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!

Brechin City – Saturday August 22nd 2015 (628)

August 25, 2015
'It was clear to see, through the steamed-up windows, that there were still fans struggling to get in....'

‘It was clear to see, through the steamed-up windows, that there were still fans struggling to get in….’

There was a time when the three-month close season for football was the bane of this supporter’s life. What to do in May, June and July before balls were effectively being kicked in anger once again. Although I like cricket I couldn’t see myself spending a whole day – or many days even – diligently filling in the score card whilst all around me were getting sozzled, or falling asleep, depending on their priorities. No, I like my live sporting action condensed into 2 or maybe 3 hours at best.

So this year I thought that maybe I’d take a broader view of things. The footy trip to Ireland is always a help, but to fill in the rest of the Summer – and bearing in mind I don’t ‘do’ football friendlies or so-called ‘Summer Leagues’ – I needed to find other competitive sports that ticked the right boxes. T20 cricket is more like it, but Rugby League is not for me. So what else?

As teenage adolescents my brother and I spent many a Tuesday evening at Blackbird Road in Leicester. This was the home of the Lions, one of the country’s top speedway teams. Though that track is now long gone, the Lions have a new stadium, and I thought it about time to make a visit and see if the passion was still there. I quickly discovered it certainly is.

So my blog now sports a new section, as the trainspotter instinct kicks in, and in addition to being a ‘groundhopper’ I am now officially a ‘trackhopper’ too! Not that I am alone in this obsession, as my new good buddy Aussie Jack is similarly minded and with us both being veggie-eating, real-ale-swilling, steam train enthusiasts, we might well be twins (although not the identical kind…)!

Which is why we are both up in Scotland today, having witnessed a one-sided speedway match between Edinburgh and Somerset the previous evening, followed by a few dark bevvies in the strangely empty Wetherspoons in Grangemouth. Tomorrow we finish our weekend with a trip to the Caledonian Railway before driving to Glasgow to see the local team ride against Somerset (who are on tour). Sandwiched in between is the main event, my long-awaited visit to Glebe Park, home of Brechin City, and my last of the 41 stadiums currently used in the 4 divisions of the SFL. Given that I also have the English ’92’ tucked under my belt, does that make me a ‘133-ist’?

Back in the 1980s I ran a micro pub (yes, before they were ‘invented’) in Leicester. One room, no music, no lager, 5 real ales and a quirky bunch of customers, including the Midlands branch of the Brechin City Supporters Club. I vowed one day to make that trip to Glebe Park, and so I have purposefully saved it until last.

Having checked into our guest house at midday (pre-arranged with the Landlady who also wants to get to the match) we seek out the local architecture, as Brechin is indeed a cathedral city. That done, we head to the first of our targeted pubs, the Brown Horse, which is close to the ground. Most of the interior is laid out for dining, but there is a small unspoilt traditional bar which is already crammed with vertical locals watching the Celtic v Dundee United game on TV. Having obtained our pints of Atlas Nimbus – the only beer on hand pump – we retire to a smaller room nearby to find a space and watch the action.

Earlier we had taken the long walk down to the local railway station, home of the preserved branch line Caledonian Railway, and peered through the windows of the nearby Caledonian Hotel. Not open until three, we did venture in after the match and found two well-kept Scottish beers on tap, the names of which escape me (as in ‘they weren’t dark’).

But back to pre-match, and the only other real ale pub in town, the Brechin Arms. This is essentially a one-room bar (there is a separate seating area) typically Scottish in style, with just the one hand pump, today serving Orkney Dark Island, a god-send after the highly citrussy Nimbus I had to endure earlier. Even though the Dark Island is not really on form, I’d rather drink that than yet another golden horror! One of the locals recognises us as being from south of the border, and on discovering I am about to complete the set of Scottish grounds, recommends I tell that to the gentleman on the gate up at Glebe Park, as it’s something newsworthy for the club.

