Witham Town – Saturday October 25th 2014 (580)

October 27, 2014

‘There’s concern that the bowl they use for the FA Cup Draw is looking a little long in the tooth…’

Coming from an era when the FA Cup Final was always the biggest event in football – before England won the World Cup and we then took an interest in that – it disappoints me that some clubs treat this venerable competition as well down in their list of priorities. And I think that has reflected in attendances in recent years. I went to see Forest v Wolves in the Third round a few years back, and there were only 12,000-odd at the game – and half of those were from Wolverhampton!

FA Cup Third Round Day – when the Big Boys are set loose amongst the minnows – was always the day of shocks and the crowds turned up ready for anything. I was lucky enough to be at the famous Leicester City v Leatherhead match in 1975 after the non-league ‘no hopers’ had won at Peter Taylor’s Brighton in the third Round. They nearly did it again to a Leicester side featuring several current or future internationals, and were just a goal-line clearance away from going 3-0 up before succumbing to the team from the top division. I’ve also had the pleasure of attending four Wembley FA Cup finals plus numerous semis, and due to my current preoccupation with the lower leagues I have probably now seen a match in every round.

For good measure I’m heading off to Essex today to see a 4th Qualifying Round tie between sides from different levels of the game, with Isthmian Premier Witham Town entertaining Conference South outfit Weston Super Mare, a match which could be difficult to call.

Essex destinations invariably involve a train journey from Liverpool Street, so after arriving at St Pancras I set off on the two and a half mile walk to the East End, where I’ve promised myself a Wetherspoons veggie breakfast at the Hamilton Hall. As  is becoming the norm, the veggie sausage is virtually inedible – bring back the Linda McCartney’s, all is forgiven! Afterwards I decide to take a stroll round Spitalfields market to visit an excellent music stall there, only to discover that it doesn’t start trading until 11.00am. I thought all markets were early morning affairs?

Not to worry, it means more time in Witham, and I arrive at the White Hart which is listed on CAMRA’s What Pub website as being open at 8.00am. That’s as maybe, but they don’t start serving beer until 11.00am. So it’s a detour down the road to the local ‘spoons, an austere looking building called the Battesford Court, where seats for drinkers are in short supply as the place is full of Saturday morning shoppers with numerous kids in tow. I brave it for a pint of Banks’s Botanical – it being the Wetherspoon’s Beer Festival – which is the kind of odd-tasting beer you’re never likely to have more than one of.  I’ll just state at this point that the Banks’s head brewer is a friend of mine – sorry Simon!

And so back to the White Hart which has a number of beers served on gravity. And if the two that I sample are anything to go by, the best beer in town. The Green Jack Red Herring – a ruby red brew – is excellent and although I’m not a massive fan of Woodforde’s Wherry, being served straight from the cask allows all of the flavours to come through. The pub also sells a mean bowl of cashews for around £1.

There’s just time before the mile-long trek to the ground to go back up past the station and visit the Woolpack, an excellent village local that serves as the brewery tap for the Witham Brewery. The house beer is called ‘No Name’, is malty with a lingering hoppy mouthfeel, and only costs £2.50 per pint. I can’t find fault with that! And it’s also a long time since I saw dominoes being played in a pub.

Witham Town’s Spa Road stadium is on a site away from the town centre, and just like the ground of Dereham Town that I visited a couple of weeks ago, it smacks of ‘new build’ but in fact has been used for the past 40 years. There’s a clubhouse bar on one side, which is partitioned prior to the match, so that anybody who just wants a pint can do so without having to pay £10 entry fee. The bad news is there is nothing decent beer-wise to be had. Inside the ground there is an area of covered stepped terrace either side of the players tunnel, which can be a bit of a bottleneck. Behind both goals are covered single-step terraces that run from corner to corner, and on the side opposite the clubhouse is a covered stand, featuring three rows of seats. There is a snack bar near the clubhouse selling chips.

There’s a good crowd in excess of 600 in today – more than 3 times the Witham average for a League fixture – and most of them are ecstatic when the home side take an early lead. But it’s not long before visiting Weston-Super-Mare begin to demonstrate why they are from a higher division, and as half time approaches they start to dominate the possession, going level on 40. Ten minutes after the break a comedy own-goal completes the comeback and despite a scare on 70 when Weston lose a man to a red when conceding a penalty, Witham contrive to miss it and the visitors see the game out, albeit not without the odd wobble or two.

