Knowle – Monday 1st May 2017 (802)

May 3, 2017

‘There was pandemonium behind the scenes as it appeared that the team’s captive audience had been allowed to escape…’

“Rule One of Groundhopping is that there are no rules.” That’s the opening line of the chapter entitled ‘March’ in a cracking read called ‘The Bottom Corner’ written by Nige Tassell and published last September by Yellow Jersey Press (available in all good sports bookshops!)

Heavens knows who provided the author with that quote, but I would personally like to now lay claim to a Rule Two – that there are also MY rules. Or maybe they’re just simply ‘standards’.

I meet lots of ‘groundhoppers’ on my travels around the country, many of them local to their own area, often supporting a ‘big’ club but filling in the blank days by going non-league. I also meet the archetypical plastic bag and anorak types, recording the time of every goal, corner, booking, substitution and probably when the ref scratches his gonads, for all I know. Good luck to all of them. But where I do get a bit prickly is when I encounter those doing the ‘numbers’ game, boasting of unfeasibly high totals indicative of someone who counts a park or school pitch as a ‘ground’, just to bulk up the figure. These kinds of supposed ‘grounds’ are the main reason I avoid most of the organised ‘hops’.

A leading hop organiser once asked me if I considered the local park – with which we were both familiar – as one ground or nine (there being nine marked-out pitches on said park). He seemed nonplussed by my assertion that I considered it as NO ground at all, but just a park. Doubtless they still count as 9 ticks in his book! We’re also part of the same WhatsApp ‘groundhopping’ group on which my presence is probably at best tolerated (watch this space!) due to a propensity to use my rare posts to take issue with some crass statement or other, often concerning what constitutes a ‘tick’.

So when I claim to have now notched up over 800 ‘grounds’ I actually mean ‘grounds’. Not school playing fields, park pitches – ropes or no ropes – and cow-pat meadows. And proper senior fixtures – no reserve, youth or ladies (I was schooled in a non-PC era) games, pre-season friendlies, testimonials, made-up cups, and bogus competitions. And I don’t count a ground twice if two clubs happen to play there. And I also don’t leave one ground at half time to catch the second half at another. If not my rules, then certainly my standards.

One or two of my detractors love to crow about the wealth of ‘lovely little grounds’ at Step 7 or below. I don’t doubt that there are some, although most of the ones pointed out to me through hop bus windows would certainly benefit from the sheep being persuaded to graze elsewhere. My target list is step 6 and above, but that doesn’t stop me from dipping into leagues below that level if the situation demands it. That could either be a classic stadium whose parent club has fallen upon hard times, or simply a convenient place to pass an otherwise aimless day.

Which is why today I’m heading down the M42 in the direction of Knowle FC, of the Midland League Division 2 (Step 7) having seen my hopes of ticking off Birmingham Brummies speedway stadium at Perry Barr dashed by a drop of heavenly water. Despite being a Bank Holiday Monday, traffic is light and I arrive in good time for a chat with club officials prior to kick-off. It’s one of their first games back at The Robin’s Nest ground, it having experienced some wanton destruction courtesy of the recent Storm Doris during which the stand roof attempted to part company with the rest of the structure. Just a few seats remain in situ as the clearance work has reached an advanced level prior to the arrival of some pre-fabricated units for next season. Knowle FC does hope to relocate to a new ground just down the road in the foreseeable future but for now the Robin’s Nest remains their roost.

Although this is further down the pyramid than I normally watch my footy, the set-up here has the potential to host higher level action. The ground is fully enclosed, the pitch is good, planning permission for floodlights has been granted, and the incoming pre-fabs will enhance the facilities, if not necessarily the character of the stadium.

The game itself, against lowly Hampton FC, is scarce on quality with a dearth of goalmouth action, the referee doing his best to spice things up by brandishing his yellow card at regular intervals. The two goals when they come – both to the home team – are at opposite ends of the spectrum, the first a 25-yard screamer, and the second appearing to bobble in off a hapless defender. 2-0 it finishes.

And so my season is almost done, with this ground No.802, and exactly 100 new ticks since the end of the last one. A season in which I set myself no targets but still managed to outdo any previous 12-month period. And all to my rules, and definitely to my standards. And I even got a mention in a book! What did it say? ‘Rule One of Groundhopping is that there are no rules.”  I might just have to re-write that…..

 


Carlisle City – Saturday 4th February 2017 (771)

February 5, 2017
'The appearance of both Dastardly and Mutley on the team sheet took no-one by surprise...'

