Jamesie's Jaunts 2006-2007

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Jaunt No 30

Wellington Amateurs 6 Morda United 2
Shropshire County Premier League
Saturday, 26/05/07
Football's a cruel game, I've said it before and I'll say it again, I am never ceased to be amazed by the injustice football throws at you. No I'm not at the Carlos Tevez soap-box, and no I don't give a rat's arse about Inzaghi's deflected goal against Liverpool, I'm on about football in general. I'll give you an example of where I'm coming from, and it kinda puts a sad little spin on the end of my season, when in fact I was hoping to reflect on a quite enjoyable year. I was hoping to finish on a high-note, with a game that had something to play for, and with - if things went right - a trophy to see presented. I could have ended my season the other week at Wembley, and I guess I could have had one final visit of the season to Kinsley to see the Doncaster League title decider last Saturday, but I thought I'd end the season with a little trip over into Shropshire - be a bit adventurous you could say - with Neil to see what should have been a title decider in their version of the County Senior League. But that was all snatched away in midweek, on Champions League Final night of all things, by a bit of unfairness that has pissed off just about everyone in that league. Allow me to elaborate a little - there were three teams pushing for the title; Wellington Amateurs, Telford Juniors and Hanwood United - all of whom could win it if the results continued to go their way, it was really that tight. The crunch fixture was between Hanwood and Wellington, with the earlier reverse fixture at Wellington ending 6-1 to the home side, but this one was cancelled - Hanwood couldn't raise a side apparently - and rescheduled for Champions League Final night. I bet you can guess what's coming, Wellington needed to void defeat to take the fate of the title into today's game, but turned up at Hanwood vastly understrength - and by understrength I mean they had bare bones of a team, no keeper, with their star outfield player having to take the number one shirt. For me I reckon they should have cried the same as Hanwood - "can't raise a side" - but they didn't, honour got the best of them and they played, losing 4-1 and giving the title to a side that managed to field its strongest team of the season. And that is the injustice I'm talking about, nothing will be done by the league (it never is) and Hanwood lifted the league title, not that it really matters to me - I just wanted to end my season and see a game with summat to play for...
Well apparently there is something to play for - promotion - of all things cheating Hanwood didn't apply, and the home side need just a point from today's game to get elevated into the West Midlands Regional League, and based on their season so far I wouldn't have bet on them not doing it. As I mentioned earlier the Shropshire County League is on a par with our own County Senior League, and before this month I knew very little about it - well actually, I knew nowt - with the standards varying wildly as in our own league. But I always like visiting ambitious clubs, and Wellington Amateurs are one of those, I suppose it's fitting I end the season by travelling all the way over here to see one for the future. Before I continue the Wellington in question here is not the New Zealand one, most people our side of the country aren't that familiar with this one, although I guarantee you all know where Telford is - well, same place really. The Amateurs play their home games in Oakengates, at the School Grove ground, and to be fair they've had a damned impressive home record - winning all their games, except two which they drew, winning one 14-0 and FIVE more by five goals or more - so that point they needed looked to be a formality. School Grove is the vacant former home of Oakengates Town and the Amateurs moved here in August 2005, having previously played on a multi-pitch complex in Leegomery; a small area just outside Wellington, itself a district of Telford. They've worked hard apparently to get the facilities anything like to standards, they were quite dilapidated before moving in, but now - well let's put it this way, I've seen better this season, but I've seen a helluva lot worse. It reminds me of some of the Manchester League grounds I've seen these last few weeks, a basic post and rail pitch, with a pavilion down one side - which has an overhang roof, providing cover if (and when) rain comes - and basically that's it, no hard standing or anything. Whether these provide enough to get further in the West Midland football pyramid is beyond me, I don't know to what level they need to improve (if any), but they've been accepted - that is the main thing - all they need to do is get a point in today's game versus Morda United...
Now that's a name I'm familiar with - I'm sure of it - Morda are from Oswestry, right on the Welsh border (which is how I remember them - Morda from the Border). They even played in the Welsh pyramid for a while, winning the Mid-Wales league in 1991 and finishing runners-up in the next three seasons, before surfacing in the West Midlands League in 1994. They played there for ten years, before dropping into the Shropshire League, I don't know why but guessing I'd say it was the usual story - finances? Either way they were sitting mid-table before this one, tenth to be exact, and didn't look as though they had much to offer as way of resistance against a team averaging over four goals a game at home. And that's the way it actually turned out in the end, but I'll come to that in a minute, this is THE last game of my season - and so it was for many others. Gordon Bennett, there must have been a fair few dozen groundhopping types who made their way to this one; there wasn't anything else on offer if truth be told. We'd got to the ground early doors, parked up with about five other cars, waited for the rain to clear then headed into Oakengates' "Town Centre" for a couple of drinks (at the Coalport Tavern) and some grub. When we got back I doubt the locals knew what had hit them, there were cars parked a good couple of hundred yards away, and inside the ground the car-park was rammed - and Club Secretary Dan Braddock was doing a roaring trade in tea, mars bars and programmes! It never ceases to amaze me that football at this level should attract so many people just because someone decided to print a programme, nevertheless it appeared that everyone of that ilk had gravitated to School Grove, leaving the players and locals alike a little bit on the bemused side. As for us, well we just wanted to see what quality our first taste of Shropshire County League football was actually like...
The pitch was on the long side - grass-wise that is - and could have done with a good mowing. And a roll too come to think of it, and whilst we are at it the pitch did undulate quite a bit, so it could have done with being levelled - alright it was pretty bad, and I could imagine the Sheffield coaching staff having heart failures just looking at it! You knew it wasn't going to be conducive with flowing-passing-on-the-ground-football, and looking at the team Morda put out - well put it this way - you felt for them. The epitome of this was the keeper, a man called Dave Vart, who looked like someone Morda had plucked straight from a local building site - or maybe he was the bloke who'd served them the kebabs from his van on the way up - not as fat as the AFC Blackley keeper the other week, but he looked as much a keeper as Alexis Sayle. The question I needed asking was how many Wellington were going to score, as they were two up inside the first five minutes, with Jason Yates (someone who also looked like he enjoyed a pie or two) getting two identical goals from close range whilst poor old Mr Vart was busy pulling up his trousers - what was the name of that Crystal Palace keeper again? Then the game died, there wasn't much that needed to be done, Wellington had got their point and the biggest talking point of the half was the fact that a dog poo incident halted play. Then Stuart Corns made it three-nil just before half time, then after the break he made it four, and seconds later five. The twenty-six goal avalanche never came, and it seemed that everyone - players, officials, referees, groundhoppers - just wanted this one done and dusted, we've had enough football now, let's all call it a day! Then came the best goal of the game; Paul Hughes striking a fantastic volley... FOR MORDA! It wasn't going to change the outcome of the game one jot, it drew applause from the gathered masses, and I guess it deserved it too - then everyone carried on wishing the game was done. After this each team got a goal a piece, not that anyone seemed that bothered, the groundhoppers got their notebooks out and probably put their full-stops on another season. Dan Braddock shrugged off the disappointment of Shrewsbury failing in their play-off bid to say an individual thank you to EVERYONE for coming, a nice and personal touch it has to be said, he also said he hoped to see everyone next season - somehow I doubt it, you see the majority of the attendance aren't that kind of people...
So Wellington Amateurs got their promotion and it is now time to reflect on another season, and I think it's only right I give a little update of how everyone I visited this year did. I have to say I've enjoyed picking the games, and with the odd exception most teams have lived up to the potential I saw in them before choosing to go, so here is a summary of who did what. Well, titles were won as anticipated by Parkhouse, South Liverpool, Coventry Sphinx, Bartley Green and Prestwich Heys - Curzon Ashton went close, but no cigar - whereas the Apollonas Limassol of Cyprus, Linby Colliery, Wollaton and Bardon Hill all disappointed after promising so much. Others like Donegal Celtic, Royton Town and Ashton Athletic avoided relegation, others (like Luton) didn't, whilst Donny Rovers went on and won that competition I followed them in, winning at the Millennium Stadium on the one Sunday I was working! Overall it was a fine season, if a little wet, and I was looking on a certain team's website the other day - they start their pre-season schedule in five weeks time!!! Heaven help us, I know I can't wait for the new season, but I'm willing (and desperate) to wait a little longer than that...

Jaunt No 29

Truro City 3 AFC Totton 1
FA Vase Final at Wembley
Sunday, 13/05/07
Wembley! Conjures up all sorts of stuff doesn't it? Well it certainly does for me, and for John and Trev too based on the conversation that had started even before the time we had got to Meadowhead, although not for the fourth member of the car party it has to be said. The whole business of Wembley costing two million gazillion bejillion pounds to construct means nothing anymore, the stadium is built, and all those memories are just that - memories. I was saying that I'd seen all sorts of sport there - football was the first one I remember, and I think it was a schoolboys' international game which some teacher had arranged for us. After football seeing speedway there was a strange affair, although it would be hard to forget standing amongst 90,000 people watching bikes tear round a track where you'd expect a bunch of policemen normally to be, and even more amazing was the fact I think it was the last event of its kind to be staged there. Then how could you miss out Rugby League? Ranging from the all Hull final, Featherstone's unlikely win a couple of years later, and perhaps the best final of all time between Wigan and Hull - and even more amazing Sheffield Eagles' victory over the pie-eaters in 1998, my last visit to the twin towers. I could go on but I won't, everyone has a special memory of going to Wembley it's a certainty, today on the other hand is the first time to visit "the arch".
There's no way on God's Earth nowadays that you'll get an FA Cup final ticket, not unless you can convince certain individuals you are a worthy recipient of such an item, so the next best thing is to get down to one of the "lesser" finals - say for example the FA Trophy or (in our case) the FA Vase. It seemed more appropriate as supporters of Sheffield FC that a trip to Wembley would be best enjoyed watching football at "our level", so despite our early elimination from this tournament, it was natural that Sheffield FC should have some representatives - even if it was just a bunch of blokes going down to watch the game. The finalists though couldn't be further away from the Northern Counties East world we exist in, and I doubt they'll ever be covered again in this column in the very near future either, being Truro City and AFC Totton. Now Truro I know a fair old whack about, they've got some serious cash behind them, and have visions of being the first even Cornish Football League team - yep, that ambitious - even though they currently sit one level BENEATH Club. Naturally they won their league at a canter - why naturally I hear you ask, well if you take a look at the pen-pics they are nothing short of a team of ex-Plymouth, Exeter, Torquay (et cetera) cast offs - led by manager Dave Leonard they marched to a convincing Western League Division One title by 22 clear points, amassing 115 points and scoring 185 goals in 42 games. They'll be the favourites today then!
On the other hand you have AFC Totton, and even as we were pulling into Stanmore Park and Ride I had no idea, who they were and where they were from. That was until a group of Wessex League supporters, Poole Town I think they were (not sure), filled us in with the fact they were from Hampshire - near Southampton to be exact. All I knew was they went and rocked the boat by knocking out Billingham Synthonia in the semis, and I was shocked to see people wearing PINK shirts celebrating, not very masculine it has to be said. Either way they must have got something about them to get this far, and as it turns out they came SECOND in their league (same level as ours), and would have won the league if they'd scored another goal in their final league game of the season against the eventual champions Gosport Borough. Other than that I know very little about them, and based on the media coverage it seemed they would be seriously outnumbered by Truro supporters, but that is another story completely.
The weather wasn't kind one little bit for this journey, rained most of the day to be truthful, and when the photo opportunities arose - well there's not a great deal to smile about really and they do look a little strained. But one thing we could smile about was the idea that we'd park up at Stanmore Underground and get the tube the four stops to Wembley Park, a quid to park and less than a fiver on the train, so much better than the stress of £15 parking fees and guaranteed traffic jams that accompany it. Apparently quite a bit has been done to the Wembley Park tube station, whatever they've done I can't say, but I do know they've employed a large Afro-Caribbean lady to scream down a bell-horn "keep on moving" - and she didn't seem that amused when I started to do a Peter Crouch robot dance for her! Either way the approach down Wembley Way is one of awe inspiring awesome-icity (I know it isn't something that makes a lot of sense, but hey I bet you get my point) with the arch dominating the vista instead of the twin towers, and as you can bet nearly everyone wanted a photo in front of this, even though the conditions were crap.
After the photo shoot, well food was calling, but not the £8.50 burger meal from the Wembley outlets. McDonalds had employed two sad looking individuals with mobile arrows to point the way to hell (or their "restaurant" - whichever), but as the rain started to come down heavier and the thunder rumbled, a dive into the nearest chippy seemed the order of the day - why queue in the rain for fake American junk food, when you can have a good ol' fashioned English saveloy and chips in the dry? It was one hell of a storm I must tell you, and sadly I was too slow to get the camera out as the fork-lightning was flashing right above the stadium in the near distance, from my point of view it actually looked like it hit the arch - I doubt it did, but it would have made one fantastic snapshot. The rain eased off just enough for us to brave the last half mile walk, pick up the odd souvenir, and get to the new Bobby Moore statue - not that you could get anywhere near it, no way - there were more people swarming round it than any landmark I've ever seen, and if that was with a crowd of under 28,000 what would it be like with a crowd of 90,000 a week later?
The security to get in the ground was a little over the top - perhaps, but then in the current climate maybe not - and I have to say I was a bit nervy about getting into the ground with my camera, after all it was one of the "restricted items" posted outside, along with flags, brollies, and machine guns! I needn't have worried, the security guy had a vague check of my rucksack, had a bit of a joke with me - then wished me all the best and "enjoy the game" - very nice, I have to say, until I was told the same by the programme sellers, the guy checking tickets into the correct entrance and the bloke showing us which row we were on! It was "Wembley-speak", and proving the influence and Americanisation of our friends across the water. I would at this stage like to tell you I was blown away by the stadium - I wasn't - it is nice, very nice in fact, but overall it is nothing out of the ordinary. Yes there is more leg-room in the seats, yes there are 90,000 obstruction-free views, and yes it is all very squeaky clean with millions of weeing places - but it is just like Manchester City's ground, only bigger and with red seats and two giant screens. Don't get me wrong I wasn't disappointed, but with all the hype that's surrounded this ground, well I expected something "more" - I don't know what - but there was nothing out of the ordinary.
Sometimes with an event like this, the venue overshadows the game itself, but on this occasion there was none of that. This was probably (and I only know this because as I type this article I've just been completing a "survey" on my footballing experiences this season) the third or fourth best game I've seen this season, with only a few I can care to mention being more entertaining, but this one had much more at stake than the others. As I said Truro were favourites, but to my amazement they were outnumbered by the followers of Totton, as the people of Hampshire united to get behind the local heroes. I often wonder at stages like this what would happen if Sheffield FC got to a final like this, would the fans of United and Wednesday head down to London to support their new adopted team, and would the good folk of Retford and Garforth show unity for their league companions and stick on the red and black for all to see? I don't really know, I hope to find out one day, but seeing as we are entering into FA Trophy land next season I really doubt it.
The game started tentatively, but after a few early scares at either end - and a few Mexican waves - the game came to life on the half hour mark. From a corner that looked routine for Daniel Stevenson to gather the ball from the rainy sky, the gaggle of bodies beneath him made the task more tricky and the ball fell to Totton defender Danny Potter, well he turned faster than milk in the Sahara to shoot the ball into the net. I was stunned, the Truro fans around me were stunned, this wasn't in MY script - and half the stadium went ballistic. Truro's players though weren't stunned and went to get back in the game, Totton looked like they'd survived but when a looping, swirling ball dropped from the sky just inside the Totton area, Kevin Wills controlled it and beat his man in one movement before cutting inside and firing a low drive with his right foot past Brunnschweiler. Game on! The sun tried to break through in the second half, and with it on the hour mark came the decisive moment of the game - again it was Kevin Wills the scorer - this time though he shot with his left foot from 25 yards, his effort skidded off the greasy turf and somehow evaded Brunnschweiler and found itself nestling in the net. Despite several chances to draw level Totton couldn't do it, and with five minutes left Truro hit them on the break with Joe Broad wrapping up the win, linking up to slot Andrew Watkins' inch perfect pass home.
So Truro lifted the Vase, the Cornish waved their pasties in the air (allegedly), and everyone wended their way out of the stadium safely and without incident. 27,754 were in attendance, the four at the end were Trev, John, Liam and myself - and we will all admit to enjoying ourselves massively - except Liam who said "it was alright, I suppose". And that my friends is high praise indeed from a kid who's done all the big stadiums - the Nou Camp, San Siro, Old Trafford, Celtic Park, Eastlands, Glasshoughton - and it was exactly that, it was "alright". All I need to make it better than alright is to go there again, with MY team - Sheffield FC - with 90,000 in attendance; with our captain lifting the cup with red and black ribbons in the royal box... well we all can dream can't we?

Jaunt No 26, 27 &....28 !

Ardsley Celtic 1 Brighouse Town 1
Mumtaz West Riding League Premier Division
Friday, 04/05/07
Our season finished quite a while ago now, but as they say there is plenty out there, you just can't be fussy about the quality. Well that might not come across the way I wanted it to, but over this May Day weekend I managed to get to three games in five days, with none of the games really being of the highest standard. And with that there isn't the usual stuff to chat about with them; none of the three games had a programme on sale - no surprise there - so the usual source of the home clubs' background information or anything of cultural interest is pretty sparse. As a result of this I will just give a brief summary of events, and the trips, without going into the usual detail. The first of these was a trip up to the outskirts of Wakefield, just in the triangle between the M1 and M62 and that shortcut road that takes you between the two, in East Ardsley. This is the home of Ardsley Celtic, a team who I have to say very little about historically - they won the West Riding League Division One in 2004, and I think that's it - and one I've never really been inspired to want to visit before. But seeing as this was a Friday nighter, and all my appointments were done well early, I accepted the persuasion of someone to meet up there and watch a game against one of the "fallen giants" of the Mumtaz - Brighouse Town.
Ardsley Celtic play in the far from salubrious surroundings of Cave Lane, which is probably one of the most unusual venues I've been to of late, with facilities being virtually - no scratch that - TOTALLY non-existent. You see I have a book about the non-league grounds in this area, and Ardsley's ground is described as being "adjacent to, but at a lower level from, a public house - where the players change - meaning there is an elevated view of the game". Well the pub (the White Horse - or the Peg as its known locally) is gone, flattened - by whom I have no idea - but all that is left is a wide area of rubble, and the players now have to travel the half mile to the local cricket club for showering facilities after games! They are talking about moving to a new ground, at the Crescent in Tingley, but that won't happen for a short while. That view the book author mentioned is something different, not only do you get a fantastic panoramic view of the game, well if you get bored; you can indulge in a spot of lorry spotting on the M1 which roars by in the near distance. Other than that there's not much to add, the game itself was a mid-table non-entity purely playing out the fixtures, Brighouse could finish fourth at best - Ardsley could get eighth I suppose - it hardly mattered. Richard Howley struck a nice volley after a free kick to give Ardsley a well earned lead just before half time, they had gone close on several occasions, with the main culprit being a certain person called Marchant who usually plies his trade with Harrogate Railway - our Richard missing at least four or five efforts he'd usually dispatch with ease! The one goal lead was held for about twenty minutes of the second half, until Rob Mitchell curled one home from a few yards out, to give Brighouse a share of the points. Not the most entertaining games or the best of grounds to visit, but it has to be said it certainly was different - especially driving away from Cave Lane with a convoy of players.
Irlam FC 5 Royton Town 0
Manchester League Premier Division
Saturday, 05/05/07
The following day had forecast weather of the hot kind, and for once they weren't wrong, which meant for once it didn't matter how crap the ground was - we weren't going to get wet, not that we've had much wetness weatherwise lately. This time I was heading over for Manchester League football for the third time in this close down period, and this time I was heading to one I'd mentioned in these columns earlier on in the season, in the Flixton Jaunt to be honest - Irlam FC. Now the Irlam FC I'm visiting has no connection whatsoever with the old Irlam Town on UniBond League fame in the 90's, this is the old Mitchell Shackleton team who moved into Town's old Silver Street ground a few seasons ago, did it up and changed their name to suit their surroundings. Irlam (and in their former guise) have been stalwarts of the Manchester League for sometime now, won the title in 2003 and went close in 2005, but last season finished just avoiding the relegation places. This season though has seen them look like front-runners, drop off in the wet weather, and then finish the season strongly with a fifth place finish a reality. I thought that this one would be one of those with a relegation theme to it, with the visitors Royton Town (who I saw at Springhead a week or so ago) skirting with the drop, but an amazing 5-4 away win at runners-up AFC Blackley the midweek prior to this meant they had just enough points in the bag to avoid relegation without worrying about their last two games. So for the second time in less than 24 hours it was another meaningless fixture, but at least this one I wasn't blown to high heaven, and it was relatively warm...
You can tell that this ground had some former glory, and is very similar to Prestwich Heys in many respects, with the absence of a proper bar - although you could buy a can of beer for "a donation" if you wanted. There is so much that could be done with Silver Street, and all of it good, so don't be surprised to see these making their way into the NWCFL at some stage, they have the infra-structure already with some quality changing rooms - unlike Ardsley! Well this one had a mega score written all over it from the off - Royton were obviously safe now, and it showed in some of their careless play. Obviously the weather would take its place in proceedings with players, officials, referees wishing they were doing something else instead - but Irlam sussed out the Royton defence in minutes. They were three-nil up by half time, all three being virtually identical goals with the ball through the middle leaving the defence flat-footed, and the goal a mere formality thereafter. Irlam had made it five inside the hour - with Matty Williams leading the way with two - and could have gone on to make it ten if they had wanted, but it seemed they'd rather play silly buggers missing open goal after open goal, with Royton keeper Steve Birchenall making a few good stops to add to the "frustration". As I said it could and should have been more, but overall it was a helluva lot more entertaining than the previous night, but I guess the weather, surroundings and goals had as much to do with it as anything.
Monton Amateurs 3 AFC Blackley 2
Manchester League Premier Division
Tuesday, 08/05/07
Finally something to talk about, this was a game with summat on the line, relegation to be exact! There's nothing worse than going into your last game of the season knowing only a win will do, otherwise you are down, doomed, dropping! And to make things even tenser when you are up against the second in the league, well that is something that makes it "squeaky bum time" in the truest sense of the words, screw up and you go. And that is what tonight's game was, dramatic to say the least, and I suppose one with an unhappy ending depending on which way you look at it. The one with the sword of Damocles hovering over them was Monton Amateurs, another team situated bang next to the motorway (allowing lorry-spotting for those who get bored) on the northern (and nice) outskirts of Salford, they needed a win to try and preserve Premier Division status for next season - their fifteenth in a row. As I said the ground is right next to the motorway, and in the midst of one of the nicest housing developments going (even the name of the road - Granary Lane - sounds stockbroker belt), you could seriously imagine Premiership football players living out here - well Manchester City players anyway. Inside the ground it is the usual post and rail affair you find at this level, with a fairly decent portacabin style bar-cum-changing rooms behind one of the goals, and another full sized (and better looking quality) pitch alongside - the only blight being a huge overhead power line that crackled for the whole ninety minutes.
When you are in situations like Monton found themselves in, the best thing to see trotting out in the opposing team's keeper shirt is a thirty stone monster who was out of breath tying up his boots, it had to be a formality. Well my friends it wasn't and not long into the game they fell behind, some slack defending letting in Blackley's centre forward in for an easy goal, and if it wasn't for some excellent keeping from the Monton stopper it could have been worse. The home side drew level not long after, but once again the visitors got their noses in front with some shoddy defending, and at half time there was only one way for Monton. Someone must have said something about testing the super-weight keeper, he'd had one effort on target against him and it went in, whereas Monton's goalie was flying left right and centre stopping shots. As it happened with about fifteen minutes to go the scores were levelled, pretty tame goal it has to be said, and it was game on. Then with time running out Blackley's defence had a panic clearing an attack, a player went down and a penalty was given - there was only going to be one outcome, and it wasn't going to be the keeper making an amazing save! So Monton got the result they needed, there were celebrations abound, but there was still the nervous wait for the weekend's results. Three were to go down, this result meant Monton were fourth bottom and safe, but there was one game that could have serious implications - that was the one at Breightmet the following weekend, who needed to win to condemn Monton to Division One football for the first time in ages. And guess who Breightmet's opponents were, none other than Royton Town, the team who basically turned up (and nothing else) at Irlam the previous Saturday. Breightmet won 4-2, they survived Monton went down, and all the effort from tonight's game would be in vain. Pretty sad, but that's football for you...

