Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Stepping Out Of The Madness

Birstall United  4  Teversal  0

East Midlands Counties League

It would be unfair to hold the wider area of Loughborough wholly responsible for a period in my football watching life that can at best be described as enlightening, at worst, disturbing!

You see, it was the early 2000’s and in my quest to crunch numbers of football grounds at an alarming rate I decided to dip my toe into the Leicestershire Senior League. It all started very nicely indeed, beginning with the gentile and pleasant surroundings that are Quorn, followed by the free flowing football produced by an excellent Loughborough Dynamo side containing the likes of Dave Garroway and Abi O’Thomas.

I moved on, Barrow Town came next and with Dynamo the opponents, it was a well supported and cracking derby fixture at another excellent and somewhat rural venue, I was thinking to myself that I could get used to this league, it was time to expand outwards.

Shortly after that it changed, it seems I’d on the whole, chosen the best first. By the time I’d been to Ellistown, seen a game abandoned after two minutes after a horror tackle broke a visiting players leg, which lead to players and supporters scuffling pitch side, I suddenly realised that the Leicestershire Senior League was a little bit more ‘brutal’ than I’d first anticipated.

Ellistown were special, very special indeed at the time, they were a good side that won things, but at all costs, and by any means they could get away with. I also remember seeing a team called FC Braunstone Victoria bludgeoning their way around, one player in particular appeared to be only allowed out to play football, very violently!

Thurnby Rangers, you didn’t mess with them, or the locals, whereas if you upset Highfield Rangers, make sure you had a mate with the engine running for a quick getaway. It got to a stage, and I’m not exaggerating, whereby every game I went to either had a sending off, a mass brawl, or both. It was an absolute battlefield. I commented as much on the Kempster football forum at the time, and in fairness, a lad called Rob Campion who is a huge font of Leicestershire football knowledge and someone I still speak to, jumped to its defence.

In the end we agreed to go to a game together, mainly to have a catch up, but also so Rob could finally find me a game in the aforementioned league that didn’t have an ‘18’ Rating on the match poster!

Melton Mowbray v Barlestone St Giles, it almost sounded middle class, and in fairness, for around 75 minutes it proved to be a very gentlemanly affair, I was beginning to think Rob was right, and I’d just been either very unfortunate or completely prejudicial. Then it happened, out of completely nowhere the home team centre half, for seemingly no apparent reason, landed a right hook on the chin of the visiting centre forward. His feet left the ground and he landed flat on his back, out cold.

Before the referee could reach for the red card and the irate opposition could get to him, he’d already left for his early bath. I looked at Rob, shrugged my shoulders, no words were exchanged.

I’ve only dipped into the league perhaps once or twice a season in recent years, typically to visit any 
new grounds that come into the league, so I really couldn’t comment on what it’s like nowadays, but certainly back then it was lively to say the least.

Promotion Requirements
The bulk of the better teams and better facilities in the league moved on a number of years ago now with the formation of the East Midlands Counties League, but it has taken tonight’s featured club, Birstall United, a little longer than most to get into Step 6 football.

They missed the cut in 2008-09, and had to wait until the 2015-16 when they finally won the league, to earn promotion. I first went to see them back in 2005 at their Meadow Lane ground, it was a game against Aylestone Park and they won it 2-1, and at the time I remember being impressed with the facilities and indeed the clubhouse. One abiding memory of the game was that Birstall’s goalkeeper was a giant of a lad who was nicknamed ‘Diesel’.

Last season they finished third in their inaugural East Midlands Counties League season, and while not at those heights this time around, they do sit inside the top six, but with tonight’s visitors being league leaders Teversal, it promised to be an interesting game.

The ground has changed quite a bit since I last went, a seated stand and some covered standing has been erected, while the clubhouse has had a refurb and looks just the job. The ground is now fully enclosed and has a very nice feel about, the club have done a really good job with it and deserve credit.

Birstall Defend
Diesel is still around, involved on the management side, which is great to see, while Sandra runs the club, she also runs the bar, the tea bar, puts the programme together, sorts out the committee area and keeps the officials happy amongst countless other things. Both are club stalwarts, Birstall would not be where they are today without them.

On a very good looking surface considering the recent weather, Birstall got out of the traps quickly and took the lead in the third minute when Ryan Foster bundled the ball over the line.

A Great Surface
It was 2-0 in the 26th minute when Sam Moore despatched a penalty after the Tevie goalkeeper skittled an onrushing striker, and then just before the hour mark the game was done and dusted. Lewis Dodd lobbed the Tevie goalie from the half way line (I think he either misjudged it badly or lost it in the lights) and then moments later an own goal made it 4-0.

Matters were further compounded  moments after the fourth goal when Tevie’s Lewis Fisher got his marching orders for a challenge Hong Kong Fuey would have been proud of, and at this stage the league leaders simply wanted the game to end. It was not their night, there was no coming back, it was one to right off as a bad night at the office. Birstall had played very well indeed and thoroughly deserved the three points, no question about that.

