Northern League Double – 9/10th December 2016 (752 & 753)

December 12, 2016
With Englan's current malaise on the cricketing tour of India, many experts feel this man could do a job .... and Steve Harmison (left) might be useful, too.....

Considering England’s current malaise on the cricketing tour of India, many experts feel this man could do a job …. and Steve Harmison (left) might be useful, too…..

Although I do enjoy the way I earn my living, I must also confess to occasionally wishing my life away by yearning for the Utopia of retirement from the Rat Race. Whether I could actually afford to maintain my current spendthrift lifestyle on what is likely to be just a pitiful pension pot is another thing of course, but whenever that time does comes – assuming the Reaper doesn’t get to me first – I expect it will invariably be a life-changing scenario.

That’s because so far this year my occupation has funded six overseas trips in addition to underwriting numerous weekends away, either of the romantic type in the company of my good lady wife, or of the footballing type in the company of Aussie Jack, the two not to be confused of course!

As it happens, the future prospects for many more of the latter remain uncertain as said Antipodean has embraced a new relationship where different interpretations of the phrase ‘moderate groundhopping’ look likely to apply: his edging more towards the 200-games-a-season he has consistently racked up, whereas his new beau favours the very much lower end of the scale. Needless to say, football is not her native language.

Today, however, that’s of little concern as we head north on the M1 in the direction of Ant & Dec land, and a potential Northern League Premier double-header. Safely ensconced in our base for the trip, a slightly down-at-heal chain motel near the A1(M) at Washington, we head out for the first match of the weekend, on the north east coast at Seaham, to see local side Red Star take on promotion-hunting neighbours, South Shields.

First, of course, we must follow the ritual that is the visit to the local Wetherspoons, in order that my travelling companion can add it to his list. I am reliably informed that every ‘Spoons’ has its own individual carpet. I am also confident that the true Spoons ticker would have clippings from each of those he has stepped on! No?

Off to the game, and happy to have found a space in the compact car park (more of that later) we join the slowly growing crowd of arrivals at Town Park and inevitably – this being the only Friday night fixture in the area – bump into a fellow hopper, Spud, who I last recall seeing at Guernsey last season. Town Park is fully enclosed, and boasts an impressive pavilion straddling the half way line, with a substantial covered stand adjacent. Opposite is some covered terracing with the added attraction of barely a dozen seats at the back. The Aussie and I are canny enough to bag two of them, not that we get to sit down an awful lot.

That’s because the game fizzes into life in just the first minute, when a defensive howler hands the home side, languishing in mid-table, the opening goal against second place Shields. They hold onto that lead in a bruising encounter until just after the break when parity is restored, and the visitors then go in front with a stunning free kick on 70, prompting Red Star to apply an onslaught which fails to bear fruit.

Match over, but that’s not the last time I see the players as I am forced to invade the after-match food and drink party to seek the owner of a silver Peugeot, the moving of which being our only means of salvation after Aussie Jack gets his car stuck in the mud. I told him not to park there…..

Another day means another game, but after a short drive north, and Brunch at the local Wetherspoons, I set off on foot to the Woodhorn Lane ground of Ashington A.F.C., while my chauffeur heads to nearby Blyth Spartans, opting to add that higher echelon tick to his hopping CV. Ashington moved to this new stadium around 8 years ago, after almost a century at Portland Park, which once saw service as a Football League ground. This new ground boasts an impressive main stand with panoramic views from the clubhouse bar over the pitch. With no decent beer available I hit the J20s and decide to pay a quid for a ‘go’ on the football card, for no other reason than I get to scribble out the ‘s’ at the end of Nott (and before the word ‘Forest’) to correct the crass error printed thereon!

There’s covered seating and terracing opposite the main stand, and I install myself there, sheltered from a  wind that is strong enough to ensure that the match ball sails over the stand on a number of occasions during the first half, much to the chagrin of the member of the coaching staff designated to retrieve it. It is readily apparent he is failing to see the funny side.

