Cowes Sports – Saturday 11th November 2017 (840)

November 13, 2017

“Despite the club putting elaborate plans into place, it just didn’t look likely now that the Match Of The Day team would be turning up…”

From what I’m given to understand, we need less sleep as we get older. Try telling that to our cat! But it’s hopefully the case as I contemplate the prospect of enjoying barely 4 hours kip in a 40-hour period, courtesy of the fact that I booked gig tickets for a Friday night, when I knew I’d gotta be up at 4.00 in the morning to catch the East Midlands Trains ‘red-eye’ into London. Doh!

Mind you, when Nothing But Thieves come to town, sensible thinking goes out of the window. Possibly Indie rock’s ‘best kept secret’ I’ve been a fan for nearly three years, the first gig back in 2015 when half the meagre audience hadn’t even heard of them. And for this concert I’m accompanied by my teenage daughter, who’s also got the NBT bug!

I’m never entirely sure why Nottingham’s Rock City remains so popular with fans and bands alike, given that the acoustics are rarely anything other than shitty. But groups such as the Stranglers – who I first saw there back in the early 1980s – come back time after time, as do the likes of Billy Bragg and the Happy Mondays, all scheduled for the next few weeks. Also an act called ‘Arse Full Of Chips’ whose career must have passed me by, but are well worthy of a mention merely for that name alone!

So as I board the Saturday morning 5.30 into London, faced with the prospect of a trek to a soggy South Coast, I’m just a little bit bleary-eyed…..

My original target for today was Hamworthy United of the Wessex Premier. I had rail tickets to Poole already booked and paid for, but had failed to appreciate the possibility of the FA Vase draw muddying the waters. True to form, that team’s home game is postponed, but by good fortune is replaced with an away fixture at Cowes Sports. So if I abort my rail journey at Southampton, then the Isle of Wight comes into play. What can possibly go wrong?

What can possibly go wrong is the weather, and with the tail-end of a tropical storm smothering the south of England, that old bogey of a waterlogged pitch scenario becomes a real possibility. Frantic Whatsapp and Twitter activity gives me enough confidence to buy a Red Funnel ferry ticket at Southampton ferry terminal (£11 for an oldies day trip) and I kill some time by nipping into the Spitfire, a ‘faux-Wetherspoons’ boozer in Soton. The pubs sells Marston’s group beers, and my Ringwood Forty-Niner is appreciably colder than I would like, but that appears to be the modern way.

Back at the ferry terminal, I join a queue which includes all the playing and coaching staff from Hamworthy United (I am informed by a friend who knows about these things that it’s too expensive to take a team coach across to the Isle of Wight, so most clubs utilise the foot ferry/taxi approach) for the 25-minute journey by SeaCat, which fairly whizzes across the waves. One of the team is going round selling a football card – y’know the sort, pay a quid and pick a team – and I speculate that it’s probably to raise funds to help with the cost of the ferry cost journey!

My first port-of-call on landing on the island is the Cowes Ale House, as cosy a micro pub as you will find anywhere. Three cask beers are on tap, and I go for the Andwell 5 Little Fishes, primarily because it being the most local of the breweries, but mostly because it’s the right colour for a bitter beer!

I arrive at the ground just as yet another band of rain has passed, and the guy on the gate confirms that the match is still on, but that another downpour could seriously jeopardise the situation. As I do a quick tour of the ground, entirely dominated by a sizeable main stand with a covered area of flat standing adjacent, I’m rather praying that the rain gods look favourably upon us, which thankfully turns out to be the case as I kill time with a bottle of Doom Bar in the bar. Sadly no island beers are available at this island football club, although I’m curious as to how much keg Theakstons Mild (on draught) they are likely to sell this far south.

Today’s contest would seem to favour the visitors, who are having a much more productive season than the home side, and they are the better side in a first half that nonetheless sees them go in a goal down at half time, having also missed a penalty. Indeed they pull level shortly after the break, but then two well-taken goals in the space of six minutes by an invigorated Cowes Sports turns the game on its head. Suddenly there’s an urgency all over the park, tackles are flying in, opponents are being barged, nudged and tripped, the referee is making unpopular – but generally correct – calls, and it seems that Sports will hold out, as in fact they do, but not before they’ve conceded a second, and then almost an equaliser.