I’m quite enjoying revisiting some of the old Leicestershire Senior League clubs in their new surroundings, it does seem promotion has tamed some of the wildness that went before. But then again, maybe it was also my naivety as well, bear in mind I then moved onto the Staffordshire Senior League, and that quite genuinely included two teams made up of prisoners!


But you know what, something kept making me go back week after week, perhaps they’d got the recipe right after all!

The Business End

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Two Teams In Nailsworth

Shortwood United  1  Yate Town  1

Southern Football League – First Division West

Quite rightly, the town of Nailsworth hit the headlines in May when it became the smallest settlement to ever host a Football League team.

Forest Green Rovers, thanks to the backing of Dale Vince, beat Tranmere Rovers at Wembley in the National League Play-Off Final and had reached the promised land that they had coveted for several years.

Something in the region of 6,000 people live in the Gloucestershire town that sits just outside of Stroud, so for it to support a Football League side is nigh on incredible, and with crowds averaging around the 2,500 mark, that’s one hell of a percentage of locals who make the steep journey up Nympsfield Road to the New Lawn Stadium.

Of course, Rovers support stretches considerably further than Nailsworth, it has to, with the residents of Stroud perhaps making up a good number of them. The local outlying villages are also no doubt Rovers hotbeds, but there is one village just to the South of Nailsworth, which stretches high up a hillside, and that is Shortwood.

Elevated View
I would hazard a guess that Shortwood is home to a few hundred people at best, and a very nice place it is too. As you drive through the pretty centre of Nailsworth, you climb up a hill into the village where the views down into the valley, and over to the hill where Forest Green Rovers play are quite stunning. If you keep climbing, and then take a turn down a track, you eventually come to a dead end, and at this dead end you find the Meadowbank Ground, the home of Shortwood United Football Club.

Shortwood United compete in the First Division of the Southern League, along with clubs like Taunton Town, Salisbury, Bideford and Evesham United. The fact they are competing at this level of football is almost as big an achievement as Rovers playing in the Football League.

Hellenic League regulars since 1982 when they joined from the Gloucestershire County League, they had mixed success, winning the title in 1985 and 1992, while in the late 2000’s they finished runners-up on three occasions, the final time being enough to see them make it to the Southern League where they remain.

The New Lawn Is Over That Way - Somewhere!
In five seasons they’ve always finished above halfway with a best place of sixth, but, in 2013-14 they hit the headlines when an FA Cup run saw them win a Fourth Qualifying Round Replay at Aldershot Town, setting up a home game with Port Vale in the First Round.

BT Sport broadcast the game live, and on a magical and memorable night it was the Valiants who won 4-0, but for Shortwood, this was their Cup Final.

I’ve had my eye on them for a couple of seasons now, and with a significant improvement in the weather since the middle of the week, we had no such problems on Saturday morning and it was a rare trip to the West.

Exiting the M5 at Stonehouse, the journey takes you via Stroud to Nailsworth and then as I’ve mentioned, up the hill to Shortwood. It took a few minutes over two hours to make the journey, but to be honest, if it hadn’t been for the sign pointing visitors to the ground, it could easily have taken a bit longer. If ever a final few hundred yards to football ground could ever feel like you are not on the way to a football ground, then this would be it!

The Clubhouse With Nailsworth In The Distance
First impressions were of a friendly, family club. A homely clubhouse did the job pre-match, complete with wi-fi and downloadable programmes, while the tea bar / summer house did some very tasty looking fodder. I went for the cheesy chips.

The ground itself is quite basic, but in terms of location it’s a stunner. The main stand sits the half way line, but raised considerably from pitch level as is all of that side of the ground. Both ends are open with hard standing, while opposite the main stand are the dug outs and two small Atcost’s, one standing, one seated.

Village Football At It's Best
Standing at the side of the main stand, the views across the valley into Nailsworth are beautiful, and I’m told when Forest Green Rovers are at home, you can hear the noise of the crowd. The two grounds sit on hills that are effectively either side of the valley. I was a happy lad, but what was the game going to offer.

Shortwood sat just below half way in the league while Yate, from the North of Bristol, were slightly higher up the table.  The first half was a relatively scrappy affair, and chances were at a premium although Yate did have a goal disallowed. If anything Yate looked the most likely to break the deadlock but with five minutes left with what was Shortwood’s first serious attempt on goal, Will Hawes turned and slotted home from eight yards.

Free Kick To Shortwood
The second half was all Yate and on two occasions they hit the woodwork. Goalkeeper Harvey Rivers went forward at every opportunity as the game entered its final moments, and then just when Shortwood thought they’d hung on long enough, Ben Brooks slammed home a half volley four minutes into injury time. The game restarted and within seconds the final whistle blew. A point was the least Yate deserved on the day.

As the crowd of just over a hundred meandered back down the hill from whence they came, some stopping in the village, others maybe moving further down into Nailsworth, news came through that Forest Green Rovers had earned another point towards Football League safety at Morecambe.


Nailsworth continues to defy the odds, and indeed the demographics, this is a story that shows no sign of ending, and Shortwood United are more than just a sub-plot in that.



Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Rite Of Passage

Tamworth  0  Blyth Spartans  3

National League North

My Mum finally relented, after weeks of haranguing her, I was finally allowed to start going to football matches on my own!

I was 14 coming on 15, and my trial run was to be getting to Alfreton and back on a Saturday afternoon via bus. It was against Scarborough in pre-season, and if I could successfully walk to Crich, get to Alfreton on the Maun Bus, walk to the ground, survive for ninety minutes and get home again, then she MIGHT let me go to a few more!

I was going to Belper regularly with my Dad, and also Derby with my Dad’s mate Paul, but venturing out without adult interference was a whole new ball game completely, the doors that were about to open were unimaginable!

It was while at a Belper game I got talking to some of the lads who watched them, they were all a few years older than me, 16 / 17 year olds to be fair, and the conversation got onto a game they were all looking to go to on the train, and, would I like to go with them?

You, see, we were all proper little non-league enthusiasts, and at the time I used to run the Programme Shop at Belper, so these lads always used to congregate around and we’d just talk about what was going on in the local game.

The Lamb Ground
The game in question was on 24th October 1987, it was an FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round tie between Tamworth, of the West Midlands Regional League and Wealdstone of the then Gola League. Wealdstone a couple of years earlier were non-league double winners, the undisputable Kings of semi-professional football, whereas a reborn Tamworth were a club that were making people sit up and look at them.

They were on course to win the West Midlands Regional League, but, at the same time they were getting ridiculous numbers through the gates to watch them, crowds more often than not got into four figures. A juggernaut was gathering pace, and the once mighty Stones were about to feel the force. 

Did I want to go? Of course I bloody did!

The plan was simple, a train to Derby, then get the train to Tamworth, follow the crowd, watch the game, and then come home again, but there was a slight stumbling block, Mum!

I’d got to convince her that I would be safe, be with people who I knew and were reliable, that I knew where I was going, and, that I wouldn’t get into any bother. I’m not quite sure how I swung it, I think my Dad may have helped by knowing the lads in question, but I must admit to being somewhat surprised at the approval, especially as I’d still not got to 15 yet!

All I’ll say is, thank God we didn’t have the internet and social media back then, because if she’d seen what happened that day I don’t think I’d have been setting foot outside of the front door unaccompanied for a very long time.

We disembarked the train in Tamworth, all four of us, to be greeted by a line of Policemen, we were stopped and asked who we were, and where we had come from, only they were expecting bother and needed to be sure we weren’t part of the problem.

Clearly we weren’t part of the problem, we just wanted to go into town and buy some chips, as you do when you are a teenager. The town centre was busy, lots of shoppers and football fans were around, and not knowing where the ground was (we didn’t bother researching in those days), we decided to follow some lads wearing red shirts, and hope they were en route to the Lamb Ground!

Match Action
They were on the way to the ground, and with an hour still until kick off it wasn’t overly busy so we took up a space right at the back of the terracing on the club house side of the ground. With ten minutes to kick off we made the decision to get out of the terracing, because by now we were pressed up against the corrugated sheeting at the back, and more spectators were trying to cram in to find a viewing space. It was getting a bit claustrophobic, it was getting very noisy, surges were starting to take place, and the level of hostility was increasing by the minute.

We made our way behind the goal where it wasn’t anywhere near as populated, and then with five minutes until kick off, a large group of Wealdstone supporters entered the ground at the opposite end. Within seconds it erupted, fights broke out, a lone Policewoman was doing her best but to no avail, before eventually stewards managed to restore order and create some form of segregation.

On the pitch, Tamworth took them to the cleaners, winning 2-0 and having a goal disallowed. They looked a fine football team, and from memory it was a player called Carl Rathbone who did all the damage, Wealdstone simply couldn’t handle him.

When both goals went in we had pitch invasions from three sides of the ground. The terracing we once stood on suffered one surge too many and the barrier at the front finished up bent and buckled under the crush. Not content with that, it was also an opportune moment to let off some firecrackers. Consequently, we had a linesman operating two yards inside the playing area as opposed to down the touchline!

It was a mad day, mad scenes and as a young lad, it was a bit scary at first, but what an adrenaline buzz we got out of it, it was all we talked about for weeks afterwards. Tamworth went on to play away at Colchester United in the First Round, trouble ensued and I recall a Tamworth fan who I subsequently met while at University tell me that some served prison sentences as a result.

I seem to recall getting home without too many problems, and as far as Mum was concerned, all was good in the World and I’d passed my test. There was to be a sting in the tail, but more on that later…

Tamworth Football Club have had a very eventful playing history. A mid-table Southern League First Division club in the seventies, they were moved to the Northern Premier League in 1979 for a four year period that can only really be described as an unmitigated disaster! They finished bottom twice, third bottom once and fourth bottom once, so they moved back to the Southern League, only to finish bottom then as well. Relegation to the West Midlands Regional League was clearly some form of respite.