Unlike Friday’s game, today’s visitors Chester-le-Street sit rock bottom of the table, but also confound the odds by taking an early lead which, after much huffing and puffing from the home side, is overturned before CLT then peg them back with the first of two dodgy pennos, the second of which goes the way of the home side and results in much protestation, leading to the dismissal of one of the visiting subs. Despite a frantic finale where Ashington are reduced to ten men, and the bottom side hit the bar before having a goal disallowed, the home side run out 3-2 winners.

Incidentally, the Ashington manager is none other than former England fast bowler, Steve Harmison, one of the heroes of the legendary Ashes winning side of 2005. He’s also had the honour of beating me into retirement of course, although football has proven to be his salvation. Some say that also looks likely to be my fate…..


Sandbach United – Saturday 17th September 2016 (727)

September 18, 2016
'After years of searching, the travelling scribe finally discovered the place that all redundant stand seats come to die...'

‘After years of searching, the travelling scribe finally discovered the place where all redundant stand seats come to die…’

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s the highlight of my Saturday – after the match itself of course – was the arrival of the ‘Sports Mercury’ at the local newsagents. We’d roll up just after Six to greet the van coming directly from the printing works and we’d proceed to devour the ‘Buff’ as it was known (due to the colour of its pages) for every piece of the day’s footy action, ranging from all the national results and league tables, blow-by-blow account of the Leicester City game, and even ‘stop press’ scores from the Leicestershire Senior League.

It was only when I got into the print industry a few years later that I began to realise the mammoth effort that must have been undertaken in those days to get the product to the customer less than 90 minutes after the final whistle. It would still be some achievement today, and we have the benefit of modern technology. Back then there were no mobile phones, desk top publishing computers, or slick offset printing presses to speed things on their way.

The Buff is long gone of course, as I suspect are most of the similar publications once produced in every major city in the UK in the days before social media and hand-held devices provided instant information at the push of a button. But I still kinda mourn its passing.

The subject of the football papers crops up during a conversation with a fellow hopper on the train back from Crewe after a day out in sunny Cheshire. My original plans to go East look fated when a weather front threatens to make life a tad dismal over the Fens, and it proves a wise move, save for getting stiff knee joints due to the inadequate legroom on the train from Derby to Crewe, a route on which East Midlands Trains habitually bestow the runt of its rolling stock litter. The compensation is that it’s one of the cheapest parts of the network, with the two-hour (with connections) journey from Long Eaton to Sandbach costing all of £7.20 to a Senior Railcarder like me. Network South-Easters eat your heart out!

Sandbach station is actually just over a mile from the centre, so I decide on a triangular route, taking in two ‘hostelries-of-interest’ I have identified on Camra’s What Pub website. The first of these, on Welles Street, is the Beer Emporium which started life several years ago as a bottle shop but has recently expanded by adding several hand pumps and a small amount of seating. I decide every town should have one! There’s a regular dark beer on draught, Dark Magic, a 4.8% ruby brew from the local Merlin Brewery which goes down a treat, and I follow it up with a chilled bottle of Hammerton Pentonville Oyster Stout at 5.3% which also hits the spot.

I know some people would eschew a ‘chilled’ British bottled ale and would insist on it being served at room temperature. I just don’t get that. UK-brewed beer should traditionally be served at cellar temperature – ideally 12 degrees Celsius – and although the 4 degrees Celsius of a typical bottle chiller is a lot less than that, the average room temperature of a pub – say around 20 degrees Celsius – is right up at the other end of the scale. I know which I prefer. Maybe there’s a gap in the market for somebody to plug! I’ll take out a patent…..

From here I walk down the Crewe Road to the Cricketers, a homely free house sadly empty on my visit save for myself and the chatty landlord who apologises for having no darks on draught but does talk me into a pint of a Cross Bay brew – Halo I recall – which although pale lacks those sickly citrus hops which can spoil many a good pint (IMHO!) Mine host directs me on the best route to get to the ‘Sandbach Community Football Centre’ and bemoans the club’s choice of the suffix ‘United’ for reasons unclear to me. 25 minutes later a power walk takes me to the ground, which enjoys copious parking space ably managed by young kids in tabards. Not that I need this facility today.

