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!

15.4.89 – 3.07

April 15, 2014

25 years ago today, four of us travelled by car to a football match and chatted all the way there. On the way back none of us could say a word.

We were fortunate, because a lot of other people didn’t get back that day.

After 25 years of the facts being suppressed, is it too much to expect that the true extent of the cover-up – to the very highest level – will finally be exposed? Or will the ‘network’ continue to protect the culpable and shield the public from the truth?

Call me cynical but…..

Chatham Town – Saturday April 12th 2014 (556)

April 15, 2014
"in actual fact Box F is the desirable one, it's the box behind you wouldn't want to be allocated..."

“In actual fact Box F is classed as ‘desirable’ - it’s the one behind it that’s usually reserved for the stroppy visiting director…”

As followers of my blog will know, collecting stuff has been a habit of mine for much of the past 60 years. Whether that be physical objects such as insects, butterflies, birds eggs, Tri-ang locos, Action Men or Subbuteo teams through my primary school days, or else virtual things such as car, bus, train and plane numbers as I was growing up, there was always something there for me to ‘tick’. That collecting bug got marginally more sophisticated into my working years as I started drinking my way through the pubs in the 1977 Leicestershire Beer Guide (yep, did all 1,000 of ‘em, at least a half in each) and then brew-pubs in the Good Beer Guide as they started to spring up in the early 1980s, doubtless inspired by the success of the Firkin chain, Dogbolter et al.

Such was the nature of the beast, the brew-pub trips took a gang of us to all parts of the country, invariably in a camper van we’d hire from some unsuspecting operator, on the pretext we were a Venture Scouts group or something equally plausible, as we suspected that the true purpose of our visit being to go out on the lash might deter them from handing us the keys. A particular favourite destination was always the tip of Cornwall and the Blue Anchor at Helston, after which we’d camp nearby for the night, sleep it off, and work our way back home over the next few days taking in every other brew-pub we knew about along on the way.

During one particular trip to Sussex and Kent, we decided to book ourselves into a hotel for a change, there being a suitable candidate in a Medway town called Strood. There was method in our madness, because in those days opening hours were still tightly controlled and the only way round 10.30pm closing was to become a ‘resident’. As a result, and to the probable chagrin of the bar staff, we enjoyed the beer that this hotel brewed on the premises – for that was the main purpose of the visit –  to the very early hours of the morning. Sore heads all round.

To be honest I’d forgotten the name of the hotel until a chance conversation in a pub during my Kent trip today, a day which started out as per all my recent London-based ventures with the 5.29am ‘Megabus’ train out of my native Long Eaton and into St. Pancras – the things I’ll do for a £15 return ticket! After my usual cross-London walk – making sure to avoid the dodgy paving slabs after hitting the deck a couple of times in recent weeks – I settle into my recently-adopted London office, this being the ‘Lord Moon of the Mall’ Wetherspoons pub on Whitehall, which never really gets busy until later in the morning. I can enjoy a good veggie breakfast, a couple of cups of filter coffee, and my first pint of the day in relative piece and quiet before setting off elsewhere.

That elsewhere today is Chatham Town, one of those grounds that’s been on my ‘reserve’ radar for years but has now reached the top. The train journey today has to end at Strood – hence my earlier reminiscences – as there is a replacement bus service across the River Medway bridge and into Rochester, adjacent to Chatham but where all the best local pubs are. And most of these are outside of the town centre, and the first of them is the Man Of Kent. Undeterred by the ‘Closed’ sign hanging on the door – they must have spotted me coming down the road – I enter a classic drinkers pub devoted to the county’s brewing art. All of the ten beers on handpump are from Kentish brewers, and the landlady talks me through the pump policy of achieving a balanced offering of the different styles of beers, a lesson many other self-proclaimed ‘specialist real ale pubs’ could learn from.

