Leon's Lines 2004-2005
The Monthly Groundhopping Guide
Saturday 5th March 2005, 3pm
Barton Town Old Boys (1)1 Blackwell Miners Welfare (0)2 (Central Midlands Supreme Division)
Programme: 50p for 28 pages
From time to time I get a bee in my bonnet about going somewhere for reasons which are not at all football related. Today was one such day. There were plenty of attractive fixtures out there to choose from (Worksop versus Southport and Molesey versus Wimbledon did come under serious consideration) but instead of making the match my main priority as I would normally do, I decided to spend a good four hours driving along rural 'B' roads, through sleepy market towns and generally exploring as I discovered an area of England relatively unknown to me. Of course there would be a match at the end of it but today was more about a whistle-stop tour of places such as Wragby, Market Rasen and Horncastle rather than purely a football jaunt. With the dog in the back of the car, I set of early from a snowy Norwich whilst Nicola headed in the opposite direction to London to visit relatives. Stopping twice to walk the dog, once in Horncastle (where Town's 'The Wong' is really becoming a fine little ground) and once in Market Rasen, I arrived in Barton-upon-Humber at two o'clock having not taken a single 'A' road since leaving leaving the A47 at Sleaford.
Not entirely sure where Marsh Lane was in the town, I stopped to ask in a wonderful 1940's style sweet shop where a tiny little lady shuffled behind hundreds of sweet jars to appear just above the counter. In a rich Humberside accent she told me I was only a two streets away but ridiculously I still managed to get myself lost and spent a good twenty minutes driving around looking for the elusive road. I eventually found it – a hundred yards from ye olde shoppe – and located the ground right at the bottom beyond the cricket field. A burly chap was collecting £2 admission on the gate whilst his daughter handed out 'The Marsh Lane Blue' for 50p – a decent enough programme with a glossy card cover and plenty of match reports etc. Although I was surprised at the lack of floodlights (which I thought was compulsory in the Supreme Division) I was relieved to find plenty of cover around the ground as the skies above turned purple then black and the rain began to lash down. Inside the bustling wooden clubhouse – which brought back memories of my old scout hut with tombolas tucked away in the corners and canoes hanging from the ceiling – I was given a cup of tea by secretary Steve and told that the club were hoping to relocate next season onto land across the road. Here they are hoping to develop a ground fit for the Northern Counties East League. Impressive stuff I thought and if the Old Boys continued the impressive run of form they were currently enjoying, visitors Blackwell MW would be swept aside with ease. Barton were in third behind Dunkirk and Pelican and were rightly still harbouring title aspirations. In complete contrast, Blackwell were rock bottom having suffered some proper batterings and only a fool would have given them a chance this afternoon.
Marsh Lane is a curious mix of the ancient and the new whilst also being one of the quietest grounds I have been to for a long time. Tucked away some distance from the town centre and only a stones throw from the banks of the River Humber, it's location is undeniably splendid but the silence around the place, punctuated only by the players effing and blinding this afternoon, is almost eerie. The low, decrepit corrugated cover which straddles the halfway line is truly one of those stands we all love. Chobham, Hillcroft et al is the category into which this beauty falls and it's a reminder that before Bland Stands & Co, many stands were real DIY efforts put together in haphazard fashion and with whatever materials were available. Opposite this is a modern grandstand with a nice angled roof and bench seating, although only half a bench remains from the six rows that were once installed.
Barton came onto the pitch in sparkling sky blue jerseys emblazoned with the JVC logo. Blackwell followed in a grubby change strip of yellow and blue stripes. From the off Barton played a surprisingly high standard of football which Blackwell had trouble coping with in the opening twenty minutes. Slowly but surely however, the visitors robust approach began to frustrate Barton and although they took the lead with a goal from Paul Grimes on 28 minutes, Blackwell finished the half the better side. At half time I ventured back into the club where an elderly chap behind the bar rebuked my enquiry about the whereabouts of any hot food by sucking in through gritted teeth and reminding me I was “not at bloody Anfield now!”. So instead I made do with another cuppa and a 'rhubarb & custard' which I had bought a quarter of earlier from ye olde sweet shoppe. Back outside the rain continued to hammer down as the ancient stand filled up with pipe smoke and banter courtesy of a group of old gents further along. As the mud-splattered players came back out and I sucked on a 'sour plum', it struck me that this could have been 1950. For a while, this was non-league football at it's most atmospheric.
Blackwell levelled on 66 minutes when their impressive sub Mark Downing lobbed over Everitt in the Barton goal. An even better lob from the halfway line which caught on the wind won the game for lowly Blackwell and they celebrated by enjoying a fourteen man bundle at the bottom of which was the goalscoring hero, Simon Williams. This was a massive win for the Derbyshire side which looked unlikely at the start of play but all credit to them for such a determined display. I took a more conventional route back home by heading straight down the A15, through Lincoln and back onto the A47.
Wednesday 2nd March 2005, 7.45pm
Derby County (1)3 Wolverhampton Wanderers (1)3 (Football Championship)
Programme: £2.50 for 64 pages
I had a number of games lined up to choose from for Wednesday evening but as the day wore on and the weather became increasingly desperate, one by one they fell victim to the rain and snow. When I left Norwich at four o'clock I had just two options remaining. I had called Hallam who confirmed their match with Goole was definitely on as a local ref had been down to inspect the pitch. Alternatively, I had Derby County who were playing host to Wolves in the Coca-Cola Championship so in the general direction of the midlands I set off, weighing up the pros and cons of each game along the way. By the time I reached Spalding I had made up my mind to go to Derby. This decision was based simply on the fact that there would be less chance of rolling up Pride Park and finding the game called off as there would be Sandygate Road, despite what the friendly woman at Hallam had earlier told me. However, with the clock ticking towards seven o'clock and the traffic snarled up on the wrong side of Grantham, I banged my fists on the steering wheel and cursed my not-for-the-first-time dreadful decision making skills.
By the time I reached Nottingham it was nearly half seven and I could see the City Ground's lights twinkling in the distance. Radio Five's build up to their coverage of Forest v Spurs had begun and I found myself with fifteen miles to travel, a parking space to find and a ticket still to buy. All this in twenty minutes. Then, as if my prayers had been answered, the thirty miles an hour I had been doing for the past hour turned into eighty as the A52 opened up into dual carriageway. Ten minutes later Pride Park miraculously appeared on my left and into Toys 'R' Us car park opposite the stadium I drove, bagging the one remaining space. I leapt out of the car and rushed towards the ticket office where I struck lucky in choosing the fastest moving queue. With no time to worry about ticket prices, I paid a rather steep £29 and found my way into the bowels of the Toyota Stand. Things were going too well I thought as a roar above me went up signaling that the teams had come out onto the pitch. I was going to make it!
Or perhaps not. Looking up at the gate numbers in the Toyota Upper, I realised that in my haste I had gone in through the wrong turnstyle meaning I had no way of getting to my seat from the concourse I was currently in. Luckily however, I found the kindest steward in league football who instead of pointing me in the direction of the exit, took me through a labyrinth of corridors and passages used only for staff, through the middle of the executive restaurant from where the suited men and women watched the game through a giant window and up through the correct gate and to my seat. I sat down exhausted and seconds later Inigo Idiakez curled in Derby's opener, seven minutes into the game. All the stress I had gone through to get here was gradually eased away as a real thriller unfolded between promotion chasers Derby and Wolves who were fighting relegation.
Pride Park is one of the most aesthetically pleasing stadiums built in the recent years. The clean, unbroken lines of the roof which rise up to the Toyota Stand frame the pitch beautifully. This vast, 360 degree bright white roof coupled with the white cladding all around, sparkling floodlights and thousands of white replica shirts give the place a certain purity and cleanliness not normally associated with a football ground. The place was almost full tonight as County's recent excellent form had seen them climb the table relatively unnoticed into fourth place. The only time I had seen Derby play before was at the Baseball Ground back in 1993 and on that day I witnessed an incredible match. With the scores level at 0-0 at half-time, eight goals were scored in the opening 25 minutes of the second half leaving the final score at Derby 5 West Brom 3. Tonight Derby would again play their part in a real ding-dong battle which was utterly absorbing from start to finish.
The aforementioned Idiakez, who was signed from Rayo Vallecano in the summer, proved to be a master craftsman at the heart of the Rams midfield. I had heard plenty of exciting things about him, mainly from my mate Tom who's an avid County fan, but tonight the Spaniard was even better than I had expected. Along with Peter Beardsley lookalike Grzegorz Rasiak, who has been so lethal in attack recently, the always enterprising Tommy Smith plus a whole host of exciting young talents, County would be a worthy addition to the Premiership if they make it this season. When Idiakez scored with a three times taken penalty on 70 minutes to level things at 2-2, there looked like only one winner. County crafted attack after attack leaving Wolves hanging on by the skin of their teeth. In the very last minute however, Wolves broke away and scored a goal through Carl Cort. The silence inside Pride Park was deafening as even the small band of Wolves fans looked on in shock for a few seconds before pandemonium took over in their corner of the ground. Still there was time for another twist however as with virtually last kick of the game, Marco Reich scored to make it 3-3, although by this point the stadium was half empty. After the frustration of the A52 earlier, I drove home down the M1 and across the A14 with a smile on my face, arriving home at midnight.
Saturday 26th February 2005, 3pm
Eastwood Town (0)1 Hereford United (0)1 (FA Trophy Fifth Round)
Programme: £1.50 for 36 pages
Yet another day of wintry weather and I found myself travelling along the A14 and up the M1 to the little Nottinghamshire town of Eastwood. The fixture lists had given me plenty of headaches this week, mainly because there were so many exciting possibilities out there. For example, on the Wednesday I was definitely going to Thorne Colliery for their game with CML Premier Division leaders AFC Barnsley. This all changed on Thursday when I heard St. Francis Rangers had a 12.30 kick-off meaning I could squeeze in two games in a day. However, by Friday the weather across the country was so bad that I began to doubt whether these smaller clubs would be able to stage their games. With all the snow around and the promise of more, I reverted back to the game I had pencilled in when the Trophy fifth round draw was made three weeks ago. Eastwood Town of the Northern Premier League Division One versus currently the third best side in the non-league world and engineers of a few cup upsets themselves over the years, Hereford United. I had dithered enough over the past 72 hours and was happy with my choice of game.
Arriving in Eastwood an hour and a half before kick-off, one could have been forgiven for thinking this was the wrong Eastwood (for there are a couple in England). The streets around the town centre were bleak and windswept and a the passers by I stopped for directions had no idea Eastwood even had a football team (admittedly one was an old dear with a zimmer frame and goatee beard). I summoned up my compass-like geographical powers to guide me to the ground and for once they worked, locating the little stadium over mile from where I had parked on the opposite side of town. Coronation Park is set in a large public park off Chewton Street and behind the local fire station – an uninspiring setting in an uninspiring town. It was now two o'clock and the place was still relatively deserted apart from a few kids hanging around the entrance to the ground. I paid my £8 admission, grabbed a programme and wandered into a covered enclosure where Hereford fans were beginning to pin giant HUFC flags to the fences. Happy to find signs of human life in Eastwood at last, I set about taking a walk around this most interesting little ground only to discover it had been segregated and I was in fact in with the away fans. Normally I'm not particularly choosy where or with whom I stand but today being a potential giantkilling day, I wanted to stand with the home supporters just in case they had some history to celebrate. I re-entered the ground on the Chewton Street side and went into the club which was heaving with Bulls fans, Badgers fans, genuinely curious locals and a table of elderly, roll-up smoking dominoes players who appeared oblivious to all the fuss and excitement going on around them. So this is where the good folks of Eastwood had been hiding...
Earlier in the morning the Badgers fans had turned out in large numbers for a 'Forkin' Party'. Now in Norfolk that might be another term for an orgy but here in Eastwood, a Forkin' Party involves around 50 die hards armed with garden forks turning up at the ground at 8am and spending three hours clearing the snow off the pitch. According to a chap I was speaking to, it really had been touch and go and had these happy forkers not turned up, the game would never have happened. They had done a sterling job as the pitch was completely free of snow although it had been heavily sanded in large sections right down the middle. This was the stuff upsets were made of I thought to myself as Hereford appeared in pristine yellow jerseys and the rain began to lash down.