Not A Place To Stand When It's Sub-Zero
Three local businessman came along with a plan to restore the fortunes of the football club, and in a four year spell in the league they finished 7th, 9th, 5th and finally Champions. Crowds were up massively and the clubs profile had never been higher. The Southern League beckoned, as did Wembley in the Final of the FA Vase, but somewhat surprisingly it took them a further nine seasons to gain another promotion, when many may have expected it an awful lot sooner than that?

The Southern League Premier was finally reached in 1997, but this time round their spell in this particular division didn’t last as long. By 2002 they had finished runners up, and then they were Champions a year later. Add in an FA Trophy Final for good measure, a couple of FA Cup Third Round appearances and finally Tamworth had reached the top table of non-league football and had arguably fulfilled the huge potential they had displayed almost twenty years earlier.

Non-league football was a different game now, and the Conference National was a struggle, a best place finish of 15th was all they could muster in four seasons before relegation to the Conference North followed. Two years later and they were back up again, lasting five seasons this time with a best placing of 16th, but after relegation a second time, they now find themselves sat below half way in the North again.

I love a trip to the Lamb, clearly it evokes fond memories, but what I like most of all is that it’s a proper old non-league ground, and with the terraces so close to the pitch, the atmosphere is always a good one. Yes, it’s still hostile, I remember reading some interviews with Conference Manager’s a few years ago, and almost all of them said the most hostile away ground was Tamworth, with the irate crowd standing behind the dugouts giving them hell.

The Away End
With an unkind weather forecast and an artificial pitch now installed at the Lamb, tonight’s game was a no-brainer. Long serving Andy Morrell had been relieved of his duties at the weekend  following a defeat at Alfreton, and with visiting Blyth in the play-off mix it promised to be a good game.

I was right, the score line of 3-0 to the Spartans doesn’t tell the full story. Robbie Dale scored a hat-trick for the visitors, the first from a header that the goalkeeper let squirm past him, the second from a really well placed free kick and the final goal in injury time when Tamworth were caught with men up field.

Tamworth hit the woodwork on four occasions, and the Blyth defence at times had to get bodies in the way desperately as the Lambs threw everything at them. Yes, Blyth played some excellent and incisive football, but Tamworth played with a tempo and a purpose, and indeed in the first half missed two excellent chances to score. On another day, it could well have been another outcome, but after a period in freefall, with performances like this, it shouldn’t be too long before the tide starts to turn in their favour.

On a very cold night, it had been great entertainment, and I don’t care what anyone says, you rarely see a bad game on an artificial pitch. In fact given the winter we’ve had, surely the penny will drop soon with the powers that be that this is the way forward?

Anyway, that Wealdstone game, the plot thickened.

Towards the end of that season I was at a Belper game with my Dad and the referee was Martin Mountain. We were all having a drink at the end of the game when Martin turned round to my Dad and said…

“Did I ever tell you about that Cup game I had to referee at Tamworth?”

The tale of chaos was suddenly told, and part way through my Dad turned to me and said.

“Didn’t you go to that game?”

I nodded, but the story continued, it appeared the linesman was still receiving counselling….

In the car on the way back home, Dad turned to me.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell Mum.”


Good job really, I was already in the planning stages of asking about Forest v Derby and a trip in the away end with my mates!

The Notorious Popular Side

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Class Conflict

Hampton & Richmond Borough  1  Whitehawk  1

National League South

In the grand scheme of the Borough of London, Hampton is a very small place, not much bigger than a village really.

However, it interconnects in all directions with other similar places like Sunbury-on-Thames, Hanworth, Molesey and Teddington. Just a bit farther afield are larger centres of population such as Kingston-upon-Thames, Staines and Hounslow, but for the sports fan, the choice is plentiful.

The journey from the M25 takes you past Kempton Park if you like your Racing, whereas if you prefer bit of egg chasing, Harlequins, London Irish and indeed Twickers are all a kick for touch away. 

With the Thames virtually at the bottom of your garden, plus the various man made reservoirs, rowing and sailing is a popular pastime for those who have the cash, but if you prefer a bit of working class winter footy, it’s a great place to be.

I’ve worked it out, from the A3 junction of the M25, you can get to Staines Town, Egham Town, Ashford Town, Bedfont Sports, Spelthorne Sports, Molesey, Hanworth Villa and indeed both Walton & Hersham and Walton Casuals within a matter of minutes.

The Beveree
Today though was about a visit to the most senior ranked club in the locality, Hampton & Richmond Borough of the National League South, and not only that, a club that stand a very good chance of being in the top tier of non-league football next season with derbies against the likes of Woking and Aldershot Town to look forward to.

The history of the club is an interesting one.  Known as plain old simple Hampton until 1999, they started out life in the Isthmian League in the early seventies, working their way through the divisions quietly and unspectacularly, adding the ‘Richmond Borough’ suffix in readiness for the turn of the century.

With Alan Devonshire in command, they rose from the First Division of the Isthmian League into the Premier Division, where they came close to winning the title, but in 2007 they pipped Bromley for the crown on a nail biting final day of the season to reach the Conference South for the first time.

