East Fife – Saturday August 16th 2013 (568)

August 19, 2014
"having run out of clean glasses. it's reassuring that the club has a good stock of alternative drinking vessels...'

“Having run out of clean glasses. it’s reassuring  to see that the club has a good stock of alternative drinking vessels…’

I perceive there to be a big problem in society today with regard to the ‘service’ factor. Every company that I encounter claims to be ‘unbeatable’ when it comes to ‘service’, but are they? Do they make the effort and go the extra mile, or do they simply do the bare minimum and say, we’ve had your money, now push off.

In my home town we have two large competing supermarkets virtually opposite each other. I very rarely venture into one of them, mainly on the basis that the staff are clearly not enjoying themselves. No eye contact, no cracked faces, and everything said or done by the rule book. By contrast, at the other, chatty interaction with the checkout staff appears mandatory. Maybe they pay the better wages, or give them lots of holidays. I wouldn’t like to guess, but the sure thing is they know that to get the customer coming back, they need to make the effort. The ‘service’ factor is the key.

It was the ‘service’ factor that first got me hooked onto Berwick Rangers. I’d always been intrigued by this English outpost playing in the Scottish football league structure, but it wasn’t until visiting the town on holiday, and making a casual enquiry in a pub, that I became a regular customer. I wanted to buy a Berwick Rangers football shirt, the club wanted to sell me one, and it wasn’t too much trouble for Conrad, the marketing manager, to drive up to the ground with the keys – it being the close season – open up the club shop and sell me the shirt. He threw in a free tour of the ground for good measure. Now that’s what I call ‘service’!

That was back in 2001, and fourteen seasons later I am still wearing that same shirt as I type up this blog report on a Virgin Pendolino heading north of the border for yet another ‘Wee Gers’ game, this time an away fixture at East Fife.

It’ll be an overnighter in Kirkcaldy, as there’s no rail service to Methil, home of East Fife, so I can’t get back on a day trip. I’m also meeting my old pal, Fife Bobster (formerly Eagle Bobster) who now lives in Dundee, and gets out and about when his finances – and his recently acquired wife – allow him to. We meet up at Kirkcaldy rail station and have a bash at the town’s best ale houses, both before and after the match. There’s a Wetherspoons, natch, and I’m able to pursue my new passion for black IPAs. Other recommended haunts include the Exchequer, similar in operational style to a Lloyds bar (although it isn’t one) which has one cask ale on tap, a Scottish-brewed golden ale, the name of which escapes me, but it is well kept if predictably citrus; Betty Nicholls, small but trendy where I confirm my suspicion that beers from the Dunfermline-based Abbot House brewery, though the right colour, are sadly not to my tastes; the excellent Harbour Bar which stocks six cask ales, four of them from Scottish breweries; and the street-corner Feuars Arms, which is a little out of town in the direction of Leven, but is worth a visit for its classic interior, and live-wire barman who protests that he doesn’t sell cocktails when I enquire if any of his pies are of the macaroni variant. A nice pint of Black Wolf Red Ale is enjoyed while we dry off after getting caught in a sudden downpour.

The bus to Methil, the no8, takes about half an hour and drops off right outside the ground. Having consumed too much liquid I’m forced to dive into a local copse where in the process of easing my dilemma I manage to drop my glasses. Fortunately they are still there when I retrieve them after the match.

East Fife’s Bayview ground is an out-of-towner and consists of one large cantilever stand. As there’s no flat standing to be had on the other three sides, this is essentially an all-seater stadium. There’s a modestly-stocked club shop in a Portaksbin outside the ground. I did read reports of there being a bar at the stadium open to away fans, but a quick recce throws up no clues. Inside the ground, the fans of each side are segregated.

There a good turnout from Berwick including many of the usual faces, so we’re expecting the familiar barrage of choice language, although even I’m taken aback as a flush-faced Bobster comes out with a foul-mouthed tirade of his own as he doubts the parentage of the referee during an especially tetchy bout of the fouls and counter-fouls which litter the game, being played in the teeth of a howling gale. Berwick have the advantage of the wind in the first half and go two goals up whilst playing some lovely football which is then undone by some pub-team-defending which hands the second half initiative back to the home side. At 2-2 it’s anyone’s game but when a hopeful injury-time shot somehow ends up in the back of the East Fife net the visitors and their jubilant fans can rejoice .

I started this piece by pontificating about the service factor. And I’m on my soapbox once more! With home and away fans having different ends of the stand, someone has made the crass decision not to allocate any macaroni pies to the snack bar in the away end. The home fans have got them all. Surely a major footballing scandal, and hopefully questions will be asked in the Scottish Parliament!

Programme: Sellers outside the ground: A5 sized, £2. Glossy and shiny with quite a lot of reading matter therein.

Floodlight pylons: 4

Birdlife: Lots of gulls as you might imagine with this coastal location.

