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 my I’m not on Twitter. But I’m beginning to appreciate the value of those people – and primarily 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.


Dorking Wanderers – Saturday November 21st 2015 (655)

November 22, 2015
'There's a shock for the chairman as he realises he'll have to slip out of his brand new cuban heels...'

‘There’s a shock for the chairman as he realises he’ll have to slip out of his brand new cuban heels…’

My two kids, both nearing the end of their two years in Sixth Form College, seem to have little idea of what they want to do next. Coming as I do from a generation where all the boys were itching to be train drivers and all the girls nurses, that seems a strange notion.

On reflection, by the time I was looking for a career I’d gone off that train driver idea and was seeking a position as a Junior Reporter with a newspaper. A lack of qualifications foiled that plan but I have managed to go full circle of sorts, in that I now publish magazines for a living.

But the kids? Nothing. I feel a ‘wake up call’ a-coming!

I’ve always needed a sense of ambition. Even at mundane moments in my employment history, I’ve got myself through by setting targets on a weekly, often daily, basis. It was the same when I took up the cudgels of football ground collecting back in 2004. Not for me the scattergun approach of taking in as many ‘cow field’ ground hops as I could muster. I wanted to do ‘proper’ grounds, and although branching out to Steps 5 and 6 in recent years, my original target was down to and including Step 4, incorporating the top 8 levels of English football.

Back in 2004 that looked a tall order. But today, as I travel down to London, heading for Dorking Wanderers on a freezing cold November morning, I am finally on the cusp of realising that ambition.

Earlier in the week I had made contact with Rob Cavallini, programme editor at DWFC, asking whether I might get a mention in the match-day prog. I don’t normally do ‘vanity’ but as I deemed this a special occasion – at least for me anyway – I thought it might also be of interest to the club. Rob immediately agreed and invited me to contribute a piece which I am looking forward to seeing.

As I set out there’s sleety rain in the air, and it’s certainly damp in the capital as I yomp from St Pancras to Victoria via a Wetherspoons brekkie and a pint of Hackney Best Bitter (nice and fruity) in the Lord Moon of the Mall. The city is alive with tourists, clearly not letting the recent atrocities in Paris affect their attitude to life.

My train arrives in Dorking to sunny – if decidedly chilly – weather and I make my way to the rear of the Denbies Wine Estate on the outskirts of town, whereby resides the Surrey Hills Brewery. They don’t have a bar as such but you can buy any amount, from a pint to drink in, up to polypins to take away. I sample an excellent drop of Albury Ruby (4.6%), essentially a Black(ish) IPA, whilst tagging onto the back end of a brewery tour where, by all accounts, the fee includes free pints of the four core beers – best leave your car at home for this one! By the time I depart they are under siege, with two tour parties swollen by a large group of be-suited wedding guests, looking for a decent beer before attending a reception in the main building.

It’s just a short walk from here to the Westhumble home of Dorking Wanderers. The club has made great strides since being established in 1999, multiple promotions taking them from the Fourth Division of the West Sussex League right up to this, their debut season in Isthmian Division One South, where they are already amongst the front runners.

Westhumble has to boast one of the most scenic settings in non-league, despite the busy A24 running close by, and the railway line at the rear. Looking across the pitch from the main stand, there are stunning views of Box Hill, which at this time of year boasts the contrasts of the green conifers and the golden leaves of the deciduous trees. The ground itself has been constructed with its rural location in mind, all buildings either built of – or clad in – wood, with anything metal painted green.

I’m met at the gates by Jeremy, the vice-chairman, who having established my identity (me fawning over my feature in the programme being the give-away) promptly refunds my entry fee, and points me in the direction of his colleague Les, who furnishes me with a club pin badge and directs me to the bar. The clubhouse bar is small but cosy and features TV football, plus bottles of London Pride and Doombar (with the option of room temperature or chilled). Would be nice to see some local beer on sale, chaps, maybe Surrey Hills or even Dorking Brewery?

There’s something bubbling away nicely in the kitchen but it appears to be a Shepherd’s Pie, doubtless destined for the players and officials. Otherwise it’s the usual burgers and hot dogs.