And so Weston go on to Round 1 proper – and a date with Doncaster Rovers, the draw having just been made as I type this up.  Hopefully a handful of the lower league sides left in the competition will make it to Round 3 and get some serious revenue with a game against one of the big boys. It would be good to see a match in the ilk of Leicester v Leatherhead, or better still Hereford v Newcastle, again – just to remind Joe Public that there is still some real magic in the FA Cup.

Programme: £2 on the turnstile. A nicely produced affair with several pages of colour action pictures. Shame they felt the need to make it serve two games (today and the Essex Senior Cup match on Tuesday – embarrassing if they sold out today!)

Floodlight pylons: 8

Birdlife: Just a flock of Starlings with a fondness for the Mobile Phone mast

Music the players run out to: None

Club Shop: Didn’t see one. Maybe in the part of the clubhouse Bar I couldn’t access!

Toilets: Between the turnstiles and the clubhouse

Kop choir: Quite a crowd of home fans behind the appropriate goal, but with not a song amongst them.

Away fans: A fair few in the stand where i was sitting, evident when they scored

What’s in a Name? I’m guessing that Witham’s Mr S. Murfet has a club nickname, although i can’t for the life of me think what it might be…. Presumably Town’s Brad Stopher is not a centre back in the Beckenbauer mould…..

East Grinstead Town – Tuesday October 21st 2014 (579)

October 24, 2014
'The club's new hot tub for the players turns out to be only the budget model....'

‘The club’s new hot tub for the players turns out to be only the budget model….’

It’s quite a while since I last travelled down to London for an evening game. Save for the odd cup match at Stamford Bridge with my son, I don’t think I’ve accrued a mid-week ‘tick’ in the South East for some time. I had a bit of a flurry two or three years back when I discovered National Express were charging as little as £1 each way, which made economic sense even if I didn’t get to bed until about 3 in the morning, but now my list of Step 4 clubs ‘to-do’ in the Home Counties is down to single figures, the attraction is not so great.

Having said that, when the chance arises to scratch another one off the list, I’m happy to take it. As you’ll recall, my Chelsea-supporting son is now of an age when he can go to the game with his mate and without his dad; the transport problem remains, however, but I can turn that to my advantage by escorting him as far as Victoria station, then heading off in a different direction. And having told him he can go to the Maribor Champions League fixture on a Tuesday night, I’m then looking around for non-league options. There are several matches at Step 5 within striking distance but my best Step 4 hope is an FA Trophy replay. With Hanwell losing at Dereham on Saturday, my saviour comes in the guise of East Grinstead Town’s draw at Walton Casuals.

And so it goes that, having ensured my lad knows what he’s doing, I take the hour-long rail journey to the depths of West Sussex, gradually shedding commuters as we go through every one-horse conurbation on the way. The route from East Grinstead station to the East Court home of the town’s football club is a little winding and is best accomplished with a map, or a personal SatNav. Even a couple of hundred yards from the ground, inadequate signage sends me up a hill to an ambulance station where the staff point out the error of my navigating. So then it’s back down to an unlit lane cursed with invisible speed bumps until I emerge into the club’s car park.

Tonight’s attendance is poor, as might befit a match between two sides currently 23rd and 24th respectively in the Isthmian Div 1 South table, and following the goalless draw between the two teams the previous Saturday –  so hardly pointers to a must-see encounter. The stadium is very smartly maintained, and features a large clubhouse complex behind one goal, an elevated stand built on top of a grass bank, with an area of covered terrace virtually adjacent. In between is a snack bar offering the ubiquitous chip. The bar has no cask ale, but is selling a bottled beer from Harveys of Lewes, an 3.8% bitter called Blue Label. It’s not the brewery’s finest product, but it serves to ‘wet the whistle’.

It’s a windy night, Hurricane Gonzalo having passed through earlier in the day, but the playing surface is protected by a thick curtain of trees which serves to make the evening quite pleasant.

When the game starts it appears that only one side – the visitors, Walton Casuals – have turned up, and their tricky forwards make decisive inroads into the home defence, quickly going one up and having enough chances to be three or four in front at the break. But they make up for their profligacy in the second half by continuing the one-way traffic and goals subsequently follow at regular intervals until they stop at six, while kindly letting Town notch a late consolation. Entertainment indeed for the neutral, not so funny for the home supporters.