Club Shop: outside the ground

Toilets: Under the stand

Music the players run out to: Telstar by the Tornados

Kop choir: Not especially vocal

Away fans: 150 or so, a few chants but mainly preoccupied with cussing at the referee and any of the opponents who may have at some time scored a goal or committed a bad foul in a match against Berwick



West Didsbury & Chorlton – Saturday August 9th 2014 (567)

August 10, 2014

“Despite the club’s hope that a few pairs of new Nikes might turn up in the bin, it looks pretty much like flip flops and a few tatty espadrilles are the order of the day….”

To wile away those long football-less days in between the back-end of last season and the start of this – occasionally interrupted by an interesting-looking World Cup match on TV – I decided I needed another hobby to help me through the ‘Cold Turkey’. And it was on a visit to Chesterfield heading for a beer festival in mid-May that I decided what that hobby would be – I’d dig out my old Punk/New Wave singles and, through the modern-day miracle of the internet, attempt to complete my collection.

Because when I was a weekend punk in 1977 I went out a bought every record I could find that fitted under that heading. For many years I thought I’d got virtually the lot, including a very rare (as in nearly a thousand quid’s worth of) Blackmail sleeve for the Strangler’s ‘Peaches’ single, and an original Buzzcocks Spiral Scratch. But on my trip to Chesterfield I spotted a Sham 69 sleeve I didn’t own, and since then I’ve rarely left ebay alone. In the process I have discovered the art of winning an online auction, and have considerably enhanced my collection, alas to the detriment of my wallet. All I need to do now is buy myself a record player!

I had the privilege of meeting The Buzzcocks once, at a gig in Nottingham when I was producing a ‘fanzine’, the trigger word that got me and my photographer pal Nick – yes, the same Nick that occasionally accompanies me on my footballing travels – through the dressing room door. As such, I have a mighty fine group picture to prove it. When I finally got to visit the centre of their home city for the first time – Old Trafford being as close as I’d previously ventured – it was five years later and I was kind of roadie-ing for a New Romantic band from Leicester who were gigging at Pips, the well-known music club. On the night, I left the romantics and the liggers to it and headed off down the road – Manchester Real Ale guide in hand – until I encountered the Hare & Hounds pub.

I remember all of this as I sit in the same Hare & Hounds today supping a pint of Holts Bitter – the best ‘brown’ beer in the north of England – in one of Manchester’s classic city centre ‘locals’. True, there are lots of great pubs and bars in this city, but I wouldn’t miss having a pint in the H&H for any of them. Having made my pilgrimage once again, I buy my Metrolink travel card (£5)  and clamber aboard at Shudehill (across the road) on the East Didsbury (purple) line before alighting at Chorlton.

I’m heading for the Brookburn Road ground of the snappily-titled West Didsbury & Chorlton AFC, plying their trade in the North West Counties Premier. But between Chorlton Metrolink station and the ground, about a mile away, there is a vibrant community of pubs and style bars, most of which are well up on the Locale cask and craft beer scene. The only disappointment to a traditionalist like me is that many of these venues stock up heavily on ‘yellow’ beers to the detriment of ‘brown’ and ‘black’ – surely a national scandal!

I’ve been having this conversation with landlords all over the country, but at least the chap in the Dulcimer on Wilbraham Road has the perfect riposte. His house beer – Blood on the Tracks (4.4%abv) brewed by Outstanding of Bury – is an excellent copper brew with a lovely hoppy aftertaste, mercifully with no hint of the dreaded citrus. The bar is on two levels, with open air windows to the street. Very cool.

From here I head off down to Chorlton Green, a bustling area of trendy bars, restaurants, shops and pubs, and I visit the Horse & Jockey, with its excellent beer garden overlooking the green. It’s the home of the Bootleg Brewing Company and I try their flagship beer, Contraband. It’s one of three of their own beers on tap today and all, at least according to the barman, are yellow beers, Contraband being a bit less yellow than the others. Well it’s nice to have the choice!

A couple of hundred yards from here is the road, in a quiet residential area, which leads down to the football ground. It’s a tranquil rural setting, but with its lack of turnstiles, and the fact that it’s fairly easy to watch the game without paying, I suspect that West Didsbury & Chorlton AFC might have found a level. Serious expenditure looks likely to follow any promotion. The stadium is dominated by the modern, brick, clubhouse complex behind one goal, in front of which are a few rows of seats, with 50 more in the kit stand adjacent. Aside from that, and a similarly sized covered terrace behind the other goal, it’s flat standing, with the added lure of the grassy bank on sunny days such as today. The clubhouse has pies but only meaty ones, although there is a tray of rolls on sale at the bar. A quick recce throws up no sign of draught beer, keg or otherwise, and the contents of the bottle fridge look less than enticing.

The home team, having won their first two games of the season, are wary of the visitors, Ashton Athletic, who were amongst the previous season’s pacesetters. But when WD & C are awarded a penalty on 13, it starts to look good for them. Sadly, it goes unconverted and stalemate resumes until early into the second half when Ashton score with a glancing header from a long range free kick. The home team huff and puff but can’t blow the house down, and an injury time second only rubs salt into the wounds.