It was evident after the first quarter of an hour that third in the Conference Hereford were not going to enjoy this afternoon one little bit. They struggled to get their passing game together on the difficult pitch whilst their hosts continually knocked playmakers Carey-Bertram and Williams off the ball with ease. Having already struck the foot of the post, Eastwood's prison guard Peter Knox thought he had scored on 32 minutes when he nudged the ball past the keeper towards goal. Incredibly however, the ball stopped dead in a little patch of sand two yards from the goal line. Hereford had been warned and they began to up their game without really threatening the Town keeper. The longer the game wore on, the noisier the Badgers fans became and when they opened the scoring five minutes into the second half through a sweet Deon Meikle shot, the noise from the vast majority of the 985 crowd was explosive. Now this is what I had come for and as every subsequent Hereford attack was snuffed out and the minutes ticked by, the excitement and anticipation around the place grew.
Hereford were utterly dominant by the 65th minute as Eastwood rarely escaped from their own half. When they did however, they looked like could get a second with every United player bar the keeper and skipper Tony James committed forward. On came the much travelled ex-pro Lee Mills in a last ditch attempt to salvage a draw for Hereford and minutes later he went down under the slightest of touches from a Town defender. Penalty to Hereford. It all seemed to happen in slow motion and it took a good five seconds for the Badgers to realise what had happened and for their bubble to burst. It was a dreadful decision by the referee and when James thrashed the ball one could sense the heartbreak around Coronation Park. Eastwood threw 16 year old Lindon Meikle onto the pitch, just four days before his big trials with Newcastle United and with just a couple of minutes remaining, he threaded a delightful ball through to Knox. With just the keeper to beat and the headlines waiting to be written, Knox struck the ball firm and sweet but the impressive Bulls keeper got a hand to it and send it trickling the wrong side of the post. And that was that. The Eastwood players, the club and the people of the town had given it everything and had come so close to the Trophy upset of the season. The mud-speckled players looked absolutely devastated as they trudged off, but they can go into Tuesday's replay confident of continuing their great Trophy adventure.
Tuesday 22nd February 2005, 7.45pm
Milton Keynes Dons (0)1 Hull City (0)1 (Football League Division One)
Programme: £2.50 for 54 pages
Blizzard warnings in East Anglia had been issued throughout the day and sure enough, upon reaching Cambridge the swirling rain and snow flurries arrived. Snow had already settled on the ground days before but this latest twist in the wintery weather instilled more than a little doubt as to whether tonight's game would go ahead. I decided to plough on through the hazardous conditions whilst listening attentively for any postponement news on Radio 5. A postponement at Rochdale then another in Scotland but no mention was made of Milton Keynes so I kept going, arriving at 7 o'clock in the alien city where roads are called 'V8' and roundabouts outnumber the people who live here by two to one. Probably. To my great delight I found the National Hockey Stadium illuminated and shining like a beacon in the freezing night sky. I hate Milton Keynes, always have done and when the sorry tale of Wimbledon ended up with the club being franchised to this Godforsaken new town, I hated Milton Keynes even more than I imagined I ever could. Tonight however would open my eyes and teach me some valuable lessons in reserving judgment.
I had only been out of the car two minutes and the snow had already settled on my extremities. I bought a ticket for £16, making sure I was in a covered area, and wandered around the perimetre of this curious new football league venue. Visiting Hull City fans were arriving by the coachload and starting to take up their places high up in the open terrace. From here, those already in the ground kept themselves amused by hurling snowballs over the back of the terrace and down onto those fans just arriving. One poor chap in a orange and black hooped bobble hat took one right between the eyes just as he was commenting on how cold it was as he stepped off the coach. I think that one was meant for me. These lot appeared to be in good humour and why not when their team were having such a fine season. The arctic conditions were clearly not going to dampen their spirits.
In a way I would have liked to have sat with the Hull fans who almost filled the aforementioned open terrace. But instead I settled for the covered 'Cowshed' which was populated by the newly converted football fans. 45 minutes before kick-off these crazy souls made a hell of a noise and slowly but surely my cynicism began to fade. Drums were beat, trumpets were blown whilst wonderful newly invented Womble-related songs were sung by each and every one of the replica shirted Dons. For this report I had considered delving into the politics and repercussions of the Dons controversial move to MK but seeing this carnival of football junkies in full swing, I really don't think there is any need to dwell on the past. It was quite simple: Milton Keynes was embracing it's own football league club whilst down in SW19 the original Dons were enjoying having their own phoenix from the flames. Life had moved on and things were looking rosy for both clubs.
A few days before my visit, work on MK's new stadium at Denbigh North had begun and in the programme notes, Pete Winkelman suggested he would be using Hull City as an example for his MK club to follow. This included the stadium itself which by all accounts will have similarities with the KC Stadium and hold in the region of 30,000. The new National Bowl they're calling it. For the time being however, MK will have to make do with the humble surroundings of the National Hockey Stadium which do not look out of place as a football venue as I had imagined. The excellent main stand for example is a towering affair, dominating the ground and stylishly furnished with executive boxes and minimal branding. Opposite this is the bizarre open seating block which tonight was out of bounds whilst to the left of this curio is the temporary 'Cowshed' where the chavs and Vicky Pollard-a-likes scream and shout themselves hoarse for 90 minutes. Tucked away in the corner by the Cowshed are a little family of concrete cows, just to remind us where we are.
When Dean Lewington put the Dons one up tonight, the noise inside the Cowshed was so loud that a low flying pigeon was instantly vaporised. The ginger haired Lewington had been a real threat all night and deserved his goal, albeit a fortunate one from a few inches out. Hull leveled the match with a controversial strike in the last minute when Delroy Facey, clearly in an offside position, twisted and turned the ball home from close range. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable match and and out and I drove home hopeful that MK would avoid relegation to the Second Division and begin a new journey up through the divisions just like their predecessors did all those years ago.
Saturday 19th February 2005, 3pm
Biggleswade United (6)10 Amersham Town (0)0 (Spartan South Midlands League Division One)
Programme: £1 for 28 pages
Following the previous week's ill-fated journey into Lancashire, I approached this weekend with a certain degree of trepidation. With the weather forecast not particularly inspiring, I decided to stick relatively close to home and in doing so renew my acquaintances with the friendly folks from Biggleswade's soon-to-be top club. Earlier in the season, I had seen United win a peculiar yet riveting match at Ampthill by six goals to three and with today's visitors in a similar predicament to Ampthill at the foot of the table, I had a good feeling that there may be a few goals. In the Second Meadow bar before the game, familiar faces warmly greeted me and tales of how United's season had unfolded since Ampthill were told. Their continuing good fortunes on the pitch were largely due to manager Snowy White's attack-minded approach to the game although when I learned that regular goalkeeper Dean Bull had been taken out of his normal position to occupy a role just in front of the two strikers for the past four weeks, I thought this was a little extreme. Still, United were top of Division One and looking good for promotion to the Premier Division where, assuming they are still in existence next season, they will face their neighbours Town from just behind the blackthorn hedge. Incidentally, United's reserves were today playing Town's reserve's next door and it was quite amusing to see the Unites fans rushing back and forth to see what was going on at each match.
A stylish looking programme clad in a nice red and blue cover was obtained and moments after, Biggleswade entered the pitch in the same colours looking bigger and more powerful than I remember and brimming with confidence. Amersham on the other hand appeared to be a rag-tag assortment of aging players, one with a dreadful greying poodle perm complete with headband, two centre halves under sixteen and well under six foot too and a giant striker by the name of Gavin Akers who turned out to the non-league equivalent of Emile Heskey. United scored twice in the opening ten minutes, the first a soft strike from Greig Toyer. This was Toyer's first of five this afternoon as the shiny headed thirty-something filled his boots. When you consider he has spent most of the season on the bench this was quite a feat. After a first half an hour in which Amersham probably edged United in possession, the hosts were four to the good and looked like scoring with every attack. When Robbie O'Dell curled home number five the amusing ex-keeper Dean Bull, who had been in a position to be passed to, screamed at his team mate “you strikers are so bloody selfish!”. The simple ball over the top did Amersham every time as their sluggish defenders struggled to get their offside trap right and failed to catch the nippy United wing backs each time they went clear. If United had scored every one on one they had in the first half, they would have been fifteen or sixteen up at the break instead of just the paltry six. Yes, it really was that one sided.
At half-time the travelling Amersham officials and supporters skulked in the corner of the clubhouse with their pot of tea and biscuits whilst the United officials roared with laughter and, perhaps a little unkindly, told one another of their personal highest scores seen. One chap had once seen a 24-0 which made me a little jealous as my record score was 15-2 when I saw Wroxham beat Thetford back in the mid-nineties. After the way Amersham had performed in the first half I think we all believed United would at the very least get double figures and maybe many more. When Toyer scored the tenth with half an hour still remaining, I really began to feel for the Amersham players, especially goalkeeper Leigh Dale who had played a blinder to keep the score to ten. Ten minutes passed without a goal and manager Snowy White began to fret. “Keep your shape!” he roared at his seemingly underachieving men and “Switch on boys, for Gods sake!”. The problem now was that every Biggleswade player wanted to score and this just lead to confusion when they went forward. Too many cooks and all that. Amersham began to grow in confidence and had a couple of shots beat away by the largely redundant United keeper. The game drifted towards it's end with Amersham bizarrely looking like they were the team 10-0 up. For hat reason alone they can feel proud of themselves and go into next week's game with confidence and their heads held high.
Saturday 12th February 2005, 3pm
Bacup Borough (0)0 Curzon Ashton (0)0 (North West Counties League Division One)
From time to time the traveller finds himself in football purgatory. Today was one such occasion and I should warn you now that a general tone a self-pity and downright misery engulfs large sections of this particular report. My problems began as early as the previous afternoon when my humble little Punto (or 'anorakmobile' as my laugh-a-minute father likes to refer to it) broke down in rural Suffolk. Two hours later I was on the back of a recovery truck with no chance of having my normally reliable little friend back in time for Saturday's long distance journey up to Lancashire (for which I had already purchased a Bolton ticket). Saturday morning came and with it, a phone call from the garage bearing good news. And bad. The bad news was that the cambelt had snapped and it was going to cost me a small fortune to get it replaced. The good news was that they had a courtesy car lined up for me which only later would I find struggled to reach 60 mph on the A1. It should have taken me three and a half hours to reach my chosen destination of Ramsbottom but instead it took five.
The weather on the way up didn't help and will go down as some of the worst I have ever driven in to reach a football match. Firstly we had the showers, lashing down and swirling around from slate grey Victorian skies above. Next was the sunshine bouncing back off the rain sodden M62, so bright it could have performed laser eye surgery. Then, worst of all, the vicious winds up on Saddleworth Moor which rattled the rustbucket I was driving to the very core. Still, I was making good time despite all this and when I pulled into Acre Bottom at 2.15 I was rather pleased with myself. Then, glancing out of the window I saw something which sent a chill up my spine: 'Ramsbottom v Formby – Match Off'. Bollocks. Without a back-up fixture my thoughts began to turn to my 5.15 kick-off at Bolton Wanderers. I had already looked through the fixtures in the NWCL and nothing had come up as a possible alternative, at least within a twenty mile radius of Bolton. I thought I'd have one final look through the fixtures and lucky I did as I noticed Bacup Borough had a home game. I must have mentally crossed them out as I knew they were not issuing this season but what the hell, desperate times call for desperate measures. A quick phonecall and I was on my way, speeding north-east through the adjoining parishes of Rawtenstall and Stacksteads and onto a glistening Bacup.
I made the kick-off with two minutes to spare. Having paid an ancient chap the £5 admission who confirmed that there was no programme “because the printers have burnt down” (I was told the same thing in September and again in December when I called the club), I settled down to watch the game against Curzon Ashton from behind the goal nearest the clubhouse/moss-encrusted disused caravans. I suppose I could have pulled the old boy up on his story and suggested there might be another printing firm in Lancashire, but I was just happy to be here, watching a match when only thirty minutes earlier I was muttering to myself about what a wasted journey it had been. After 75 minutes of the match, I had sunk back into this same self-pitying mood as the game remained goalless on the gluepot pitch and temperatures dipped below freezing. It was truly the worst game I had seen all season with just one shot on goal in the eighty minutes I endured. I was having convulsions by this point and with blue hands and an icicle hanging from the tip of my nose, I decided to leave early to make sure I reached Bolton in time where Okocha, Hasselbaink and Co would surely provide a few goals and some quality entertainment.