Back at Victoria my son has also had the pleasure of a goal-fest and can he come to the next midweek game? All of a sudden the prospect seems quite an attractive one.

Programme: £2 at the turnstile. Nice shiny cover and well-designed layout. 28 pages but more than half are adverts.

Floodlight pylons: 6

Birdlife: Despite the trees not an owl hoot in evidence

Toilets: In a block behind the goal

Club Shop: A display of merchandise in the clubhouse, so presumably available at the bar

Music the players run out to: None

Kop choir: No

Away fans: A small number

What’s in a Name? I’m guessing Town’s Matthew Geard is getting used to crowd abuse. Presumably Casuals’ Simon Medley is the one who sings in the showers

Dereham Town – Saturday October 18th 2014 (578)

October 20, 2014
Fed up of seeing countless expensive match balls punted over the fence, the club committee come up with a novel way to save cash...'

‘Fed up of seeing countless expensive match balls punted over the fence, the club committee come up with a novel way to save cash…’

Despite my frequent weekend forays into Yorkshire in recent years, probably the county where I’ve spent more of my vacation time than any other during my lifetime has been Norfolk. Since first being introduced to these eastern flatlands in the early 1960s, I’ve enjoyed many a happy holiday there in the company of family, friends and various girlfriends (not all at the same time of course), sampling its glorious beaches, leafy lanes, and fish-filled waterways, and of course its pubs. I’ve a host of memories which I won’t bore you with, other than to list the first three things that come to mind when I reminisce – Radio Noordzee, Space Invaders and Watney Manns cask-conditioned Norwich Castle Bitter – a heady cocktail indeed!

To be honest, that Castle Bitter wasn’t too bad a beer, coming as it did after a period when a huge swathe of Norfolk was classified by CAMRA types as a ‘beer desert’. Most of the company’s Norfolk pubs had a stab at selling it, and with it invariably being the only cask beer on tap, the quality was usually OK. It wasn’t to last, however, and with the advent of national brands it soon disappeared from the bar. And Space Invaders got too complicated and I suppose Radio Noordzee went the way of all the off-shore pirate stations.

Nowadays my visits to Norfolk tend to be day trips for football purposes, and with some keenly-priced rail fares from Nottingham courtesy of East Midlands Trains, any opportunity to endure the three-hour train journey is still eagerly anticipated. Today I’m heading for East Dereham, a town where I would undoubtedly have stopped off during one of those interminable slow-motion 1970s car journeys (in the days before parts of the A47 were finally dualled) when everybody was trying to avoid the notorious bottleneck around King’s Lynn. Happy days.

After much research, I reason the best way to get to Dereham will be via a bus from Norwich, and by good fortune the KonectExpress 8 picks up right outside the city’s rail station, subsequently setting down just a couple of hundred yards from Dereham Town’s Aldiss Park stadium; although with time on my hands, I decide to get off in the town centre, a mile or so further down the road. Courtesy of CAMRA’s ‘What Pub’ website I’ve identified a couple of hostelries which deserve to be investigated, the first of them being just to the south of the main shopping area. The Royal Standard looks a bit staid and unloved from the outside but this is deceptive as it hides a very welcoming interior.

It sells four cask beers including Bateman’s XB, plus a brew from the local Beeston Brewery. Today it’s Village Life, a 4.8%abv dark brown bitter which is malty and full-bodied – my kind of beer! From here I walk past the local Wetherspoons – no time today – and visit the George Hotel, just to the north of the town centre. It’s a traditional hotel bar where the staff have you marked as a potential food customer – I’m asked the inevitable “are you eating with us today sir…” question – but still caters for drinkers with four hand pumps, three selling Adnams beers and the other Woodforde’s Wherry. I plump for Adnams Old Ale which splutters worryingly as the lass attempts to pour it. To be honest it does taste a bit ‘end-of-barrel-ish’ but I persevere anyway.