Sure enough, said gentleman – magnificently blazered as befits a proper football club official – listens to my story and promptly invites the pair of us into the Hospitality Area where it’s first drink on the house and sandwiches at half time, plus the run of the ground. That suits Aussie Jack down to a ‘T’ as his penchant for taking pictures of anything that moves sits very well with a license to roam. So at this point let us say a big Thank You to Martin and Anton at the club. To point out a lack of cask or local bottled ale in the bar or an absence of macaroni pies in the snack bar would therefore be churlish so I won’t mention it…..

Glebe Park is a treasure, with its hedges down both sides, a traditional covered terrace behind one goal, large cantilever stand behind the other, and the quaint Main Stand which looks much older than its 34 years. There’s a noticeable end-to-end slope on the pitch but the playing surface looks immaculate. Too bad it’s todays opponents Airdrieonians who make the most of that, taking advantage of first half defensive frailty to go two up at the break. Both sides have gone into the match without a point this season, and it’s destined to be three defeats on the trot for City, despite notching a consolation goal after a penalty save, against opponents at this stage down to 10 men.

We say farewell to Glebe Park and with my prospects of any further trips to Scotland looking increasingly likely to be long-distance lower league forays, I may well not be back for a while. That is, unless, any new Speedway sides spring up in this part of the world or, and one can only wish, the Highland League switches to the Summer! Now there’s a thought…..

Programme: The only disappointment of the day. Brechin City now only rarely produce a match programme. All that is available is an A4 sheet printed on both sides, with teams and a bit of recent news. The Treasurer explained why this is and, due to my profession, I can see easily see the logic. The sheet is nicely laid out, but as a programme collector, it’s not good news.

Floodlight pylons: 6

Birdlife: More likely to see a Golden Eagle in these parts than a parakeet, but neither are in evidence today

Club Shop: A hut at the bottom end of the ground, near the corner flag at the covered terrace end. As Jack purchased his obligatory badge, I can vouch for the fact that’s what they sell, no doubt amongst other things

Toilets: Under the cantilever stand, for a start

Music the players emerge to: Led Zep’s Kashmir

Kop Choir: Not really

Away fans: A fair few in the cantilever stand

Our host, Martin Smith, vice Chairman and treasurer at Brechin City ....

Our host, Martin Smith, vice Chairman and treasurer at Brechin City ….

... and Heather McNeilley, 'start girl' at Glasgow Tigers. Speedway, not all noise and ethanol....

… and Heather McNeilley, ‘start girl’ at Glasgow Tigers. Speedway, not all noise and ethanol….

AFC Darwen – Saturday August 15th 2015 (626)

August 16, 2015

‘Turf more!’

I’ve been following the recent debate on a certain online forum regarding organised groundhops. To be honest I’m not sure what the fuss is all about. To me they’re very much a ‘win-win’ situation, with hoppers getting the opportunity for several ticks over a short period of time – offering travel cost savings to boot – while the clubs involved enjoy a much-increased attendance on the day, with knock-on benefits in bar and food sales, not forgetting club merchandise. And yet there seems to be unrest in the ranks with most critics going for the jugular of a multiple groundhop organiser who happens, coincidentally, to be based in the same town as myself.

I know the guy and like all of us he has his faults, but he also spends a lot of time organising his events and so is entitled to some reward. After all, travel agents don’t arrange and sell holidays for the love of it, do they? Part of my job is to produce magazines for breweries. Now they could quite easily do this themselves – all they need is the expertise and the time to do it.  And therein lies their problem. Which is where I come in and I naturally get a financial reward for doing it. Simples! Presumably Mr. Groundhop Organiser’s critics are principled enough to never ever go to a game that has been rescheduled due to his intervention. That would go without saying, wouldn’t it?