The ground itself, as I state in my Twitter feed, is ‘good work in progress’. As yet there are no floodlights (except perversely around the 3G pitch the other side of the sizeable clubhouse!) and little spectator accommodation, with no seated stand and just a couple of sheds behind one goal. But a look around the facilities and you just know these will all arrive in good time. As in most of the clubs I travel to these days, there’s nothing for the Pescatarian to eat, and little of interest on the beer front, so I do a circuit of the ground and kill time by watching one of the 2.00 kick-offs taking place on adjacent pitches. A desperation-ticker could have a field day here!

The home club have made a promising start to the season, and are up against Ashton Town, struggling near the foot of the table. It’s one of those games that should produce a hat-full of goals but which is kept into some kind of order by desperate defending, brave goalkeeping, and profligate finishing, and so it’s ironic that the opening goal on the half hour sees the 6ft 4inch visiting keeper surprisingly out-jumped for what is just a hopeful cross. A smartly taken 2nd on 42 adds some reality to the scoreline.

The predominantly one-way traffic continues into the second half with three further efforts breaching the stubborn rearguard, but the home custodian is suitably miffed as Town notch a late consolation as their forwards think ‘what the hell’ and belatedly go for it. 5-1 it finishes.

As I trudge back towards the station, the culmination of my 4-mile round-trek, my mind switches to the week ahead, and an overseas break with the wife – just the two of us for the first time in 19 years! – and a sun-kissed pool in Corfu. When abroad back in the 90s you could expect to get your English papers with those crucial footy scores at least a day late. Not so now, as technology has moved on and they’re printed locally. Having said that, I can always get all the info I need nowadays via WiFi and my tablet, and they do indeed come in some natty colours….although sadly I’ve not yet come across one in Buff.

Programme: Nicely produced if a little thin on content. £2 from a stall in the clubhouse

Floodlights: Zero

Birdlife: Also Zero

Toilets: In the clubhouse

Clubshop: Not as such

Music the players emerge to: I don’t recall!

Holbrook Sports – Wednesday 31st August 2016 (722)

September 1, 2016
"Despite the challenges of the car park, the club generously stocks a selection of replacements to merit any need..."

“Despite the challenges of the car park, the club generously stocks a selection of replacements to meet any need…”

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….?

Floodlights: 6

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

Harrisburg City Islanders – Saturday May 7th 2016 (702)

May 11, 2016
...but overtime the fans settled down to enjoy an elevated view of the game, that damn fire alarm went off again...'

‘…but every time the fans settled down to enjoy an elevated view of the game, that damn fire alarm went off again…’

It somehow seems fitting that a season of serious ground-hopping that began outside of the UK (Ireland in July) should also finish away from these shores, in this case my first match across the ‘pond’ in the United States. In fact I’ve not had too bad a year as regards overseas jaunts, taking my February sojourn to the Netherlands into account as well as … err, Guernsey and of course the Isle of Wight. OK, tenuous those last two I know but they did still involve expensive air and boat travel respectively!

You will recall I’ve long operated a policy of combining business trips with footy matches, so when the prospect of exhibiting at Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia cropped up, my first thought was to pore over the Major League Soccer fixtures list looking for something ‘local’ whilst I was there. Nope, nothing – so let’s check out the second tier, the North American Soccer League. Another blank. OK, let’s not despair, let’s look at Level 3, the United Soccer League. Eureka, there’s a game at Harrisburg in Pennsylvania state, a mere 100 drive from Philly! Virtually just down the road.

Although this is primarily a football blog, I must mention the beer scene in the USA, and Philadelphia in particular. The craft beer explosion goes from strength to strength (sometimes literally) and already dwarfs that in the UK. Although most of it is what old lags like me would probably refer to as keg (they are beginning to dabble in cask) these guys certainly know how to do it well and leave the world of Watneys Red Barrel far, far behind. The range and variety of beer styles rivals that of the Low Countries, and they seem to have no trouble getting it into bars. So much of our week in ‘Rocky’ country (it was filmed there) was spent sampling (for research purposes you understand) in the Khyber Pass, Devil’s Den, Manayunk Brewery Tap, and our favourite, the Misconduct Tavern on Locust Street, where early in the week we watched the key Chelsea v Spurs game and then later fell into the company of a guy from Southern Tier Brewery, of New York State, who insisted on buying us one too many of their magnificent 10%abv Choklat Oranj which provided me with a sore head the next morning but is now my favourite beer in all the world!