Jaunt No 25

Springhead 2 Royton Town 2
Manchester League Premier Division
Tuesday, 24/04/07
As I was saying last time, this season's rundown would see me paying a bit of attention to the Manchester League, and as I said last time I had intended to visit four teams in the last month - but couldn't due to stupid planning and even worse luck. Let me explain, the stupid planning saw me book in my diary a trip over to the Manchester League on Saturday 12th May; however seeing as I'm in deepest South Wales that day that doesn't look like happening. The luck thing though is summat else, and one of those tales that I can smile at now, but on the day - well I was doing owt but. It was the Tuesday after the clocks had gone forward, and as has been the case in the latter stages of this season, Club hadn't got a game - leaving me with a choice of about ten places on the fixture list which all seemed sort of appealing. The one that finally swung it for me was a game that had a 6.00pm kick off, meaning that I'd be able to get back home pretty early-ish, and a better option petrol-wise than the majority of the others that were on the list. The one I'd chosen was Springhead versus Prestwich Heys - Springhead because I'd seen them before and knew a bit about them - Prestwich Heys because they were (see the previous Jaunt) title favourites. I mapped out a fairly straight forward route, and because there hadn't been any rain for about two weeks, I made no provision for an alternative. I guess it all started going wrong when I got off the M1 and got stuck in a tail-back all the way to Tankersley, and despite actually getting a run on up the hill towards the Woodhead, it all came to a halt when a bloody Mondeo pulled out on me on that corner (you know, the Dunham Bridge Road) just as you start going down the hill. This clown decided to go at thirty miles an hour all the way across, tapping his brake every five seconds, and then ironically put his foot down coming out of Tintwistle and into Hollingworth - getting flashed by that speed camera as you come into the village. Priceless! Anyway with him out of the way I then got stuck in the usual line going up the hill, at the traffic lights in Stalybridge, and eventually in Mossley. I then missed my turning in Mossley, headed out onto Saddleworth Moor, made my way into Oldham - missing my turn off, naturally - before arriving at the ground at 5.58pm! I pulled into the car-park to find that there were no goal-posts up, the only people present were a group of youths with a bottle of White Lightning, and one bloke who looked like a carpenter! Stalybridge Celtic were at home, I swore loudly and went there again instead - bollocks to it, Springhead can wait for another day...
And that day is today, because after calming down and going home a lot later than initially planned, I noticed they'd cancelled all those 6.00pm fixtures from that night and moved them all back a week due to the light being a bit dodgy. You see not many teams have floodlights anymore in the MCFL (not since Ashton Athletic went up anyway), and some divot had not realised that come 7.45pm North Manchester would be pretty much shrouded in dusk, meaning that you wouldn't be able to see the ball - let alone play a game. So that meant that my first choice venture to St John's Street (home of Springhead) would be played on a date I had other arrangements on, but fear not my second choice for this venue would be the local derby against Royton Town, that'd do I guess. Now I know I get to this stage of these articles and start thinking to myself, "hang on you know where these places you visit are - but does everyone else?" Well obviously it's round Manchester way, but more specifically this one is set to the east of Oldham, in a little "village" called Lees - with Royton being just four miles up the road. There's not much to say about the St John's Street venue, apart from it probably looks pretty much like the Coach and Horses did before we moved in and developed it, with a grassy bank on one side and flat unloved hard-standing two on the other three and a small gravel car-park behind one goal. There isn't any cover, and luckily the rain came when we were inside the bar - which it needs to be said is pretty tidy for a team at this level - and as I found during the course of the game, it seems the ground is actually used as a shortcut by many of the locals (and I guess the youths I'd seen a couple of weeks ago add to this), meaning little could be done in way of "safe" ground improvements. Even the benches were carted into the back of a van after the game - anything not nailed down is likely to be robbed, honestly - but I digress, onto the game itself...
Both teams haven't really set the league on fire this season, and I guess you could say that about the last few years too, both suffering the ignominy of lower to mid-table finishes - although Royton were the last non-Prestwich Heys team to win it three seasons ago, Springhead haven't won it since 1997. In effect this was a nothing match to be truthful, but to be even more honest there never is much in way of excitement in a league where the title has already been won, so all there was to be played for was local pride. As you would expect this was typical end-of-season fare, with little going on in the first thirty minutes to interest anyone of the fairly sizable crowd present, that was up until five minutes before half time. A long ball through saw at least three Springhead players about five yards offside, and with only the keeper to beat Paul Kirwan squared the ball to veteran Richard Ferguson, who slotted the ball past the keeper - much to the anger of the Royton faithful. Returning from a half time trip to the local Chinese, just in time to see the start of the second half, they were to become even more angrier. After being found by another long ball Kirwan tried rounding the keeper himself, only to be challenged (fairly in my view) by defender Chris Fraser - the referee awarded a penalty, Royton went mad, I nearly choked on a cashew nut - up stepped Paul Stevenson to make it 2-0. Strangely enough this incident inspired the game, and five minutes later Royton midfielder Anthony Jones had a speculative shot from forty yards out, the home keeper Sam Kershaw lazily watched the ball go over his shoulder before it scraped inside the post. God he got a right verbal pummelling from his team-mates, he'd had nowt to do for an hour, and then this! The tackles were flying in left right and centre, and it had suddenly become that derby match I wanted, and it was almost pitch black when Royton got a last ditch corner - four minutes past into injury time - the ball came in, half cleared and even though he looked a good five yards offside, the visiting skipper Chris Mason stabbed the ball over the line to the delight of the visiting hordes. Five minutes later the ref blew for full time, then made a hasty exit to get changed, whilst the home players dismantled the goalposts - after all even they might get nicked in Springhead...

Jaunt No 24

Prestwich Heys 4 Wythenshawe Amateurs 0
Manchester League Premier Division
Thursday, 19/04/07
As the season draws to a close you always find that one league or another has a mass backlog of fixtures going into late April and well into May, and with this season being one of the wettest in MY memory at least I thought there would be an absolute wealth of a choice to be had, with games available left, right and centre. I wasn't completely wrong, but as is usually the case I reckon these next few weeks will see me heading to one league more than any others, basically down to the fact that every season has seen me do more or less this very thing. One of the leagues I have had my eye on for a while is the Manchester League, which believe it or not - unlike our own County Senior League - is a direct feeder into the North West Counties League. Effectively this puts the league on parity with the Central Midlands League, but as anyone in the know will tell you, no-one at this level has the ground-grading standards quite like the CMFL. Which as you may have already second-guessed me on means that the standards of grounds in the Manchester League isn't quite up to par, and having only dabbled in a few of these in this league in the past, I'm hoping to find out. The ones I've been to have been okay, but having said that one of them (New Mills) was promoted out of that league and into higher echelons, the others still play at the same level. So over the next few weeks I'm aiming to get to at least three of them, it would have been four but for some stupid planning and even worse luck (I'll tell you about that next time), so what better way than to start but with the champions-elect...
That would be Prestwich Heys then - which is probably the easiest of all these to get to, being located just off the M60 near the M62/M66/M60 junction. Heys have been champions the last two seasons, and runners-up the year before, and to say that they were favourites this season goes as summat of an understatement. You see they have been unbeatable this season, but strangely enough they didn't hit top spot until the start of April, they've had that many games in hand you see. All the while Heys were involved playing games in other competitions, which they won naturally (the only team to beat them so far was Leigh Athletic - who managed to beat them in two competitions) along with everything else, whilst their rivals were all busy beating each other. Eventually they caught up, and finally overtook the team that had lead the race for so long - tonight's visitors, and current second placed team, Wythenshawe Amateurs - after beating (a team hopefully covered later this season) Irlam at the beginning of April. Once they've hit the front, well let's be honest, it was just a matter of time before everyone else's fixtures dried up and Heys got the vital points - and tonight was going to be THAT night, needing just three points from their remaining seven games to win the title. As I said the visitors were to be the long time front runners - Wythenshawe Amateurs - who it has to be said must be sick of finishing in second place, having finished (not including this season) in the bridesmaid spot four times in the last six years. If things go to form this year makes five, and they've really put up a decent fight of it, but kinda blew it when they failed to take advantage of an amazing run of THIRTEEN consecutive home games where they managed to lose five against "lesser" teams. One day they'll get their long awaited league title no doubt, the last time they won was way back in 1992, but I'm afraid they'll have to wait a bit longer...
Heys play at Sandgate Road, and as I said earlier it isn't a million miles away from the M60, in fact it's right next to it! So close in fact that you can barely hear owt for the traffic noise, it literally IS that close, and a decent wellie of the ball could reach it - if it was wind assisted I guess, and managed to clear a line of trees and the embankment - well you get the drift. It looks as if they are setting up for bigger things, after all for a brief spell in the 80s they were playing their football in the NWCFL (albeit Division Three), with some floodlight pylons (looking as if they are waiting to be erected any time soon) sitting on the far side. The ground has hard-standing on all four sides, which is a start, and given the imminent floodlights all that is needed to progress is some cover and some seats - which as I've seen throughout this season can be thrown up by just about anyone. On site there is a natty little social club thingy going on, actually it is like portacabin city really, but it does offer you a well needed (in this weather anyway) drink and a pie! One thing that did get me though, and this is something I've only started looking for recently, is the fact they had people drinking beer (from glass pint pots) on the touchline - even setting out some bar tables by the side to allow people to sit and have a drink. All a bit naughty I have to say, luckily it didn't cause an issue this evening, but further down the line there's no saying what might happen...
It was always going to happen really, I'd gone there expecting the home side to "three-peat", and they didn't disappoint - but they way it all unfurled it was a bit of an anti-climax really. The Ammers didn't have a shot on goal all game, and the hosts actually made a strange tactical goalie-for-goalie substitution in the second half, literally meaning they had two keepers play in a game that didn't have a shot to save. The game was done in a ten minute spell in the first half, starting on the quarter hour mark, Jonathon Lyons put a cross into the box, and Steve Howson looped a header over the head of everyone - including the keeper - and into the net. A few minutes later it was two-nil, James Morley took advantage of a mistake in the Wythenshawe back-line to pick out Martin Love at the far post, who slotted home from three yards - all too easy. Even easier was the third goal, when Lyons threaded the ball through a static defence to Love, who ignored the appeals of the defence to loft the ball over the keeper for his second. It all went quiet then, and after that it turned into a bit of a non-event, but there was just enough time for Love to grab his hat-trick with the best goal of the game - picking the ball up on the edge of the box, a bit of quick feet lost his marker before he burst clear and drilled the ball home into the bottom corner - rubber stamping a great individual performance. Ammers never had a chance, and to be fair they have a way to go to be even on a par with Heys, nevertheless it is something to aim for as surely they can't make it four years in a row or can they?
Footnote: Interestingly one of the things I was looking at Prestwich Heys for was the fact they had gone through the season unbeaten - and I was hoping for one of two things to happen on my visit, either they won the title or they lost their unbeaten record. Being the charitable sort, I hoped after seeing them pop the champagne corks and all that, they would go on to finish with a zero in the "lost" column. Typically the next game was one day short of a full calendar year since their last league defeat - 364 days ago against Rochdale Sacred Heart - they went to Breightmet United over near Bolton, and lost 2-0! Well at least they won the title!

Jaunt No 23

Donegal Celtic 2 Lisburn Distillery 1
Carnegie Irish League Premier Division
Saturday, 14/04/07
"Youse two must be right clever - like University Students or Professors or the like! I wish I was clever you know like youse are - and I wish I knew about things like... erm... physics! And all that. Like on Star Trek, with all the space and stuff like that... by the way, you don't mind me joining youse do yer?"
We made for a speedy exit from the beer garden of Lavery's pub on Belfast's Bradbury Place, made our excuses and waited a good fifteen minutes before Jim was due to arrive and give us our "taxi-tour" of the town, just to escape this lunatic. Not that he was any harm; it's just well... he was bleedin' crackers!!! He was really the first and only time we met one of those music-hall stereotypes of the thicko Irishman whilst over here, everyone has been great - honestly. That taxi tour was another one of those humbling experiences, taking in all the venues of flashpoints during the troubles, and it really brings it home to you how lucky we are over here - and how lucky they are now to survive and look back on it.
There's a line in the Glasgow Celtic football club song that goes "and if you know your history", and whilst the team we are heading to see isn't one with that long a history, the name Celtic in Belfast football is one that has been missing for too long - and for all the wrong reasons. A man called Padraig Coyle wrote a book called "Paradise Lost and Found" - I'd recommend it, it is a really good read - which covers the short and volatile history of Belfast Celtic. Back in the day Belfast Celtic were up there with the best in Ireland, drawing big crowds and winning trophies galore; however their rivalry with Linfield basically replicated that of the Glasgow Old Firm - with no prizes awarded for which team links with which. It all went wrong on Boxing Day in 1948, with a local derby at Windsor Park against Linfield, ending with a the home team grabbing a late equaliser in a one-all draw - and ultimately finishing with a pitch invasion on the final whistle which saw several Celtic players attacked, wounded and star player Jimmy Jones stamped on by Linfield fans until he had a multiple fracture of his right leg. The RUC made no arrests, and the following season Belfast Celtic were a football team no more, the extreme bigotry and sectarianism of the time had proved to be too much.
For many years there has been talk of the football team starting up again, that has always been mooted out of the question, the old Celtic Park ground on Donegal Road had been long flattened and redeveloped into a shopping complex - whilst the troubles just never seemed to go away enough for a "true" Celtic team to come back. About the time Celtic Park was flattened, a junior team sprung up roots not too far away in West Belfast just off the Donegal Road, probably going unnoticed by the majority of the population. That team as you might guess was the team I'm heading over to see now - Donegal Celtic - and slowly but surely the "Wee Hoops" (as they are known) have climbed their little way up the Irish League's footballing pyramid, culminating in last season's end-of-season promotion play-off game against Institute which saw them elevated to the top flight for the first time in THEIR short history. For the first time in nearly sixty years the Irish League was going to have a Linfield versus Celtic game, sadly for me the original date for my Irish Jaunt which coincided with the first game was cancelled, nonetheless it seemed a bit of a quest to get over to see the "Wee Hoops" on their debut Premier Division season. And the fact they were struggling in the league by February meant their debut could also be their last, with a relegation play-off looming on the horizon, unless they pulled their socks up that was!
And all of a sudden they did, a win on Easter Tuesday against Ballymena United gave them a bit of self-belief, but today's fixture against Lisburn Distillery was going to be a helluva lot more challenging - seeing as these boys were pushing for a place in Europe. Another thing that really surprised me after coming over here, something I'd not noticed before landing in Ireland, was how close Donegal Celtic Park was to the City of Lisburn boundary. As we finished our taxi tour we turned right to go up Suffolk Road, only to see the sign welcoming you to Lisburn just a short way up the hill, probably another couple of hundred yards up the road. It made me think this one would bring in a fair number of visiting supporters, sadly I was wrong on this one, they brought about sixty or seventy - which co-incidentally was the average age of their support too! Seriously you'd think that a team playing a couple of hundred yards down the road from your home - and on a beautifully red hot sunny day to boot - with your team playing for a place in Europe next season, you'd bring more than a few dozen - wouldn't you? Apparently not - but maybe they knew the sort of facilities that would meet them once they entered Donegal Celtic Park.
Don't get me wrong here, I am anything other than a snob when it comes to football grounds - after all you just have to look at this column to see some of the dumps I've been to - but even after being warned about this "not being a great venue", I was a little stunned to say the least. I'm not talking about the social club - no way, that is one of the best I've been in ANYWHERE, honestly - I'm talking about inside the ground. This is a team in the top level of its nation's football league, and I can swear that I have seen better grounds in the Central Midlands League, believe me I am not kidding. As I said the social club is exquisite, I counted four bars - each of them big enough to accommodate the number that turned up to this game today (around 400-ish) - and all of them equipped with big-screen tellies (one had four on the go at one stage). The ground though is anything but, with two tiny stands (seating about 50 in each) and a covered shelter, the rest of the ground is simply grassy banking! But apparently it's not going to be like that for much longer, we were told by one of their officials (Liam) that they've got £1.25m funding to improve the ground, so the next time we go it'll probably look more like the Nou Camp than Scout Camp.
The lack of shelter for the away support doesn't go un-noticed at Celtic Park either, and the total absence of real segregation is also something that gets you - it's a fence with a gap in it, with everyone coming through the same turnstile - so it was a good job that today was an absolute scorcher, I'd dread to think what it'd be like in winter. Realistically I can't see what the problem is with needing segregation at games like these, but as I have been reliably informed trouble has kicked off amongst crowds smaller than these in Northern Ireland, and even though the troubles are long gone from the foreground it still lurks in the background. But I couldn't imagine the DCFC boys really causing anything - other than noise that is - they came across as a bunch of people proud of what their local lads had achieved, and proud of their heritage to boot. The noise I mentioned is courtesy of a trio of drums, a loud-haler and a flute, with the latter two used in combination to pretty good effect - all belting out rebel tunes and the likes. They get pretty involved too, with one guy (Mad Chris) spending the whole of the ninety minutes crouched on the dusty terrace drumming like a lunatic with his back to the action, how much he actually saw of the game is anyone's guess - nevertheless they created an atmosphere that belied the smallness of the attendance.
As for the action itself, well Donegal Celtic started the game like a house on fire, and we weren't particularly stunned when they took the lead after just five minutes - with Paul McVeigh digging out a Sean Armstrong cross from under his feet to drag the ball over the line from close range. After that the heat seemed to take its toll, on both the players and on those supporters daft enough (yep, that'd be us then) to sunbathe on the grassy banking behind the goal DC were attacking, so naturally the pace of the game dropped considerably. Just before half-time Distillery got level, when visiting skipper Wayne Buchanan got on the end of a Peter McCann set piece to volley past Declan Brown, waking up the slumbering fans from Lisburn. As you'd expect (when in Ireland, do as the Irish) half time saw us head out of the ground and into the bar, although not as far this time, only as far as the social club to get a look at the half times on teletext - although the guy with the remote found himself subjected to a torrent of abuse and ridicule when he tapped up the page number for an online dating agency, instead of the results page! Naturally we lost track of time in here, and as we were entering the ground for the second stint the home fans were celebrating re-taking the lead, only a minute after the kick off - apparently James Lavery collected from Stephen McAlorum to round Lisburn's keeper Philip Matthews and slot home.
It was a shame we missed that really, either way the home fans were in fine voice once again, and spent the whole of the half drumming and singing - non-stop I hasten to add. As with the first half Celtic lost momentum, the visitors getting back into it, but this time the character of the hosts repelled wave after wave of attacks. Four minutes into stoppage time disaster nearly struck for Celtic, as Distillery's John Martin lost his marker and powered a header from about five yards at goal, somehow though the keeper Declan Brown pulled off an amazing save to retain the lead - it really was a good 'un. Full time saw the home bench in delirium, and one topless (male, sadly) maniac leaped the fences to have a dance and a jig with the home keeper, he like everyone else - including the stewards who ushered him off with grins on their faces - knew that save had kept them in the Premier Division for one more season. After that all there was for us to do was to complete the tour of the facilities (managing a drink in all of the bars) from the aforementioned Liam, buy the obligatory souvenirs, and head off into the distance and into central Belfast for a night on the tiles - ending the day drinking a pint of Guinness outside a bar opposite the Hotel Europa, the most bombed hotel in Europe. Overall an amazing little trip to be honest, and it has to be said that the only thing that was bombed the whole weekend in Belfast was me - superb!

Jaunt No 22

Finn Harps 1 Wexford Youth 2
Eircom League of Ireland Division One
Friday, 13/04/07
"Ian Paisley's wife goes to the doctor and says "doctor, doctor I need help, I don't know what is up with Ian!" The doctor tries to calm her down saying "what's up Eileen - steady on now!" Mrs Paisley steadies herself and says "every night he goes to bed, gets out a poster of the Queen - kisses it, then gets out a poster of William of Orange - and kisses that too, rolls over and goes to sleep without showing me any attention. What can I do?" Well the doctor is stumped, seeing as this isn't his field of expertise, but gives it a try nonetheless. "Tell yer what Eileen, go home and burn the posters - then get a tattoo of the Queen on one thigh, and a tattoo of William of Orange on the other! See how that goes."  So Mrs Paisley does just that and that night the Reverend Ian decides it's time to turn in. A minute later he hollers down the stairs "WOMAN, WHERE ARE MY POSTERS?" So as calm as you like she goes upstairs, opens her dressing gown and stands on the bed naked - "there's yer posters Ian!" He looks her up and down and says "I'll kiss the Queen, I will kiss William of Orange - but there is no way I will kiss Gerry Adams!"
The bus driver told that one on the way from Derry to Ballybofey, to much raucous laughter from the women at the front - it's a shame I didn't hear it on the bus from Ballybofey to Derry! Well it is Friday the thirteenth, and I guess that explains why me and Neil are stood in the middle of Ballybofey High Street with Finn Harps scarves on watching the last bus to Derry sail out of sight and into the distance - "we could always go back to O'Malley's bar!"
I've never been to Ireland before, it was a point I was making to Neil that very morning as we were on the approach into Aldergrove Airport, been everywhere else in the British Isles - Isle of Man, Channel Isles, Scotland, Wales, Tamworth - but never Ireland. My good mate of Belper had been a few times now, and was fairly well versed in the whole experience, so it was up to him to be my guide - so to speak. I on the other hand was worried about the language barrier, that and dealing with the expectation of the cross-mix stereotype of Shane McGowan on the one hand, and Dougal Maguire on the other - all washed down with "dirty ol' towns" and cold and rain and so on. Ha, imagine my surprise when we came out the arrivals gates with the sun beating down on us - made me feel like a right burke. And the coach ride over to Derry - well that was an eye-opener too, with some of the nicest scenery outside of Cumbria. But I digress - as always, it's something I tend to do quite often in my advancing years - the trip was one of culture, football, booze, more culture, and more football - and yes, more booze. And it was going to be split into two main days, one in the West and one in the East, starting with a trip around Derry before moving over into the Republic and into County Donegal.
The culture side of it I won't write about, to be fair it was a rather humbling experience, especially for someone who's lead himself to believe that a hard-bitten childhood being brought up in Arbourthorne was a hard life - get a look at some of those places in Derry and you'll know what I mean. From a football aspect I wanted to go somewhere... "Irish" - yes, that's the term I'm looking for. A team whose name says "Ireland", and I reckon there's about four in total in the whole of the country - Shamrock Rovers, St Patricks, Home Farm... and Finn Harps! The Harps, a team I knew about from my younger days from looking through Subbuteo catalogues, and one that Neil had down in his "to do book" - mainly due to Derby County doing them 12-1 in the UEFA Cup some years down the line - that and the fact he is a Derry City supporter and wanted to see who these "North-West rivals" really were. For mine I knew they had been also-rans for some time, and probably considered a yo-yo team in the last decade or so, but now the were more or less yo-ed out - languishing mid-table in the second tier of Irish football, with the North-West Derby a thing only dreamt about in these parts. Another thing was tonight we were going to see a new team in the Irish circles - the first senior team EVER to come out of Wexford.
I'll come onto Wexford in a bit, but when going on football trips I've always found you have to get your priorities right, which are as follows - 1) ticket price, 2) souvenir shops (Liam needs his replica shirt collection replenishing, it is looking pretty low lately - not) 3) most importantly, the local watering holes. Oh, and seeing as this was a foreign country - where are the ATMs? You obviously need some readies to pay for this lot - so with all that in mind I went onto the net to find a forum, which I've found lately to be a vital source of all info like this. The help I got was pretty good, I'd got the prices and stuff within ten minutes - and within a day I'd got the boozer, ATM and grub all sorted with the help of the "From Behind the Nets" (I kid you not) crew, who told us about the legendary "Golden Triangle" of Ballybofey. The Golden Triangle is more or less what you'd call the Holy Trinity of the night out, which as anyone with half an ounce of common knows is get yer cash, get yer drink, get yer curry - and in downtown Ballybofey all three are within a stagger of the next. But then I hear you say "how can you get this far into a Jamesie's Jaunts without telling us about where the bloody hell you are?" - Well okay, I will but first I'll tell you how to pronounce "Ballybofey"! On the way over we were undecided as to whether it was "bally-bow-fay", "bally-boffi", or "bally-buffet" - well it's none of them as my now good friend Sean told me it's "ballfy", so there you go - having said that he had been drinking...
Anyway the town is one of a set of twins, the other being Stranorlar (don't ask how to pronounce that - probably as it looks really), and both are just a short way inside the Republic in the county of Donegal. There's not much to say about the town apart from it has a pretty big Gaelic Sports ground, a McElhinneys department store, a big river winding through it - the River Finn - and a wad of pubs. And of course Finn Park - home of the World Famous Finn Harps FC - although that too will be wending its way over to Stranorlar pretty soon with an imminent re-location. It is about thirty miles from our base in Derry, and it took about an hour on the bus - with buses being in typically rural style short-supply - but un-typically rural, the local High Street was absolutely bumper to bumper with "rush hour" traffic. With it being a small town, the ground was too bloody easy to find, with it being a short walk to the ground to get our bearings and an even shorter walk to get hydrated in one of the local establishments!
We'd actually been recommended O'Malley's as a pre-match watering hole by Naoise O'Fearghail - yes that's his real name (Gaelic innit) - and Rodney Dullaghan and after a brief bite to eat we were in there. The Harps Boys were a good set of lads - with the aforementioned Sean Reid giving us an insight into how to cure the world of hunger, poverty and stupidity - whilst all the time making us feel as welcome as you like. To be honest it was a great laugh, and it's a while since I've actually had a bunch of (then) strangers make me laugh so much for such a time, although it has to be said I doubt they get that many people coming over the water to watch their team. And that my friends is really (yeah, right) what we were over for - to watch Finn Harps versus Wexford Youths in a League of Ireland Division One game - the beer and the craic were just by-products. And if you believe that, you believe in Luton Town staying up...
So the teams then, eh? Well firstly Finn Harps - long history, managed by the ex-Derry City assistant manager Paul Heggarty and mass underachievers over the last decade. Naturally with this game being on the horizon I had kept an eye on their results leading up to this, and after losing at league favourites Dundalk in the first game, they then beat last season's Premier Division Champions Shelbourne (think Juventus, except instead of being crooked - they went bust and got relegated) in the first home game of the season. After that they'd drawn every game, and beaten local non-league team Fanad United in the cup, overall pretty uninspiring. Perhaps tonight would see and up-turn in fortunes, especially seeing as their visitors were Wexford, who had the disadvantage of travelling four and half hours and 250 miles up the length of Ireland for an away game - and surely given my record of only ever having seeing ONE non-English team ever lose at home in all my travels, this had got home win written all over it.
As for Wexford, well yes they did have a bloody long journey to make, and yes another thing was they were a completely amateur in the truest sense of the word. Another thing is that this is the first season of their existence, having being granted an Eircom League licence only in February, so this also added a bit of novelty to the occasion. The club is owned and managed by a guy called Mick Wallace, who if first impressions are owt to go by looks a bit like an older version of that bloke who played Kylie Minogue's brother in Neighbours back in the 80's, God alone knows what's going on with his hair - either that or he's as bald as a coot and wears a mop head on his bonce! Anyway looks aside, this fella has a fair amount of cash behind him, and has done a pretty decent job introducing Senior Football for the first time to the county. Oh and apparently Mr Wallace is a season ticket holder with Juventus, not that anything should be taken from this little nugget - although doesn't he have a team to own and manage of his own? His team are based in Newcastle, just north of Wexford, and attracted over 2,500 for their first home game against Cobh Rambles - obviously Mr Wallace has found a nice untapped seam of football support ready made to watch his charges, something to watch in the future no doubt.
I need to tell you from here on the Harps lads didn't want me to write too much about the game, so I'll scoot over it as quick as possible, after the usual brief about their ground. Well as I was warned there aren't that many grounds in Ireland that'll knock you aback - after all Derry City's ground is a dog track - and this one isn't that fantastic either, but I doubt anyone from Co. Donegal will disagree too much. It's uncovered for three of the sides, with one side having a covered seated stand similar to some in the UniBond League, with only two of the other three sides allowing viewing - all with a capacity of about 6,000. In the corner of the ground is a bar of some sort; however as we found out later that was not for the likes of us, we had to make "other arrangements". So the game - well the first half was dire, ending goal-less with the most excitement coming when the Harps' keeper Gavin Cullen making a right old pig's ear of a back pass and nearly conceding, and Harp's John O'Loughlin missing an open goal just before the interval. Not the most inspiring thing I've ever witnessed it has to be said, but as with most games on tour half-time means you do one thing - retire for a little interval refreshment.
Strangely enough for this little drinkie-poo we were lead by the boys out of the ground, up the road for a couple of hundred yards and into one of the local pubs (The Gallery), not the first time I've ever gone to a pub outside the ground at half time it has to be said (we DO have a pub right next to our own ground after all) - but it has to be the furthest (imagine going up to the Bowshaw at half time, then coming back to watch the second half)! Anyway after this little session, we came back in and it was the same old story for Harps, with O'Loughlin missing ANOTHER open goal - he was rubbish! Then in typical Jamesie fashion it all happened on (as always) the hour mark, with the visitors sending Finn Park into silence after Paul Malone headed home a Conor Sinnott free-kick, but it was to get worse - much worse. That keeper Cullen I was mentioning earlier - you know the one with the inability to deal with back-passes - well he failed to deal with another one, Wexford's Liam O'Loughlin nipped in, and Cullen hauled him down. Penalty, red card for Cullen, a quick substitution by Heggarty to get James Gallagher's on and his first task of the game was to retrieve the ball from the back of the net after being beaten by Sinnott's spot-kick. Naoise had told me after the first goal that Harps would come back into it, get a goal and then go flat, thing is they waited for the second to go in before they did what he said. In the last minute Harps pulled one back, with John O'Loughlin finally getting one on target, third time lucky you could say - but even that needed a deflection.
So it was back to O'Malley's for a final drink, say our farewells and head out into the cool fresh Donegal air to catch the last bus to Derry - but what's that going over the hill? Is it our bus? Is it our bus? So here we are stood in Ballybofey High Street with the Finn Harps scarves Sean and Rodders had given us wrapped round our necks, no way of getting back to Derry... what's it to be then?