In fact the kind of game it’s actually worth getting up at 4.00 in the morning for, even though I’m now facing a 7-hour return trek that will involve a ferry, and two rail journeys. My only regret is I didn’t bring a nice comfy pillow along for the ride!

Programme: £1.00 on the turnstile. A modest effort but perfectly adequate for Step 5 football

Floodlights: 6 pylons

Birdlife: On a small island surrounded by seawater, what d’ya reckon?

Toilets: In the foyer of the clubhouse

Club Shop: No

Music the players emerge to: Lust For Life was playing at that time. In fact an eclectic and generally interesting pre-match music mix played over the speakers, including some Beatles stuff.

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Bilston Town Community – Saturday 4th November 2017 (839)

November 5, 2017

“Satisfied that Stuart Little wasn’t in the stadium, Falcon turned his attention to the bald-headed groundhopper strolling past…”

As readers of my blog – and lucky recipients of my occasional Tweets – will know, I’ve always been fond of a bit of music. I can listen to any good (in my opinion) stuff from the 1960s right up until the present day, and pride myself on a mind open to anything that I consider to be creative or original, even if I wouldn’t necessarily ‘buy’ it. Pop, Underground, Prog, Punk, Ska, Eighties, Britpop, Indie, even a bit of country (not much though!), plus a lot of the new bands around today, although you don’t often hear them on radio airwaves which are generally packed to the gunnels with ‘allsoundsthesame’ rap plus anything uttered by the Ginger Busker…..

But there is one thing that has always puzzled me. Exactly what does that bloke waving the baton in front of an orchestra actually achieve?

Surely those musicians are professional enough to know when it’s their turn to play, and exactly how loud to play it? Do they need to be nursemaided into performing at their best, in fear that they may go off in a sulk, thus sabotaging the efforts of all those around them?

I suppose you could say the same thing about football managers. It can be a thankless task, as I discovered back in the day when I – my playing days over and my trophy cabinet buckling under the weight of the single award I got from being part of a Leicester 74 League Division 3 Championship winning squad – took up the challenge of running our club’s reserve side. Devoid of any response to my well-devised tactics, I quickly realised that shouting at the players was the best option. It didn’t improve the standard of performance, but at least I felt a darn sight better having being able to yell at them a bit.

Of course football management can be easy, as evidenced by one B. Clough who would simply tell his sides to go out and enjoy themselves and score more goals than the other team, which for several seasons they duly did. Maybe I should have adopted that approach with Europa Reserves!

Back to the music, and with tickets for a gig at the O2 Institute in Brum tonight to see Oh Wonder (we’ll be the oldest swingers in town, as usual) I meet up with the Aussie, who is out on parole after recovering from a marital ear-bashing following one-too-many footballing weekends away. We satisfy his usual pre-match appetite for Wetherspoons pubs, as well as taking in a pint of the exceptional 6.0%abv Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild at the nearby Beacon Hotel, Sedgeley by way of diversion, before arriving at the splendid Queen Street stadium of Step 6 club Bilston Town Community, of the West Midlands (Regional) League Premier Division.

We’re quickly identified as ‘hoppers’ by the orange-bedecked gentlemen gathered around the gate, and after much polite conversation of a footballing nature, we are offered the sanctuary of the Board Room at half time, to enjoy the club’s hospitality (the chip butties on granary bread a positive boon on this Autumn afternoon!). The stadium itself boasts an imposing main stand of some stature, plus a small area of covered terracing behind one goal. Probably the most noticeable thing about this venue, however, is the array of industrial-strength pillars and netting surrounding almost half of the ground, which I discover was erected to prevent the more robust of clearances from bouncing off vehicles using the busy Black Country Way which now runs alongside the ground. This structure can be best appreciated from the road itself.

Having arrived close to kick off, and with no need of the clubhouse at half time (for reasons already outlined) I neglect my remit of investigating good beer and veggie food options, for which I can only claim mitigating circumstances. Besides, after the Sarah Hughes Ruby, who would want any other beer?

