As we approach this year’s Non-League Day, I contemplate the terrible irony that this hopper for one will be spending Saturday 3rd September watching a load of expensively-reared nags charging over ridiculously challenging obstacles at something called Burghley Horse Trials. It was a birthday promise I made to the wife, and sometimes you just have to go that extra mile. Of course my thoughts will be at some noble Step 5 or 6 ground or other, where doubtless they’ll be looking to attract the custom of the local legions who would describe themselves as ‘football fans’ but yet haven’t set foot in a stadium for years – they’ve got Sky Sports, what else could they possibly need?
Before I became a regular at Football League venues, I cut my teeth at the railed-off pitches of the Leicestershire Senior league, initially with Sileby Town, before moving house and on to Barrow Old Boys, who were embroiled in a successful promotion season (68/69) and drawing most of the village population down to the King George V Playing Fields, smack bang in the middle of town. Those were heady days when you personally knew most of the folk in the crowd and virtually all of the home players too. In effect, it was a social gathering, moving the pub congregations out into the open air.
I have a similar feeling tonight as I ‘go local’ and visit Holbrook Sports of the East Midlands Counties League. This little hamlet nestles in rolling countryside just north of Direby and it’s handy to have a SatNav when finding the ground, tucked away as it is behind a large Social Club and the village bowling green. The match, a local ‘derby’ against South Normanton Athletic, has attracted a crowd of 90 or so on a mild late Summer’s evening and given the banter being exchanged between various sections of the crowd and some of the players, not a lot has changed in ‘Non-League’ circles in that last half-century. You’ll not find that on Sky Sports!
Entrance to the Welfare Ground is at the top of a field behind the afore-mentioned Social Club. It’s £5 to get in, progs are a quid, and just inside the ground is a cosy tea hut – with seats both inside and without – where most things you might like to purchase are stowed away in some fridge or other, pies and cups of tea notwithstanding. A fellow hopper – on holiday in the area from Swansea – has discovered they even sell some proper beer, and is quaffing a bottle of Greene King IPA as I bemoan my lack of foresight and continue to pretend to enjoy the sugar-free Fanta I end up ordering.
One concession I make to the weather tonight is to don my track suit bottoms, after getting my legs bitten to buggery at Monday night’s match in Nuneaton, where I was still wearing the shorts that were essential attire earlier in a sweltering day.
The Welfare Ground itself is essentially two and a half-sided, with a DIY covered stand (featuring one and a half rows of seats) straddling one halfway line, and what looks like a converted bike shed providing some respite from the elements a little further towards the corner flag. The pitch is sloping with some undulation, although not quite to Gresley standards, and the turf appears a little over-long, despite the signs of a previous trim with the flotsam and jetsam of yellowing grass cuttings much in evidence across the playing surface.
It looks an away banker on paper, with the visitors having posted a much better start to the campaign, and although the majority of the game is evenly contested – and often competitively so, given the ‘derby’ nature – there’s always a feeling that Athletic’s defenders are a little wiser, midfielders more creative, and strikers a tad sharper. The game isn’t a classic but could easily have racked up a rugby-style scoreline. In the end it’s a comfortable 3-0 win to the away side, and the 90 or so punters present have had their £5 worth.
It just remains for us all now to go home, and watch Transfer Deadline Day on the telly. After all, Sky Sports – what else could we possibly need….?
Birdlife: After the Parakeets at Windsor, and the Red Kites at Thame, not so much as a bloody sparrow at Holbrook…. but then it is a bit dark
Club Shop: No
Toilets: A couple of porta-loos
Music the players emerge to: None