Jaunt No 21

Dosthill Colts 2 Chelmsley Town 1
Midland Combination Division Three
Easter Monday, 09/04/07
So yet another game I get to miss - and we get promoted too - talk about mixed emotions. I was never going to get to the Coach for the Armthorpe game, it was a fact I figured out about 2.30 that no-one would take pity on me and release me into my natural habitat, onto the terraces of the Bright Finance Stadium. So I had to spend a beautifully sunny Easter Monday cooked up in an office, with a never decreasing pile of paper, biting my nails and thinking how bad it was to be stuck in here and "how are Club doing?" All the thoughts that we were going to blow it were washed away with one text message - "won 3-1" - as I said mixed emotions or what? But being the restless sole I am I still needed to get out somewhere, anywhere I guess, just to get my regular Easter fix of football from the dark-side. As always when it gets down to the nitty-gritty on days like this you have to be prepared to travel a bit, as you'll understand nobody wants to have a late kick-off on Bank Holiday Monday, and as expected no-one round these parts did. So looking at the options I found myself with an old favourite of mine (well, not exactly - but I've been to a few in this league) the Midland Combination, which as I found had a couple of games on the wrong side of Brum kicking off at 6.30 (not on your Nelly), and a nice little number involving Coventry Sphinx travelling round the corner to old rivals Coventry Copsewood. The thing with this is as tempting as this seemed at the time, the 7.45 kick off made for a bit of a late return, plus with Sphinx running away with the league and Copsewood lagging it at the bottom the fixture didn't have the appeal of a couple of seasons ago. So the maps were out and we were looking for something within an hour of Woodseats - and we found one - just off the M42 near Tamworth, but there WAS a snag! The game was a Mid Comb THIRD DIVISION game, something I'd not done before (well I had - but that was Leamington in their first season, and there were 600 at that one) and something that left me with a bit of trepidation with regards to what fare I would be offered, but as they say "beggars can't be choosers!" To put it all into perspective, the Premier Division in this is the same as NCEL One, so the third division would be... right let's see... erm, County Senior at best? The game in question was one between Dosthill Colts and Chelmsley - two places I have NEVER heard of - but on the bright side it was at a Mid Comb Premier Division ground, Bolehall Swifts. Ah well, suck it and see...
Something that didn't quite register the first twenty or so times I looked at it was the name of the Dosthill football team - the Colts -a thing I remembered from my dim and distant egg-chasing days. You see back then the "Colts" were in fact the under-19s of most professional Rugby League teams, but it never twigged that it would be the same in football terms, after all the Indianapolis American Football team are called the Colts aren't they? It was only when the teams emerged onto the pitch that they... well they looked young, lets put it that way - and my research after returning home it turns out the oldest player in the whole squad was probably twenty at most! Anyway, the team does a little groundsharing bizzo with Bolehall, which as you can imagine seems a little odd seeing as the Swifts are way up in the Premier Division and the Colts are way down in Division Three, a bit like Manchester United sharing with Bury - or even Bury sharing with FCUM for that matter. But the odd thing is they are both getting similar attendances, which seems a little weird, and looking at the tables it seems even weirder with both teams sitting mid-table in their respective divisions. Another oddity is a brief look at the map shows Dosthill is quite a way from Bolehall, but in reality it's not that strange given Tamworth isn't awash with top-class non-league facilities, not that Rene Road is that "top-class" in any way. You see I managed to get to Rene Road with a good ten minutes to go, and yes I had heard rumbles from the Retford lot about how poor this ground was from their FA Vase adventure there, and was a bit alarmed to find I could park my car INSIDE the ground! I actually went back to entrance to pay (good old fashioned Yorkshire honesty folks), and when I say entrance - well it was a couple of "beer garden" tables (like the ones we sat on at Nostell in the League Cup) that were set up at a gap in a fence (which I'd parked well away from - where I was the fence had actually run out) with a lovely bloke collecting a quid entry in a Tupperware tub, bemoaning the fact that his beloved Birmingham City had squandered a chance to close in on Derby after losing to Barnsley! But I digress, the ground as I say is basically something like you'd expect in the Central Midlands (well this game was lower than that standard - but Bolehall aren't), a partly enclosed open field with a Sutton Town style stand behind the goal to the right and a covered standing bit on the opposite side - which was occupied by one solitary groundhopper! The fact the ground was open meant that it was open to anyone who cared to stray in during the ninety minutes, which ranged from a group of swearing German schoolgirls from Langerwehe (I speak just enough to know they were swearing) to a bunch of Dosthill W.A.G.S - no hang on they were too young to be wives, they were more like "silly lasses and girlfriends" - which meant the attendance fluctuated from about fifty to a hundred at any given time. There is a bar on site too, but this one was one I wasn't going to have the privilege of sampling, basically due to the "proyvit funk-shun" that was going on - another thing that added to the fluctuating attendance with bored ten year olds having a nosey. I'm already planning to come here again to see Bolehall play, maybe I'll get a chance of sampling Mr X's fabled "momentary journey back in time to meet the Grimleys over a glass of Double Diamond", or maybe I won't...
One thing I haven't gone on about is the visitors; they are Chelmsley Town - North Solihull's Premier Non League Club™! Another team I still know very little about - but one thing I can tell you is this, "Chelmsley Town are NOT a youth team!" Looking at the team they had on show today though that would probably come as a big surprise to you, as due to getting a team up for Easter Monday seemed to be a bigger job than you'd care to imagine, a big portion of the team were actually younger than the Colts outfit - with one notable exception, the keeper Stuart Spence, who was by miles the most senior member to stroll onto the pitch - aged 35. The visitors took the lead after only five minutes, with another one of their more senior heads (although this time only 25 years old) Mark Foster breaking through on goal, and managing to keep his cool before slotting the ball under the Colts' keeper Stuart Williams. Chelmsley looked the better of the two outfits for much of the game, with the youth of the hosts showing through with their apparent inability to do something simple, and in lieu of this they lost the ball more often than they kept it - putting unnecessary pressure on their own goal. After fifteen minutes the tide suddenly changed, God only knows how, but after Jon Adams had a goal ruled out for offside Dosthill managed to draw the scores level - with Spence stopping a shot from Adams, but only into the path of David Yonwin who stabbed untidily home. Ten minutes later and the turnaround was complete, with Chris Massam slotting the ball through to Kieran McCall, who in turn produced a pretty cool finish to give the Colts the lead. After that the game tended to stagnate, and to be honest the best thing for much of the game was when a remote-controlled airplane (which had been bugging everyone for the entire first half) lost control, crashing into the side of the old-people's rest-home that was behind one of the goals - naturally giving the biggest cheer of the day. The second half was pretty much all Chelmsley, which was no surprise given they had the advantage of the slope, and also the advantage of playing a team which found possession football completely alien to them. But given all this the scores never changed, and the closest the visitors came to changing the status quo was when Town's Nathan Leek volleyed a sweet shot from a corner ten minutes from the end, only to see his absolutely goalbound certainty spectacularly headed off the line by Richard Rudd. Nevertheless as I said earlier on - if you wanted to see a game at this time of day on Easter Monday, beggars can't be choosers - it was a decent experience, and considerably better than I could have wished for at such a low level.

Jaunt No 20

Wollaton 2 Notts Police 1
Nottinghamshire Senior League Cup Quarter Final
Saturday, 07/04/07
I'll tell you summat; I've never known a season like this - EVER!!! Everything seems to be conspiring against me watching our beloved Club this season - Trev summed it up in one of his Travels the other week when he said HE'D not known me miss as many Sheffield through work games before, and what makes it all the worse is the fact that I (yes ME) actually do MY OWN work rosters! Well it gets worse, about three weeks ago it came to me that the midweek home game against Maltby Main would be my LAST Sheffield game of the season - IN MARCH!!!! Yep, the fixture list, rota and my diary have all conspired to keep me away from the promotion run-in, basically meaning I won't be there to celebrate (or commiserate - delete as appropriate) come the last day of the season. You see (for those of you I haven't bored silly with this already) Saturdays off are a bit of a rich commodity in the retail business, so by rights you shouldn't see me at all, but that hasn't taken into account that I organise the management rosters in my store. In effect I've wangled the rota so I get one in three off, one in three I get to finish 2.30pm, and one in three I work until late on. Now fortune has had it in the past that nine out of ten of my Saturdays off falls on an away day (Vase or FA Cup ties have fallen like this for the last few seasons), and nine out of ten of my 2.30 finishes have seen us at the BFS (not thirty minutes drive is it?), whilst those late nights have generally been when we play at my favourites like Armthorpe, Maltby or Liversausage. But luck runs out eventually, and this season all my Saturdays off have seen us at the BFS - and yep you get the rest don't you? These 2.30 finishes are the worst really, because I do tend to get a bit "itchy" on Saturday afternoons, so lately I've been heading to places I can get to from Woodseats in thirty minutes or less - you know the sort, Kiveton Park, Dinnington, Bolsover, Handsworth, Worsborough - close by in other words. Being fair though there are only so many times you can roll up at Kivo and watch football, and that tends to get a bit tiresome, so the last week or so I've been trawling some of the leagues' fixture lists - whilst getting the AA Route Planner up on another page to work out whether or not I can get there in thirty minutes - all the time looking for somewhere nice and different. Yeah right, where can you get in thirty minutes from our place that's nice and interesting? Not many places that's for sure, but then again it's me we are talking about here, so you could stretch that to forty minutes if the traffic is "good". So today Sheffield are playing at Garforth Town, not a cat in hell's of getting there in thirty minutes, and there's Meadow-hell traffic to contend with too. So after the aforementioned trawl through the websites, I came up with Wollaton in the Notts Senior League - one that's been on the to-do list for a while - minutes from junction 26 of the M1, on the outskirts of Nottingham. Whadya mean Woodseats to Nottingham is longer than thirty minutes???? Vroom, vroom....
Wollaton is probably one of the nicest areas in Nottingham, situated on the Ilkeston Road about three or four miles out of town, it is more like a Cotswold village than an estate on the outskirts of one of most notorious cities for crime in England. It even considers itself a village - all the signposts are testament to this - whilst it is famed for the Chatsworth-a-like Wollaton Hall, a landmark that is used as logo for just about everything Wollo based (even the football club). The club is housed at the Wollaton Sports Association complex just near the centre of the "village", which is typically picturesque and rural, acting as home for the Wollaton cricket, tennis, bowls and (of course) football clubs. Centre-piece to all this is a tidy - quaint even - pavilion-cum-bar which comes as a welcome relief on a cold day (or even a warm one like today I suppose) at half time, even if it is a bit of a trek to get across the grounds to the damned thing. As "picturesque" as this location is, it has the downside of not giving any potential progress for the football team, with this league and standard as good (or as high) as they could logically achieve. Effectively the "complex" is more like a village green, surrounded on all sides by some pretty "nice" houses, so the first step for them would have to be floodlights - a problem I can see being rejected at stage one of planning. The second bit is enclosing the ground, whilst it does have its natural boundary, the fact that there are a couple of dozen garden gates leading onto the pitch puts up a whole new problem. Like most grounds at this level, the pitch area is pretty much the same, with a roped off pitch the best that can physically be hoped to achieve - with the usual complaint of the pitch being an actual cricket outfit. The sad thing is on the football-front they have absolutely nothing to worry about, which is why they have been on the "to-do" list for so long, having won the Nottinghamshire Senior League at a canter for the first two seasons of its existence - with this season the first time they've gone into April not ruling the roost, sitting as they are in third spot. The fact that they've had a title-monopoly in the last couple of years is even more amazing, seeing as prior to the NSL age they'd won just one trophy in the previous fifteen years, and their form in the old Notts Alliance was mediocre to say the least. For the second time this season the visitors on my travels were to be the Nottinghamshire Police side, who looked a right old shadow of their former glories when I saw them at Linby at the end of last year, but stunned most people by actually winning in the league fixture at Wollaton (2-0) just two weeks after! This as you may or not have gathered was to be a League Cup tie, so all the league form goes out of the window, needless to say Wollo got a certain revenge two weeks ago at the Police's Watnall Road ground - thrashing them 6-1. Luckily for me the roads were absolutely clear, the Nottinghamshire Police were otherwise engaged to worry about my road speeds, and there was a minute's silence before the game. I arrived with seconds to spare...
There are three things I feel I need to tell you before I go on to tell you about the match: firstly, today was absolutely glorious weatherwise, with the sun making this "little England" setting even more idyllic. Secondly, this game was a cup-tie - and no matter how bloody idyllic this setting is, I was in no mood for extra time, especially as I'd been up since 4.00 am this morning. And lastly, the fixture secretary-cum-programme selling dude kindly informed me that BOTH sides had cancelled their reserve games today (the Police reserves team actually resigned from the league the following day) just so that they could get a side up for the tie - meaning the quality of the game was bound to be compromised. And it was, the first half was as dull as I've encountered in a long while, with the rock-hard (remember the bogs we've been playing on this year?) not helping in the slightest. About ten minutes before the end of the first half Wollaton took the lead; after a speculative ball into the box was mis-headed by the Police number four Simon Ward, right into the path of Wollo's number six Mark Hart who stabbed the ball home. To be honest that looked as much excitement as the game had to offer up to the eighty minute mark, but then all of a sudden it all went mental, with the last ten minutes turning out to be as enjoyable viewing as I'd had all season. I suppose you could say it was controversial, then that would be an understatement, and both teams arguing they'd been hard done to every which way but loose. Firstly Wollaton had a corner which Paul Gadsby whipped in, no-one picked up Neil Hamed who headed the ball onto the bar and then it bounced directly down and away, and even though it looked a mile over the line the linesman waved it away - saying "only the back half of the ball crossed the line!" That really rankled the homesters, and then the visitors got on their high horses after Wollaton's Dan Smith "slapped" one of the Police players (assaulting a police officer anywhere else but on a footy pitch) Chris Young, getting away with just a yellow card. As time was running out the Police sent everyone up the pitch, chucked a ball into the box, and there at the back post was Wayne Bennett - a player who had huffed and puffed like someone not reight fit, like all t'game - showing more speed than he looked capable of to stab the ball home from six and a half inches out after Chris Dodds had hit the post. It's at moments like these you think "sod's law will dictate extra-time is a cert", what with this being a cup-tie, but straight from the re-start Wollaton hoisted the ball up to Dan Smith (remember, he should have got a red card minutes before) played the ball to Matthew Hogg who jinked and turned in the area - conning Simon Ward into making a rash tackle, and giving the Al Murray look-a-like referee Mr Towers no option but to award a penalty. To make matters worse for the Police defender Neil Smith reacted to the "conning", and booted the ball at the head of the prone Hogg - red card! The visitors' skipper James McDonagh was also a bit pissed off as well, and said a few "wrong words" in the ref's ear about his parentage and the legitimacy of Wollaton's Smith being on the pitch - red card #2! So even if it did go to extra time Wollo were now up against nine men, but before that Dan Smith was to take the spot-kick - Dave Wardle chose the right way to block the shot, sadly for him (but a li'l ol' relief for me) the ball landed right at the feet of Paul Gadsby who bashed the ball into the top corner. The Police had time to re-start the game before the whistle was blown for full-time, leaving the hosts relieved, the visitors gutted - and the spectators a bit breathless. So even though I'll more than likely remember the whole experience for the last ten minutes and the weather after all this, I'd recommend anyone stuck in this neck of the woods with nowt to do on a Saturday should give Wollaton a try - but only if it's a pleasant day...

Jaunt No 19

Dronfield Town 2 Melbourne Dynamo 2
Midland Regional Alliance Premier Division
Saturday, 24/03/07

Once in a while fixtures conspire to give you the opportunity to get to see two games in a day, usually this turns out to be a Bank Holiday of some sort, or one of those pre-arranged groundhop bonanzas that the Central Midlands League are fond of at this time of year. I know of others in our midst who take in two games most Saturdays, choosing to watch either United’s or Wednesday’s youth team, kicking off at 11.00 before heading away to watch Club – whilst others manage to get to see two in midweek due to the Pontins Reserve League’s habit of kicking off at 2.00 on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Sometimes though it seems that kick-off times are moved for no real apparent reason, giving those who want to an opportunity to double their daily football intake, and encourage people to visit grounds and teams they wouldn’t normally entertain. Today this has fallen into place for me; however you can hardly say I’m venturing to pastures far and wide, as for reasons unknown to me our little neighbours a mile and half up the road at Stonelow – Dronfield Town – have moved their home game against the exotically named Melbourne Dynamo to a 1.00 pm kick off. As I said I haven’t a clue as to why they have changed times and what-not, it hardly helps with the England game kicking off this evening, and they’ve moved the kick-off time to coincide with the Under-21 game at the New Wembley. Even so I’m not going to argue, it’s not as though I don’t know where the ground is, and it isn’t going to break the bank in petrol and admission costs. It’ll serve as a nice little appetiser for the Sheffield game kicking off at three, although the way things are looking with the big crowds we’ve been getting, we might have to do a flyer at the end just of the game to get parked up. Either way, hopefully I’ll be able to get an insight as to how good the “natives” are…
Dronfield Town have started this season in the Premier Division of the Midland Regional Alliance, after winning Division One last season by a good seventeen points, and prior to that building their way up by playing in the Hope Valley League and before that local Sunday leagues. What has impressed me is the fact they have a multitude of teams – no really, they have – starting way back down at Under-7s, all the way up to Over-35s including four (yep, four) Saturday adult teams and nine girls teams! Pretty impressive if you ask me, although admittedly not unique, as I’m sure there are other teams in the region who match or better this. The Saturday first team though have settled in their base at Stonelow, which for those of you not from Dronny is just on the eastern side of town, just up from Coal Aston Cricket Club and Dronfield secondary school. The facilities unsurprisingly are pretty basic, after all you can’t expect luxury stands and floodlights at the MRA step, but as far as grounds go at this level it is a pretty nice place. Normally you’ll come to these grounds and find a railed off pitch, which is what you get here – although not exactly rails, more like a rural-type chopped log fence. I’m pretty certain I haven’t seen one of those before, but as I said before probably not unique, though it makes for a picturesque little setting nonetheless. They’ve not made a bad fist of this season, I’ve actually being following their results and they’ve not done too badly at all, but I think the title is probably out of their reach at the moment. Before today’s game they were sitting in fifth, seven points behind the leaders Rowsley, with only one game in hand. Their visitors Melbourne (who as it turns out have not flown all the way over from Australia to be with us – actually from the bottom side of Derby) were sitting one place above in fourth, ahead of Dronfield on goal-difference, and had come off second best in the reverse fixture in September (losing 3-5). The weather whilst a bit chilly meant there was never any doubt the game would fall foul, the pitch looked a little heavy in places, all that was left was to see how good Dronfield Town really are…
The game to be honest wasn’t that bad – although I’m not sure what I was expecting to see, especially given my one experience in this league was way back in the balmy summer days of early August last year (Parkhouse – if you’d forgotten). Dronfield looked a solid looking outfit and Melbourne – well they did a helluva lot of yipping at the ref, calling out for everything, anything and really nothing – and pretty much getting on mine and the boy’s nerves. The standard of football wasn’t that bad, and I’d easily place either side way above some of the Central Midlands outfits I’ve seen in the past few seasons, although the surface let both down on more than one occasion. Melbourne were the first to strike just after the half hour mark, when the Dronfield defence hesitated to clear their lines, before the Dynamo number two struck in from the right wing. That was the last he contributed and was substituted straight after, but Dronfield did what the bench wanted, equalising straight after. And a good goal it was too, with Danny Gibbons, Nick Tilly, the skipper Milly all combining to set up Adam Fordham to strike past the Melbourne keeper from the left wing. Four minutes after Fordham turned provider, crossing the ball to Andy Gange who had the easiest of jobs, stabbing the ball in from about a yard out. Melbourne got back in the game twenty minutes into the second half, a throw in from the right caught the Dronfield defence napping, and the number four swept in from close range. That was it as far as the scoring went, and with a 3.00 pm appointment with the boys from Glappy Villa on the cards, it was a quick getaway to grab one of the last parking spaces at the BFS – but not before Liam found the one piece of dog crap that adorned the Coal Aston CC outfield! So to summarise – if you want to watch an honest down to earth game of football when Club are on one of their long-distance away games next season, you won’t be too disappointed if you head up to Stonelow to watch our little neighbours, it’s better than you’d think…

Jaunt No 18

Caistor Rovers 0 Hykeham Town 2
Lincolnshire Football League
Saturday, 03/03/07

I've covered quite a few leagues since starting my Jaunts all those years ago, probably covering every single level from Premiership all the way down to County Senior Division Two, and many from outside my normal boundary. Looking back at some it's quite amazing that I've found myself at some real anorak level league games, notable the ones outside our region ACTUALLY at County Senior level - most notably the Liverpool Combination, Manchester League, Midland Regional Alliance, Notts Alliance, Staffordshire Senior League, both the West Riding and West Yorkshire Leagues and probably half a dozen others that have escaped my notice whilst typing. But never have I been to a Lincolnshire League game, which is not to say I hadn't planned on going to some football in this league at some stage or another, as actually three or four teams fall on my "to go to" list. Not that they were very high on the agenda, not that is until I went to Louth the other week, when all of a sudden I decided I was going to head off to the Wolds the next free Saturday I had. As it happens March 3rd saw Club rather strangely without a game, seeing as it appears we'd played Thackley twice already this season, so it was then I decided it was an almost "must" to go to one of the three Lincolnshire League teams I'd got on the list - and luckily (if you can call it that) the team at the top of the list was at home. And the reason they were top of the list? Well on the way to Louth every couple of miles down the A18 was a signpost, almost subliminally suggesting that I should go there - Caistor 6 miles, Caistor 4 miles, Caistor 8 miles, Caistor 7 miles... and so on. What made it all the more a prospect was the fact they were hosting the top of the table team, and with Caistor Rovers FC being in third place themselves, it looked to be quite a fixture. So a Saturday morning phone call to their rather confused sounding manager Graham Shackleton to check it was on, then it's a nice little hour's drive into the North Western Lincolnshire Wolds...

As I said I've not done anything on the Lincolnshire League before, and naturally most of you will be a little lost on where the hell Caistor is and more than likely in the same boat about Hykeham too, so allow me to try and fill some basic gaps for you. Firstly the Lincolnshire League, as far as my research has found, was started sometime in the late 1980's to early 90's - exactly when I cannot be sure. To join this league all clubs must have their ground within a 65 mile radius of Lincoln Cathedral, so that could (if anyone wanted to) include teams from Sheffield seeing as my house is about 40 odd miles away - as well as from Derby, Nottingham, Peterborough, in fact you probably could go as far as Burton-upon-Trent and qualify - but more often than not they tend to be native to that county. Over the years the league has been won by current United Counties League outfit Sleaford, Central Midlands Leaguers Appleby Frodingham and Barton Town Old Boys, the reserve teams of Boston United, Lincoln United and Grantham Town, along with Grimsby Amateurs, Limestone Rangers and Wyberton who have either folded or dropped into local league football. So a mixed bunch really, last season Hykeham Town won it, whilst Caistor are pretty new into it - this being their second season after finishing seventh. As for the question of where is Caistor, well it isn't the place where you find oil or sugar (have a think), but a little town between Brigg and Market Rasen just off the M180. The ground is set on the road into town from the north, so sadly I can't tell you much about what is IN town itself as I didn't get much of a chance to have a proper look, except for it looks nice, rural and has quite a big fishery on the main road (not a fish and chip shop mind you - like a fishing place with maggots and trout and all that paraphernalia) and was originally a Roman fortress - and only fragments of the wall remain. As for Hykeham Town, well they are from the little village on the south of Lincoln called North Hykeham, and as I said are reigning champions and league leaders - although I reckon they WON'T win the league this season, as someone else is creeping up on the rails at great pace. Even so they went into this game at the top of the table, two points clear of next spot, and four in front of third placed Caistor - with a game in hand on both of them. Hykeham had won the reverse fixture 2-0 in January, and the corresponding fixture 5-1 last season, this was going to be a pretty big test for both sides - or was it?