Actually, one of the personal benefits to me of going on a few of his trips is that I have evidence to present to my wife that I am not the only silly bastard spending his time and good money in the pursuit of something intangible. I’ve made a number of new friends and acquaintances over the past year or so, though I am indeed lucky that’s hopping is mainly a sad old man’s kind of hobby, because if my new chums were called Jackie and Jane rather than Jack and John then I could foresee my travel privileges being hastily withdrawn.

Today I type this as I sit in the Wetherspoons in Burnley, a glass of something local but awfully blond in front of me, at half time in the Burnley v Birmingham Championship match, having deposited the aforementioned Jack outside the gates of Turf Moor in order that he may achieve one of the handful of Football League ticks he still requires. Having been ‘On The Turf’ several times previously, I decide to save myself £30 and watch the game on my iPad, courtesy of Wetherspoon’s wifi.

Reunited with my chum at 2.20, we are clear of the town ten minutes later, and entering the environs of the Anchor Ground, home of North West Counties Premier newcomers AFC Darwen, at 2.45pm sharp. We meet up with a quartet of other East Midland based hoppers we know are coming to the match, an FA Cup encounter with Northern League side Washington. It’s the Extra Preliminary Round of the competition, although that fact appears to have escaped the editor of the match programme who has merely put ‘FA Cup game’ on the cover. Or maybe he just couldn’t be arsed to type ‘Extra Prelim.. etc’.

Darwen moved to the Anchor Ground in the days well before they adopted the prefix. The previous incarnation of the club was of course a Football League side more than a century ago, playing on a site a couple of hundred yards down the road on the opposite side, and now covered by industrial buildings. So sadly no ‘Peel Park’ type legacy for hoppers to investigate. The Anchor Ground itself is more than a century old, and benefits from elevated step terracing – albeit of the sleepers-filled-with-sand variety – around three sides, with a substantial main stand on the other, adjacent to a very plush clubhouse which sadly has nothing for the discerning beer drinker. I investigate the snack hatch where the pinned up menu reveals the existence of pies, but on enquiry I am informed that each of the various options includes a meat ingredient of some sort. Oh for those lovely cheese & onion variants available at nearby Colne FC!

There’s a reasonable crowd of around 200 today including quite a few visitors from Washington, their accent being a dead giveaway. Amongst their ranks is a young lady of some stature whose ability to stay upright is gravity-defying. Not that we noticed.

From the start it’s clear that the visitors favour a more powerful approach to the game, particularly at set pieces, and it’s two bullet headers from corners that settle the tie. In between time the home side manage to peg them back, but at no stage ever look likely to claim the honours. Washington won’t win this cup, of course, but the cash for getting to the next stage, the Preliminary Round, will come in handy. And after all, everybody deserves recompense for a job well done. Or not, depending on which Forum poster you happen to agree with.

Programme: £1.50 on the turnstile. Quite a bit about the opposition including a ‘brief’ history which runs to three pages. Lucky we don’t get the unabridged version!

Floodlight pylons: 6

Birdlife: Nothing notable

Club Shop: Badges are available, much to the relief of my travelling companion

Toilets: In the clubhouse – bit of a tight squeeze

Music the players run out to: Nothing

Kop choir: No

Away fans: A noticeable presence



Ireland again!

July 13, 2015

Just back from a successful and highly enjoyable second trip to Southern Ireland courtesy of Groundhop UK. The usual good mix of footy and sightseeing, with the added bonus this year of free time in Dublin to explore a bucket list of crafty pubs in the company of Aussie Jack and like-minded others. Two Premier grounds and another in Division One, and although the fourth game – at UCD – was subject to a last minute cancellation, the bulk of the party went to Croke Park to see the Leinster GAA final – hey well at least they use a ROUND ball!

Roll on next year!

Oh and here’s me with the Irish Cup outside Richmond Park, the home of St Patrick’s Athletic, where we were given a pre-match tour!

The biggest trophy i've held since winning my Subbuteo League....

The biggest trophy i’ve held since winning my Subbuteo League….

