do some last minute clothes ironing, I set off for a town that for most people is the half way point to Lincoln and/or Skegness, and a railway junction on the East Coast Main Line. It’s a steady journey from Belper, only about forty miles, but at the same time it took over an hour and a half. Possibly due to the congestion around Mansfield, being so close to Christmas, and the fact that Newark was always heaving with shoppers and tourists.

 

It also didn’t help that I got lost either, I knew the ground was in Balderton, but not exactly whereabouts in the Newark suburb. I headed for Balderton, and then found the A1, I’d gone too far, but a slow drive along the main road saw me spot Hawtons Lane to the left, and the ground could only be a matter of yards away.

 

When I did find the ground, it was located in the huge Flowserve factory complex (which obviously explains the name!). My natural intuition also lead me to correctly believe that Flowserve was once called Worthington Simpson, or ‘Simmos’ as the club are still affectionately known to the locals.

 

The ground comprises of a couple of pitches, with a cricket square separating the two. Two sides of the main pitch have a fixed wooden rail, while the cricket side has a rope rail to keep the massed hordes away from the pitch. The end nearest the housing is inaccessible by spectators, while the only cover is a small breezeblock shelter on the half way line behind the dugouts, and that could hold ten people at a squeeze.

 

What was impressive though was the clubhouse, but then it is the Flowserve Sports & Social Club so you would expect it to be quite a plush, and of course cheap, drinking establishment.    

 

In opposition for the afternoon were a club not a million miles from my home, Pinxton FC, who like Flowserve, had been promoted only this season to the CML. Pinxton have had a slightly better start than Flowserve, and I had the pleasure of arriving at the same time as their contingent.

 

“Alreet chap, is this thine Flowserve graand, Wer canna get mesen a pint? Fuck me fella, its posh up ere int it!”

 

Aah, the class just exuded, and I fondly recalled the UniBond League Annual Dinner in 1997 and a conversation I had with a Director of Eastwood Town,

 

“You’ll enjoy a trip to Workington, it’s like driving 200 miles and then finding a mirror image of Pinxton when you get there. It’s that impressive!”

 

His tongue was very firmly in cheek, I think I need say no more!

 

Entrance to the ground was £2 with a further quid for a programme, and as very few clubs at this level of football do programmes, the place was filling up with its fair share of groundhoppers. In fact, the programme notes made a point of welcoming them to the ground, despite the slightly irritating nature of them. When a contingent of them decided to take up residence next to me in the tea bar I decided I was time to vacate to the bar and try the hard stuff, bearing in mind plenty more would be quaffed later in the evening!

 

The game was barely five minutes old when disaster struck. The larger of the two linesmen managed to twist his knee when attempting to turn on the touchline, and as a consequence he went down like the proverbial sniper had nailed him from close range. The Flowserve trainer was beckoned but it was clear he couldn’t continue. The trainer offered to take up the role of substitute official, but Pinxton were not happy with this arrangement, citing some rule about both clubs having to supply an assistant if a neutral could not be found.

 

I was getting a bit worried about this thinking it would be a wasted journey after just five minutes of action, indeed I was even contemplating offering to do the job myself, but then Pinxton saw sense (or indeed read the rule book) and allowed the game to continue as long as the official swapped ends at half time to ensure he was only flagging offside when his own side were defending and not the visitors. I couldn’t understand this at all, because he could show favouritism whether he was backing the defensive or the attacking side. That’s Pinxton for you though.

 

Flowserve took the lead towards the end of the first half in what had been a good performance by the hosts, but in the last five minutes the visitors missed two excellent chances to level the scores. The second half saw Pinxton do all of the attacking, and it looked as though they might make the breakthrough when a Flowserve midfielder was sent off for a second bookable offence. The numerical advantage didn’t last long though as a Pinxton player suffered the same fate less than two minutes later when he too picked up his second yellow card.

 

The game finished 1-0 to Flowserve, thus ending a dismal losing streak, while Pinxton, who conversely had been in good form, must go back to the drawing board. I heard on radio as I sped up the A1 towards Worksop that Derby County had well and truly slapped Nottingham Forest three nil in the big East Midlands local derby. That put me in good spirits for what was to come later in the night, and as I picked up Richard in Dronfield, and then Niamh in Meadowhead, I caught the tail end of Radio Derby’s commentary re-run on the game.

 

“Buy the video, buy the DVD, Derby County three, Nottingham Forest nil, enjoy your drinks tonight Rams fans!” 

 

And I did, Belper also won 1-0 at Clitheroe, Hayward rang me from he dressing rooms to tell me. We just need to wait for the fall out now from when my drunken mate Richard threatened the DJ at the hotel,

 

“If you don’t play some Oasis I’m going to drag you over those fucking turntables!”

 

“It’s a Christmas party mate, we play Christmas party tunes.” Was his nervous reply.

 

“So why the fuck are you playing Kylie bastard Minogue then?”

 

I thought it was a very good point, I suspect the management will take an entirely different view.

 

 

Wednesday 15th December 2004

 

Ardley United  2   Henley Town  2

 

I’m really struggling with Christmas this year, on two fronts.

 

Firstly, I’ve still not managed to do any shopping, nor have I sent out a solitary card, mainly because I’ve had neither the time or the enthusiasm to do it.

 

Secondly, as the years have wore on, I’ve begun to feel less and less enamoured about the whole thing, to the point now where I just wish it would go away. You would have thought that having kids would have rekindled my Christmas spirit, but it hasn’t, I just cannot get excited in the slightest about the whole event.

 

I’ve been feeling a bit guilty about it, but then as I travelled along the A43 en route to the village or Ardley, I was listening to Scott Mills on Radio One, who played ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham. He commented after the song that it was the first time this December that he’s felt the slightest twinge of Christmas spirit, which I could understand. I think it’s a single bloke thing, in the sense that Christmas is the time of year when the harsh realities of a solitary life hit home. I suppose if I had someone to be festive with, it would be different, but I haven’t, so its desined to be shite I guess!

 

Rather than wallow in self pity, I thought that with a day off work I’d try and knock another venue off the list of grounds within 100 miles of my home. Ardley United of the Hellenic League are based just off the M40, not far from Bicester. They only won promotion to the Premier Division this season, and after a large programme of ground improvements, they have made up for previous years disappointment when they have been denied due to ground grading.

 

Ardley is possibly the smallest place to have a football team at Step Five, blink and you miss it. It’s effectively a crossroads, some houses and a football club, but despite the miniscule nature of the place, it can take some finding, especially at night.

 

The route seemed simple, turn off the M40, take the signs for Ardley and Middleton Stoney, and the ground is on the right after a couple of hundred yards. Bearing in mind I arrived pretty early, and the floodlights hadn’t been turned on, I ended up driving for three miles before deciding it was perhaps a good idea to turn round. I drove back into Ardley and took the only turn off I could find, but still no sign of the ground. But then, I spotted a flicker, and a glow, someone had turned some lights on, and on the basis that very little in Ardley was likely to light up other than the floodlights at the football club, it was a safe bet that it was the ground.

 

But then I still couldn’t find it, or should I say that I couldn’t find the entrance. I drove back onto the main road, passed the rear of the ground, but could not find an entrance. Eventually an unlit gateway appeared, tucked behind some trees, and after negotiating the uneven track, Ardley United had at last been located.

 

Despite only being a village club, they have spent some money on the facilities. It’s quite a walk from the car park to the ground, over the training pitch and past a development that looks like a clubhouse being constructed. The dressing rooms are new, and they sit behind the goal, while a seated stand of the ‘flat pack’ variety found at Bishops Cleeve and Skelmersdale United, perches underneath the trees on the far side of the ground. From photo’s it can be seen how the stand replaced a rather weird, yet very basic looking structure that once adorned the arena. The rest of the ground is open but it’s very much a case of work in progress at the club as it does resemble a building site in parts.

 

I’m not sure where the money comes from. Presumably the Football Foundation has stumped up some cash, while given the nature of the area and the size of the houses, I’m sure wealth isn’t an issue amongst certain residents of Ardley. Indeed the Chairman, Norman Stacey, runs a large garage in Bicester and he is believed to be instrumental in the development of the club, so I guess he’s put a fair wedge in.

 

What about the fortunes of Ardley United on the field though? Well they got off to a shocking start to the season, and eventually dispensed with the manager, but recently they have moved away from the relegation places and are looking to escape to mid table mediocrity.

 

The visitors, Henley Town, were in a similar predicament. Not in any grave danger of getting relegated, but in need of a win or two to create some breathing space. Henley hail from Henley on Thames, an exceedingly posh place that’s famous for its Regatta, and also being the home of Steve Wright (in the afternoon), and Dance God Sasha. They were to contribute to an exciting, and controversial, game of football. 

 

It was all going smoothly until a Henley player decided, for no reason whatsoever, to kick out in a Jay Bothroyd manner at an Ardley player who had cleared the ball. The incident occurred directly in front of the Ardley dug out, and they want mental!

 

It should have bee a red card, but it was only a yellow, Ardley went loopy, and to be fair, you could understand why. Had a red card been shown, a lot of the problems that ensued thereafter could have been avoided. Inevitably, within minutes the perpetrator of the assault found himself on the receiving end of a cynical challenge, it was going to be a lively night!

 

Ardley went 1-0 up through a free kick, and just before half time, when it looked as though things were finally calming down, all hell broke loose. A Henley player slipped the offside trap and chased a 50-50 ball with the Ardley goalkeeper. The ‘keeper arrived a split second earlier and cleared the ball, while the Henley player decided to put his studs in and flatten the goalkeeper. Everyone seemed to be on the pitch. The Ardley bench flew onto the field in unison, while the Henley bench obviously felt it necessary to offer some moral support! The ‘keeper was stretchered off, the referee had lost control and was having tremendous difficulty clearing the pitch. Eventually he started with a throw in, much to the anger of the Ardley bench who had to put the centre forward in goal. Amazingly, I was stood on he opposite side of the pitch, and after the throw in decision was given, the linesman turned round to those of us in listening range and said,

 

“He’s got that wrong, it was at least a yellow card, and having refereed the Ardley gaffer before, I’d have given him a red as well!”

 

Quite amazing really, especially when he could have flagged, called the referee over, and given his view on things. But no, he decided to keep quiet, and undermine the referee’s authority instead. I can only assume he didn’t like him!

 

Ardley came out after half time and quickly made it 2-0, but it all went pear shaped when the lad who got booked in the first half for his retaliatory tactics picked up a second yellow for a seemingly fair challenge. Down to ten men, and with an outfield player in goal, it was just the inspiration Henley needed.

 

They pulled a goal back, but having said that, every time Ardley went forward they looked like opening up the incredibly slow Henley back line. It was all too much for the Ardley manager after one verbal volley at the referee too many he was banished from the touchline, to stand behind the dugout! How pointless is that? All that actually happens is the manager stands behind, rather than in front of the pitch side barrier. If you are going to get rid of him, at least banish him to the dressing rooms or something!

 

Henley grabbed the inevitable equaliser late in the game after the stand in goalkeeper fumbled a cross. It was probably a deserved point for the visitors on balance of play, but they could count themselves extremely fortunate to have eleven men on the field, with two red card incidents having been overlooked. Ardley finished with ten men, and that was harsh on them as well. However, both clubs should survive in the Hellenic League this season, but I’m not sure what Victor Gladwish would have made of it, what with his ‘fair play’ and ‘no swearing’ policy.