‘The appearance of both Dastardly and Mutley on the team sheet took no-one by surprise…’

I’m usually pretty good with dates. The old adage is that it’s the bloke that forgets the Wedding Anniversary but in our house that rule simply doesn’t apply. Mind you, when I do remind the missus of each impending matrimonial milestone, she does tend to hold her head in her hands and shake it furiously from side-to-side. Her way of expressing exhilaration, I guess. The fact that this year we celebrate our Silver Jubilee must signify that, despite a quarter millenium of me suffering the fate of being an equestrian widower, she must be doing something right. That’s what I keep telling her anyway, by way of reassurance. She’s so lucky to have me, with my lack of vices and all….

2017 also means it’s now precisely 4 decades since the ‘Year of Punk’. Now I know pedants amongst you might – quite rightly – point out that ’76, with its long hot summer, was when punk actually kicked off, but most of the recorded music was released the following year, so that’s my standpoint. It seems like only yesterday that I was down at Blooblos, Katies or the Sandpiper, rubbing shoulders with the guys from Xray Spex, Soiuxsie & the Banshees, Sham 69, XTC, Lurkers, Slits, Damned and the Buzzcocks. I even had some hair then!

The missus and I have (well I have anyway) declared 2017 as our ‘Year of Celebration’ and so I’m busy arranging trips to all those places we used to go to before we had the family. With our two sprogs now very nearly capable of self-subsistance (as in ‘they’ve both got cars and know how a tin opener works’) we can venture further afield again, despite the other half’s near-umbilical connection to her beloved nags. Surprisingly, I might even get to fit in a footy match or two along the way!

I’m heading up to Carlisle today which admittedly isn’t part of our grand Jubilee tour on account of which I’m on my own, with one eye scanning the various Twitter feeds to see if ‘Storm No-name’ has had any effect on the day’s match prospects. It’s a while since I’ve been to this city, the last of my two trips to Brunton Park being some ten years hence. Prior to that it was 1975 and a Frankie Wortho decider for Leicester City. The programme for that game still eludes me, having mislaid my original along the way.

That latter fixture was reached via one of the old Football Special trains, consisting of several cattle trucks and an army of rozzers. But today it’s the relative comfort of a Virgin Pendolino, listening to Alice Cooper’s Schools Out – a vastly under-rated album – as I type this. I actually enjoy travelling on this Virgin West Coast route, with its extremely competitive pricing structure, which in the past has proved invaluable in my clearance of the Scottish Leagues. There’s nearly always plenty of free seats too.

The good news from Carlisle City – my destination – is that the pitch is heavy in places but playable, and so my plans are coming together. First a couple of beers in town and after deciding not to patronise the Thin White Duke (looks a bit too twee for the likes of me) I find the King’s Head tucked away near the Market Cross. Although the decor is a bit mock tudor, the welcoming bar staff make this place a good environment to drink in – no wonder it was CAMRA City Pub of the Year 2016. Even better that the local Yate’s Bitter is on sale. This was one of the first of the golden beers and has yet to be ruined by the use of sickly foreign citrus hops. As such it’s eminently drinkable, even for a ‘malt-head’ like me!

Deciding there’s no time to dally for a second pint, I eschew the delights of the two ‘Spoons situated virtually side-by-side by the station, and head off in the general direction of City’s Gillford Park stadium down Botchergate and London Road to the St Nicholas Arms which, according to What Pub, offers an opportunity to sample Carlisle Brewery beers, but with the rider ‘Check before visiting if looking for real ale’. Sadly, I fail to head that advice and draw a blank. The pub next door is all-keg too, and every other hostelry I encounter along this road is boarded up – a sign of the times.

Now a word of advice for any other mug thinking of walking from Carlisle railway station to Gillford Park. It may look enticingly close as you cruise past on the Western mainline, and Google Maps might suggest a stroll, but it’s at least 2 miles and probably more, taking me at least 30 minutes despite my legs operating at a higher rate of propulsion. When I arrive I’m greeted by a grizzled gateman who says yes, pitch fine, but opponents and referee all stuck on the M6 courtesy of a huge smash (‘police incident’ says Traffic England) down at Tebay. So nothing else to do but secure a programme and head into the adjacent Carlisle & District Railway Club, which sadly lacks any decent beer, is not showing footy on the TV, and doesn’t have wi-fi, but does have an overly-loud juke box – plus a couple of smiling and friendly bar-ladies, which always helps. I’m soon joined by a group of mature gents from Liverpool (today’s opponents being from the fledgling City Of Liverpool FC club) who have also had the wisdom to arrive by train and seem very affable, if somewhat boisterous.

