Contrary to what most people might think, I’m not a man who eats, sleeps and drinks football. Well, maybe the drinking bit, then, but by-and-large, when it comes to chatting about footy, even I have my limits.
I realised that only very recently when talking to my father-in-law’s brother, who is a scout for a Championship club. An initially enthralling conversation soon got round to a Q & A of ‘have you been to so-and-so ground’ followed by a never-ending series of yes and no answers from me. It was at that point that I seriously considered printing some lists of where I’ve been just to hand out to enquirers. Or maybe getting a t-shirt knocked up, y’know ‘300 Grounds & Counting World Tour 1965-?’ with all the grounds listed on the back….
So when I saw that Groundhop UK were organising a Northern Counties East ‘hop’ over Easter – a league certainly under my radar – my initial plan to book a place on their bus trip was quickly tempered by a realisation – could I endure that much waffle about football coming from all angles?
I met the guy Chris who organises these hops a few years back. Curiously we share a Christian name and we both live in the same one-horse town, but apart from our passing interests in footy, I don’t think we have a lot else in common. I believe he does a great job in organising these hops, which must benefit both the fans and the clubs themselves. I often look at a typical Saturday’s fixture list, with the ubiquitous 3pm kick-offs and despair over the wasted opportunities. A few more middays and the odd 7.45 thrown in and there’d surely be some enterprising clubs with a few extra quid in the coffers.
So today I decide to undertake the Good Friday leg of the NCEL Hop by car, with just my 13-year old son for company. I tell him it will be a long day, but the prospect of a few hot dogs and a bit of stray ball chasing convinces him it will be more fun than another 15-hour X-Box session. He’s also fresh from a visit to Stamford Bridge, where he was leaping about on the front row for the benefit of the ITV cameras, as Chelsea finished off a plucky Benfica, so he’ll be ready for a bit more excitement.
Poor route planning from me ensures that we arrive at the first ground, Eccleshill United, after the official Hop bus has landed, but there are plenty of programmes available, so my initial panic subsides. We do a quick tour of this tidy ground, with it’s solid-looking main stand, and note the marquees set up to sell club merchandise, and cater for the overspill of hungry Hoppers. The lad enjoys his first hot dog of the day whilst I sample a cheese & onion pasty. We check out the cosy clubhouse, but the beer range is predictably mainstream.
The lads says he wants to stand behind the other goal because “…there’s too many Grasshoppers at this end…”. We are intrigued by the t-shirts being worn by the visiting Dinnington Town players which read ‘Andy Sykes – 400 games, no goals’. “That wouldn’t be so bad,” I say to my son, “but he’s the Centre Forward….” “Is he!” exclaims the lad, aghast.
Said player is made captain for the day but proceeds to give away a first half penalty which the home no.9 converts to level an early Dinnington strike. That’s as good as it gets for the Eccleshill striker who, with his side subsequently 1-3 down, produces the miss of the century from 3 yards with the net yawning before him, not only clearing the bar but also the roof of the stand. You had to be there. The game ends 2-3.
We make a sharp exit and arrive at the next club, Thackley of the Premier division, well in advance of the coach party. Time to settle down in the clubhouse with a swift half of hand pumped Tetley Blooming Ale, and a brief chat with a couple of other hoppers who hear me use the word ‘cob’ when referring to food, and place us from the Nottingham area. They presume we are here to support the visitors, who coincidentally are Long Eaton United. I suppose we could cheer them on.
Thackley’s ground benefits from three-step terracing on two sides, with a decent main stand and covered flat standing adjacent. There are a few stalls selling old shirts etc, and the snack hatch is doing a roaring trade, with chilli and rice going down a storm. Sadly there is no vegetarian variant, how strange! Sandwiches with suitable fillings – for me that is – are available, though.
Long Eaton are fielding a fairly young looking side but their confidence rises measurably after taking a 25th minute lead, which they hold onto until ten minutes from the end. Still, a point at Thackley looks more than useful in their battle to avoid the relegation dogfight. In the meantime the lad is jubilant as the raffle ticket he persuaded me to buy comes up trumps. We miss out on the whisky and chocolate, but win the wine. Well at least the missus will be happy.
We’re on the move again, and the slightly longer trip south of the M62 to the Clayborn home of Liversedge F.C. which is accessed along the narrowest of dirt tracks. No way the Hopper bus will get down here! Despite banner adverts for Partners Brewery around the ground, there’s no sign of anything worth drinking in the clubhouse, and so we nip to the snack hatch where the lad decides to eschew another hot dog in favour of a tray of chips which he submerges under a layer of ketchup. Drinks are only available in the clubhouse, but having miffed the bar staff earlier by sniffing openly at their uninviting beer portfolio, I tell him my son he just might have to wait until the last game to wash his chips down.
The match against visiting Arnold Town turns out to be the poorest of the afternoon. The only goal comes on 42 minutes, and although the home side go close on a couple of occasions, they haven’t got enough about them to level the visitors’ strike.
A couple of kids dutifully trundle round the pitch to manually update the scoreboard, which must be unique to the ground at this level. As must be the crash barrier which obstructs eye-level vision from the first row of the three-row stand.
Switching back to north of the M62 again, we arrive at our last port-of-call just as the first serious rain of the day begins to fall. The Brighouse Town clubhouse bar only has cans, but the integral snack bar is offering jacket spuds with a variety of fillings. Surprisingly my son decides he is all snacked out and settles for a bottle of Lucozade.
We find a spot under the standing section of a covered area, courtesy of some scaffolding. We note that the same long-haired Golden Retriever dog that has pitched up at every ground so far is also here, no doubt dragging his totally-uninterested owner along too. A fairly even opening 25 minutes against Barton Town Old Boys takes a decided turn with a soft penalty awarded to the home team. Two minutes later they are 2-up and by fifteen minutes of the second half it is a 5-0, courtesy of some sharp finishing. Barton’s comeback ends at one goal as they lose a man to a second yellow and it finishes 5-1.
For much of the second half I am in a fairly one-sided dialogue with a couple of West Midlands based hoppers, having made the cardinal sin of striking up a half-time conversation with them. The usual shared lists of who’s been where descends into me being giving the lowdown on where virtually every member of a 1970s FA Vase winning side is now living. Riveting stuff!
Which reminds me exactly why I like to keep my own company on occasions like this. Which I believe is where I came in…..
FOOTNOTE: I’ll spare you all the individual Statto stuff, apart from to say that all clubs issued programmes, all had club merchandise on sale, all had 6 floodlight pylons (except 8 at Thackley) and no parakeets showed up.
What’s in a name: Presumably Dinnington’s Michael Trench likes to attack from deep positions; Eccleshill’s Nathan Lawless probably gets booked a lot; and I bet Brighouse’s Nick Jagger and Barton Town’s Gary Barlow like to lead the singing in the showers. Most exotic name of the day award goes to Liversedge’s Gibril Bojang…..