Our working week over, it’s time to hit the road with my business partner and brother-in-law Simon, who lives in the States so speaks the same language as the Sat Nav, which helps tremendously. First a trip to the eerily quiet Talen Energy Stadium, home of MLS side Philadelphia Union, to take a few piccies of the exterior, then a quick detour across the river into New Jersey and then Delaware (to add them to my ‘states visited’ list) and subsequently another new tick in Maryland (lovely countryside) before heading back into Pennsylvania and the exceptional Gettysburg Visitor Centre (American Civil War fans will know all about this) before finally arriving into Harrisburg, actually the state capital of Pennsylvania, despite its modest size in comparison to Philly.

The City Islanders, like many American sports teams, are a franchise but have been in the city for 12 years. Their nominal home ground is the Skyline Sports Complex on, believe it or not, City Island, but for the current 2016 season they have moved next door, to the KNB Field, home of the local baseball side, the Senators, as Skyline has fallen below the standards expected of the USL. A major drive is under way to secure grant funding to enable the club to upgrade the facilities on the Island, but the KNB field is not a bad place to operate from in the interim. It’s a little squarer than your average soccer stadium, but with the option of an impressive but (strangely) empty seated stand in one corner and lots of elevated vantage points around the pitch, we choose to sit in a section of uncovered seating close to the away support for visiting FC Cincinatti, which must number around 40 or so, pretty reasonable for saying they have a 900-mile-plus round trip!

As is the norm in any US sporting venue, you don’t go short of fast food, but sadly it’s chips (sorry, fries) for me as the Vegetarian is as well catered for here as he is in the UK. Some things don’t change. But there is local craft beer on sale (Troegs I recall) plus the ubiquitous Blue Moon ‘wit’ beer, an acquired taste but a real change from the norm.

A crowd of just over 2,000 is about a third of the KNB’s capacity and although not that raucous, they seem to quietly enjoy a tepid game that often descends into dour midfield tussles, aimless dribbles and misplaced passes, only raising the tempo when the home side takes a first half lead, then having to watch the visiting fans get just as excited when the equaliser is slotted in. As we are no longer in need of a 1970s style shoot-out, both teams share the spoils and I have a new tick in my ‘overseas grounds visited’ column.

So after a season where I’ve seen nearly 100 games and visited 81 new grounds, I may now take a couple of months breather until it kicks off again with our traditional Irish trip in July. Then the hopper scramble to get tickets for the Olympic Stadium as early in the season as possible, new grounds at Fylde and Darlington, new step 4 ticks at Kidlington and Bowers & Pitsea, and then maybe something overseas… Isle of Man, anyone?

Programme: 5 bucks and it’s a colourful affair which runs for the season so contains no team news

Floodlights: Yes (forgot to count!)

Club Shop: Yes a table set up selling numerous variations of tops, scalves, hats etc. Curiously the club eschew the Harrisburg name, with all merchandise just stating ‘City Islanders’. There’s also a much bigger indoor club shop for the Senators baseball team

Toilets: By the side of the Senators shop

Birdlife: Some strange looking birds in the locality, the only one of which I have managed to identify is the American Robin, a kind of thrush with a red chest

Kop choir: Just the one song “let’s Go Islanders, let’s Go’ sung mainly by the kids

Away fans: As previously mentioned

What’s In a name? Liam Doyle. Nothing wrong with the name, but the programme notes say he’s from The Isle of Man, UK. Now don’t accuse me of being pedantic but I’m pretty sure IOM is not in the UK!

Biggleswade United – Saturday January 2nd 2016 (667)

January 3, 2016
'Sky Sports pundit bemoans the fact his two new friends just miss out on qualification for the U23 team...'

‘Sky Sports pundit bemoans the fact his two new chums just miss out on the qualification criteria  for the U23 team…’

I’m getting to be a lot fonder of Twitter!