Two painful Play-Off Final defeats followed, and the club had success in the FA Cup, but Devonshire moved onto Braintree Town and the club then suffered a relegation back to the Isthmian League. 

Quirky
They finally won their spot back in National League at the end of the 2015-16 season, where they have remained since, and at the start of today’s game, they sat second in the table.

It was time to spread my wings and go and take a look. On a filthy day weather wise, games were falling across the Midlands and the North, whereas the South East looked to be getting away with it. 

The journey down to the M25 was a straightforward one, but the remainder proved to be a challenge. What was scheduled to be a 12.45pm arrival tuned into 1.35pm!

As your drive along the A308 with Kempton Park on your left, it is very clear to see that this is without doubt one of the more middle class suburbs of South West London. With the Thames flowing to the right and its four islands partnering the Sailing Club and indeed slightly further on, Hampton Court Palace & Gardens, this was a very desirable place to be.

Hampton itself as I’ve said isn’t a big place, in fact finding somewhere to park the car wasn’t straightforward, all the roads around the ground had restrictions so I had to make do with a five minute walk along Station Road, past its smart looking pubs, cafĂ©’s and shops until almost the junction with the High Street where the Beveree stadium sits.

The Heaving Terraces
Firstly what a lovely location for a football ground, right in the centre of Hampton with lots of amenities and transport links available, but not only that, as you wind your way along Beaver Close to the home of HRBFC, what a cracking stadium it is.

Unspoiled by the desire to simply satisfy the ground graders, it’s a gem of place, quirky in parts but a unique mixture of different styles and structures.

You enter in the corner and to the left is a long stretch of covered terracing that stops at the half line and joins onto a seated stand that contains the press area and the directors seats within it. Beyond this is another longer but slightly more shallow seated stand that runs to the touchline.

Behind the bottom goal is an area of covered terracing while on the High Street side it’s flat standing except for an area close to the top touchline that is a small section of covered terracing.

Up The Slope
The top goal end is a busy part of the ground. A tall, but not especially wide, seated stand provides fantastic views, while either side of it are small areas of terracing. To the left of it leading back up towards the turnstiles are the clubhouse and dressing rooms, plus a hospitality suite that allowed first floor open air viewing of the action.

All in all, it was fantastic, and as I’ve been finding on my trips to the South East recently, a very friendly bunch.

Visiting Whitehawk from East Brighton sat bottom of the league, but that only told half of the story. They were absolutely done for six weeks ago, but a recent upturn in form of a phoenix like nature has got them into a position that is still perilous, but they now have a small glimmer of hope of escaping the drop.

You could be forgiven for thinking this would be a home banker, but the home supporters knew it was going to be far from easy against a side playing with a renewed confidence.

Of course, the eclectic band of Whitehawk fans made their presence known with their noise, their flags, their constant singing and support, and lets be fair, their ability to drink beer and keep the tills in the clubhouse ringing!

I do like the lads and lasses from Whitehawk, ok, they aren’t your typical football fans, but what they are is a breath of fresh air, and very well behaved too. Having spent the first half in amongst them, I don’t recall a single word of bad language. They are openly anti-homophobia, anti-racism and anti-sexism, but they are also very much about family, with several children in the travelling party.

I get the feeling they don’t mix well with Wealdstone though, which to be honest doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.

Playable - Today At Least!
On a pitch that was wet but certainly playable, Hampton dominated the early proceedings down the slope, but couldn’t find a breakthrough, but as the Hawks settled and started to make inroads into the hosts territory, it was they who took the lead in the 34th minute when the well travelled and experienced Elliott Benyon guided the ball home.

That rattled Hampton, and they equalised just after the break when an in swinging Josh Casey corner was grabbed by Hawks keeper Dan Wilkes yet he somewhat inexplicably carried the ball over his goal line. Standing right behind the linesman at the time, it was an easy decision for him to make, and to be fair to Whitehawk, their protests were not overly vocal.

You did fancy Hampton to go on and win the game at this point but a red card was shown to Charlie Wassmer on the hour mark following a clash in the centre circle which didn’t help their cause. They did rattle a post and have plenty of possession, but with Yannis Ambroisine simply outstanding at the back for Whitehawk, they were happy with the point, and indeed as the game moved into added time, they could have sneaked a winner themselves with a bit more composure and luck.

A Whitehawk Fan Goes Climbing
523 paid to watch it, not huge, and not the best day weather wise, but let’s just remember that Hampton is not a massive place to draw from, and with lots of other clubs, sports and pastimes in the local area, fostering greater support is always going to be a challenge.

A super club though, a great ground to visit, and a very nice location too. It would be great to see them in the top flight of the National League, but that brings with it different challenges, like increased travelling support and segregation for example. I’m not sure that’s the kind of thing that would sit comfortably with the gentile folk of Hampton. Plus, parking and such like could become a bigger issue.


A lot of water to go under the bridge yet though, and canoes, and rowing boats, and sailing boats, and yachts……..

