My latest Matchday Adventure saw me venture into West Yorkshire, and to The Shay in particular. Read the rest of this entry
Much like the subtle Meatloaf song or the salad bowl in Eric Pickles’ house, the entertaining 0-0 draw is a rarely-witnessed phenomenon usually dismissed as mythical by those not so enamoured with the beautiful game. Occasionally, these games are tactical, chess-like battles between great sides. Other times they’re memorable for the result’s significance. And on days like this one at Keys Park, home of Hednesford Town, the ball somehow ends up everywhere but the back of the net.
Amidst the driving rain of a dark November afternoon, I am admittedly not seeing Hednesford at its loveliest. Even so, even under the glow of brilliant August sunshine, this is not a town of any great beauty. A gritty, post-industrial town of just under 20,000 people, Hednesford was traditionally one of Staffordshire’s major centres for coal mining. But the pits have long-since closed, and the town has a rather bleak feel. Still, whilst it may lack the glamour and picturesqueness of certain Non-League venues, like Harrogate or Cheltenham, this small Staffordshire town could hardly be more welcoming.
My first stop is The Vintage Kitchen, a friendly, casual café on the town’s main commercial thoroughfare – Market Street. Whilst Hednesford’s small size and relative lack of prosperity means this isn’t an ideal destination for foodies, the Vintage Kitchen is one of a couple of handily located places to get fairly tasty, good value food in a snug setting. I get my hands on a cheeseburger, homemade chips (excellent) and a cup of tea – all for under a fiver, meaning you can save your pennies for those pricier away days!
Despite the name, Hednesford Town’s modern Keys Park ground is thankfully* (*or disappointingly, depending on your point of view) not situated in a Richard Keys-inspired theme park. Opened in 1995 to replace the club’s crumbling former home – The Cross Keys – it’s one of the National League North’s most impressive stadiums. With two seated stands (including a sizeable Main Stand), two modern and tidy terraces and three different food vans, it wouldn’t look out of place in the lower echelons of the Football League. I am however, even more intrigued by Town mascot ‘Pitman Pete’. A large chap in a Hednesford Town kit and mining hardhat, with realistic soot marks on his hat and body, Pete looks like the likely result of Ken Loach designing football mascots.
My mood, and that of everyone in the ground – quickly shifts a few moments before kick-off. It’s the club’s closest home game to Remembrance Sunday, and the day after the horrific terrorist attack which has devastated Paris, and left an ever-rising death toll. A lone man plays a trumpet in the centre-circle, as the players huddle together, arms over one another’s shoulders, and but for the trumpet’s sound, there is silence. It’s a moment of quiet reflection and perspective, a reminder of how lucky we all are to be here, to be safe and able to enjoy the simple pleasures of a Saturday afternoon at the football. Then the referee motions for kick-off and the traveling Solihull Moors faithful raucously burst into song.
I chat to Bob, a veteran Pitmen supporter, who describes this season’s crop as “not very good”. “We’re heading for a relegation fight. I’ve got no faith this time” he says. Yet, like all loyal fans, he’s still here. Meanwhile Solihull’s support run through a rendition of ‘Oh When the Moors Go Marching In!’ – which sounds like a tribute to Shakespeare’s Othello – and a rendition of ‘Shit Ground, No Fans’. This despite the fact that Keys Park is a rather nice ground, and the two clubs average very similar crowds. But when did football fans let facts get in the way of a good song? We kick-off, and Solihull – still unbeaten in the league – are surprisingly on the back foot.
Hednesford look considerably the brighter side in the opening 15 minutes, and produce a couple of half-chances, with well-traveled winger Paul Ennis producing much of The Pitmen’s most impressive play. Ten minutes later, veteran Andy Todd curls another chance for the home side wide. Then, the best chance of the game – perhaps of the season falls to Pitmen striker Ahmed Obeng. After great work on the wing from Johnson, the ball falls to Obeng inside the six-yard box, with almost the entire goal to aim at. Somehow, he clumsily smashes this golden opportunity over the bar. 0-0. And with Solihull having scored in every National League North game this season, the miss may prove extremely costly.
