Saturday, 7 December 2013

Nelson 3 1874 Northwich 1

North West Counties League first division
Attendance: 176

Normally when I park for a step six league match I expect to be within Ralgex-sniffing distance of the changing rooms. Not today. The queue of cars on the approach road at 2.30pm stretched back over 100 yards from the ground almost to the site of Nelson’s original Football League ground (see ‘Some history and geography’, below). Demolished in 1980 to make way for the M65, today the site is just an area of bare gravel surrounded by a high brick wall. Despite my best efforts I found no trace of the site’s previous usage and decided against doing too much David Bellamy-ing in the rhododendrons on the other side of the wall (part of the public Victoria Park) for fear of being apprehended.

“This’ll be having an effect on Burnley,” opined an old boy, remarking on the relative congestion, Well, hardly, but the crowd was exceptionally large for Nelson used to playing in front of around 50 people. The attendance was swelled by the visitors from newly formed fans’ club, 1874 Northwich (see ‘Some history and geography’, below). A football outside the turnstile seemed almost like an invitation to play.

Inside the ground is a delight. There is just the one stand: a long, low, Wimbledon green, timber and corrugated steel structure with seats set back from the pitch and with “Welcome to Victoria Park - home of Nelson football club” lovingly painted on its fascia. The ground has a second name, Little Wembley, and the club has three nicknames: the Admirals (love it), the Historymen and the Blues.

The best view is from the bedrooms of the 18 fine Victorian cottages that run along one side of the pitch. In fact, Holme Terrace is so much the focal point of the ground it’s like a sort of surrogate main stand. All that separates the accommodation from the action is 20-yard sward of grass and temporary Heras fencing with a couple of gates within it for ball retrieval. Looming immediately behind the terrace and giving a wonderful sense of Pennine place is a chimney from an old cotton mill.

As the light faded (very early on such a dank and squelchy day) two Christmas trees and an open fire in the sitting rooms glowed all the brighter making this surely the cosiest, most domesticated backdrop to a football ground in the country. I was hoping for a door to open and a call of “anyone for tea and crumpets?” but it sadly never came. Darkness and floodlights often improve the atmosphere at a match and particularly so on a winter’s afternoon at Nelson.

The rest of the open ground consists of two shipping containers, a clubhouse (a book about dugouts bizarrely takes pride of place in the trophy cabinet) and changing rooms linked to the pitch via a chicken run made of concrete planks topped with wire mesh with a four-way arrangement of gates to allow spectator access around the corner. There was a distinct lack of executives in the “executive lounge” (it was closed, in fact) and the area of the stand set aside for visiting officials et al is a free for all.

The Admirals sailed into the match in third place in the division just one behind Northwich and on the back of six straight wins last month which won the manager the manager of the month award. That proved not to be the curse it often is and, indeed, Nelson very much picked up where they had left off by opening up a three-goal lead within just nine minutes. The last of them was a penalty, unmerited in the eyes of the boisterous Northwich fans, who went ballistic at the officials. Their side was quickly awarded a penalty, though, which was converted (see below).
The match continued to be a cut and thrust, end to end encounter chockful of chances and feisty challenges. I expected Northwich or just “74” as their fans call them, to level the match but Nelson continued to give as much as they got – in more ways than one.

Melling of Nelson was sent off for a second bookable offence of “having his hands around the other lad’s neck” according to the lino. The home bench and fans weren’t happy with him and maintained a vituperative dialogue, the sort which makes me wonder why people want to be refs and linesmen. “He’s wavin’ flag like he’s at carnival,” one fan goaded in one of the lighter exchanges. A Nelson sub then burped very loudly, the sound echoing around the breeze block dugouts (as solid as the terrace houses behind them) but eliciting no reaction from his team-mates presumably accustomed to such outbursts. There was no further score and so the Admirals completed a notable double over Northwich having become the first ever club to defeat them in August.

As I passed Harrogate Town on my way home the lights were almost all out and the Altrincham lads were boarding their coach. It had very much been a ‘let’s get home for tea’ sort of afternoon from the kick-off and a very memorable one at that. Bacup, Clitheroe and now Nelson have provided a hat trick of vintage Lancastrian outings this season and there’s more to come.
Some history and geography: Nelson, has a long and illustrious history akin to that of Crook Town. In the 1920s they played in the second division of the Football League achieving wins against Man United (away), Leeds and, in a pre-season friendly, Real Madrid. In the 1950s they were managed by Joe Fagan who went on to lead Liverpool to European Cup glory in 1984. See here for more.