There are two seated stands adjacent to each other, the front of one of them curiously sitting proud of  the other, slightly affecting the view. Behind one goal is a ‘kit’ covered terrace which is home to the Whitstable Kop choir for the day.

Despite the freezing temperatures, a good crowd of over 100 has turned out, with many kids to the fore. There are also a few shouting for visiting Whitstable Town who, sitting rock bottom of the table, need all the support they can get. For much of the first half they are on the back foot as the home team continually probe, looking for a way through, occasionally testing the visiting keeper.

After the break Town realise they are still in the match, and look like they might get something from their more frequent forays upfield, but two quick goals from Wanderers in the last 20 minutes decide the destination of the points.

So my ambition has been fulfilled. Every club in the top 8 levels that has its own ground, I’ve been there! So what now, retirement? Not likely, every club in the top 10 levels, anybody? Hopefully by the time I have achieved that, both my kids will have embarked on a career – here’s hoping…..

Programme: £2 at the gate. Nice cover and superb article by up-and-coming guest writer!

Floodlight pylons: 4

Birdlife: Just the odd parakeet amongst a general predominance of seagulls

Club Shop: Scarves, hats and badges on sale at the bar

Toilets: A single cubicle behind the clubhouse. Others apparently over by the changing rooms.

Music the players emerge to: The Wanderer by Status Quo

Kop choir: No

Away fans: seven behind the goal, singing Oyster-themed songs for most of the match. A particular disdain for Herne Bay, which I presume is the big rivalry in that part of Kent

 

 


Phoenix Sports – Saturday November 7th 2015 (653)

November 8, 2015
There's kick-off delay at Phoenix Sports while they wait for the 3.05 from Charing Cross to go through...'

There’s a kick-off delay at Phoenix Sports while they wait for the 3.05 from Charing Cross to pass through…’

I’m on the way down to London and – with obviously too much time on my hands – I’m wondering if there is any difference between ‘good fortune’ and ‘pure luck’. I come to the conclusion that good fortune is something bestowed on you (by some entity, perhaps, or maybe even an unknown diety) whereas pure luck is what it is, fortune by chance.

For instance, during our trip to the South Coast last weekend we enjoyed a cracking concert by an up-and-coming indie band, Nothing But Thieves, in Camden. Lead singer Conor Mason, a gifted vocalist, went through his entire range as the band rattled off every track of their debut album. A packed crowd – including Aussie Jack and myself – got their money’s worth. Not so the following night in Cardiff where young Mr. Mason had lost his voice, and then the sound system went awry. Good fortune smiled on us in that we picked the right night, whilst those in Cardiff had the bad luck in that they didn’t. We certainly felt someone was smiling on us…..

That fortune continued only last night as my struggling first love, the mighty Tricky Trees, came out on top against the Shaggers from down the A52. Fortune still smiling in me. But would it last into the Saturday, however, with a pre-booked rail trip to London to tick off one of my three remaining Step 4 sides. Heavy rain is forecast after several days of similar, and I’m resigned to a pre-match session of uncertainty in the Crosse Keys in the City, albeit in the company of some decent ale, as I monitor Twitter feeds concerning any possible postponement. I fill my time by polishing off a Wetherspoons veggie brekkie ( which curiously appears to be one hash brown short of the menu-stated number) and a couple of darker beers, namely Long Man Old Man, a 4.3% dark fruity bitter, and Vale Black Beauty, another 4.3% brew, this time a fruity porter. Only a poor ratio of staff-to-waiting-customer precludes me from purchasing a third.

So, in persistent rain, I head down to Cannon Street Station for the 40-minute rail journey to Crayford on a 10-coach train with no apparent toilet – those with a weaker bladder than I beware! A couple of hundred yards up the road from Crayford Station is the Penny Farthing, a micro pub (a former bicycle shop, hence the name) consisting of one fairly spacious room but with no bar – the classic scenario, along with no background music and nothing for the lager swillers. The ‘patron’ points out the six-strong beer list (there’s cider too) and fetches my choice from the chilled cellar room. With half the beers on the list neither gold nor pale, that’s a fair balance, and I go for a Loddon Russet, which is really more copper than the ruby signified on the beer menu. It’s 4.5% and quite a tasty brew although I’m not sure it’s of a sessionable strength.