Despite the fluency of the home side’s play, the evergreen Todd still finds himself embroiled in a heated shouting match with the coaches roaming across the Town technical area. The particulars of this debate are inaudible, and probably unprintable, but it’s clear that gaffer Bernard McNally and his staff want more from the side. And as we reach half-time at 0-0, their frustration at the home side’s failure to capitalise on their dominance is understandable.
It has been a breathless first period in which Hednesford have had the lion’s share of the chances, whilst the more physically imposing Moors have struggled to break down a well-organised home defence, with ex-Kidderminster Harriers man Tyrone Williams and the robust Ben Bailey having looked especially imperious at the back. The early stages of the second half, though, see both defences on top as the weather worsens and Solihull’s centre-back pairing of Franklin and Daly get into their stride.
But as the hour mark comes and a November rain which would dissuade even Axl Rose dissipates, the game roars back into life. Adam Thomas’ rasping shot forces a spectacular save out of Moors’ talented Swiss stopper Benjamin Siegrist. It’s followed a little while after by an immense Hednesford team move masterminded by Ennis and Obeng, but ends with a strike fired agonisingly wide. Seconds later, Siegrist ends up charging out 30 yards from his goal-line and clumsily taking out Todd. ‘Come on Hednesford! Come on Hednesford! Come on Hednesford!’ rings all around me.
Before we finish, the otherwise lackluster Solihull attack threaten. A superb inswinging effort forces an even better save out of the otherwise untroubled home ‘keeper, Daniel Crane. This before a last-gasp clearance from Tyrone Williams stops former Premier League starlet and Solihull striker Stefan Moore from tapping the ball into an unguarded net. It ends 0-0, and the home side are greeted with warm applause and cheers, and several supporters around me deem it the most entertaining game Keys Park has seen this season.
For Hednesford, a first home clean sheet of the campaign and a draw against the West Midlands’ title challengers represents progress, as does the fact they will probably feel they deserved all three points. For Marcus Bignot’s Solihull, the unbeaten run and a hard-fought point will please, but with just 4 draws in the club’s last 5 league games, improvement will be needed if the club want to keep the likes of Nuneaton Town and Fylde in their sights.
Hednesford Town – 0
Solihull Moors – 0
3pm, 14th November 2015
Keys Park, Hednesford (Att: 562)
Ticket & Travel Info:
Ticket Prices: Main Stand – Adults (£13), Concessions (£8) / Terracing – Adults (£12), Concessions (£7), Adult + 1 Child (£13).
Travel: Hednesford is served by regular rail connections from Rugeley Trent Valley and Birmingham New Street stations. If you’re driving from the North, take the A5 towards Cannock, and then the A460 towards Rugeley/Hednesford. From the South, exit the M6 at Junction 11 and take the A460 towards Cannock. Keys Park has a large and well-priced car park. Postcode: WS12 2DZ
“There won’t be much to write about”, mutters a bloke sat just behind me on the wooden benches of Victory Park’s historic Main Stand, his tone a mixture of resignation and sympathy, as I scribble a few words into my battered matchday notebook. It’s hard to disagree. We’re just beyond the 75-minute mark, and Chorley and Brackley Town are deadlocked in a drab and goalless embrace. Then, the drama happens. Following a scruffy free-kick, the ball lands at the feet of the Magpies Darren Stephenson. The Jamaican striker – with class and composure – fires the ball under Brackley ‘keeper Sam Hornby. Chorley celebrate. The latest round of fireworks go off in perfect harmony from somewhere in the distance. It’s a rare treat in a tight and tricky contest. But is it enough to bring 3 points to this corner of South Lancashire?