 

A quiet and picturesque little village is Ardley, spoilt only by the football!

 

 

Saturday 18th December 2004

 

Runcorn FC Halton  1   Droylsden  3

 

I’ve only ever been to Runcorn once, and that was back in 1994 when I visited an old University pal of mine called James who resided in Liverpool with his future wife Gayle.

 

I travelled up on the train on the Friday, went straight to a dodgy looking pub in Prescot before proceeding to drink all day and all night, finishing up in the famous Cavern Club in the city. I remember waking up the following day, spending a good hour hung over the khazi, before James took us in his Mini to Runcorn.

 

They were playing Leek Town in the F.A. Trophy, it was the old Canal Street ground and both sides were flying at the time. Runcorn were still a Conference club, and the atmosphere was superb, culminating in a pitch invasion at the final whistle to celebrate a home victory.

 

What I remembered though was the view across the Mersey to Widnes and the nearby ICI works that dominates the skyline. It was scenic, in a bizarre, urban kind of way, especially with the famous Runcorn Bridge providing the backdrop.

 

I’ve also only ever been to Widnes once, and that was in 1989 to see a pop concert on Spike Island, which at the time was a pretty big event, but the significance of it has only been realised over a decade later. I’m often asked, as I was on the Friday night before this game, what the best gig I ever went to was, and I always reply,

 

“May 1989, Spike Island, The Stone Roses.”

 

When I give that response mouths drop open, eyes widen, indeed pubs have been known to go quiet. The reply I get is along the following lines,

 

“You were at Spike Island? You were at THAT gig? Fuck me, you lucky bastard!”

 

Little did any of us know at the time that it was to be one of the last ever shows by the Roses as they were. It all went belly up due to record deal wranglings, at a time when they were on the verge of being the biggest and most influential band in the World. The legend lives on though, the first album is the greatest album I’ve ever heard, and I’ll not forget the culmination of the performance as the fireworks lit up the Mersey sky as ‘I am the Resurrection’ was belted out by the enigma that was Ian Brown.

 

I talk to lads ten years younger than me and they adore the Stone Roses, but they were too young to have heard them first time round. They have longevity, and in some ways, the fact that it all went wrong means that they can only ever be brilliant, because they didn’t have enough time to do anything crap!

 

When I slip in my revelation, I get bombarded with questions. It has become a legendary gig, played out an outdoor venue, on a nature reserve with over 30,000 people in attendance, in Widnes of all places. It was time to go back.

 

Runcorn FC have controversially moved over the Mersey to take up residence at the Halton Stadium, the official home of Widnes Vikings Rugby League Club. As a result they have become Runcorn FC Halton. The loyal fan base don’t like it, they belong in Runcorn, and they have no connection with Halton the Borough as such. Crowds are down, protests have been manful, but all to no avail. Every so often protest groups talk about bringing the Football Club back to Runcorn, but it’s hard to see it happening. Football in Runcorn is dead, the old ground now covered by housing.

 

It’s an easy place to find is the Halton Stadium. Just exit the M62 at junction 7 and follow the signs to the ground. Widnes is not a sparkling place, it’s old, run down and shabby, but then again the fact that it’s dominated by chemical works and docks kind of suggests that Torquay it ain’t going to be!

 

The ground is superb though. Modern stands on three sides, fully decked with claret and blue seats. Executive boxes run along the top of the main stand, while underneath the stand is a large social club, banqueting and conference facilities. One end is open, still bearing the old terraces from what used to be Naughton Park, the former home of Widnes Rugby before the ground was completely redeveloped and renamed.

 

I took in a pint at the Social Club, admiring the vastness of the place. It did feel like I was going to a Football League game, however the big difference was that not many football fans were in attendance. Runcorn fans have seemingly boycotted the club, while half of the 207 in attendance had travelled with visitors Droylsden.

 

It was cheap in the Social Club, after buying a pint for £1.70 I was kind of hoping the rest of the place was going to be at least reasonable, I was wrong! £8 to get in, £1.50 for a programme, while the catering was at Rugby League prices. £1.20 for a cup of tea, £1.80 for a pie and £2.50 for a crappy little hot dog!

 

We were ushered into a block of seats that took up about a third of the main stand, and while that makes the ground look empty, it does help create a bit of atmosphere. Droylsden fans were in good voice, with their droning cry of ‘You Bloods!’, depicting their rather sinister nickname.

 

I wasn’t convinced it was going to be a good game. Indeed the match poster outside the ground had been vandalised, instead of Runcorn FC Halton v Droylsden it had been changed to The Carthorses v The Thugs! A Scouse team against a Manc team, it could only really go one way couldn’t it, and it did!

 

Droylsden took the lead after just 62 seconds when Gareth Morris was presented with the ball in front of goal completely unmarked. However Runcorn came back when the impressive Nicky Young crossed from the left for Jimmy Turner to head home at the far post.

 

Remember Jimmy Turner? He was the kid who played really well for Gresley Rovers against Belper Town last month. He’s the same Jimmy Turner who released by Derby County in the Summer and went to play for Mickleover Sports. The very same Jimmy Turner that I told Gary Hayward to go and look at, but he didn’t, and do you know why,

 

“All Derby based players are fanny merchants!” 

 

Anyway, Turner was Runcorn’s best player on the day, but it was just not going to happen for them.

 

Runcorn dominated but then on the stroke of half time Droyslden beat the offside trap (suspiciously), and Jody Banim did well to compose himself and round the goalkeeper to score.

 

Runcorn had a chance to equalise just after the break when a penalty was awarded but Carl Rendell fired straight at Paul Phillips. It wasn’t Rendell’s day, he was substituted soon after and after crossing the touchline he volleyed a cool box and the drinks bottles into orbit. He was not a happy man, but one solitary thought came into my mind, ‘You Scouse Twat!’

 

Ged Murphy was then sent off for Droylsden for a second bookable offence, but just as it seemed that the visitors were doing their utmost to let Runcorn back into the game, they went and scored a third goal. Craig Robinson volleyed home from close range, and it was to be the final nail in the coffin for Runcorn. It made it five straight defeats for the Linnets.

 

Watching both managers was interesting. Runcorn’s Alvin McDonald was calmness personified on he touchline, barely saying a word, but as for Droyslden’s Dave Pace, oh dear!

 

He was running around like a demented fool, screaming, gesticulating, courting derision from the crowd, mainly his own crowd! Pace has been with the club for some time, also playing the role of Chairman at the club. He puts the money in, calls the shots, and is a big friend of Stephen Vaughan. I’ll stop now I think before someone reads this…………….

 

Driving back I decided to head over the Runcorn Bridge and out onto the M56. As I crossed the bridge I glanced to the left and spotted Spike Island in the gloom. It reminded me of a Stone Roses song. It was titled ‘Mersey Paradise’, as a Mancunian I think it was tongue in cheek, because if paradise is a chemical works and a polluted river, then I’m a Matlock Town fan. But that train of thought lead me to think of another song called ‘I Wanna Be Adored’, it contained the following lyric,  

 

“You don’t have to sell your soul…”

 

It was as if they were thinking about Runcorn Football Club when they penned that lyric, because that’s precisely what they did when they sold Canal Street to the property developers, and took up residence on what is widely regarded as the wrong side of the Mersey. Runcorn is Runcorn and Widnes is Widnes, never the twain shall meet.

====================================================

Wednesday 1st December 2004

 

Nuneaton Griff  1   Barnt Green Spartak  1

 

I found one of my old computer games the other day, Matt Hayes Fishing!

 

It’s quite a good game, with the object being to catch as many fish as possible with rod, line and lure. However, as it’s a computer game, it’s done with a mouse and a keyboard, which isn’t quite the same as the real thing, but good entertainment all the same. I quite like fishing, and as a kid I used to go quite regularly to the local river for a spot of angling. As I got older I kind of stopped going, but my interest in the sport never totally went away.

 

On a Friday night, on UK Home & Leisure, its Fish on Friday, a whole channel dedicated to fishing for the evening. Celebrities such as Matt Hayes (as above), John Wilson, Henry Gilbey, Paul Young and of course the legendary Rex Hunt keep us entertained with some good old rod bending, fish kissing, action.

 

On a Saturday night, on the same channel is Trainspotting. No, not the film with a young Ewan McGregor playing a smack head from the streets of Edinburgh, but proper trainspotting, as in Class 47’s, Deltic’s and Shunters. If I’m in, I occasionally watch, because as a youngster, when I wasn’t fishing, I was at the station watching trains! I did give this up before embarking on my teenage years, but even now when I see a train, I can’t help but look to see what type it is, and wonder at just how the pastime has changed over the years (they’re all different colours now as opposed to blue!).

 

Sat in the man stand at the Pingle’s Stadium in Nuneaton, I heard the distinctive rumble in the distance and saw coming towards me over the impressive railway arches, a monstrous Class 60 pulling the freightliner. It got me thinking, they’ve got TV programmes about fishing, they’ve even got them about trainspotting, but why not groundhopping?

 

I’ve got an idea for a pilot show, and the introduction will go something like this,

 

“Hello, and welcome to tonight’s episode of ‘Anorak’, the show dedicated to football, football grounds that is. On tonight’s show seasoned hopper Mike Blackstone will be taking us on a tour to some of the finer outposts of the West Lancashire League, including an in depth look at the tea bar at Burnley Bank Hall. While Andy Daykin travels to a housing estate in Birmingham that was once the home of Paget Rangers, in the hope of finding some trace of the old ground, with little success we may add. Finally on tonight’s show, Alan Freak of Devon gives us some tips on irritating club officials by continually pestering them for team line ups.”

 

It would be class, and think of the audience, the only problem would be when to show it. Week nights would be no good because a game could be found every evening by the discerning hopper, while Saturday’s are out as the average hopper is at the mercy of Railtrack and the dodgy timetable, often culminating in post midnight returns to the bedsit. It would have to be Sunday night, assuming it’s not too late because as we all know, Sunday night is bath night and early to bed. I don’t think many of them would know how to work a video recorder either……..

 

Anyway, Nuneaton Griff, a long time target for me, and indeed on the corresponding Wednesday last year I was all set to go until a snow storm put paid to that, but with a seemingly milder Winter on the cards, I had no such worries about making he moderately short journey into Warwickshire.

 

Nuneaton Griff play in the Midland Combination, and indeed won it two years running a few years ago, but a lack of facilities meant they were unable to progress. The last couple of years have seen them slip a bit on the field, but with a base at the Pingle’s Sports Stadium just off the ring road in the town, things do seem to be looking up again.

 

Griff is a small village on the South side of Nuneaton, but the ground in the town itself is part of a very impressive sports complex that includes a very modern swimming pool and gymnasium, along with a handily placed pub at the entrance to the complex.

 

A pint and some food in the pub seemed in order (sausage, mash and Yorkshire pud), and upon arriving at the ground it was interesting to read the programme, entitled ‘Underneath the Arches’, showing a picture of the famous railway arches on the cover. It’s also pointed out on the programme cover that Nuneaton is indeed at the ‘Heart of George Eliot Country’. Top bloke that George Eliot, even if he did write like a girl! I’ve got an English degree you know, I understand these things…………

 

While Nuneaton Griff may seem a strange name, what about the opponents, Barnt Green Spartak? Presumably based in the posh suburb on the South side of Birmingham, they are run by an Asian family, Chairman Avtar Singh, and Manager GJ Singh (his son). They’ve had a bit of publicity this season for allegedly splashing the cash while ground sharing at nearby Alvechurch. Although they’ve not taken the league by storm as they said they would, they have made a few people sit up and look. The money is presumably from the family, and if you were wondering what the family business is then a look at their previous names gives it away a little, Spar Barnt Green and Dillons Barnt Green………

 

It was a fairly dull first half, with a only a handful of chances coming both teams way leading to a 0-0 scoreline, but it certainly livened up in the second period. Within seconds it was 1-0 to Griff, but then Spartak had a player sent off for aggressively trying to snatch the ball off of an opponent after a free kick had been awarded. I thought it was a bit harsh but the precedent had been set.