Despite the filthy weather and shocking game, I still managed to fall in love with West View which is undeniably a delightful little ground. Situated high above the Blackthorn end of town and tucked away down a narrow cul-de-sac, curiously named Cowtoot Lane, West View is carved into the rolling East Lancashire moors with panoramic views behind three sides of the ground. Beyond the ramshackle covered terrace at the far end (which itself is affixed to a tall drystone wall), the moors rise up dramatically with the tiny hamlet of Broad Clough just visible through the murky Lancashire skies. To the right, gently raking fields dotted with sheep and separated by crumbling drystone walls add to the rural flavour whilst the backdrop behind West View's quaint little 'McDonalds' adorned stand is again one of lush, green drama. If the setting is as spectacular as this in the dead of Winter, I would love to see how it looks in the August sunshine. Bacup are hoping to move up to the Northern Premier league at the end of the season and would appear to have the facilities to do so, even if they are homely and decrepit in parts. A coat of paint here and there, a removal service to take away the rotting caravans which seem to serve no purpose and a deal struck with a new printers and Bacup should move up the pyramid quite nicely.
Saturday 5th February 2005, 3pm
Alfreton Town (0) 0 Woking (2) 3 (FA Trophy Fourth Round)
Programme: £1.50 for 36 pages
Late on Friday evening the missus dropped a bombshell - she had decided to come to football with me. I tried reasoning with her, telling her that there would be no lunch in a quaint country pub by a riverside, nor would their be a chance to spend a small fortune in the trendy shops in Alfreton. But her mind was made up. Nicola and I have been together for over ten years and in that time she has watched only three matches with me, two of which involved Crewe and a total of 12 goals. Sadly the might of the Alex and our merry band of followers had not been enough to convert Nicola and as time has gone on, she has become one of football's more vociferous knockers. In fact it's fair to say that I have never in my life met anyone who hates football as much as Nicola does. Years of television images showing fat bellowing naked Geordies, moronic men singing what she describes as 'dreadful white noise' and Mark Lawrenson, have taken their toll on poor Nicola. So when she announced she would be attending the big FA Trophy tie between Alfreton and Woking with me, I foolishly thought there may be another chance to convert the long suffering love of my life.
We set out early and arrived at the Newark Antiques fair mid-morning. Yes, there was an ulterior motive after all. We spent a good couple of hours here before heading off in the direction of Mansfield. Nicola had promised to remain calm at all times today and I was suitably impressed by her restraint when without warning I pulled into the Bilsthorpe Colliery ground for a quick gander at Santos FC. We arrived in Alfreton at 2 o'clock where we had lunch in a little cafe before going shopping for a new coat for our homosexual whippet - he had chewed the last one to bits in an hour. Mission accomplished, Nicola and I plus the newly jacketed gay dog wandered back through the drizzly Derbyshire town towards the North Street football stadium. By now the ground was showing signs of the enormity of the game it was about to stage as hundreds of fans clad in the red and white of both clubs milled around outside.
The atmosphere inside was electric and we didn't have long to wait before the players came out and for the match to begin. But Nicola was cold and bored . Having paid £8 admission only five minutes earlier, Nicola decided she would rather sit in the car with the dog and read a book. And with that off she went leaving me free to rummage through the club shop which has just about the most programmes I have ever seen in one room at any one time. So many in fact it would take the best part of a weekend to even scratch the surface of what's hidden in here. Some of the piles were stacked up to the ceiling so precariously that I avoided certain parts of the shop in fear of embarrassing myself. I found a couple of gems I needed but couldn't help wondering what else was hidden in there under an inch thick coating of dust.
Alfreton Town were moving up the pyramid nicely and their ground was beginning to reflect their status as one of the country's top non-league sides. On the side nearest the main entrance the club have installed six rows of blue seats which stretch from corner flag to corner flag. Nothing unusual about that except that these are all uncovered. In Spain or even France maybe, but Alfreton?! The bulk of the noise was coming from the 'shed' at the far end where the Woking contingent had gathered and when their team scored twice in the space of a few minutes at the end of the first half, they went utterly loopy. A Woking fan I was speaking to before the game had told me they didn't care about the Trophy, just the league. Not on the evidence of the celebrations I thought. The two quickfire goals were hard on Town who for the majority of the half were much the better side. It would also become clear early in the second half that at 2-0 down, the fire in bellies of Town's influential ex-pros Mitch Ward and Peter Duffield was gone. Woking scored their third midway through the half and I took to scrabbling up the muddy bank in the far corner to get a shot or two of the whole ground.
Nicola had enjoyed a pleasant afternoon sat in the car on a council estate reading her book. It was nice to have some company on the long drive home for a change and when we stopped in a nice little pub in Oakham for tea I knew that this was going to be one of the more memorable footie days out. I doubt very much that Nicola will walk through another turnstyle with me for a few years but already looking forward to the day she does.
I had been rather excited about my planned trip to Burton-on-Trent since before Christmas. This would be Albion's last season at Eton Park and with today's visitors being the all conquering champions elect Barnet, what better occasion to make my first and last visit to this substantial old stadium. My forward planning for games consists of a diary into which I list the games I will definitely attend – nothing can possibly edge such games out of favour (not even my own team Crewe). Then I have a secondary list of games which I would like to attend but could be persuaded to ditch if a more attractive fixture comes along. Lastly I have a third selection of clubs that I would like to visit at some point but am happy to wait for a worthwhile fixture to crop up. As far as the decisions on which fixtures to go for is concerned, I'm a sucker for the top of the table club away from home. FA and County Cup competitions win hands down over a general league fixture whilst I'm also partial to a spot of top versus bottom or even the free scoring versus the whipping boys. That way, more often than not, you get see see a hatful of goals (nowt wrong with a little football sadism I say) or on a rare occasion a little giantkilling which can be equally satisfying.
Today's game most definitely fell into the 'list one' category. Barnet were absolutely flying this season and had left me a touch surprised by how far ahead they were of my own Conference tips Carlisle and Hereford. An insurmountable seventeen points clear of second placed City in fact. One other little sub-plot went into the decision and that was my own fondness for Barnet. When Barnet first went up to the league back in the early 90's their first game was against my beloved Crewe and the result on that day? 7-4 to Crewe. That match is one I still find myself telling folks about and it will take something out of this world to displace it from my all time top three games seen. The other two? You'll have to wait for those...
I travelled to Burton from Norwich along the A14 via Cambridge and Kettering before switching to the M1 then the A511 through Coalville, Ashby and on to Burton. Through the sprawling industrial landscape of the famous brewery town I drove to find Eton Park a good two miles or more from the town centre. The first thing I noticed upon arrival in the car park was Albion's new stadium just across the road. The Pirelli Stadium, as I believe it will be called, is looking superb and reminded me of the Crawley Town's Broadfield Stadium albeit on a smaller scale. Albion will begin next season here making it the third ground they will have played on in their relatively short history. In complete contrast to the gleaming new stands and and shiny floodlight pylons across the road, Eton Park is entering the twilight of it's life and it shows. Full of flaking paint, rickety stand supports and faded glamour, it's a wonderful old venue with bags of character and the loss of it will undoubtedly take the Albion faithful a long time to come to terms with. In addition, the clubhouse is one of those enormous old fashioned places with a wooden stage, dance floor and glitter ball. It reminded me of the old clubhouse at Boston United and similarly it was absolutely packed to the rafters before the kick-off today. I downed a quick pint of Bass (what else?) and made my way to the gate where it cost me a tenner plus a further £2 for a programme (which incidentally was full pictures of the new stadium going up – a nice souvenir to look back on in years to come I thought).
Barnet came onto the pitch in an unfamiliar all red strip without top scorer Grazioli and defensive rock Ismail Yakubu. This disappointed me a little as I had been looking forward to seeing 'Graz' again but Barnet still had too much strength for Albion, on paper at least. It took them until early in the second half to open the scoring and it came from the youngster Lee Roache who was filling in for the absent Grazioli. Last season I saw Roache score twice for Windsor at Met Police and it was evident today how much his game had come on since then. This boy is a prodigious talent and certainly one who I expect to go places in the game. Barnet should have wrapped things up by the 70th minute but in failing to do so, Albion always looked like they could get something from the game. And so they did, deep into injury time when the ground was half empty thanks to a close range strike from the bearded Darren Stride. Barnet didn't look too disappointed and another point added to their already massive tally takes them closer to the title which will be theirs sooner rather than later. Burton on the other hand also have everything to look forward to it would seem with the spanking new ground, an ever growing army of loyal fans and one of the brightest young managers around in Nigel Clough. Two clubs on the rise indeed.
Saturday 22nd January 2005, 3pm
Quorn (1)2 AFC Sudbury (0)3 After Extra-time (FAV 4)
Attendance: 443; Programme: £1 for 32 pages
Many, many donkeys years ago in rural north Leicestershire, a simple device consisting of two hunks of granite was created to grind down wheat and barley. This dubious feat of engineering was known as a 'quern', a word which eventually gave it's name to a small town. Quern became 'Quorn' over the years and today at the heart of the local football team's defence, Ricky Nurse and Jason Weafer were the modern day equivalent of those two lumps of granite, grinding down their opponents lethal strike force on numerous occasions during the first half. The AFC Sudbury bandwagon had rolled into the sleepy little town, home to just 4000 people, without much doubt that their side would brush Quorn aside and with it move on in a tournament they were now favourites to win. This was the third time this season I had seen Sudbury in Vase action following games at Stotfold and Harefield and each time their travelling support seemed to increase by double. Talking to friend from Sudbury before the match, confidence in his team's quest for that elusive first Vase was sky high amongst supporters and whilst arrogance it not a trait normally associated with these friendly folks from Suffolk, they didn't seem to think Quorn would pose much of a problem this afternoon. How wrong they were.
I had arrived in Quorn a good couple of hours before the big kick-off to find the visiting supporters already taking over the place in the usual assortment of yellow and blue top hats, replica shirts and giant flags. The Farley Way clubhouse was heaving so I decided to take a walk into the town which is approximately half a mile from the ground. Quorn is a quaint little place, full of interior design and antiques shops plus a chip shop which is amongst the best I have come across. On lampposts, in shop windows and even an upstairs bedroom posters were displayed advertising today's game which quite simply was the biggest in the club's history. For such a progressive little club with an excellent infrastructure, it was heartwarming to see Quorn doing so well this season both in the league and in the Vase. At Farley Way emphasis is firmly placed on youth and one has only to look at the talents that have been groomed here over the years to understand the club's philosophy. Jackie Lee, Dion Dublin and 2002/03's Midland Alliance leading scorer Luke Varney who joined my own club Crewe in the close season, have all pulled on a Quorn jersey. One suspects there are many more to follow these into the professional game in the future.
In 1994 Quorn moved from their humble Warwick Avenue ground to a new site on the northern outskirts of the town. Sutton Park, or Farley Way as it is more commonly known, has become one of the finest non-league arenas in this neck of the woods and is perfect in every way for the club's current status yet it's space and favourable location means it can easily be developed to suit their burgeoning ambitions. The main feature is the smart clubhouse which dominates the near side of the ground and proudly displays 'Quorn Football Club' in white lettering above the entrance. Opposite this is a low, 350 seater stand which will be extended to each corner thus giving it a capacity of 500 if and when Quorn move up to the next level of the pyramid. The most remarkable aspect of the ground however is the pitch – an immaculate, lush bowling green suited to the stylish brand of passing football the team plays. From the off Quorn made it clear that they had no intentions of losing this game to their illustrious visitors and when the boy with the red and black checkerboard hairdo hit a post early on, the Sudbury supporters drew the first of many collective sighs of relief. Joe Jonas was the talent in question and perhaps the next Quorn youngster destined for big things in the game. Signed from Highfield Rangers last season and still only 20, Jonas wreaked havoc all afternoon with his lightning pace and ability to beat players with ease. It was the diminutive Lee Dawson who shocked the visiting fans into silence however when from 25 yards out and facing away from goal, he hooked a stunning volley over Dean Greygoose to give Quorn a lead they richly deserved.
