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.