 

Griff were up in arms when ten man Spartak were awarded a penalty after a very innocuous hand ball decision. They suggested the referee was trying to even things out, and with more tackles flying in and continuous verbals from both sides, the man in the middle was starting to lose control. The penalty was scored, and then after a half of very fractious football, it erupted in injury time.

 

A Griff player was in on goal but being closely shadowed by a Spartak defender. Both crashed to the ground in the penalty area, only for Mr G Hembry, our resident comedian, to award another penalty, and send off a Spartak player!

 

Spartak were up in arms, the player took an age to leave, and with the referee indicating it was to be the last kick of the game, up stepped Captain Jason Bindley, but he put his effort wide of the right hand post.

 

Drama to the very end, most of it caused by a clueless referee who should be consigned to the local park along with the clown who did the Colne v Atherton LR game in October. Indeed, one of the yellow cards he handed out to a Spartak player was for retaliating to a bad tackle (that went unpunished), by calling his aggressor a ‘doughnut’!

 

It would have made a good little feature for the first episode of ‘Anorak’, especially with the trains in the background but having said that, groundhoppers don’t like sports stadiums with running tracks do they? Too far from the action, or too far from the railway line in this case.

 

 

Saturday 4th December 2004

 

Appleby Frodingham  0   Heanor Town  3 

 

I was up at my folks place last weekend with the kids, when my daughter dug out some old photo’s. In between the ones of ‘Daddy when he was a baby’ and ‘Aunty Kim crying’, were some blurred football shots.

 

I took a look at them and it all came flooding back. Back in 1984-85 my Dad took over as Secretary at Belper Town, and a the same time a revolution occurred on the field, they went on to win the Northern Counties East League by nine points.

 

The title was effectively sealed with a 2-0 home victory over rivals Alfreton Town with three games still to play, but it was made mathematically certain the following Tuesday courtesy of a 3-0 home victory over Appleby Frodingham. I was twelve at the time, and for me, winning championships seemed easy. It was to be the last time it happened, twenty years ago to be precise.

 

The photo’s were from the Appleby Frodingham game, I’d taken them on a cheap camera and they weren’t very good, but they were probably some of the very few snapshots taken on an historic evening at Christchurch Meadow. A week later the Nailers played their last game of the season away at Appleby Frodingham and drew 2-2. I wasn’t allowed to go with my Dad because it was to be a grown up trip on the bus with lots of beer and singing, that was from time to time something I had to put up with as a youngster.

 

The following season the game at ‘Frod’ was on a Saturday, but at that stage they were playing their home games at nearby Winterton Rangers. They had a crap season and within a year they had dropped out of the league and into Lincolnshire League football. As a result I never got to visit Brumby Hall, deep in the heart of Scunthorpe!

 

Heanor Town, now that is a famous name. Just after Belper won the league, my Dad managed to talk Stan Wilton into coming to the club from Heanor to edit the programme. Stan was a goldmine of knowledge, and I used to listen in awe to his football stories, he used to give me programmes, and in effect, he was like a big Uncle. Stan stayed at Belper for a few years before going back to his first love Heanor Town. It all stemmed from his dog shitting in my Dad’s car on the way to a game or something, but I suppose it was inevitable that he’d always go back, irrespective of the dog!

 

Around that time the Central Midlands League managed to convince a number of dissatisfied local clubs into joining them to form a new ‘Midlands Premier League’, and while the idea was a good one, in reality it was always destined to be a flop. Gradually teams began to realise that a move would isolate them from the Pyramid structure, so one by one some of the bigger names dropped out. Belper withdrew after much anger amongst fans, so did Sutton Town, while Alfreton Town were mysteriously slung out for causing a disruption amongst clubs! The new Northern Premier League First Division forming had no bearing on those decisions of course!!

 

Some clubs did move though, notably Arnold, Ilkeston Town and Heanor Town. As time wore on, Arnold and Ilkeston clawed their way back up the Pyramid as the Central Midlands League saw it’s status gradually diminish. But Heanor stagnated, and to this day they are the only founder member left in the grandly titled ‘Supreme Division’.

 

It’s a crying shame as they are historically a big club, and one wonders what they might have achieved had they not made the move. They do however appear to be making noises about returning to the Northern Counties East League at some stage, and that will be a return that is countless years overdue. One problem might be is that the club is still being run by the ‘old guard’, namely ‘uncle’ Stan, Chairman John McCulloch and Secretary Keith Costello. These chaps are Central Midlands League men through and through.

 

Once Appleby Frodingham got promotion to the Supreme Division at the end of last season, I decided it was to go on the list of grounds to visit. Not least to witness the venue that saw Belper’s last season of triumph come to a glorious end. I had been planning to get to a midweek game, but they’ve not been blessed with many midweek games thus far, and having managed to get out of work about lunchtime, it was time to go.

 

The last time I was in Scunthorpe was to see United take on Bedlington Terriers in the F.A. Cup, and to be honest, it’s not a place that you really need to travel via to get anywhere, so consequently I was clueless as to where to go. I also suspect I’ve been nabbed by a mobile speed camera on the M180 to the bargain, despite the warnings. I still cannot understand when the speed limit is 70mph, why I persist in driving at 73mph when I know I’ve got a good chance of being caught! My own fault though, that’ll be six points on the licence by the New Year I guess…………….

 

Once in Scunthorpe I had a rough idea of the location, and after a couple of about turns I found the Brumby Hall Sports Complex, and eventually the football ground that is home to Appleby Frodingham. My only mental image of the place is from a photograph on an old programme cover, and that was of a large building overlooking a pitch, with the ground enclosed by tarpaulins. The photo was from the seventies, and I can report that it hasn’t changed an awful lot!

 

The huge clubhouse and dressing room complex overlooks the pitch, while a small overhang in front of it provides the requisite cover at this level of football. The tarpaulins have gone, to be replaced by some green see through mesh that acts as a deterrent for those trying to watch the game without paying.

 

The have floodlights, a fixed barrier and hard standing on one side. That’s pretty much it, but it is tidy, it is clean, and the pitch was in good condition. The bar was excellent, selling lager at £1.54 a pint, which must be a record for any club at any level in the UK right now. They are, of course, heavily subsidised by Corus, who own British Steel, the main employer in Scunthorpe at the Frodingham Works.

 

A crowd of around fifty or so turned up for the game, with at least half having travelled from Heanor. Many of them were familiar faces, but no Stan, which disappointed me as I would have loved to have met up with him again as it’s been a few years since we last spoke. On the field, Frod were poor, and by half time Heanor had a deserved 1-0 lead through a Steve Frogatt penalty. The second half saw Frod fall into defensive disarray, falling out amongst themselves, while at the same time letting lively young striker Tom Widdison in twice to make it 3-0 and a seemingly unassailable lead.

 

The standard was quite poor I thought, both were mid-table sides in the Central Midlands League and when you think back just fifteen years to the sides Heanor used to field, it was a different ball game altogether. Frod are no doubt pleased to be on the way back up again after spending a number of years rebuilding in local football, but as for Heanor, it’s truly a crying shame how this once great club have been reduced to fielding kids, who play for nothing, in a standard that is quite frankly, not much better than pub football, by their own admission I might add.

 

It was nice though to visit what could be termed as a ‘blast from the past’ as far as local football history goes. In the bar before the game some Heanor supporters were reminiscing about visits to Brumby Hall in the old Northern Counties East League days, and how they would dearly love to be playing at that level now.

 

Belper Town drew 0-0 with Colwyn Bay today, twenty years ago they were in the same league as both Appleby Frodingham and Heanor Town. Belper’s Directors have had some stick over the years for showing a lack of ambition, but when you actually look at it, it could have been much, much different.

 

It could have been much different for Heanor Town as well, if only Stan Wilton’s dog hadn’t crapped in the back of my Dad’s brand new Ford Escort!  

 

 

Tuesday 7th December 2004

 

St Neots Town  2   Newport Pagnell Town  2

 

In the Summer of 1995 I agreed, for my sins, to become a committee member at Belper Town. It became apparent though as time and meetings passed by, that the committee were in fact a token gesture, who effectively got exploited when it came to handing out menial tasks at the club.

 

The real decisions were made by the ‘Board’, a far superior being who met behind closed doors and planned the future mis-management of the club. However, over the years committee members came and went, and one Summer the manager appointed a new physio called Pete Walker, but he came with baggage, his Dad!

 

Along came ‘Fun Time’ Frankie Walker, an old chap well into his seventies, and quite obviously he was useless. Perfect committee material in fact as when push came to shove, he would be happy to go out on a freezing cold day and sweep leaves from the terraces

 

I recall vividly a committee meeting in the old clubhouse at Christchurch Meadow when the subject of fund raising was on the agenda. A few blatantly unworkable ideas were being thrown about, and myself, as usual, was quickly losing the will to live, but then up chirped Frankie,

 

“I know, we can get supporters to buy bricks, I’ve just been to St Neots Town and lots of their supporters have been buying them, and they get their names on a plaque.”

 

Now bearing in mind at that stage, we didn’t have any bricks, or anything planned that would involve the use of bricks, it was another ridiculous suggestion that only Frankie was capable of, I could hold my silence no longer.

 

“Well then Frankie, you’ve just given yourself a fucking job, good luck old son!”

 

It was met with a couple of giggles, but mainly stunned silence. Frankie was speechless, I glanced round the room, it obviously hadn’t gone down too well, my future as a committee member was hanging by a thread, it was soon to come to an end.

 

What Frankie’s suggestion did though, was plant a seed in my mind. Every time I heard of St Neots from that point, I couldn’t help but think of the old fella, and his stupid suggestion.

 

St Neots Town are the last club in the United Counties League Premier Division that I’d yet to visit, but not for the want of trying. It’s been on the agenda for a while now but for one reason or another it’s been put on the back burner. But with a day off work, and all the time in the World on my hands on a gloomy Tuesday, it was time to go, and look for those famous bricks!

 

I had another objective in mind though, at the other 21 grounds in the fondly named ‘Bogtrotters’ League, I have yet to be able to get my hands on the delicacy that is the pie. I’ve had everything else though, hot dogs at Newport Pagnell, burgers at Potton United, crap soup at Harrowby and the entire range of Smiths Crisps at Yaxley, but no pies. Could St Neots buck the sorry trend?

 

St Neots is located just off the A1, about five miles South of the A14 junction, but of late I’ve been far from meticulous when it comes to being prepared. I had a mental note that the ground, Rowley Park, was ‘just outside the town centre to the left’. Now that covers a multitude of options, especially when you realise that St Neots is easily the size of Alfreton. I drove up and down the High Street a few times, but found nothing ‘to the left’, but then once again, just as I was about to ask a local, I spotted the glow in the distance. St Neots is a very plush town, with nice looking pubs, and some fantastic Christmas lights, but the ground, is actually a good mile out of town just under the railway bridge that carries the East Coast Main Line.