I go for a Goachers Best Dark (in a jug, as I’m offered the choice) and would stay for longer if I wasn’t a man on a mission. There’s a handful of knowledgable punters present and we discuss the merits of several Belgian brews before I ask the question about the former home-brew hotel in Strood. ‘It was the South Eastern’ recalls one of my new companions, and a question that has been nagging me for the last few days is answered. My next port of call is just around the corner, and is called the Good Intent. There’s a large bar with a pool table and five bar stools, each occupied by one of the only five people in the pub, and obviously locals, judging by their familiarity with the bar staff. The beer here is served straight from the cask, and there are four  on offer, although none of them ‘Locale’. The Bespoke Brewing ‘Going Off Half Cocked’ is a palatable enough brew, and is fuel for the uphill journey to my next pub, the ‘Who’d Ha Thought It’ which is tucked up a side street off the main road.

It’s a splendid building with a distinctive frontage proclaiming its former life as a Woodhams & Co Ltd brewery house. This Rochester brewery was taken over in 1918 and subsequently ceased operations, but the landlady – who spots me taking notes and engages me in conversation – says the brewhouse building survived until recent times (on Victoria Street in the town, you can certainly identify it on Google StreetView). There are four beers at this friendly beer house where I enjoy a pint of Old Dairy Spring Top while chatting to her about football, as she’s a Southampton fan. On discovering I follow Forest she offers to switch on the TV game (Forest at QPR) but despite my protestations that this would amount to cruelty, given my team’s current form, I’m overruled by another customer, and we have to endure it!

From here it’s a good half hour walk through undulating urban terrain and although I have to break the journey to spend a penny at the General At Sea, a Shepherd Neame cask ale house on Balfour Road, I arrive at the Maidstone Road ground of Chatham Town in good time for kick-off. I’m impressed by what I find, with facilities clearly capable of sustaining a club at a higher level. There’s a large admin and changing rooms complex behind one goal, in front of which is covered terracing complete with crush barriers. Down most of the length of one side is a covered stand featuring wooden bench seating, while opposite there is a smaller covered stand with plastic bucket seating. Only the area behind one goal is undeveloped, and even that features a couple of concrete terracing steps. I have a quick peak into the busy clubhouse and although there is no cask beer, I espy bottles of Shepherd Neame Whitstable Bay ale in the fridge. Snack bar fayre is the routine stuff with chips on offer.

As much praise as I pour on the stadium, sadly I can’t bestow on the pitch, which looks in need of a good close shave. I’m well aware you won’t find too many snooker table surfaces this time of year, but this looks likely to provide plenty of uneven bounce today. And to be honest it’s not really a great game between Chatham and their mid-table colleagues from Maldon & Tiptree, with most of the interest centred around the numerous dodgy challenges which make it a niggly match, and lead to two penalties, both awarded to Chatham with only the second of the two converted – by the excellent Matt Solly – on 53 minutes. No amount of huffing and puffing from either side threatens to affect the scoreline and 1-0 it stays to the death.

And so I set off back down the hill into Rochester and a walk across the bridge into Strood. Now where’s that South Eastern Hotel? I could do with a late night session…..

Programme: £2 on entry. Nice chunky design and glossy cover although the layout is a bit unambitious. The captain looks a fun sort of guy, so I’m not sure why his column is so bland. Come on Austin, give us a bit of dressing room banter! 6/10

Floodlight pylons: 8

Birdlife: Lots of gulls plus the ubiquitous wood pigeon

Club shop: Good question, did I see one….?

Toilets: Access from the terracing in front of the admin block

Music the players run out to: Nothing today, possibly due to the Hillsborough anniversary

Kop choir: No

Away fans: Not vocal

Squires Gate – Saturday April 5th 2014 (555)

April 8, 2014
'Having not had much joy with the two previous stands of straw and mud erected by Three Little Pigs building company, the club hope that the new bricks version will survive the Blackpool gales...'

‘Having not had much joy with the two previous stands of straw and then wood erected by the Three Little Pigs building company, the club hope that the new version made from bricks will survive the annual Blackpool gales…’

Aside from football and ale, one of the other great passions of my life has always been music. Brought up on a diet of the Shadows, then the Beatles and T. Rex, and having diversified through numerous musical genres – glam, punk, disco, mod, ska, new romantic, indie, Brit Pop – during the ensuing decades, one form of the art I’ve always gone back to is Prog Rock.

