During the summer I chanced upon a copy of the Loughborough Echo – one of the few newspapers I still find eminently readable – which contained an excellent pull-out about the 60th anniversary of the all-conquering Midland League team, Loughborough United. It also commemorated the demise of the club ten years later, brought about in no small part by the disposal of their Brown’s Lane ground so that the local council could build a ‘leisure centre’. I visited Brown’s Lane just the once, but sadly only for a charity match which, though well-attended, hardly constituted a competitive game, a key criteria to being added to my ‘tick’ list. Brown’s Lane – the Loughborough ‘Wembley’ – is one that got away from me.
Just occasionally I visit a ‘new’ ground, only to find I have been there before. Today is one of those days, but more about that later.
The sun’s shining and I’ve got my legs out for the first time at a footy match since I can remember. Three trundling trains take me from Long Eaton to Wolverhampton via Birmingham, with the thought that I’ll soon be enjoying a pint in the Great Western the carrot leading me along. I was at this classic pub on the night it re-opened under Holden’s Brewery colours, back in late 1987 I believe, and it’s been one of my top 10 ‘desert island pubs’ ever since. It’s usually packed full of noisy Wolves fans, so it makes a change to enjoy a pint of Holden’s Mild and a crusty cheese & onion cob in relative tranquility, save for a party of CAMRA enthusiasts setting out on a crawl.
There’s a laminated press cutting in the Western taken from the Racing Post, bemoaning the fact that Wolverhampton had been named as one of the ‘Worst 5 Cities in the World’ by the 2009 Lonely Planet Guide. Clearly the judging panel had no appreciation of ‘bostin’ real ale, cracking balti curries, and an afternoon on the South Bank. I worked in the Black Country for just 6 months back in the 1980s, but have made several lasting friendships as a result and I rate this one of the more agreeable places to live and work. It’s also one of only two footballing towns in the country where you won’t see a Man United shirt (the other one? Burnley).
The Lych Gate Tavern in the town centre has recently opened, and is owned by the same people that run the Wellington in Birmingham. So the beer list clearly indicates the colour of the beer, and there’ll always be a mild on, two good reasons for me to visit. Sure enough, Black Country Pig on the Wall is in cracking form, and although the ale choice is ‘golden-heavy’, there are a couple of proper bitters on sale too.
Now I’ve got a bit of walking to do, through the town centre, and out to the environs of Banks’s Brewery, where I eschew the opportunity to join a queue for an open day, to head a hundred yards down the road to the Combermere, a free house with a relatively small beer list. But they do sell Banks’s Mild, which is good enough for me. This is a classic multi-roomed characterful pub famed for the tree growing in the gents toilet, and today there’s some kind of music festival going on. Most of the clientele seem to be dressed in sympathy. I am embarrassed a couple of times by the squeaky bench I am sitting on, which makes a realistic farty noise whenever I lean forward. Honest, not me squire!
My last pre-match pint is a further half-mile out of town, to a street corner local featuring in the 2013 Good Beer Guide. The Chindit is a two room former M&B pub, and reputedly the only one so-named in the world. The five pump clips facing me all have the words ‘pale’, ‘blond’ and ‘golden’ written somewhere on them. My worst nightmare – water water everywhere and not a drop to drink. “My customers will only drink golden beers,” says the landlord sort of apologetically. “It’s all I can sell.” Yes, say I, but where’s the choice. So as not to be rude – and bearing in mind the half-mile walk back into town – I plump for Brough’s Blonde, and am slightly re-assured by the fact it’s brewed in Wolverhampton, at the old Springfield brewery, long since closed by M&B.
I went on a brewery visit there once with Leicester CAMRA. The bloke who worked for M&B was trying to get us to try a drink called ‘Crow Cider’. It turned out to actually be called ‘Crusader’ and was marketed as ‘a dark lager bitter drinkers will want to drink…’ . Sadly for M&B it turned out that bitter drinkers would want to drink… er bitter, and so Crow Cider bit the same dust as Brew X and its fizzy ilk.
Right, time for some football, and the National Express bus service number 3 from Wolverhampton centre (Lichfield Street, not the bus station) to Castlecroft runs right past the Chindit’s door. Very convenient. It terminates 15 minutes away in Castlecroft, directly opposite the entrance to a sports complex featuring cricket, rugby union, and the home of Midland Football Alliance newcomers, AFC Wulfrunians. After sheltering from a cloudburst, I walk up to the stadium and suddenly realise – I’ve been here before! And for a competitive fixture, too.
Admittedly, it was back in 1988, and the fixture was a Midlands Youth League match between Wolves ‘A’ team and Forest ‘A’ team – the Under 18s, effectively. It was during my time working in Wolverhampton, and the morning of an FA Cup tie at Birmingham for Forest, and after being picked up by my old Forest mucker Nick, and in the company of my new Wolves friend Chat (who sadly died last year), we headed up to the Wolves training ground for some morning entertainment. Forest won 8-0 with a young Gary Charles – later to play for England before going off the rails and joining the Shaggers – bossing the show.
It turns out that Castlecroft Stadium was sold by Wolves shortly thereafter to the Rugby Football Union, with AFC Wulfrunians taking up residence in 2005 and using it as an ideal base to work through the divisions. Effectively a three-sided ground – access to the far side is restricted for whatever reason – the main spectator facility is the splendidly elevated main stand, beyond which is a clubhouse bar providing viewing from behind glass windows, for those of a more genteel nature. There’s no cask beer on sale, but they do have bottles of Brakspears First Gold and Marstons Empire – chilled or room temperature – by way of compensation. The latter may be ‘gold’ but it has that lovely Marstons sulphery aroma which I personally find irresistible! No citrussy hops there!
This opening match of the season is against Leicestershire side Heather St Johns. The home team have the better of the opening half hour, going in front on 15 minutes with a far post header, but the momentum changes on 35 when the Wulfs keeper advances too far outside his zone to fist away a through ball, and the game is up. The previously dominant centre half takes over in goal and you suspect a difficult last hour, particularly when he concedes a soft equalizer in the first minute of the second half. But the fact he doesn’t have to touch the ball again for a full half hour demonstrates the effort put in by his comrades, who go ahead again late in the game.
The visiting No2, a burly veteran of a defender who demands to be involved in every aspect of the play, without ever once demonstrating an ability to be effective in any of it, pushes himself upfront in a vain effort to deliver an equaliser, but manages to avoid touching the ball at all, and the home team run out 2-1 winners.
And so ground number 528 gets ticked off. Just think, could have been ground number 100 or so if I’d have counted it back in 1988. And what about Brown’s Lane? Top 50? Hey ho, you get there in the end. Or not, sadly with regards to the Loughborough ‘Wembley’.
Programme: On sale at the turnstile at £1 and a great read. Somebody has clearly put some effort into this, and not just re-hashed League website stuff. Shame only 100 or so people will ever get to read it. I’m awarding it 9 out of 10 in my new ratings slot!
Floodlight pylons: 9
Birdlife: Despite an abundance of greenery around the stadium, birdlife was minimal
Toilets: Are to the left of the main stand, at touchline level
Club Shop: I didn’t see one, but this club is forward-thinking, so I’m guessing merchandise is available. Come to think of it, I reckon there was a bloke buying a club badge from the lady womanning the bar.
Music the players run out to: None evident
What’s in a name. Presumably Heather’s James Slack is not known for his tight man-marking skills