 

It’s virtually in the middle of nowhere, having been built in 1992, and since the ground was built, it looks as though absolutely nothing else has been done to make the area in close proximity to the stadium any more appealing than the building site it once was. It’s very poorly lit, and the entrance carries you along a potholed track through some scrubland, before leading to the car park at the back of the clubhouse.

 

As it was a bit early, I thought I’d check out the clubhouse, I was expecting it to be posh though as the website had eulogised about the conference and banqueting facilities available at Rowley Park, how wrong I was…….

 

It was dark, cold, and furnished with a mismatch of cheap tables, chairs and sofas! How this could be described as a ‘banqueting suite’ God only knows, it was a shit tip, only slightly more appealing than what was on offer at Bedford United & Valerio a few weeks ago. The locals had that stereotypical ‘Cockney Wanker’ appearance about them, decked in club polo shirts and sunglasses while sporting the crew cut and beer belly that seems to be synonymous with Bedfordshire and it’s surroundings. And of course, every sentence started with, or indeed ended with “faaackin ell”

 

At that point I spotted it, and how impressive it was too, nearly a full wall in the clubhouse was covered in gold plaques, each carrying countless names of people who have indeed ‘Bought a Brick’ in aid of St Neots Town Football Club. I thought of Frankie, and could begin to understand why he was so keen on the idea, but I was curious as to what the bricks were actually used to build, for it was time to look at the ground.

 

If a ground could ever be described as ‘one sided’, then Rowley Park is that ground. Behind the clubhouse and the changing rooms is a large seated stand that was built quite recently, and it’s flanked on either side by covered shelters, one of which is terraced, presumably because it used to be the stand that contained the seats.

 

The rest of the ground is open with just hard standing, albeit fully enclosed to satisfy league and F.A. rules, at that point I realised I might have been doing the club a disservice though. I noticed that the clubhouse complex is actually much bigger than I first thought, with what looked like a large annexe at the end. Presumably the posh bit of the ground that mere mortals are not allowed to see, housing the luxurious conference and banqueting facilities? We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt then on that!

 

No pies, just a burger van, selling ridiculously large burgers I might add (I had two), although the old dear doing the flipping might have at least smiled from time to time, she looked as though she’d sent her last pound on a brick, only to find out that it was being used to prop up the battered old car in the car park!

 

On the field, St Neots had been tipped at the start of the season to be one of the challengers, but they’ve been off the pace a little. A recent change of manager might be the catalyst they need to push them forward, but against mid table Newport Pagnell Town, they looked to be labouring somewhat.

 

Ben Hill gave the visitors the lead just before half time but Russell Lawes immediately equalised with a penalty. St Neots took the lead early in the second half with a well worked goal from the experienced Vince Petty, but with just ten minutes remaining, Hill scored a peach of a goal from the edge of the area that meant the points were shared.

 

Hill’s celebration was the best I’ve seen in a long time. He raced to the corner flag, with his team mates in hot pursuit, only to get down on all fours and cock his leg up in a dog stylee, aiming an imaginary piss at the flag pole. It was hilarious, but not well appreciated by the 50 or so St Neots fans, “Faaaaackin ellllllll!” they cried!

 

Once back home, I sat down and read the programme, and on the back page is the St Neots Town club history. Right at the end is a paragraph, and it goes like this,

 

“Further exciting plans are in the pipeline with a move to a new stadium scheduled for the 2005-06 season.”

 

That’s all well and good. But what about the bricks that the followers of the club have so lovingly funded? Do they get taken to the new ground having been carefully reclaimed from the old structure? Will they have a wall big enough to house the countless plaques currently on display? I just hope that they’ve thought this through properly………

 

In hindsight I was right, it was a bloody stupid idea Frankie. Bricks my arse!

Tuesday 16th November 2004

 

Highgate United  0   Shifnal Town  2

 

I’d been reading good things about Highgate United, the first of which was a piece in the Birmingham Sports Argus where a renowned journalist looked back on the glorious past of the club and their heady days of the sixties and early seventies.

 

They reached F.A. Amateur Cup semi-finals on a couple of occasions, while they also won a hat-trick of Midland Combination League titles. Crowds were good and the club had high hopes of entering the hen professional ranks of the then Southern League. It was remarked in the article that the tragic death of Tony Allden, who was struck by lighting and killed while playing for the club, was the signal for the down turn in Highgate’s fortunes. It was a disaster that took place in 1967, from which the club never truly recovered. However, the journalist in question remarked that the good times were on the way back, with a new regime, ground improvements and a talented young squad.

 

The article was almost mirrored less than a fortnight ago in the Non-League Paper. They ran a piece about the high hopes of the club, as they were in the Second Round of the F.A. Vase, and appeared to have moved on from the perennial struggle at the bottom of the league. The vibes were positive, and it was definitely a case of ‘Big up and respect to the Highgate massive’, or so I thought…….

 

With a midweek fixture against Shifnal Town on the agenda, it was definitely worth a look but visitors to Highgate United beware! I’ve got an old A-Z of Birmingham, and it’s not in the least bit of use as they’ve virtually rebuilt the area of Shirley, just off the M42, in which the ground is situated. Redrow Homes have built a very exclusive ‘village’ through which you must meander (a posh way of saying ‘drive’), before finding Tythe Barn Lane upon which the ground is located. You do actually find Tythe Barn Lane much easier than negotiating the village, but the end I approached it from as the map guided me, was closed!

 

Once on Tythe Barn Lane, it becomes a bit more problematic as there are four football grounds, two of which belong to junior clubs, while one is the home of Shirley Town. In amongst this little lot is Highgate’s set up, and for those without directions, it’s an absolute sod to get to, however, it is served very well by Whitlock’s End railway station, if anyone can find a train that actually stops there!

 

I was expecting quite a nice set up, but I was to be quite disappointed by it. The Club House was large, but cold and run down, with tacky posters of eighties pop stars on the wall, which were surrounding the so-called ‘dance floor’. I can just see the residents from the £500,000 homes down the road popping up for ‘Dave’s Saturday Night 80’s Disco!’

 

The ground itself is located about 150 yards across an open grass expanse which separates the clubhouse and dressing rooms from the pitch. It’s much too far a distance for Highgate to even think about getting promoted, and any hopes you might have had that the ground improvements would have made the place look a bit more welcoming are soon banished when you get inside the perimeter itself. No one collected any admission money, it’s easy just to walk straight in, and the most dominating feature is the stand which runs the full length of the pitch. The stand itself looks quite nice from the ‘turnstile’ end as it’s got four rows of unbroken plastic seats, but once you reach the halfway line it turns into a storage area for building materials, old furniture and broken advertising hoardings!

 

The rest of the ground is completely open, with a small walkway, but the remainder of it’s grass leading up to the trees which separate it from the adjacent football pitches and what appears to be farmland. The floodlights were not the best, and a crowd of fifty had turned up for the game. Given the publicity about the club I was expecting two things at least, even if the facilities had let me down. I expected the fans to be positive and the team to be half decent.

 

The fans were far from positive, one of them was shouting abuse at the players as they were running onto the pitch,

 

“I hope you play better than you did on Saturday lads, cos you were shite then!”

 

Another fan muttered that the players weren’t good enough and the manager was a joker, while the same chap went on to comment that Highgate would never get any decent players until they started paying them!

 

Well I’ve got a bit of advice for Highgate, if you charge admission, have a raffle, sell a programme, then you might make some money! Maybe the penny will drop one day?      

 

Highgate were crap, and they went in at half time losing 2-0. The visiting scout from Stourbridge who they meet in the Vase next Saturday, had a smile on his face, he’s not going to have to worry about too much in my opinion. The second half saw Shifnal sit back on he lead, knowing that the hosts just hadn’t got the ability to break them down. Highgate got frustrated and started to get a bit niggly, kicking anything that moved and whinging at the referee, while the bench spent the entire half hurling abuse at a referee who I felt was more than patient.

 

The game finished 2-0, and had been a poor spectacle. Shifnal came to do a job, which they did easily whereas Highgate looked exactly what they are, pure amateurs, straight from the local Sunday pub team.

 

I’m going to remember one golden rule in future, don’t believe anything you read in the papers, because if this is a club on the up, the I’m sleeping with Sarah Michelle Geller!

 

If you are thinking of going, don’t bother cos you’ll never find it, and it’s crap when you get their anyway. In it’s defence though, at least it’s a cheap day out….

 

 

Friday 19th November 2004

 

Welshpool Town  2   Airbus UK  1

 

This very nearly didn’t happen.

 

It was all planned to perfection, I was to break up from work for a week on Thursday night, have a lazy Friday and then trot down to Welshpool in the evening for a bit more Welsh Premier League action.

 

It was much different to that in the end. The mortgage mayhem that has taken over in the past three weeks has meant that I’m miles behind with my work and I was definitely going to have to go in on Friday morning at least to catch up a little bit. The fact that it hammered it down with snow on Thursday night didn’t help, so when I drove up to Sheffield on the morning, I half expected the game to be called off. Bearing in mind the fact that I’d planned to go a couple of weeks ago, only to find out through a phone call that the game with Aberystwyth Town had been called off when the rest of the UK seemed fine but for a bit of rain.

 

I didn’t leave the office until just after 3pm, and only got home at just after 4pm, again, fully expecting the game to be off, so I decided to make a few phone calls to be sure. The Airbus UK Secretary’s wife said the game was definitely on, while the former Secretary of Welshpool told me that there was no reason why the game would be off. I was told though that if I wanted to be sure, I should ring the Chairman, Steve, at his garage and he would confirm as the new Secretary also works with him as well. It was enough for me, I’ll come on to Chairman Steve later, I had to move fast.

 

I was almost at the flip of a coin stage, but I just knew that if I didn’t bother, I’d spend all night in the pub getting pissed, spending just as much money, and then only regretting it the following day. I had three hours, and with it being Friday evening I expected bad traffic, but to be fair I was on the outskirts of Shrewsbury by 6pm, and was only eighteen miles from the border town of Welshpool.

 

I got to Welshpool by 6.30pm, and with only directions from memory, that I’d checked out earlier in the week, I got it hopelessly wrong! I took the wrong turning off the dual carriageway and ended up trawling through the town centre. I thought I’d gone too far only to spot some floodlights at the back of Safeway. I followed the road past the ground and suddenly realised that it couldn’t be accessed that way. I turned round and decided to go through Safeway, only to find a bottle bank blocking the entrance to the ground. A swift about turn took me back into the town centre, and the signs for the ground then proved helpful as they took me straight to the destination. Trouble is, the ground is only signposted if you are travelling from Mid Wales, if you are coming from England, it’s tough luck mate!

 

The Maesydre Ground is pretty basic by Welsh Premier League standards, a cart track leads straight to an area behind the goal, where presumably you could watch the game for free as the turnstiles only police people actually wishing to head in the direction of the stand. I’m an honest man, paid to get in (£5), and asked if the clubhouse was open,

 

“We don’t have a clubhouse, but the local bowls club at the opposite end usually opens on match days so you could try that?”

 

I wandered up to the stand, the only stand that is, which is quite a large construction in he sense that it’s very tall in relation to the shallow nature of the seats that fill it. Beyond the stand was a tea bar and the dressing rooms, but tucked into a space behind them was the Scout Hut like structure that housed the local bowls club. I approached it nervously, noticing as I walked in that I was the only person in attendance, except for the two members of staff.