I arrive in Chorley on Saturday lunchtime, to witness one of the town’s regular markets – a tradition here since the 15th century. As with the unwavering support of the local Non-League club, it’s a sign that community and tradition are still alive and well in Chorley. But there’s no getting away from the fact that Chorley has been hit hard in recent decades. One of many Lancashire towns to grow up around the booming cotton trade of the Industrial Revolution, it’s struggled to cope with the end of traditional industry. Its terraced streets look tired, and serve to make the town’s handful of stunning buildings look even more impressive and incongruous.
Despite the tough exterior, Chorley has a good range of pre-match options for the visitor. I decide to take in one of Chorley’s smart, urbane restaurants and one of its resolutely unpretentious pubs – partly because it’s an interesting combination, but mostly because they’re near each other. I’m lazy like that.
I eat at Cosmopolitan, a sleek eatery at the heart of the town. With a timeless, stylish interior – and more importantly, tasty, hearty food for excellent value (at lunchtimes, at least), I’m impressed. I go for a spiced vegetable soup (delicious) and a crispy chicken burger with fries (pretty good). It’s followed by a visit to The George pub, also located about 1km from Victory Park. There’s football on the TV, inexpensive beer and a spacious, unfussy vibe. It won’t set the world alight, but it’s a decent enough spot to grab a drink.
The next destination, though, is the most evocative. Victory Park (officially ‘The Chorley Group Victory Park Stadium’), reached by a muddy car park off of Duke Street, is redolent with the aura of football grounds of decades gone by. The Main Stand- running along one end of the pitch – is resplendent with old wooden benches, reached by a set of crumbling steps, and offering a superb vantage point towards the pitch. There’s a few pillars, but provided you don’t sit too near them, they’re more a minor irritation than an inconvenience. Behind each goal are reasonably sized terraces – and at half-time fans of both sides swap between the covered Pilling Lane End and the weather-beaten Duke Street Terrace, to watch their beloved sides in action. Across the other side of the pitch, fans lean casually on the hoardings, whilst one cheeky viewer avoids the entry fee by pitching up a chair on a hill behind the ground. It all feels like a glorious ‘fuck you’ to the increasing encroachment of soulless, bowl-shaped, all-seater grounds imposed on fans across the land.
I take a pew on the benches of the Main Stand, and keen to get a fan’s view, chat to Chris, a Chorley supporter bedecked with a rather stylish Chorley FC beanie hat (I’m almost tempted into getting my own). He tells me that this campaign has been “up and down”, predicting the club to finish the season “mid-table, the way they’re playing”. “No way we’ll get play-offs”, he adds glumly. After last season’s devastating play-off final collapse against Guiseley, and this week’s shock cup exit to Northwich Victoria, it’s easy to see why optimism might be in short supply amidst the Victory Park Faithful. The tannoy announcer is finding gallows humour a bit easier. “Horizontal rain”, he announces of the afternoon’s forecast. “Well”, he concedes, “it’s the North, innit”.
The teams kick-off, Chorley in the famous black & white stripes that garnered their nickname, Brackley in shirts of a relatively demure yellow. The home side press their visitors in the opening moments, but are let down by some sloppy passing. The first chance – on the break – goes to The Saints. David Moyo’s header across goal finds tireless striker Glenn Walker, but his shot flashes wide of Sam Ashton’s near post. A collective sigh of relief rings out from three corners of the ground.
As the half wears on, though, Chorley have the better of what few chances are on offer, on a rather churned-up pitch. Marcus Carver, on loan from Accrington Stanley, slashes through the Brackley defence twice in quick succession, showing a real touch of class. First, his rasping shot forces Brackley ‘keeper Sam Hornby into a smart, low save, before Carver darts down the wing mere moments later, playing in a sumptuous cross across the 6-yard-box. Only a superb defensive clearance saves Brackley from a certain goal. And it is Chorley who look the more threatening – albeit sporadically – throughout the half.
Both sides manage to slash a free-kick off target from a decent range, before the home side waste a few headed opportunities, and the half goes into something of a lull. The encouragement from the home faithful never lets up, even as the game drifts aimlessly towards half-time. The whistle goes, and one hopes that a rousing team talk from either of Messrs. Jansen and Wilkin will lead to a blistering start to the second period. It doesn’t.