Anyone planning a visit to Brigg Road ought to manage their expectations, to be honest I thought there'd be more here than a roped-off field, but one thing you'll be sure of is a warm welcome. Football isn't number one in this town, that title belongs to cricket, and the football team share with the aforementioned bat and ball outfit. The clubhouse really is one of the best I've seen at this level though (even if the bar didn't open until half-time) with even further expansion being planned as we speak, and despite cricket having pride and place on all the walls (Monty Panesar's autographed shirt is framed on one wall), there is enough footy memorabilia to show that Rovers aren't cuckoos in this nest. The manager's (who I mentioned earlier in the piece) parents (Pam and Norman) are stalwarts in this neck of the woods, although the Shackletons have only been involved with Caistor a short while, and they gave me enough chat, free mugs of tea and background to the whole day's proceedings to pass the time between arriving and kick-off. I asked Pam how many they generally got turning up to watch, after all when you think about it some teams at this level attract MORE than some teams in the Northern Counties, and almost got the impression she was going to tell me all their names. Today though, even with the reigning champions and table-toppers in town, the attendance would be pitiful - there was another attraction in Caistor, bigger than football. Apparently there was a pretty big wedding, which meant that most of their spectators, sponsors and even players would be at this event and not here - in other words poor ol' Graham was struggling to get a full squad out, let alone a strong one - so the size of the attendance was going to be the least of their worries. Hykeham too had some "selection problems" of their own, and they had to make a very late panicky change to the team sheets, swapping top scorer Mark Ellis out and bringing in reserve player Robbie Newman in - just in time I guess, and luckily enough as the referees were late arriving. Either way everyone in the home team gathered in the bar (a motley looking crew if I've seen one - with their number five Gaz Deakins having the most ridiculously coloured "do" I've ever had the displeasure to witness) before changing felt confident they "might" do well, but you can tell sometimes in the body language, and a fair bit of bravado was been bandied around. One player pointed out the parallels between two games going on today, theirs and the Liverpool versus Manchester United game, "funny how both third placed teams are at home to the top of the table" - little was he to know the results wouldn't be too different come 4.50 pm....

One thing that did worry me on the way over was the weather; when I rang Graham just before lunchtime he was surprised I was even asking if it was on, but there were games up the road in Grimsby and Scunthorpe and down in Skeggy that had bitten the dust before the day began. I needn't have worried, although anyone thinking of heading here needs to take note of the lack of shelter around the pitch, luckily for me the sun was shining and despite the breeze it was fairly pleasant. That breeze was in Hykeham's favour in the first half, and it didn't take a genius to work out that "one-way traffic" would be the order of the game to start with, and it turned out that way as the Caistor defence had the look of the Alamo about them. Hykeham eventually opened the scoring on twenty minutes, Caistor's defender Chris Scott seemed to hurt his foot kicking the boot of one of the visiting players, and whilst everyone in the home defence waited for play to be stopped - for why, I don't know - Robbie Newman nipped in to loft the ball over home keeper Scott Vincent into the Caistor net. The hosts if anything seemed a little naïve in some of their play, and they must have been caught offside a dozen times at least in the first half alone, and literally gave Hykeham's keeper Lee Sizer nothing to do at all. Eight minutes into the second half the visitors took a quick throw-in, which was hooked into the middle by Ben Good, and onto the head of Newman -  again giving Vincent no chance. Whether that late change was in desperation or not, in the end seemed inspired, and all that was left was for the table-toppers to shut up shop. Which they did, and apart from a pitch invasion by one of them ratty looking Jack Russell dogs, little of note really happened. Which is not to say the quality of football was poor, simply Hykeham's players had done enough, whilst Caistor's best were elsewhere busy chucking confetti or summat. That win puts Hykeham well in control at the top of the table, their nearest rivals either not playing or involved in other competitions, giving them a five point cushion over second spot. In the end I rather felt for the home team, I'm sure this one won't be the last Lincolnshire League game I get to this season, and I reckon both of these are destined for bigger and better things eventually - although how long that will be, don't ask....

Jaunt No 17

Louth United 2 Hatfield Main 2
Central Midlands League Cup Round Two
Tuesday, 20/02/07
Non-League football is littered, as is this column too I guess, with stories of teams going bust and then being resurrected in some other form at some lower level. You all know the sort, and probably all know the reasoning behind some of these tales, especially seeing as they all tend to have a recurrent theme running through all of them. Normally it's good old ambition outstretching finances, or in some cases just bloody-minded politics, where one individual thinks they are bigger than the club or community - thankfully we aren't (and hopefully never will be) in that situation at the World's Oldest Club. Today though I'm away to visit not one of these fallen names - but two - and two teams that the longer serving members of Sheffield FC will no doubt remember as facing the mighty red and blacks on the pitch - they are Louth United and Hatfield Main. One of these I reckon falls into the bracket of financial troubles victims, the other of boardroom politics, but both of them left the NCEL at the end of the 2002/03 season with many people rather surprised at the whole situation. As it happens though with all these little stories, both teams had a willing band of locals who wanted to put their teams back on the map, and by co-incidence both of them are plying their trade just two levels lower than when they left the good ol' Northern Counties East Division One - in the Central Midlands Supreme. And as by chance, both of them were drawn together to play each other in the League Cup - and even better (for me) is the fact the original fixture was rained off - meaning the fixture would be played on a free evening, with no Club fixtures on the cards and nowt better to do with myself on a Tuesday evening. So, a night of country road driving to the funny old county of Lincolnshire was on the cards, just hope I don't get lost...
Louth is one of those places you know about, know where it is, but then you come to plan a trip there it suddenly dawns on you just how bloody far it is away. As the crow flies it isn't that far, but you either have the option of going through all the "back-whacks", or - as I did - via the Motorway and Humberside Airport. My mate went there just after Christmas and said "just when you think you are getting close, the road keeps on going" - and he's right. The only time I'd been before was when I was down in Skeggy, and that didn't seem too far to be honest, but on this journey - well, bloody hell, the best part of two hours to get eighty-odd miles? Anyway, those of you who read the Grimsby Borough Jaunt will know all about the history of "this" Louth United, the fact that they (Borough) were the off-shoot of the "original" club after some in-house fighting - with the coaching team and players heading up the A18 - whilst the "new" Louth are the remnants of the old club who decided to stay on and preserve the name and the game at Park Avenue. So is this the same team we famously beat 9-0 at the Coach and Horses? Well, I guess so - because all the history databases point to the fact Grimsby Borough were the "new" team, whilst check out the ones on Louth and they have their records stretching back as far as 1947, with the fateful season of 2003/04 showing as mere blank blip in their records. When 2004/05 comes along they show as being a Lincolnshire League team, but this season they have taken the first step to get back into their old echelons of Northern Counties football, joining the Central Midlands Premier at the start of this season. Hatfield Main on the other hand are a different proposition, they were founder members and plodded along admirably in the NCEL - flitting to and from the Premier Division (and winning the Premier Division in 1996) - but suddenly they announced they were going leave the league after some twenty years to play in the Doncaster Senior League! The reasons given were "financial", but to be honest I couldn't say with any conviction how true this was, either way they spent a season in the DSL - winning the title whilst notching up some pretty scary scorelines. That lasted a season, it was obvious they were too big a fish in too small a pond, and last season they decided to move into the CMFL where they struggled a bit more than everyone expected. This season though things have taken a different turn, with Hatfield sitting comfortably in the top places, and in fact should have been top if not for a points deduction. Louth on the other hand are finding life a little tough at this stage, mirroring Hatfield's performance last season, and tonight's encounter was going to be far from easy for them. The last time Hatfield visited Park Avenue way back in November 2002, Louth won 2-0 (with Main winning the reverse fixture 3-1 later on that season), on paper it seemed there was only going to be one winner. Funny that though, the game was not going to be played on paper...
Park Avenue hasn't changed a bit since the last time I came, although it has to be said the surrounding areas have changed somewhat, and for the better too. Gone are the prefabs that greeted you as you turned off the main road, now a new set of houses grace the area, hiding the way into the car-park into the bargain. Having got to Louth with little or no incident, I then found myself driving up and down Park Avenue looking for the way in, I knew where it should have been - but somehow it had moved. Eventually I found the alley to the car-park, where two "helpful" young men were there to direct cars around the car-park; however helpful they appeared to be - competent they weren't. "Park anywhere over there mate" said one, gesturing to no a place where there appeared to be no spaces, "where? In front of those cars?" "Yep!" "How are they going to get out of here?" "Players, mate, players!" "It's alright, I'll take my chances on the road, thanks anyway" Halfway through the first half I found out the "players" in question were the Under 18s who were in for training, and they would be in for some time too, as these pair of sparkies had parked the Hatfield players and the referees in front - clever or what? That's the thing I love about these Jaunts, the characters you get to meet, and I think I've met my contender for "Diamond of the Season" - the gateman - as mad as a snake, honestly! I got to the ground after parking on the road, thinking "what a pair of doughnuts", to be met by this bloke, who looked me up and down before asking "are you a player?" "No, mate - here to watch the game!" "Are you from Grimsby?" "What??? Erm, no!" "Oh, are you from Boston?" "No, I'm not from Lincoln either before you ask!" "Oh, right. Where are you from anyway?" Then he picks a programme up, looks at the front mouthing the words on the front, then asks "are you from Hard-field Main?" "Oh, go on then, yeah - that'll do - I'm from there. Can I come in now?" "Ah, yes. That'll be £2.00 please!" "And how much are the programmes?" "£2.00!" "So one admission and a programme is £4.00?" "No, just £2.00" At that point I gave up gave him the two quid, took me piece of paper and went in, with the words "yer mates are all upstairs in the bar" ringing in my ears. Right-ho fella, right-ho. Talking to one of the Louth locals later on about this bloke summed the whole thing up, he reckoned they built the ground round him, and they are going to put a statue up of him in the town square. A statue of him in the nude, I reckon we ought to put seven days on him to be honest...
When I eventually got inside though I found the ground hasn't altered a jot, and for those of you who haven't had the pleasure, that means the only defining feature - the (almost) unique "Panorama Room" bar - that overlooks the pitch is still there in all its glory. As for the rest of the ground - well with a bit of love and attention it will be fit for NCEL football in no time - all it needs is a few of the pitch-perimeter picket-fence stakes fixing, plus some of the outer fencing planks replacing and it will be as good as new - that though is IF they want to get back into the Counties. The pitch though looked like it had seen better days, and made the ones at Carlton and Thackley look like the newly laid turf at Wembley, but the main thing was it had passed the pitch inspection early on - and both sets of players and officials looked happy enough to let the game go ahead on this patch, so who am I to complain? Heavy bobbly pitch or not, I could see who the dangerman of the night was going to be from the kick off, when Hatfield lofted the kick-off straight into the corner only to see this blur or red and black streak down the wing to keep the ball in and whip in a cross when all looked dead - this my friends was a young man called Kirk Frost - as quick as a whipped and like summat off a shovel! All looked like it was going to script until about ten minutes in; Louth got the ball in midfield through Graham West, he played the ball through the middle to centre-forward Nicky Manders who coolly lofted the ball over Hatfield's young keeper Jamie Allen. This opened the game up somewhat, with Hatfield obviously taking an affront to this unexpected turn of events, and almost responded immediately when Paul Bradley hit the crossbar. It took until ten minutes before the interval before Hatfield drew level, and when they did it was no surprise who was on the scoresheet, with Frost making the most of a dreadful sliced clearance by Louth's Andy Holmes. Five minutes later they were in front, again Frost being the scorer, this time with a diving header after a great move down the right wing from the visitors. If Hatfield thought it would be plain sailing in the second half - and believe me when I say there were those from Dunscroft who believed it was a case of "how many" - they were wrong. Five minutes after the restart, a clinical cross-field pass from villain of the equaliser Andy Holmes found Mike Armstrong in acres of space, the Louth striker took the ball in his stride before lashing home. After that it was end-to-end stuff, with too many chances to mention, all very exciting stuff. Louth keeper Craig Wherry made a spectacular save from Frost, denying him his hat-trick, whilst some comedy keeping (my favourite) from the other keeper Allen saw him "pass" a clearance to Manders who lobbed the ball inches wide of the empty net. It was that exciting that when Louth replaced midfielder Bobby McSpadden fifteen minutes from time, he marched off the field in a temper, booted the dressing room door off - before reappearing with a fag in his mouth (still in his kit, of course) having a chat, going upstairs and reappearing once again with a pint in his hand - then demanding the match reporter didn't mention him in dispatches, as he was off work with a bad back! It would be unfair to say the game petered out into a draw, it more or less when at 900 miles an hour and crashed into the full-time whistle, with both teams arranging the re-match for the following Saturday. And so with that I headed off into the late-night Louth mist, past the plaintive queries of some muddy looking youths in Louth United Under 18s tracksuits asking which my car was, to which I had to reply none of them were. Chances are they'll still be there when Louth return to their former stamping grounds in the Northern Counties, as will the gateman, as will the parking lads...

Jaunt No 16

Carlisle United 1 Yeovil Town 4
Coca Cola Championship League One
Saturday, 03/02/07
2007 hasn't exactly seen me heading off to too many new and interesting non-league grounds so far - in fact far from it. So far I've started the year by heading to a picturesque little patch of Brum and Donny's new stadium, both of which have been covered in this column, plus another trip to South Kirkby Colliery and a visit to the new Ricoh Arena to see ninety minutes of drudgery against the mighty Luton Town. Hardly the most spectacular start to a New Year is it? The trend which seems to be being set is that I'm making more and more trips to professional teams' grounds, and as much as I dislike doing this, it seems the weather is doing its best to force me down this narrow little alley. About fifteen years ago, Lynn and I were watching the weather forecast on the news and it said that snow was on its way that coming weekend, so we got on the phone to this little hotel in Keswick in the Lake District - booked in - drove up and had an absolutely fantastic weekend walking in the snow covered Cumbrian Mountains. So back to the present day, and when the forecast suggested a similar set of situations - coupled with the fact I had a long weekend booked off work and Liam was breaking up for half-term - it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. So once again, we booked in, drove up (all the while listening to the impending approach of this white behemoth of a storm following us up north on the radio) and arrived in the Lakes to find it was just "pleasant" weatherwise, and there seemed more chance of snow in Kuwait than Keswick.
Nonetheless we planned to go through with the weekend's activities, and whilst we were up there I thought I might catch up with one of my non-league acquaintances who's involved with one of the Northern Alliance League clubs based in Carlisle, who as it turns out were due to be playing in a League Cup semi final early Saturday afternoon. All the arrangements were made like a precision-made tactical assault team, we were to spend a day in Carlisle, and while I was at the game Lynn and Liam could head to the flicks. All was going swimmingly until Saturday morning when I got a text from young Harley telling me that their game had fallen foul of the overnight frost from a couple of days ago, obviously the mild weather had not thawed the pitch sufficiently in places where the sun had not shone, so I had to revert to "Plan B" - of which there wasn't one, especially seeing as all the non-league footy in Carlisle had gone the same way! So it left us with a choice - either a) Go to Brunton Park to see Carlisle play Yeovil - or b) Drive the fifteen minutes over the border to Gretna to see the off-shout of my old favourites Airdrieonians. "Option B" obviously had some attractions, having never been to Gretna, but the doubt as to whether THIS game would go by the wayside too had me worried. The game at Brunton Park was also in doubt, and they'd had a 10.00 am pitch inspection booked in, but after calling in at their city centre club shop that had been passed as clear to go. So after all the great intentions of non-league footy in the great unknown, it was another trip to another Football League ground, and one I'd already been to... sigh!
The last (and only) time I'd been to Carlisle for a football game was way back in the 80's, and never really cared for the place if the truth be told, it just seemed to lack something. Cumbria's senior football team had actually caught my imagination as a kid when they beat Chelsea 2-0 on Match of the Day, way back in the early 70's when they flew to the top of the old Division One (Premiership to all the kiddies), only to fall with a crash-bang-wallop on the way back down. I was intrigued way back then as to who this unfashionable team was, and when I was dragged to Bramall Lane by my family (it was my older brother's birthday that weekend), I was even more impressed by Carlisle's kit than performance (United won 2-1 by the way). I made it my "mission" (so to speak) to get to this exotic destination when I was old enough to be allowed to go to the further flung away grounds - well actually by the time I eventually did get to go it was a case of crossing off the ones I hadn't been to, and when I finally got to Brunton Park there were only about fifteen or so League grounds I needed to visit - however when the opportunity finally arose to get there (a bit more difficult than anticipated as it seemed Luton and Carlisle got promoted and relegated together in the 80's and 90's, always avoiding each other) once again it had to be on the Sportsman Pub special with the Blades! Even though it was early in the season the game was a nonentity, both teams looked like they were going to struggle in the league (they did), and the atmosphere was as dead as a dodo - there was more activity and noise from the sheep that were grazing on the field over the back (which was also something I'd never seen at a pro' ground). The game ended 1-1 incidentally, and I vaguely remember (through the haze of a drunken hour) thinking what a miserable place this ground was, and from that point all the "fondness" I had for them vanished into the ether. As a team I was still always looking for their results on Saturday afternoon, but for all the wrong reasons, I needed to see them lose!
Then when as "luck" might have it they were having a mare of a season in 1992, finishing bottom of Division Four a point behind Donny, they got a reprieve as Maidstone and Aldershot went belly-up. I needed "justice" (God only knows why) and they needed to finish bottom for me, but that never happened, and for a few seasons they got themselves back on an even keel - even winning a promotion in the process. But then they suffered the same dark days that Doncaster suffered, and that lust to see them drop came back. They finished one place above relegation FIVE times out of SIX seasons, escaping more often than not on the last day, with the most famous occasion being when the keeper Jimmy Glass scored in injury time on the last day to save them once more. Two seasons ago they finally dropped, and guess what - I felt guilty - why was I feeling all this venom for a team I'd visited once way back twenty years ago, just because it was a crap day out. I felt pleased when they scraped out of the Conference after one season, and even more pleased when they won League Two last season - but that was probably enhanced by the fact I'd smacked a tenner on them to win the league the previous August. So a trip to Brunton Park was more than a "re-visit", it was an opportunity to move on and see how they'd progressed - on and off the pitch.
Back at that game in the 80's the ground simply had the one stand running down one side, with terracing in front of it (the Paddock), whilst on the opposite touchline was a length of decrepit standing. Now that has been replaced by the Cumberland Building Society Stand, which has an unusual feature in the fact that the central point of the stand is located just off the half way line, this means that one side of the stand extends past the one goal line - whilst the other side falls short of this. This was due to the fact that the Club were intending to re-build the whole ground and move the pitch a few yards further North, but as always the money ran dry. It gives the place a whole bit of character, and what with the home end having that weird "gable-end" looking cover, it makes all those purpose-built sterile arenas look hollow and soul-less - the very point I had aimed directly at Carlisle all those years ago. I decided for this visit of Yeovil (a fair journey for the 263 strong band of Glovers to make) I'd go in the Paddock, if not for the cost then for the chance to move up and down according to where the goals were heading - if that is I could figure that bit out! 7,112 had crammed into the ground for this game, and even though Yeovil were pressing the play-off positions, Carlisle's recent form suggested it would be THEY who were the favourites. Well, as predicted Carlisle attacked, and attacked, whilst Yeovil looked as inept as any poor Central Midlands team I'd seen over the last few years. Corner after corner was conceded, yet somehow Yeovil scrambled the ball away, and it looked as though miraculously they had weathered the storm. Until two minutes before half time Carlisle got a free-kick a few yards inside the oppositions half, Jeff Smith floated it in, Yeovil couldn't clear and Joel Garner volleyed home from twelve yards. A great goal well deserved, and not bad for the kid's first ever in league football, and one what was shown over and over again on the big screen in the interval.
What happened in the second half though will take some explaining, it was unbelievable, and I don't think I've seen owt like it. After being on the back-foot for the ENTIRE first half, the second started in the same vein, yet four minutes in the scores were level with a lightning quick break that carved the hosts midfield open. Wayne Gray overlapped down the Carlisle left, finding himself in acres of space in the box as he dug it over the advancing keeper Keiren Westwood and in to the bottom corner of the net, undeserved it was - and so it was back to more Carlisle attacking. The visiting keeper Steve Mildenhall was having a right mixed day, flapping at another corner one minute, and then producing a top quality save the next. Then once again Carlisle had another lapse of concentration, from a Peter Sweeney free kick in the 72nd minute brought a close range finish from Leon Best, as the big striker was able to leap unimpeded to nod the ball out of Westwood's hands and in to the bottom of the net. All this one-sided attacking and now Carlisle were losing 2-1? It got worse, the corner count mounted (24 to 3 in Carlisle's favour), the shots were flying in (14 to 6) and nothing was happening, then as the stoppage time board was being held up, Leon Best grabbed his second when he stayed patient on the counter-attack before picking his spot with a 22 yard shot that left Westwood diving in despair. Even more unbelievable was when deep in to time added on (best player on show) Zigor Aranalde lost possession in the Yeovil half, allowing the visitors to streak forward again, Best held on to it before side-footing a pass on to Chris Cohen who despatched the chance in style from 20 yards out. Seriously I have never seen such a one-sided 1-4 defeat in my life, and I joined the Carlisle natives heading into the streets around Brunton Park shaking my head in disbelief, as I said "unbelievable" - I felt quite Chris Kamara-like! The Yeovil website and all the other media described this as a "resounding performance", I'd call it bloody lucky if anything, and I actually left Brunton Park feeling genuinely gutted for Carlisle - whilst on the other hand mightily entertained - but the holiday had to go on regardless. That snow finally arrived in the region overnight on Saturday and into Sunday morning, we did go walking in the hills but the snowfall was nowhere near as deep as fifteen years ago, either way it was fun all the same. And Gretna versus Airdrie United? Before today Gretna had scored in EVERY game this season, Airdrie had conceded in EVERY game this season - they drew 0-0! Unbelievable, Jeff! Unbelievable!