 

I was polite and asked if it was ok to have a drink, what with me being a nasty football fan and all that, and they couldn’t have been happier to oblige. So much so they both came and sat with me, and for half an hour we discussed all things football, both Welsh and English, only being interrupted by some tense moments on Emmerdale. Apparently Emmerdale is the favoured soap in the Mid-Wales region, and I can only think that it’s down to the familiarity with the little woolly things that live in the hills!

 

I decided to partake in a second pint, only for the chap who ran the club to insist on paying for it for me. I tried to refuse but reluctantly gave in, for it appears he was quite impressed that I’d travelled from Derbyshire on a Friday night to watch his town’s team, and as a result I deserved to be bought a drink. Fair play to that man, I don’t know his name, but my faith in the Welsh nationals has been restored, and I have to say that on three trips to the principality in under a year, the locals have been more than friendly to an English visitor. In fact I could go on and talk about the time I met a girl in a nightclub in Rhyl, and was given a real ‘Welsh Welcome’ on the beach, but I won’t, my Dad will be reading this one day…………..

 

I’ll describe the rest of the ground, and then come on to Chairman Steve. I read in the programme that Welshpool have been at the centre of some wranglings with regard to ground grading and subsequent promotions. It appears that they’ve been successful in convincing the grading officials that the Maesydre is up to scratch, whereas I have to say that I’ve got doubts. Apart from the stand, the dressing rooms and a tea bar, they have nothing else. Behind both goals the ground is flat, with a small path, whereas on the far side is a cricket pitch, with temporary hard standing! In other words, if you want to stand on this side, you lower some wooden decking from around the perimeter fence and Bob’s yer uncle!

 

The Chairman is Steve Hughes, a big fat bloke, and around the ground are numerous adverts for Steve Hughes Vauxhall, a dealership in both Welshpool and Newtown, an authorised dealership that is. Now then, who sponsors the Welsh Premier League anyone? Vauxhall Masterfit of course, and you’re not telling me that the league are going to either relegate or refuse to promote the club because of their ground, when the Chairman is a major player with the league’s sponsors?

 

Of course not, and add to that the Club President is Tegwyn Evans MBE, who also currently presides over the Welsh Football Association in his other capacity. It’s looking good for Welshpool Town isn’t it? And there was me thinking that when I was told to phone Steve at his garage, it would be a lock up on the back streets of the town doing dodgy MOT’s!

 

I quite enjoyed my visit to Airbus UK earlier in the season, but since then their fortunes have not been good. They sit second from bottom, unable to win a game, so they’ve done the decent thing, by signing a set of squealing, whinging, scousers, who do everything in their power to unsettle the opposition and the referee. If my faith in Wales had been restored by a chance meeting in the bowls club, Airbus UK have added further weight to my anti-scouse campaign.

 

Welshpool Town sit just below half way in the table, and having watched them run Rhyl close on S4C on Monday night, I thought they looked half decent. They took the lead in the opening minute against Airbus thanks to an own goal, and then added a second goal later in the first half. The also have one of the best players I saw last season playing for them in the middle of midfield in the shape of former Welsh Semi-Pro International Ricky Evans. I saw him playing for Aberystwyth last season and he was just outstanding, and he’s always been hugely thought of in his spells with both TNS and Bangor City. He’s coming to the end of his career, and is now playing for his local team, but in the programme it was interesting to read his pen picture which described him as the ‘Welsh Zinedine Zidane’. He’s a big fella, over six feet, and quite stocky but his ball skills are sublime, it was a joy to watch him once again.

 

Airbus pulled a goal back from a well taken free kick at the start of the second half, but the hosts were always the better side. In fact they should have made it 3-1 late in the half but the otherwise impeccable Evans managed to put his penalty kick wide of the post. Airbus did threaten later on, but they didn’t have the sufficient firepower to pose any major problems for Welshpool on the night.

 

Welshpool introduced substitute Aden Shannon late in the game, who is an interesting character to say the least. He was with NEWI Cefn Druids last season, and quite a handy goalscorer, but he had a habit of going missing. When I went to see the Druids it said in the programme that Shannon had been sacked for his lack of discipline, but surprisingly he was named on the substitutes bench. The Druids Manager was sacked within a week, for seemingly backing him after previously sacking him. It was either that, or the Ricky Evans inspired Aberystwyth Town tearing them apart that did it!

 

A crowd of around 100 watched the game on a cold night, and it struck me just how daunting the travelling in the Welsh Premier League is. Airbus UK from Chester, who were effectively playing in a local league last season, now face huge journeys to places like Carmarthen, Llanelli and Haverfordwest. They have to survive on crowds of around 100, but they do have big financial backing from Vauxhall as all the clubs in the league do, and that’s all to do with the fact that the product Vauxhall endorses receives national coverage on TV.

 

People like Steve Hughes are effectively keeping the Welsh Premier League alive, so on that basis we’ll allow his club Welshpool Town to receive a little bit of preferential treatment from the powers that be….

 

 

Saturday 20th November 2004

 

Bedford United & Valerio  2   Welwyn Garden City  5

 

As far as clubs with strange names go, Bedford United & Valerio takes some beating.

 

The Bedford United bit is relatively straight forward, it’s the Valerio bit that leads to the curiosity. So much so, as the good old Road to Cardiff starts on the BBC in August, they always mention this club as being one of the more obscurely named in the competition.

 

You may recall earlier this season that I have a view that Bedford is a place to be avoided unless absolutely essential. Well, in my quest to get to very ground at Step Five of the Pyramid within 100 miles of my home, this place to had to be visited, and having been past the place on more than one occasion and sussed it out, I wasn’t too perturbed about venturing once more into the multi-cultural psycho zone just off junction 13 of the M1.

 

I’ve wondered for a while just what the Valerio bit was all about, but never quite enough to actually sit down and do some research. I took the attitude that I’d eventually find out when I visited anyway, and when I did find out it would probably be wholly uninteresting. Watch this space!

 

The ground sits right next to the New Eyrie home of Bedford Town, who today were at home to table toppers Merthyr Tydfil, so when I arrived at the ground at 2pm it was pretty busy. The infamous roundabout (or lack of), is acutely apparent as you drive onto Meadow Lane which houses the grounds. Bedford Town’s ground suffers from terrible bottlenecks at the final whistle due to the fact that to get back in the direction of Bedford itself, the traffic has to turn right onto a busy main road. This has caused numerous ructions because to get the ground capacity up to Conference National requirements, they need a roundabout to allow traffic to disperse and enter at a satisfactory rate. The local authority don’t want to know, and as a result Kevin Wilson was a high profile departure as Manager last season. All because of a roundabout!

 

No such problems at United though, as their hardy 30 or so followers have no such problems getting out at full time!

 

While Town have the support and the facilities, United’s set up, while neat, is very basic. The changing rooms and clubhouse is a prefabricated building raised up almost on top of the roof of the terracing behind the goal at the New Eyrie, but not quite high enough to see the action though! It was a pretty horrible place however, it was grubby, cold and housed a mixture of battered second hand furniture. The lager tasted rank while the burgers looked far from tempting.

 

While in the clubhouse I spotted an article on the wall that began to answer the question about the Valerio tag. It appears that a few years ago, Bedford United merged with a local junior club called US Valerio, who’s pedigree for producing good players was renowned in the area. Indeed a lad called John Turner joined Cambridge United last season via the Valerio set up, and on the way home I heard he’d got a hat-trick for the U’s against Rushden & Diamonds.

 

However, digging deeper I discovered that the Valerio set up had been built around the strong Italian community in Bedford, and Aldo Valerio was in fact a President of the club. I was then pleasantly surprised to find out that the Valerio tag was actually the brand name of a Premium Italian Lager, brewed in Bedford. How good is that, having a football team named after a lager? Can you imagine it in other areas, Burton Albion & Carling, or maybe NEWI Cefn Druids & Wrexham Lager? No, it just wouldn’t work would it?

 

Adverts in the clubhouse offered a 30% off deal on crates of bottled Valerio Lager, subject to availability, but then it still cost £24 for a crate of 24 bottles so it’s not cheap stuff is it? I also noticed that United were additionally sponsored by an outfit called Team Skelton who were a boxing stable, headed up by a guy called Lui LaMura. This chap was Vice Chairman of the club, and a picture was starting to emerge.

 

A family brewery and a boxing stable, run by Italians? This club is run by the sodding mafia, I was just waiting for the Godfather to walk in, Papa Valerio dressed in a bespoke designer suit and long black overcoat, with two henchmen at his side. It all started to appear very sinister indeed……….

 

I had a walk onto the ground to find a small stand, split into a bank of 30 or so seats, with the rest terracing. The remainder of the ground was open, although the dual carriageway was just at the top of the bank on the opposite side to the stand and this provided a noisy backdrop to the action.

 

As a football team, United have a had a poor season, they’ve only won twice all season and until today they’d gone seventeen games in all competitions since a win. The visitors Welwyn Garden City were sat in the top six, and on paper you had to fancy an away win.

 

What was remarkable was that for the second Saturday running, both sides had female physiotherapists, although I have to say that the visiting blonde version was far more attractive than the dumpy Italian type who Bedford employed. I’ll say it quietly though, I value my kneecaps, and I was in mafia land!

 

The first half saw Bedford go in at half time with a 1-0 lead thanks to a well taken gal, but most of the ‘oohs’ and ‘aaahs’ were coming from behind the fence where Town were giving their Welsh visitors a hard time.

 

It all kicked off in the second half though when Bedford had a player sent off after it looked very much like a Welwyn player had conned the referee into thinking he’d been punched off the ball following a tackle. It sparked furious scenes, but from that point, it was only going to be one way.

 

The City side containing great names such as Danny Tiexeira, Pablo Ardiles (son of Ossie), Daniel Gomez, Omelihu Nwanguma and Attila Hengsperger, scored four very well taken goals to race into a 4-1 lead, before the impressive Jamaal Dixon pulled one back for Julian Capone’s side.

 

Welwyn grabbed a deserved fifth in injury time just as the final whistle was blowing across the way to signal a good 2-1 victory for Town. The timing was shocking as I ended up stuck in the bottleneck to get out, it was bad enough with 400 in attendance, I dread to think what it would be like with three times as many trying to exit.

 

Bedford looked thoroughly fed up at suffering another heavy defeat, while City were obviously delighted with a win that keeps the pressure on the leaders of the Spartan South Midlands League. I wonder if the visitors get a complimentary case of Valerio for the journey home? Or maybe they just get back on the bus to find a horses head on the back seat and the brake cables cut.

 

‘Ciao’ from Bedford.  