At half-time I overheard a father explaining to his clearly upset 8 year old that 'Sudbury can't win everything and from time to time we will lose a game'. When Quorn doubled their lead on 75 minutes, again through Dawson, the game looked won. But Sudbury have a habit of coming back from the dead and cries of 'remember Colne!' boomed out from behind Matt Nurse's goal which was by now seriously under threat. With five minutes left Lee Owen scored from close range and the belief amongst Sudbury fans was evident. The noise was deafening as wave upon wave of attack washed over Quorn until deep into injury time Gary Bennett dealt Quorn the cruelest blow. Nurse mistimed his clearance and the little bald striker nipped in to slot the ball home. Twenty or more delirious yellow clad fans swarmed onto the pitch to pat Bennett's shiny head in joy. One of Sudbury's greatest assets is that when they are in the groove, they can keep up an extremely high tempo and straight from the kick-off in extra time this was the case. Terry Rayner popped up with the winning goal on 94 minutes yet still they had to endure periods of incessant Quorn pressure as the game continued to swing from end to end. The key moment came when Quorn were awarded a penalty after 104 minutes by which point nerves were shredded and nails chewed to the quick. Lee Dawson stepped up confident of his hat-trick but Greygoose at full stretch clawed the ball around the post.
And that was that. I very much doubt that Sudbury will have a harder game than this before the final which in my opinion they are virtually certain to make for the third season running. Both sets of players hugged one another in a display which said everything about the effort and emotions that had gone into a truly memorable game whilst the supporters of both clubs stood and applauded long after the final whistle.
Saturday 15th January 2005, 3pm
Sutton United (0)0 Grays Athletic (0)2 (FAT 3)
Attendance: 544; Programme: £2 for 48 pages
Down at Gander Green Lane the memories of 1989's momentous FA Cup defeat of Coventry City live long in the memory. Today, the club shop was doing excellent business with the sales a new DVD of said match whilst a medley of Fine Young Cannibals, The Bangles and Kylie amongst others from 1989 I had been trying to forget burst out of the tannoy system. It wouldn't have surprised me one little bit if the Sutton players entered the pitch sporting Waddle-esque mullets whilst breakdancers entertained the crowd at half-time. I had arrived at the 'Borough Sports Ground' an hour before kick-off having taken a train from Blackfriars to West Sutton. This journey takes takes approximately one hour although it seems like three if you're stuck in a carriage with the Lewisham Kids Club on their way to Chessington World of Adventure like I was. Turn right out of the station and the entrance to the ground is just a few hundred yards up the road. Sometimes I'm amazed at how familiar places seem when visited for the first time. This is what immediately struck me with Sutton United for having watched the highlights of that famous day all those years ago, the television images of Gander Green Lane had stayed with me, buried deep in the unconscious to be awoken today. Things had of course altered slightly but the ground is unmistakably the venue of that famous giant-killing. The parkland rolling away behind the popular side which formed the backdrop of Tony Rains and Matthew Hanlan's goals is still there whilst the oval shape to the ground is intact at one end (not for much longer however as Sutton aim to 'square' this up in the close season). The main stand, packed today as it was in 1989 has changed little and some of the advertising boards which adorn the fascia look to be from that period.
The work ethic of the volunteers is something which also struck me as old-fashioned handwritten 'Golden Goal' cards were on sale and four people were involved in the running of the busy little shop. Rose's tea bar was doing a roaring trade and an old supporter told me Rose had been here as long as he could remember. A local club for local people indeed and one where the banter was as rich and warm on terraces as it was back in the good old days. The only utterance of anything remotely unpleasant from the home fans was from one old boy who croaked 'You're a bloody fool, linesman' a couple of times after Grays had scored. On the other side of the ground however, the potty-mouthed chavs from deepest Essex were a little more savage with their verbal acrobatics, and sentences consisting of the 'f' word followed by the 'c' word followed by the 'f' word etc could be heard resounding around leafy Surrey for the entire 90 minutes. At one point this shameful racket was aimed directly at a young steward who was so intimidated he sloped off to be replaced by an older, burlier chap in a yellow jacket. They left him alone for about ten minutes then started a fresh assault on him.
I had seen Conference South dead certs Grays a couple of times this season therefore I knew what they were about – an exciting mix of ex-pros, young talents fresh off the books of league clubs and a team spirit loftier than any I had seen all season. Sutton on the other hand were an unknown quantity to me although I had noted before the game that they were on something of a mini revival having won their last six matches on the spin. The sides had met in the league already this season and Grays had triumphed 5-1 on that day although recent form suggested it would be a much tighter affair today. Grays had already made it clear on their website that they were hungry for a league and Trophy double whilst Sutton, comfortably in mid-table had just the Trophy left as far as premier competitions were concerned. It was all set up for an interesting afternoon and when Sutton came on wearing the famous chocolate and amber alongside Grays in a vivid shade of purple, things suddenly became a little more interesting. I had always though Sutton v Dulwich – chocolate and amber versus pink and blue – would be football equivalent of tripping on acid but the assortment of colours on show today were enough to earn both teams parts as extras in the new Magic Roundabout film.
The first half was a tame affair which Sutton probably edged. Grays had yet to find their rhythm but one suspected that if and when they did, they would brush their hosts aside. It took them until the 54th minute to do so as Dennis Oli nodded the ball home from a sweet cross from Martin. Sutton huffed and puffed as they searched for an equaliser but their midfield general Peter Fear was out of sorts today and as a result the rest of the team seemed to suffer. Grays wrapped things up with twenty minutes left as Leroy Griffiths, only on as a sub for two minutes, crashed home a volley from close range. And that was how it remained although a few weeks later Grays would return to Gander Green Lane in a league match and hammer poor Sutton 6-0. With twelve matches or so to go before the end of the Conference season, my money is on Grays for league and cup double – they remind me of Canvey last season (although they wouldn't thank me for that!) and look what they achieved last year. Sutton on the other hand have a lot of work to do if they are to get back to the summit where they spent so many years in the 80's and 90's.
Tuesday 11th January 2005, 7.45pm
Kettering Town (1)1 Nuneaton Borough (0)0 (FCN)
Attendance: 1,117; Programme: £2 for 48 pages
On the way up to Kettering I was listening to a piece on the radio about the increasing problem of pub-related antisocial behaviour in town centres across England. A recent survey of the most troublesome spots had put the Northampshire town at the top and a pub landlord came on to talk about the mindless thuggery going on in Kettering when the rivers of alchohol begin to flow. I had planned to spend a few hours in a couple of real ale pubs I had picked out from the latest Good Pub Guide but decided to shift my attention to Town's clubhouse upon hearing this. Whilst I'm sure much of the report was overblown nonsense, a little paranoia overcame me in the Rockingham Road club and I couldn't help but notice a collection of gnarled faces, clenches fists and boorish blokey bellowing. I soon snapped out of it when I remembered that this sort of thing goes on every Saturday in every clubhouse across the land and one or twice I too have been guilty of it.
Remarkably, Rockingham Road was getting busy as early as 6.15pm with plenty of people milling around the club shop or simply chatting in small groups about the club's fortunes. I had parked up in the car park beneath the imposing hulk of the main stand, the end of which looms up over Rockingham Road like a huge set of mechanical jaws. Despite having played a few games more than their nearest rivals Southport and Harrogate, Kettering were sitting pretty at the top of the Conference North and looking a good bet for promotion back to top flight where they had of course spent so many years back in the 80's and 90's. Back then Town were one of the country's top non-league outfits and their loyal band of supporters had stuck with their team over the years confirming them as one of the best supported teams outside the league. When I saw them last season in the Isthmian Premier at Carshalton (how ridiculous of the powers that be to place the Midlands club in a predominantly London based competition), they brought around 400 supporters with them. Suffice to say I was rather excited about standing amongst their joyful band of followers once more, especially as the the team were currently in such a rich vein of form.
Nuneaton for their part were also having a great season and were only a few places behind Kettering in the table. My £8 was paid at a little turnstyle block built into an old red brick wall on the north side of the ground and a decent programme purchased for £2. Having seen plenty of photographs of the ground over the years, I was aware of the peculiar position of the main stand (from corner to halfway line) but what did surprise me was the aging appearance of the rest of the ground. Whilst the stand still looks tidy and smart with it's grey corrugated cladding, the terracing is crumbling and patched up (with garden slabs in some areas!) and the the corner to corner covered terrace opposite the main stand is in need of a coat of paint and general attention. Kettering came out onto the pitch to rapturous applause and responded by playing some excellent football early on. By the twentieth minute however, it was clear that Borough had no intentions of going home empty handed and their huge, powerful midfield line were doing a grand job in snuffing out Town's free flowing moves. In fact, it was Nuneaton who came closest to opening the scoring before they fell behind in the 38th minute to Rowan's close range finish following excellent work by the silky-toed Ollie Burgess. As the game wore on it was the visitors who looked the most likely but excellent last ditch tackles from Diuk and the excellent Solkhon kept Town on course in their quest to return to the promised land.
A few days after the game I heard that Town's future may be in jeopardy if they don't find a site for a new stadium soon. Whilst the details were sketchy (courtesy of Radio Northants) it would appear that they are facing a situation where the ground is being sold from beneath them and so they need to relocate quickly or face the possibility of folding. Let's hope that such a situation can be avoided as the footballing world can ill afford to lose a club like Kettering Town.
Saturday 8th January 2005, 3pm
Non-league football is the bread and butter of my travels but from time to time I like to dip into the generally overrated world of the professional game. On Saturday 8th January, I went from the previous Monday's rootsy splendour of the Arbories, Padiham to the glitz and glamour of Stamford Bridge for Chelsea's potential banana skin Cup tie with Scunthorpe. Three factors constituted my decision to purchase a ticket four weeks before the game. Firstly, I had not been to Stamford Bridge since their stint in the old second division back in the late 80's and I was curious to see how the stadium had been reconfigured into it's tight environs. Secondly, £40 + for a ticket was the kind of money that only a band-wagon jumping merchant banker would pay to see a bunch of overpaid whingers but a rather more favourable £25 on offer because of the supposedly inferior opposition did seem quite so extortionate. Lastly, the magic of the Cup was enough to lure me down to the smoke on a cold Winter's day.
If like me you're a big jesse when it comes to driving into London, I would recommend parking up at either Epping or on this occasion Redbridge (assuming you're coming in from the north) and taking the underground in – the car park here is just £2 for the day. Happy in the knowledge that the missus was lost in a mini-world of consumerism at Harrods for the next four hours, I caught a tube full of Scunthorpe claret down to Fulham Broadway and made my way to the Bridge. For a ground the size of Stamford Bridge, it's remarkably secluded behind the imposing fascias of 1m + houses and shopping complexes. Seeing the stark exterior of the West Stand for the first time, a shopping mall is immediately what came to mind as the new brick and shiny cladding resemble any new development in any town or city. That's not to say the exterior of the Bridge is unimpressive – it's sheer scale, tidy use of club logos and minimal wording make take it into a brave new world of stadium design where the richness of the club colours, advertising and razzmataz are all on the inside. A quick walk to around to the old Shed End to find huge blocks of Ken Bates commissioned flats have shot up in front of it. I was beginning to understand Ken's dream of the Chelsea Village and the Bates Motel. The simply monstrous East Stand however remains exposed at the rear with pipes, girders and supports criss-crossing at every imaginable angle above what must be the classiest chip shop in the west end and some curious Victorian wall mounted lamps along the gangway. Round the corner and a quick look at the Matthew Harding Stand fascia. This was the stand which raised the bar in terms of innovative design because of it's minimalist roof supports. At this point I was hurried along by a stern looking copper on horseback and with a happy band of 10,000 Scunthorpe fans heading in my direction, I decided it was time to take up my seat inside.
The romance of the cup, eh? Never more appropriate than at a game such as this (unless I suppose it was at the Glanford Park). The small Lincolnshire town must have been an eerie place this afternoon as 10% of it's population descended upon West London. Inside they made a wonderful noise and set free thousands of claret and blue balloons which caused mayhem in the Chelsea penalty box each time Scunthorpe carved out a chance. At one point Geremi was caught cold on a short corner as the 40k per week midfielder humpily stamped on a collection of balloons that had gathered near the corner flag. How the Iron laughed as their latex secret weapons did the business. And then on eight minutes the impossible happened as Paul Hayes coolly nutmegged Carlo Cudicini to gave Scunthorpe a sensational lead. Both sets of fans were momentarily stunned. I quickly tuned into Radio 5 on my pocket tranny to hear how the goal was announced. It took fully three minutes before their reporter screamed the news to the world and my guess is that this extraordinarily long wait was because that was how long it took before the producers actually believed what had happened. Here was the mighty Chelsea, top of the Premiership with the meanest defence 1-0 down to their Division Two visitors...was a fairytale along the lines of Hereford v Newcastle unfolding?