The good news is that the team coach and referee have emerged from the traffic jam and the game will kick off on time. Gillford Park itself used to be home to the Northern League side of the same name, although latterly they flirted with the ‘Celtic Nation’ moniker before going tits-up. The already-established Northern Alliance club Carlisle City took over the lease in 2015, having secured promotion to the North West Counties Division One. The stadium is well-appointed for this level, and will provide a good platform for the club going forward. There’s a modern seated stand behind one goal, with clubhouse above, and a further seated stand down one side. Opposite is a full length coveted terrace, with only the bottom goal devoid of cover.

Food is courtesy of a burger van, but for the second Saturday in a row I encounter catering facilities where the word ‘variety’ seems to involve how many different meaty products are on offer. Choccy bars for me, then…..

The teams emerge to a fusillade of paper streamers, dispensed by an away supporter who doesn’t appear to want to pick up any of the mess he’s made. COLFC fans seem to make up the majority of the 120 present, and create plenty of noise as they occupy one of the seated stands – although all standing, of course, as is the modern way. A gentleman from the Netherlands strolls round the pitch waving the mother of all gigantic flags, bearing the legend Xerxes DZB which – according to the ‘inter web’ – is a Dutch lower league club albeit with a rich history. Apparently he’s a regular visitor to Gillford Park, for some reason unrevealed to me.

The game itself is not an even contest. The visitors slick passing moves cut through the home defence at will, and the final score of 0-6 doesn’t really do justice to the one-sided nature of the game. Almost certainly Carlisle City will have better days. At half time I’m flicking through the programme and an ‘On This Day’ feature grabs my attention. Amidst all of the usual grim historic news of terrorist attacks, earthquakes, and striking dockers, I see that it’s Alice Cooper’s birthday today – so there is the odd date that passes me by!

Footnote – I bump into a fellow hopper, Cumbrian Geoff, who collects old Carlisle United programmes and sells any spare copies he encounters – so there’s hope for me and that missing 1975 prog yet!

Footnote 2 – I met up with Cumbrian Geoff at the Scottish Hop in February and hey presto! – he’d got me the programme. Thanks Geoff!


Northern League Double – 9/10th December 2016 (752 & 753)

December 12, 2016
With Englan's current malaise on the cricketing tour of India, many experts feel this man could do a job .... and Steve Harmison (left) might be useful, too.....

Considering England’s current malaise on the cricketing tour of India, many experts feel this man could do a job …. and Steve Harmison (left) might be useful, too…..

Although I do enjoy the way I earn my living, I must also confess to occasionally wishing my life away by yearning for the Utopia of retirement from the Rat Race. Whether I could actually afford to maintain my current spendthrift lifestyle on what is likely to be just a pitiful pension pot is another thing of course, but whenever that time does comes – assuming the Reaper doesn’t get to me first – I expect it will invariably be a life-changing scenario.

That’s because so far this year my occupation has funded six overseas trips in addition to underwriting numerous weekends away, either of the romantic type in the company of my good lady wife, or of the footballing type in the company of Aussie Jack, the two not to be confused of course!

As it happens, the future prospects for many more of the latter remain uncertain as said Antipodean has embraced a new relationship where different interpretations of the phrase ‘moderate groundhopping’ look likely to apply: his edging more towards the 200-games-a-season he has consistently racked up, whereas his new beau favours the very much lower end of the scale. Needless to say, football is not her native language.

Today, however, that’s of little concern as we head north on the M1 in the direction of Ant & Dec land, and a potential Northern League Premier double-header. Safely ensconced in our base for the trip, a slightly down-at-heal chain motel near the A1(M) at Washington, we head out for the first match of the weekend, on the north east coast at Seaham, to see local side Red Star take on promotion-hunting neighbours, South Shields.

First, of course, we must follow the ritual that is the visit to the local Wetherspoons, in order that my travelling companion can add it to his list. I am reliably informed that every ‘Spoons’ has its own individual carpet. I am also confident that the true Spoons ticker would have clippings from each of those he has stepped on! No?

Off to the game, and happy to have found a space in the compact car park (more of that later) we join the slowly growing crowd of arrivals at Town Park and inevitably – this being the only Friday night fixture in the area – bump into a fellow hopper, Spud, who I last recall seeing at Guernsey last season. Town Park is fully enclosed, and boasts an impressive pavilion straddling the half way line, with a substantial covered stand adjacent. Opposite is some covered terracing with the added attraction of barely a dozen seats at the back. The Aussie and I are canny enough to bag two of them, not that we get to sit down an awful lot.