The games today is between the home team, decked out in all-orange, and visiting Dudley Sports, playing in all-green – curiously, the same colours as the home keeper, though the referee doesn’t seem to mind. With both teams having shown inconsistent form thus far this season, it’s a tough one to call, yet Bilston show the greater endeavour and by the early part of the second half are three goals to the good, much to the consternation of the Dudley Sports manager whose particularly audible vocal offerings are littered with expletives. These eventually catch the attention of the referee who explains, in no uncertain terms, that one more of same will lead to the manager’s expulsion to the stand. His instant response is yet another expletive, and so he’s asked to take the long walk.

Within minutes he’s back out of the dressing rooms with his kitbag, jumps into his car after opening the car park gate, and is off down the street. Cue much incredulity all round. Now we seen it all!

In the absence of their guiding spirit, the Dudley players take the game to their possibly complacent hosts, and quickly have it pegged back to 3-2, so at last we have a contest on our hands. Sadly for the visitors, there isn’t time to complete the comeback. So is it purely coincidental that the team has performed with more purpose without their manager in the ground then when he was there, bawling and hollering. And could that be proof enough that participants probably don’t really need anybody to stand there, trying to orchestrate the show?

Or maybe he just simply felt that shouting might do the trick!

 

Programme: Available on entry. Impressive for this level. Glossy cover and paper with plenty of reading matter. It covers two games but that doesn’t detract from the offering.

Floodlights: 4 posts on one side, 3 posts and a stand roof cluster on the other.

Birdlife: Not much, the decoy on the post (see picture) doing his job

Toilets: In the clubhouse adjacent to the stand.

Club Shop: There may have been one but I wasn’t nearly observant enough!

Music the players emerge to: Little Mix, but that might have just been the track playing at the time


Clapton – Saturday 28th October 2017 (838)

October 29, 2017

‘Building work is put on hold at Clapton FC as a possible new species of fungi is investigated…’

When I left the pub trade just over 20 years ago, I rekindled my interest in (then) Football League club, Darlington, a connection which had started on a ground hopping trip which took me to Feethams several years previously. One of the first people I spoke to – outside Doncaster’s old Belle Vue stadium as I recall – was a guy called Steve Harland who was part of the team which published ‘Mission Impossible’, the main Darlo fanzine, which was a fierce critic of the regime in charge of the club at that time.

I remember one night game where Steve stood up in the old wooden main stand and publicly harangued the Darlington directors who many felt were not in it for the good of the club. The exact ownership of the business was also less than transparent….

Curiously enough a hopping colleague recently gave me a couple of old copies of M.I. which reminded me of those events more than two decades ago, recording the animosity of that period. Little we realised then how things might subsequently turn out!

Ironically my visit today is to Clapton of the Essex Premier League where a similar situation appears to be unfolding, judging by social media posts prior to the local ‘derby’ with Tower Hamlets, but more of that later….

My Megabus into London is on time and courtesy of my recently-acquired Oyster Card I can now laugh at the queues at the Victoria Station ticket booths and head straight off on the District Line to Plaistow. Even though I don’t think I’ve ever been to this bit of London before, I feel I know it well courtesy of my dog-eared copy of ‘Skinhead Escapes’, a novel set in this ‘manor’ and pretty much essential reading in my formulative years as a ‘Smoothie’ back in the day! It’s probably a bit non-PC today, though….

A 20-minute walk up the Stopford Road takes me to the Old Spotted Dog ground of Clapton FC, adjacent to the – sadly now boarded-up – historic pub of that name. A steward outside the turnstiles says he thinks the former hostelry is to be turned into flats but you’d have thought some enterprising new pubco would have taken a punt on it. The OSD ground itself might also benefit from a bit of TLC, which the current ownership of the club could possibly give it. However, the suspicion of much of the Clapton fan base – the Ultras – is that the regime’s intentions might not be as honourable as would be hoped. Hence a boycott which has been in place for much of the season.

Inside the ground there is a seated main stand astride the halfway line on one side, with two adjacent areas of covered standing – the Scaffold as it’s known to the Ultras – on the other. An area of vintage uncovered step terracing is the feature behind the goal to the opposite end of the pitch to the clubhouse, which itself is spacious and comfortable, though probably showing its age. I’m delighted to see bottles of Dragon Stout in the fridge, and pay my £3 for the privilege of consuming one. For those that haven’t come across this little ‘beaut’, it originates from Jamaica, weighs in at 7.5%abv, and can often be found in the Caribbean foods section at Asda for around £1.50 or so. Treat your tastes buds!