Friday, 9 February 2018

The Groundsman

Welwyn Garden City  2  Crawley Green  0

Spartan South Midlands League – Premier Division

There are many unsung heroes at a football club, but in many cases, some more so than others.

The one job I couldn’t do, not just because of a sheer lack of competence, but also because of the seemingly constant uphill battle you face due to so many uncontrollable variables is that of Groundsman.

The job of non-league Groundsman is a thankless task, an unenviable task, and at times, an impossible task.

You can’t control the weather, you can’t dictate who plays on your pitch and when, and you can’t control the decisions of a referee. You are also limited by the tools and expenditure available to you, and indeed the level of support and co-operation you get from your club.

I’d got Welwyn Garden City on the radar, they look favourites to win the Spartan South Midlands League and as a result they’ll be at Step 4 next season, quite possibly in the new Central League.

I was working in Milton Keynes, and with it only being an hour away, it seemed the perfect opportunity. Ok, overnight conditions had not been ideal, it was frosty and the ground was hard in places, but with a sunny day forecast I was kind of hoping it would be enough to life the frost and the game would be on.

The Platinum Scaffolding Ltd Covered End
A tweet came through from the club at around 4.45pm, the game was on, and a big well done was offered to Groundsman Tony Attfield for his work to get the pitch ready. But, it came to light when I arrived at the Herns Way ground, Tony had gone very much above and beyond, it wasn’t simply a case of praying for it to warm up!

I’ll be honest, and I won’t be alone in this. Many times I’ve driven to a game whereby the declaration has been along the following lines…

“Game 100% ON, no need for a Pitch Inspection”

“We’ve had an inspection and the game is definitely ON”

Or, the classic…

“We will be holding a precautionary inspection when the match referee arrives, but as it stands the game is 100% ON”

We all know what happens then, you are typically arriving in the car park only to see players getting in their cars and driving away, it’s off. Lets be honest as well, particularly with midweek games, it’s only going to get colder as the sun sets, so inevitably conditions are bound to deteriorate, aren’t they?

It Was Cold - My Hand Was Shaking - But It's The Best I've Got!
The other one that gets right on my breasticles is when the local ref says it’s fine, and then the match ref is having none of it. I’ve had this happen three times at Shepshed Dynamo, I did suggest on the third occasion as I was collecting my refund that they perhaps find a more competent local referee, because the trend suggests that’s where the problem lies?

Anyway, rant and digression aside, I travelled more in hope than expectation, and that by the way is not meant to a dig at Welwyn Garden City FC or indeed Tony, so when I arrived it was an immediate beeline to pitch side where I saw Tony just finishing off marking the pitch.

The Carpet
Within a couple of minutes of talking to Tony I knew we would have no problems. The pitch I have to say looked absolutely immaculate, and while firm, it was taking a stud without any problems. But, there is a bit more to it than that, Tony arrived at the ground at 9.30am to find a layer of snow on it, and cut to ribbons after a reserve game had been played on it at the weekend, to quote him, “I could have cried when I saw it.”

But, he cleared the snow, rolled it, mowed it, rolled it again, and then dressed it. That had taken him all day, just so they could play the game against Crawley Green. I did ask the obvious question about deteriorating conditions, but he’d seen the forecast and was unconcerned about the pitch hardening up to a point where it would become unplayable, that was clearly down to his experience and knowledge of the ground and its surroundings.

Welwyn Garden City have lost just one league game all season and are very well placed, especially after a stunning 4-0 victory at nearest challengers Berkhamsted last Saturday. Barring a disaster, particularly as it’s highly likely two clubs will go up, they will be promoted!

Herns Way is a tidy little ground. Located to the East of the centre of the Hertfordshire New Town, a small car park sits adjacent to a floodlit all weather pitch, while on the main road side is the clubhouse, which appears to be more of a community facility, and also the tea bar and dressing rooms.

More Carpet
A small seated stand sits on the half way line, while a further area of cover spreads between the corner flag and the edge of the penalty area at the car park end of the ground. It has hard standing all around, and is also enclosed by greenery, giving it a rural feel.

It became clear when I went into the clubhouse what a friendly club WGC are, my ‘non-local’ accent was soon picked up on and numerous officials and supporters were keen to know why I had chosen to visit their club. That doesn’t happen too often in the non-league game, so it’s nice when it does, and of course it guarantees you a positive write up in the blog!

On the field, the opponents who play at Barton-Le-Clay sat in the relegation places, and by half time they were 2-0 down to a confident home team. It could have been more, but the hosts had to settle for two goals from Dan Bond, both taken very well I might add.

Crawley Green upped the ante in the second period, and without ever really threatening to take anything from the game, they did become more competitive and at times were in the faces of Garden City. The home team did have a couple of chances to increase their lead, but with a 2-0 lead and an organised defensive unit, it was more of a case seeing the game out from a winning position.

Without jinxing them, they’ll win the league, and they’ll be more than competitive at the next step, so very good luck to them.

So, that pitch, how did it hold up? Well, it did get firmer, but no one slipped over, players could still run at full pace, stop and turn without problems. Slide tackles could be made, and the ball ran true. It did cut up a little in places, but that was to be expected. Tony had called it spot on, and perhaps the best place to conclude my blog is by recalling a brief exchange at half time.