As I reside in the stand watching the game, an attractive young girl sits behind me, talking to a friend about the antics of (presumably) her boyfriend, who I suspect is one of the home team players. They’d been out the previous evening, and she recounts matter-of-fact how he’d got so rat-arsed that he’d flaked out and soiled his pants in the process. “We had to walk home,” she says, “In his state no taxi would take us…”. There’s a short pause before – and this is classic Royle Family and should be appreciated as such – her friend says, “So did you have a good night then?” to which she replies – without even a hint of irony – “Yeah, it was a great night….”

I suspect they probably hadn’t been drinking Holts Bitter in the Hare & Hounds, but you never know….

Programme: A nice glossy little affair, long on content and short on advertising. £2 at the gate.

Floodlight pylons: 6

Birdlife: Unobtrusive

Club shop: A list of items available at the bar

Toilets: In the clubhouse

Music the players come out to: silence

Kop choir: No

Away fans: None evident

Opening weekender – Saturday/Sunday August 2nd/3rd 2014 (565-566)

August 6, 2014
'Following the heavy defeat, there's a big question mark over the benefits of the home team's warm-up regime...'

‘Following the heavy defeat, there’s a big question mark over the benefits of the home team’s warm-up regime…’

My wife remains unconvinced there is any such thing as a ‘Football Close Season’. What with the end-of-season play-offs, then the World Cup, not to mention my Summer League trip to Ireland, when I tell her that today is the start of the new football season, she raises a disbelieving eyebrow.

But some things don’t change, as in the weather, with my original plan to train and bus it up to Nelson in Lancashire already in tatters due to torrential rain with more forecast. So I look around the Midlands area for something more local, to lessen the petrol pain should the match fall foul of the weather. And although I very rarely dip into Step 6, I’m attracted by a fixture in Warwick, not least because my wife wants to go to nearby Stoneleigh Park for a horsey event, and in my new-ish car too. This way, I get to drive it!

We land at Stoneleigh with the heavens open and the rain bucketing down. The poor little darlings taking part in the Trailblazers show jumping finals are getting a thorough soaking and as I scan the skies for any sign of divine intervention, the prospect of an afternoon in the Stoneleigh park bar starts to look attractive. At 1.30pm it relents, so I say my adieus and drive off into nearby Warwick, heading for the racecourse by the side of which – they kind of share a car park (the bays adjacent to the clubhouse are free, the majority is Pay & Display) – is Townsend Meadow, home to Midland League Division 1 outfit, Racing Club Warwick.

It’s an appealing if somewhat tumbledown little stadium, with three-tiered seated stands on either side of the pitch, albeit with many of the seats in a state of some disrepair. When the heavens open during each half, the gaps in the tin roofing are self-evident. The clubhouse, which backs on to the racecourse, is a sizeable if dimly-lit affair, but comfortable nonetheless. A disused hand pump adorns the bar, but there’s nothing for the discerning beer drinker, unless you are partial to a bottle of Grolsch. There appears to be some hot food under preparation, but I can’t see a serving hatch and don’t particularly fancy poking my head through a door which might be off-limits.

Today’s game is against Lichfield City, and I speculate that – if Warwick is also a city – this could be the lowest level contest between senior teams from two cities in the English football pyramid. Further enquiries reveal that Warwick is in fact still only a town so bang goes my theory. The match turns into a fiercely competitive battle in occasionally difficult conditions. The visitors edge the better chances and make the most of a first half penalty decision, grabbing a second late into the second half.

The following day – Sunday – I decide, now that the July sunshine has returned to early August, I should take advantage of the one ground on the Groundhop UK Peterborough hop that interests me, so take in the 11.00am kick off in the suburb of Dogsthorpe, and the Chestnut Avenue home of United Counties Premier side Peterborough Northern Star. The hop bus has beaten me to it, but there’s still plenty of programmes left, not to mention a nice tray of vegetarian pasta bake and bottles of room-temperature British beers behind the clubhouse bar (I actually prefer mine chilled!). I renew one or two acquaintances made on the Irish trip, and meet some new faces, at least one of whom actually likes the idea of a two-way conversation (there’s a novelty)!

I decide to enter into the spirit of things by buying a badge – Barrow Town, my village team – but eschew the delights of the Bouncy Giraffe and the Penalty Shoot-Out (my back’s not what it was…). The stadium itself consists primarily of flat standing, with small covered standing areas behind one goal and down one side near the corner flag, as well as two 50-seat ‘kit’ stands opposite, spaced either side of an impressive brick-built dugout complex.

The game is against strongly-fancied Holbeach United but the home side have the edge after going into an early lead, before everything starts to go belly-up for them with a red card offence handing a penalty to the visitors on 25. By the time Star lose another player to a second yellow on 58, the damage has been done. They are 1-3 down and looking at a hiding. The eventual scoreline of 1-6 is probably fairly respectable under the circumstances.

