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