Then it’s back to the Market Place bus stop and the KonectExpress 8 starting the return journey to Norwich, from which I alight five minutes later at the Windmill Lane bus stop, just a few minutes from the ground. Although Aldiss Park opened in 1996, it still smacks of ‘new build’ and boasts one of the best playing surfaces I’ve seen for a while. The stadium is dominated by a large clubhouse/changing rooms complex on one side, with flat standing all round, save for a longish covered stand with two rows of seats on the opposite side, and a ‘kit’ terrace behind one goal. The clubhouse bar is very well presented, has sports TV, a separate snack servery (just chips for the veggie) and two hand pumps on the bar, serving Woodforde’s Wherry, and Blackwater Brewery Hair of the Dog, about as citrussy as you will find, and hailing all the way across the country from Shropshire.

Today’s game is an FA Trophy tie, with Dereham Town – from the London-centric Isthmian League despite it’s geographic location – taking on London side Hanwell Town, who ply their trade in the Southern League. You might have thought it would be the other way round. I have a special interest in today’s game ending in a draw, with the prospect of a replay at Hanwell on the following Tuesday night, when by coincidence I will be in the ‘Smoke’ having transported my son down for him to see Chelsea take on Maribor in the Champions League. My days of paying £41 to watch footy at Stamford Bridge are now over!

And for a long time it looks like my dream result will happen with both sides trading early goals before contriving between them to miss a hatful of chances in a generally entertaining game where no side appears to have the edge. That is until 10 minutes from the end when an astute through ball puts the home striker in on goal and the net bulges. Hey ho, best laid plans up in Smoke!

An OK game but not especially memorable. So it looks like when I think of Norfolk, I’ll still be clinging on to those thoughts of Radio Noordzee, Space Invaders, and Norwich Castle Bitter for a bit longer. Which reminds me, talking of beer, there’s just time for a pint before the long train journey home….

Programme: On the turnstile, not sure of price: Chunky at 60 pages but when I add that just over 40 of those pages comprise advertising, you can tell the amount of reading matter is restricted. Full marks to the fella who sells the advertising though…

Floodlight pylons: 8

Birdlife: very little despite the rural location

Club Shop: Seem to recall merchandise on sale but for the life of me can’t remember where!

Toilets: Side of the clubhouse

Music the players run out to: none

Kop choir: a largely geriatric crowd behind the appropriate goal. Repertoire limited.

Away fans: several in evidence in the seating area.

What’s in a name: Interesting that Hanwell have four Duffy brothers on their books, and their dad is also the manager. Shades of ‘Football Family Robinson’ in the old Jag comic (circa 1968 – remember?)

AFC Totton – Saturday October 11th 2014 (577)

October 17, 2014

”There’s a theory that, when they start filming ‘Star Wars X – The Testwood Years ‘, the club’s stock of Millennium Stormtrooper crash helmets will come in handy…’

It’s a fact that, over the years, one or two football grounds have done their level best to stay out of my clutches, although few have proved so tricky as the Testwood Stadium, and yet it’s only three years old!

On holiday in the New Forest in 2011, I eschewed the chance to visit the newly-opened home of AFC Totton in favour of nearby Sholing. At the end of that season I got as far as Southampton only to discover that Totton’s pitch was waterlogged. Since then a lack of cheap rail deals on Southern Trains has deterred me from the long trek to the South Coast. But still that ‘TO DO’ next to the club’s name on my blog has served to be a red rag to a bull. Until now.

Newly armed with a Senior Railcard and a National Express Coachcard, it suddenly looks do-able, and for under £25 too!

So I’m treading my familiar route; early train to St Pancras, vigorous walk to Victoria via a bit of sight-seeing in Covent Garden (the floating building – saw it on the News) and a Wetherspoons brekkie in the Lord Moon of the Mall, before catching the National Express coach service from Victoria Coach Station to Southampton. The last time I was in this city I checked out a few of the pubs up towards St Mary’s football ground. Today I decide to go north-west, initially to the Wellington Arms, a back street local with around a dozen hand pumps. It’s an unspoilt pub with two separate bars and although empty of this Saturday lunchtime, still exudes some character. My beer is Butts Mudskipper which has a bit of the first-pint-pulled-today about it.

A little down the road from here is the Key & Anchor, which is decked out as a shrine to music. The background muzak boasts a wide variety – including ‘Love You More’, my favourite post-Devoto Buzzcocks track – and I settle into a comfy armchair to sample my pint of Ringwood Fortyniner, watched attentively by the pub dog which has more than a passing interest in my bag of cashew nuts.