So the football season starts for me, and already – despite telling myself I’ll take it a bit easier in this, my bus pass year – I’m scheduling a hectic itinerary of matches for 2014/5. Roll on the next close season….if indeed there is one.

Programmes: A modest affair for 50p at Warwick, with a much glossier effort for £1 at Peterborough NS. No doubt the prospect of sales to a couple of hundred ‘hoppers’ inspired the latter. Interesting that on the front of the Warwick programme, the club’s name is incorrectly spelt. Oops!

Floodlight pylons: 4 at Warwick, 8 at Northern Star

Birdlife: Negligible

Toilets: Clubhouse bar at both

Club shop: items available in the bar at Warwick, not noted at NS

Kop choir: No

Away fans: Not vocal

What’s in a Name? Is it true that Warwick’s Josh Tiff has had a big fall-out with t’management?

Groundhop UK first Irish Hop – Friday July 4th to Sunday July 6th 2014 (562-564)

July 13, 2014
'There's a suspicion that the new disabled area might need a little more work...'

‘There’s a suspicion that the new disabled area at Bray might need a little more work…’

I think I was about 17 when it finally dawned on me that going on holiday with your folks might not now be the coolest thing to do. Suddenly the pleasures of setting up home on a beach for the day with bucket, spade and the obligatory flags lost its sparkle and I realised there was a whole new world of youth club trips to France, unbridled access to alcohol, and pretty girls to think about. Hopefully at 15 my son is not yet too obsessed with the latter two, but we’ve noticed that he and his twin sister have remained totally underwhelmed by our budget-conscious suggestions for 2015. Aside from the usual ‘Is there any wi-fi there?’ question, there hasn’t been too much enthusiasm about the prospect of foot-slogging across picturesque moorland to some distant pub or other. I suspect we are now on different wavelengths.

My youthful trips to northern France in the early 1970s were certainly character building, and as I survey the hoards of school-age and late-teen students sing-songing and whooping it up on the campus of Dublin City University, I suspect they’re experiencing the same. I’m here because it’s the base for 17 intrepid groundhoppers to explore a little of central Ireland, take in a bit of Irish footy, and maybe sink a Guinness or three – well, it would be a snub to our hosts not to!

The trip has been organised by Grand Days Out, the brainchild of Chris Berezai and his trusty side-kick Laurence Reade – possibly the Ant & Dec of the hopping world – and it’s something of a departure from their usual format in that it’s to a foreign land; we are a small, select group; and we’re also promised a bit of culture too. For three days we’re ferried round the Irish Midlands by coach drivers Paul (yes, we now HAVE met a nice South African) and Martin, with the chance to chill out every evening at the Student Union Bar which, although lacking the depth of beverage choice one might better encounter in a more central Dublin location (I’m thinking Porterhouse here), has the advantage of being cheapish, and is showing the World Cup footy. In fact on the Friday the place is full of Brazilian shirts, and I have to question why anyone might want to leave Brazil to come to Europe when the World Cup is on back home! Or maybe they just aren’t from Brazil….

The 17 on the trip (15 blokes and 2 ladies) meet up at Dublin airport on the Friday morning, although half of the party had arrived the previous day and taken in a Derry City European match. After a brief stop at the University, where only some of the rooms are ready, we head off into Dublin for some ‘Kulture’. This involves an interesting tour of the Guinness Brewery visitor centre, which is a slick, headphone-assisted affair, culminating in a pint of the black stuff while jostling with other overseas tourists in the rooftop bar, trying to see how many football stadia we can spot. We’re then off to some other impressive looking governmental buildings before ending up at the main Post Office, scene of the Easter Uprising in 1916. And then it’s down to Bray, a seaside resort to the south of Dublin, where we fit in a bit of food and a pint (at the local Porterhouse on the sea-front, where I try the Porterhouse Red which is not mightily impressive) before heading back up to the Carlisle Grounds where we startle the programme seller with a request for 17 of the blighters.

There’s a small clubshop hut behind one goal with a fair selection of merchandise, and I purchase a Bray beanie as I spot the arrival of a threatening cloud bank. Without being too unfair to this ground, you do get the impression it’s already been visited by the mother of all Hurricanes, had most of its superstructure blown down, and is getting by with the help of a makeshift canvas roof over the seating. Thankfully the distinctive Bray Wanderers archway above the main gates has survived. The game is a lower-mid table clash with Drogheda United, whose noisy fans are greeted with a chorus of sheep impressions as they head for the sanctuary of the covered stand when the rain sets in at half time.

The match itself is very entertaining, ending up 3-1 to the visitors as Bray finish with ten men. Two of the goals – a bullet free kick for Bray which pierces the wall and Drogheda’s No8 running through the defence before clipping high and wide of the keeper – would be goal-of-the-season contenders anywhere.