As the daylight ebbs away, the second half shows no sign of sparking into life. Chorley struggle to build any momentum, and visiting Brackley (without an away win in the National League North all season) look increasingly happy to sit back and occasionally try to hit their opponents on the break. It takes about 15 minutes for the second period to spawn a chance of note, as an inventive strike from Darren Stephenson is matched by an excellent stop from Sam Hornsby, who tips the ball up and over the crossbar.
To give both sides credit, the defences have been strong, and Chorley’s Mark Ross and Chris Doyle look particularly calm and imperious. That defensive certainty is needed when Brackley’s Moyo bursts through on goal, and only a fantastic last-gasp tackle guides the ball past the post, preventing a certain goal and a likely winner. And the Northamptonshire side are made to pay. A Chorley free-kick eventually finds its way to the Magpies’ Stephenson, who slots nonchalantly through the legs of Hornby. 77 minutes gone. 1-0.
The closing moments are surprisingly end-to-end, but the solitary goal proves enough for the hosts. The referee’s whistle rings out in the darkening Lancashire sky, and the eleven men in black & white wander off the pitch, as a sea of scarves, hats and applauding hands look back at them. Chorley has had some tough times, not just in the arena of football, but the people of this proud town are sticking with their club. It’s a win. They deserve this win.
Chorley – 1 (Stephenson, ’77)
Brackley Town – 0
3pm, 31st October 2015
The Chorley Group Victory Park Stadium, Chorley (Att: 982)
Ticket & Travel Info:
Ticket Prices: Adults (£10), Over-60s (£7), Ages 12-16 (£5), Ages 8-11 (£2), u-8s (Free!). These prices relate to all areas of the ground, seated & standing.
Travel: Chorley is well-served by rail, with hourly trains from Blackpool North, Manchester Victoria and Newcastle calling here. By car, the ground is close to the A6/Bolton Road and B5251/Pall Mall. The ground offers car parking for the decent sum of £3. There is some parking in the town, though much of the town centre is pedestrianised.
194 miles separate Guiseley A.F.C.’s scenic Nethermoor Park ground from Boreham Wood’s modernised Meadow Park, but the two sides battling for points on this bright autumnal weekend have much in common. Both clubs have belied their small stature to reach the pinnacle of the English Non-League. Both are part-time clubs with modest attendances, and each triumphed via last year’s playoffs, vanquishing more fancied opposition – including Chorley and Havant & Waterlooville respectively – along the way. It’s also the first year at this level for both The Lions and The Wood. So, with just 4 points dividing them before kick-off, could either team come away with a priceless victory?
I arrive in Guiseley just after midday, and am instantly enamoured with this attractive corner of West Yorkshire. Resplendent with handsome brick and stone buildings, dotted with tranquil green spaces and imbued with a resolutely laid-back feel, Guiseley may be just 10 minutes from the bustling heart of Leeds, but its peaceful, traditional vibe feels a world away.
My first stop is the Station, a lovely pub and pizza bar, with strong ties to the football club and located a stone’s throw from the ground, on Otley Road. The food is – with no exaggeration – fantastic. I enjoy a sumptuous pizza, as fans of both teams congregate in number around the pub, preparing for the crucial clash. Involved with sponsoring their local team, the Station’s doors and walls host posters beseeching fans to go and support the Lions. I hardly need the encouragement.
Nethermoor Park – shared with the town’s cricket club and, erm, a childrens playground – is less than half a mile’s walk from Guiseley railway station and the appropriately named pub across the road. It’s a quick and straightforward stroll through the pleasant surrounds of this picturesque Leeds suburb.
I head in through the turnstiles to the sight of Guiseley’s players milling around, chatting to early arrivals on the terraces and beginning their warm-up. The Boreham Wood squad wander into the club bar, a few of them stopping to chat with the hardy Hertfordshire fans who’ve made the long trip and are enjoying the gravy-heavy cuisine on offer here.