Northwich has four teams but none play in the Cheshire town. Victoria, the best known of the quartet, encountered financial difficulties and enforced relegations in the 2000s following which their seven-year-old stadium was recently demolished. They now play at the home of Flixton in western Manchester along with Northwich Flixton Villa, their feeder club, which joined the non-league pyramid two years ago. 1874 Northwich was formed this season by disillusioned Victoria fans facing a similar challenge to Darlington fans two years ago. 1874 play at Winsford and in front of larger crowds than their parent club. Finally, Witton Albion used to play in Northwich but today have a stadium in the village of Wincham a couple of miles away. See here for more in an article from When Saturday Comes.

Highlights: To find them I initially Googled “nelson tv” and was presented with a list of footage about the activities of another, slightly more high profile Nelson currently in the news. I like the way you can hear the rain dripping on the camera’s hood.

The Cup’s up: The FA Cup is well and truly over for another year. Not a single shock in the second round not a tie of any novelty in the third.

Beardo back in action: Consett have opened their new ground. A Newcastle United XI provided the first opposition, Peter Beardsley featuring in the line-up.

The ultimate northern outpost: I took great interest in Tottenham’s Europa League match against TromsØ at the northernmost ground in the world. Lots of great scene setting pics here, the pic of the bunch reproduced below.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Chesterfield 2 Daventry Town 0

FA Cup, first round
Attendance: 5,269

A small cardboard box just outside the turnstile block containing aerosols and other items deemed to be potential weapons; a barcode reader rather than a craggy old man operating the turnstile; a sign saying ‘No alcohol beyond this point’; a loud PA system; and lots of yellow jackets. Welcome to the first round of the FA Cup and the big time, relatively speaking.
The three-year old Pro-Act stadium is smart and thoroughly fit for 21st century  purpose but new grounds always make a died in the wool traditionalist like me think back to Staveley (which I past en route this afternoon) or Bacup. Feeling nostalgic I diverted to Saltergate, site of Chesterfield’s former ground. It’s now a near complete Barratt housing development. The name of the road is a nice touch, though: Spire Heights. (Chesterfield’s famous nickname is the Spireites. Geddit?) I also liked the name of the programme: Inspire. The atmosphere today was somewhat different to the last time I saw Chesterfield on that unforgettable pre-Christmas night in Droylsden five years ago which was no bad thing.

The appeal of today’s match was the visitors, Daventry Town from the fourth tier of the non-league pyramid. They are the lowest but one ranked club still in the competition (and one of three Southern League representatives) and this was the biggest game in their 127-year history having never previously made the first round proper. The size and noise of the away support befitted the occasion. There was more than six times the average home gate of around 122 and I was glad to ‘do a Motors’* and swell the numbers in the Purple Army by one.

For the first quarter Daventry seemed to be stumbling over themselves out of over-exuberance and nerves and barely got out of their own half. Then they settled down and - in what has to be called a purple patch - had two good chances when they broke through the Spireites’ back line.

The second half contained little to take my mind off the increasingly dank conditions, the sweeping rain pitter-pattering on the roof . There was a five minute delay while Beckley of Daventry received treatment on the pitch and was eventually stretchered off (although not seriously injured, it transpired). The visitors held out until 69 mins when a Chesterfield free-kick from the right was volleyed in at the far post. The chairman, in a suit and purple and white striped tie, came over to join us but we needed more than a talisman to get back into the contest. The hosts sealed victory on 89 mins when a 30-yard shot took a wicked deflection and went in off the underside of the bar.

Our goalie had played well and, in front of him Liam Dolman was immense too (in more ways than one). He looked more like a rugby prop forward, in fact. According to Wikipedia “during his time at Northampton Town, it has been alleged that he was the only obese player to be playing full-time in the Football League”. A goalmouth scramble and penalty claim in injury time failed to give Daventry the consolation they deserved. A minor pitch invasion greeted the final whistle after which the players come over for their farewells.