On Saturday the sun is shining as we head off up the coast north of Dublin to Skerries Mills, a wind and water mill complex popular with tourists. In fact as we depart some of the foreign students from DCU turn up with more of their infernal impromptu sing-songs and we make good our escape, this time heading up to the west of Drogheda and the site of the Battle of the Boyne. To be honest, prior to swotting up before the trip, I knew little of this event aside from appreciating that the outcome still seems to mean a lot to communities in various parts of the British Isles. We get a tour and two great video shows and I now know what it was all about! A team in green against one in orange, with lots of internationals in the ranks. Sounds just like the Premier League. Talking of football, we’re off to Longford Town and their top-of-the-table clash with Shelbourne in the Irish Division One, the second tier.

The club’s new stadium is on the outskirts of town and is impressive enough, consisting of a large covered main stand on one side, with banks of uncovered seating on the other three – effectively an all-seater stadium. The clubhouse lacks any alcohol, which appears to be the Irish norm, but is selling packaged sandwiches which is ideal as hunger is beginning to set in. There’s a club shop but access is restricted by the need to bend down and twist your head through a narrow opening, which is bizarre to say the least. Apparently a Health & Safety issue due to its proximity to the pitch. There must be a better way! This deterrent doesn’t however stop Francis, one of our party, from buying every branded Longford Town product in sight. He explains that his father was born near the town and he is making a sort of a pilgrimage, which does indeed strike a chord. The game has 0-0 all over it until a couple of red cards on 60, the first for a home defender whose solid tackle is deemed reckless, and the second for the Shelbourne player who tries to exact immediate retribution. With more space on the pitch the game opens up and it’s Town who take the initiative, going in front on 63 and deciding it with further strikes on 78 and 80. ‘We are top of The League’ sing the home fans, and they are indeed!

Day 3 dawns early as we head off to Athlone and the prospect of a river cruise on the Shannon, the longest river in the British Isles. It’s a guided tour and we scan the reed beds for any evidence of the elusive Corncrake, known to favour these environs. The skipper explains that the main road bridge built across the river in recent times, has the disadvantage of blocking any river traffic in times of flood as it was built too low. The nearby Victorian rail bridge presents no such problem. Have our planners learnt nothing in 100 years? Today’s game is a 4.00 kick off  in the top division between rock-bottom Athlone Town, and visiting Derry City. After convincing officials we are not Derry fans – I’m pretty sure our cross-section of English accents bear no resemblance at all to that of Londonderry folk – we’re in and while chatting to the snack bar man about the Irish players that have featured large and long in the history of Nottingham forest – I’m wearing the hat – I almost miss out on an impromptu guided tour of the main stand facilities laid on by the friendly home club.

The stadium itself is essentially one large, impressive stand, with all of the facilities – save the snack bar – underneath. There’s a tea bar which doubles as a club shop, although with not a vast array of stock. There is segregation in the stand, but it’s not rigidly enforced and the atmosphere is pretty cordial. To be fair, despite the report on the Irish League’s website after the game, it’s not a great game, probably the least absorbing of the three we watch during our ‘hop’, and is settled by a cracking free kick from fully 40 yards which gives the keeper little chance. Athlone huff and puff a little towards the end, but the points go to Derry.

And so its back to the University, an impromptu diversion to local takeaways for a meal back at the digs, a final session in the bar, and the goodbyes before early morning Monday flights. A tremendous three days with like-minded souls. Takes me back to my late teens, in fact!

Programmes: €3 seemed to be the order of the day, as was the traditional programme seller, rather than buying at the turnstile. The best presented probably Athlone town although Bray’s is in full colour.

Floodlight pylons: 7 & a telephone tower at Bray, six in a 4 + 2 configuration at Longford (possibly some on the stand roof), and 4 at Athlone.

Birdlife: I’m reliably informed there are no feral parakeets in Ireland. Didn’t spot a corncrake either.

Club shops: As above

Music the players run out to: The only thing I recognised was the theme to ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ at Bray

Kop choir: Not really. Any vocal fans seemed to be happy to sit in the main stand at all 3 venues (case of having to at Athlone)

Away fans: Most definitely. A noisy bunch with a drum from Drogheda at Bray, eyeing us suspiciously as they leave the ground with a Garda escort at the end, as we huddle under the shelter of a tree opposite to wait for our bus. Likewise a fair few from Shelbourne on the open terrace opposite the main stand. Derry fans at Athlone were well kitted out in their red and white stripes but were watching a match where there wasn’t too much to shout about!

What’s In a Name? Hey we’re in Ireland, so you’d expect a lot of O’ (as in Peter O’Toole). And you’d be right, except – and this is according to the programme listings – for Derry City. Not an O’ in sight! O’ well.

Godalming Town – Saturday April 26th 2014 (561)

April 29, 2014

‘Having managed to dispose of all the flood water down the drain, there’s a hope that the giant plug will now do its job…’

Saturday 26th April – exactly 45 years to the day that I sat down to tape-record (from the radio) the FA Cup Final between Leicester City and Manchester City. Sadly, it’s probably a sign of my advancing years that I can still recall almost all of the players featuring in that Final in 1969, yet probably couldn’t name most of the 21st century’s winning teams and the years in which they triumphed.