Like many blokes of my era, I’ve watched this creeping social-media-isation with reserved suspicion, viewing with some disdain the sheep-like mentality of those that blindly follow trends, for instance that backpacker route to Thailand, when there are all those other worthy countries that could be visited. Yes I can do ‘sniffy’ when I want!

I have a presence on Facebook but it’s mainly to keep in touch with a particular set of old friends, and I’m not one to post a picture of my breakfast, or some nice-looking tree or whatever. That’s also why I haven’t been on Twitter. But I’m beginning to appreciate its value to me, and to those people – and primarily football organisations – that are.

Which explains why Aussie Jack and myself are out on this dismal January morning, trundling along on a steam-hauled ‘mince pie special’ on the Nene Valley Railway, eschewing the view outside whilst poring over a tick list of Step 5 & 6 football matches scheduled within the immediate vicinity, and surfing the appropriate club Twitter feeds in an attempt to determine which matches are off and, more importantly, any games definitely on.

By the time we depart the railway the choice has shrunk considerably, as pitch inspections throw up their inevitable thumbs down outcome, and it is only when we stop for some lunch at the Chequered Skipper in Ashton – home of the World Conker Championships no less – that our decision is made.

To be fair, we’ve not had too bad an outcome to our Christmas schedule. Aside from the match at Stotfold on December 22nd being called off ten minutes before kick-off – the Mallards floating in the goalmouth should have alerted us to this possibility – we’ve managed to strike lucky everywhere we’ve been, the only real heart-stopper being at Newport on the Isle of Wight, where we watched as the local referee went straight to the dodgy area near the corner flag before eventually confirming that a bag of strategically dumped sawdust should do the trick.

Today we decide that Biggleswade United in the Spartan South Midlands Premier looks the best bet. Their Twitter feed conveys a level of certainty that, barring a downpour of monsoon proportions, we’ll get to see a game, and so we set off down the A1. I must say at this point that there are still clubs not using Twitter, and some of those that do seem to think reports of the Christmas party should take precedence over a match day prognosis. Shame on you!

We arrive at Biggleswade around 1.45 and with the turnstiles not yet open, we head for the cosy clubhouse which is awash with youngsters, who are here to provide mascot support for the players, and who have apparently played on the pitch during the morning. We make the acquaintance of the lady who writes out the team sheet who tells us that the drainage at Second Meadow is excellent and games are very rarely called off – hoppers looking for a match please note!

This club is on the up, and the clubhouse is buzzing. The Director of Football here is none other than Sky Sports pundit and author Guillem Balagué, who has bought in some Spanish coaches (such as former Middlesborough striker Gaizka Mendieta) and a Mediterranean mentality to the game – for instance, there is no longer a Reserve side, it being replaced by an Under 23 team as part of the youth development process.

Just as importantly (!) there’s real ale on the bar in the form of the IPA from local brewery Greene King, and we are able to order Cheese & Onion pasties for our half time snack. There’s quite a few boxes being ticked here….

The clubhouse is outside the ground, which is entered from the car park. The pitch has a slope, with hard standing all around, there being some protection from the elements in the form of a small covered terrace straddling the halfway line on one side, and a larger covered stand with three rows of bucket seats opposite where, given the inclement weather today, most of the 300+ strong crowd congregate. A number of fellow hoppers (we were referred to as ‘Grounders’ at Stotfold, a term which seemed to find favour with at least one Lord of the Hop) are also in attendance as this turns out to be one of only a handful of games taking place in this part of the world.

The match itself is against second-placed AFC Dunstable and the pitch stands up to something of a soaking later in the first half. It’s a tetchy affair with not a lot of shots on goal, possession of the ball appearing to be the tricky bit. It looks like a nailed-on goalless draw until a home attacker is upended a minute from time and the ref points to the spot. There follows a good five minutes of general argie-bargey, with much abuse of officials, fellow players and considerable gamesmanship by the visiting keeper and his defensive cohorts before the kick is finally despatched. Even then the kick-off is delayed whilst more abuse is directed at anyone who cares to listen and many who wouldn’t, and there are some individuals clearly with scores to settle as the final whistle blows, well after 5.00pm! What entertainment, although possibly not a great example to the members of the Under-9s team present. Their mums are not too impressed either.