I then head back to the area around the station and catch the X7 Salisbury bus, which en route passes the Testwood Stadium, just the other side of Totton.

As you might guess, this is an ultra-modern lower league ground, into which much thought has been given regarding the design. A large clubhouse complex dominates an area to the end of one side, with a good-sized, tall seated stand straddling the half-way line. Today’s guest-of-honour Lawrie McMenemy has a good view, when his line-of-sight is not hampered by autograph seekers and the glare from the sun. On the opposite side of the pitch is a smaller, longer, thinner and shallower seated stand which is where I sit, in a fairly unoccupied area. Virtually all around the pitch there is a four-step uncovered terrace with areas running up to 7 or 8 steps. As I said, a thoughtful design.

The clubhouse itself has Sharps Doombar on hand pump and the snack bar is offering chips.

Today’s game is against Bridgwater Town, and with both teams more-or-less in the mid-table mix, I’m not sure what to expect. I soon realise why my end of the stand is sparsely populated. A nearby elderly steward seems far more preoccupied by the game than his stewarding duties and endlessly barks out a series of indecipherable instructions to the players at a machine-gun rate. It mainly sounds like “Use it!” which is a bit mystifying especially when Totton don’t have the ball! Fortunately he tires as the game goes on.

The visitors have the better of a tight first half, but with both defences prone to gaffs it’s surprising that we only have it at 1-1 at the break, Town having gone ahead on 20, missing a penno on 40 and paying for that by conceding a sloppy equaliser on 42. There’s much huffing and puffing in a goalless second half, the highlight of which being a mass brawl on 72 which results merely in a couple of bookings, when video reply might easily have identified a couple of reds.

As I say my farewells to the Testwood Stadium I suddenly remember that this won’t be the last time I travel this route. Poking over the perimeter fence are the floodlights of Little Testwood Farm, home ground of Wessex League Premier side Totton & Eling FC, also on my radar. I just hope my eventual ‘tick’ there doesn’t prove to be quite so elusive.

Programme: £2 from a stand inside the turnstile. Nicely produced and presented if a little heavy on the adverts and Southern League round-ups.

Floodlight pylons: 8

Birdlife: Do the five parakeets I spotted flying over Buckingham Palace count? I thought not….

Club Shop: Yes, between the main stand and the raised terracing.

Toilets: Near the stand

Music The Players Run Out To: Theme from Rocky

Kop Choir: Three individuals who took up residence near the corner flag and kept up a rhythmic clap and chant for much of the game. A ‘Kop Trio’ in effect!

Away fans: A fair few in evidence

What’s in a Name? I’ve a sneaking suspicion that not all of the goals scored by Totton’s Rob Flooks are well-crafted efforts….

South Park – Saturday October 4th 2015 (576)

October 8, 2014
'Concerned at the amount go goals they are conceding, the management team figure out a way of ensuring clean sheets...'

‘Concerned at the amount of goals they are conceding, the management team figures out a way of ensuring clean sheets…’

I mentioned in my last blog entry about places in the UK that I generally look forward to visiting. There are precious few that I positively hate. Even Direby has some great pubs! But as a youth I developed a rapid disdain for the town of Reigate – and I’d never even been there! First Love, you understand; a girl with whom I was besotted at the time was sent by her catering company employers to fill a vacancy in the leafy environs of Surrey. To me it might as well have been another world, as I had no means of getting down there to visit and so the relationship ground to its inevitable conclusion. Damn town! Now, almost 40 years on, I am about to make my first visit to the place, though I suspect my ‘long lost love’ has long since moved on.

The weather forecast isn’t good but as I arrive in the ‘Smoke’ at the ungodly hour of 7.25am I decide it’s pleasant enough to make the near three-mile walk to Liverpool Street where my first stop will be the Hamilton Hall. This is not one of the biggest Wetherspoons but tends to be amongst the noisiest, popular as it is with footy fans heading out to matches in East London and Essex. Today I eschew the usual breakfast order in favour of just a glass of fresh orange juice, which then causes the heart of a lager-craving construction worker to miss a beat as it’s set down in front of him, the barmaid having temporarily forgotten where I was standing.

From here I time it to arrive at the nearby Crosse Keys at just after 9.00am (as that is when they open) where I order my breakfast, albeit against my better judgement after encountering stroppy bar staff. A pint of the excellent Nethergate Priory Mild – full-flavoured at 3.5% abv – helps to soothe my irritation.