This pub has a ban on mobile phone use, although the penalties for misdemeanour are not stated! It’s also the gaffa’s birthday and I spend the session with a ‘Happy 60th’ balloon floating over me – hey, I remember 60! With the rain still coming down and the wind swirling it about, a second pint seems to be inevitable, so I go dark with Hanlon’s Devon Darkness, a 4.2% stout. My only slight disappointment is the dearth of genuinely locale beers on the day, with examples from Devon, Somerset, Sussex, Oxfordshire and Suffolk, but nothing from London or Kent. However a chat with the owners and a look at the recent beer orders book reveals I have arrived on a rare non-locale day. My bad luck.

From here I move up the hill on the 15-minute walk to the ground, passing a few promising-looking pubs on the way, and still with one eye on the weather situation which, although not as bad as it was earlier, is still a trifle inclement. The Phoenix Sports Ground is only a goal kick’s distance from the Oakwood home of local rivals VCD Athletic, a yo-yo team in recent seasons and currently propping up the Isthmian Premier. Phoenix Sports have high hopes of passing them on the way, having started the season reasonably well, sitting 9th in a 24-team Isthmian Division 1 North.

One barrier to their elevation up the leagues might be the ease in which you can watch the game from outside the ground, just a low fence allowing all but munchkins from getting a reasonable view. The ground itself boasts not one but two seated stands, which along with a curious flat standing structure set at a slight angle behind one goal – I suspect it’s real purpose is to provide protection for the barbecue machine housed within – provides adequate shelter for spectators. The clubhouse is of modest proportions, but does have live TV football, although nothing for the discerning ale drinker. Likewise the snack bar, tucked away behind the afore-mentioned barbecue shelter, offers the ubiquitous chip, but nothing else for veggies save the inevitable cup-a-soup. At least they do have some choccy (shame on you, Molesey!)

Visiting Witham Town, struggling after relegation from the Premier last season, have the noticeable support of a one-man kop choir, who keeps up a relentless series of chants and songs – often accompanied by impromptu dancing and much waving of the arms – throughout the game. Gossip within the stand reveals that this character is being featured on Channel 4 in January, on a programme called ‘The Undateables’. That’s harsh. There’ll be a woman (or man, to be perfectly PC) for him out there…..maybe.

The games itself is quite entertaining, on a pitch that’s had a fair soaking but stands up well. The home side are soon out of the traps, and you get the impression from some powder puff defending that the visiting players are not up for it. The opening goal on 16 is no surprise and we settle back for more. Whatever is said in the Witham dressing room at half time obviously does the trick and much to the delight of the visiting kop choir, they play with far more purpose after the break, turning the game around with two goals in three minutes just before the hour. The first comes courtesy of a rebound off the keeper, but then you ‘make your own luck’ in football, so they say. Or is ‘fortune favours the brave’?

Answers on a postcard, please…..

Programme: £1 on the turnstile. Nice cover but not a massive amount of reading matter.

Floodlight pylons: 6

Birdlife: Parakeets a-plenty in this part of London

Club shop: No

Toilets: In the clubhouse

Music the players emerge to: Phoenix From The Flames by Robbie Williams

Kop choir: Yes but not the home team

Visiting fans: a few in the stand plus the one-man show pitchside

What’s in a Name? Presumably Phoenix’s Jason & Lewis Mingle are very popular at parties. The ‘Plain John Smith Award for Name of the Week’ goes to the home team’s Harrison Carnegie!


AFC Bridgnorth – Saturday October 24th 2015 (650)

October 25, 2015
'There's considerable excitement at Crown Meadow as archaeologists discover the remains of a medieval floodlight pylon...'

‘There’s considerable excitement at Crown Meadow as archaeologists discover the remains of a medieval floodlight pylon…’

There’s a distinct probability that, during my many previous posts on this blog, I’ve alluded to a penchant for pursuing a childhood passion of collecting intangible things. Mainly ‘numbers’ to be honest, invariably ‘spotted’ on cars, buses, trains, planes and boats. Ok maybe not boats, but definitely everything else in between.

