The Lambs (Tamworth) and the Knitters (Hinckley) take some beating when it comes to nicknames least likely to strike fear into the hearts of the opposition but I have come across an even better contender: the Daisies (Daisy Hill). Come on, let’s be honest. This monicker is only one step away from the Pansies – and, a reason in itself to make a visit to the curiously named New Sirs ground in the town of Westhoughton betwixt Bolton and Wigan. The real reason for my trip, however, is the visit of AFC Liverpool.
The club was formed this season by fans of Liverpool who had been priced out of the Premiership. They stress that they are not at odds with the parent club and, indeed, describe themselves as Liverpool's “little brother”.
The teams trot out to the tune of the Colonel Bogey March. I soon realise that the sound actually comes from an ice cream van round the corner. (I'd even wondered if it was a particularly loud ringtone). The lack of PA is confirmed when a fella walks around the pitch at half-time announcing the winning numbers of the raffle. The only other sound for much of the match comes from about a dozen AFC fans behind one goal. They are so isolated yet their song so clear they are more like drunken carol singers than chanting football fans. I like the slogan on one of the many banners: “Fate is for those too weak to determine their destiny”.
The small size of the ground and crowd (although five times larger than Daisy Hill's average) means that, disappointingly, the match has little of the cup-tie flavour that characterised my previous visits to fans clubs away: FCUM, FC Halifax, and even – it has to be said – Scarborough Athletic. AFC Liverpool doesn’t seem to have quite caught the public imagination in the way as these other clubs probably because it was formed in less adverse circumstances.
At this level groundhopping is more like pitch-hopping. New Sirs consists of a fenced pitch with cricket-style clubhouse at one end fronted by a two rows of numbered, wooden flip-up seats and a simple short cover on one of the long sides. That's it - if you exclude the dug-outs. You can even get free entry behind one of the goals where there is no perimeter fence. This is grass roots football at its grassiest. The entrance is the ground's only point of note: it looks like an 80s-style Wild West Diner – in Wigan. After the exceptional thrills of my last four matches this one inevitably felt like the morning after the nights before.
Low-key occasion, then, but what a cracking little match. The Daisies take the lead after 15 mins completely against the run of play and go two in front on the stroke of half-time when an attacker on the break draws the keeper and squares for a team-mate to slot home from the edge of the six-yard box. AFC are outraged as the goal is scored while one of their players is lying injured with what turns out to be a broken nose. AFC continue to dominate in the second-half. The Daisies keeper handles outside the box but the ref waves play on only for an AFC shot to be spectacularly saved with a deliberate handball on the line by a defender who injures himself colliding with a post and is sent off. His self-sacrifice isn't in vain: AFC hit the same post with the spot-kick.
In the last five minutes AFC finally get a deserved goal when a cross is touched home at the near post. They then level it when an up-and-under is back-headed into the goal by a towering Dominic Matteo look-a-like. We all thought we were heading for an Istanbul but, in a final twist in injury time, a Daisies attacker latches onto a long through-ball from the half-way line and, one on one with the keeper, nets the winner. Five home fans cheer.
At kick-off I was asking myself what the hell was I doing travelling 80 miles on a raw afternoon for what was only a step up from a park match but, at the final whistle, I realised I'd just enjoyed the most compelling half of football of my season.
As the players walked off at one end two AFC carol singers stayed on at the other, scarves outstretched, singing “You'll never walk alone”. Their manager, meanwhile, warmed down and, I suspect, dressed down his players in the centre circle. The club one from bottom beats the club one from the top and Daisy Hill record their first league win for three months and most memorable since, well perhaps, the Bolton Hospital Cup in 1986. A whoops-a-daisy for AFC, indeed.
For match highlights click here. (The back of my head puts in a starring performance on 32 secs).