After a detour to the Tower of London to witness the sea of poppies being created in the moat, I head towards the Shard and London Bridge station from where I catch my train to Reigate (boo!). It’s raining on and off but I avoid the worst of it by pub-hopping my way from the centre of town down to the South Park area, first of all taking in the Blue Anchor, just a few doors up from the Pilgrim Brewery, whose Crusader it sells. It’s golden (natch) but not overly citrussy which is a bonus. I pass several interesting-looking pubs in the middle of town before arriving at the Venture Inn, a large imposing two-bar hostelry with wooden floors which sells mainstream beers but with the added attraction of Harvey’s Best Bitter (hurrah!)

It’s umbrella time now as I head off in the direction of the ground, down a steep winding hill, just detouring to take in the cosy, well-decorated Barley Mow – the nearest pub to the stadium – which just sells one cask beer, Courage Best, a bland brew of which my example is a little past its best. No worries, the rain has eased and I head more or less across the road and down towards the Whitehall Lane ground of newly-promoted Isthmian League Division One club, South Park. The ground and its clubhouse are separated by a cricket pitch, and despite conflicting advice from the same club steward about where to buy a programme, I make the purchase and retire to the bar. This is large and very modern, being stylishly decorated, and with the mother of all flat-screen TVs showing the sport. And although there’s no cask beer, there are bottles of several British beer brands – including Hogs Back – in the fridge.

The stadium itself is tidy enough. There’s a seated stand behind one goal, but most punters tend to congregate on the covered stepped terrace in front of the changing rooms, this complex also housing a small Tea & Snack bar at one end. Being peckish despite my Wetherspoons brekkie, I order a chip butty and receive enough chips to fill three! They are, however, a bit on the spindly side.

Today’s game is against Hythe Town, one off the bottom of the table, but you wouldn’t know it as, after surviving a dodgy first ten minutes, they take the game to their hosts and deservedly secure a first half lead. It doesn’t look likely that South Park will do much about it until the game is suddenly turned on its head in the space of two minutes, with goals either side of the hour mark. But just as it seems that Hythe Town will leave pointless, a cross is converted on 88 and they take a share of the spoils.

“Damn Town”, say the locals. Just like me, 40 years ago in fact!

Programme: £1 from the gate, or in the bar, wherever you may be directed to try! Shiny pre-printed cover, roughly half the pages are adverts. Lots of Isthmian website fillers.

Floodlight pylons: 6

Birdlife: There seems to be a glut of Jays in this part of the world – and plenty of Jackdaws. No parakeets though.

Club shop: Nothing apparent.

Toilets: By the side of the changing rooms.

Music the players run out to: None

Kop choir: No

Away fans: a few in the area around me.

What’s in a name?: Or in this case, what’s in an initial? Of the 22 players that started the game, no less than 13 had a ‘Christian’ name beginning with the letter ‘J’. As did two of the 8 subs. So with 30 players involved in the match, half were either a James, Jamie, Jack, Justin, Joe, John, Josh and even a Jed. One question – is Hythe’s Lewis Mingle the life and soul of the club’s Christmas party?

North Shields – Saturday September 27th 2014 (575)

October 2, 2014
'There's good news for the local newly-born chickens as the club takes steps to ensure their safety...'

‘There’s good news for the local newly-born chickens as the club takes steps to ensure their safety…’

As someone who is reasonably well travelled throughout Great Britain, I naturally have places I like to visit as often as I can, so ‘ground hopping’ can sometimes be a bit of a nuisance, as it might necessitate me going somewhere I won’t particularly enjoy. New grounds within striking range of Brighton, however, are always high on my agenda, in the hope that I can disappear into the Lord Nelson for a pint or two of Harvey’s Best; and anywhere within range of the Great Western in Wolverhampton, or the nearby Beacon Hotel in Sedgeley – home of the legendary Sarah Hughes – is always well up on my list.

I also have quite a liking for Newcastle upon Tyne, although I’m not really sure why. Perhaps it’s the candy floss of scantily-clad hen parties tottering around the town, or the cracking pubs, like the Crown Posada – a personal favourite. And then there’s the Back Page, probably the best football bookshop in the world! Or maybe it’s simply because the footy being played in the Step 5 Northern League is often a cut or two above its status.