So for Daventry it’s back to the bread and butter of the league, a taste they haven’t had since Oct 8 since when they’ve played seven consecutive cup ties. Next up: Wellingborough at home on Tuesday. And for me? Back to basics at Nelson in three weeks. I’m longing for another Pennine backdrop.

* ‘Doing a Motors’ means to join the away fans of a non-league team at a big match even though you don’t ordinarily support them. The phrase was coined by a friend who, as a neutral, joined the Vauxhall Motors’ lads at their FA Cup tie at QPR in 2002.

Star turn: In the Chesterfield line-up today was Gary McSheffrey, ex-Coventry and Birmingham (pictured in  previous action shot).

Mascot mayhem: I liked The Guardian’s preview of Grimsby v. Scunthorpe. “Yesterday the club mascots, Mighty Mariner and Scunny Bunny, took part in a competition of their own by spinning around on the spot 10 times before attempting to score in a virtually unguarded net.  Such is the magic of the Cup.” The paper’s review of six classic first round ties is a good read. Gloucester played in the Cup today. Their abandoned ground is a tale of woe as BBC Online reported last week.

(Far) away the lads!: Spare a thought for the Wigan fans who ventured to Rubin Kazan (sounds like a magician’s exclamation), 500 miles east of Moscow, for their Europa League tie on Thursday. About 150 souls made the 5,000-mile round trip at a cost of about £1,600 each, some completing their journey on the sleeper train from the Russian capital. Admirable dedication or simply madness? Either way the fans are certainly putting the ‘adventure’ into “Wigan’s great European adventure”. Here’s a film that gives a frisson of what it was like out there.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Stamford 0 Hednesford Town 2

FA Cup, fourth qualifying round
Attendance: 668

The journey to Stamford is something of a pilgrimage for groundhoppers but not for much longer. One of the best loved non-league grounds in the country in a stunning but little known Georgian stone town closes at the end of the season when the club moves to a new out of town stadium. I’d tried to avoid viewing pics of the existing ground online as I wanted to see it for real first and today’s tie ­­- with Stamford bidding to reach the first round proper of the FA Cup for the first time ever - was the ideal opportunity.

Cameras are usually focused on three features: a church tower, row of almshouses (just the other side of a fence), and century old wooden main stand with red dogtooth fascia bearing the letters SAFC which you imagine would tumble to the ground if struck by an errant pass. The ‘A’ stands for association. The club is not called ‘Stamford Town’ either; the extra syllable just works better for chants not that there were many today. In fact – and for my third round running – the away fans were more vocal than their hosts.

Hailing from a Black Country former mining community, Hednesford are nicknamed the Pitmen. One of their fans sported a white miner’s hard hat with the initials HT painted in black on the sides and ‘The Pitmen’ on the front. Stamford have a great nickname too: the Daniels which is derived from Daniel Lambert, England’s heaviest man (at the time), who died in the town in 1809 weighing 52 stone.  The nickname is everywhere; the locals clearly cherish it.

For what was billed as Stamford’s biggest cup tie for 40 years the atmosphere was a little low key. The mature crowd was modest both in number and demeanor and typified by the mayor in this chains.

Rather like at my previous tie at Guisborough the hosts won the first half on points but had no goals to show for it and you always felt the visitors would make their higher status tell. (Conference North leaders Hednesford came into the match having lost only one League match all season while Stamford had only won two and lie close to the foot of the division below). Hednesford scored twice in the second half, both from soft penalties (the first pictured, below). They were the stronger side overall and deserved to win but, for the Daniels, this must have been a galling way to go out particularly at such an advanced stage.

“The men who could make history” was how a montage of Daniels’ pics was headed in the programme. Sadly not today. This season’s history is likely to be limited to the final match at the grand old ground next April with an appetiser against a potentially promotion chasing FC United of Manchester on Easter Saturday. Put at least one of them in your diary.

Programme notes: The Hednesford squad included Cameroonian Charlie Anagho-Ntamark. His surname reads like a couple of sets of Scrabble tiles. The Pitmen have two players with European experience: Nathan Woolfe with Bolton in the UEFA Cup in 2007 and Wayne Riley with Airbus in the Europa League qualifiers last July. Neil Harvey is a Barbadian international. An ‘in the hot seat’ feature reveals that Richard Jones of The Daniels has a phobia of worms and doesn’t like swedes either. Outstanding publication, by the way.