That’s because the game fizzes into life in just the first minute, when a defensive howler hands the home side, languishing in mid-table, the opening goal against second place Shields. They hold onto that lead in a bruising encounter until just after the break when parity is restored, and the visitors then go in front with a stunning free kick on 70, prompting Red Star to apply an onslaught which fails to bear fruit.

Match over, but that’s not the last time I see the players as I am forced to invade the after-match food and drink party to seek the owner of a silver Peugeot, the moving of which being our only means of salvation after Aussie Jack gets his car stuck in the mud. I told him not to park there…..

Another day means another game, but after a short drive north, and Brunch at the local Wetherspoons, I set off on foot to the Woodhorn Lane ground of Ashington A.F.C., while my chauffeur heads to nearby Blyth Spartans, opting to add that higher echelon tick to his hopping CV. Ashington moved to this new stadium around 8 years ago, after almost a century at Portland Park, which once saw service as a Football League ground. This new ground boasts an impressive main stand with panoramic views from the clubhouse bar over the pitch. With no decent beer available I hit the J20s and decide to pay a quid for a ‘go’ on the football card, for no other reason than I get to scribble out the ‘s’ at the end of Nott (and before the word ‘Forest’) to correct the crass error printed thereon!

There’s covered seating and terracing opposite the main stand, and I install myself there, sheltered from a  wind that is strong enough to ensure that the match ball sails over the stand on a number of occasions during the first half, much to the chagrin of the member of the coaching staff designated to retrieve it. It is readily apparent he is failing to see the funny side.

Unlike Friday’s game, today’s visitors Chester-le-Street sit rock bottom of the table, but also confound the odds by taking an early lead which, after much huffing and puffing from the home side, is overturned before CLT then peg them back with the first of two dodgy pennos, the second of which goes the way of the home side and results in much protestation, leading to the dismissal of one of the visiting subs. Despite a frantic finale where Ashington are reduced to ten men, and the bottom side hit the bar before having a goal disallowed, the home side run out 3-2 winners.

Incidentally, the Ashington manager is none other than former England fast bowler, Steve Harmison, one of the heroes of the legendary Ashes winning side of 2005. He’s also had the honour of beating me into retirement of course, although football has proven to be his salvation. Some say that also looks likely to be my fate…..


Sandbach United – Saturday 17th September 2016 (727)

September 18, 2016
'After years of searching, the travelling scribe finally discovered the place that all redundant stand seats come to die...'

‘After years of searching, the travelling scribe finally discovered the place where all redundant stand seats come to die…’

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s the highlight of my Saturday – after the match itself of course – was the arrival of the ‘Sports Mercury’ at the local newsagents. We’d roll up just after Six to greet the van coming directly from the printing works and we’d proceed to devour the ‘Buff’ as it was known (due to the colour of its pages) for every piece of the day’s footy action, ranging from all the national results and league tables, blow-by-blow account of the Leicester City game, and even ‘stop press’ scores from the Leicestershire Senior League.

It was only when I got into the print industry a few years later that I began to realise the mammoth effort that must have been undertaken in those days to get the product to the customer less than 90 minutes after the final whistle. It would still be some achievement today, and we have the benefit of modern technology. Back then there were no mobile phones, desk top publishing computers, or slick offset printing presses to speed things on their way.

The Buff is long gone of course, as I suspect are most of the similar publications once produced in every major city in the UK in the days before social media and hand-held devices provided instant information at the push of a button. But I still kinda mourn its passing.

The subject of the football papers crops up during a conversation with a fellow hopper on the train back from Crewe after a day out in sunny Cheshire. My original plans to go East look fated when a weather front threatens to make life a tad dismal over the Fens, and it proves a wise move, save for getting stiff knee joints due to the inadequate legroom on the train from Derby to Crewe, a route on which East Midlands Trains habitually bestow the runt of its rolling stock litter. The compensation is that it’s one of the cheapest parts of the network, with the two-hour (with connections) journey from Long Eaton to Sandbach costing all of £7.20 to a Senior Railcarder like me. Network South-Easters eat your heart out!

Sandbach station is actually just over a mile from the centre, so I decide on a triangular route, taking in two ‘hostelries-of-interest’ I have identified on Camra’s What Pub website. The first of these, on Welles Street, is the Beer Emporium which started life several years ago as a bottle shop but has recently expanded by adding several hand pumps and a small amount of seating. I decide every town should have one! There’s a regular dark beer on draught, Dark Magic, a 4.8% ruby brew from the local Merlin Brewery which goes down a treat, and I follow it up with a chilled bottle of Hammerton Pentonville Oyster Stout at 5.3% which also hits the spot.