As I’ve gone through the ensuing decades, done the things folks do when raising a family and trying to build up a successful business, the collecting thing took a bit of a back seat, save for an occasional flurry of additions to my 1977 punk singles archive. I quickly realised that the things that interested me and my father had no appeal whatsoever to my own offspring, who are kids of the age, and so consider computer gaming and social networking infinitely more important than a day out on a steam railway (shock horror). So now they are very nearly driving, and able to rustle up a quick pizza without supervision, I’m happy to leave the wife to her horses and return to my first love. Colłecting intangible things, that is. When people ask me what I do in my spare time, I just say I collect football grounds, and watch for the look on their faces.

Since rediscovering the bug in 2004 I’ve managed to tick off around 30-40 new football grounds a season and despite every summer declaring – on this blog – an intention to ‘slow down a bit’, the opposite has been true. Here I am in October and that’s already nearly 30 new ticks for the season, with a good six months to go, and with the last of my Step 4 stadia due to be mopped up during the next few weeks I’m entering a spell where I can pick and choose throughout steps 5 and 6, wherever the mood takes me. Which is why today, mindful of an advancing weather front and wanting to cover all of the angles, I end up travelling to Kidderminster station and the Severn Valley Railway for a trip to AFC Bridgnorth.

I maybe forgot to mention that I’ve spent much of the summer, usually in the company of Aussie Jack, taking in the classic preserved railways of the land, whether standard or miniature gauge. This harks back to my train spotting days, when I was given a children’s book in which the hero and his dad travelled the country riding on such lines. For the life of me I can’t recall the name of this long lost book, or indeed the hero, but save to say the memories have endured with me and I’m now making up for lost time. Unfortunately my own son just would not be interested, unless there was a chance of zapping some aliens along the way.

The Crown Meadow ground of AFC Bridgnorth is today’s destination, and the only way of getting there by rail is via Kidderminster and the afore-mentioned Severn Valley Railway. Luckily today is a major steam event featuring classicly restored 46100 Royal Scot, West Country Class 34027, Taw Valley, and the recently built A1, 60163 Tornado. Despite the inclement whether, they’ve certainly brought the crowds out, and I enjoy several conversations with other enthusiasts, latterly over an excellent pint of Hop Back Entire Stout in the splendid Railwayman’s Arms, which is on Bridgnorth railway station.

That introduction to the town’s drinking establishments accomplished, I set off up the steep hill towards the White Lion, home of the Hop & Stagger Brewery. This friendly and comfortable local offers six cask beers, four of their own plus those of Ludlow and Hobsons. I plump for Sovereign, billed as a 4% ‘traditional’ (which usually means it’s not golden) bitter, which is tasty enough without being spectacular. It washes the cheese and onion cob down very well.

The next pub on my list, the Bell & Talbot, is not open, so I move onto the Kings Head yard, eschewing the pub of that name to visit the Stables Bar at the rear. It’s a single long room – the upstairs part is closed for refurbishment – with unusual cinema style seating, and the visit gets off to a dodgy start when my requests for ‘something like a mild’ reveals that the young barmaid has never heard of the term. It’s not her fault, it’s just inefficient training, but of the four of their own Bridgnorth Brewery Beers that they have on tap, the non-gold option is Monarch’s Way, which at 4.5% has more of the flavour that the previous Hop & Stagger brew was perhaps lacking. A bowl of cashews provides the perfect accompaniment.

I look in at the Wetherspoons, but with three deep at the bar all ordering food, I move onto the Bear, where the limited choice is all golden, so decide to give up on the drink and make the fifteen minute trek out of town to Crown Meadow, erstwhile home of Bridgnorth Town, who folded in 2013, and which is now in the hands of ‘phoenix’ club AFC Bridgnorth, operating in the West Midlands Regional League Premier Division.

As you enter the ground through vintage turnstiles – still sporting BTFC picked out in the ironwork – the modern clubhouse dominates. Its spacious interior encompasses two separate sections, and there’s big screen sports TV and a pool table. The only let-down is a lack of anything that the discerning beer drinker might consider interesting. The snack bar is set at one end of the covered terrace, has the usual meaty suspects alongside the ubiquitous chip, and horror of horrors, no chocolate bars. Or maybe they’ve just run out…..