Sadly not and after a spell of intense Scunthorpe pressure where they could easily have gone further ahead, Mateus Kezman lashed a splendid volley into the roof of the net for the equaliser. The Chelsea fans barely raised their voices – an arrogance born out of their complete domination this season I guess. Half time came and went and with it, £4 from my pocket on a pitiful excuse for a hot-dog. Chelsea went ahead soon after when the impressive Drogba's cross shot was turned into his own net by the unfortunate Crosby. The Irons continue the threaten however and hit the post on 64 minutes to underline their intentions. How they were made to pay for missed chances however as four minutes from the end, Gudjohnsen poked home from close range following good work from the new Cruyff, Arjen Robben. What a player he is.
So the dream was over but anyone who saw the game would have agreed that Scunthorpe and their fans fully deserved something from the game. They didn't appear to care however as they sung their hearts out long after the final whistle to leave a lasting impression on the fancy dans of the Premiership.
Monday 3rd January 2005, 12.05pm
Halifax Town (1)1 Accrington Stanley (1)2 (Football Conference)
Programme: £2.50 for 44 pages
For a three-in-a-day effort, stamina and forward planning are essential requirements plus a smidgen of luck regarding the traffic and a dose of madness for deciding to go through with it all in the first place. When I told the missus what I had in mind, referring to it as my 'northern odyssey', she promptly told me I was a southern oddity. Having down got my head down at 9 o'clock the previous night, I was ready for the challenge which meant an early start leaving Norfolk at 6.30 am. Bearing in mind today was a bank holiday, from King's Lynn onwards the traffic was heaven sent with not one hold up and no roadworks, just miles and miles of open road with just the occasional car for company. The only downside of this excellent run was that instead of arriving in Halifax at the expected 11 am, I was parked up at The Shay Stadium at 9.30 with a hunch that finding a couple of hours entertainment on a dreary bank holiday in the old mill town might be difficult.
So little was happening in and around the town centre that one could easily have been forgiven for thinking that that old song 'Ghost Town' was written about Halifax. The streets were empty and the shops closed yet this allowed the imposing old buildings, cobbled alleyways and nooks and crannies to be seen in all their charismatic northern glory. I picked up a cheap map and guide and promptly went on a whistle-stop tour of the town taking in the Dean Clough art galleries (which are housed in a wonderful old Victorian carpet mill) and the Piece Hall, an old cloth hall which now serves as an antiques centre. Having been to Bradford on many occasions and become smitten by it's industrial landscape and Victorian architecture, it didn't take me long to warm to Halifax. A quick half in the Shay pub then it was time to make my way up Shaw Hill to the ground. It only seems like yesterday when I was paying £12 to watch the likes of Newcastle and Liverpool yet these days football has become so expensive that steep admission costs have filtered right down into the non-league world. Still, I have no problem in giving my £12 to clubs like Halifax Town who for so many decades struggled in the lower reaches of the football league and more recently in the Conference. This season however you may find yourself rubbing your eyes when looking at the table as the Shay Men are pushing hard for a play-off spot. In fact, if they won today they would move into third and a real chance of getting back into the league perhaps wouldn't be that far away.
The Shay has changed much in recent years yet is still as instantly recognisable as it was back in the 70's and 80's. The vast oval speedway track has long gone as have two of the ramshackle old stands. Happily however the iconic main stand remains, still embedded in the steep grassy banks either side which serve as a reminder that the Shay was once a council rubbish tip (and until the rebuild, locals may have said still was). High above the new away end, church spires, chimneys and the bleak headquarters of the Halifax bank create the distinct skyline that has looked down upon this humble venue for so many years. In place of the old stands basic, boxy covered terraces have shot up and along the Shaw Hill side, a huge new one tier stand is nearing completion. Only a handful of seats have been fitted into this stand yet today, these were occupied by various officials and dignitaries who looked marooned on the little patch of blue in amongst row upon row of empty concrete steps. The overall appearance of the 21st century Shay is one of simplicity basic functionality and for a club of it's size, this is more than adequate.
Fellow ex-league side Accrington Stanley provided the opposition today in front of the Sky tv cameras. Giant banners in red and white proudly announced that this was 'Stanley: the club that wouldn't die' and that 'Stanley are back'. This really was a game between two sides who had fallen as hard as any yet were both on the way back up. For all the supporters who had stuck with the clubs through thin and thinner, supporting their teams in these heady times must be infinitely more satisfying than, say, being a Manchester United or Chelsea fan. Halifax took the lead through their exciting young winger Dean Howell when his first shot was parried by Paul Crichton and with back to goal, he cheekily back-heeled the ball over the line. Stanley were level just before the break when Steve Jagielka fired home a stunning volley via the post. The second half, although not as lively as the first, saw Stanley nudge ahead with a Ged Brannan header and despite severe late pressure from the Shay Men, the visitors from just across the hills in Lacashire held on to take three very important points. I swiftly headed for the exit and to my car – I still had three hours of football to watch and I didn't want to miss a minute.
Monday 3rd January 2005, 3pm
Padiham (2)3 Silsden (1)1 (North West Counties League Division Two)
Programme: £1 for 48 pages
Following the game at The Shay, I had a choice of two routes which would take me deep into the heart of Lancashire. Either I could take the scenic route through Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and on to Burnley and Padiham or I could keep things simple by taking the M62 and M66 – a slightly longer route but one which would avoid unknown villages and speed restrictions. Time was of the essence with only an hour until my 3 o'clock kick-off so for these reasons alone I decided to go for the motorways and was surprised to find myself in Padiham with twenty minutes before the game started. Parked up in a cul-de-sac a few roads away from the ground, I located the Arbories Memorial Sports Ground tucked away up the picturesque Well Street. A steep flight of steps lead up to the entrance where I paid £3 admission and watched in horror as the chap in front of me purchased the last programmme. This was a big game with Padiham second in the table and visitors Silsden just behind them in third with games in hand but I got the feeling that the attendance of 265, swelled by two coach loads from Silsden, was way beyond Padiham's estimates. In fact, I would be very surprised if the excellent crowd wasn't the best in division two come the end of the season.
Luckily I found club secretary Alan Smith in the bustling bar and it was he who provided me with a copy of 'Padiham News & Review': a smart, informative programme which is one of the finest I have seen this season. No wonder they sold out so quickly. Despite the damp Lancashire weather and new shoes, I decided to stand amongst the knee-tickling grass atop the bank which runs the length of the pitch opposite the stands. From here, the panoramic views across Padiham and towards Burnley are breathtaking and reminded me of why I chose to watch non-league over league football all those years ago. Here in Britain we are blessed with football grounds in every imaginable setting, from those Northern League venues where pit wheels loom up over the pitch to the grounds of the Hellenic league of which many are completely at one with nature. Up in the North West Counties League it's the Pennines, the backbone of Britain, which give so many of the grounds their flavour. Here in the borough of Burnley's second town, these hills rise up dramatically beyond the townships reminding us all know how small we really are. .
Having only moved up to the North West Counties League this season, Silsden were clearly enjoying life at the higher level. So too were their fans who today came dressed in the sort of ridiculous hats normally associated with the Glastonbury festival except these were adorned with Keighley Cougars logos, Shamrocks and other rugby related heraldry. From a town located in the heart of rugby country, it was heartwarming to see it's inhabitants embracing the minority sport of football so passionately and today the folks from Silsden sung the spotty teenagers of Padiham off the park. Don't get me wrong, the Padiham Kids Football Choir did their best but the likes of 'you can't play football 'cause you're rugby w****rs!' to the tune of God knows what were mercilessly beat down by the harmonious, rugby-styled anthems coming from the throng of Silsden fans under the cover behind the goal. If Silsden won this particular battle however, they certainly didn't out on the pitch where Padiham played a brand of football so stylish it belied their current status. They pushed the ball around with great panache often stringing twenty or more passes together without their visitors touching the ball. Dan Stubberfield struck a beautiful goal with his left foot on 17 minutes before Silsden hit back when Martin Bland poked home. Just before half-time, Mark Almond scored for Padiham when he looked offside leaving the Silsden players with a certain amount of tainted love for the officials.
If the second half was only half as good as the first I would have been very happy but when Telfer struck a shot over the keeper from the touchline to make it 3-1 just after the restart, the game as a spectacle just seemed to die. From that point on, the football was lazy and shoddy and rarely was either goalkeeper tested. The only moment of excitement came when the aforementioned Telfer was sent-off for a grimace inducing two footed tackle which left the Silsden player in a heap. Despite his obvious agony, he still managed to throw a punch at Telfer whilst on the deck and he too saw red. By now darkness had descended over Padiham and the stunning vista beyond the Arbories was peppered with thousands of tiny lights. The referee blew his whistle and the Silsden lot in their daft top hats sheepishly made for the exit as the singing kids hurled all kinds of taunts and insults in their direction. Although Cammell Laird at the top of the table seem to have things pretty much wrapped up, I would certainly fancy both of these sides to finish in promotion positions which for Silsden in their first NWCL season especially, would be a remarkable achievement. I'm looking forward already to seeing both sides later in the season...
Monday 3rd January 2005, 7.45pm
Stocksbridge Park Steels (0)2 Ossett Albion (1)2 (Northern Premier League Division One)
Programme: £1 for 64 pages
Having climbed the potholed, near vertical Bracken Moor Lane in first gear to reach the summit, I parked up in the car park across the road from the club. With the wind swirling around the moors tonight and the sky as black as the coal they used to mine round here, I thought for one horrible moment that I was walking towards the Slaughtered Lamb in 'An American Werewolf in London'. Upon arrival at 6.45 there was not a soul in sight. The floodlights were off and all one could see in the darkness at the top of the moor was the eerie neon sign of the Miners Arms fifty yards up the road and the dimly lit yorkstone fascia of the Bracken Moor Club. Had I got the wrong place and would the locals turn me out onto the wild moors where who knows what lie in wait? Happily not and at 7 o'clock the lights flickered into action and the old wooden door of the turnstyle block creaked open to offer a glimpse of what lay ahead.
Inside Bracken Moor, we find a truly unusual ground that has similarities with the old Bishop Auckland stadium at Kingsway. With only three sides (the fourth opposite the main stand is fenced with the cricket pitch just behind), the club have squeezed as many spectator facilities into and up the steep banks around the pitch as possible. Tucked between the magnificent grandstand and two-tier changing block lies a 15 foot long bank of terracing so deep it should really have sign warning anyone with vertigo to look elsewhere for a viewpoint. My little legs couldn't even get me up the first step for God's sake! Then behind the near goal nestles an odd little stretch of cover which juxtaposed with the two storey clubhouse, deep terracing with crush barriers and wonky floodlight mast offer up some very strange angles. Between the terrace in front of the clubhouse and the changing/groundsman's rooms is a little landscaped garden planted up with Euonymus and Berberis whilst beyond the grandstand towards the far corner of the ground, a drystone wall has been built into the bottom of the bank. This acts as clever little drainage system as the water runs down the bank, through the gaps in the wall and collects in a little conduit which runs one third the length of the pitch. If all this is beginning to sound a little like a Dali painting, then add the surreal orange lighting enshrouding the clubhouse and interior of the main stand and you have one of the strangest little grounds I have ever seen. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely adore Bracken Moor's quirkiness but it's certainly a non-league oddball.
Perhaps all this was heightened by the fact I was shattered by the time I reached Stocksbridge not to mention as hungry as the wolf out there on the moors. I was delighted to find the tea bar (which is shared with the club shop) serving up a range of wonderful exotic foods and for just a measly £1.60 I treated myself to pie, mushy peas and gravy. Bargain of the day. I took my seat in the stand which although only stretching one third of the pitch feels and looks much larger. Constructed around a steel frame (surprise, surprise), it has huge glass screen ends, a little wooden box for the media at the rear and most notably, wonderful old wooden tip-up slatted seats which are painted in rows of yellow and blue. Steels entered the pitch in the same colours against an Ossett Albion side just a point behind them in mid-table. With Division One play-off places up for grabs this season, this was an important game for both sides and unsurprisingly they set off and a ferocious pace. Steels were having the better of the game until Danny Toronczak slotted the ball home for Ossett on 33 minutes and this is how it remained at half-time. After having another go at getting up that terrace and failing, I decided to have a rummage through the vast quantity of programmes in the shop. There I stumbled across one of the six Bury Town away programmes I'm missing from my collection. The day was just getting better and better.
Steels deservedly levelled on 59 minutes when Andy Smith tapped in from a few yards before Scott Bates gave them the lead which a great finish at the far post. The hosts were in the ascendancy now and should have gone further ahead when Hannah missed an open goal. As is often the case however, they were made to pay when Adam Fretwell curled home a delicious free-kick with 20 minutes left and thats how the game finished. Neither side looked particularly chuffed when the whistle went but at least it keeps both in the hunt.