I know some people would eschew a ‘chilled’ British bottled ale and would insist on it being served at room temperature. I just don’t get that. UK-brewed beer should traditionally be served at cellar temperature – ideally 12 degrees Celsius – and although the 4 degrees Celsius of a typical bottle chiller is a lot less than that, the average room temperature of a pub – say around 20 degrees Celsius – is right up at the other end of the scale. I know which I prefer. Maybe there’s a gap in the market for somebody to plug! I’ll take out a patent…..

From here I walk down the Crewe Road to the Cricketers, a homely free house sadly empty on my visit save for myself and the chatty landlord who apologises for having no darks on draught but does talk me into a pint of a Cross Bay brew – Halo I recall – which although pale lacks those sickly citrus hops which can spoil many a good pint (IMHO!) Mine host directs me on the best route to get to the ‘Sandbach Community Football Centre’ and bemoans the club’s choice of the suffix ‘United’ for reasons unclear to me. 25 minutes later a power walk takes me to the ground, which enjoys copious parking space ably managed by young kids in tabards. Not that I need this facility today.

The ground itself, as I state in my Twitter feed, is ‘good work in progress’. As yet there are no floodlights (except perversely around the 3G pitch the other side of the sizeable clubhouse!) and little spectator accommodation, with no seated stand and just a couple of sheds behind one goal. But a look around the facilities and you just know these will all arrive in good time. As in most of the clubs I travel to these days, there’s nothing for the Pescatarian to eat, and little of interest on the beer front, so I do a circuit of the ground and kill time by watching one of the 2.00 kick-offs taking place on adjacent pitches. A desperation-ticker could have a field day here!

The home club have made a promising start to the season, and are up against Ashton Town, struggling near the foot of the table. It’s one of those games that should produce a hat-full of goals but which is kept into some kind of order by desperate defending, brave goalkeeping, and profligate finishing, and so it’s ironic that the opening goal on the half hour sees the 6ft 4inch visiting keeper surprisingly out-jumped for what is just a hopeful cross. A smartly taken 2nd on 42 adds some reality to the scoreline.

The predominantly one-way traffic continues into the second half with three further efforts breaching the stubborn rearguard, but the home custodian is suitably miffed as Town notch a late consolation as their forwards think ‘what the hell’ and belatedly go for it. 5-1 it finishes.

As I trudge back towards the station, the culmination of my 4-mile round-trek, my mind switches to the week ahead, and an overseas break with the wife – just the two of us for the first time in 19 years! – and a sun-kissed pool in Corfu. When abroad back in the 90s you could expect to get your English papers with those crucial footy scores at least a day late. Not so now, as technology has moved on and they’re printed locally. Having said that, I can always get all the info I need nowadays via WiFi and my tablet, and they do indeed come in some natty colours….although sadly I’ve not yet come across one in Buff.

Programme: Nicely produced if a little thin on content. £2 from a stall in the clubhouse

Floodlights: Zero

Birdlife: Also Zero

Toilets: In the clubhouse

Clubshop: Not as such

Music the players emerge to: I don’t recall!


Holbrook Sports – Wednesday 31st August 2016 (722)

September 1, 2016
"Despite the challenges of the car park, the club generously stocks a selection of replacements to merit any need..."

“Despite the challenges of the car park, the club generously stocks a selection of replacements to meet any need…”

As we approach this year’s Non-League Day, I contemplate the terrible irony that this hopper for one will be spending Saturday 3rd September watching a load of expensively-reared nags charging over ridiculously challenging obstacles at something called Burghley Horse Trials. It was a birthday promise I made to the wife, and sometimes you just have to go that extra mile. Of course my thoughts will be at some noble Step 5 or 6 ground or other, where doubtless they’ll be looking to attract the custom of the local legions who would describe themselves as ‘football fans’ but yet haven’t set foot in a stadium for years – they’ve got Sky Sports, what else could they possibly need?

Before I became a regular at Football League venues, I cut my teeth at the railed-off pitches of the Leicestershire Senior league, initially with Sileby Town, before moving house and on to Barrow Old Boys, who were embroiled in a successful promotion season (68/69) and drawing most of the village population down to the King George V Playing Fields, smack bang in the middle of town. Those were heady days when you personally knew most of the folk in the crowd and virtually all of the home players too. In effect, it was a social gathering, moving the pub congregations out into the open air.

