Just occasionally on this blog I feel the need to post even if it’s a ground I’ve previously visited. Today is such a day, mainly because it’s a match that – a little over three weeks ago – didn’t look as if it would be taking place. That’s because today’s visitors to this non-touristy part of rural Derbyshire are the erstwhile Football League team Darlington, who actually stopped breathing on Wednesday January 18th, only to be resuscitated a few minutes later.
Having covered the trials and tribulations a couple of posts back, I’ll just pause at this point to say that the patient is still alive, but in need of the kind of expensive surgery not available on the football NHS. In the meantime an embargo on transfers means that teenagers are obliged to turn out against seasoned pros, and occasionally it’s not a pretty sight.
I’ve had this game in my diary for a while, having bumped into an old associate at the Nottingham Beer Festival last October. Nottinghamshire-based, Colin has followed Darlo for as long as I’ve been a fan, and is an active member of DAFTS. To understand what that is all about, visit http://www.dafts.co.uk and discover what a useful resource that site can be to a groundhopper. Colin is also fond of his real ale, to the point of fanaticism. I recall one time at Shrewsbury when a Darlo away game coincided with the local CAMRA beer festival. Colin proceeded to sample a few, and those he couldn’t polish off were consigned to labeled bottles and deposited in his ruck-sack. Heaven knows what the match stewards would have made of it had they deemed to search his bag on entry to Gay Meadow.
We’ve also had the odd laugh at Colin’s expense, particularly the time at Boston where he decided to go for a leek just as the train pulled in, loaded up and zoomed out. We all gave him a cheery wave from the window as he stumbled onto the platform, gesticulating forlornly down the track as we vanished into the distance.
Today I meet him on the train at Langley Mill and we get off next stop intent on discovering the delights of Alfreton. Actually, my day starts an hour or so earlier in Nottingham, with a Wetherspoon’s Veggie Brekkie at the Roebuck on St James Street, washed down with an excellent pint of Grafton’s Dark Lady. I’m always a bit wary about this pub, having once been refused entry for wearing an England football shirt. Approximately half an hour earlier David Beckham had buried the ball in the back of the Greek net, people were leaping gleefully in and out of the Grand Union Canal, and the whole city was rocking. Sadly in those days, Wetherspoon’s didn’t feel the vibe.
According to the DAFTs website, Alfreton town centre has just 7 pubs (less than my local village) and one of them, the Station, is a keg-palace en route into town from the station. A quarter of a mile further on, in the town centre, is the Pub People-owned King Alfred, promising a selection of beers. Sadly, as we arrive, the Blue Monkey 99 Red Baboons goes off, and the remaining choice is less inspiring, with Doom Bar, Fullers London Pride (which I like but would prefer to drink in London) and a couple of Abbeydale beers. The latter name conjures up images of very pale golden citrussy beers which I generally avoid, so it’s the Fullers for me. The Red Baboons is eventually replaced with BG Sips – another golden ale – so my intended session fizzles out. Down by the ground, a ten-minute walk from the town centre, is the Victoria which is advertising its guest beers as ‘Ruddles & Greene King’. 35 years ago I’d have journeyed for days for that kind of offering. How times change.
At the ground we are helpfully pointed in the direction of the away end, which turns out to be a sectioned-off third of the semi-covered terrace formerly used by home fans. Our bit has no cover, although the stewards do take pity on us as a mini-snowstorm blights the start of the second half, and a couple of hundred away fans surge through the open fencing and cram under the cover of the central section.
By then the game is nearly over, despite Alfreton being down to ten men. A bright first half in which both sides enjoy periods of dominance ends with a goal apiece, but as soon as the home team take an early second half lead before being swiftly reduced in numbers, it’s over as a contest. With the few experienced heads in the Darlo ranks making little contribution, the seven willing but naive teenagers in the visiting line-up are up against hard-nut defenders like the much-traveled Darren Kempson. It’s a no-contest scenario. Men against boys. It finishes 3-1.
The general feeling around me is that, poor as Darlo are in the second half, it still deserves a round of applause. Because the Conference’s viewpoint is that it’s acceptable for inexperienced boys to be asked to do a man’s job. So we applaud them for that, as well as the acceptance that the game very nearly didn’t take place. If Darlo are back here next season – no matter in what division – it will be an achievement.