Tony was having a cuppa when someone walked over to him, shook his hand and congratulated him on his fabulous work getting the pitch ready, again.

It’s that kind of praise that will ensure people like Tony continue to work miracles to ensure the game that we love happens, week in, week out, and the players can provide us with the entertainment we crave, on a surface that is befitting.

I hope someone bought him a pint after the game.

Carpet With A Backdrop!


  

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Orange

Rushall Olympic  3  Lancaster City  0

Northern Premier League – Premier Division

I’m going to confess to something.

I like teams who play in yellow, orange, amber, in fact any colour anywhere within that range.  I can’t explain why, but if I was to write a list of favourite colours then those would be right at the top, with the rest of the spectrum some distance behind.

Great Colour Scheme
I think it stems back to the fact that when I started to watch Belper Town in my childhood they played in what was known as ‘Old Gold’, which was a kind of orangey / amber colour. Eventually that morphed into plain and simple yellow, but by then my sensory perception of the said colours had been formed.

I have teams I like, Boston United, Maidstone United, Newport County, Sutton United, Carrick Rangers, Vitesse Arnhem (but not Wolves – I got thrown out of Molineux once), and they all have something in common….

That's Alot Of Netting
I used the word ‘spectrum’ earlier, and you are probably thinking that’s quite appropriate, and I guess it is a bit of a weird one to be honest. But, my favourite colours are exactly that, and if a football team chooses to adopt them, then unless they are Wolves, then they are alright by me!

I like going to Rushall Olympic (who play in orange), once a season typically, mainly because it takes around a year to read the programme, but my first experiences of them came in 2004 when I watched them one midweek play against neighbours Chasetown in the Midland Football League.

I remember a good crowd watching two of the bigger and more established names in the said division, both of whom would go on to better things. I also witnessed a couple of Rushall’s key games in their rise through the leagues, notably a Play-Off semi-final defeat to Belper Town (that was a confusing night!), but also a Play-Off final victory over Grantham Town, which was the sort of occasion whereby everyone in the World, except from Grantham, would be gunning for a Rushall win!

We all love Grantham, don’t we?

Coming back to sensible discussion, aside from the beautiful colours they wear, Rushall Olympic’s story is a great example of a small(ish) club maximising their potential.

The Old Talbot Stand
Under the stewardship of John Allen, they have risen from being an average West Midlands Regional League outfit, into the Midland Alliance, before winning it in 2005.

A move to the Southern League came about and within three seasons they had reached the Play Offs, but that bid was unsuccessful and they were moved laterally into the Northern Premier League. They adjusted pretty quickly, losing to Belper in their first season but then two years late after the tragedy that was Grantham’s defeat, they found themselves in the Premier Division.

Rushall is not a big town, based on the North Eastern edge of Walsall, with a population of around 11,500, the football ground is located on the road to Aldridge (Beware Low Bridge). With the Daw End Branch Canal running down one side of the ground, and the railway line behind the goal, it sits on bit of a plateau, and what impresses me is the way that they have improved the ground as the team has progressed.

When I first went they had a small stand on one side (bedecked with Talbot Cars advertisements), and other than the clubhouse and changing rooms behind the goal, that was pretty much it.

Food / Drink / Programmes / Payment
Now they have an area of covered terrace behind the railway end goal, and on either side are two additional seated stands bedecked in orange and black seats (they get me quite excited!). Down the canal side the ground has been fully enclosed and both press and hospitality areas have been built.

A sprinkling of orange around the ground is without doubt the finishing touch, and in my opinion, Dales Lane is a very good venue for watching football, even if the pitch does have a slight side to side slope on it.

They’ve spent six seasons prior to the current one in the Premier Division, with a highest finish of sixth and a lowest of twelfth. Having never finished below half way before, they do have something of a battle on their hands this time around, sitting inside the bottom six at the kick off.

Freezing conditions and snow showers gave me a little bit of concern as I travelled down, with Sutton Coldfield Town as the plastic back up in the area, but having been directed into my parking space at the ground (excellent value for a pound) and gone through the turnstiles, it was clear there were no concerns.

A modest crowd of 131 paid in (the lowest of the season) and was quite a bit under the average of 258, which in itself is a below half way number on the overall divisional table, but certainly nowhere near the worst in the league.  It was a grim night though, you could forgive some for staying away.

Look Closely And You Can See More Orange
What they saw was a very polished first half performance from Rushall, with the evergreen and prolific Richard Brodie netting twice, while on the right hand side Danny Waldron was using his pace to great effect. Lancaster, as much as they tried to get a foothold in the game, found  Rushall’s pace and movement  continued to keep them on the back foot and the Dolly Blues were unable to gain any sort of momentum going forward.

It was a different story for the opening period of the second half whereby Lancaster took the game to Rushall, but without creating any clear cut chances of note. It came as no surprise then that substitute Lewis Archer broke free in the closing stages and slotted the ball home to round off a comprehensive and deserved victory, on the back of what I thought was an excellent display.