Jaunt No 15

Doncaster Rovers 2 Accrington Stanley 0
Johnstone's Paint Trophy Round Three
Tuesday, 28/11/06 &
Doncaster Rovers 2 Darlington 0
Johnstone's Paint Trophy Round Four
Tuesday, 09/01/07
Here's a first - a Jamesie's Jaunt from a South Yorkshire professional football team? The reason it's never happened before was because - well, we've all been to just about every one of them haven't we? Actually I'd been to all the league grounds in South Yorkshire whilst I was still at school, and all of them visited under my own steam with my school mates on public transport (who could ever forget that trip on the bus to Oakwell to see Worksop in the FA Cup), so for me to write about one of the local big boys would need to be something different. And that's where this article fits in - and it's also a bit different as it comes in two parts - the old and the new at Donny Rovers! You see Rovers - a team WE played in the Senior Cup not too long ago - have finally upped sticks from the pretty dire (and inaptly named) Belle Vue Stadium to move to pastures new a mile or so down the way to "The Keepmoat Stadium", and I've decided that I'd get a trip in to both of them to compare the extremes the Rovers' fans experience in terms of facilities. The first of these turned out to be a rare night where Club were without a game, and also the penultimate first team game under lights at the old ground, a Johnstone's Paint Trophy (the old LDV Vans thingy) tie against FC Stanley of Accrington in November of last year. The second was the other day, a trip to the new arena for a game, and yet again it is for the same competition - only the next round along - with the visitors being Darlington. I certainly know how to pick the big games don't I? Either way it gave a quite interesting view of extremes, and also highlighted how football has changed since the tragic disasters of the mid-eighties, and the introduction of all-seater stadia.
The last time Accrington played at Belle Vue was way back in 1962, in fact it was their last away league game before they went belly up, and to be honest I bet Belle Vue hasn't changed much since way back then. For me, the last visit I made before this one was a few years ago when I saw Dinno play there in the County Cup, and the changes made to the ground since then are minor to say the least. Alright so they've added "executive" boxes behind one of the goals, changed the wooden benches in the main stand to plastic seats, and fully stepped the "away" end right the way across - but other than that Belle Vue still looks the same downbeat rundown dump I first visited in 1979. What has changed since those dark days is the town has started to get behind them, back in the "old days" they were always near the foot of Division Four staring re-election in the face, and I guess it took some even darker days to make the towns-folk of Donny realise what they have - a proper football team. The whole matchday package has changed too, gone are the days of the crackling inaudible tannoy system playing to a disinterested audience, now they have "dancers" for pre-match entertainment - okay, so they are just chunky chicks with polony thighs, but at least they are trying. And everyone (and I mean everyone) turns up these days in club colours or merchandise, gone are those days when I used to go out with the girl from Rovers' club shop, back then they sold a couple of crabby sweatshirts and called it progressive! It started to remind me of the Bradford Bulls revolution, where the locals started to back their club to the hilt, and took the team to a new plateau - Rovers are moving to a new stadium, shaking the rust of Belle Vue off, and with them taking a host of new supporters. Certainly a bright future lies ahead for them, and even brighter is the prospect that progress in this "Mickey-Mouser" could make them play the inaugural game on the hallowed turf of the new Wembley Stadium (or as it later transpires the Millennium Stadium - again), and the first thing stopping them getting that little bonus was tonight's little encounter with the aforementioned Accy Stan. As for the game itself, well Rovers won 2-0 looking comfortable throughout and despite some rough-house tactics by the visitors, put on an entertaining show watched by a surprisingly healthy sized (3,209 - bolstered by 85 from Accrington) attendance. Paul Heffernan put the home side ahead on 13 minutes, with a nice shot on the turn, before Sean Thornton doubled the lead just before the half hour mark. Accrington's Shaun Whalley was dismissed for a late tackle on Theo Streete five minutes into the second half, with the home fans baying for blood after a much worse incident which saw Stanley's Robbie Williams (no angel) put Rovers' Sean McDaid in hospital, and screaming at the officials for everything as an injustice. It was a cold and miserable night, and as I slushed through the puddles in the car-park back to my short drive home, I couldn't help but think "I doubt I'll miss this place!" 
Given the fact the first games for the new ground were set to be sold out, with three "local derbies" in a row against Huddersfield, Rotherham and Scunny (plus an FA Cup tie against Bolton in-between); when the next round of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy was drawn I was actually genuinely interested. A home tie would no doubt be set for midweek, and at the new arena, and to top it all off probably cost a few quid cheaper as well. Never mind the fact that Donny had drawn Darlington, not the most attractive team it has to be said, I reckoned on having the whole stadium to stretch out in - plus the rare experience of seeing hoops versus hoops on a football pitch. It didn't stop it being all-ticket though, and as word stretched to me of the experiences everyone encountered on the ground's "proper" first game there - a rugby league game between Doncaster and Sheffield Eagles - one where there were queues a million miles long for the ticket office, then everyone having to queue again to get in (and that was with an attendance circa 5,000), it seemed a trip to purchase in advance was in order. Which I guess is how Messrs Laughlin of Belper and Herrington of Fir Vale (along with Jamesie Junior who gave up a karate session - honoured or what) came to be with us, and I suppose that was lucky seeing as there is no on-street parking around the ground (or indeed within a mile of it), and as it turns out they "encourage the allocation of all parking spaces to multi-occupancy vehicles carrying three or more people" - not one to go to on your own I hasten to add, and a million miles away from the pot-holed puddle fest at Belle Vue. The trouble is the best laid plans of mice, men and Jamesies often go awry - and naturally as we turned up at the car-park nearest to our turnstiles, we were turned away (pass holders only) and sent to the next available car-park some 800 yards down the road. Not so bad you'd imagine, but the rain that washed out an entire night's non-league programme (plus the other two Johnstone's Paint Trophy ties) was tipping down on the good people of Donny at that moment, making the 800 yards seem more like 8,000! And that little fact I mentioned earlier about the ticketing - well the very same thing was happening once again - queues around the block, plus the persistent rain, made my decision to nip up and buy in advance seem very wise indeed. At last something I'd got right...
We got ourselves seats in the wings on the West Stand, which is the side opposite the executive boxes, but to be honest I doubt it mattered where you sat. Every one of the 15,000 seats in the ground are under cover, with none of the obstructions you were used to at Belle Vue, and although the seating was a little cramped with a bit of creative positioning (sticking Liam in the middle of the biggest two) it wasn't that uncomfortable. Under the stand was a pretty wide variety of bars - well let me rephrase that - there were four bars all selling the same things - beer, coke / fanta, pies, hot-dogs and so on. But we (or should I say Neil) made a bit of a schoolboy error in the fact we headed directly to the first bar we saw - selling beer, obviously all we needed - only to be charged £2.70 for a plastic bottle of Fosters. Turning round we noticed no-one was drinking from bottles, but from pint glasses, bought from a stand further along the concourse at a cost of - yep - £2.70! But enough about that - the football - well about 150 travelled down from Darlo in the rain for this one, a bit disappointing but they were always on to a loser with this. The first half saw all the action at the other end of the pitch from where we were sat, but Donny never troubled the visitors, and likewise Darlo never came close to breaking the deadlock. Then ten minutes in Rovers' Jason Price burst down the right wing, put in a perfect cross into the middle, and Paul Heffernan side-footed home from ten yards out. That's the way it stayed up until a minute to go when Price picked up the ball on the left, took the ball into the middle and let a right old cracker go, giving Lee Jones no chance in the Darlington net. So the match experience over and done with, 8,009 enjoying it and having to leave the ground quickly and safely, a task made pretty tricky with everyone from the West Stand all funnelling down one stair case. If that wasn't bad enough getting out of the car-park was even worse, ten minutes to try and get out without the "help" of the stewarding, before one decided to take it upon oneself and do a bit of rallying to manoeuvre out. God only knows what it'd be like getting out of a sell-out crowd, really 8,000 is just over half full at the end of the day, so it's obvious they have some work to do to get to where they need to be in this area.
Okay, so to sum up the whole experience - here goes - despite the Keepmoat being a sterile (where's the chewing gum on the steps) ultra-sanitised-built-by-the-numbers-edge-of-the-town stadium - imagine Sheffield Hallam FC Arena with grass - Rovers are finally shot of that dump (and everyone I've spoken too in the meantime agrees with that statement) they used to call home. I've read that people aren't overly enthused about moving to a purpose built stadium, and would rather have seen Belle Vue refurbished; to those people I say get real - with this ground you can at least progress up the ladder without worrying about new stretching ground regulations. And that my friends is what it is all about - the future - and Rovers' (after so many dodgy periods in the history when it wasn't) is pretty sound. Just a pity the potential Wembley trip went down the plughole - ah well maybe next season...

Jaunt No 14

Bartley Green 1 Northfield Town 3
Midland Combination Division One
Monday, 01/01/07
Food! That's what it all came down to in the end - it's official - nothing more, nothing less. When you are stuck with the choice of four games to go to, with an imminent hangover on the horizon to boot, the thing that swung the answer to the question "which will be the first ground in 2007" was as simple as food. You see you may or may not know, out there on the old world-wide web there are some pretty anorak-y football sites, which often get ridiculed by myself and certain friends. But to give them their dues they can be an inexhaustible resource of detailed (sometimes pointlessly detailed) information, which can give the neutral supporter an idea what they are about to see, and that is what happened here. Not sure if I've mentioned it in this column before but one of these sites is called Football Grounds in Focus, run by a chap who I've corresponded with in the past called Martin Wray, and is one of those sites frequented and contributed to by the much maligned groundhopper. Don't get me wrong enough has been written about this breed by myself, and not all nice either, but I hate to admit it but these fellas come in handy sometimes - and today is one of those days. So New Years Day is one of those days when either your league is playing a full programme, or not at all, and we all know what the Northern Counties are doing don't we? So in one of my little (long and expensive mobile phone bill) chats with my mate from Belper, we were comparing what we'd got on for the aforementioned Bank Holiday Monday - oh, the UniBond weren't playing either before you ask - 'cos as you know when our teams aren't playing we too like to head out somewhere different, essentially doing the groundhopper thing without actually being one (so to speak)! As I said at the start we were down to four, not going to tell you which four, but they were all from the West Midlands and all began with the letter "B". One of these was Bartley Green - never heard of 'em? Good, neither had I. My mate piped up that he'd seen an article on the 'net about them on one of these "pretty anorak-y football sites", so we trawled through them, and found it on the good old Football Grounds in Focus site. Some bloke named Mick Burt had been there (he's also visited Club I later found on the same site and he wrote some pretty nice things about us) and it read something like this.... "The Illey Lane venue is, in my view, quite incredible. Located in the open countryside, blah, blah blah. A long track leads to the ground which is adjacent to a farm, blah, blah, blah. Once inside the ground a training area is to the left and a car park straight ahead, blah, blah, cluster of buildings used for storing ground equipment, blah, blah, and a superb tea bar that serves hot & cold drinks and a tasty array of hot sandwiches including bacon, sausage and black pudding..." "What was that? TASTY ARRAY OF HOT SANDWICHES???? We're going here mate!!!" Yes, anyone with half an ounce of Scottish blood in them knows, the day after New Years Eve involves a solid hair-of-the-dog, football, and of course the good old fry up in a bap. Bring it on....
Hungover I might have been, but at least I entered the New Year with my dignity in tact - unlike my erstwhile travelling companion who (dare I say it) woke up safe in the knowledge he'd relieved himself outside the Mayor's house at 3.00am, whilst returning the world of the living alongside a strange cat in his bed. Anyway... So Bartley Green, eh? Whereabouts is it? Oh, yeah, that bit - it's near Halesowen, the other side of Brum. I can hear you lot from here - helluva way to go for a bacon buttie don't you think? Well I guess it is, but if the truth be told there was very little else on in the footballing world, and after the rain we all experienced at the weekend at Shirebrook (and nationwide it has to be said) you'd be lucky to get to a game anywhere. So why not Bartley Green? Word has it they are a progressive little club, and looking into their background they only turned to Saturday football last season, despite being formed some 58 years ago. They didn't make a bad fist of it either, walking the MidComb division two title by a clear five points, ahead of the Birmingham University side. Their headquarters for the majority of their formation was way down the road in Bartley Green village, in Jiggins Lane, but now they have set up sticks - in the sticks - the other side of the M5 in Illey. And they've made a nice little set up here - like the blurb from that website says, it is down a long country track near a farm - with some tidy little facilities, and a lot of work on the pitch too. We got the guided tour of the ground by Chairman David Sheppard, who told us of the work they'd done on the ground, plus the club's future projects just on the horizon. Apparently they had excavated about 20 foot of soil from the top end of the pitch to give a flat surface; something a lot of teams could take notice of at OUR level, whilst along the sides they'd built a tidy little grandstand which cost £10,000 - with 90% of that coming from the Football Foundation. He was pretty proud of what they'd achieved, and rightly so in my opinion, and this year they are erecting floodlights to help progress up the pyramid even further. As I said, they are a pretty ambitious little outfit, and there's a lot more to them than bacon butties! Their opponents this afternoon were a side I covered towards the end of last season - Northfield Town - and one which I didn't twig on to until the game itself was that they were the closest team locally at this level. In other words a local derby and a return fixture from the one played on Boxing Day, where the Owls (Bartley Green's nickname) won 3-0. With Bartley Green (not exactly) romping away at the top of table, ahead of the second place outfit Mile Oak Rovers on goal difference, with Northfield way back in fifth - a home win looked favourite. We arrived at the ground a good couple of hours before the game - not good form I know, but as I did say "hair-of-the-dog" etc. - and were kindly directed to the nearest pub by the chairman, where we had an option of hiking over a couple of stiles or taking a little drive up the road to the Black Horse pub. The sun was shining, the wind was a bit blustery, and the pitch looked in fine nick - all the ingredients for a nice day in the Brummie countryside...
I'd actually taken my sunglasses to the game, hungover and so on, so you can imagine what the form was when our little party emerged from the Black Horse at ten minutes before kick-off. Yep, the cloud had covered and there was a distinct smell of rain in the air, with the sinister sound of a crow squawking in the distance! When we got back to the ground there were several people with haunted looks on their faces, it seems we weren't the only ones with the idea of a New Years' Day trip to Bartley Green, there was a fair old proportion of the groundhopping fraternity in the vicinity - and the programmes had sold out (cue sinister music)! It was a nice touch that Mr Chairman had sorted us out beforehand in this department, I sense mine'll go on eBay tonight, and it looked as if there would be plenty of takers if I'd advertised that fact on the day. Talking of advertising, a disturbing one here, in Jim's Café - the tea bar - they were advertising the fact "Bartley Green Pin Badgers £2.00 a go"! Does the Animal Liberation Front know about this? Is this where Jim Brennan - proprietor of said establishment - gets his black pudding from? Personally I'm not that fussed, but the genial Jim certainly served up a nice little treat for us, with a sausage, egg and black pud sarnie £2.00 a shot - not once, but twice! Yeah I know, we a fat gits aren't we? The catering was certainly tested to the limits, as well over a hundred lined the touchlines, making sure everything was sold out (food-wise) by half time. As for the game, well the heavens opened and the pitch started to cut up pretty bad, but at least it never looked like being abandoned or postponed (as many others did in this league). The game went by the script for much of the first half; with the home number 11 stabbing home amidst a goalmouth scramble on the half hour mark, but Northfield were obviously up for revenge and a bit of local pride. A couple of minutes later they were level as the Northfield number 8 was dragged back in the box, nothing sinister looking really, but a foul nonetheless - and one that I've seen let go too many times in the past. Northfield's top scorer Alan Haycock sent the Owls' keeper the wrong way, and seconds before the interval the visitors were in front, with their number 11 volleying the ball home from the edge of the box. He walked away nonchalantly, as though he'd done this a million times, but let's be fair - nine times out of ten you'd expect someone at this level to send that one in with the horses! The game was done scoring-wise just after the break, the number nine Haycock walked the ball around the Bartley Green keeper, for his second and Northfield's third. The rain was tipping it down from hereon in, and neither side really went close, although you expected the hosts to step it up a bit and come back in to it. They didn't - and sadly that meant they drop from the top of the table. The thing is this, I expect them to be back at the top in no time, and I'll stick my neck out and say they'll be in the Premier Division soon. The whole set up reminds me of Parkhouse - remember them from August - a team that will march through the leagues and be a fairly creditable side in no time at all. If it wasn't for the rain this would be a really pleasant little Jaunt, and to borrow a phrase from one of "those websites" - a trip to Bartley Green is highly recommended!

Jaunt No 13

Silsden 0 Colne 3
North West Counties Division One
Wednesday, 13/12/06
You know when this column gets published in the Sheffield FC programme, the relative "time delay" between writing and publishing means - more often than not - the latest one happened for me a good four months ago. Not such a bad thing let me assure you, as far as I'm concerned anyway, because it helps bring back some memories I'd long forgotten. I mean the one that's hit the latest programme is my last little trip to foreign climes, again an article that brought back some pretty interesting memories, but it also made me realise that the international trips don't always give the most excitement. One of the most memorable topics I have covered in this series was way back in May 2003, the amazing season run-in for the Mumtaz West Riding County Amateur League, relatively small fry on the pitch - but statistically downright fascinating. You see (for those of you just joining us) this was the way it went - there were two teams Silsden and Brighouse Town, both of whom had played the same number of games (two remaining) and both had won the same number. On top of this they had drawn the same number of games AND were both UNBEATEN - yep it was tight as a nun's knees lads and lasses, and with there being just three goals difference between them, the winner of the game between the two would take the title! Brighouse cast themselves at the panto villains by replacing half of their first team that had got them so far with "mercenaries" - "ringers" - call 'em what you will, but they stuck in players like Emley's Mark Wilson (who was about as inconspicuous as a bloke in a gorilla suit he's that well known) much to the chagrin of the players they'd pushed out. The game was as tense and close as you'd expect, and it took one goal from Gavin Finn to swing it the way of the side from Keighley, meaning all they had to do was get a point from their last game to clinch the title. That game would be the last to be played by the Silsden first team at their Keighley Road ground, before moving to pastures new (and we'll get to that in a bit), against Otley who also needed to get a point to avoid relegation. It wouldn't take a genius to figure what the outcome of that game would be, after all three and a half years later Arsenal and Porto found themselves in the same position, and it came as no surprise when I trekked up to this historic event to be served up with a (convenient) goal-less draw. Three months later Silsden moved their first team three miles down the A650 into Keighley, to Lawkholme Lane or - to give it the Americanised current title - Cougar Park, they retained the WRCAFL title and took their step up into Counties football. And as they are a proud Yorkshire team, they took their place with the Mancs, the Lancs and the W... erm Scousers, in the North West Counties League. So it seemed a good idea to pay them a visit, to see how the "little" team has progressed in the short space of time...
For me Cougar Park will always be Lawkholme Lane, call me old fashioned, but in my Rugby League days there were thirty teams and none of them had poncey names like "Bulls" or "Warriors" or "Sharks" or whatever. Huddersfield were called Fartown, Doncaster were t'Dons, and Keighley were Lawkholme Laners - even if Lawkholme Lane was on the other side of the dual carriageway! The first time I went in the early 80's it was a dump, and when I went in the early 90's - well, it was still a dump and the local rugger team was about to go bust. Then summat happened, don't ask me what, but it seemed that round here watching Keighley became fashionable! One minute 300 faithful souls were trooping reluctantly through the turnstiles, the next season 3,000 plus were going to watch them, and steadily the ground started to improve with a new bar being built and the decrepit parts demolished and rebuilt. But something must have happened to make them take in tenants, I hear you say, well as always with these fads someone bigger and better (Bradford Bulls - perhaps) comes along and steals your ideas - and in turn - your fans. Money starts to become tighter, and there aren't many - no strike that I'll try again - there aren't ANY football teams of note around the Keighley area, not until Silsden came onto the scene as an ambitious force anyway. Silsden needed a ground to move into if they were going to progress, Keighley Road was nice and quaint, but nowhere near the level needed to see them take the big step-up. It was a marriage made in heaven, and when Thackley made the trip to Lawkholme Lane for an FA Vase tie in front of a bumper crowd, Silsden's victory made for much promise. So when they landed in the NWCFL one season later, many from these parts of the woods were curious as to just how could they "choose" that track on the pyramid road, especially given as the NCEL never seems to have its full contingent of division one members. But when you look at it geographically their argument seemed to stand up, given that a "frightening" (for us anyway) trip all the way to Colne, Nelson or Darwen means owt between 10 and 30 miles driving - as opposed to a 65 mile trip to sunny Dronny. Okay trips down to Congleton and Nantwich might be something to cause a sharp intake of breath, but over a season it was as broad as it was long, and their first contribution was to get a creditable promotion as runners-up at the first attempt. Things looked to be good for the Cobbydalesmen (yes their nickname), successful on the pitch and sharing a pretty adequate ground to boot, but then it seemed they'd hit a block - mid-table mediocrity (11th out of 20) last season and languishing way down in 13th spot this season. Tonight they were to face Colne, a true local derby (and a war-of-the-roses too), could they do the business and pull out of a slump? Only time, and a brief ninety minute glimpse into their season, would tell...  
Things have certainly changed since I was up here, the wrought iron gates are the same - Keighley RLFC sans le Cougar tag - as is the main stand, but the terracing has changed dramatically. Everything seems a load neater than I remember, same too with the bar, which I remember was being built my last time here. In here it gives a massive insight into the heritage of Keighley RLFC, a hall of fame adorning the walls, and if I'm being honest it even made me feel rather nostalgic stood in the warmth with a pint in one hand whilst reminiscing about my days as an egg-chaser. The thing is outside in Cobbydalesmen-land is that it's bleak, old Heathcliffe will tell you that, and tonight it was blowing a right old gale. And strangely enough it was warm too, not scorching hot, but mild - although when the wind got a hold of you... well you should be able gather the rest. And sadly as we all know when the wind comes, the quality of football leaves a helluva lot to be desired, local derby or not. By half time it was obvious there was only going to be one winner, and there had been only one goal scored at this, and that was going to be the visitors. Why? Well for the first 45 minutes Colne played up the slope, into the wind and only managed to get out of their half once, and that was in the first ten minutes - with youngster Ted Cockett stabbing the ball in after a bit of a scramble. The rest of the half Silsden piled on the pressure to no avail, I think they might have skimmed the bar or something, but despite all of this no goals - and unless they could conjure up a breakaway, it was another loss on the horizon. My worst fears were realised come the restart, and yes - they did test the Colne keeper, but nowhere near as often and as testing as you would have expected. Despite conversation sweeping around long goal-kicks, Mansfield's finest Steve Ogrizovic scoring twenty years ago at Hillsborough, and the like - Colne didn't do anything to test the scoreboard either. Then with time running out and boredom setting in, Colne's number nine Anthony Murt nipped in to put the game beyond doubt, nothing special - but a goal nonetheless. Five minutes later as we were making our way to the exits, Murt popped up again to make it three with a volley, no way were Colne three goals better than Silsden - but they scored them and Silsden didn't. Overall a pretty rubbish game to be fair, Colne won't agree with me, but both teams created very little (the three goals aside) and it came as no surprise given the weather. Silsden have come quite a way as a team - think about it, from glorified parks team to the same level as Club in three years, good going I'd say - but based on tonight they've still quite a way to go. Don't be surprised to be travelling up to Keighley for a UniBond fixture in the near future though, and I wouldn't be surprised if we were going up there as underdogs too...
Finally, for all of you reading this one Behind the Flag - a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.... and to all you reading the programme... erm... let's see if I can get this right... Happy Easter? Perhaps???

Jaunt No 12

Bardon Hill Sports 0 Kirby Muxloe 1
Leicestershire Senior League Premier Division
Tuesday, 14/11/06
I don't know what's wrong with me lately, first my back goes into old-fella mode, and then when I'm back on my feet, back to work and finally get a proper holiday - my shoulder pops out again! So now it seems I'm caught in a catch-22 situation, my GP says I have to sit bolt-upright, my shoulder on the other hand says "do it and you'll suffer". Typical, I know - but this time I'm determined not to let an old "war wound" come between me and normality. For once (and I mean once) Club don't have a mid-weeker, the Under 19s are in action tomorrow, and Ninja-Boy is out of action so I can go as far as I want - but having said that, what about the shoulder? True, it is as painful as my back, but this one isn't stopping me driving, and as daft as it sounds it popped out after falling asleep on the sofa - my shoulder that is - so by my reckonings a few co-codamol should do the trick. But then again, now that I AM fit enough to drive and with plenty of time to do it, there are no really fanciable games being played this midweek. I know you've all read how I can't stand such-and-such league, and would travel to see this or that, but tonight I'm really not that fussy - owt'll do! As I'm typing this bit, I really haven't got the foggiest what I'm going to do, God himself only knows what I'll get to see tonight. I guess it all depends on traffic, how knackered I am, and what gets the final vote whilst I'm driving down the Dronny by-pass. I'm down to five at the moment - four of them are in Leicestershire (not my favourite place to watch football) - it's starting to rain a bit, so that might trim things down a bit - and depending on how heavy it gets might give the swinging vote. I've been speaking to a mate of mine whose been to just about everyone on the list, he's suggested one (Bardon Hill Sports) as a nice set-up, perhaps I'll go there. As for the others, well I've put them off in the past so it wouldn't surprise me one bit if I shrugged them off again, so it's looking more and more like Bardon Hill....
....Which is exactly where I ended up! You see Bardon Hill is near Coalville, about three minutes off the M1 Junction 22, and one of the easiest grounds you can get to - along the A511, turn right at a Texaco garage and you are there. Better still, you know when you fly out of East Midlands Airport and you bank over that dirty great big quarry? Yep, right next to that is a little footy ground, and THAT is Bardon Hill. As my friend said it really IS a nice little set up - friendly too - and one of those places (rather common round these parts) where you drive INTO the ground and pay on your way in (£3.00 including a programme, if you're interested). Inside the ground is a nice little bar, cheap(ish) beer and cheap food (70p cobs) all served with a nice homely smile, so all-in-all a friendly little place which I'd recommend to anyone looking for owt different. As for pitches and such, well this ground has not one - but two - fully railed pitches, albeit only one is floodlit, plus a flat looking (apparently I've been told that's important) cricket pitch beside the main road! The main feature football pitch is almost as basic as you'll ever get, with no cover whatsoever and a conifer-lined three (wide) step terrace down one touchline, and an access road down the other behind the dug-outs. Oh, and by the way - cue sinister music - they play in the Leicestershire Senior League! For the last TWELVE seasons they've been sitting around in the LSL Division One, finishing mid-table to bottom half at best, until last season that is. Somehow they finished in second, behind Anstey Town and above Ashby Ivanhoe (covered last season), not so much a fluke - but based on the fact they had the best facilities out of the three - they were the only ones promoted. I suppose it augments that argument about where the LSL sits in the football pyramid when you look at a ground like this which is apparently "good enough"; nice it may be, but try comparing this ground to the facilities at say... Dinnington, Staveley, Gedling or even Nostell (who are all supposed to be at the same level) and you'll find this is sorely lacking and a million miles away from what we expect up here. Word has it that the LSL have had their request for "Level 6" status revoked - NCEL Premier is "Level 5" (work from Conference as "Level" 1 and you'll get it) - and when you check out the standard of grounds in this league you understand why. Either way - politics aside - tonight is a pretty big one for the home side, sitting in third place this is their game in hand and a win over eighth place Kirby Muxloe would take them top.
Understandably there was a pretty healthy attendance at this one, I'd reckon just below a hundred, but that was bolstered by a small legion (is that the collective noun for them) of groundhoppers. The game for some reason was delayed by fifteen minutes, no-one gave an explanation (but to be fair I don't reckon anyone was that bothered) for the hold-up, but it gave the two jovial types a little longer to fork a pretty wet and muddy looking pitch. As you'd expect from an LSL the game started off at a pointlessly fast and frantic pace, with the usual yelling and cussing from the players, but as sometimes happens you get a feel for which side "wants it" the most. The Kirby players were the more vocal, and although they looked the less skilful or professional of the two sides, I couldn't help but think about that old adage where the "posh" school turns up for the match in all the "posh" kit and they get hammered by the scallies in rags - today was a case in point. The skill side was almost in evidence on the half hour mark, as Kirby defender Paul French - a player with all the graceful mobility of a garden shed - was left on his arse by Bardon's number ten Hart, he crossed the ball to ex-Quorn player Lee Dawson who hit the ball first time, only to produce a tip-top save by ex-Coalville Town stopper Elliott Shilliam. The ball went straight up the other end, Bardon needlessly conceded a corner, and Marc Schulz put the ball into the middle only for the clearance to land at the feet of Jamie Mason who volleyed beyond home keeper Draper. That was it as far as goals were concerned, you could tell this wasn't going to get the old abacus on overdrive, and slowly but surely the home team started to go to bits. After a while you started wishing for Bardon's sake this was going to finish quick to save further embarrassment - after all, when you take a shine to the people at a club, you don't really want them to suffer - every pass fell at a Kirby player's feet, and every tackle was either missed or mis-timed. Eleven bookings in this one, if my counting was right, and it wasn't a dirty game by LSL standards - it was more like 99% ineptitude rather than malice. But as with all LSL Premier Division games (notice I said Premier) the slagging off of the referee and opponents was rife, but it did have its lighter moments - Bardon's number five mis-timed that many tackles it was laughable, even more laughable was the "sorry" he screamed every time he went in! And even more laughable was when he was accused of being a racist - for calling a Kirby player a "ginger twat"! Thankfully Kirby didn't add the second, third or fourth they more or less deserved, and with that Bardon Hill didn't go to the top of the league - which is a shame really, I'd have liked to have finished the article on that note...