Not everybody’s cup of tea I know, but having been ‘into’ Pink Floyd, Genesis, Hawkwind, Yes, ELP and Led Zep during my early impressionable college and working years, it’s still the sound that I feel most comfortable with. Not that you hear a lot of it on the radio, or at football grounds come to think of it. So I get my kicks via my ipod, in the car driving to evening games after business meetings, or at the occasional Live gig. Now if only I could coincide one of the latter with a new football stadium….

Well I’m having a stab at that today, borrowing the wife’s motor for a sprint up the M6 to Squires Gate FC in Blackpool, before returning south and then West to Liverpool, and the O2 Academy to see a Polish band called Riverside, who I’m pretty sure most of you won’t have heard of. Like most prog-rockers they’re pretty well known all over Europe, but have only a cult status in the UK amongst us dwindling band of enthusiasts but hey, that means I’m not likely to get killed in the rush.

Situated just outside of Blackpool, virtually in Lytham St Annes and close to the airport, Squire’s Gate FC’s School Road Stadium is just a couple of hundred yards or so from the Mechanics Ground of fellow North West Counties Premier outfit AFC Blackpool. What’s even cosier is that there’s another football ground between the two, this being the (also) School Road home of West Lancashire League side Blackpool Wren Rovers, who also have a game today. In fact they appear to share some terracing cover with Squires Gate, just a fence partitioning the two grounds. Now if I had a stepladder – two games for the price of one!

I arrive around 2.00pm as do most of the players and a referee, who soon departs stage left as he realises he’s supposed to be in charge of the match next door. Squires Gate’s opponents today are promotion-chasing Norton United. I remember taking in their Community Drive ground back in 2006 when this Stoke-on-Trent based team were a mediocre mid-table side in the North West Counties second tier. Clearly some kind of forward momentum has arrived at a club which now threatens Runcorn Linnets’ position at the top of the table, and with games in hand look ideally placed to take the only promotion slot. A tweet on the Squires Gate Twitter account from a Linnets supporter implores the seaside club to ‘do us all a favour ‘ which, taking the home side’s recent poor form into account, seems fairly optimistic.

I have a walk around the ground which features a small covered seated stand which seems to be reserved for club officials behind one goal, while there is further covered seating down one side. On the opposite side, the one adjacent to the Blackpool Wren Rovers ground, there is a long section of narrow covered flat standing. I use the word ‘flat’ in its broadest sense, the surface appearing to be less ‘paved’ and more ‘crazy paved’, either by design or evolution, it’s not clear.

There is a reasonable sized clubhouse with an area set aside for a kids creche, which I presume is what it doubles as during the week (very similar to one I encountered at Chalfont St Peter a couple of months ago). There’s no beer of note and although there appears to be some trade in pies, it’s not readily obvious what’s on the menu and I feel disinclined to enquire.

From the early stages of the game it’s fairly clear that the home side will be up against it, and with the United No11 running riot down the left wing the visitors are two-up after barely 15 minutes. But just as I’m anticipating a cricket score, Squires Gate pull one back and that’s the way it stays. For much of the ensuing 70 minutes it’s a messy affair with Norton looking the most likely to score without ever achieving it. It’s a bad tempered contest with both sides giving Football League referee Paul Kettlewell plenty of grief, most of it unjustified.

And so it comes to pass that the favour requested by Runcorn fans is unfulfilled and the Linnets aren’t singing today. Not music to their ears, but it’s a different kind of music I’m thinking of as I head down the M62 for a pre-gig pint in the Ship & Mitre and then a date with Riverside.

Programme: £1 on the gate. 24 pages of which 16 are advertising. Allow 2 more pages for the cover and team sheet and you can work out the amount of actual reading matter. 2/10

Floodlight pylons: 6

Birdlife: Being so close to the coast, I think you can guess the dominant species

Toilets: Inside the clubhouse

Club Shop: No

Music the players run out to: None

Kop choir: No

Away support: I’d guess around half of the 42 people recorded as passing through the turnstile.

What’s in a name? Bet Squires’ Matthew Swash never gets called ‘Joe’! If Charles Dickens was still alive and writing books today, would he find space for characters like Squires’ Joe Noblet and United’s Thomas Winkle? and doesn’t Tom Fogg’s value to the Norton team seem to be shrouded in mist…?


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