I have a similar feeling tonight as I ‘go local’ and visit Holbrook Sports of the East Midlands Counties League. This little hamlet nestles in rolling countryside just north of Direby and it’s handy to have a SatNav when finding the ground, tucked away as it is behind a large Social Club and the village bowling green. The match, a local ‘derby’ against South Normanton Athletic, has attracted a crowd of 90 or so on a mild late Summer’s evening and given the banter being exchanged between various sections of the crowd and some of the players, not a lot has changed in ‘Non-League’ circles in that last half-century. You’ll not find that on Sky Sports!

Entrance to the Welfare Ground is at the top of a field behind the afore-mentioned Social Club. It’s £5 to get in, progs are a quid, and just inside the ground is a cosy tea hut – with seats both inside and without – where most things you might like to purchase are stowed away in some fridge or other, pies and cups of tea notwithstanding. A fellow hopper – on holiday in the area from Swansea – has discovered they even sell some proper beer, and is quaffing a bottle of Greene King IPA as I bemoan my lack of foresight and continue to pretend to enjoy the sugar-free Fanta I end up ordering.

One concession I make to the weather tonight is to don my track suit bottoms, after getting my legs bitten to buggery at Monday night’s match in Nuneaton, where I was still wearing the shorts that were essential attire earlier in a sweltering day.

The Welfare Ground itself is essentially two and a half-sided, with a DIY covered stand (featuring one and a half rows of seats) straddling one halfway line, and what looks like a converted bike shed providing some respite from the elements a little further towards the corner flag. The pitch is sloping with some undulation, although not quite to Gresley standards, and the turf appears a little over-long, despite the signs of a previous trim with the flotsam and jetsam of yellowing grass cuttings much in evidence across the playing surface.

It looks an away banker on paper, with the visitors having posted a much better start to the campaign, and although the majority of the game is evenly contested – and often competitively so, given the ‘derby’ nature – there’s always a feeling that Athletic’s defenders are a little wiser, midfielders more creative, and strikers a tad sharper. The game isn’t a classic but could easily have racked up a rugby-style scoreline. In the end it’s a comfortable 3-0 win to the away side, and the 90 or so punters present have had their £5 worth.

It just remains for us all now to go home, and watch Transfer Deadline Day on the telly. After all, Sky Sports – what else could we possibly need….?

Floodlights: 6

Birdlife: After the Parakeets at Windsor, and the Red Kites at Thame, not so much as a bloody sparrow at Holbrook…. but then it is a bit dark

Club Shop: No

Toilets: A couple of porta-loos

Music the players emerge to: None


Harrisburg City Islanders – Saturday May 7th 2016 (702)

May 11, 2016
...but overtime the fans settled down to enjoy an elevated view of the game, that damn fire alarm went off again...'

‘…but every time the fans settled down to enjoy an elevated view of the game, that damn fire alarm went off again…’

It somehow seems fitting that a season of serious ground-hopping that began outside of the UK (Ireland in July) should also finish away from these shores, in this case my first match across the ‘pond’ in the United States. In fact I’ve not had too bad a year as regards overseas jaunts, taking my February sojourn to the Netherlands into account as well as … err, Guernsey and of course the Isle of Wight. OK, tenuous those last two I know but they did still involve expensive air and boat travel respectively!

You will recall I’ve long operated a policy of combining business trips with footy matches, so when the prospect of exhibiting at Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia cropped up, my first thought was to pore over the Major League Soccer fixtures list looking for something ‘local’ whilst I was there. Nope, nothing – so let’s check out the second tier, the North American Soccer League. Another blank. OK, let’s not despair, let’s look at Level 3, the United Soccer League. Eureka, there’s a game at Harrisburg in Pennsylvania state, a mere 100 drive from Philly! Virtually just down the road.

Although this is primarily a football blog, I must mention the beer scene in the USA, and Philadelphia in particular. The craft beer explosion goes from strength to strength (sometimes literally) and already dwarfs that in the UK. Although most of it is what old lags like me would probably refer to as keg (they are beginning to dabble in cask) these guys certainly know how to do it well and leave the world of Watneys Red Barrel far, far behind. The range and variety of beer styles rivals that of the Low Countries, and they seem to have no trouble getting it into bars. So much of our week in ‘Rocky’ country (it was filmed there) was spent sampling (for research purposes you understand) in the Khyber Pass, Devil’s Den, Manayunk Brewery Tap, and our favourite, the Misconduct Tavern on Locust Street, where early in the week we watched the key Chelsea v Spurs game and then later fell into the company of a guy from Southern Tier Brewery, of New York State, who insisted on buying us one too many of their magnificent 10%abv Choklat Oranj which provided me with a sore head the next morning but is now my favourite beer in all the world!