As for me, I arrived back in Norwich earlier than expected at 12.30 where I reflected upon what had been one of the most memorable days of football I had had in a long time.
Northampton Spencer (1)1 Cogenhoe United (2)3 (United Counties League Premier Division)
Programme: 50p for 24 pages
I woke early with the faint traces of Boxing Day's hangover still in the system and a mild anxiety as I peered out the window of the in-laws box room to find a frost had descended upon Bury St. Edmunds. With the forecast predicting a big freeze, I had ditched plans the previous night of a long distance Wessex triple in favour of a more sensible (according to the missus) double in the Northampton area. Seeing the frost however, even that was now in jeopardy. At 7 o'clock I tip-toed away from snoring relatives leaving the mountains of Turkish Delight, sugared almonds and the by now nightmarish outlaws behind. At last I could breathe again. It was still too early to make calls to Northampton Spencer and Sileby Rangers so I headed off into the great unknown with a sore head and three back up midday fixtures just in case. Pulling into a service station in Raunds at 10 o'clock and making a few calls, I was able to cross off those three (Daventry, Woodford & Whitworths) yet could still not reach the Spencer club. It was too late by now to look for other midday alternatives so I made the decision to simply go for it and when upon arrival at Kingsthorpe Mill I spotted a player pulling his kit bag from the boot of his car, I punched the air with joy, demolishing the rear view mirror in my car in the process.
Kingsthorpe is district of Northampton around two miles north of the town centre on the Market Harborough road. The ground can be found by taking a left turn at the Netto store (10 pens for the anorak for 19p!) then the first right into Studland Road, through the industrial estate and down past a rag-tag collection of allotments into the club car park. No sign of the mill indicated in the club address but a charming rustic setting nevertheless with the ground hemmed in between the aforementioned allotments and old railway sidings and sheds. Behind the goal nearest the clubhouse panoramic views of Northampton town can be had, this morning through the crisp sunlit December sky. Delighted to find the game on and the pitch in surprisingly good nick considering nearly every other game in this neck of the woods had been called off, I did my good deed of the day by giving the seats in the stand a wipe over with the beer towel kindly put out by the chap on the gate. He in turn thanked me by giving me a remarkable chronological year by year history of the Spencer club which after about twenty minutes began to take it's toll on my still sore head. When the programmes finally arrived five minutes before kick off, I was able read a rather familiar club history which almost word for word echoed the gate man's recital. So the humble gate man was secretly the club historian. Incidentally, the programme is a most unusual half A4 size which has pages folded in three sections enabling the reader to neatly fold them back into the shell then tuck the programme into his/her pocket without having to bend it. A nice idea and reminiscent of some old programmes I have in my collection from teams like Swallownest MW and Bury.
A few weeks ago I reported from a game involving Harrowby United and Yaxley. Today I would see the third team involved in the intriguing United Counties League title race, Cogenhoe United. By kick-off Kingsthorpe Mill was heaving with an attendance three times Spencer's average. Made up of around 40% Cogenhoe supporters, a large number of folks moaning about the game they tried to get to being called off plus a gaggle of Posh Spice clones in the main stand. Players wives and girlfriends no doubt. With Spencer down the table in 16th but having recently put together some good wins, the game promised much and when Spencer took the lead on five minutes Cogenhoe were suitably shocked into playing some of the football that had taken them to the top of the table. Matt Ablett gave Spencer the lead when he found the ball bouncing at his feet 30 yards from goal and in a flash launched a half-volley lob over the backtracking Pete Earl in the Cooks goal. A wonder strike and one which would not be bettered this afternoon. Cogenhoe were level on 14 minutes when Rob Golding scored with a header from an acute angle and six minutes later Darren Collins had put them 2-1 up. A Cooks fan next to me gave me a knowing smile and commented rather boldly 'we'll score a hatful now'. If if wasn't for the magnificent Gavin Nullatumby, Spencer's one-man defence, the game may well have been over by half-time but Captain Tumbo made at least eight last ditch tackles and interceptions to keep Cogenhoe at bay.
At half-time the queue for the tea-bar stretched halfway back to Northampton so I decided to have a quick shandy in the clubhouse. There I got speaking with a chap from Cogenhoe who informed me that the Cooks had no intention of applying for promotion at the end of this season as they will continue to upgrade their Compton Park base for a few seasons. He went on to tell me that Harrowby United would be applying to the Southern League however. This surprised me no end as I found the Harrowby Fields grounds to be one of the more modest grounds in the UCL. It will certainly take some work over the summer to bring the ground up to scratch if Harrowby finish in a promotion position. Back outside the temperature had dipped dramatically as the teams came out for the second half. The quality dropped a few notches too as Cogenhoe seemed content to pass the ball around with ease but without much intent. They finally finished Spencer off with a third goal on 82 minutes when Richard Turner slotted past the marooned Ollie Urquhart. At that point I received a call from the Sileby Rangers secretary to inform me that their 4pm game had been called off. With eight minutes to go before the final whistle, I found myself with no afternoon fixture and after disappointing calls to Buckingham Town and Stewart & Lloyds, I didn't fancy my chances of finding one...
Monday 27th December, 3pm
Banbury United (0)0 Rugby United (0)0 (Southern League Premier Division)
Programme: £1.50 for 48 pages
Despondent and ready for the journey home, I almost didn't bother calling Banbury United as I was sure the North Oxfordshire town was beyond reach in the 55 minutes I had before kick-off. Fortunately I spoke with an enthusiastic and kindly fellow who told me not only had the pitch been passed as playable but if I drove at ninety through the county with officially the most speed safety cameras in England, I should get to Banbury by 2.45. Although I didn't take his driving advice, his optimism was infectious and so it was I found myself heading away from Northampton Spencer and towards The Spencer Stadium, Banbury. I arrived in the town with enough time to enjoy the luxury of finding a decent parking spot close to the railway station but sadly not enough time to enjoy a Banbury cake beneath Banbury Cross. Still, walking along the narrowing lane past the forlorn assortment of rusting corrugated buildings and disused railway sidings, the man from Banbury's words of “get yourself down here – it should be a cracking match” went through my mind and I must admit to feeling genuinely excited that I was about to see another game.
I paid my £7 admission, passed through the turnstiles and was startled to hear the volume at which the home supporters sang “Ban-bur-ee, Ban-bur-ee, Ban-bur-ee!”. This was promptly followed up by the “There's Only One Club In Oxfordshire, One Club...” although I wasn't surprised when I didn't hear a rendition of 'Stand Up for the Gay Puritans, Stand Up...'. A marvellous nickname indeed although the club seemed to have fallen out of favour with the 'Gay' part of the name of late and nowadays refer to the club simply as the 'Puritans'. The Spencer Stadium is certainly a charismatic old venue, built in 1935 and altered little throughout the years apart from the recent addition of the sparkling new grandstand. It reminds me a little of Sheppey United's old Botany Road ground with lots of simple corrugated cover atop gently raked ancient terracing. The gable ends of the old flaking works sheds and railway buildings loom up menacingly over the pitch giving the place an industrial feel whilst the decent crowd clad in club shirts and scarves gave the impression that Banbury have truly regained their rightful position in the upper echelons of the non-league world. When Tiverton visited the previous week, the attendance was up at over 600 although today's crowd was slightly down on that at 468. If Banbury get themselves towards the top of the table I don't think they would have any problems getting four figures through the gates each week.
Today saw the visit of Rugby United from 30 miles up the road. With both sides tucked safely in mid-table, now was the time to put a run together if either club were to make a charge towards the summit. I was excited to see Banbury had ex-Peterborough and Blackpool striker Howard Forinton in their side whom I had not seen for a few years. When I last saw him, he was playing for Farnborough and on that afternoon he scored a stunning hat-trick. The game started brightly with the football swinging from end to end but as the game drifted on the chances became few and far between. By the 75th minute, there was so little happening on the pitch that the majority of the crowd had turned their attentions to singing Christmas carols completely unrelated to the football in any way. Just as the second verse of 'Silent Night' filled the air, Forinton was hauled down in the Rugby box for a blatant penalty. Remarkably however, the ref waved play on and with it went my chance of going a season without a 0-0 and more importantly three points for the Puritans. Suddenly 'Silent Night' had turned a vivid shade of blue as the Puritans angst resounded around the stadium. This turned out to be the only real talking point of the entire match and walking out of the ground after the game, everyone was talking about it like it had just cost Banbury the title. It was this passion which cemented my belief that Banbury, like other relatively isolated town such as King's Lynn, have the support behind them to really take them up the Pyramid.
Despite the result and general lack of match excitement, my visit to the Spencer Stadium was a very pleasurable one. When a club is lucky enough to have a loyal and vociferous set of supporters who turn up week in week out, the football can often be secondary to the experience of matchday itself.
Saturday 18h December 2004, 3pm
Wolverhampton Wanderers (0) 1 Crewe Alex (1) 1
The Coca-Cola Football League Championship; Attendance: 25,340; Programme: £2.50 for 68 pages
I'd been looking forward to my trip to Wolverhampton for many weeks now. With Christmas in the air and my beloved Crewe in a rich vein of form, today would be a special day full of excitement and joy - providing I could get myself out of the A14 gridlock at Kettering which I had now been sat in for over 45 minutes. Everyone has been in a situation like this, where thoughts of not being able to make the game flash through the mind and where the frustrated hammering of fists on the steering wheel only serve to make you look like an impatient idiot to other drivers. Scanning the 'Football Traveller' for an alternative only seemed to heighten my disappointment at not being able to watch the Alex on their march up the table. But seconds after making my mind up to visit Rothwell Town, the traffic started to rumble forwards and in minutes I had picked up a speed which would normally have turned my face the colour of that fluffy stuff we all hope will settle on the ground this time of year. It took just over an hour from Kettering to reach Wolverhampton via the M6 and the M54 and having taken advantage of the city's festive generousity – the free park and ride – I was standing outside Molineux Stadium with 45 minutes to go before kick off and a jumbo hot-dog in hand. 'Out of the Darkness Cometh Light' is the city motto and in my case, this was particularly apt right now.
Wolves have such a strong identity in the footballing world. The iconic, minimalist wolf head club badge, the unique shade of yellow they call old gold, Steve Bull, Sir Jack Hayward, Billy Wright and Molineux Stadium, all sleek and slender curves and slimline cladding which give the impression that the redevelopment took place last week and not over ten years ago. How cunning it was of Sir Jack and his architects to use materials and a design which would not age one little bit. Let's take Millwall's 'New Den' as a comparison; built in the early 1990's from scratch around the same time as Molineux was being redeveloped, this particular stadium cost in the region of 15 million which would appear good value when compared to Wolves' four stand rebuild costs of close to 20 million. Fast forward to 2004 and the New Den's exposed girders and stand roofs are rusting and appearing aged whilst Molineux glows bright like a furnace in it's little hollow, standing as a testament to money well spent and good taste. Though there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the New Den nor most other new stadia and rebuilds, Molineux is simply a million miles ahead in terms of class and style and these factors add up to a venue which will look fantastic for years to come. From the unusual way the two lengthways stands are cranked in the centre to allow for better sightlines to the old 1940's clock which has been relocated on top of the Stan Cullis Stand, this is one of the most attractive stadiums I have ever watched football in. And even if a bitter December wind did blow in through the open corners of the Jack Harris Stand today, the noise from both sets of supporters was held in cauldron-like making the matchday experience a memorable one.
I'm not normally one to throw my money at bookmakers but a poster offering Dean Ashton first goalscorer and 1-1 at odds of 40-1 took my eye and with it, a fiver from my wallet. Like Leicester and Leeds and numerous teams before them, Wolves have found life tough in the Championship this season following relegation from the Premiership whilst Crewe have continued to build and add to a side which is getting close to a top-half finish (what an achievement that would be!). So despite Wolves' obvious quality, I fancied the Alex's chances of getting at least a point today and when Dean Ashton put us 1-0 up on 38 minutes, it really was the season to be jolly. A typical Alex training ground free-kick saw David Vaughan pass a free-kick around the wall for Dean Ashton to poke home. The tannoy announced Deano as the scorer as did the youngster's celebrations. Only later did I discover that the final touch came from Wolves defender Joleon Lescott and that put pay to my appointment with the bookies. A mere bootlace away from a nice Christmas bonus of £200...