Around that time, at the end of the ‘Swinging Sixties’, I was starting to consider what I might do for a living after the torture of my latter schooldays ground to its inevitable conclusion. Despite my love of steam trains I had no desire to become an engine driver (contrary to the old adage) and although telling my head teacher I wanted to become a farmer – for some inane reason – my perceived talent for knocking together a comic, or a fictional newspaper or football programme for a game between two imaginary teams (in an imaginary league) led me down the path towards journalism. I wrote to every newspaper in the vicinity but by the time the call eventually came I’d already accepted a job with a printing company and decided not to go back on my word.

Fortunately that vocation led me indirectly back into the world of the written word and I now make a living scribbling about – and putting together publications for – the drinks industry. Oh, and I do this blog as well. And after all these years I still get a buzz when I see a piece of my work out there in the big wide world…..

Today my target game is down in Surrey, and another one of those grounds that I’ve had on standby for the past couple of seasons. Now, I finally look like making it. A quick check of the club’s Twitter feed reveals that last night’s heavy rainfall hasn’t put the match in any doubt and I arrive in Godalming ready for a lunchtime session. When I say Godalming I really mean the satellite conurbation of Farncombe, which is where the Wey Court ground of Godalming FC is situated. Until quite recently this part of the world was under several feet of water and although the pitch was apparently playable, facilitating access for players and supporters would have involved assembling a flotilla of Dunkirk proportions.

Between Farncombe railway station and the ground there are three pubs worth checking out and I begin at the Freeholders, a Fullers house which sells a very nice pint of London Pride. It’s quiet but it’s early, although there a few more customers at my next stop, the slightly more twee Three Lions, a Shepherd Neame pub serving a trio of the Kent company’s finest brews of which the Kent’s Best is the one I prefer. It’s a proper copper-coloured bitter and tasty with it. Just down the road and almost on the doorstep of Wey Court is the Leathern Bottle, a homely free house with two beers on tap, Marstons Pedigree and Hogs Back TEA, another good honest pint brewed in the traditional style. The pub is showing live BT Sport, which serves to remind me once again how Michael Owen’s voice is one of life’s great irritants. And so on to the ground, which is just getting back on its feet after the recent disastrous floods. The clubhouse bar is currently housed in a temporary home as is the snack bar, which at least serves up a decent portion of chips. The sturdy main stand appears to be guarded by two stewards, but they seem to just be on hand to afford a smooth access to the pitch for the players whose changing rooms are behind. The only other cover is a small Heath Robinson terraced affair set well back behind one goal, handy when a sudden cloudburst arrives later in the game.

Today’s match is effectively an end-of-season encounter with the home team hoping to say goodbye to the Southern League South & West and its long-distance games such as the one with today’s visitors, Taunton Town, who have been bussed 132 miles to get here. The match is a forgettable encounter to the point that I miss the only goal of the game whilst in conversation with an old boy from Somerset who, though he has a good tale or two to tell, is more of the talking rather than the listening type. So my contribution is minimal. Things liven up a bit on pitch after the break but one of the day’s two highlights for me is a fly-past by a Spitfire. A sight and sound for sore eyes indeed.

And the other highlight? Well, as I thumb through the match programme, what should I find but a two-page article by yours truly lifted from my blog via the “Football Grounds in Focus’ website to which I often contribute. I puff out my chest and tell anybody who cares to listen. Sadly nobody seems to want to. Oh well, not to worry, at least I’M impressed……

Programme: A fantastic publication featuring all the top writers! 11/10. On sale at the turnstile £2

Floodlight pylons: 4

Birdlife: The day remains parakeet-less

Club Shop: No

Toilets: Behind the snack wagon at the back of the main stand

Music the players come out to: Nothing

Kop Choir: No

Away fans: A fair few Taunton fans in the main stand… plus my mate!

What’s in A Name? Wonder if Godalming’s D. Read is known as Judge?


Northern League Hop – Monday April 21st 2014 (558-560)

April 23, 2014
"in a part of the country where wearing more than a T-shirt in Winter is considered overdressing, the toilet arrangements at Heritage Park are deemed as state-of-the-art...'

“In a part of the country where wearing more than a T-shirt in winter is considered overdressing, the toilet arrangements at Heritage Park are deemed to be state-of-the-art…’

Just as beer festivals are a valuable resource for the die-hard beer-ticker, so I suppose ‘hops’ are to football ground ‘collectors’ like me. Although I’ve yet to sign up for the full Groundhop UK experience – I have registered my interest for the proposed Irish trip so you never know – I have found their schedules very useful and cost-effective for adding a few new stadia to my ‘visited’ list.

The 2014 Northern League Easter Hop, staged over several days, caught my eye, though a number of other commitments narrowed my vision to just the one day, the Bank Holiday Monday trio of games in County Durham.