Jaunt No 11

Ashton Athletic 1 Eccleshall 2
North West Counties League Cup Round One
Tuesday 24/10/06
" Billy Hayward is being a saint and taking Trev and Deano up to Pickering." "Right - and where did you say you were going?" "Ashton-in-Makerfield" "And where's that?" "Wigan!" "And... where's that?" "What do you mean? You've been there loads of times yourself!" "Near Manchester?" "Yeah, sort of..." "And how are you getting there again" "Neil's picking us up at five and he's driving over" "Right... and why are you going there?" "First game under lights - we think, anyway" "Oh, I remember you saying now - you're going to Dinnington then?" "No that's on Thursday and..." "...they're switching their Christmas lights on..." "No! It's October! Why the hell would anyone be switching Christmas lights on in October?" "They're a bit eager?" "God help me!"
No it's not a sketch, it's a genuine conversation I had this morning with the missus. You see I know you were wondering "so how come you missed the 149th birthday party then" - well this is why. Those of you who've seen me in the last few weeks will be aware I've been pretty worse for wear, straight after the Linby Jaunt I was hauled up to the Northern General Hospital to try and figure out why I couldn't: a) bend b) walk c) move - and it turns out that yours truly has a complicated little disc injury that is causing all kinds of interference with the nervous system. So for the last four weeks I haven't been able to drive a car, walk yes (but with a bit of difficulty), but sit and push downwards with a leg is impossible. I tried to drive to Parkgate the other week, and that was akin to self-torture, and the driving was painful too (boom-boom). Thankfully good old ("not so much of the old Stu") Sheps has taken the role of full-time BTF driver, helping us get to the last few away games, although it still has been painful - especially the trip to Gedling! The trouble here is poor old Mr Shepherd has also been a little unwell, breathing has been his issue, and basically hasn't been himself - the diagnosis? Pneumonia! Yep, this bloke has trudged on heroically to get us to Club's games when he's been at death's door, what a star! But as it turns out Pickering is a bridge too far for the bloke, and seeing as I start whimpering after a fifteen minute car-sprint to Parkgate, it appeared BTF were to be without representation at a first-team game for the first time in erm... well since BTF started! Luckily as I said at the start of the piece good old Bill Hayward had the charity to offer our two non-driving members a lift, good man, but for me a hike to Pickering in my state - well too big a task, especially as I'm aiming for a return to normal society in a week's time. So what do I do on a Tuesday night? I'd go stir crazy to be truthful, but again charity steps forward in the shape of my good mate Neil from Belper Town who is also on a bored Tuesday night situation. Turns out he's planning to go to Ashton Athletic, one of only two North West Counties grounds he's not visited in his long esteemed non-league watching career, and is willing to pick us up and give us a lift. What do you think? Should I go? Course I bloody well should, I can hardly go mad waiting for text updates from Trev all night can I? So having accepted the lift from St Neil of Belper, it was onwards and away for a trip to sunny... okay, not so sunny... Ashton-in-Makerfield!
Alright so if you've read this article properly, and that means the "sketch" at the beginning, you'll already know where Ashton-in-Makerfield is. But what may surprise you is the town is home to TWO teams - and no, they don't include Ashton United OR Curzon (they are from OUR side of Manchester in Aston-under-Lyme) - Athletic and Town. Now the team we are aiming to head for is Athletic, a team that has just been elevated into higher echelons that is the North West Counties League, from the less renowned Manchester League - and tonight sees their first midweek game at this level. Whether this means it is the inaugural game under lights remains to be seen, after all they must have had them prior to entering the NWCFL, but even so it gives me the opportunity to get to a ground I was planning to go to a few seasons ago. Strangely enough I'd written them off my "want-to-go-to" list, don't ask me why, but when they were languishing mid-table in division one (second tier) of the Manchester League I wanted to go. I know, odd isn't it, but then so was the way they were catapulted into the NWCFL missing out the Manchester Premier Division altogether (think AFC Elmlea). But this isn't the first time Athletic have been in this league, they were founder members of the NWCFL in 1982(in division three) after a none too illustrious career in the Lancashire Combination, and they continued that illustriousness in their new league. Of their four seasons in the new league they finished bottom three times, the other time fourth from bottom and soon faded from the limelight to take up their position in the Manchester League - and guess what they were rubbish in that too! But a new direction and a bit of investment in their home at Brocstedes Park (their home - and a little honest tip, don't trust sat-nav to get you here, 'tis shite) has seen them look to the future, with a neat little bar and a very tidy little ground, albeit basic and with the seats in an odd spot (by the corner flag). On the field though they haven't done much, okay they toshed the new highly supported Runcorn Linnets earlier in the season, but have suffered twice already at the hands of tonight's opponents - Eccleshall - and are struggling near the foot of the table. On the subject of the opponents, they too run a similar (if not a little more successful) parallel to Ashton, being also fairly new to the NWCFL. It's their fourth season in this league, having won the Staffordshire County Senior League (see Ball Haye Green Jaunt last season for more) three times, and two of those on the trot before gaining "promotion". They too have done loads of work, and although two elevenths and a seventeenth place is all they've managed so far at this level, this season they've hit the ground running - sitting in fourth, with games in hand on the leaders. So having managed to "find" our way to the ground, jar my back twenty times on the tightest bumpiest (and wrong) road from the Motorway to our destination, we met up with Steve from Worksop in the nice little bar - had a couple of jars and caught up with some banter before heading out into the chill with the other 42 souls who'd paid for the privilege of watching tonight's NWC League Cup tie.
All that stuff about Eccleshall having already beaten Ashton twice already this season seemed to be a bit off the mark, as from the word go the home team decided to go on the assault, and they were in front inside the first five minutes. Some good play allowed Peter Woodcock to find Tom Potter cutting into the box from the left, his shot was parried away by David Kociak in the Eccleshall goal, and eventually the ball was bundled over the line by Steve Wallace. The one worry about hiking across the Pennines midweek for a cup tie is the "extra-time factor", you know the one where it seems there will be no deadlock broken no matter what, so the early goal gave a big hope this wouldn't be the case tonight. Despite falling behind so early on, Eccleshall looked in no mood to be steam-rollered, and showed some good touches as well as going close on a couple of occasions. With no change in the score at half time, it was my duty to go in search of hot drinks and pies, but alas - there was to be none! Pies that is - tea, coffee yes, but pies? This has to be a first, a NWCFL side without a pie shop, unheard of I tell thee! So despite having a "hot" drink inside us, we ventured to watch the second half famished, and then it hit us - cold, hungry, it had to go to extra time and penalties! That's when we decided that we'd stop on the way home for some grub; however my suggestion of getting a Chinese take-away was scoffed at somewhat - well alright I had the piss ripped out of me good and proper. "How the hell (or words to that effect) am I supposed to eat a Chinese whilst I'm driving?" To be honest I missed the first part of the second half, basically down to the fact that word had filtered through to Brocstedes Park of the latest score from the night's big match - Club were winning 4-1, and I spent the first ten minutes of the half discussing the ramifications of this with Mr Editor Craig. As time went by in the second half though, Eccleshall were becoming more and more dominant, and you had to say a goal was going to come soon - even though we didn't want it to. With ten minutes to go and after about the fifth Eccleshall corner in succession it did; Michael Machin put the ball into the box, a game of head tennis followed, the ball came to Russell De Matteo who rose highest to glance the ball into the roof of the net with keeper Andy Hewitt nowhere near it. Extra time (and a cold night) was looming, but Ashton went up the other end to try and clinch it, and to be honest they were bloody unlucky to have an effort cleared off the line. Sadly for them (but not for us) with three minutes left Eccleshall hit them on the counter-attack, and after a silly foul on the edge of the box they were awarded a free-kick, up stepped Michael Machin who dipped the ball over the wall and into the top corner - amazing! From cursing Eccleshall scoring five minutes or so earlier, we were now applauding an unlikely victory - though it wasn't the fact we chose them as favourites, it was just we'd had enough. Both teams put on a good display, and I suppose Eccleshall's extra couple of seasons at this level has paid dividends, give it another year or so and Ashton Athletic will be pressing for honours. And fellas - invest in a pie kitchen...

Jaunt No 10

Linby Colliery 2 Notts Police 0
Nottinghamshire Senior League Premier Division
Saturday, 30/09/06
I've figured after today that the referee is probably the most disliked profession on the planet - in any sport! I'm not just talking about football here, I'm talking all sports, and it really must be a thankless task. I've harped on about how referees have had little or no respect shown to them in this column, but today I've experienced a set who deserve absolutely none whatsoever - then later one who deserved loads - it sounds harsh but let me explain. This morning was the Karate National Championships in Nottingham, and having sat through about three hours of blatant injustices and apparent favouritism, I never thought that my flesh and blood would be on the receiving end of some of the worst of the day. Before you start thinking about that rose-tinted-view-of-the-parent, I assure you it isn't; I'm talking from the standpoint of more experienced neutral observers who gave their view. You see Liam was eliminated in a very tight contest, and to be fair overall he probably was second best, but only just. But when you look at the scorecard the kid was humiliated, with five points (out of the six his opponent scored) awarded for "foul play", whilst the other kid committed not one sin - and not one punch Liam landed was legal. Hard to swallow wouldn't you think? It is when you teach your kids not to be bad losers and show respect on the field of play, then you get this treatment where it is obvious that the first to infringe will be penalised for the whole game. Think Inzamam-ul-Haq and Darrell Hair, it's obvious to me the Australian cricket umpire doesn't like the Pakistan cricket team, and once you have a reputation for ball tampering - well ammunition is easy. Even though television evidence cleared the Pakistan team, their captain was still punished for making a stand, but sadly we don't have the privilege of multi-view cameras in amateur sport do we? If you get a bad referee at the C+H, say for example the referee allows a player to run the length of the field to lamp a Sheffield player, then chooses not to send them off - instead sends two Sheffield players off - you'd be a bit peeved to say the least, and there's little in the way of appeal. Well I could moan all day today about referees, but I won't from hereon in, the one at the game I went to straight after the championships was a fine fella - and I even managed to have a nice little chat with him. But more on him later, I should have been on my way up the M1 for Club's game at home to Arnold, but to rub salt in the wounds today the championships ran over, making sure we wouldn't be able to make the trip back in time. However we could cool our heels a bit at a local game, and that my friends is how we ended up in Linby...
The village of Linby is just round the corner from Hucknall, just off the A611 and minutes from junction 28 of the M1 to be exact, so to have that as a back-up was ideal if the tournament (as it did) over-ran. It's Linby's sixtieth anniversary this year too (which is why it was on my "to-do" list in the first place), and where better to chill out than there, in probably the most pleasant surroundings I've seen a game at in ages. At this level you never expect much, and to be fair even if this one was a railed off pitch it would be a nice setting for football, except that it isn't and has a covered shelter along one side. The overwhelming feeling this place gives is it should be a cricket ground; it has a massive area between the dressing rooms and pavilion at the entrance to the pitch, giving the impression that the bat and ball game could be played here - either now, or in the past. The ground stands in the shadow of the local church, St Michael's, which dominates the view opposite the main covered shed area. In fact the team play on Church Lane, which does give some indication that the ground would be in its vicinity, but what amazed me was the rural-ness of the whole place. Okay so the road over looks the ground behind one of the goals, but everything else about the place has "Cotswolds" written all over, it really is nice. The only down side is the barking - there must be a boarding kennels somewhere down the lane, because the yapping never stopped for the whole ninety minutes, and that wasn't on the pitch I have to say. The welcome from the locals is pretty decent, and I have to say I've never seen a team at NSL level ever have followers wearing colours or replica shirts (except on finals' days), so today also was a first in that respect. The tea bar - although basic - was also welcoming, but it wasn't one of the best in lieu of food, there was none on offer at all except chocolate. But enough about the ground, this season as I said is their sixtieth, and looking through the records they actually have did have a useful side in days of olde (alright post-war in the late 40's early 50's) where they did quite well in the FA Cup. They reached the final qualifying round once, and just missed out on two other occasions when they were beaten (both times) by Cresswell Colliery, but their crowning glory was in 1950 when they reached the first round proper - losing to Gillingham 4-1 in front of 6,800 spectators. Today though there is no chance of recreating that glory, you need floodlights for a start, and I doubt you'd be able to squeeze 1,000 into this place let alone 6,000 plus. And the best they've done since is win the Notts Alliance Division One (not the top division) in 1996/97 - that is until now where it appears they have a proper decent team worthy of challenging for honours, and they started like a house on fire winning their first four league games to go top. Things are looking good for Linby, and their visitors for today are ex-Notts Alliance champions themselves - none other than Notts Police...
Linby were always going to be favourites going into this, even if they have just hit a bit of a "rocky" patch of form, losing two of their last three when it looked like they were going to run away with the league. The cops on the other hand - well let's just say that they are nowhere near the team I saw lift the last Notts Alliance title a couple of years ago, their form was dire. And so it proved to be fair, but at the start you'd be hard pushed to figure out which team was which, as both sides went on an all-out basketball style attack the net and sod the midfield game! After a while it started to settle down into a pattern, with Linby pelting down an over-exposed right wing with Jonty Bradshaw, who seemed to have the freedom to do so for the full ninety minutes. About twenty minutes in the home team got the bit of luck they probably deserved, with the Linby number ten's shot hitting the post and falling directly at the feet of Danny Edwards to tap in. That was it as far as the first half went, but it flew in a really sporting and controlled fashion, and in no small measure was this credit to the referee. Yep, I'm praising the referee, a first it has to be said! The game was allowed to flow, the ref (even given his advancing years) kept up with play, and only once was a card brandished for a pretty reckless challenge. At half time after grabbing a mug of tea, it was time to find the loo for Liam; which just so happened to be directly next door to the referee's room. The ref was outside having a puff  on a cigar, and struck up conversation with me, not the first time this has happened - but definitely the first time it has happened whilst the bloke was supposedly having his half time break. As I said earlier, a really nice chap, passionate about football and certainly knew his stuff about the NSL - and at a detailed level. It restored my faith in the fact that referees are human too, to a degree at least, and some of them cared. The second half saw Linby absolutely pound the goal at the other end, with the Police keeper having to pull off some terrific saves to stop the game becoming a rout, which with the exception of the scoreline it was. About ten minutes to go the game was wrapped up, with substitute Andy Start taking advantage of some slack defending to nip in and loft the ball over the keeper, and that - as they say - is all she wrote. Linby look a decent side, they have a decent ground, and to say the least hospitable. A bit sad then that I read later that their visitors hadn't taken up the after match hospitality laid on after the game - sad as I say, but I'll lay any money the ref was there chewing the fat with the home players and officials reflecting on a decent day's work. At least he can sleep soundly...

Jaunt No 9

Coventry Sphinx 1 Barnt Green Spartak 1
Midland Combination Premier Division
Wednesday, 27/09/06

I remember reading somewhere about how one of the main reason's for following a team's fortunes was because of the fact the individual liked the sound of its name, strange but true - the other reasons were obviously locality, liked the strip, they were successful, family tradition, and they liked a certain player of that club - but that first reason scored fairly highly percentage wise. I know a lot of you will look at this statement and think "I can't relate to this", Sheffield Wednesday doesn't have a particularly nice ring to it, and neither does Luton Town or Chesterfield for that matter, but how many hear the name "Stenhousemuir" and smile to yourselves when you hear they've won on the classifieds? Personally I don't, but I've always had a liking for the name "Airdrieonians", and I know others who look out for results in other countries (yes this is true) because a team shares the name of their own in the Premiership! Since I started watching Non-League footy one of the things I've always done is try and visit teams with interesting sounding names - take Nuneaton Griff for one, Romulus for another  - and one that always caught my eye was Coventry Sphinx, I always wanted to see them in a fixture with the Griff but never really got round to it. Another one that has taken my fancy is the beautifully named Barnt Green Spartak, a team who I saw in the summer of 2001 at Leamington (it was a home fixture that had to be switched due to a potential large crowd), something about a multi-racial team with an Eastern-Bloc handle. So with this week giving me the option of not a great deal, no Club fixtures and working nights on Monday and Tuesday, a quick look down the fixture list for Wednesday left me looking like a champion straw clutcher. I needed a fixture within a fairly comfy distance, and no not Hallam or Mickleover, and one where my colleague from Belper could get to easily - he was jetting off Thursday morning to Paris for the PSG versus Derry City game - so by rights it was going to have to be south. So that ruled out the potential of a visit to another on the "interesting name" list - Darlington Railway Athletic - and to top it off none of the FA Vase replays were in the vicinity. Where did that leave us then? Well I'll tell you, and with it give a bite of a validation for the introduction to this piece - Coventry Sphinx versus Barnt Green Spartak - two names I'd mentioned earlier were meeting in the same fixture. Superb! A bit further than one would like to travel I suppose, but it was one I set my sights on as soon as I saw it, and to cap it all it was a top of the table fixture to boot.

Sphinx Drive is on the Eastern side of Cov, and despite warnings to the contrary, it is pretty easy to find. The ground is set within the Sphinx club complex, with half of the sports area being cordoned off for cricket, a bit like Hallam or Mickleover - only on a smaller scale. The clubhouse itself is pretty tidy, and without going down the old "I purchased a pint of fine ales" line, it is a nice and warm welcome. The disturbing thing for me was the line-dancing classes being held in the next bar, which were tempting it has to be said... Inside the ground I have got to say the pitch was amazing, a real credit to whoever the groundsman is, and the only down side to the whole place is the lack of cover - one stand down the far touchline, dedicated as the Willie Knibbs Stand (Sphinx's old and highly respected manager who died a few season's ago coming back from a game at Meir KA - who groundshare with Stone Dominoes) which probably holds about cover for a couple of hundred. On to the match itself and when you look at the two teams I suppose you could say that both Sphinx and Spartak have had varying fortunes; Spartak since joining the Midland Combination in 1997 had a slow start to life at this level with five mediocre seasons, before catapulting up the leagues with successive championships in Division Two and Division One - whereas Sphinx have been a permanent fixture in the top flight since 1995, finishing runner-up on no less than four occasions, the last time being a heartbreaker last season when they were pipped on goal-difference after racking up a massive 103 points. Spartak's progress is (I guess) down to manager-cum-benefactor GJ Singh, a man once photographed in the national press waving a wad of cash around by way of illustrating his club's ambition, and since he took the helm they really have started to fly. Last season they finished third behind the runaway two of Sphinx and Atherstone, and this season they have started pretty strongly, winning all of their six league fixtures (notching up 22 goals against 2) whilst panning six goals past Teversal in the Vase on Saturday. As I said Sphinx have a habit of finishing second in this league, and normally that happens to be just behind the big spenders in the division (Atherstone, Leamington, Bloxwich... erm Grosvenor Park), surely it can't happen again - can it?

Barnt Green have a bit of a reputation in this league as being "winners" - in other words they don't take losing very well at all - and sometimes their temperament has been known to (let's say) slip now and again. Usually that tends to go when they fall behind in a game, not in the first fifteen seconds though, but then again accidents have been known to happen. I know it's early on in the season, and maybe this game could have no bearing on the season whatsoever, but when the Spartak number eleven took the ball smack in his kisser with the first kick of the game, you'd hardly expect it to have any controversy. No? Well as you'd expect the Sphinx players kicked the ball out so the poor bloke could get treatment, the ref dropped the ball at his feet after he'd regained composure (presumably to roll to the keeper), only for the pillock to volley the ball over the keeper's head and rattle the crossbar! God only knows what would have happened if the ball went in the net, and thankfully we didn't find out, but a minute later the ball was in the other net - fairly, with Craig Martin putting away an inch perfect cross with an overhead kick that slammed the ball into the back of the Spartak net. The 95 paying spectators were treated to a fine spectacle of football from hereon in, with the home team doing most of the pressing, and the cross-field wind doing very little to spoil what could have been a dull and tense game. It was far from that, and to be fair Spartak were lucky to go in at the break only one goal in arrears, as they had keeper Neil Leech to thank for some pretty bloody good stops - with one double save from Casey Caggini the cream of the crop. After the break Spartak started to come back into the game, and had a goal ruled out for offside, although it wasn't that close. Then when the game was in its dying embers, young defender Shaun Thomas hit a half-arsed back pass to keeper Lee Wilson - who to be fair hadn't a cat in hell's chance - and in nipped Nathan Glanville to walk the ball round the keeper and into the empty net. It was hard for the home lot to take, and really Spartak didn't deserve the point, but it helped consolidate their spot at the top. I guess it was a case of "never give up" for the Bromsgrove side, and if they carry on with that attitude all season, they won't be far off the mark. As for Sphinx, they remain in third spot, and something tells me this is going to be a two-horse race for this title - and like all good horse races, the runners all have strange names – it’ll be one to watch for sure…

Jaunt No 8

Wakefield 1 Harrogate Railway Athletic 3
UniBond Northern Premier Division One
Tuesday, 19/09/06
For a sort while I worked up in Wakefield, and I have to tell you it is a one sport town - Rugby League. Whilst I was working there I got lured (shall I say) into playing for a local team up there, sort of a two or three game trial, and boy it was a different world. In the first game I managed to scored three tries, get involved in an all out punch-up, and came away with the biggest black-eye / cut lip combination I'd ever been involved in. Afterwards talking to the coach I made the comment that "it was a rough match", he nearly choked on his shandy - "the trouble with Sheffielders Jamesie is they are footballers, this is Wakey lad - get used to it!" Seriously I couldn't, the next game was even rougher, and after twenty minutes of the third I could barely stand - I returned to playing in Sheff very soon after. Wakefield certainly is a rugby town alright, and that's Rugby LEAGUE my friends, not Union. When I packed up the oval ball game and started getting more and more into the proper shaped one, it was a little tale I often related back to when talk came around to football in Wakefield, it simply wouldn't take off. About four years ago I went to see the original Wakefield FC play in the West Yorkshire League against Nostell; the thing was this "derby" took place on the northern outskirts of Barnsley, at Woolley Colliery's old ground. A season or so later they packed in; football linked to the name Wakefield it seemed was destined never to work - Ossett yes, Nostell yes, Ponte yes, Glasshoughton yes, anywhere on the periphery of the town yes, but Wakefield? Most definitely no. Even the Rugby Union club went under, no-one it seemed was remotely interested in anything other than the thirteen-a-side game, but then enter Emley. Someone had the bright idea that if you moved Emley into town to the Rugby League ground, they would blossom, and then within a short time they would be entertaining a few thousand each week in the Conference. Well that's what was initially hoped; Ronnie Glavin had a good side put together that pushed Stalybridge in a pretty intense Northern Premier campaign, and were pipped in the penultimate game of the season. In front of 3,700 spectators Emley drew it level at two-each with two minutes to go, it wasn't to be though as in injury time Stalybridge's substitute Ian Cooke came on and lobbed the keeper to make it 3-2, Stalybridge had won it and with this gained promotion to the Conference. As for Emley they managed a fifth the season after, added a Wakefield pre-fix the following season and finished twelfth, finally finishing a sorry 23rd out of 23 in 2004. Then at the end of last season they were forced out of Belle Vue, dropped the suffix Emley - and this my friends is where the story gets picked up...
If Wakefield Trinity were any good I'd understand why football could never settle... sorry did I say Trinity? [Sigh] Try again... if Wakefield Wildcats (good grief, this is West Yorkshire not West Virginia) were any good I'd understand, but they aren't - and only last weekend they struggled to avoid defeat against local rivals Castleford Tigers (yep - grrr...), the losers getting consigned to the murked depths of non-Super League Rugby (is it called the Mediocre League?). They won, luckily for the good people of Wakefield, and did the equivalent of what West Bromwich did the other season - survived in the top flight of their sport's national league on the last day. Not exactly what you'd call thriving then is it? And now this season has started with the "new" Wakefield FC setting up base at the home of the now defunct Wakefield RUFC, talk about cuckoos or what, this time though the place isn't being shared with someone else. Well, unless you include the hockey or bowls teams, which we won't. It is a nice little set up here, probably a bit more ideal for non-league footy at UniBond One level than Belle Vue was, but hardly more progressive in terms of facilities than Emley had at the Welfare. On one side is a little seated stand, tidy - but nothing spectacular. Around the other three sides it is flat, no cover - and it has to be said - a bit unloved. Alright the rugby tenants have long gone and Wakefield have only just set foot in the place, but there is still a helluva lot of work to be done to get the place up to "UniBond Standards" - especially seeing as the teams get changed OUTSIDE the ground! Some little touches have already been done to make this place a "home", not least the way that the word "Rugby" has been painted over on the fascia of the stand to now read "Wakefield (big space) Football Club", and several portakabins have been imported to give hospitality rooms and the likes. The ground is part of the Wakefield Sports Club annexe, which as I alluded to earlier hosts many other sports like hockey and bowls, and has a pretty plush social club. The one down side to all this for me though is it is a right old bugger to find, even if you know Wakefield as I do, and even with my uncanny directional skills I still ended up getting kinda lost. I say "kinda" as I found the ground a good thirty minutes before kick-off, embarrassingly early by any stretch of the imagination, the problem was I'd pulled up at the rear of the ground with no way of getting to the entrance. So after about ninety three-point turns down dead-ends, twenty minutes going up the wrong roads (and having no map), I eventually turned into the full car park (and then after another three-point turn back out onto the street) five minutes before kick off. On the footballing results front though, you have to worry for the future of Wakefield, and the turnstiles haven't exactly been clicking merrily either. They've lost all seven of their league games, scored one - conceded fifteen, although they have managed to win both of their FA Cup games, albeit against lower league opposition. The attendances - and remembering they've hosted Buxton and Goole in two of these games - average a measly 133, not good enough by any stretch of the imagination. Something needs to be done at College Grove, I don't know what, but it needs to be done sharpish...
Tonight their opposition is none other than Harrogate Railway, not my favourite team on the planet it has to be said, and even less favoured if your name is Mrs Susan Surr. How they arrived in this league is beyond me, after all Liversedge's ground (in my opinion) is miles better than Station View, and they were better than them on the field. Anyway less said about them the better, but they are in the UniBond, and we aren't - yet. They've had a "not bad" start to their season, winning three and drawing one of their first seven, so it was obvious who was going to be favourites. Their supporters appeared to outnumber the home fans, who seemed to be supplemented by at least thirty groundhoppers in the crowd (okay, attendance then) of 115, although they seemed to have lost that grotty green and red flag and didn't seem in the mood to sing that one song they know. Wakefield had a certain Ben Cressey playing in the middle of defence for them, and to be honest he didn't have a very good night of it, I don't think he managed to win a single contested header against Harrogate's Chris Howarth and Graham Marchant. Any hope Wakefield had of improving on their pretty dire start was kicked in the balls pretty early on, about ten minutes in Marchant ran in from the left, he completely missed the ball with his first swing but his second connected to send a volley that left Andy Woods with no chance in the Wakefield goal. By rights by the time the visitors had scored it should have been three, but after they scored they seemed to sit back and invite pressure from the home team, but for all their huffing and puffing they came nowhere near. Both teams looked to be equally inadequate, but nevertheless created an entertaining spectacle, and as far as I could see the standard of the previous night (Curzon versus FCUM) was light-years ahead - despite being a level lower. With twenty minutes to go Marchant got a second, although how it was allowed is beyond me, the guy was a good five yards offside - even so he kept his composure to slot the ball past Woods to make it two. Eventually Wakefield got on the scoreboard with ten minutes to go, and even the groundhopping fraternity was getting excited at the prospect of an unlikely comeback, when a low cross from debutant Liam Brompton was rifled home by Marc Townsend. The hope was short-lived, and Harrogate went up the other end a few minutes later to restore the two-goal cushion, a deep cross was pulled back by Andy Shields for Lyle Hillier to smash the ball home from close range. Game over, and as far as Wakefield FC are concerned, an addition to a very big major worry. How they can continue to survive at this level is beyond me, on and off the pitch, and even though it is September I can't see much light at the end of this particular tunnel. Relegation seems a certainty at this stage, and it had me thinking on the way home - AFC Emley aren't having it all their own way at the moment, but if they pull off a complete turnaround in their inaugural season in the NCEL, chances are Wakefield-Emley might turn into Wakefield versus Emley in the same league. Now that's something no-one expected to see just yet...