_____________________________________________________

Tuesday 19th October 2004
Maine Road  0   Colne  1
After I got back to blighty following the Stotfold jaunt on Saturday, I
made a pilgrimage to the George & Dragon in town. The plan was to meet up
with the returning Belper Town fans who had travelled to Chorley, but a
surprise guest arrived.
Mike Smith (aka Mossley Smiffy), had been to see his beloved Lillywhites
down at Hinckley United in the F.A. Cup, and by the time he arrived, he
was on his thirteenth pint of what sounded like a lively day.
The banter was great, and the conversation moved onto crap football grounds
and their surroundings. The crowd around the table had increased in size,
and to be fair, none of them knew of my expeditions, so I decided to throw
in snippets of knowledge to add to the debate, but sparingly of course.
I managed to engineer it so we got onto the North West Counties League,
of which Smiffy was an expert, and suggested that if anyone wanted to travel
to a desolate, unattractive and slightly unnerving venue, then they should
look no further than Abbey Hey.
?No, no, no!? replied Smiffy
?I know somewhere much less appealing than that, try Maine Road?.?
I went quiet, because it was to be my next game. I had minor reservations
about it due to the fact that it was Manchester, and fairly central Manchester
with it, but from experience I didn?t recall it being too bad a venue?
When I say experience, we are talking about eight years ago when myself
and a mate had the bright idea of getting in the car, driving to Manchester,
and travelling to as many football grounds as we could in a day, taking
photo?s as evidence.
It was quite a lively day as well, we started at Glossop North End before
getting ejected from Stalybridge Celtic by some workmen as the place was
a building site. The journey moved on to Mossley, Curzon Ashton, Ashton
United (where we managed to drive into the bus station), and then Droylsden
before breaking for lunch. We then headed North to Oldham Town and Chadderton,
where we were pulled up by the police for acting suspiciously with a camera!
After successfully dealing with some very awkward questions came Castleton
Gabriels, before we moved on to Flixton, Trafford, Maine Road, Cheadle Town
and Altrincham.
But Maine Road didn?t seem to strike me with any fear, Smiffy must have
been getting his wires crossed, or maybe he just hadn?t got the breadth
of knowledge I thought he had?
It all went rather well, up until I pulled off the M60 and took the main
road towards Manchester City Centre, which was the recommended route to
the home of Maine Road. I sat at some traffic lights about a mile from the
ground and took a quick glance at the A-Z, and to be frank, I nearly shit
a brick! I didn?t realise that Brantingham Road, the home of Maine Road,
was within a matter of yards from Moss Side??.
I?m sure I don?t need to go into any details about Moss Side, suffice to
say that it is without question the most notorious suburb in the UK for
things like drugs, prostitution, and more worryingly, gun crime. When I
say gun crime, I don?t mean that a criminal underworld is only too happy
to carry shooters on their travels, more a case of, drive along the wrong
road at the wrong time and you get shot, no questions, and no recourse,
because the police won?t go near it!
I was a tad apprehensive now as you can imagine, I took immense care to
make sure that I took all the right turns, because one wrong move and I
was in the middle of it, and I didn?t want to be seen in my car, with the
interior light on, trying to read a map! I had visions of a cap in my ass???..
I got it right though, pulled into the car park and surveyed the scene.
The ground doubles up as the headquarters of the Manchester County F.A.
and at first glance, it looked ok. The neighbourhood looked respectable
enough, and the two teams were arriving, I could afford to relax a little.
Maine Road finished runners up the North West Counties League Division Two
last season, one place behind tonight?s visitors, my old pals from Colne.
Both clubs were sat in mid table, so I was hopeful that both outfits would
be looking to make progress into the top half of the table, and of course
gain bragging rights after the battles they had last season in search of
the championship.
The fun started in the bar, I walked in only to hear a voice,
?I recognise that chap, where have I seen him before?? was the cry
I looked round and recognised him as the barman from Colne, I smiled and
said,
?I was at that farce the other night involving Mr Chapman, although can?t
complain about the entertainment!?
The crowd of about half a dozen Colne fans all laughed, and we had a brief
chat about the events, but then one of the Colne fans mobiles rang. It turned
out that a car load of fans were lost, and needed guiding in, I only caught
one side of the conversation obviously, but it was pretty clear what was
happening,
?You?re where? What, Alexandra Park, just off Princess Parkway? For fucks
sake lad, turn round and get out, you?re in Moss Side, get out sharpish??.?
Turns out my fears had foundation, visitors to Maine Road beware, one wrong
move and you could literally be dead!
I?d better describe the ground, and to be fair, I could see where Smiffy
was coming from, it was a bit of a dump. You enter behind the goal, once
of course the padlocked grid to keep intruders out has been removed, and
this leads to a small piece of open terracing behind the goal. To the right
is a stand covering half the length of the pitch with a few bench seats
in it, while to the left are two small enclosures made out of corrugated
steel and scaffold poles. The opposite end is open, while the dressing rooms
are contained within the offices of the County FA which is adjacent to the
car park.
While it had facilities, it was desperately in need of a coat of paint,
not least to cover up the graffiti, while at the same time it?s both drab
and characterless. It smacks of inner city and the deprivation that goes
with it, in the sense that it?s no point building anything nice otherwise
it?ll either get stolen or destroyed. Funnily enough, as I paid to get in
it was quite dark at the turnstiles, so I jokingly told the gateman he needed
a light,
?I know, I had one once, but it got nicked!? was the reply. And that just
sums it up.
Footballing wise, Colne had much the better of the first half and scored
with a close range tap in. But the second half saw Maine Road fight back
and probably do enough to earn a point, however they lacked the little bit
of cutting edge that was required to find a way past the impressive Ross
Baxter in the Colne goal.
Throughout the second half I had one thing on my mind, the route to the
motorway, I kept going through it in my head, repeating it to myself,
?Right out of the ground, right at the end of the road (left would be disastrous),
and then left at the traffic lights. Go through another set of lights, and
then turn right at the main junction which leads to the motorway.?
The route took on more of an urgency as the night wore on and the sirens
became more prevalent, I can?t recall ever wanting to get away from a place
so quickly for non-footballing reasons before. But that is the lesson you
learn, if you don?t listen to Mossley Smiffy!
I got it right first time, and got back to the relative safety of Stockport
within fifteen minutes of the final whistle, and you might be wondering
if I can think of any redeeming features of Maine Road worth reporting on?
The pies were excellent, for just a pound, and combined with a cup of Bovril
it was heaven. You don?t get that kind of fodder in the United Counties
League, but having said that, I can?t think of anywhere in that league where
you run the inherent risk of getting shot either!
All in a days work???..
Tuesday 26th October 2004
Coventry Sphinx  1   Ludlow Town  1
People die, every day, famous people included, and recently we?ve seen the
passing of my all time sporting hero, Mr Brian Clough OBE. That was sad,
but given his age, and his deteriorating health, not a huge shock.
John Peel died today, and given his age (65), and his apparent good health,
this was a great shock to everyone. John is an icon, a legend in the musical
world, and he was a huge influence during my angst ridden teenage years.
My vinyl collection comprises predominantly of two bands, New Order and
The Smiths, two groups who I first heard via John Peel on his late night
show on Radio One. I would not be overstating things if I said that the
music of these two groups was hugely influential during my growing up process,
and even now, they sound as fresh and thought provoking as they did in the
days of the transistor radio in the bedroom.
Today is a very sad day, and it was hugely fitting that Radio One decided
to devote its airtime to a continuous tribute to the great man. At 5pm,
Spoony decided to play 45 minutes of tracks that were straight from the
Peel archives, and it was the most compulsive listening I could ever recall.
?How Soon Is Now?, blended into ?Blue Monday?, and then came the quite magical
?Love Will Tear Us Apart?, the journey to Coventry passed by in a blur,
and ended with an emotional tribute from a selection of his colleagues.
But life goes on, and also on tonight was the re-arranged F.A. Vase game
at Coventry Sphinx, who were playing host to Ludlow Town. The game had been
postponed on Saturday due to the heavy rains, but tonight, the club from
the Midland Combination were hoping to move into the Second Round Proper
and a trip to Malvern Town, at the expense of a team that were a league
above them in the pyramid.
You might recall that I?ve already seen Sphinx in action (it?s pronounced
Spinx, the ?h? is silent), at Coleshill Town earlier in the month, and on
the night they got a pummelling. What was also quite entertaining that night
was the rage that Chairman Vic Jones flew into as the goals were going in
against his side! Tonight, I was looking forward to see how he coped in
a knockout situation!
The ground is located within a stones throw of the Coventry Marconi ground
from the same league. In fact the two grounds are separated by Allard Way,
and I have to be honest, they aren?t dissimilar either. Both are located
within sports complexes, both have very impressive club houses, both have
adjacent cricket pitches, and both have a small stand comprising of a few
seats and a bit of terracing. I was quite impressed, the club house in particular
was fantastic, and by 7.30pm it was pretty busy with eager punters.
They were eager as well, because Ludlow got lost on the Coventry ring road
(which is quite easy), and ended up missing the turn off by some distance.
They finally arrived at 7.20pm, and it was announced that the kick off was
to be delayed until 8pm. But not to worry, Vic had it all under control,
his stewards had the car parking in order and his secretary was on the phone
to the F.A. / Ludlow / The Samaritans, to ensure the correct procedures
had been followed. I tell a lie though, he did lose it at one point, just
after the arrival of the match officials he was greatly disturbed to find
out that they were out of milk. He stormed into the kitchen, and with the
door left slightly open, I could just hear him turning the air blue as some
poor unfortunate minion copped for an earful. Within five minutes we had
milk!
A crowd of around 100 turned up, and I have to say they witnessed a good
game. The first half was goalless, but either side had chances to score,
and I have to say it was a case of poor finishing that kept the scores level
at half time. Ludlow, however, started the second half with a flourish and
took the lead when they caught the hosts square at the back and a good finish
from Martin Davies found the bottom corner. Ludlow Manager Jimmy Mullen
was getting animated on the touchline, and seemed, I thought, to command
very little respect from his players, for example,
?Martin, get the fucking challenge in early!? Mullen cried.
?Bollocks!? would be Martin?s reply!
Anyway, Sphinx battled back superbly, came close on a number of occasions
but got their just reward from close range with ten minutes go when Chris
Harris found the target. The game went into extra time and Sphinx were much
the better team again, and came so close, only to see the ball cleared off
the line twice in the same attack.
Ludlow hung on, and it was the higher placed visitors who celebrated at
the final whistle. Vic was gutted, he?d been pacing up and down like an
expectant father during extra time, and on the final whistle he made his
feelings known to all around him.
?Bastard!? he cried!
So we finally got to leave Sphinx at 10.30pm, and make our way through the
very dodgy looking housing estate that flanks the ground. Once on the motorway
I could indulge myself in Steve Lamacq who was doing his own tribute show
on Radio One,
Take me out tonight
Where there?s music and there?s people
Who are young and alive
Driving in your car
I never ever want to go home
Because I haven?t got one
Anymore
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out ? The Smiths
Rest In Peace, Sir.