At half-time a frenzy a entertainment took place with blindfolded fans running around the pitch trying to score amongst the Wolves' substitutes, open top sports cars driving around the perimeter with Santa's inside tossing out goodies to the kids, a brass band playing carols and even a gaggle of cheerleaders strutting their stuff to some modern chart tosh. You simply didn't know where to look and like the modern Christmas experience itself in many ways, it was complete overkill. But undeniably funny too. Back on with the football and an enthralling second half. Posts were hit, goal line saves were made and right at the death when it looked certain that Crewe had the points and the stadium was fast emptying, Wolves' best player Seol Ki-Hyeon slung over a superb cross which Carl Cort headed home. A huge sense of disappointment enveloped the Alex masses (well over 1500 today). Upon reflection however, most of us would realistically have been happy with a point before the game as it keeps us firmly in mid-table. Chants of 'Deano - Not for Sale!' filled the air at the final whistle but I think it's inevitable that the hugely talented Dean Ashton will move on in the January sales and perhaps also David Vaughan now he has Welsh caps under his belt and a string of wonderful performances behind him. I'm not particularly worried however as it's this kind of business which keeps our club alive and there's always another miracle youngster with bags of talent and promise coming through ranks. Walking in a Dario Wonderland indeed.
This will be the last report before Christmas so I'd like to wish all two of you who have read this nonsense over the past few weeks a very happy Christmas.
Saturday 11h December 2004, 3pm
Harefield Utd (0) 1 AFC Sudbury (1) 3
FA Vase Rd 3; Attendance: 212; Programme: £1 for 60 pages.
The history of the FA Vase throws up some wonderful memories plus names of clubs who have excelled in this, the most fascinating of all FA competitions. Billericay Town, Colne Dynamoes, Halesowen Town, Brigg Town and Tiverton Town to name but a few. And then of course there is AFC Sudbury and their previous incarnation of Sudbury Town. Despite having never won the competition, Sudbury first made the final back in 1989 and it was on this run that my love affair with Sudbury and the Vase begun when I attended a third round tie at the old Hounslow club. Numerous quarter and semi-final appearances later plus runners-up medals in the past two seasons and the name of AFC Sudbury is as familiar to the FA Vase as Real Madrid is to the European Cup. Today the competition favourites from the sleepy Suffolk market town were back on the familiar trail of Vase glory, this time against Middlesex's oldest club Harefield United.
There has been much criticism levelled at Sudbury over the past few years regarding their supposed 'lack of ambition' and the club's decision to remain in the Eastern Counties League (which they have now won four times on the bounce). Much of this comes from fellow ECL clubs who feel that Sudbury's absolute dominance is scuppering any chance they have of progression. However one has only to look at Sudbury's ill-fated and costly seven year Southern League adventure in the mid-90's to understand why the club are apprehensive about moving on. Perhaps the criticising clubs should also remember that when Sudbury come to town, average attendances are normally tripled. Whilst I sympathise with both sides of this ongoing argument, I often wonder whether there is another factor in this equation – are AFC Sudbury simply holding out for that elusive first Vase before moving up and with it, into the FA Trophy? Certainly the FA Vase is of great importance not just to the club but the tight-knit community of the town itself. Since that first appearance in the final, Vase weekends come with an indescribable magic and optimism and are something for the whole town to talk about and look forward to. As the club progresses into the later rounds, more and more folks get involved and it is not unusual to see yellow & blue window displays and good luck banners adorning the streets in the town centre. If and when Sudbury do finally bring the Vase back to Suffolk, I swear everyone within a ten mile radius of the town will be out to greet them.
A drive down the M11, westbound on the M25 before turning off at junction 17 for Maple Cross and Harefield and I arrived at Preston Park 90 minutes before kick-off. Even this early in the day, the ground and surrounding streets were awash with yellow and blue hats, scarves and the odd 'AFC Sudbury: FA Vase Final' t-shirt despite temperatures being close to freezing. Into the spacious clubhouse the familiar Suffolk banter filled the smoky air along with the occasional raucous ode to their team and it's various players. By kick-off, 85% of the crowd was from Sudbury. On a rare sun-splashed December day, it was the Hares of Harefield who began the brighter of the two forcing their fancied visitors into a number of early mistakes. With ex-Crewe keeper Dean Greygoose between the sticks and a virtually impenetrable back four which has conceded only nine goals in 19 league matches this term, Harefield knew that this would be the toughest game they had played this season. That said, this is a side who had yet to lose themselves in the South Midlands League and perhaps it was no great surprise when they almost took the lead after ten minutes. Craig Totton found the ball at his feet only yards from the goal but unopposed, slashed the ball wide. Harefield were made to pay for missed chances on 38 minutes when a cleverly worked free-kick from Lee Owen found David Head at the back post and he volleyed into the opposite corner. A deafening noise erupted around the ground and a horse in the neighbouring paddock ran in fear of his life.
At half-time, I was just about to go and get a bite to eat from the club when a young girl of no more than seven come round with a basket of filled rolls and drinks. 'Got any beer in there, sweetheart?' chortled the Sudbury fans to the youngster's great delight. With roll in hand, I decided to nip through a gate in the fence and out into the countryside beyond to try and get a photo of the ground from a more unusual angle. This proved to be a bad move as I dropped my sarnie in a ditch then got my shoe caught up in a low-lying barbwire fence trying to retrieve it. This slapstick debacle culminated in me falling flat on my face into a pile of mud...or worse. With new coat streaked with mud, I settled down in the main stand for a superb second half. Sudbury could have been 4-0 up by the 60th minute but some over-elaborate football round the the Hares goalmouth gave the home side the chance to get back into the game. And they came oh so close on a number of occasions before Sudbury substitute Sam Banya picked up the ball in his own half and with the grace of a elephant, loped through the Harefield defence before hammering home a daisy-cutter from fully 30 yards. A Wonderful goal. Banya had only came on a few minutes before his goal and a supporter behind the Harefield goal had shouted at their keeper 'You're in trouble now!' How right he was. Minutes later Gilbert Nuako's back pass was intercepted by Steve Day who curled the ball home for 3-0. With reports already telephoned through to newspapers, five minutes into injury time Alex Brown headed a thoroughly deserved consolation for Harefield. Sudbury's latest Vase journey is well and truly underway but the question remains, will this be their year at last?
Harefield's immaculate Preston Park is a thing of real beauty. Everything from the picket-style perimeter fencing to the club name boards and advertising hoardings have been erected with a meticulous eye for detail which gives the whole place a lovely balance and symmetry. For whoever it is who is responsible for it's upkeep, this must be a real labour of love – no sign of any flaking paint, paths swept and clean and even the pitch has been neatly cut off around the edges where it meets a foot wide cinder track. The club dealt with the large numbers superbly I thought and hopefully made a little profit from the £5 admission charged. A 60 page programme which contained eight duplicated pages plus around 30 pages of ads was a little disappointing but all in all, this was another exceptional day of football. Roll on Wolves v the Alex next Saturday!
Tuesday 7th December, 7.45pm
Harrowby United (1) 2 Yaxley (0) 2
United Counties League Premier Division; Attendance: 101; Programme: £1 for 28 pages
With the afternoon spent at the Newark Antiques Fair, a long drive south to Pitsea for my planned game at Bowers United seemed a little extravagant, especially when a top of the table United Counties League clash was taking place just 17 miles down the A1 in Grantham. With that in mind I decided to ditch the Essex Senior League Cup tie for a game which will live long in the memory for it's quality, physical aggression and flair.
Long before the game kicked off at Harrowby United one small problem needed to be overcome. With the antiques fair ending at 3pm the question posed was, 'what to do in Grantham for four hours on a bitterly cold Tuesday evening?'. Well, having located Harrowby Fields without any fuss, I parked up my car in a small residential road on the council estate which borders the ground and headed off on foot into Grantham town centre which is approximately a mile and a half from the adjoining parishes of 'Londonthorpe and Harrowby Without'. Harrowby may well be without many things but luckily it's not without a good chippy and five minutes into the walk I found the Beacon Fish Bar where a young girl with batter in her hair served me a decent tea and sniggered with her colleague at my southern softy accent. They speak with a broad Lincolnshire burr in these parts, y'know. Grantham's a truly fine looking town with architectural similarities of it's near neighbour Stamford at every corner. Having purchased a new book from WH Smith's, I whittled away a couple of hours in the heartily recommended confines of the Black Dog in the town centre where a good range of Mansfield Brewery ales and a warm welcome is assured.
Following the glow of the Harrowby lights which were visible from the town centre, I strode swiftly back up the leafy, suburban Harrowby Lane and arrived back at the ground for 7pm where I found programmes on sale at £1 and a rather worrying fog enshrouding the pitch. The programme was advertising an appearance on New Year's Eve of a certain Mr. Rob Benson who is apparently 'the lead singer of T-Rex'. I must brush up on my rock history, as I was certain it was a fella by the name of Marc Bolan who died in a car crash back in the early 70's. Anyway, the programme goes on to to inform us that the last time this imposter played at the Harrowby club 'the roof came down' because of course 'he's the total bollocks!'. Looking at the rest of the ground, I think the roof coming down on the clubhouse is a real possibility, so perhaps I'll pass on the chance of witnessing the legend of Rob Benson and spend my Hogmanay in the rather less rock & roll environs of the Norfolk countryside. A quick natter with the club secretary then it was back out to pitchside where the fog had happily begun to disperse and by the time the teams entered the arena, it was all but gone. Since entering the UCL back in 1991-92, Harrowby have yo-yoed back and forth between the two divisions either covering themselves in glory at the top of the tables or ending up as whipping boys conceding huge amounts of goals at the bottom. This season is looking like the former as the 'Arrows' are sitting in third place having only been beaten twice in 18 matches this season. Similarly the visitors tonight were also a force to be reckoned with as Yaxley were leading the table by two points. The larger than average attendance therefore was proof that this was one of the season's heavyweight bouts and a small ripple of excitement came over me as the two teams came out onto the immaculate pitch.
Yaxley started the brighter of the two and forced Harrowby's Ian Flavell into a number of early saves. However it was the home side who took the lead on 27 minutes when a frightening turn of pace from winger Gaz Walters (who I saw score a blinding goal from 30 yards at Holbeach earlier in the season) and a decent cross saw Scott Taylor nudge the ball over the line from a few yards. Either encouraged or frightened by their manager Graham Drury, a pint-sized and highly animated chap with a voice like a cup of sausage gravy, Harrowby then played Yaxley off the park for the remainder of the half without adding to their single strike. Remarkably Mr. Drury was out-shouted by another bloke who resembled a baby troll. From the off, this lunatic hurled incessant abuse at the Yaxley players from his lone position out on the far touchline which at times was so ferocious it bordered on the disturbing. Every so often in the non-league world, I'll come across a character such as this who week in week out stands on his lonesome and suffers some kind of 90 minute mental collapse. There's an old chap at Stowmarket Town who's been there for years and although less of a threat than the aforementioned, he has just one line he bellows out over and over: 'Anywhere'll do!'. I once saw Wroxham play there and Mr. Anywhere'll Do was doing his usual routine. Clearly wound up by the old boy, Wroxham midfield hard man Darren Gill retrieved the ball for a throw-in right in front of him and with a mischievious grin and a twinkle in his eye, dropped-kicked the ball over the surrounding fence and three miles out of Stowmarket. He took a booking for it but the crowd applauded him vociferously and from that point on, the old boy was as quiet as a mouse. A wonderful moment.
At half time the temperature must have dropped about five degrees and at one point, I swear I saw icicles hanging off my kneecaps. A mug of Bovril from the 'Sizzling Snacks' van was needed before the second half began. If the first half was good, the second half was one of the best 45 minutes of entertainment I have seen this season as both sides went at one another hammer and tong with the high quality matched by the tethered aggression shown from both sides. On 57 minutes Ricky Hailstone brought Yaxley level with an exquisite chip over Flavell from 30 yards. That's the third player with a weather-related surname I've seen score this season following goals from Mark Snowball and Tom Rainer...there must be a Terry Thunder out there somewhere. The Arrows then snuck back in front when captain Dom Revill scored from close range before the simply excellent Mark Paul used his breathtaking pace to go round two Harrowby defenders and coolly slot home. Yaxley looked the more likely now and when the ineffective Jimmy Dean smouldered off the pitch to be replaced by the lively Mark Kingston, there looked to be only one winner. However, with backs against the wall Harrowby held on for a point which I think will really only benefit Cogenhoe who are dangerously placed in second with games in hand. It will be an interesting run in to the UCL Premier season and hopefully I'll be able to report from a few more key encounters as the season reaches it's climax.