And so it comes to pass that I motor up the M1 and A1(M) – pausing only to deposit my son at his friend’s house in Sheffield – and turn up at Bishop Auckland’s Heritage Park ground at 11 in the morning. This is a stadium I am familiar with, having watched numerous match videos filmed there on the Darlington website, Darlo being current lodgers at the ground. This is the first match of the day, and features two teams whose names I grew up with as I read my hand-me-down Charles Buchan football annuals in the early 1960s.

Bishop Auckland and Crook Town were always prominent in the days of the old FA Amateur Cup and were known nationally to the extent that I had the former as one of my favourite Subbuteo teams, although the eye-catching light & dark blue kit might also have contributed to that. Big five-figure crowds once watched these two giants of the non-league game slug it out, although I suspect there would be slightly less-ambitious expectations of the number today, albeit with the bonus of attendant groundhoppers.

Despite the prospect of early arrivals, staff in the clubhouse are a bit slow on the ball, as the bar remains stubbornly shut until around 40 minutes from the kick-off, while the hot food arrives in dribs and drabs, although efficiently served by the young girl faced with a rapid build-up of customers. The chips & curry sauce hits the spot – there’s vegetable soup on offer too – and although I spot a Black Sheep keg dispenser on the bar, decide to opt for a quick half of the Dortmunder Union Vier pils, which I presume is a German import.

Heritage Park itself is only a few years old, and is located to the south of the town centre. It boasts a level (as opposed to undulating) pitch, surrounded by flat standing apart from a covered step terrace behind one goal, a tall main stand straddling the halfway line, and the advantage of a grassy bank on the side opposite, although I suspect this might be a no-go area for most of the winter.

Today’s game is between two mid-table outfits who slug it out for the first 25 error-strewn minutes on a hard bouncing pitch, but once the home side nose in front there’s no stopping them. They’re four up by half time and begin the second half in similar style, scoring goals regularly until seemingly deciding on 70 that enough is enough, and eight will suffice. During that time Crook Town have the temerity to pull one back! Still, 9 goals in 45 minutes seems good value to me. I do however feel sorry for the young lad in the Town goal who, apart from a howler for the fourth, is just let down by inexperience and an invisible defence.

So it’s back in the car and a 15-minute journey to the next port-of-call, the historic Brewery Field ground of Champions-elect Spennymoor Town, who may step up to the Northern Premier next season, a promotion prospect many of their compatriots in this parochial, FA Vase-obsessed league seem to shun. The club website recommends parking in the town centre, which I do, but on reflection there looks to be a lot of un-restricted street parking in the vicinity of the stadium.

Whereas the Heritage Park pitch is flat, this one is the polar opposite, with a pronounced end-to-end slope, and lots of hills and hollows. It’s a nice stadium nonetheless, with an impressive covered terrace running the width of the pitch behind one goal, raised uncovered terracing elsewhere, and a substantial main stand down one side. I briefly check out the clubhouse bar and then the food van, but there is nothing really to excite.

There’s something at stake for both sides today, with the home team needing points to maintain pole position at the top of the table, while visitors Team Northumbria look for a boost in their relegation survival battle. The latter are out of luck as early as the 13th minute as a clearance is charged down by a Spenny striker and balloons over the head of the keeper and into the net. There’s more drama as a stray ball poleaxes a spectator, with the Spenny physio the first to come to his aid. Chances at both ends are spurned but Town seem to have it sealed on 53 from a long-range free kick, and underline that with a third on 81. Cue a spirited revival from Northumbria who pull one back before a frantic finale in which a Spenny penalty adds gloss to the scoreline.

Now for another short drive to Newton Aycliffe, and the last of the three games for the day. Moore Lane is the least developed of the grounds, boasting only two kit stands – one seated – with the rest flat standing. Access is past a social club and round the cricket pitch (a la Feethams) with the complex boasting mainly pre-fab buildings which serve as offices, changing rooms and a snackery, which at least sells chips. The home team are on a run of eight successive defeats with only one win in 2014, but faced with title-chasing visitors Shildon are more than up for the fight and take a deserved lead within 5 minutes. Despite Shildon coming more into the game as the match wears on, and the home goal starting to lead a charmed life, it takes a penalty to add parity to the scoreline, with the 1-1 result probably being the right outcome.

A quick look at the crowds on ‘Groundhop Day’. There’s 434 at Bishops (average 233), 627 at Spenny (413) and at N.A. I’m guessing – as I didn’t hear anything announced – about 250 (115) so with a couple of hundred or so hoppers on the loose, it can only be a good thing for the coffers of the host clubs. Staggering kick-off times might not necessarily be popular with regular supporters and the players, but as we all know, in this game money talks. However, even a groundhopper boost would’t be likely to threaten the record crowd for a match between two Northern League teams, which according to the Bishop Auckland programme stands at 100,000! Mind you, it WAS a cup final and it WAS at Wembley. Heady days.

