“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…..