Saturday 30th October 2004
Formby  2   St Helens Town  5
Earlier this month, following a visit to Skelmersdale United, I thought
my faith in the Scouse population had been restored somewhat. Following
a trip to see two of Merseyside?s non-league outfits in action today, I
can safely say that my views are now exactly back where they were before
I turned off the M58 on that glorious day in Skem!
I?ll come onto the gory details a bit later, but I?d better explain why
I decided to head for Formby today. Formby was the last ground in the North
West Counties League First Division that I hadn?t visited, and added to
that, they moved to a new stadium two years ago, so I was curious to see
what they had achieved. They used to play on Brow Lane in the town centre,
but they?ve now moved onto Altcar Road, which is situated on the outskirts
of the town.
I?ve never been to the town of Formby before, but I have gone past it on
the way to Southport so the route was well rehearsed, and the only thing
to note on the journey up was that the old ground that Bootle used to play
at has been demolished and a gymnasium sits in it?s place! It took the best
part of an hour and a quarter, and the M6 was a damn site easier than it
was the last time when England played Wales.
It?s a bit posh once you get to the top side of Liverpool, the area around
Marine?s ground in Crosby is nice, while Ainsdale and Birkdale on the outskirts
of Southport are the homes to people like Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen.
I assumed Formby would also be fairly pleasant, and while the town was wonderfully
attractive, I had yet to witness the delights of the football ground.
Back in pre-season I looked on Formby?s website, noted it had been professionally
done, and also browsed a few photographs of the ground. It looked fairly
basic, not unlike Skelmersdale, but being a new facility, I was hopeful
that it would be welcoming to the casual visitor. Of late, the website has
been unavailable, it was perhaps an ominous sign of things to come. The
ground is located behind Tesco?s, just off the main Liverpool to Southport
road, and sits opposite a waste disposal plant. The car park was a piece
of muddy wasteland, which held the best part of a dozen cars, and with it
being an hour before kick off I decided to pay my admission and get a pint.
First mistake, Formby don?t have a clubhouse, because for some unknown reason
they can?t get a licence. However, they do have a dingy portakabin that
acts as a tea bar. It was grubby and ramshackle, but I was relieved to find
that they did hot dogs, or at least I was until it arrived. It was a finger
roll, with two boiled sausages from a tin, I started to have a bad feeling
about this place.
The pitch was superb, but the facilities were to the absolute bare minimum.
A seated stand holding around 100 sits behind the goal, right in the corner
by the entrance, while an area of covered terracing stands behind the opposite
goal. The tea bar and the dressing rooms are portakabins as I said, while
the rest of it is bare! I?m not sure how much money they got for the old
ground, or indeed how much it cost to acquire the land for the new one,
but they certainly can?t be accused of extravagance.
When I say the place is bare, I mean that it does have a fence around it,
and they?ve very kindly fenced it with a mesh that allows the spectator
to stare at the surrounding marshland if they so wish. No character, no
atmosphere and no fans (73 turned up, with at least 20 from St Helens),
I was just praying for a good game. The programme was pretty good though,
and I was curious to know why Formby are called ?The Squirrel?s?. I?ve tried
to do a bit of research, but can?t find out why. I can think of a link,
which goes along the lines that squirrels are rats with tails, rats are
dirty creatures that live in sewers, the streets of Liverpool smell like
sewers, and the inhabitants are more or less human forms of vermin!
St Helens Town have been having a good season, they sit third in the league,
and arrived at the ground in a fleet of taxi?s! The pre-match banter on
the pitch involved squealing, screeching and swearing, as Scousers do, and
to be fair, once the game got underway, it was pretty clear who was going
to come out on top.
Formby have won one game all season, they don?t pay players wages, and they
look certainties to go down. The programme notes seemed to be made up of
moans and whinges about things like biased referee?s, injuries, backstabbing
players and supporters, bad luck, the World being against them etc, etc.
Typically Scouse!
St Helens were 3-0 up after twenty minutes thanks to a combination of good
finishing and poor defending. Formby took it badly, especially centre forward
Neal Smith who decided to take his frustrations out on the linesman who
kept flagging him offside. After his fourth or fifth verbal tirade the official
smartly said,
?Shut up whinging, you?re constantly two yards offside, it?s the easiest
afternoon I?ve had all season!?
Having said that, I have to say that the St Helen?s midfielder Brian Fairbrother
won the award for motivational speeches. The game hadn?t even kicked off,
and as the players were lining up waiting for the referee?s whistle he turned
to his right back and screamed,
?See the left winger, you put him in the fucken stand first tackle, know
what I mean. Fucken stand, first tackle, ok lar!?
The left winger stood and smiled, no doubt aware that if the right back
did decide to launch him, the only place he would be landing would be the
marsh behind the ground. I really don?t know what fuel these people run
on. It was 3-0 at half time, but Formby did pull a goal back early in the
second half. And while the first half had been entertaining from an attacking
football point of view, the second was much more disjointed. St Helen?s
made it 4-1 from a direct free kick but a close range header from a portly
striker with five minutes to go bought it back to 4-2. St Helens?s prodded
home a fifth in injury time to secure a win that they certainly deserved,
and I?m not convinced they were playing anywhere near their best.
The second half was punctuated by incessant squealing from both teams, both
benches and both sets of supporters. For some reason, Scousers feel a sense
of injustice far greater than any other region in the country. You kick
one of them, you?ve kicked the entire team, you make a comment to one of
them and you are immediately insulting him, his family and his uncle Bobby,
Jimmy, Eddie, Barry etc. To sum it up, a small boy, aged no more than seven
was walking round in a T-shirt adorning the slogan, ?Justice for the Hillsborough
96?. Ok, they want justice, but dressing a kid up in this fashion, who would
barely understand what his clothing was trying to say? Come on?..
Game wise it was pretty good, facilities wise it was tripe, I couldn?t have
a pint and the sausages were shite. Scouse wise it was just back to what
we all come to expect. I can imagine them all out tonight in Liverpool,
drinking bottles of Becks, wearing neatly ironed white shirts, and having
the statutory punch up before someone steps in and says ?calm down!? Funnily
enough, the referee?s favourite phrase seemed to be ?calm down lads?, I?m
not sure now if he was taking the piss or not, fair play to him if he was.
I took a slightly different route back home. Rather than go back via the
M58 and M6 as I did on the way up, I decided to take the M57 past all the
best places Merseyside has to offer, you know, Fazakerley, Kirby, Prescot
and the delightful Huyton. What a shite place Merseyside is, I can see no
reason why anyone who isn?t a born and bred scouser / scrounger would want
to either live, or indeed spend any time in the God forsaken place.
Saturday 6th November 2004
Malvern Town  1   Studley  3
It?s been the most stressful week of my professional life. To cut a long
story short, the UK mortgage market has been driven to a complete standstill
thanks to a bright idea by the government. Without delving too deeply into
the gory detail, we?ve been landed with a web based software system that
had to be ready to go live on 1st November, and to be frank, it doesn?t
work. By the end of the week we were no further forward, stuck with a system
that quite patently hadn?t been tested, and after much frustration, anger,
and at times violence, was I glad when Saturday arrived.
I needed de-stressing after the week I?d had. I also needed something that
would take my mind off the fact that come Monday morning, I?ve got to start
the battle all over again. Therefore I had to choose today?s game very carefully.
I thought about Appleby Frodingham, but Scunthorpe seemed far too unappealing,
while Total Network Solutions was an option but I couldn?t muster up the
enthusiasm to face Wales. I did also think about going up to Cammell Laird
but the scouse factor immediately put me off. Only one venue looked as though
it would do the job, and that was Malvern Town, who incidentally were the
only club I?d yet to visit in the Midland Football Alliance.
Why Great Malvern? Well, earlier in the season, when I was stressed out
I went to Ledbury Town and I passed through it on the way, and it struck
me how nice a place it was. The approach to the town via the Worcester ring
road was pleasant with the backdrop of the famous Malvern Hills while the
town itself seemed unspoilt by progress. No McDonalds, no Poundstretcher
and no Kebabylon Take Away being used as a drop in centre for the local
herberts!
Great Malvern is a funny place. It?s a town made up of lots of little bits,
for example, you have Malvern Links, North Malvern, West Malvern, Malvern
Common and Malvern by the Sea (made that bit up!). But central to it all
are the outstanding Malvern Hills which dominate the local landscape. I
got to it in about an hour and a half, and followed the directions to the
ground which involved cutting through a retail and industrial park, past
a new housing estate, and wait for it, straight into the middle of a council
estate where the ground, Langlands Stadium, was located.
Typical isn?t it, you get to one of the most picturesque locations in the
country, and they stick the local football club smack bang in an area that
looks as though it could make an appearance in the latest Sky One series
?The Toughest??..?. We?ve had the toughest pubs, the toughest seaside resorts
and also the toughest villages, the area around Malvern?s ground could quite
easily get into the next episode about the toughest suburbs of posh picturesque
places!
I made my way to the bar, to be greeted by a good number of the local miscreants.
It was full of young chavs, dribbling old men, single mum?s following far
too many Bacardi Breezers, and screeching schoolkids, one of which who insisted
on getting my opinion on Birmingham City?s season. Like I gave a rats ass!
I managed two pints, which wasn?t bad considering I?d staggered home the
night before after a substantial session, and on the way back I?d quite
childishly found a skip with a load of old Viz magazines in it. I got about
a dozen and proceeded to stick then under the windscreen wipers of cars
along Nottingham Road. And then I have the nerve to go on about the great
unwashed of Malvern???..
I eventually got into the ground fifteen minutes before kick off, mainly
because no one could find the key to unlock the turnstiles, and once inside
I was pleasantly surprised. Don?t get me wrong, it was far from a fantastic
ground, and certainly not a fantastic location, but the views from the side
opposite the car park were simply stunning. The Hills provided the perfect
backdrop, running almost parallel to the ground, and with the High Street
running just under the shadow of the Hills, the traffic could be seen passing
by in the distance. It was worthy of a photograph, but try as I might, I
couldn?t find one of this view anywhere on the web.
However, once you focus in on the Langlands Stadium, reality starts to bite.
Only one stand occupies the ground, and that is quite a large construction
in the sense that it?s pretty deep, stretching back over the top of the
dressing rooms, with a standing area set in front of the well elevated seats.
The clubhouse is to one side, while the rest of the ground is completely
open to the elements.
Malvern Town won the West Midlands Regional League last season, pipping
Tipton Town at the death, and in their first season of Midland Football
Alliance action, they have acquitted themselves pretty well, sitting just
above the half way mark. They?ve made some high profile signings in the
shape of Darren Bullock and Nathan Jukes from Worcester City, while Phil
Preedy in attack has seen it and done it at this level.
The opponents were Studley, who have had a comparatively poor start to the
season after doing so well last term. They did lose a number of players
though as financial constraints started to bite, with quite a few stepping
up to play at Willenhall Town. I anticipated a close game, but I didn?t
expect it to be quite as lively as it turned out.
Before I go on to talk about the game I?ll just mention the match officials.
The referee had travelled a relatively short distance from Willenhall, funnily
enough, but his assistants had travelled from Torrington in Devon, and South
Normanton in Derbyshire, which is just a bit further on from where I live!
The travelling expenses must have been extortionate, and utterly ridiculous
at this level of football. The crowd of around 80 probably just covered
the mileage!
Anyway, it certainly was a no holds barred game. Malvern had a player stretchered
off with a nasty looking knee injury, and then had to physically carry another
player off within minutes after a Studley player had decided to assault
a member of the opposition with a move that looked more akin to martial
arts! It was 0-0 at half time but Malvern had been on top, however minutes
into the second half Studley took the lead when Mark Neath rifled home from
close range.
The game continued to be niggly, with late challenges, verbal assaults and
off the ball gougings taking place all over the pitch! Malvern were throwing
everything forward but just when it looked as though Studley had weathered
the storm, Nathan Jukes prodded the ball home after a goal mouth scramble.
Malvern now fancied it, and squandered a couple of good chances, but it
was obviously Studley?s day. Twice on the break in the final two minutes
Kevin Jones was on hand to slide the ball home with the home defence outnumbered.
The final whistle was greeted by Studley as though they?d won promotion,
Malvern just went into a sulk, justifiably I?d say as they deserved more
out of the game, and were more often than not the victims of the physical
stuff.
For the first Saturday this season, it was dark when I got back in the car,
and the journey back wasn?t as straightforward as I would have hoped. Malvern
was at virtual gridlock due to the bonfire at the nearby Three Counties
Showground, while I was racing against time to pick the kids up only to
be held up again by the queues to get to the event at Markeaton Park in
Derby.
I finally got back into Belper to pick the kids up from their mother?s friends
house. She lives on the much maligned Parks Estate, and I was amazed by
the amount of fireworks being launched from all across the estate. The place
was being lit up like Baghdad after the first wave of Operation Shock and
Awe! However, in terms of inflicting damage, it would be a tough call to
make the Park Estate look any worse than it already does. Baghdad has some
way to go??.
Having said that, I can imagine the area around the Langlands Stadium would
be pretty colourful tonight, and that isn?t just the language from the home
team dressing room!