Jaunt No 7

Curzon Ashton 1 FC United of Manchester 3
North West Counties Division One
Monday 18/09/06

One Monday evening in September three years ago I found myself with little or nowt to do during a stocktake week, and subsequently decided to hop over the Pennines to visit Curzon Ashton's "National Park" for a game against Abbey Hey, and wrote what reads now as a not-too-complimentary article about it. Reading back through it I don't appear to be too impressed with the ground, the game, the toilets, the price of entry, the programme - you name it! Boy, I don't look as though I was a very happy chappy at all that night, and to be fair in retrospect I don't recall too much about it - I know I went, and I have pretty hazy recollections about it - but this is why I write this little "diary", basically because of my "dartboard memory". According to that article the ground was "seemingly held together by a series of advertising hoardings, the UniBond sign a reminder of their higher level of a few years ago before their relegation to Counties level" Ooh Jamesie, you bitch! I could be a right lazy git and cut and paste some more of the article in, like... "At the main stand side we have a contender for 'worst bog in the country', with Bridlington and Armthorpe pushed to the limit, don't ask for a description, I'd only offend" ...but I wont - not any more anyway. It was clear back then that Curzon needed a new stadium, and even back then the plans were on the drawing board for the club to move to pastures new, National Park - as I clearly make plain - was not cut out for footy at this level. I did point out that I'd been to worse grounds than Curzon's, but if anyone was going to make a move, they WERE prime candidates for most deserving. And that's what happened, the plans in the pipeline turned to reality, National Park was vacated - and a new home was on the horizon. Enter the Tameside Stadium; a 4,000 capacity purpose built community arena fit to play non-league football at the highest level, Curzon Ashton were moving there - and last season they took up tenancy, settling in quite nicely thank you. It's obvious to me (at least) that after slagging off their old ground, I MUST visit the new one pretty soon, and that's what I'm doing tonight...
I'll start this line off by stating that the visitors tonight were FCUM, that is not the reason for my visit, I have nothing to add to this column about that team today other than they have had an unsurprising perfect start to the season (plus a little bit about their involvement in the game) - this is about Curzon Ashton, period. One thing I must say is that it also gave me a chance to look at the ground hosting the biggest possible attendance; their average in the first four games was a whopping 127, whilst the best crowd I can see was a 2,200 when Cheadle Town borrowed it for a particular fixture last season. The ground also won the "Best New Non League Ground" award by renowned groundhopping magazine "Groundtastic" - this is prestigious believe me, they can be bigger bitches about new grounds than I was above - and a plaque was awarded at the beginning of this year. One thing as a downside to this place though is the fact it isn't well signposted, and the directions given on the website don't make that much sense, it's just a good job I know this side of town and made my own up. The stadium is set on the adjacent land to the old Richmond Park Athletics track, which is itself a cough and a spit from Curzon's old stamping ground on Katherine Street, and just around the corner to the new Ashton leisure development (think Meadowhall Retail Park plus Centertainment). I suppose on a normal day parking wouldn't be much of an issue, but when you are catering for 1,683 spectators it tends to be at a bit more of a premium, and Curzon decided to capitalise on their limited "close-to-the-stadium" spaces by charging £2.00 a go - me, I parked just up the hill, no charge and guaranteed to be easier to get away after the game. The car-parking charge was the only "extortion" (if you can call it that) Curzon made, the tickets were £6.00 (cheap by FCUM standards) and the programmes (still rubbish) were reduced from the cover price of £1.20 to £1.00, with the proviso that you needed tickets for the covered seating or standing. The covered standing is along one touchline, and probably holds about 500 - 600 people, whilst the main stand is seven rows of seating that I reckon would hold around 560-580 people (at a guess). Behind the seats is a bar area, which sadly I didn't take advantage of, but overall it looks and feels very... plush! It really is a nice ground, I can't emphasise that enough, and was a great stage to host a top of the table clash. All very interesting given that the visitors had won ten from ten, averaging four goals a game, whilst Curzon were a little behind them with games in hand averaging three and a half goals a game. The home side also had the advantage of having the league's leading scorer, Michael Norton with sixteen goals in eleven games, a great strike-rate and potentially something that would add to a great night's entertainment. All I needed to do was to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show... 
Jamesie's Tips #37 "Are FCUM fans getting on your nerves? Do you want to enjoy a game of football without having to listen to constant abuse and bad songs? Here's a tip - take your iPod to the game, crank it up to eleven and focus on the pitch! A real treat, I can tell you - makes for great entertainment on and off the pitch" .
From getting myself settled in the stand to the game starting, the heavens decided to open and tip out their wet contents, making the choice of purchasing a seating ticket seem all the more prudent. And the game kicked off in lively style, with Curzon looking most likely to take the initiative, with them making most of the attacks. It was the visitors however that  took the lead on 38 minutes when Josh Howard hit a corner from the left, forward Stuart Rudd made contact knocking the ball onto the bar, the ball rebounded and Simon Carden was there to finish from about six inches out. Hardly deserved it has to be said, and the way it broke the deadlock was totally against the run of play, Curzon simply looked the better side. Six minutes after the break it was two, and again it was not what you'd call fair on the hosts; Josh Howard was involved again cutting in from the right, putting a nothing ball into the middle with no red shirts in the vicinity, only Curzon Ashton defender Andrew Watson put the ball into his own goal seemingly with no pressure. Well obviously the sun was shining (well as I said it was peeing it down, but you know what I mean) on the not-so-righteous, and to make matters worse the visitors decided it would be fun to kick lumps out of the Curzon players, with some pretty nasty challenges going in to the delight of guests' followers. Well eventually they got their comeuppance, and despite what you'll read in other more sympathetic reports, it was bloody well deserved! Twenty minutes from the end Curzon's lively midfielder James Ogoo slid in to win the ball fairly on the greasy surface, but in an act that was in character with the rest of his petulant prima-donna team mates, Will Ahern viciously stamped on Ogoo's groin - think Ballack versus Liverpool, only with more intent. I'll tell you this, I don't care how many I was outnumbered by around me in the stand, I was up and calling this little swine all the names under the sun. Anyway back to the football, and Curzon continued the wave after wave of attacks, eventually breaching the defence ten minutes from the end when Michael Norton battled through the defence to score a well deserved goal. Now with the man advantage, the momentum on their side, Curzon looked highly likely to grab an equaliser. The thing was they got too adventurous and got caught out for their pain; the home keeper Ashley Timms was straying further and further out from his goal line, and despite only having one man up front it could easily have ended in tears. And it did with two minutes to go, a goalmouth scramble at the other end was cleared up field towards Stuart Rudd who charged down a poor attempted clearance by Timms, Rudd was easily able to steer the ball into the unguarded net from twenty yards out. It was a fine performance by Curzon, and I doubt that many will play as well as they did this season and lose, although it doesn't help anyone stop the runaway charge at the top of table - now nine points. One thing is certain, all the things I said about Curzon's old ground don't apply here, this is one nice patch deserving of a higher level of football. They have the stadium, they seem to have the players, but can they get the results?

Jaunt No 6

Flixton 3 Hebburn Town 0
FA Cup - Preliminary Round Replay
Wednesday, 06/09/06
I was having this little discussion earlier today, which made me chuckle to myself when a memory was jogged that I'd put to the back of my mind, and rightly so if you ask me. You see me and me old mate Neil from Belper were chatting about games we'd been to recently, and places we were due to visit in the near future, and I just so happened to mention tonight's little venture over the hills to Manchester and beyond onto Flixton. It turns out the last time either of us had been to Flixton was way back in 1999, and as it happens both of us managed to get lost on the way there, both of us ending up at the wrong ground. And seeing as I am the one with the reputation of never getting lost, and finding grounds with embarrassing ease every time, it is one that sticks out as a major blooper in my history. As I said my trip was way back in 1999, around the time I decided I had enough of watching Luton and non-league footy was the way forward, and also a little bit before I started watching Club as it happens. The game that caught my attention one Saturday afternoon was a trip by the then high flying Droylsden to Flixton, easy-peasie seeing as I know that side of Manchester no trouble, but somehow I managed to take a wrong turning and ended up (literally) round the corner at Urmston who were playing a game against some Manchester League opposition to be told I was at the wrong place. A nice enough bloke at Urmston gave me the directions I asked for, or not as the case may be, and I ended up outside Shawe View where Trafford were playing Ashton. I finally arrived there at 3.05, missed the kick off, all the programmes had sold out and if I remember rightly watched a pretty dire goal-less draw. I decided a re-visit was on the cards last season shortly after the FC United trip, I guess it was something about the antics of their keeper, and the fact that they managed to put the kibosh on the FCUM title juggernaut. I never imagined I'd be heading out here so early on in the season, especially given it was never that high on my priorities list, but after the weekend's FA Cup draw - and there being little else on a Wednesday night with the England Macedonia clash - my trip came a little sooner than expected...
For those of you who aren't initiated in the realms of the West Manchester football scene, Flixton were one of three teams that were based in a small circumference of no more than a couple of miles, the other two being the late lamented Irlam Town and Trafford. All three had a degree of success in the nineties, all playing football at one time or another in the UniBond, however (as I alluded to earlier) one has bit the dust whilst the other two languish in the North West Counties League. What went wrong I really cannot say, but it seemed to go from a healthy boom in the area to an unhealthy bust, all within the space of about three or four years. Of the three Flixton were the ones I always thought would have the staying power, after all they had the infrastructure of a thriving little clubhouse that always seemed to be busy, whilst Irlam were on their way down the ladder watching Flixton pass them on the way up. They managed to get themselves into the semi-final of the FA Vase in 1996, narrowly losing to Brigg over two legs, the same season they ran away with the North West Counties League title. But they could only manage four seasons in the UniBond Division One, the season I went they finished very near the bottom, eventually returning to their old stamping ground in 2000. But whatever happened in that interim period between then and now I don't know, but last season they found themselves as bit part players in the FCUM roadshow, and were one of only three teams who were able to host their travelling hoards (the other two being Leek CSOB and Darwen). And that's the interesting part; the ground is pretty much unique in certain aspects, especially given the nature of the clubhouse. Take the clubhouse away and Valley Road (the name of the ground) is no different to any other you'd find at this level, a long covered terracing on one side, with a half-the-length-of-the-pitch covered seating stand on the other. But the clubhouse adds an all new dimension to the scene, having a dirty great big balcony (for what purpose I have no idea) that gives an amazing panoramic view of 90% of the pitch, the other ten (one corner flag area) obscured by the previously mentioned bank of seats. And you'll never guess what - inside this clubhouse they have a massive screen showing live International football tonight! And given my last attempt to visit here, I managed to get here early enough to see the second half of Scotland in Lithuania, and by my reckoning I should be able to catch the last fifteen minutes in each half of the England Macedonia game. Perfect! But first there was a little matter of an FA Cup game involving some travelling Geordies...
There's always something that gets me about the earlier rounds of the FA Cup, something along the lines of "if you play someone from Geordieland - get at least an away draw on the Saturday, you are almost guaranteed to go through". I have a vivid recollection of playing Dunston Federation in a Cup replay some years ago, and Macca had some pretty serious issues getting a full strength squad together (eventually playing Guy Glover up front), no-one wants to travel three hours northbound on a cold midweek night - especially as you won't be home until the wee hours. From a players' point of view I fully understand this, I doubt I'd want to have to knock off work in the middle of the day, sit on a bus for God knows how long, get home at 2.00 am and have to be up for work at half past five. So with this little point in mind, it has to be said that Hebburn were always going to be rank outsiders, whatever the score was on Saturday. I reckoned quite right you know as the Northern League outfit hadn't touched the ball and they were behind, Matt Landregan weaved through a static defence, passed through to Josh Mitten who finished with certain aplomb. I suppose it was a little unfair on the Northern lads when they had a penalty awarded against them, after the lanky Graeme Vaughan was "tripped" in the box, Mitten stepped up to the spot and only just got the ball over the line after Hebburn's Gary Rogers got a hand to it. The away supporters were giving a bit more entertainment off the pitch than their players were, moaning and berating every single decision in the way you see anywhere on a Saturday around the country, the difference was they were doing it in a fairly unique fashion - having some kind of synchronised shout of " howay referee man" followed by choreographed spin on the heels and walk away from the barrier, spin back and carry on shouting - might sound odd, but if you saw them you'd know what I mean. To emphasise my point of long midweek away trips, at two-nil Hebburn didn't look that bothered, they were out and that was it - so lets kick some Manc players! One Flixton player, the speedy Leon Grandison, was privy to some pretty harsh treatment - having said that, he was taking the piss a little bit with some of his runs - although he wasn't getting that much sympathy from the spectators and his family below and in front of me ("linesman, can you let that number eleven kick that number eight a few more times. He's me brother you see, and I don't like him!").  To wrap things up nicely, and to make sure I didn't have another night of extra time and penalties, Flixton got a third goal, an a beauty it was too - breaking from their own corner flag, the ball was moved the length of the field with substitute Andrew Lundy picking the ball up on the halfway line, he threaded the ball through to Mitten who slotted the ball under Rogers into the net. There was no way back from there, and with the final whistle going with enough time left in the England game, it was a speedy retreat back into the bar to catch the final moments of another McLaren victory.

Jaunt No 5

South Liverpool 6 Stoneycroft 2
Liverpool County F.A. Premier League Division One
Saturday, 19/08/06

"There's a little place called Garston, a few miles from the Mersey's mouth; where they have a bonny football team, that's known to all as 'South'!"
Not often I'll start a Jamesie's Jaunts off with a bit of poetry, but this was the first line of a poem written in the late 1930s by a music-hall comedian called Len Cross, albeit as a parody - but nonetheless one that summed up the esteem a certain team was once held in. The team of course is South Liverpool, stalwarts of the Northern Premier League from its inception in 1968, all the way through to their sad demise in 1991. A team that inadvertently became one whose results I followed every week, and one who I have a pretty fond place for in my memory, and a team that suffered in the cruellest of ways - cruel and often with it. But the story starts way back in the late 1980s, a time when I wasn't the family man following a famous old non-league team, but a bit of a wild individual roaming the country on a student's railcard following the mighty Hatters. One particularly very cold Saturday, our train was pulling in from Manchester into Liverpool (just outside near the Allerton Road station) when one of our party gave the call that our intended game at Everton had fallen foul of the cold weather, a pretty long journey for nothing it seemed. Back then there was no real credence paid to non-league football, I'd been to a few on the odd free Saturday or when I decided against a particularly unappetising long journey, but none by choice like today - I usually went with the masses. This time someone piped up "they're warming up down there at that South Liverpool ground - their game must be on!" South Liverpool though was just one of the grounds you passed on the left hand side on your way into Liverpool, for a game against the reds or Everton or (if times were bad - as they were a few years later) Tranmere Rovers, and a comment was normally made about "that stand gets more vandalised every season". This particular day though I ended up getting off the train, under duress I must add, and making our way to the gates. Apparently there was going to be a game on against some outfit called Marine, the kick off was going to be at 2.00pm 'cos the lights were "shagged", and there was nowhere to have a drink 'cos they'd just had another fire. The day was going to have "hell" written all over it, we were ill equipped for non-league football, the Pringle jumpers were for show not warmth - we were all on for a freezing. But that's where we were wrong, we were made welcome - taken into the "boardroom" - given hot mugs of tea and sarnies and told "if Luton ever get another game called off, you are more than welcome back here!" It might sound a bit soft and naive, but I made a promise I would return - I never did.
As I said I kept an eye on their results, and they weren't doing badly either, never in the promotion stakes for the Alliance Premier - but doing well all the same. I remember travelling across for a two-all draw at Anfield in 1990 (I think), and Holly Park was like a bombsite, literally. The stand (which had looked in tatters well before) was all but gone, and I'm talking within a matter of weeks here as we'd played at Everton a couple of weeks before, God knows what had happened but South Liverpool were all but gone. That my friends is where I have to say I felt the story must end, Liverpool did not want a senior non-league team - it was pretty self-evident - and they had killed the last one, just like that! There was always Knowsley United though, a true cuckoo that had moved into the nest of the old Huyton Rugby ground at Alt Park, but they never really counted in my eyes - and the end of the 90s they'd bit the dust too. It wasn't until I started getting well into non-league football that I discovered all was not lost on the Souths front, about three or four years ago I noticed the name in the Non League Paper in the minor results bit, they were plying their trade in the Liverpool Combination - and many of you old hands might say "we already knew that years before", but I didn't and that was like being told Elvis was not dead - a visit was definitely on the cards, it just had to be! And as it turned out they hadn't moved too far from "home" either, moving those few miles to the banks of the Mersey, to Jericho Lane. I followed their results at close hand, normally starting the season off strongly, and then fading away badly towards the middle and end. The other season they finished fourth, and I had a nagging feeling that last season might be the one I actually got across and they won the league, I didn't - and they didn't. But a new season, a new league - the I Zingari Combination that started all the way back in 1904, merged last season with the Combination (which started a few years later) to form the Liverpool County F.A. Premier League - a pomp and proud title, but one that was needed to unify the two historic leagues. The new league wasn't restricted to Clubs that were only in those two leagues though; one of the aims of the new league was to attract Clubs on the fringes of the Liverpool County FA boundary together with those playing in competitions affiliated to other County Associations. The Premier Division was going to take the top nine teams in the Combination, Souths finished their lowest in ages in pretty dodgy circumstances - eleventh (one point less than eighth spot) - missed out on the top league and were placed in Division One. This season though I'm keeping my promise, I am heading over on a nice summer Saturday in August, and the Beautiful Souths are going to win the league and start their steady march back up the pyramid.
To paraphrase Jim Royle - "nice summer Saturday my arse!" The rain tottered it down all the way from the Trafford Centre, and followed me over to the banks of the Mersey, and lo' there was no cover to be had when I finally arrived. The mood for the whole afternoon had been inappropriately set by listening to the greatest songwriter ever to come from Liverpool (no not Lennon), a certain Michael Head (whadya mean you've never heard of him), and the songs sort of set the scene of the desperately bleak Merseyside scene of the late 80's and early 90's - one of urban squalor and social degeneration. Being honest I haven't been to Scouseland for some time, and being even more honest I can tell you it would have been well before the turn of the new Millennium because that's how long it is since Luton played over there, so the changes I saw were pretty astounding I can tell you. Alright it might have been a journey through the more affluent areas of Liverpool to get to the ground, but when you think about this it was the mindless vandalism of a pretty rundown area that caused the team's demise, so perhaps Souths' future could be a bit more secure than the previous incarnation. And seeing as the new team was being run and organised by some decent hardworking people - well you get the drift I'm sure, but if they are going to get anywhere a ground of some quality is needed. As I said the journey was hampered by some pretty crappy rain, and I had all on trying to find a) the ground and b) bloody road signs to get me to the chuffin' ground - I was guaranteed to roll up late for this one. Actually I got there nice and early, and was amazed that the ground on Jericho Lane was actually a dirty great playing field with about five pitches, my heart sunk somewhat up until taking a little stroll up to a post box further up the street. I then heard a whistle and a cry of "referee you don't know what your doin' ", and actually noticed through a gap in the fence a player taking a throw-in wearing a white shirt, black shorts and red socks - the classic old Souths kit! Surely not I thought, but I ventured through a little gate that led to a single enclosed pitch and asked a bloke who looked as if he knew what he was doing, "is this the Souths ground?" "Yep!" "What time did it kick off?" "2.30, you've missed about five minutes and there's no score, wanna buy a programme?"
The team they were playing were called Stoneycroft, and they were playing in last season's Manchester City home kit, kicking down a very slippy looking slope. The ground as I would have expected was a pretty basic affair, once you've had your fingers burnt (pardon the pun) with Holly Park you tend to learn a hard lesson, with it being an enclosed sports-ground with a basic (graffiti covered) pavilion the only form of cover on the paddock. Souths looked a class or two above their visitors, and scored two goals inside the first five minutes I was watching; David Foy and Matt Fennell each helping themselves to one each after both being set up by a speedy young character called James Kelly. A rout looked on but Stoneycroft pulled one back three minutes later through Brad Hughes who looked decidedly offside, so much so a local old nutter with a fishing hat on jumped off his push-bike, over the fence and grabbed a flag (no linesmen were provided I hasten to add), and all of a sudden we had a game on our hands. The nutter left us at half time; he jumped on his bike and rode into the distance, with the locals shaking their heads in disbelief saying "who was that daft twat? Bit like the Lone Ranger, but not - if you get my drift. With sanity restored the second half turned into a romp as Souths kicked down towards the river, Kelly headed a third for himself, whilst Foy got his hat-trick by adding two more to make it 5-1 - the fifth an absolute stroll around the visiting keeper Peter McHugh, who seemed to go walkabout more than Jenny Agutter. Souths' substitute Steve Owens made it six with a sweetly lofted shot over McHugh with about fifteen minutes to go, and they could (and should) have added another five or so, before Hughes got his and Stoneycroft's second with a quality header that left home keeper Stephen Ward with no hope. Certainly as one-sided as the scoreline suggests, and this time I expect South Liverpool to get promotion immediately to the Premier Division, then it's just a question of how they can make that all important next step into the NWCFL - after all the ground isn't up to scratch just yet, and the ground issues were the thing that got them in this situ in the first place. One thing is for sure, South Liverpool WILL win this league - of that I am fairly certain - I sincerely hope they are brave enough to take the baton and try and drive this famous old name back to the echelons they once graced.

Jaunt No 4

Apollonas Limassol 1 Néa Salamina 1
Cyprus First Division
Saturday, 12/08/06

Many of the regular readers of this column will know that over the last few seasons Jamesie's Jaunts has gone "International" - in other words the boundaries of the series has been stretched beyond the traditional limits I had initially intended, which if you can remember that far back was one hour's drive from Gleadless. Instead holidays abroad, and primary-schoolchild curiosity, had seen us go that little bit further to see our football. In fact the James clan have started to be the proper world adventurers, making new friends in the footballing world not only in England, but elsewhere in Europe as well. But it has to be said we have had a bit of an unwritten rule that states "only ever go to one game in each country", never going to another game in a "foreign" country if you've already been there for a match, so for the first time we are going to break that "rule" by going to another game in Cyprus - three years after the inaugural International Jaunt. Technically (as Liam often starts his sentences) this isn't the first time we've been back to "foreign" soil for another game, no we went to Scotland more than once, but that doesn't really count, nor does Wales for that matter - it is after all part of the United Kingdom. And yes, we did see TWO games in Malta, but that was a double-header, so that shouldn't really count either. And Spain, yes right - that was the same weekend though wasn't it? We never really made that special "second trip" to go to another game; we were in Barcelona and went to another game the day after, so THAT doesn't count either. So THIS IS the FIRST TIME we have GONE BACK to a country to watch another game of football... except for France, yeah we went back there didn't we? What a total waste of an introduction that was, there isn't an unwritten rule (or even a written one for that matter) of any kind about this kind of thing, I must have been hallucinating or summat. Either way I right like Cyprus I do, and we had a right good time when we went to Nicosia to see the Derry Bhoys, so we are going again - so there! Why the hell do I have to explain why we are going? We're on holiday in Limassol, the Cypriot Championship was won by Apollonas Limassol last season, the Cypriot League season starts whilst we are on the island, and the Champions are at home first game. Bring it on!