It’s a wet day and the pitch looks soggy with a little puddle in one goalmouth but the threat to the game is minimal. The whole ground is built on a slope, but the impressive cantilever main stand has been constructed to pass the spirit level test, and, along with a covered terrace behind one goal, affords considerable protection from the elements. The other two sides border housing, and more than one well-lumped clearance from ‘ave-it’ defenders clatters off a tile roof.

The home side are flying high in the division, and with visiting Malvern Town symmetrically opposite in the league table, AFC are expected to dominate. In truth they have the better of a competitive first half where several chances are created but none are taken. This scenario is extended in the second half where shape goes out of the window and both teams go hammer and tongs, with only desperate defending, great goalkeeping, and rank bad finishing, maintaining parity. When the winner comes five minutes from time, it’s what you might expect. Another goalmouth scramble, but this time the guy on the floor manages to poke it home. and Bridgnorth take the points.

And so another addition to my intangible collection, my 650th new ground. Something else to tell the kids. Not that they’d be that bothered…..

Programme: £1 on the turnstile. Fairly minimal reading content.

Floodlight pylons: 8

Birdlife: Something screeching in a nearby aviary. Other than that just the usual gang of starlings meeting up on the floodlight pylons.

Toilets: Inside the clubhouse

Club shop: No

Music the players emerge to: Nothing I can remember

Kop Choir: No

Away supporters: just a handful


Hopped out!

October 19, 2015

Wow that’s another weekend of hard graft done and dusted….

7 games and 32 goals in less than 48 hours and apart from the dourest of goalless draws at Cadbury Heath (where the teams were booed off at half time by a section of hoppers) there was some great football action and a good time was had by all.

Also interesting to see hopping individuals from far and wide attending the games – even some of the co-organiser’s fiercest critics!

The hotel was a bit distant from the action areas but was slap bang next door to a ‘Spoons with two dark beers on tap so we can forgive them for that geographical lapse.

Will there be more Western League ‘hop’ action sooner rather than later? We remain poised…


The end is nigh (a bit earlier than I thought….)

October 4, 2015

No sooner do I set out my agenda for mopping up the last of my ‘one-to-eights’ (see last post) then cup competitions derail my plans and I have to rearrange, but in a good way. So now it’s Molesey on October 30th – sandwiched in between a couple of long-awaited London gigs for Nothing but Thieves and Gazpacho – before Phoenix Sports on November 7th, Slimbridge on the 14th and then Dorking Wanderers on the 21st. So earlier than I planned. Goodo.

I have to say that the visitor experience at FCUM’s Broadwood Stadium on Friday night was exceptional. Sure the ground is still work in progress, but with a bar selling cask ale, a bottle bar with a honey beer option, plus multiple eateries serving a variety of vegetarian options (including veggie burgers and sausages, felafel and pies) it puts most bigger clubs to shame. Needless to say it was back to the norm at Ashton Athletic on Saturday with the choice of pie being meat or… err meat.


The end is nigh!

September 30, 2015

A good number of years ago I set myself the unlikely task of visiting the grounds of every club in the top eight levels of the English football pyramid. I qualified that by saying that only grounds owned by those clubs (or at the very least they must be the main tenant of the ground) would count. I’ve chipped away over those seasons and I now stand – on the last day of September 2015 – just 5 away from my target.

A hectic first two months of the season has already seen me take in Kings Langley, Guernsey (hang the expense!), Haringey Borough, Winchester and last night’s trip to North Greenford United, leaving just FC United (this friday), Dorking Wanderers (October 31st), Phoenix Sports (November 7th), Slimbridge (November 14th) and Molesey (December 19th) – all weather-permitting of course – to clear up the Premier league, Football League, the top four divisions in Scotland, plus Steps 1-4 in England. Seems like my work here is almost done…..

Having said that, there’s around 500 more I need in Steps 5 & 6…..those cowpat meadows can wait!


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.