Alfie Give Bees a Sting in the Tail
Dave Burin returns to write the latest in his excellent series of Matchday Adventures. This week, Dave found himself in Derbyshire, taking in the Vanarama Conference match between Alfreton Town and leaders Barnet.
Alfreton Town – 1 (Wood, 90+4, Pen)
Barnet – 1 (Weston, 19)
3pm, 28th March 2015
The Impact Arena, Alfreton (Att: 989)
The tension is immense as Bradley Wood begins his run-up. After prolonged cheering and clapping following referee Adrian Holmes decisive point towards the penalty spot, North Street has gone silent. Nuneaton. Welling. Dartford. Telford. The whistles blow around the grounds, as the league’s bottom four all walk away pointless. Here, in this corner of East Derbyshire, all eyes are on the Reds’ Number 2. Can he save them from the same frustrations? He strikes the ball cleanly, low, left and hard into the corner. The net ripples. Alfie’s skilful defender races away in elation, a blur of leaping, cheering, fist-pumping red & white erupts in the stands. It looks like it’s enough. Maybe not just for today, but for Alfreton’s survival at the top table of non-league football.
Not so picturesque or historic as much of the Derbyshire countryside which surrounds it, Alfreton is a modest, hardworking town characterised by red-brick architecture, winding lanes and a disproportionately high number of nail salons. Once an agricultural area, Alfreton’s biggest claim to fame is as the home of Thornton’s Chocolate, though the rise of the town’s football team has offered a similarly sweet experience for those who follow the North Street club.
Alfreton doesn’t offer a wide array of venues for a pre-match meal and a pint, but it does have a few good-value eateries and welcoming inns. I have lunch at Looby Lou’s, a traditional café providing me with a generously sized bacon & chicken barm, and thoroughly friendly service. The Plough, an unpretentious and likeable pub just a stone’s throw from the turnstiles at North Street, is my next destination. I sit down for a beer under its timbered ceiling, whilst a friendly barmaid discusses an entirely spurious tabloid story about a 31-year old man with a lover six decades his senior, and a couple of cheerful locals ask me about Macclesfield’s dreary lunchtime stalemate with Bristol Rovers. It’s a moment indicative of the laid-back, unfussy friendliness of this town. It’s not just the cosy pub which has given me a warm feeling about Alfreton.
North Street (or, if the sponsors are reading, The Impact Arena!). The ground lies at the bottom of a steep hill (though some would say far less steep than the £18 entry at the turnstiles!), and has an inconsistent though charming layout which looks like it was designed by four different architects who couldn’t agree on the overall plan for the ground. As you enter through the turnstiles, the Bentley Close end is on your left. It’s an uncovered, seated area, and the best vantage point for route to the hot food stall at half-time! Behind the other goal, there’s a partially covered terrace, with another, separated, bit of a stand seemingly stuck onto the corner alongside it. There’s a fairly traditional, partly covered stand running down one side of the pitch, but down the other, there’s a walkway, an entrance to the club bar, an area for pulling out the match tunnel, and small, separated seating areas each housing about 20 fans, club directors and/or press.
The Reds Bar, a haven of football kits of yesteryear, and packed with fans grabbing a half-time beer, also lies along this busy side of the stadium. For those with an interest in ground design, North Street is charming, unique and rather confusing. The ground’s designers might have sunk a few pints in the Plough before they got to work on it, but its curious feel makes this a lovely place to watch football. I seat myself just to the right of the club directors, just a few yards from Barnet’s irascible, outspoken gaffer.
“Head the f***in’ ball!”. We’re less than two minutes in, but Martin Allen is already pacing the touchline intensely, screaming largely unprintable instructions at his Barnet side. But it’s not long before they seem to get the message. After a modicum of pressure in the final third, they take the lead with 18 minutes gone. A looping set-piece from former Gills man Sam Muggleton reaches Mauro Vilhete, whose header slams against the post. The ball floats agonisingly away from Alfie ‘keeper Jason Mooney, and Curtis Weston slots home the simple chance with ease. It’s a goal in three consecutive away games for Weston, and after crucial strikes at Eastleigh and Halifax, it looks for a long time like his contribution will keep the Bees on track for a Football League return.
It’s a hard-fought first-half, and though chances are sparse, the quality of certain players shines through – even with the high winds and boggy pitch making it difficult. Alfreton’s Andi Thanoj, an Albania u-21 international is tricky and skilful throughout, whilst the composed Luke Graham looks lively coming forward, and solid at the back. For Barnet’s part, they defy the conditions to play some slick passing football, and the young Vilhete did well to get himself on the end of a few chances – albeit without furthering the Bees’ lead.
Smash. Within a minute of the restart, John Akinde lets fly from the edge of the area, only for Alfie’s on-loan stopper Jason Mooney to get save superbly. It’s an effort matched in its audacious skill, only moments later, by the Reds’ new acquisition Jimmy Phillips, whose ambitious long-range volley catches Graham Stack off his line, though the experienced keeper tips it to safety. At the other end, substitute Michael Gash tries his luck from range, trying to better the stunning strikes which opened the half. He lashes the ball with power and concentration, and it ends up in the next postcode.
Gash’s obvious disappointment, though, has nothing on that of John Akinde. It looks, for a split second, like he’s wrapped the points up for the North London club. A deflected shot bounces up in the area. The lively Akinde flicks out a toe, seemingly set to end the hopes of Alfie – the club he departed in the summer. His effort rattles the bar.
Then, in the final throes of injury time, Akinde’s composure deserts him again. As a determined Alfie go for the winner, Akinde misses the ball in an attempted clearance, catching the marauding Dan Bradley, amidst a goalline scramble. Bradley Wood, in a moment which causes huge ripples at both ends of the table, slots calmly home from 12 yards. The contrasts are palpable. As Alfie exit the pitch with smiles, applauding their adoring support, Barnet trudge off after them, looks of resignation and immense frustration on their faces. It has been the most momentous and exciting of climaxes to the game.
As I wander back through Alfreton’s hilly lanes, towards the train station, I feel glad to have been here. Not just for the immense on-field drama, but also because Alfreton has proved a truly enjoyable matchday – perhaps surprisingly so. It’s not a grand or a spectacular town, but there’s a welcoming, charming feel about the place, and it’s not hard to see why those who line the bar at the Plough or wrap up in the red & white scarves of Alfreton Town feel a sense of pride and connection to the boys from North Street.
Travel & Ticket info:
Tickets: Adults (£18), Senior Citizens & u-16s (£12), Students (£12), u-16s with a paying adult (£2)
Travel: Alfreton Railway Service is well-served. It lies on the Sheffield-Norwich, Leeds-Norwich, and Liverpool Lime Street-Norwich routes, all of which run hourly.
Ground Location: The Impact Arena is located on North Street, close to the town centre, and about 15 minutes walk from Alfreton railway station.