North/south divide: Distinct lack of teams from the north in the fourth qualifying round draw: just 14 out of 66.

Audio connections: I’ve made my debut as a 5 Live reporter. Responding to a tweet, I filed a 30-second report for The Non League Radio Show, as below. At the game I met the two lads behind the Cup Runnings audio blog too.


Saturday, 12 October 2013

Guisborough Town 1 Workington 4

FA Cup, third qualifying round
Attendance: 524

Many teenage girls would’ve checked Twitter on their mobiles on the evening of Oct 2 but very few, like my daughter, awaited score updates from the Cup replay between Guisborough and Jarrow Roofing. She was doing me a favour, of course. I have to admit I really wanted The Roofing to win just for an excuse to visit such a fantastically named club (OK, then, let’s have it in full: Jarrow Roofing Boldon Community Association) but it was not to be. 

Still, Guisborough – which I visited previously in 2007 – is closer to home and, being in my adoptive home county, I was happy to support them today. Remarkably, this was their eighth match in the competition this season having entered in the extra-preliminary round and required replays in each of the subsequent rounds. Entrants in the third round proper can win the competition with less effort. Workington are three divisions higher but bottom of the Conference North.

For the arboreally inclined the grandly named King George V Stadium is a treat. It feels like you’re in a forest with tall trees on three sides of the ground. The fourth side consists of the obligatory shipping container, four pollarded trees that look like giant Matchmakers and the back of a swimming pool (below). My nephew and occasional Cup companion Toby must have been the only person in the ground to have compared the ground to Bala Town which he visited while a student in Wales. “Is this the club shop?” he enquired. “Or is it the toilet?” Actually, it was the dressing room.

The KGV is probably best saved for a crisp autumn day when the leaves are golden. We were two or three weeks early for that and, besides, the weather could not have been more dank and gloomy.What a contrast to the previous round. The programme editor started his notes with: “Tonight we extend a warm welcome to…” It could, indeed, have been evening.

Guisborough came storming out of the blocks and dominated the first quarter having five good chances and deservedly taking the lead from one of them. They struck the bar on 38 mins then immediately the visitors equalised. I’d felt that Guisborough should’ve made more hay while the sun shone (figuratively speaking) and so it proved.

“How are Marske getting on?” a spectator asked us at half-time. I was confused, thinking he was asking about the mascot for the Great North Air Ambulance which was lumbering towards us. He was referring to rivals Marske United who were playing a third qualifying round tie just five miles away on the coast. The PA had earlier announced that Marske were 0-1 down to a lone jeer/cheer (it was hard to tell which).

I’d deferred my photography to the second half in the hope that the conditions would improve. They deteriorated and sea fret-like drizzle descended, causing one of the two FATV camcorder men (above) on the touchline to shield his lens with his jacket. No fancy gantries here. Things weren’t getting any better for The Priorymen either (great nickname, incidentally, coined from the town’s famous – and highly recommended – ruins).
Workington took the lead on 55 mins and, when they got the third soon after, it was all over bar the shouting. There was a lot of that towards the end from their fans, the self-styled “Carlisle ’aters” and “Barrow ’aters” (they are their nearest rivals, 50 miles away), enjoying their side’s first away victory of the season. Earlier they’d chanted “USA, USA!” to encourage their American goalie, Alex Wimmer, much like Reading fans used to support Shaka Hislop.

For the neutral a far better contest was by now reaching its climax at the seaside. Marske got the winner in injury time. What a pity that the draw sends them to Southport. Ho, hum.

Fashion notes: Workington’s away strip is a fetching combination of lime green, black and red. Talking of hideous strips have a look at this lot from last week’s Guardian online.

Programme notes: Today’s match was in the FA Cup and Guisborough’s left back has sticky-out ears. Insert joke here. Gavin Skelton of Workington played in the Scottish Cup Final for Gretna in 2006 and in the subsequent UEFA Cup qualifier against Derry City.