There doesn’t appear to be any catering facilities here (unless I’m less than observant) but luckily I stocked up with a sandwich from the Costcutter across the road prior to entering.

Kick-off time for the game arrives with barely 25 people in attendance, although the anticipated racket from stay-away Ultras in the alley outside the ground fails to materialise, so an eerie silence prevails over proceedings. There’s plenty of grass – probably too much – on the pitch but a billiard table it’s not, and the game is littered with bobbles, miss-kicks and profligate finishing which turns out to be moderately entertaining, despite an inability for any real quality to shine through.

There’s many more people in the ground for the start of the second half, doubtless due to the opening of the turnstiles, and the atmosphere warms up as the comedy-of-errors continues out on the pitch. I recently saw Tower Hamlets put ten past hapless opponents in the FA Vase but they never really look like scoring even one today, and the home side are little better, wasting their few chances. In fact it gets to the point where I’m feeling that a goal might even spoil the game, but then a home winner duly arrives, deep into injury time, and a it’s reward for persistence more than anything else.

There’s just time for the traditional bout of argy-bargy which you’d expect of a closely-fought local derby, resulting in both teams seeing the game out with ten men, but it’s a home win, much to the delight of the (presumably) Ultras that have snook into the ground during the course of the second half proceedings.

No doubt their fight will go on, and good luck to whoever is in the right, although sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for, Darlo being a classic case, ending up being demoted 4 levels after appearing to find a ‘saviour’. For now the Clapton boycott is effective in giving media exposure to the cause, but is it ‘Mission Impossible’?  Only time will tell….

Programme: From the turnstile, black & white photocopy, 8 pages. At £1.50 probably about £1 too much.

Floodlights: 8

Birdlife: Parakeet territory!

Toilets: In the clubhouse and an outside block (which I didn’t investigate!)

Club shop: Not in evidence

Music the players emerge to: Deathly silence


Sittingbourne – Saturday 21st October 2017 (837)

October 23, 2017

‘Despite naming a strong bench, the home manager is heartened to see the club’s directors ideally positioned to put in a shift if required…’

I can’t describe myself as a recluse and I ‘m sure the lifestyle of a hermit wouldn’t be for me, but more often than not I do relish the flexibility that ‘going it alone’ can bring. Answerable to no-one but myself, able to swiftly adapt to changing scenarios, making on-the-spot decisions about where and when to go, and all achieved without pissing anybody else off in the process! What’s not to like?

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a convivial environment – the recent Western Hop was a great chance to catch up with people I don’t often see, like author Nige Tassell of NLP fame, while last week’s footy/beer/music Irish trip with the Aussie was a ‘standout’ weekender culminating in meeting Josh and Jack from the bands Amber Run and Seafret respectively – but it’s always reassuring to have the final say. My mother loves to remind me that I was like that as a kid, leading the ‘gang’ round our patch, and telling them all where we’d be going and what we’d be doing. My reasoning was that a) I was the oldest and biggest, and b) I was the best at organising stuff. That mindset has continued to this day, and has doubtless cost me a few friendships along the way. C’est la Vie.

I can also be a bit of a wind-up merchant, but fortunately I have a hard-core of friends who appreciate that kind of humour, including some who are better at it than me. Others are not so sure and tend to give me a wide berth, to be tolerated in small doses. What, Me Worry?, as Alfred E. Neuman once said….

So today I’m happy to be going solo, and passing through London again. I’m a little unsure of the effect that the anticipated Storm Brian will have on the south east, so I have a number of different scenarios lined up, although my favoured destination is Sittingbourne in the Isthmian Division One South, involving a 2-3 mile walk from the railway station which could leave me wide open to the elements. After much umming and ahhing, undertaken during the consumption of a veggie breakfast wrap at the Shakespeare’s Head, the ‘Spoons establishment in Holborn, I decide that my need to tick off a ‘stray’ Step 4 overrides any fear of getting a thorough soaking, and so I’m on the train to Kent.