Keen to get an insider’s perspective on Guiseley’s first season at the National League’s top table, I speak to Brian, a veteran Lions fan ahead of the game. “Reasonable” is his one-word summary of the year so far. He credits the team having “not lost too many”. “Too many draws” is his main issue thus far, but he’s “confident we’ll stay up”, predicting his side to finish in mid-table. As a neutral, it seems optimistic, but this is a club which has repeatedly upset the odds to achieve success, having been Northern Premier League stalwarts until as recently as 2010.
Due to being slightly under-the-weather, I stick to the soft stuff, but there’s a good range of drinks on offer in the ground’s Clubhouse – all at a reasonable price. The place is roomy, full of snug sofas and there’s lunchtime football on TV screens. All in all, a pleasant spot to pass the time before the serious business on the pitch begins. I flick through the match day magazine, where Lions boss Mark Bower candidly seethes about last weekend’s penalty decision at The New Lawn. Overall it’s a good read, though at £3 perhaps a touch steep.
I take a pew in the Main Stand, one of only two seated area within the ground – both running along one side of the pitch, with a combined capacity of 500. Across the other side, the unusual, covered terraces of the JCT600 Stand are also split, with two cameramen located perilously between on a makeshift gantry, presumably hoping that the wind doesn’t pick up. There’s no formal setup behind either goal, but a handful of supporters of both sides are crowded by the fence at each end. Ground ‘improvements’ are set to take place in the coming months at Nethermoor, and whilst some roofing at either end wouldn’t go amiss, one hopes that any changes don’t spoil the likeable, low-key feel of this picturesque venue.
As the game begins, the home side look much the brighter. Within the opening few minutes, a good passing move gives Guiseley captain Adam Lockwood the first chance of the match, but the experienced defender fires his effort well over the bar. Buoyed on by their early dominance, the home side look to have taken the lead after a goalmouth scramble, but the Boreham Wood defence somehow clear the ball to avoid an opening goal – and it’s as close as either side come for the majority of a quiet first half.
The West Yorkshire side’s dominance of possession continues throughout the first period, but to no avail. The inconsistent Tom Craddock – in a particularly poor display – wastes a golden chance after Liam Boyes’ fantastic build-up play, just beyond the 15 minute mark. George Maris produces a scintillating run a little while later, but he too fails to trouble Wood stalwart James Russell, between the sticks. Amidst an overly whistle-happy refereeing performance and a defensive Wood side seemingly happy with a point, the first half seems set to be petering out.
Then, in first-half injury time, talented teenager George Maris receives the ball on the wing. A blur of movement, against the rich autumnal hues of Nethermoor’s grand trees, and the Guiseley A.F.C. flag flapping grandly in the wing, he skins the Wood defence, cutting inside with a dexterous flair. He locks his eyes upon Russell and curls a shot past the helpless Russell. It rolls inches wide, and a collective sigh rings out as the patrons of the Main Stand (myself included) head down the steps to seek some comfort in a cup of tea. So close to delight, we stand unified, resigned to the reality that Boreham Wood may not be so wasteful – if they ever create a chance, that is.
And they do. Boreham Wood begin the second half with a newfound tempo and slickness. They have a goal ruled out for a narrow offside, before Conor Clifford fires wide after some sumptuous footwork. Then, the visitors get the breakthrough. In the 59th minute, a soft free-kick is awarded on the right wing, and the imposing Clovis Kamdjo heads home smartly. His distinctive dreadlocks breeze through the air as he races away in triumphant celebration. After back-to-back home defeats against Lincoln and Macclesfield, the Lions have to pick themselves off the mat against a Wood side growing in confidence.
‘Give him a BAFTA!’. The Guiseley support are annoyed by a piece of perceived play-acting. It’s an oddly moderate shout, as if this isn’t Oscar-worthy fakery, but still deserves a less prestigious award. But to brand the Wood as time-wasting would be unfair. For the most part, they continue to push forward, looking to extent their lead. Steve Drench – superb in the Guiseley goal today – produces two excellent saves in quick succession to deny the tireless Jamie Lucas.