We set off for home with Aussie Jack sweating on the prospects of his game for the following day taking place. He will find out in due course. Most likely via Twitter.

Programme: £1.50 from the turnstile. Cover outer section produced every month, with match day inner. Confusingly, today’s programme has a November outer!

Floodlight pylons: 4

Birdlife: Nice weather for ducks

Clubshop: Badges at the bar

Toilets: None in the ground, use those in the clubhouse

Music the players emerge to: Fatboy Slim – Right Here Right Now

Kop choir: Some in the covered standing area burst into song near the end

Away fans: Not a lot for any to shout about. One mouthy individual at the end.

Dorking Wanderers – Saturday November 21st 2015 (655)

November 22, 2015
'There's a shock for the chairman as he realises he'll have to slip out of his brand new cuban heels...'

‘There’s a shock for the chairman as he realises he’ll have to slip out of his brand new cuban heels…’

My two kids, both nearing the end of their two years in Sixth Form College, seem to have little idea of what they want to do next. Coming as I do from a generation where all the boys were itching to be train drivers and all the girls nurses, that seems a strange notion.

On reflection, by the time I was looking for a career I’d gone off that train driver idea and was seeking a position as a Junior Reporter with a newspaper. A lack of qualifications foiled that plan but I have managed to go full circle of sorts, in that I now publish magazines for a living.

But the kids? Nothing. I feel a ‘wake up call’ a-coming!

I’ve always needed a sense of ambition. Even at mundane moments in my employment history, I’ve got myself through by setting targets on a weekly, often daily, basis. It was the same when I took up the cudgels of football ground collecting back in 2004. Not for me the scattergun approach of taking in as many ‘cow field’ ground hops as I could muster. I wanted to do ‘proper’ grounds, and although branching out to Steps 5 and 6 in recent years, my original target was down to and including Step 4, incorporating the top 8 levels of English football.

Back in 2004 that looked a tall order. But today, as I travel down to London, heading for Dorking Wanderers on a freezing cold November morning, I am finally on the cusp of realising that ambition.

Earlier in the week I had made contact with Rob Cavallini, programme editor at DWFC, asking whether I might get a mention in the match-day prog. I don’t normally do ‘vanity’ but as I deemed this a special occasion – at least for me anyway – I thought it might also be of interest to the club. Rob immediately agreed and invited me to contribute a piece which I am looking forward to seeing.

As I set out there’s sleety rain in the air, and it’s certainly damp in the capital as I yomp from St Pancras to Victoria via a Wetherspoons brekkie and a pint of Hackney Best Bitter (nice and fruity) in the Lord Moon of the Mall. The city is alive with tourists, clearly not letting the recent atrocities in Paris affect their attitude to life.

My train arrives in Dorking to sunny – if decidedly chilly – weather and I make my way to the rear of the Denbies Wine Estate on the outskirts of town, whereby resides the Surrey Hills Brewery. They don’t have a bar as such but you can buy any amount, from a pint to drink in, up to polypins to take away. I sample an excellent drop of Albury Ruby (4.6%), essentially a Black(ish) IPA, whilst tagging onto the back end of a brewery tour where, by all accounts, the fee includes free pints of the four core beers – best leave your car at home for this one! By the time I depart they are under siege, with two tour parties swollen by a large group of be-suited wedding guests, looking for a decent beer before attending a reception in the main building.

It’s just a short walk from here to the Westhumble home of Dorking Wanderers. The club has made great strides since being established in 1999, multiple promotions taking them from the Fourth Division of the West Sussex League right up to this, their debut season in Isthmian Division One South, where they are already amongst the front runners.

Westhumble has to boast one of the most scenic settings in non-league, despite the busy A24 running close by, and the railway line at the rear. Looking across the pitch from the main stand, there are stunning views of Box Hill, which at this time of year boasts the contrasts of the green conifers and the golden leaves of the deciduous trees. The ground itself has been constructed with its rural location in mind, all buildings either built of – or clad in – wood, with anything metal painted green.