Our working week over, it’s time to hit the road with my business partner and brother-in-law Simon, who lives in the States so speaks the same language as the Sat Nav, which helps tremendously. First a trip to the eerily quiet Talen Energy Stadium, home of MLS side Philadelphia Union, to take a few piccies of the exterior, then a quick detour across the river into New Jersey and then Delaware (to add them to my ‘states visited’ list) and subsequently another new tick in Maryland (lovely countryside) before heading back into Pennsylvania and the exceptional Gettysburg Visitor Centre (American Civil War fans will know all about this) before finally arriving into Harrisburg, actually the state capital of Pennsylvania, despite its modest size in comparison to Philly.

The City Islanders, like many American sports teams, are a franchise but have been in the city for 12 years. Their nominal home ground is the Skyline Sports Complex on, believe it or not, City Island, but for the current 2016 season they have moved next door, to the KNB Field, home of the local baseball side, the Senators, as Skyline has fallen below the standards expected of the USL. A major drive is under way to secure grant funding to enable the club to upgrade the facilities on the Island, but the KNB field is not a bad place to operate from in the interim. It’s a little squarer than your average soccer stadium, but with the option of an impressive but (strangely) empty seated stand in one corner and lots of elevated vantage points around the pitch, we choose to sit in a section of uncovered seating close to the away support for visiting FC Cincinatti, which must number around 40 or so, pretty reasonable for saying they have a 900-mile-plus round trip!

As is the norm in any US sporting venue, you don’t go short of fast food, but sadly it’s chips (sorry, fries) for me as the Vegetarian is as well catered for here as he is in the UK. Some things don’t change. But there is local craft beer on sale (Troegs I recall) plus the ubiquitous Blue Moon ‘wit’ beer, an acquired taste but a real change from the norm.

A crowd of just over 2,000 is about a third of the KNB’s capacity and although not that raucous, they seem to quietly enjoy a tepid game that often descends into dour midfield tussles, aimless dribbles and misplaced passes, only raising the tempo when the home side takes a first half lead, then having to watch the visiting fans get just as excited when the equaliser is slotted in. As we are no longer in need of a 1970s style shoot-out, both teams share the spoils and I have a new tick in my ‘overseas grounds visited’ column.

So after a season where I’ve seen nearly 100 games and visited 81 new grounds, I may now take a couple of months breather until it kicks off again with our traditional Irish trip in July. Then the hopper scramble to get tickets for the Olympic Stadium as early in the season as possible, new grounds at Fylde and Darlington, new step 4 ticks at Kidlington and Bowers & Pitsea, and then maybe something overseas… Isle of Man, anyone?

Programme: 5 bucks and it’s a colourful affair which runs for the season so contains no team news

Floodlights: Yes (forgot to count!)

Club Shop: Yes a table set up selling numerous variations of tops, scalves, hats etc. Curiously the club eschew the Harrisburg name, with all merchandise just stating ‘City Islanders’. There’s also a much bigger indoor club shop for the Senators baseball team

Toilets: By the side of the Senators shop

Birdlife: Some strange looking birds in the locality, the only one of which I have managed to identify is the American Robin, a kind of thrush with a red chest

Kop choir: Just the one song “let’s Go Islanders, let’s Go’ sung mainly by the kids

Away fans: As previously mentioned

What’s In a name? Liam Doyle. Nothing wrong with the name, but the programme notes say he’s from The Isle of Man, UK. Now don’t accuse me of being pedantic but I’m pretty sure IOM is not in the UK!


Biggleswade United – Saturday January 2nd 2016 (667)

January 3, 2016
'Sky Sports pundit bemoans the fact his two new friends just miss out on qualification for the U23 team...'

‘Sky Sports pundit bemoans the fact his two new chums just miss out on the qualification criteria  for the U23 team…’

I’m getting to be a lot fonder of Twitter!

Like many blokes of my era, I’ve watched this creeping social-media-isation with reserved suspicion, viewing with some disdain the sheep-like mentality of those that blindly follow trends, for instance that backpacker route to Thailand, when there are all those other worthy countries that could be visited. Yes I can do ‘sniffy’ when I want!