Then, against the run of play, Guiseley strike a leveler in the 90th minute. But referee John Brooks has already blown for a Lions penalty, chalking out an equaliser, at least for the moment. Joy turns to fury. Fury turns to anxiety, as Nicky Boshell places the ball on the spot. Then joy reigns again, as Boshell slots home with perfect placement, to bring Guiseley level. As injury-time begins, the Wood push forward frantically. They miss a couple of good chances, and as with Guiseley in the first period, the Herts. Side are left to rue their profligacy. The whistle rings out. The points are – fairly – shared.
Overall, Guiseley has offered one of, if not the best matchday experience I’ve had in the National League. It’s a lovely place not only to watch football, but to enjoy a warm autumn afternoon. Just before reaching Nethermoor Park, I passed a chap walking in the opposite direction, clad in a Leeds United tracksuit. Some people, man. They don’t know what they’re missing.
Guiseley – 1 (Boshell, pen ’90)
Boreham Wood – 1 (Kamdjo, ’59)
3pm, 17th October 2015
Nethermoor Park, Guiseley (Att: 749)
Travel & Ticket Info:
Ticket Prices: Adults (£15), Concessions (£10), 12-18 year olds (£5), Accompanied u-12s (Free) – prices the same for seated and standing areas.
Travel: Guiseley is well served by rail, with regular services between Leeds and Ilkley, as well as services from Bradford Forster Square (also terminating at Ilkley). Buses also run to Guiseley from Leeds, Bradford and Harrogate. The station is 0.4 miles from Nethermoor Park.
By car, the football ground is along Otley Road/A65 and very close to Bradford Road/A6038. The main car park is on Netherfield Road. There is limited parking at the Otley Road End of the ground, but much of this is reserved for players, club staff and officials.
Dave A. Burin finds himself at Bower Fold for his latest Matchday Adventure. Read the rest of this entry
The new television deal will hopefully lure fans to non league grounds as the top clubs further distance themselves from their fans. Read the rest of this entry
On New Year’s Day 2012, I had the great pleasure of meeting the author of this book, Ashley, in the torrential rain while taking in Staines Town v Hampton & Richmond Borough. He told me all about his FA Cup groundhop, and how he hoped to go all the way to the final. When I found out he had been commissioned to write a book, I immediately downloaded and read it.
If you follow Ashley’s groundhopping blog, you’ll already be familiar with his style of writing, which draws you in and makes you keep reading. If you haven’t read any of Ashley’s excellent accounts of his travails, you should bookmark his site and get over there! So, what about the book? Well, firstly, it is only £1.50 of your hard earned, so is not going to empty your pocket, let alone break the bank. It can be downloaded from the usual outlets (links at the bottom of the review), and is well worth the small outlay.
When he started this journey, he had no idea where it would take him, or if he would even manage to fulfil the stringent criteria he set out for himself (all is explained in the book). What this leads to is a wonderful narrative as he risks homestead harmony at times to continue his, let’s face it, absolutely barmy adventure. I won’t give anything away in terms of whether or not Ashley completed his target of taking in a match and a replay from every round of the 2011-12 FA Cup, but one thing is abundantly clear; he enjoyed the early rounds far more than the later games. I have long been of the opinion that football loses a lot of it’s personality the higher up you go, and this comes across in Ashley’s writing. His match of the tournament only goes to emphasise this fact.
I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you are looking for a proper fans’ tale, then this is the book for you. I should point out that Ashley did not embark on this adventure for the purposes of the book; quite the opposite in fact. He was already doing it before the opportunity to publish a book came along. So, spend that little £1.50 and help reimburse some of Ashley’s expenses!
I am already looking forward to reading about his next escapade!
Download The Long Way from the links below. I’d like to point out that I do not get any reward for you buying via these links, I am just trying to make it easier for you to get the book.