Another very enjoyable evening at a great club, run by very friendly and enthusiastic people.

Did someone once say something about the future, with it being very bright and a particular colour?


It escapes me now, but I’m sure it’ll come back to me…….



Sunday, 4 February 2018

(Justice) By Default

Hertford Town  0  AFC Hornchurch  3

Isthmian League – Division One North

Imagine the scene, you’ve just finished runners up your league and despite your best efforts, it’s not enough to gain a promotion.

Then, out of the blue, the phone rings and it transpires that the team that finished above you have thrown the teddy out of the pram and have declined the move upwards, you have a decision to make.

The promotion place is yours, but, convinced you’re going nowhere you’ve already got plans in place for the new season. This is a great opportunity though, to return to the league you left ten years ago now, after previously having served 34 years of uninterrupted membership. Of course, you snap their hands off, but it presents itself with numerous challenges, not least the timescale to build a side that could compete a level above.

Welcome to Hertford Town Football Club, while never a top flight or indeed overly successful Isthmian League club, they bade farewell in 2006 and took a place in the Spartan South Midlands League. The harsher of the critics might argue that a town the size of Hertford, combined with its collection of wealthy residents, should really have got more silverware and be competing at a higher level than the history books report.

But, it was not to be, and when relegation came, it was time for a re-group and a chance to re-establish themselves and within time, return to the level that they had become accustomed to.

Unspoiled By Progress
After flirting with the top of the league for a couple of seasons, it suddenly got decidedly average. A series of mid-table and lower mid-table finishes did not suggest that this was a football club on the way back.

Then, somewhat unexpectedly in the 2016-17 season they built a side that was to ultimately finish in the runners up berth to near neighbours London Colney. Colney were on the way up, assuming that a Southern League place was theirs, however, once the constitutions were released it transpired that they had been allocated a place in the Isthmian League. They weren’t happy, and for reasons that I’m not aware of, that was enough to cause a mass exodus and ultimately the club chose to remain where they were. It could have been worse though, for a period it looked like the club may fold, but thankfully that never came to fruition. I’m not sure to this day why the placement into a different league was such an issue, but clearly something serious was underlying at the club.

Pitch Fine - For Now......
London Colney’s loss was Hertford Town’s gain, and this is where we are today. Having rallied around in the Summer as a club they were in a position to take up the unexpected promotion and also be able to compete. Hertford had an Isthmian League club back, they were back in their rightful place.

Journey wise it was simples, down the M1 to St Albans, take the road to Hatfield, shoot up the A1 to Welwyn Garden City and then head Eastbound into the County town of Hertfordshire. Hertingfordbury Park is a classic 1960’s non-league football ground, with a tall yet narrow main stand on the half way line, and a further covered terracing area behind the Southern goal, it almost smelt of history. The clubhouse sat aside the main stand and while not a modern building, it was homely and more importantly, friendly.

The Business Side Of Hertingfordbury Park
Pre-match I got chatting to an official of the club (Brian), he invited me into the boardroom and we talked about the fortunes of the club and how they had coped with the unexpected return to pastures old. What was nice, was the fact that Brian and his colleagues were genuinely interested and pleased that someone had travelled from the Midlands to visit them.

It never stopped raining, from the point I left home, despite the forecast suggesting otherwise. The pitch was fine, but heavy in places and had the rain been any heavier we might have a had a few problems.

AFC Hornchurch sat top of the league and had an impressive and vocal following with them, while at the same time the hard core of the Hertford support were also in fine form, which meant the game was played with the backdrop of a tremendous atmosphere, especially the in the second half when both sets of fans stood behind the goal and battled it out in the singing stakes.

On the pitch, AFC Hornchurch demonstrated exactly why they sit top of the league. They took an early lead thanks to a fine finish from Theo Fairweather-Johnson, only for the same player to make it 2-0 at the break thanks to a well placed header.

Hertford dug in and had plenty of possession but the well organised and experienced visitors were happy to let them do this, yet at the same time, once they tried to penetrate into the danger areas they were quick to either win back possession or clear the danger. Having seen Hornchurch at Haringey less than a month ago, I once again witnessed their game management abilities which I genuinely believe will see them win the league.

A Beauty.....
George Purcell put a second half penalty into the back of the net with ease and the points were secure, once again Hertford had plenty of the ball but the organisation of the visitors meant chances were at an absolute premium. It was another classic away from home performance from the Urchins, on what became a very difficult playing surface.

Hertford Town remain mid-table, but that’s mid-table in a league they quite rightly consider to be their natural home. 251 spectators watched the game on a pretty grim day weather wise. Potentially what could the club become? Top flight of the Isthmian League is not beyond the realms, but locally the competition for players is fierce.


Having experienced an afternoon at Hertingfordbury Park, the club will only be an asset at whatever level they perform, after ‘that’ phone call, the curve is an upward one, where the story goes next is something of an unknown, but it will be worth keeping an eye on….

Pure Non-League