I’ve banged on a few times in previous blog entries about the dominance that Northern League teams seem to show in the FA Vase – a club from the League has appeared in each of the last 6 finals – and their reluctance to apply for promotion up the “so-called Pyramid” (the recent words of Northern League supremo Mike Amos in his blog). It was highlighted again this week when Shildon knocked a team from Conference North – three levels higher – out of the FA Cup. Yes, there’s some decent sides in the Northern League, and that’s why I’m happy to go ground hunting up there when cheap rail deals allow.

Hey presto, East Coast Trains come up trumps and I can get a return from Grantham for £17.50. Now Grantham is one of my least favourite places, and not just because of its most (in)famous daughter. Call me unlucky but I’ve only walked a couple of hundred yards from the rail station in the direction of Wetherspoons when I stumble upon a group of youths, one of whom is screaming at a wall, while another goes out of his way to make some kind of gesture to an Asian guy just in front of me. As it’s only 9.00am I’m guessing that it’s not alcohol they are under the influence of. As they disappear up the road I look back just in time to see one of them pick up a cat by the scruff of its neck and hurl it skywards. I’m neither near enough, young enough or brave enough to intervene. The cat lands and makes a sharp exit, its faith in human-kind doubtless shattered, to the detriment of its owners.

My crowded train arrives in Newcastle on time and I head off to the Back Door bookshop for a quick peruse before making my way to the Monument metro stop, and purchasing the most expensive ticket (£5.60) which will take me as far as North Shields. A 20-minute journey transports me towards the coast and out to this former mining and ship-building community on the banks of the Tyne. I’ve only time for a quick pint today, and I choose to have this in the Ambrosia Bank, a large free house just off the main road. There’s several cask beers on tap, a mix of local and national, and I plump for Ring of Fire brewed by the local Three Kings Brewery, just a couple of hundred yards up the road. It’s golden and citrussy, like so many others these days, and although drinkable, I wouldn’t want to order another. Personal taste, you understand.

From here it’s about a fifteen minute walk under the railway bridge and up to what is currently known as the Daren Persson Stadium, which is situated on the edge of a large housing estate. By Step 5 standards North Shields is a well-supported club, although facilities at the ground are limited. There’s no bar as such, just a small tea-room which would be rammed with a dozen or so in it. What little food there is isn’t veggie-friendly. Around the pitch it’s flat standing on three sides, with some cover along one of them, and only on the fourth side is there some elevation, coming in the shape of a small seated stand, and several steps cut into a grass bank, which forms the ‘Curva Nord’ – more about that below.

The home team are currently a top four side, and are too good for visiting mid-table Consett. Much of the play is even-steven, but when Shields want to turn on the style they do so with clinical effect, their busy strikers getting the better of the visitor’s defence on numerous occasions, although only notching three goals in the process. Consett have no response.

And so for the cherry on the day’s cake, one of my all-too-rare visits to the Crown Posada in Newcastle, set as it is nowadays amongst a glut of style bars into which the stag and hen parties are wobbling. The Posada is a long narrow bar with bags of character, and a healthy mix of clientele – the chap next to me is wearing his grandfather’s Great War medals and will discuss them with anybody who cares to enquire. My chosen pint is Black Gate, a dark bitter brewed (I think) by Hadrian-Border Brewery but it’s gone all too soon and I have to de-camp to Newcastle station and wend my way back down south.

Needless to say, with most of the Northern League grounds yet to visit, I will find my way back up here before too long. And with a bit of luck, I won’t have to use Grantham as a staging post.

Programme: £1 on the turnstile. Reasonable value for money. A lot of info on Consett – some of it duplicated – and more than a passing interest in the fate of the incumbent Newcastle manager.

Floodlights: 6

Birdlife: Too hard a life up here for them soft Southern parakeets!

Club Shop: Yes, backs on to the turnstile block.

Toilets: In the clubhouse.

Music the players run out to: None

Kop Choir: Yes, the celebrated Curva Nord. Not a choir as such, more a collection of forthright, forty-something men you wouldn’t want to cross swords with. No place for kids, this!

Away fans: Conspicuously absent on Curva Nord.

Cogenhoe United – Saturday September 20th 2014 (574)

September 23, 2014
"despite the relatively dry Summer, it wasn't immediately clear what was causing the damp patch in one corner of the stadium..."