I’m not exactly sure how Sittingbourne FC’s move from Bourne Park to Woodstock Park passed me by. Whisper it quietly but while I was whooping and hollering and celebrating the completion of my top 8 levels in the English football pyramid a couple of seasons back, this one was a glaring omission. All the more reason to make an extra effort to put that right today.

Directly outside Sittingbourne station is a pub going under the name of the ‘Fountain of Ale’. Who could resist that, and with a heavy rain shower looking likely, I decide it prudent to pop in for a quick pint to prepare myself for the foot slogging to come. It would appear to be something of a music venue of an evening, with Saturday lunchtime trade restricted to one other person and me. Three cask beers are available on the bar, but the name Harvey’s on any pump clip is my ‘manna from heaven’. In this case it’s the Old, which is tasty enough, if a little ‘first out of the barrel’-ish. The CAMRA discount also helps to limit the financial damage a Southern pint can do to a man’s wallet! Moving off from here I stumble upon the Golden Hope, which is one of the cosier ‘Spoons, consisting of many small rooms, nooks and crannies.

My route then takes me past a couple of other hostelries but I don’t dally, as another heavy rain shower is imminent and I need to make progress out of town, before finally accepting the inevitable and taking refuge under a large tree as I battle to retain control of my brolly. Brian is certainly doing his best! Some of my perambulation is down a short stretch of country road sans footpath, but Woodstock Lane isn’t the busiest of thoroughfares, and I soon encounter the Eden Science Park signs that indicate I am close to my destination, Woodstock Park being virtually opposite that complex.

The first person I meet in the ground is the driver of a minibus which had passed me on the lane. It’s the Sittingbourne Shuttle which picks up from the station and deposits back there after the game. I had been aware of it, but a little confused as to how the payment system operates (see website for details!) Meet in the clubhouse after the game if I’d like a lift back into town, he kindly informs me.

Woodstock Park itself is a tidy affair, with cover on three sides of the ground, clustered around a very well-maintained grass pitch. There’s a sizeable clubhouse with a hand pump serving Shepherd Neame Masterbrew, very drinkable although I suspect it would benefit from a little more throughput. Outside there’s a snack hatch with the ubiquitous chip offering for the non-carnivore, although the home-made (not packet) Leek & Potato Soup at £1.60 is very nourishing indeed.

The home side come into the game on the back of an unbeaten run which has seem them score 17 goals in the previous 7 games, conceding just 1, and none in the last 6 – almost 10 hours of solid defence. That proud record lasts just 7 minutes, the time it takes for lowly visitors Chipstead to find their way to goal, to the abject disappointment of the home custodian. His loyal admirers behind the net sing his praises with an adaption of the ‘he’s one of our own’ chant to ‘he eats what he wants’ in celebration of his ample girth. It’s no exaggeration to compare his pounding up to take a goal kick to that of an approaching dinosaur in Jurassic Park!

The early score means I once again miss out on a Golden Goal prize, my 19 minutes now a long way off. One of the songsters from the Kop choir is already on his way past me to claim his prize. I don’t hold out a lot of hope for my raffle tickets either – another two quid I won’t see again!

There is a dearth of goalmouth action during the game, which only really livens up deep into injury time, when Sittingbourne notch a late equaliser, and there’s just enough time for a goalmouth fracas, which results in a second yellow for a home defender, before the ref blows time on what has been an earnest but undistinguished encounter.

Clear skies and the news that the minibus journey back into town is delayed whilst the regular passengers enjoy a post-match pint provides me with a  dilemma. Another 3-mile walk to the station, but allowing me to catch my intended train back into London, or wait for the bus but on the off-chance that I might miss my intended connection. With nobody else to consult I can make my own mind up – the walk it is! Ah the joys of freedom….

Programme: Produced for this and the following mid-week game.  A little thin on content. £2 from the turnstile

Floodlights: 4

Birdlife: Minimal

Toilets: In the clubhouse

Clubshop: A hut and stall near the entrance to the ground. Hats, scarves, etc

Music the players emerge to: A club with their own song! ‘The Brickies, That’s Our Team’, performed by a combo called 3Blokes

 


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…..