Back at Berwick – Saturday April 25th 2015

April 26, 2015

It’s maybe a tad ironic that after a hiatus of almost 4 months in which I’ve added around 30 new grounds to my tick list, I’m blogging again on the occasion of a revisit! But it’s not just any revisit – it’s my annual trip to a club that showed me and my family some kindness around 15 years ago and I vowed therefore to return at least once every season.

Recently I’ve coincided that with their last league game of the season, the club in question being Berwick Rangers, the only English football club in the Scottish League. No different today as the club attempt to secure a play-off slot with a late run. As usual I’m wearing the Berwick shirt I bought back in 2001, and I’m starting to type this as I enjoy a second pint of Broughton Dark n’ Cloudy in the town’s Wetherspoons – the Leaping Salmon – for the princely sum of £1.19 per pint, aided and abetted by my Camra vouchers. Well at that price it would be rude not to!

During the run of weeks where I’ve not posted a blog, I’ve debated with myself where 300 Grounds & Counting should go after more than 6 years of uninterrupted reporting. Like any blogger, I look at the visits stats, and with it having reached some kind of peak but then flattened out over the past couple of seasons, I’ve considered giving it up. Maybe Sunday mornings are better spent with a good lie-in catching up on Saturdays goals on TV.

I think that the existing formula – me reporting on the availability of decent beer and veggie food in and around football grounds, interspersed with publishable bits of my life experiences – is still worth pursuing, but maybe not on the ‘every match’ basis that I’ve previously adhered to. In short, if there’s not a lot to say, maybe I shouldn’t be trying to say it.

So – and things can change over the course of a close season – that’s maybe the way I’ll go forward with the blog.

Curiously enough, over the last few months, I’ve started to enjoy the hopping experience a lot more, having made several new ‘buddies’ each suffering the same affliction as me, that insatiable drive to add more grounds to the ‘been there’ list. Everybody seems to have a different plan as to how we do it. Mine has been to work my way down through the pyramid, picking off occasional lower league grounds as they crop up along the way. And although I’ve been on one or two of the organised ‘hops’ I’m not a massive fan of what I generously refer to as ‘cowpat meadow’ events in what some other hoppers might consider to be ‘stadiums’; as for Sunday morning public parks where desperate fellows can add a dozen new pitches at a time, count me out!

On my numerous visits to Berwick it tends to have been the same old pubs, dependable as they usually are. So surprise surprise, I find there’s a new kid in town, the Curfew micropub which sits right opposite one of my favourite Indian restaurants. A newly discovered B&B almost adjacent sets my mind racing regarding future visits (until I check their prices online that is!).

The Curfew boasts 4 handpumps and although one is dispensing a porter, it’s from East London and I want to try something local. Fortunately there’s two fridges full of bottles and I’m pointed in the direction of Brunette, a 5.5% dark brown bottle conditioned beer from Bear Claw, the local Berwick brewery. It’s quite lively on the throat, with coffee chocolate notes on the aftertaste. With a further opportunity to try the local brew, I next go for the 5% Saison which is also bottle conditioned; it’s slightly hazy but spicy and very enjoyable which for me, very much not a gold beer fan, says everything. Reminds me a lot of Lachouffe. The owner of the Curfew duly arrives and I recognise him as one of Berwick Rangers die-hard supporters, and not one to mince his words! Small world.

By the time I depart the Curfew, it’s full of Midlands based English guys, some of whom I have met before, usually for the last game of the season. We swop a bit of banter about the rapidly burgeoning beer scene – cask and otherwise – in Nottingham before I adjourn to Barrels, the ever dependable real ale establishment just down the road. There’s five beers on hand pull but sadly the only dark brew is from well south of the border – from Adnams, in fact. But that’s the mood I’m in so that’s the one I go for.