Harrowby have been working hard in recent years to bring their ground up to FA Vase standard (which they entered for the first time in 13 years this season) but because of it's location next to the aforementioned estate it's always going to be a target for vandals. The huge, cavernous cover along the far side is sadly riddled with graffiti whilst there is rubbish and litter strewn around all over the place. On a more positive note however, a club shop (the first in the UCL perhaps?) has been built alongside the clubhouse although I was disappointed to find that all there was on offer was a rusty old stove and ten metres of used cable. Still, the desire to move the club forward is there and after an evening of such excellent entertainment, I wish them all the very best for the future. A horrendous journey home through thick fog (I'm sure Martin had a similar drive back from Doncaster) meant I arrived back in God's own country at a quarter past midnight, happy in the knowledge that I'd broken my run of five successive 1-0's!
Saturday 4th December, 2pm
Euxton Villa (0) 1 Dalton United (0) 0
West Lancs League Premier Division; Attendance: 21; Programme: £1 for 24 pages
I'm useless at pronunciations. Utterly awful. So when I plotted a double header in deepest Lancashire earlier last week, I had plenty of time to get the name of my first destination correct. At first, I thought it must 'Yook-ston', in the same way as Euston station (or Euston Park, ex-home of Thetford Rovers!) is pronounced, before deciding that it must have a silent 'e' thus making it 'Uck-ston'. Having enjoyed plenty of friendly email chat during the days leading up to my trip with the club secretary, the senior secretary and the groundsman (I thought it was only a matter of time before the club mascot dropped me a line), I felt it was essential that I got the club's name correct so, with 'Yook-ston' back in favour, I was both delighted and relieved when upon arrival, Hugh the groundsman shook my hand firmly and extended in a thick Scottish brogue, 'Welcome to 'Ex-ton' Villa, Leon'! A silent 'u'...I should have known. It was this display of genuine friendliness and warmth which was offered in abundance throughout the next hour and a half. I learned from Steve, the programme editor, that had it not been for me coming up from Norwich, he probably wouldn't have done one this weekend as he'd been off work sick. Then I had to politely decline a rather insistent invitation from the committee to travel back into the village for a pint and a bite to eat after the game due to my next game at Blackburn kicking off in less than an hour and a half after Villa's game ended
The day begun when I left Norwich at 8.45 am and embarked upon a savage drive up the A1 (beyond my original destination of Pontefract – the prospect of seeing Socrates play a mere two minutes wasn't enough of a carrot for me), across the M62, onto the M60 then up the M61 to the small village of Euxton which lies around two miles west of Chorley. Having forgotten to print out Hugh's directions, the ground proved to be a real bugger to locate but after stopping a local 13 year old gangster with a fag hanging out of his mouth for directions, I eventually drove into Runshaw Hall Lane about half an hour before kick off. Steve had done a couple of 'special' edition programmes, complete with colour throughout, plus more of a black and white variety so with one of each in hand, I wandered off for a proper look at the beautiful little set-up that is the Jim Fowler Memorial Ground. Whilst lacking in any real facilities, the completely rural location gives the place an aesthetic beauty with the skeletal pines and leafless oak trees on three sides squeezing the pitch into a narrow woodland clearing. An orange and white striped mesh fence around the pitch gives the ground a personal touch with not one but four 'Welcome to Euxton Villa' signs at various points around the ground adding to the general sense of pride. It's a shame only 21 turned up to watch the game but if all goes to plan, Villa will have a new lottery-funded clubhouse on site as of next year which will hopefully lure a few more Euxtonians out of the village on a Saturday afternoon. They would rewarded with some friendly banter and a decent standard of football which is probably a shade or two higher in quality than most county league matches I have watched recently.
Following successive promotions, Villa are finding life in the Premier Division tough this season and had only won two games prior to this match. In fact, Dalton had already beaten them a few weeks earlier in a game which the Dalton secretary informed me Euxton should have won. This gave a little credence to nearly every home supporter's notion that Euxton should have won most of their games this season but for the fact “we just can't seem to score”. If a team can't seem to score, then how and why should they have won their matches? This is one of the many turns of footballing phrase that really niggles me although I'm sure I've been guilty of such ridiculous comments plenty of times before. Anyway, Villa did score today and what a fine goal it was too, coming just seconds after the restart. The impressive young Ryan Lilley picked up the ball in the middle of the park and after looking left then right and seeing no one available to pass to, he decided to go it alone, beating three defenders before slotting the ball in off the post. And that's how this tight, at times frustrating but always interesting match finished. After seven tense minutes of injury time, the final whistle sounded and the cries of 'Get in!', 'Great job done boys!' and the inexplicable 'F*** Off!' whilst punching the air courtesy of the Villa goalkeeper filled the Lancashire countryside. A few goodbyes and promises to come and watch Euxton at one of their away fixtures and it was back up the M61 and across onto the M65 for my date with Premiership football.
For more club information visit: www.euxtonvillafc.co.uk
Saturday 4th December, 5.15pm
Blackburn Rovers (0) 0 Tottenham Hotspur (0)1
Football Premiership; Attendance: 22,182;
Programme: £3 for 64 pages
When I was a kid, I had an old Blackburn Rovers programme which on the front cover had an artists illustration of a 1930's Ewood Park. It was a bit like an LS Lowry painting with old boys in flat caps walking outside the ground characterized by the red brick and corrugated iron exterior of the old Nuttall Street stand. Walking from the Darwen End School where I had parked along Bolton Road towards Ewood Park, I had that image in my mind and whilst I knew Ewood had been rebuilt in the early 90's, I had hoped some of the atmosphere of that old painting would still be present. Through a narrow terraced street, round a corner and the hulk of the new Jack Walker Stand loomed up in front of me, all new brick, exposed girders and tinted glass. A swift walk around the two ends and the same sense of disappointment...another impressive yet ultimately soulless modern stadium. Having put my ticket into a machine at the turnstiles for it to be scanned and the gate opened (no need for turnstile operatives at Ewood, oh no), I walked up the stairs and into the lower tier of the Jack Walker Stand, taking my seat two rows from pitchside. Inside Ewood however, the ground becomes a little more interesting with it's quirks all the more apparent. A glimpse of the past is to be had with the old Walkersteel Stand, now renamed the CIS Stand. Dressed up and polished to tie in with it's two skyscraping neighbours behind each goal, this little stand is utterly dwarfed yet has bags of character and charm with Rovers picked out in white on blue and red seats. With the two end stands resembling skinnier versions of the huge Jack Walker, the little CIS stand really does stick out like a sore thumb and whilst it would make sense to build another Jack Walker style stand in it's place and give the ground some symmetry, I do hope they keep it for a little longer as it's this David & Goliath situation which gives Ewood a little identity.
With my programme obtained – a large square shaped issue which will never fit into my programme drawer, the thoughtless buggers – I watched a thoroughly forgettable match which Spurs won 1-0 thanks to a splendidly worked Robbie Keane goal. If the ticket hadn't been so cheap in the first place (£16 for a Premiership game compared to £28 at Portsmouth earlier this season and £40 plus at the bigger clubs) I might have gone and asked for a refund but as it was, my attention at the end of the game was taken with the Tottenham fans who made as much noise as I have heard in a long, long time at a football match – and there was probably only 750 of them. Their slowed down rendition of 'When the Spurs Go Marching In' filling the fast emptying Ewood Park was rather moving whilst their heartfelt 'Stand Up, If You Hate the Arsenal' was deafening. In stark contrast to this beautiful noise, the only noise I heard from the Rovers fans all game was the sound of a well dressed middle-aged lady who every time Rovers moved the ball into the Spurs half, yapped and yelped exactly like a little terrier dog. Those around me found it amusing too and this entertainment kept the smiles on our faces throughout the 90 minutes.
As I left the ground and began the long walk back to the car, I reflected upon what had been a decent day of football despite the lack of goals in the two games I had watched. Two new grounds visited and just 21 more to go in the football league now before I get me tie. After 4 and a half hours, I arrived back home in Norfolk with eyes like dinner plates, gave the missus a kiss and sat down to watch the videotaped 'Match of the Day'. Well what else are Saturday's for? Next week it'll be Vase action at Harefield United...it can't come soon enough!
Saturday 27th November, 3pm
Coventry City 0 Crewe Alexandra 1 (Football League Championship)
Programme: £2.50 for 56 pages
♪ When I was just a little boy, I asked my father, what should I be.
Should I be Norwich, should I be Ipswich....♪ (to the tune of 'Casara Sara')
Neither I thought, peering down at the old Division Four table on the back of the Ipswich Green'Un and pointing to the club in 24th and last place...being the awkward little bugger I was (and some may say still am), I chose to become a Crewe Alexandra supporter for no other reason other than I liked the name. And felt sorry for them sitting in last place. And I had seen a piece on Grandstand where Des Lynam was reporting from outside Gresty Road and I liked the fact the ground looked 'northern' and ramshackle and like nothing I had seen at that point in my life having been taken just to Ipswich Town on a few occasions. Neither my old man nor I could have believed that 25 years on, I would still be an avid Alex fan and having watched them rise up through the divisions to become the proud little club they now are with such a fine reputation for producing talented players. It's with that in mind that I take real pride in telling people who I support, often with an air of smugness as I reel off all the players who have gone on to greatness in the game. Naturally, I never mention Robbie Savage.
Anyway, whilst I do watch the Alex at any new ground I can, 98% of my football travelling is of the non-league variety. This being my first travel report for Martin's site however, I thought what better place to start than where I, er, started - watching the Alex. And at a ground which will only stand for another six months or so, Highfield Road home of Coventry City. Having originally planned to take the train, I decided against that when I saw that I'd have to take a railways-run bus from Nuneaton, presumably due to works – a similar situation a few years ago from Stockport to Sheffield saw me marooned in Stockport for three hours when the bus never showed so this time, I went for the more reliable option of my own car. Walking from the city centre out to Highfield Road (around a mile but add another couple more onto that for the new stadium where City will play as from next season) I bumped into a Sky Blues fan who invited me for a pint which of course I couldn't refuse. Normally I'll meet up with the 'Alex Exiles' before a game but this Cov chap had plenty of juicy inside info on the subject of the shoddy way Coventry are being run at moment, the new ground, take over bid rumours and the rubbishness of Stern John. In addition, he pointed out that City play Watford at home a few games before the end of the season and with Elton John due to give Highfield it's official send off shortly after, let's hope Watford are not the side who send them tumbling into Division Two or Elton may have to rock Swansea or even Nantwich instead.
The way Coventry played this afternoon, it would be no surprise if they did end up following Sheffield Wednesday down the divisions. Having paid my £19 and taken my place high up in the North Stand, I watched Crewe nick the points following a truly laughable penalty decision and boy did we laugh as Dean Ashton drove the ball home. 1-0 to Crewe. Of course, Coventry gave us the Jaguar (not for much longer it seems though...) although with my pockets not deep enough for that kind of indulgence, another product of Coventry meant a little more to me and at half time, it was heartening to hear songs by The Specials blaring out of the tannoy and not the usual 'Who Let the Dogs Out' and all that current bobbins. The announcer was also rather amusing coming across like Tony Blackburn with Julian Clary sat on his lap...far more entertaining than a gorrilla-suited idiot running up and down the touchline which is of course the normal fare at pro clubs these days. Oh, and the Chicken Balti pies were a vast improvement on the half-cooked horseburgers ay Stotfold last weekend - anyone reading this who was there will know what I mean...
As I left the stadium having managed to get down to pitchside to get some pics beforehand, I took one last walk around the ground and wondered how many of these quintessentially English grounds will remain in ten years time. Tightly hemmed in by dimly-lit terrace streets, not dissimilar to Luton in many respects, Highfield Road is a nice old ground without the architectural brilliance of, say, Highbury or Villa Park, but homely nonetheless. In fact, the exterior of the ground looks much like the post-war buildings in and around the city centre which too have a certain blandness about them. However, I, like the Coventry fan I had a pint with, will be extremely sad to see it go but having passed the new stadium on the A444 coming in, it's looking rather impressive with it's huge casino on one side making it a quite unusual appearance. A fine day all round – next week all being well, it's back to the real stuff with a trip to Pontefract Collieries versus Socrates and Co. See you then!