I’m met at the gates by Jeremy, the vice-chairman, who having established my identity (me fawning over my feature in the programme being the give-away) promptly refunds my entry fee, and points me in the direction of his colleague Les, who furnishes me with a club pin badge and directs me to the bar. The clubhouse bar is small but cosy and features TV football, plus bottles of London Pride and Doombar (with the option of room temperature or chilled). Would be nice to see some local beer on sale, chaps, maybe Surrey Hills or even Dorking Brewery?

There’s something bubbling away nicely in the kitchen but it appears to be a Shepherd’s Pie, doubtless destined for the players and officials. Otherwise it’s the usual burgers and hot dogs.

There are two seated stands adjacent to each other, the front of one of them curiously sitting proud of  the other, slightly affecting the view. Behind one goal is a ‘kit’ covered terrace which is home to the Whitstable Kop choir for the day.

Despite the freezing temperatures, a good crowd of over 100 has turned out, with many kids to the fore. There are also a few shouting for visiting Whitstable Town who, sitting rock bottom of the table, need all the support they can get. For much of the first half they are on the back foot as the home team continually probe, looking for a way through, occasionally testing the visiting keeper.

After the break Town realise they are still in the match, and look like they might get something from their more frequent forays upfield, but two quick goals from Wanderers in the last 20 minutes decide the destination of the points.

So my ambition has been fulfilled. Every club in the top 8 levels that has its own ground, I’ve been there! So what now, retirement? Not likely, every club in the top 10 levels, anybody? Hopefully by the time I have achieved that, both my kids will have embarked on a career – here’s hoping…..

Programme: £2 at the gate. Nice cover and superb article by up-and-coming guest writer!

Floodlight pylons: 4

Birdlife: Just the odd parakeet amongst a general predominance of seagulls

Club Shop: Scarves, hats and badges on sale at the bar

Toilets: A single cubicle behind the clubhouse. Others apparently over by the changing rooms.

Music the players emerge to: The Wanderer by Status Quo

Kop choir: No

Away fans: seven behind the goal, singing Oyster-themed songs for most of the match. A particular disdain for Herne Bay, which I presume is the big rivalry in that part of Kent



Phoenix Sports – Saturday November 7th 2015 (653)

November 8, 2015
There's kick-off delay at Phoenix Sports while they wait for the 3.05 from Charing Cross to go through...'

There’s a kick-off delay at Phoenix Sports while they wait for the 3.05 from Charing Cross to pass through…’

I’m on the way down to London and – with obviously too much time on my hands – I’m wondering if there is any difference between ‘good fortune’ and ‘pure luck’. I come to the conclusion that good fortune is something bestowed on you (by some entity, perhaps, or maybe even an unknown diety) whereas pure luck is what it is, fortune by chance.

For instance, during our trip to the South Coast last weekend we enjoyed a cracking concert by an up-and-coming indie band, Nothing But Thieves, in Camden. Lead singer Conor Mason, a gifted vocalist, went through his entire range as the band rattled off every track of their debut album. A packed crowd – including Aussie Jack and myself – got their money’s worth. Not so the following night in Cardiff where young Mr. Mason had lost his voice, and then the sound system went awry. Good fortune smiled on us in that we picked the right night, whilst those in Cardiff had the bad luck in that they didn’t. We certainly felt someone was smiling on us…..

That fortune continued only last night as my struggling first love, the mighty Tricky Trees, came out on top against the Shaggers from down the A52. Fortune still smiling in me. But would it last into the Saturday, however, with a pre-booked rail trip to London to tick off one of my three remaining Step 4 sides. Heavy rain is forecast after several days of similar, and I’m resigned to a pre-match session of uncertainty in the Crosse Keys in the City, albeit in the company of some decent ale, as I monitor Twitter feeds concerning any possible postponement. I fill my time by polishing off a Wetherspoons veggie brekkie ( which curiously appears to be one hash brown short of the menu-stated number) and a couple of darker beers, namely Long Man Old Man, a 4.3% dark fruity bitter, and Vale Black Beauty, another 4.3% brew, this time a fruity porter. Only a poor ratio of staff-to-waiting-customer precludes me from purchasing a third.