Programmes: BA – £1.25. Good reading but lots of adverts 5/10.  ST – £1.00. Very similar, although better design. 6/10. NA – £1.50. Slimmer but light on adverts. Good on the eye but strangely lacking a fixtures list and league table. 6/10

Floodlight pylons: BA – 4, ST – 4, NA – 6


Walsall Wood – Tuesday April 15th 2014 (557)

April 17, 2014
'Concerned that the speed of the game might pose a Health & Safety risk to the players, the club management decide to act quickly before someone gets hurt....'

‘Concerned that the speed of the game might pose a Health & Safety risk to the players, the club management decide to act quickly before someone gets hurt….’

I’ve always liked school holidays, as much now as when I was a kid. The main attraction then was the freedom to go out and ride bikes, climb trees, track down bird nests, fill in my train number book, or go scrumping for ‘guzzgogs’ and such like. The advantage now that I have kids of my own is that I don’t have to get up at some god-forsaken hour to put their school lunch pack-ups together. Bliss.

Mind you, there’s another battle under way to stop my teenage son from spending the whole two weeks blasting away at virtual aliens and the other creatures that infest his X-Box device. No matter how hard he tries, he just doesn’t seem to be able to destroy them all. Like many father-son relationships which span the generations, there’s a limit to the amount of shared interests we have, so I’m thankful for sport, and football in particular, as if there’s one thing that will drag him away from his gaming, it’s the promise of watching a game of footy, even better if there’s a Wetherspoons All-Day Brunch (no eggs, extra chips) thrown in. That last bit is for tomorrow, when we’re walking into Long Eaton to see United take on Knareborough Town in the Northern Counties East League Cup Semi-Final, but for today it’s a shortish car journey to one of those grounds where public transport is not so handy.

After enjoying an absorbing performance from Norway’s prog-rock maestros Gazpacho at the Assembly (nice venue) in Leamington Spa last night, I’m out for the second evening on the trot, this time with my 15-year old son riding shotgun. It’s a while since he came to what we call a ‘little game’ with me, and long-standing readers of my blog will recall his usual penchant for positioning himself behind the goal in order that he might scurry after each errant shot and return the match ball back into play. Sadly he’s now reached the ‘can’t be arsed doing that’ age and at 6 foot 1 inch he doesn’t do scurrying any more.

Walsall Wood’s Oak Park ground is tucked away behind a leisure centre not far from the A5 on the north-east outskirts of Walsall. There’s parking behind the goal in the ground, but it could be safer to park in the leisure centre car park, judging by the number of wayward shots bouncing off car bonnets during the match. The bad news on entry is that there are no programmes tonight, which stops me in my tracks. The gateman states an illness at the printers as being the reason. As an avid collector this means I may well have to come here again! The fact we have both come out for a night’s entertainment and can enter the ground for a joint fee of a fiver swings it and we wander down towards the clubhouse. A club official is running off team-sheets but as these are hand-written on a piece of lined paper, it still doesn’t compensate for no programme. Issues from past matches hang tantalisingly from above the servery, taunting me mercilessly.

Despite there being a handpump on view, there’s no interesting beer on offer in the cosy clubhouse, but the separate snack bar room does offer some comfort to the veggie in that there’s a bowl of cheese and onion cobs which are competitively priced at a pound, even if they are not using the freshest bread in the world. The lad goes for the chips. The ground itself benefits from a very nice part-wooden stand, which apparently dates from the 1930s, and those fans that don’t gather in front of the clubhouse opposite tend to gravitate towards this structure, as we ourselves do. It’s out of the wind, affords a decent view of the game, and is close to the dugouts where the visiting Gornal Athletic coaches are entertainment itself with their broad Black Country accents and impassioned pleas to the match officials.

The game itself is not exactly a classic of high quality football but makes up for that with a high level of competitiveness. The home side are mid-table in the Midland Alliance with not a lot to play for, whereas visiting Gornal are perilously close to the two relegation positions and need points towards their survival bid. Walsall Wood are marginally the better side in a fairly tedious first half, but after the break it’s a much more even, end-to-end contest decided when Gornal go in front from a header after a free kick on 60 minutes. Both sides have chances to make an impression on the scoreline before the end, but the glee on the visiting faces at the final whistle is plain for all to see.

And so we travel home to resume the school holidays. For me that’s the Long Eaton game on Wednesday, down to London on Thursday for the We Will Rock You show, returning to the Smoke on Saturday for Chelsea v Sunderland (which now that’s being moved back to the Saturday from Sunday has scuppered my pre-booked train ticket to Norfolk for the Dereham Town game) and then up to the North East for Monday’s leg of the Northern League Hop …. oh and then down to Devon on the following Thursday to do some beer judging. After all that running around I think it’s ME that needs a holiday!

Programme: Don’t ask

Floodlight pylons: 8

Birdlife: Not much

Toilets: In the clubhouse near the snack bar.

Club Shop: badges and scarves available (I presume from the bar)

Music the players come out to: None

Kop choir: No

Away fans: None evident

What’s in a name: Is Gornal’s Josh Skidmore the master of the Slide Tackle? Both linesman are apparently called Rowley. But if they ARE related, they’re about as alike as Schwarzenegger and De Vito in the film Twins!


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