Seventies albatrosses around their necks: Much as Nottingham Forest will forever be known in the media as “former European champions Nottingham Forest” so Workington will always have the “ex-League club” prefix. They hosted a pre-Munich Man United in front of 21,000 and twice reached the quarter-finals of the League Cup in the sixties. Here’s an extract of an evocative amateur film about their final home league match in 1977.

Football in the back garden: This backdrop takes some beating. It’s Buckingham Palace which last week provided the venue for an amateur match staged as part of the FA’s 150th anniversary celebrations.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Trafford 2 Altrincham 1

FA Cup, second qualifying round
Attendance: 829

Ask for a word association for Trafford and you’ll get only two answers. Thankfully, the first of them actually play some distance from where I was heading and it’s too far ahead of Christmas for the other to complicate my journey. I was bound for Trafford FC who were hosting Altrincham. The clubs are only eight miles apart but what can you call the match? The Manchester derby? Hardly – and Altrincham isn’t quite within the city but in Cheshire. How about the Merseyside derby since that’s the river that separates them. Think that’s taken too. Hmmm …

These days Trafford and Altrincham are about as close heirarchically as they are geographically. Last season today’s hosts won promotion to the the Northern Premier League premier division (step 3) for the first time while Altrincham – the non-league club with the greatest number of league scalps in the FA Cup – are one step higher in the Conference North but boast a Conference National pedigree.

Apart from Man U and the Trafford Centre I associate Trafford with an area of heavy industry that was bombed in the Second World War. That image is a far cry from the ambience of their trim ground located in leafy Urmston. The playing surface is pristine too. That said, I was glad that it was a sunny afternoon and a tasty tie since, in terms of character, Shawe View isn’t a lot to write a blog about.

There are three modern, functional corrugated steel shelters and grassy banks that you’re not allowed to stand on (FA rules, so the stewards maintained) and that’s it – if you exclude the vintage iron and wood tip up seats (above) and I’m not quite nerdy enough (yet) to wax lyrical about them. I also quite liked the standing room only press box (below) wedged into the main stand and next to a blazer-packed VIP area.

The home side took the lead on 11 mins when the ball was walloped in from the edge of the box. Only then, on noticing where the cheers were coming from, did I realise that Alty fans outnumbered Trafford fans by probably three to one. (It was like Clitheroe/Darlo again). Very vocal bunch too and lots of young lads among them which is good to see. Today’s crowd was, I believe, the second biggest in Trafford’s history (after the visit of FCUM last month).

Alty struck back within three minutes with a penalty (above). They had a good deal of possession but never really asserted their authority on the match and were poor in the final third rather like England usually are. “All right, Lee?” a couple of fans beside the dugouts asked the Alty manager, ex-Bradford player Lee Sinnott. He paused for a moment and then, unable to ignore them scowled: “Not really,” before turning back toward the pitch and berating his players with lots of f-words. I wouldn’t like to be on the wrong end of a bollocking from him which is what I suspect his players got at half-time.

Trafford got the winner when Oates scored after 64 mins (above) after a previous attempt had been repelled. I didn’t quite know who to support. I usually side with the underdog but, equally, have had a soft spot for the visitors ever since I watched them in my student days, a feeling that had been rekindled by the warmth of their support. In the end, I joined the away fans to watch the last quarter. It didn’t get any better for them and, at the end, the Alty skipper came over to the visiting fans to respond to claims about lack of passion. No need for post-match interviews here. You can ask the questions immediately, face to face.

So the giant killers were giantkilled. Well, perhaps but that’s an exaggeration but, United and City having lost, Trafford can justly claim to have been Manchester’s team of the day today. Trafford says the win was the greatest in its history.

Hopping mad: Four lads are planning to visit all 92 league grounds plus Wembley in the space of 92 hours next month in aid of Help for Heroes. Trust they’ll get a big West Country welcome at Bristol Rovers at 3.25 on the Tuesday morning. Their fingers will be raw after all that sat nav setting. Here is the site.

Colourful character: I read about ‘Mr Bilston’ in this blog post about a match at Bilston Town in the West Midlands. Frankly the fella is frightening. Handy that his team play in the same colour as hi-viz workwear.

Silly footballers’ names no. 109: André André. Saw this chap scoring for Guimarães of Portugal in the Europa League highlights on ITV4 last week. (I don’t get out much). His parents could’ve been a bit more imaginative.