So, in persistent rain, I head down to Cannon Street Station for the 40-minute rail journey to Crayford on a 10-coach train with no apparent toilet – those with a weaker bladder than I beware! A couple of hundred yards up the road from Crayford Station is the Penny Farthing, a micro pub (a former bicycle shop, hence the name) consisting of one fairly spacious room but with no bar – the classic scenario, along with no background music and nothing for the lager swillers. The ‘patron’ points out the six-strong beer list (there’s cider too) and fetches my choice from the chilled cellar room. With half the beers on the list neither gold nor pale, that’s a fair balance, and I go for a Loddon Russet, which is really more copper than the ruby signified on the beer menu. It’s 4.5% and quite a tasty brew although I’m not sure it’s of a sessionable strength.

This pub has a ban on mobile phone use, although the penalties for misdemeanour are not stated! It’s also the gaffa’s birthday and I spend the session with a ‘Happy 60th’ balloon floating over me – hey, I remember 60! With the rain still coming down and the wind swirling it about, a second pint seems to be inevitable, so I go dark with Hanlon’s Devon Darkness, a 4.2% stout. My only slight disappointment is the dearth of genuinely locale beers on the day, with examples from Devon, Somerset, Sussex, Oxfordshire and Suffolk, but nothing from London or Kent. However a chat with the owners and a look at the recent beer orders book reveals I have arrived on a rare non-locale day. My bad luck.

From here I move up the hill on the 15-minute walk to the ground, passing a few promising-looking pubs on the way, and still with one eye on the weather situation which, although not as bad as it was earlier, is still a trifle inclement. The Phoenix Sports Ground is only a goal kick’s distance from the Oakwood home of local rivals VCD Athletic, a yo-yo team in recent seasons and currently propping up the Isthmian Premier. Phoenix Sports have high hopes of passing them on the way, having started the season reasonably well, sitting 9th in a 24-team Isthmian Division 1 North.

One barrier to their elevation up the leagues might be the ease in which you can watch the game from outside the ground, just a low fence allowing all but munchkins from getting a reasonable view. The ground itself boasts not one but two seated stands, which along with a curious flat standing structure set at a slight angle behind one goal – I suspect it’s real purpose is to provide protection for the barbecue machine housed within – provides adequate shelter for spectators. The clubhouse is of modest proportions, but does have live TV football, although nothing for the discerning ale drinker. Likewise the snack bar, tucked away behind the afore-mentioned barbecue shelter, offers the ubiquitous chip, but nothing else for veggies save the inevitable cup-a-soup. At least they do have some choccy (shame on you, Molesey!)

Visiting Witham Town, struggling after relegation from the Premier last season, have the noticeable support of a one-man kop choir, who keeps up a relentless series of chants and songs – often accompanied by impromptu dancing and much waving of the arms – throughout the game. Gossip within the stand reveals that this character is being featured on Channel 4 in January, on a programme called ‘The Undateables’. That’s harsh. There’ll be a woman (or man, to be perfectly PC) for him out there…..maybe.

The games itself is quite entertaining, on a pitch that’s had a fair soaking but stands up well. The home side are soon out of the traps, and you get the impression from some powder puff defending that the visiting players are not up for it. The opening goal on 16 is no surprise and we settle back for more. Whatever is said in the Witham dressing room at half time obviously does the trick and much to the delight of the visiting kop choir, they play with far more purpose after the break, turning the game around with two goals in three minutes just before the hour. The first comes courtesy of a rebound off the keeper, but then you ‘make your own luck’ in football, so they say. Or is ‘fortune favours the brave’?

Answers on a postcard, please…..

Programme: £1 on the turnstile. Nice cover but not a massive amount of reading matter.

Floodlight pylons: 6

Birdlife: Parakeets a-plenty in this part of London

Club shop: No

Toilets: In the clubhouse

Music the players emerge to: Phoenix From The Flames by Robbie Williams

Kop choir: Yes but not the home team

Visiting fans: a few in the stand plus the one-man show pitchside

What’s in a Name? Presumably Phoenix’s Jason & Lewis Mingle are very popular at parties. The ‘Plain John Smith Award for Name of the Week’ goes to the home team’s Harrison Carnegie!