“After the relatively dry Summer, it wasn’t immediately clear what was causing the damp patch in one corner of the stadium…”

Every couple of years or so the lads and lasses of my youthful ‘gang’ hold a reunion in the village where we all lived in the 1970s. It’s fairly well organised with one of our number hosting a ‘memories’ website and invariably tracking down most of the erstwhile members who “got away”.

Of course we all have things we like to talk about, but as a football man I prefer to remind anybody vaguely interested that the village local – the Three Crowns – was the place to which I would return after yet another resounding Forest victory during their ‘Glory Days’. I would invariably be celebrating the win, and I lost count of the cash I earned from ‘bubble-bursters’ who dared to wager good money on an unlikely reverse. It virtually paid for all my beer. Happy days…..

And so it’s particularly apt that I’m heading back to the Three Crowns tonight as it coincides with the tenth anniversary of the passing of Brian Clough, one of my heroes then, now and always. Many times I toasted that man with beer bought for me as the result of his genius. You can argue all you like about Alex Ferguson but the fact is he did it all with a big-time, money-no-object club like Manchester United, and if you can’t succeed there, then, well, you’re David Moyes. Clough did it with a small town club like Direby and then slumbering giant Forest. Enough said.

But before this night’s festivities, it would be rude not to take in a match, and today that’s looking like a United Counties League game within striking distance of the reunion. I’m heading down the M1 towards Newport Pagnell FC, mindful of forecasts of thunderstorms further south, but as I pass Northampton the overhead gantries flash up reports of heavy congestion and long delays at the Milton Keynes junction, just the one I want! Fortunately I have prepared for this setback and have a contingency, so exit the motorway at Junction 15 and head for Cogenhoe United, a Northamptonshire village side doing reasonably well in the UCL Premier.

The ground is at the southern edge of the village and is blessed with a fair-sized car park. I’m one of the first arrivals but the gates are open and I chat with a couple of club officials about the stadium, the club’s progress and the reason for my being there today, namely the heavy traffic further south. One of them edits the club programme and apologises in advance for any spelling errors I might encounter – more of that later. The stadium itself is quite tidy, in an efficient kind of way. There’s hard standing on all four sides, with a small four-step covered terrace behind one goal and a larger 200-seater stand straddling the halfway line. The clubhouse is at the back of a complex that also houses the club’s offices and changing rooms. It’s a cosy affair with a bar, sports TV, a disco-man setting up his gear (presumably for some evening event) and two ladies beavering away behind what looks like a food servery. However, on further investigation, it transpires they are producing the sandwiches for the players post-match repaste, and that there will only be hot sausage rolls for ‘Joe Public’. My enquiries clearly garner sympathy, as one of the girls comes across to my table to ensure I’m not going to have to starve. When I explain about the blog, and my never-ending search for veggie food at football stadia, she is sympathetic and vows to consider it for the future. Meantime the cheerful barman points me in the direction of bottles of Old Speckled Hen, Old Gordon Hen and Marstons EPA which he has on sale, which makes up for the lack of any cask ale.

If ever there was a friendly, helpful club, this is it!

And so to the game. It’s a match between two of the top five sides, with visitors Desborough Town just a place behind Cogenhoe in fifth spot. While never a classic it’s an intriguing encounter, with both sides contributing no little skill and effort. United have a Darren Stride ( Burton Albion fans will know) lookalike bossing the midfield and always pose the greater threat, which tells with the only goal of the game on 58 minutes, a smart turn and shot which evades the visiting keeper.

And so I head back up to the Three Crowns with yet another home victory to report. Not quite the Glory Days, and I may well have to finance my own beers this time, but the toast will still be the same – to Brian Clough. RIP

Programme: £1 on the turnstile. If you are going to a Cogenhoe home game and desire a programme, be sure to get there early. They have been known to only print a dozen! The content has a personal touch, although I couldn’t make head nor tails of the Editors News Letter, while spelling and punctuation are essentially a secondary consideration. But you’d have to say it has character!

Floodlight pylons: 4 (well, 3 and a TV mast)

Birdlife: Strangely little for such a rural spot. Plenty of wood pigeons flying over to roost.

Club Shop: No

Toilets: Clubhouse

Music the players emerge to: None

Kop choir: No

Away fans: a few


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