I have a presence on Facebook but it’s mainly to keep in touch with a particular set of old friends, and I’m not one to post a picture of my breakfast, or some nice-looking tree or whatever. That’s also why I haven’t been on Twitter. But I’m beginning to appreciate its value to me, and to those people – and primarily football organisations – that are.

Which explains why Aussie Jack and myself are out on this dismal January morning, trundling along on a steam-hauled ‘mince pie special’ on the Nene Valley Railway, eschewing the view outside whilst poring over a tick list of Step 5 & 6 football matches scheduled within the immediate vicinity, and surfing the appropriate club Twitter feeds in an attempt to determine which matches are off and, more importantly, any games definitely on.

By the time we depart the railway the choice has shrunk considerably, as pitch inspections throw up their inevitable thumbs down outcome, and it is only when we stop for some lunch at the Chequered Skipper in Ashton – home of the World Conker Championships no less – that our decision is made.

To be fair, we’ve not had too bad an outcome to our Christmas schedule. Aside from the match at Stotfold on December 22nd being called off ten minutes before kick-off – the Mallards floating in the goalmouth should have alerted us to this possibility – we’ve managed to strike lucky everywhere we’ve been, the only real heart-stopper being at Newport on the Isle of Wight, where we watched as the local referee went straight to the dodgy area near the corner flag before eventually confirming that a bag of strategically dumped sawdust should do the trick.

Today we decide that Biggleswade United in the Spartan South Midlands Premier looks the best bet. Their Twitter feed conveys a level of certainty that, barring a downpour of monsoon proportions, we’ll get to see a game, and so we set off down the A1. I must say at this point that there are still clubs not using Twitter, and some of those that do seem to think reports of the Christmas party should take precedence over a match day prognosis. Shame on you!

We arrive at Biggleswade around 1.45 and with the turnstiles not yet open, we head for the cosy clubhouse which is awash with youngsters, who are here to provide mascot support for the players, and who have apparently played on the pitch during the morning. We make the acquaintance of the lady who writes out the team sheet who tells us that the drainage at Second Meadow is excellent and games are very rarely called off – hoppers looking for a match please note!

This club is on the up, and the clubhouse is buzzing. The Director of Football here is none other than Sky Sports pundit and author Guillem Balagué, who has bought in some Spanish coaches (such as former Middlesborough striker Gaizka Mendieta) and a Mediterranean mentality to the game – for instance, there is no longer a Reserve side, it being replaced by an Under 23 team as part of the youth development process.

Just as importantly (!) there’s real ale on the bar in the form of the IPA from local brewery Greene King, and we are able to order Cheese & Onion pasties for our half time snack. There’s quite a few boxes being ticked here….

The clubhouse is outside the ground, which is entered from the car park. The pitch has a slope, with hard standing all around, there being some protection from the elements in the form of a small covered terrace straddling the halfway line on one side, and a larger covered stand with three rows of bucket seats opposite where, given the inclement weather today, most of the 300+ strong crowd congregate. A number of fellow hoppers (we were referred to as ‘Grounders’ at Stotfold, a term which seemed to find favour with at least one Lord of the Hop) are also in attendance as this turns out to be one of only a handful of games taking place in this part of the world.

The match itself is against second-placed AFC Dunstable and the pitch stands up to something of a soaking later in the first half. It’s a tetchy affair with not a lot of shots on goal, possession of the ball appearing to be the tricky bit. It looks like a nailed-on goalless draw until a home attacker is upended a minute from time and the ref points to the spot. There follows a good five minutes of general argie-bargey, with much abuse of officials, fellow players and considerable gamesmanship by the visiting keeper and his defensive cohorts before the kick is finally despatched. Even then the kick-off is delayed whilst more abuse is directed at anyone who cares to listen and many who wouldn’t, and there are some individuals clearly with scores to settle as the final whistle blows, well after 5.00pm! What entertainment, although possibly not a great example to the members of the Under-9s team present. Their mums are not too impressed either.

We set off for home with Aussie Jack sweating on the prospects of his game for the following day taking place. He will find out in due course. Most likely via Twitter.

Programme: £1.50 from the turnstile. Cover outer section produced every month, with match day inner. Confusingly, today’s programme has a November outer!

Floodlight pylons: 4

Birdlife: Nice weather for ducks

Clubshop: Badges at the bar

Toilets: None in the ground, use those in the clubhouse

Music the players emerge to: Fatboy Slim – Right Here Right Now

Kop choir: Some in the covered standing area burst into song near the end

Away fans: Not a lot for any to shout about. One mouthy individual at the end.