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

Friday 8th October 2004

 

Airbus UK  1   Caernarfon Town  1

 

I’ve developed a bit of a strange Monday night habit.

 

It involves tuning into channel 151 on Sky Digital at 11.30pm and watching S4C Digitol. The programme is called Clwb Pel Droed, and it’s basically a Welsh football show, in Welsh!

 

Now I haven’t got a clue what they are talking about, but I can understand the pictures! A typical evenings viewing will start with a bloke and a bird sat in a football club bar, talking, and then they’ll show the highlights of a game. Last week it was the Welsh Cup tie between Glantraeth and NEWI Cefn Druids, while the week before it was Caernarfon Town and Caersws. Once the highlights of the featured game are out of the way, they cut to a re-run of the BBC Saturday evening match reports from the Coca Cola League games. It’s all in Welsh, but I do now know that Abertawe is Swansea, Wrecsam is Wrexham and Caerdydd is Cardiff!

 

Following on from that they stick on a bit of propaganda about the England v Wales game, before a few goals from more of the weekends games. I was particularly impressed by the highlights from the Glantraeth v NEWI Cefn Druids game as the ground was set into what looked like a field on a farm! Behind one of the goals it was open, except for a flock of sheep that were grazing! How Welsh…..

 

Anyway, I enjoy it, even if it is a bit of a low budget production, and having made a journey to NEWI Cefn Druids last season, I thought it was perhaps a good time to re-acquaint myself with football in the principality.

 

It fell perfectly really. I broke up from work yesterday, picked up the new motor today, and thanks to the England v Wales game tomorrow, a fair few games were playing Friday night, and one of those was at Airbus UK.

 

I’d better tell the story behind this lot. Airbus UK won the Cymru Alliance last season, and controversially gained promotion to the Welsh Premier League. The reason it was controversial was due to the fact that Barry Town were relegated as a result, and how they complained about it. Airbus were forced to share with Conwy United to begin with as their ground improvements hadn’t been completed by the start of the current season, and that was the basis of Barry’s complaint. It wasn’t upheld, and Airbus took their place.

 

Airbus UK play in Broughton, which is just over the England / Wales border on the Chester ring road. Broughton is about a mile from Hawarden (the home village of Michael Owen), but it is dominated by the huge Airbus works. The ground itself is located on the factory grounds, and tonight’s game was to be the first ever game to be played under the new floodlights.

 

The factory has always had a good football team, playing under the varying guises of Hawker Siddeley, Bae Systems, British Aerospace and de Havillands to name but a few, but over the last few years they’ve moved on rapidly, so plenty of work has had to be done on the ground.

 

They’ve built a smart new dressing room complex, with some covered seats in front of it, while the ground and pitch has been fully enclosed. Turnstiles have been put in, while another bank of seats has been erected, albeit on a temporary basis, which are built into a trailer on wheels a la West Midlands Police! The floodlights are fantastic, but due to the adjacent runway serving the factory, they have to be retractable. So before and after every game, someone has a bit of a job to do to both erect and dismantle six pylons!

  

It’s got a bit of a temporary feel about it, but I do understand that they have big plans to develop the ground over the coming years. The clubhouse is opposite the ground in the ‘Wing Makers Club’, which is the social club that serves the factory, and with lager at £1.60 a pint, it can’t be faulted. Now I must confess to not being the greatest lover of the Welsh, but I got chatting to some Caernarfon fans in the bar, and they were very nice people indeed. I told them where I was from, and they wanted to know all about football in my locality. They also told me a little bit about the money that was flying around in the Welsh Premier League, and it’s no wonder that a large number of Scousers and Mancunians are now plying their trade over the border.

 

It seemed strange watching a football match in the grounds of a factory, but what a superb game it was. Caernarfon are being tipped as one of the teams of the future, and they got off to a good start, taking the lead with a well taken goal. It went down well with their vociferous travelling support, but Airbus UK, who were second bottom before the game, came back well to score a superb equaliser as half time approached.

 

The standard of football was excellent, and while the second half saw no more goals, it was end to end stuff, with both teams playing some excellent passing football. I would say that both sides would be good UniBond Premier sides in comparative terms, whereas the top sides in this division would definitely be capable of holding their own in the Conference North.

 

About 200 or so turned up to watch the game, and it was only the third game played at Broughton since the club moved back from Conwy. The first game against league leaders TNS drew 235, while last Saturday’s Welsh Cup tie against Rhydymwyn drew just 67 paying spectators. And herein lies Airbus UK’s problem. They are effectively a works team, playing at a factory that sits on the outskirts of the town. Despite the fact that the players have no connection with the company whatsoever, the locals still see it the other way, and as a result they have no sense of community about them. Added to the fact that it’s hardly within walking distance of the town centre, they’re going to find it hard to drum up support.

 

The club are working desperately hard though, and if they show the kind of spirit they showed on the pitch tonight they should survive. It’s happened over on the Wirral with Vauxhall Motors, so why not in North Wales?

 

I noticed that they haven’t built a TV gantry yet though, because without that, and the subsequent coverage on S4C Digitol, they’ll never get the publicity they so desperately need. Having said that, Monday’s edition will be all about the Wales game at Old Trafford, and as a result, the Welsh Premier League might only get a passing mention.

 

I can’t resist saying it though, ‘Come on England’, lets finally put Owain Glynndor and his pet dragon to rest. But from a personal point of view, spare a thought for the Wing Makers of Airbus UK, besides, they’re only about 100 yards away from being English!

 

 

Saturday 9th October 2004

 

Skelmersdale United  1   Trafford  1

 

On a day when 62,000 people were converging on Manchester for the England v Wales game, I decided to do the sensible thing and join them in the car park, or the M6 as it is more commonly known.

 

Sheer madness you might think, well, maybe, but I was in a bit of a dilemma. Due to the fixture at Old Trafford, most games were subject to early kick offs, and as I have to do the Fatherly thing on a Saturday morning, I had to find somewhere that had a 3pm kick off.

 

There wasn’t an awful lot around, the game I had originally picked out, at Bishops Cleeve, was a 12.45pm start, while Colne kicked off at 1pm. However, I had earmarked a trip to Skelmersdale United this season, and after numerous checks, the game against Trafford was going to kick off at 3pm.

 

The M6 was very busy, stop start from Stoke on Trent when I joined it at 12.15pm, right through to 1.30pm where the traffic dispersed at the M56. Four junctions that should take about twenty minutes, took over an hour, but it wasn’t without entertainment. Bear in mind that a large proportion of those travelling, especially those in mini buses, had been on the pop since mid morning, so the hard shoulder had effectively become a toilet!

 

I suppose it would be sensible to try and be as discreet as possible when having a slash at the side of the motorway, and to be fair, many were. However, just before the Holmes Chapel exit, I saw one group relieving themselves at the side of the road, and one of them had dropped his trousers round his ankles, along with his kecks, and in full view of hundreds of people, was this blokes bare arse! Passengers travelling past had faces to behold, some smirked, the less broad minded looked on in horror, I thought it very brave, but very funny.

 

Once I bid farewell to the Old Trafford bound traffic, it was a leisurely cruise up to the M58 and into ‘Skem’ as it’s commonly known. It took just over thirty minutes to get from Knutsford to Skem, and when arriving at the town it reminded me so much of St Helens. Huge roundabouts, linked by empty dual carriageways, flanked seemingly on either side by Industrial Estates. Skem is a ‘New Town’, as designated in the sixties, nothing appeared to have been done to it since though, but the football club certainly did have something new on display.

 

Skelmersdale United are a famous old name from the boom times of the sixties, reaching the F.A. Amateur Cup Final, regularly seeing four figure gates at White Moss Park, and eventually turning professional in the Northern Premier League in the seventies.

 

Since the it’s not been so great though, the town has suffered economically, blighted as a Liverpool overspill, and the football clubs fortunes went the same way. Crowds dwindled, White Moss Park fell into disrepair and was eventually sold for housing. This however, signalled the rebirth of Skelmersdale United Football Club.

  

They acquired a site at an Industrial Estate on the outskirts of town, and began building a new stadium, but in the meantime it meant a ground share at nearby Burscough. The ground, known as ‘The Westgate Interactive Stadium’, finally opened in September, and it appears to be the catalyst for a bright future for Skem. Crowds have topped the 250 mark for all games since the stadium opened, and a record was set last weekend when the footballing Gods paired Skem with Burscough in the F.A. Cup and over 1,000 turned up. Today, on a day when England were live on TV, 265 paid to watch the game which was incredible really.

 

The ground is neat, if a little unspectacular. The entrance leads to a decent sized car park, on which lies a very impressive clubhouse. If Skem were going to suffer through the gate today, they would definitely recoup funds via beer sales for the live match as the place was buzzing. It’s one of the biggest clubhouses I’ve seen in non-league football, and has without doubt been built with bigger things in mind for the future of the football club.

 

The turnstiles are behind the goal, and lead onto some hard standing in front of the clubhouse, which backs onto the ground. To the right is a seated stand which holds about 300. The stand is one of the now commonplace ‘kit form’ constructions seen all around the country, but in this case it’s been cleverly raised up about a metre and a half onto a concrete platform to give a far better view of proceedings. Behind the stand is the dressing room complex.

 

The rest of the ground is open, and has a sense of being unfinished. I suspect that further developments are planned, but at this stage it was important to get the club back into Skem as soon as the ground was ready for North West Counties League action. The rest can follow in time.

 

It’s been a good start of the field as well, unbeaten, second in the league, and all this without talismanic striker Stuart Rudd who will be out until November following a hernia operation. Rudd is an outstanding player, and good for forty goals a season, and having seen him play three times last season, I can vouch for his quality

 

It was a bit of struggle against Trafford though, because the visitors seemed very pumped up for the game. They wouldn’t give Skem a minute on the ball, and did their utmost to strangle any moves to play the ball out of midfield, at birth. Carl Osman on the left wing teased for Skem, while Drew Hyland ran himself into the ground along with Lee Thompson in attack.

 

It was 0-0 at half time, but early in the second half, Trafford, who had started to put together some good passing moves, took the lead through the experienced Gary Vaughan. Skem started to get frustrated by Trafford’s dogged style and heroic defending, and this seemed to rub off on the home support who themselves started to show the usual signs of anxiety.

 

However, just when it looked as though the curse of Mr X had struck, and Skem were going to fall to their first defeat of the campaign, up popped Ian Price to head home from ten yards. It sparked scenes of both joy and relief from the hordes behind the goal, including Rudd who genuinely looked passionate about his club, and that perhaps explains why he’s turned down numerous offers to ply his trade at a higher level.

 

A wining goal wouldn’t come for either side, despite both battling valiantly, and I would say that on balance a draw was a fair result. Although Trafford would have been the happier with it.

 

Skem are going places, the town itself is huge and if nearby Leigh RMI and indeed village neighbours Burscough can make a go of