I could also take you through another game that happened on the island, in the UEFA Cup between the aforementioned APOEL and Trabzonspor of Turkey (if you know your history, it's enough to make you heart go...), but I won't - such an event is not for these pages and I really dislike repeating stuff I've said in previous columns - needless to say, ask me if you want the gory details. Anyway, this one is a much more interesting story if you ask me, and much more in tune with the whole "Sheffield FC Family Club" ethos. As I said last season Apollon of Limassol won the title, and they did it in the fashion of the last non-Chelsea team to win the English title (Arsenal - if you needed reminding) - undefeated! Yes, they went the whole season undefeated, a fact that sort of drew me to this as the game of the weekend - as opposed to the big Nicosia derby, the Division One debut of Ayia Napa FC against giants Anorthosis, and a few other games that were taking place within an hour's drive of my hotel. Undefeated they may have been but the owners of the hotel weren't that impressed (one Anorthosis supporter, one AEL Limassol supporter) - "so they won the title, but they were very lucky!" "How come?" "They draw with all the big teams, and beat all the little teams" "Erm isn't that what winning leagues is all about?" "Yes, but they beat no big teams - so who cares?" - see what I mean? Personally I wouldn't give a flying crap if my team won all the little teams 1-0 with a last minute own-goal every week, if it meant winning the league, who cares? Results first - entertainment second, that's what I say! What also surprised me about the attitudes of my hosts was the fact that Cyprus has had its fair share of the Scotland-esque monopoly over the last few years with APOEL and Omonoia winning 37 titles between them, only Anorthosis giving any threat to either with a flurry of wins between 1995 and 2000 to take them into a comfortable third spot - but Apollon? Well they won two titles prior to last season's success, but that's it - why wouldn't you want this relative underdog to step on the patch of the big three? I for one was pretty much rooting for them all the way through the season, and was delighted when they came through, especially seeing as we were going to be holidaying in Limassol as well. So when the fixtures were announced, and for the second season running (last season it happened in Malta) the first day of the season was brought forward by two weeks, Apollonas were drawn to be at home - live on TV Saturday night versus Néa Salamina.

But who'd want to go on holiday and watch the game on the box, not me that's for sure, so the inevitable hunt for tickets became a priority on the Friday. A trip into the old town proved to be unusually fruitful; within minutes we had stumbled over a bar decked out in Apollon regalia (a little note to interrupt here - all teams on Cyprus have little bars run by fan-clubs, we found Apollon's in the centre of town, whilst round the corner from our hotel was a bingo hall - that's right - a bingo hall run by local rivals Aris) with all the supporters "sorting out" their massive banners outside on the pavement, we had stumbled on the "Gate 1" ultras! But before you worry for the safety of the James clan here, don't - these were the nicest momma's boys you could imagine, and were more than happy to inform the crazy English bloke on where the club offices were and how much the tickets cost. And much to our surprise (although logically it shouldn't have - we were in Apollon territory after all) the offices - and club boutique - were a minute walk along the same road (Gladstonos), just on the opposite side. £7.00 CYP for me and the missus (about £9.00 - sit anywhere you want mate) and 50 cents for the boy, with a free programme chucked in as well - an absolute bargain - and run by absolute professionals with hi-tech computers and cash scanners (alright, the "president" of the club sat behind a desk with a shoebox with a wad of notes in it - and he short changed me by 10 cents, but who cares). Next door to the ticket office was a pretty good club shop, I say pretty good in comparison to the one APOEL run, they sold replica shirts which Liam was more than happy to have me buy - with number 9 "Sosin" on the back (more on him later) - and a few other things, but not (much to Liam's disgust) pennants. But happily enough we were armed with ample ammunition to head to the Tsirion Stadium the following night, safe in the knowledge we weren't going to be shepherded into the away end, or fear for our lives as Turkish sympathisers or the like - for once we were going to mingle in with the natives, and enjoy it!

The Tsirion Stadium is on the northern outskirts of the city of Limassol, right next to the Paphos to Nicosia motorway, on the right hand side as you come into the resort - a point I noticed in the wee early hours as we made our transfer to the hotel. And to be honest (even though I had seen photos of it prior to visiting) the stadium is surprisingly weird - only two sided, one curved stand down each touchline, and nothing behind each goal - and that's just from the outside. Inside it looks as though it just needs finishing, the gaps could be filled at not a lot of cost, especially seeing as both stands are identical. Despite it being one of the biggest stadia on the island, it still only holds 13,500 - as you might work out 6,750 in each stand - and frustratingly like your typical continental ground has that bloody running track set up (Grantham all over again?) between you and the pitch. Other than the stadium though the area is desolate, no snack bars (or pubs or owt to be honest) in the vicinity, and the ground can only be accessed by car, scooter or (in our case - cue sinister music) taxi! Yep the nightmare of all Greek type holiday adventures, the taxi, and we had an absolute classic on our hands - Antonis (ring 99 652 467, honestly - he told me to say so) - and he was an absolute psychopath! I tell no lie, within minutes of setting off he broke the news to us about the attempted terror plot, and seconds later he was telling us he was an undercover cop! Think I'm kidding? "In Limassol we all know each other, me - I am undercover cop as well as taxi-driver, I work for narcotics department - I catch a team of Swedes and English not last week trying to sell me drugs. I drive them to police station - put in handcuffs and put in jail" I wasn't going to argue with him, he had a gash down the back of his head that looked like someone had gained unlawful access to his brain; I simply smiled and nodded - just get me to the feckin' stadium alive! When he dropped us off outside some ticket booths (we have tickets already remember - he didn't seem to want to know) we were just glad to be there, he gave us a card with his number on "ring me - ask for Antonis - I get you to hotel safe after game!" We looked around relieved to be alive, the place was awash with red and white clad supporters - oh, Apollonas play in blue by the way, and we were decked out in Apollon colours. The crazy twonk had only planted us at the way end!

Fortunately we managed to manoeuvre our way around to the opposite side of the stadium, avoiding big dogs, men with automatic weapons and (of course) the seemingly obligatory rolls of barbed wire. And even though we were there a good thirty minutes before kick-off the place was heaving, live TV-cast or not this game was big business as far as the champs' fans were concerned, and despite Lynn trying to blag our way into the VIP area (bless her, she's great) we managed to find some pretty good unobstructed view seats on the 18-yard line. By kick-off it was sweaty - very sweaty - and the home fans were cramming in as many as they could. You see the segregation was such that one stand was for Apollon fans, the other for Néa Salaminas fans, and with 6,000 plus home fans trying to wedge in to the best position possible - well let's just say the aisles were no more. Surprisingly enough though, Néa Salamina had brought a fair few with them, although they sort of trickled in a lot closer to kick of time than our side did. [ It's at this point I feel I have to pull away from the story a bit to talk about Salamina - it took me most of the rest of the holiday to get my head round this. They are old traditional rivals of Anorthosis, and groundshared with them in Famagusta before the Turkish invasion of 1974, so in effect they are another refugee side - along with Digenis, Doxa and several others. As you can imagine their fan-base stretches far and wide, and despite playing their home games in Larnaca, many of their fans come from Limassol - as well as other parts of the locality and (to my surprise after the game walking to the main road and meeting a Spurs fan clad in a "Red-Club" tee-shirt) back home here in blighty. I was told that although their home games are watched in front of a mere handful, an equivalent number (and sometimes more) travel to away games, with the Red-Club coordinating things via a very professional supporters club set-up. ]  The teams trotted out, not together but one at a time, with one bloke striding onto the pitch to choreograph the clapping at our end (like we needed it) before setting off a pyrotechnics display like one you've never seen. So much so that we couldn't see the kick off for smoke, and by the time it had cleared it was no longer day time, it was dark and the floodlights were on.

The local hero round here is Łukasz Sosin, a bit of a Polish journeyman who has ended up in Cyprus to become a cult figure, but he certainly knows where the goal is. He is the league's top goalscorer for three seasons in a row now, notching up 28 goals in last season's championship side, and 70 in three years at the club - impressive, and not surprisingly the best selling shirt at the boutique. As we hoped the home side piled forward, and we were swept along with the euphoria the home fans exuded when Sosin did what he was good at, scoring a goal after just eight minutes with a pretty powerful header. More flares were lit, more firecrackers went off, and another win seemed to be on the cards. But then the words of the hotel owners started to come back to me, Apollon did the unthinkable and started to sit back, much to the dismay of the fans around us - they were trying to take three points any way possible. The unrest around us was pretty much tangible, and there seemed to be an ongoing argument between the lunatics up where we were sat and the lunatics sat in the tier below, and yes - both sets were Apollon supporters. So much so was the division between the two sets, that when one idiot from the lower tier lobbed a flare into the long-jump sandpit, he was then pelted by cans, cups and water bottles. He responded by grabbing his mate's drum and hurling it up at the upper tier; bad move - it bounced against the fence, back over his head and into the obligatory 20 foot deep moat between him and the pitch. That seemed to diffuse matters somewhat off the pitch, with both sides ripping the piss out of him - whilst back on the pitch Salaminas pushed forward and you expected an equaliser, and the referee wasn't helping matters by awarding everything for anything for the visitors. With ten minutes to go the inevitable happened, the ball went into the Apollon box, a Salaminas player went arse over tit, the referee pointed to the spot and Kyriakos Xailis put it just beyond the hand of the Czech keeper Aleš Chvalovský. It sparked the blues into life, going close to snatching it twice in the last few minutes, but it wasn't going to be. The mood was getting ugly at our end; Liam feared another riot, so we trotted off to ring mad Antonis for a lift home. The riot never appeared, both sets of fans happily mingled in the streets afterwards and (fortunately for us you might say) with no mobile reception to be found, we couldn't ring Antonis. So in the middle of nowhere, no way to get back to the hotel, and that far away from the tourist area there was little chance of a passing taxi. Anyway we were back in our hotel less than 30 minutes after the final whistle discussing the finer points of the game with the owners, don't ask me how - just call it luck - oh, and it looks like we'll be back there next season. Honestly, Cypriot football - it's brilliant!

Jaunt No 3

Parkhouse 3 Derbyshire Amateurs 0
Midland Regional Alliance Division One
Saturday, 05/08/06
Enough was enough, and it really is the time to get the pre-season well and truly washed away. After the Grantham debacle the new competitive season can't come soon enough, but when the push comes to shove it isn't coming very soon at all. It appears the World Cup has made everyone kick off a week later than usual (what, you mean to say that the CMFL had players in Germany? Well maybe so, but they weren't playing), so the usual suspects when it comes to this time of the year just aren't happening, and August the fifth is bereft of competitive games. It turns out it's a case of sinking as low as possible to find somewhere that's on, a league or cup game, and for good measure not too far away - I'm under orders not to stray too far, a morning at Meadowhall beckons for buying more holiday stuff. A trawl through the normal channels brings up absolutely nothing, everyone is still in chill mode at the moment, but a trip and a stumble brought me to the Midland Regional Alliance website - which as it turns out was one of only two leagues in the country that had decided to start its competitive season the first Saturday in August. Normally this would be one league I wouldn't touch with a bargepole, but when the nitty gets gritty it started to look mighty appealing, and a proper look at the website came up with not one fixture but... well alright just one fixture caught my eye, but I'll come to that in a minute. The league is one that is based around the Derby to Chesterfield area (local then - there's a bonus), and can be a bit confusing given that there is also a Midland Football Alliance league as well, the difference is the MFA is the same as NCEL standards (grounds, football etc) based around the whole of the East / West Midlands area - the MRA isn't. In fact it is on a par with the County Senior League, or even the West Yorkshire or West Riding Leagues at best, in reality it is as far behind these as the NCEL is to the Conference. This is why I wouldn't touch a game in this league with a bargepole - normally - but sure as dammit I'm trekking out to Clay Cross for the first proper game of the 2006/07 season, Parkhouse FC here I come...
So why Parkhouse? Well to be honest with you I have toyed with this idea for a while, well last season at least, when the "clubs-to-visit" list started to fizzle out. You see one of our (almost) regular visitors to the Stadium of Bright, Chris Marsh (you'll recognise him - glasses, comes with his dad, tends to stand in the "shed") kept on harping on about Parkhouse for the majority of last season, extolling the virtues of the fine football they played - and so on. So I had a bit of a gander at the end of the season, at the league website, and they had absolutely walked it - Division Two that is - with some pretty hefty wins to boot. In fact they had a 14-0, a 12-0, an 11-0, a 10-0, three 8-0's and a whole host of other six and seven goal routs. Pretty good I'd say, in fact punching well out of their weight division, they only lost one (to Mickleover RBL - anyone remember them?) and drew a coupe of others - they won the league by 14 clear points, scoring 139 goals along the way! So what better time to go and see them than when they've achieved promotion, first day of a new season, and playing against a side that has a bit of history on their side - Derbyshire Amateurs (from Breaston, a village near junction 25 of the M1) - and a team they beat in the cup last season (3-1), when their opponents were a division higher. When I say a bit of history, what I mean is you can't go very far typing in "Derbyshire Amateurs" on Google without coming up about some AFA (Amateur Football Association) cup tie against a team that has moved on steadily in the world, with teams like Hitchin, St Albans and even Ipswich Town featuring. Alright, not teams that'd knock you off your feet, but famous enough nonetheless. They even managed to get to the Semi Final of the AFA Cup in 1931, and runners up a year later, but I guess all that is well long forgotten about. Now they play on school fields and public parks, in front of a handful of half interested lookers-on, and the obligatory kids on bikes and dog walking bloke. And to be honest I half expected coming here today just to see them as the comic sidekick that was going to get their arses kicked - big style...
I was a bit worried when I came up with this game as a "possibility" in midweek, after all the rains came at long last - which is good for the groundsmen, but not for the spectator who was going to be stood out in the open with no cover - so I spent most of the week with one eye on the forecasts. As it turned out it wasn't that bad, by no means anything like the heatwave we'd endured in July, but dry nonetheless. Even more of a surprise for me was what I found when I arrived at Mill Lane (where Parkhouse are based), the facilities were better than some (and many for that matter) in the CMFL, and a bigger shock was the club actually did programmes (the reason this was a shock was I received a text earlier in the day from the mate I was meeting there saying "if you get there first buy the programmes" - I replied "we'll be lucky if they have toilets, let alone programmes") as our Chris was eager to tell me when I pulled into the car park. Not only that but they had a snack bar, with HOT FOOD (cheap hot food too - the Two Lisa's Sports Cafe - not prepared for the numbers this time, but they have now been warned), and all in all a very tidy and progressive looking little set-up - something that had attracted a helluva lot of groundhoppers to the vicinity. But enough of all that, there was a game to be watched, and sure as I had hoped it was an entertaining little number as well. Parkhouse were without the bloke that had been popping in the goals (over 50 of them) last season, Mark Needham, and it showed as they missed a hatful of chances. Derbyshire also had their chances to get something, but they looked about as clued up as I'd expect at this level, and they missed two open (and I mean open) goals. The script started to take the shape with five minutes before half-time, Luke Bateman had a shot parried by the Derbyshire keeper, and the ball fell at the feet of David Chambers who had the easy job of tapping it in. Parkhouse should really have had another six before they got the second, some lovely crisp passing created the space, the just didn't have the clinical finishing you'd expect. Then with about twenty minutes to go Chambers got his second, walking the ball round the stranded keeper, and four minutes later Andy Martin latched onto a woeful back-header from a defender to make it three. That's how it stayed (somehow - can't tell you how, it could have been ten - honestly), and a crowd of around seventy odd made their way merrily home, safe in the knowledge they HAD been entertained. Trust me when I say Parkhouse are an outfit to look out for; more improvements are on the way, and when they come expect them to climb the ladder - quickly, with plenty of goals and lots of entertainment. Can you tell I was impressed with this one?

Jaunt No 2

Grantham Town 1 Boston United 0
Pre-Season Friendly
Friday, 28/07/06

I've never fallen asleep at a football match before - come close yes, last night's friendly at Parkgate is a case in point, but never actually fallen asleep - until tonight! Yes, I actually did what those old duffers you always see pictured at Lord's doing, I nodded off whilst the game was going on. I should be ashamed, but after due consideration, I'm anything but - and I've managed to make a proper resolution based on tonight. Yep, that's it as far as neutral pre-season friendlies are concerned; they serve no purpose entertainment-wise, or for that matter improving your understanding of the game in general. Not so much with pre-season games with your own team being involved, no - with those you have a tendency to try and see what the boss is trying to put together, what the new signings look like and exactly what will the opening game of the season's starting line-up be? Now that's what I call a tempting worm on the hook for anyone with a passion for their team! But with neutral games you are emotionally detached, there is no loyalty to either side or sympathy, empathy, curiosity or any other kind of feeling - it is numb. All I feel I achieved on this hour-drive-each-way experience was that I'd been to a ground that I hadn't been to before, and that my friends is what I find extremely sad - not that I haven't done that in the past, but then there's been something at stake. Maybe the game I'd chosen in these cases wasn't always top notch, that's the gamble you take in any game of football, but at least there was a modicum of competitiveness - even the end-of-season dross is better than what I've just witnessed. You see I had an early Friday finish for once, I took one look at the "attractive" array of fixtures on show, I saw a Lincolnshire derby on show and decided "I've not been to Grantham since they moved into their new pad, perhaps I should take a look. As you can gather I now wish I'd stopped in and watched telly...

I remember the first time I went to a Grantham game; it was up in Kendal in Cumbria, an away game against Netherfield on a cold April Saturday in 1983. I was persuaded to go up to see this nonentity of a game, rather than seeing Luton scrape home a 3-1 victory against Swansea in the old first division (nostalgia or what, imagine that nowadays), just because Netherfield were truly crap and you would be guaranteed a shedload of goals. I was amongst 56 (yes fifty-six) people who paid for the honour to see this Northern Premier fixture peter out to a 2-0 win for Grantham- Netherfield finished bottom and disappeared from sight! How do I remember all this? Well I came across a bunch of old scrapbooks I used to keep about a year ago, and this struck me as an absolute folly of youth (I did another similar thing a few years later, but we'll come to that in a couple of weeks) where I had actually pasted all that day's results in with the legend "missed this (circling the Luton game) to watch this (circling the Grantham game) - it must have made a big impression on me. Later on that year we decided (early part of the next season) to go to Grantham to see what they had in store, so we headed to a home game at London Road for what turned out to be first time in a few, for a 2-1 win over Mossley. Scrapbooks - they're great aren't they? But when the Gingerbreads (yeah, I know) moved in 1990 to the South Kesteven Stadium, I never went again, no reason why - I just thought I'd get round to it. I took my time I can tell you, and boy haven't I paid! But as I said I was feeling a bit adventurous, a Lincolnshire derby? Maybe this was more like the folly of a big daft forty year old...

Have to admit to you before I continue that the journey down was a bit dreary, driving into the sun listening to Peter Allen and Jane Garvey on Five Live Drive, so by the time I took my seat in the stand I was weary to say the least. The South Kesteven Stadium, or the Meres as it is more popularly known as, is a bit of a soulless entity - big elevated athletics style stand, overlooking an oval patch of green, with the obligatory running track round it. Sort of Don Valley in miniature, and with the distance from the field (and the fact only 140 had bothered to turn up) the whole atmosphere had a touch of the funereal about it, another contributing factor for the eventual nod-off. Boston had only bothered to send their youth squad-cum-reserve team down, so that didn't really help pull the punters in, and when the announcer read the teams and I concluded I hadn't heard of any of them (strange given we were watching a NLP team against one from the Football League - allegedly) I feared the quality of game wasn't going to be top drawer. But I did bank on both sides giving a show, after all Northwich did against a Chester XI didn't they, but when all was said and done they didn't give a show of any kind. It turned out to be a stop-start affair, with the referee Anthony Howitt the busiest man on the field, blowing for everything and anything. I started to take a gathering interest about the patterns of the lines on the pitch; you know the ones for the hammer throw or the javelin or whatever, and imagining them to be crop-circles or something. Then I was gone... off to the Land of Nod! It guess I was out for about ten minutes or so, I was woken by the half-time whistle - a bit disorientated too it has to be said, I'm sure I saw Lee Glover talking to a giant Gingerbread man - and I vividly remember looking at me phone to check how much longer just before my eyes packed in. I had to head to the bar for a very quick drink to bring me round, you know the sort that rhymes with Ted and Gull, but the second half had me in an equally tranquillised state. Would it ever end? Would I chance it and cut my losses, seeing as this was going to be nil-nil as there hadn't been a shot near goal all game. Then in the last minute of the game the veteran Gingerbreads centre-half Adrian Speed stepped up at the death to send a powerful header beyond James Doughty, after holding off the attentions of Boston substitute Stewart Talbot in the six-yard box. It was enough to win the game, but not enough to save me from a pretty bad memory. Not one for any scrapbook, I can tell you!

Jaunt No 1
Northwich Victoria 1 Chester City 0
Pre-Season Friendly
Saturday 15/07/06

So that was the summer break then? How was it for you? Obviously the FIFA 2006 World Cup™ had a bearing on yours, and we all know how England did, don't we? Bloody Cristiano Ronaldo - I could... oooh - do a Zidane! And me? Well, apart from passing the time between World Cup games by mindlessly smashing sachets of mustard with a hammer, watching endless episodes of Father Ted, retrieving a St George's flag from a drainpipe with a lightsaber (no honestly, I did), helping my brother mock the Scottish members of my family with football quips ("who've Scotland got in the next round?" - "The Big Tree, on pitch three at Graves Park" - and getting a pummelling for my efforts) and shouting "feckin' arse biscuits" every time I burnt another burger at yet another barbecue... not a great deal really! At least there was something to do in the close season, not like last year... God Ted, now that was boring! Anyway here we are again, another season - another series of Jaunts, even though I said I wasn't going to be doing them again... man o' me word, or what? So where are we going to be going to this season? After all the usual staple of new influxes in the Central Midlands League have dried up for once - only two new ones this season, Calverton Miners Welfare (went there season before last) and ex-NCEL outfit Louth United (well alright they are a new resurrected version, so I MIGHT head off there sometime) - and the "want-to-go-to" list is slowly getting ticked off, so it looks like its going to have to be pretty inventive this season. Anyway, the way I look at it is there are teams who are moving to new grounds, and last season there were three in the "can-get-to-in-ninety-minutes" radius who moved to new homes. So why not start with one of them, a trip to Cheshire for a nice little local derby to start the season, a little friendly at the Victoria Stadium - me owd favourites the Trickies versus Chester City - let the season commence!

I must have been to the old Drill Field loads of times, and to be fair (as I might have mentioned once or twice in this column) I do have a soft spot for Northwich Victoria Football Club, and I have always had half an eye of how the old Trickies are getting on. I suppose it's because they've had a fine old tradition of being one of the leading lights in the non-league field, always one to look up to I guess, that and they play in green and white! They've always been a Conference side ever since there's been a Conference (or Alliance Premier before it), and even when they finished in relegation trouble they escaped due to Telford going under and Margate getting demoted, and they were in fact the last ever-present in that league before that ten point penalty they had imposed due to them going into administration left them in the deep brown stuff. But as I covered last season, they bounced back and this season are back where they belong, and in new surroundings - the newly (nearly) built Victoria Stadium - where they moved in last year. The stadium is built in Wincham, just outside of Northwich, and not too far from Witton Albion where we could be playing in a few months. In fact it is that close me and Liam had a little stroll round there to see how far Witton's ground is from the Victoria, and I can tell you it isn't very far at all, just the other side of the Trent-Mersey canal. But as I alluded to earlier, there's still a bit to do at Northwich's new abode, and despite its modern design and layout, it still looks like a building site. The stand is completely done, as is the covered terrace at the other end, but the bar is still a portacabin and the car park - well imagine the old East End of London after the WWII bombings! More pot-holes than the Peak District, I can tell you, and the guy who was directing cars in seemed intent on parking everyone so there was no escape either. Either way once inside it is a nice ground, and it has the potential for development behind each net, with the main features being an all seated main stand (very nice) and a covered banked terrace running the length of the opposite touchline. The factor to take into consideration when you get to this level is this; would it be able to stage League Football IF they got promoted this season? That I very much doubt, but to be honest would they be even in contention come the season's end, or would it be another struggle like the last couple of seasons they were in the Conference? A guide to the answer would come in the shape of today's pre-season encounter with Chester City...

Well talk about a baker, what a way to start the season, the temperature on the car's dashboard said 35°C and that was at 2.00pm when we pulled up in the aforementioned potholed car-park. Incidentally today not only sees the start of a new season, it also sees the start of Jaunts in a new vehicle - the bullet - with the Millennium Falcon now consigned to the knackers yard (or at least the car auctions). So it was a very different and nervy journey over, and a hot one too, but interesting all the same. The day was given a bit of a family-day feel to it, a nice little barbecue (not another one) had been laid on, but this time it was being run by apparent professionals - not cack-handed amateurs like yours truly. There was also a Dippin' Donut stand as well, different it has to be said, and bloody messy too - oh for a pack of wet-wipes! As for the game well, Chester chose to send out what was virtually their youth team, and as a result the match never offered Steve Burr's team with anything other than an exercise in building match fitness. But it was still a very entertaining game to watch although the heat obviously played its part, Chester were on the defensive for most of the first period, and Vics could have gone ahead when a Tony Gallimore effort hit the bar. Despite this the first half was goal-less, but in the second half Chester were the team on top, so it was somewhat against the run of play that Northwich won a corner and when the kick was ineffectually cleared Craig Dove gained possession on the edge of the box to score with a clinical finish. After that the result never looked like being in doubt, Chester had a couple of chance, but they were snuffed out by an impressive goalkeeping show by substitute keeper Ben Connett (including a superlative triple save that has to be the moment of the season so far). So that's how it ended, entertaining to say the least, but as for a guide to how Vics will do this season? Well that's a bit of a wait and see, they looked impressive and in control today, but that was against a bunch of youngsters - even if they were professional youngsters! All the same I reckon Northwich will be comfortable this time, no struggling and no panic, this season will be a time to build. And I don't just mean on the pitch...
Jaunts From Stu