My seat in the corner is rapidly hemmed in by a bevy of mature ladies out on the lash, and there’s a bit of cheery banter to be had, before I depart across the bridge in the direction of Shielfield, with Robert Smith’s chippy en route. Beforehand there’s just time to reaffirm that the Angel in Tweedmouth is still an ex-real ale pub, and I also call into the Queens Head on the main road, which has a banner outside advertising cask beer, but a quick look inside affirms that the only hand pump on view has it’s clip turned round. I don’t dally, the curry & chips are a-calling!

It’s my 15th visit for a match at Shielfield Park and I still get a bit of a buzz as I approach one of my favourite stadiums. In fact it’s a shame I hadn’t booked an overnighter, as after the game in the Black & Gold Bar is the ‘Player of the Year’ event which all fans are invited to. Nothing much changes at Shielfield, although for the first time I decide to do a complete walk around the ground, even behind the lower goal which is normally off-limits.

Any thoughts that Berwick can gatecrash the play-off party come tumbling down around our ears as the home team put in an uninspired performance and look decidedly second-best to an East Fife outfit they had beaten 4-1 away only a month or so ago. Having a man sent off doesn’t help matters, although the theatrics of the visiting player deemed to have been wronged seem to make the ref’s mind up for him. It finishes 0-3.

And that’s it – my first post for almost 4 months. Not quite the usual format, but a close season of some thought will decide if 300 Grounds & Counting comes out of the traps for 2015/6, or retires gracefully to the old dog’s home.

Blog postponed!

January 11, 2015

Sorry, but there won’t be any blog postings for a while, other than to update the diary and the listings for the various new grounds I’m hoping to visit in the meantime.

An excessive work schedule during Jan, Feb & early March means I just won’t have time to sit down and try to write creatively! With a bit of luck I should be back up and running before the end of the season.

Matches attended:

Jan 6th – Shaw Lane Aquaforce v Tadcaster Albion 589

Jan 10th – Melksham Town v Shepton Mallet 590

Jan 17th – Bradford Town v Melksham Town 591

Jan 31st – Larkhill Athletic v AFC Totton 592

Feb 7th – Great Wakering Rovers v Chatham Town 593

Feb 14th – Wantage Town v Bashley 594

Feb 21st – Stamford v Trafford 595

Feb 24th – Bristol Manor Farm v Cheltenham CS 596

Feb 28th – Crook Town v Marske United 597

Mar 7th – Hanwell Town v Daventry Town 598

Mar 14th – Thetford Town v Norwich United 599

Mar 14th – Mildenhall Town v Gorleston 600 (!!!!)

Mar 14th – Newmarket Town v Haverhill Rovers 601

Mar 20th – East Kilbride v Whitehill Welfare 602

Mar 21st – Vale of Leithen v Preston Athletic 603

Mar 21st – Selkirk v Spartans 604

Mar 21st – Gala Fairydean Rovers v University of Stirling 605

Mar 22nd – Dalbeattie Star v Edinburgh City 606

Mar 22nd – Threave Rovers v Edinburgh University 607

Mar 27th – Nelson v Colne 608

Mar 28th – Atherton Collieries v Litherland Remcya 609

Mar 31st – Northwich Victoria v Darlo 610

April 3rd – Forest v Wolves

April 4th – AFC Emley v Hemsworth MW 611

April 4th – Colne v Ashton Athletic 612

April 4th – Penistone Church v Pontefract Collieries 613

April 6th – Camberley Town v Badshot Lea 614

April 6th – Petersfield Town v Horndean 615

April 6th – Henley Town v Old Woodstock Town 616

April 11th – Forfar Athletic v Airdrieonions 617

April 12th – Kilmarnock v Aberdeen

April 18th – Norwich United v Felixstowe & Walton 618

April 21st – Brocton v Kirby Muxloe 619

April 25th – Berwick Rangers v East Fife

May 1st – Bardon Hill v Ellistown & Ibstock 620

May 2nd – Louth Town v Dronfield Town 621


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