From the sofa to…Barnton FC

North West Counties Premier Division – Saturday 27th August 2016
BARNTON FC vs Atherton Collieries – The Hinchliffe Holmes Stadium

It was Friday lunchtime in the canteen at work and I didn’t have a set destination for the Saturday. I wanted to see some goals, so set about doing some research. In addition to providing cheap tickets, the North West Counties provides great entertainment and several clubs are proverbial hotbeds for goals. It didn’t take long to find a suitable dance partner. Step forward Barnton FC. OK, so the Premier League debutants hadn’t enjoyed the best of starts. Having won just two of their opening six games, they were coming off the back of two defeats – one of which being a 6-1 reverse against New Mills. By sheer coincidence, their next opponents happened to be Atherton Collieries. I make no secret of having a soft spot for the Colls, primarily because they’re great to watch. The Colls had put their FA Cup exit in the rear view mirror thanks to a crushing 5-1 victory at AFC Darwen. Striker Mark Battersby netted his 100th goal in just his 96th outing in a Colls shirt. With healthy numbers racked up in the goals for and against columns, the mathematician inside me told me to pack my calculator en route to Townfield Lane. This game certainly wasn’t ending 0-0!

Being a small village, Barnton doesn’t have a train station. The nearest station is Northwich – around three miles away. I messaged Atherton fan Joe Gibbons to try and tempt him into an away day, only to be turned down.

“I’ve been roped into ticking Altrincham vs Curzon Ashton off. I’ve been to Barnton four times in the last couple of years, so am in no great rush to head back again,” he said.

A good night’s sleep brought about a change of heart. The pull of Barnton was too great to resist. You know what they say, the fifth time’s a charm. I awoke to the following message:

“Going to head to Barnton. I’ll play for Curzon supporters team, then get the train to Northwich.” Huzzah! A good result for me, although Gibbo’s game ended in a crushing 6-2 defeat. Ouch!

The only downside about travelling to Northwich from Chester is having to get the slow Manchester train, which calls at every tinpot town in Cheshire en route. Great for designated drinking games, not so good for football fans. Thankfully, the journey to Northwich is only half an hour. True to his word, Gibbo met me at the station and we navigated our way into the town centre. Following a quick pint in the nicely priced Penny Black Wetherspoons, we hopped into a taxi, as neither of us fancied a 45 minute walk. The Barn Owl is the closest pub to the ground. If it wasn’t getting close to kick-off, I’d have ducked in for a swift half.

The Hinchliffe Holmes Stadium (aka Townfield Lane) is nestled away in the middle of a red bricked housing estate. You could be forgiven for driving past it. A shed acted as the ticket gate. Once ‘Addmission’ (sic) had been granted, we piled into a spacious clubhouse for some pre-match nourishment. A small kitchen area sorted the savouries, while at the other end was a well stocked fridge serving chilled cans of Carling and Strongbow Dark Fruit. Groundhop stickers were duly issued to anyone who needed them. For those keeping score, this was #4 in my casual bid to hop around the North West Counties. Many of the familiar faces I’d befriended in Atherton were in attendance. Rob Clarke was on video/photo duty and let out a wry smile. “Back again so soon eh? Looks like someone’s becoming a fan,” he said. I also got to meet Zach Pierce (from the Counties Podcast) for the first time. He was on match report and Twitter duty for the Colls today.

It’s been a period of transition for Barnton, who have a new backroom team in place for their first campaign in the top flight of the North West Counties. Manager Steve Lloyd summed up the task perfectly in his programme notes. He stated:  “A new squad will always take time to bed in and though we expect a level of inconsistency, that doesn’t mean we have to accept it. The group we have here now have both the technical ability and attitude to achieve good things in this League. Although it is very early days, the sooner things gel will represent a true picture of what this new squad can offer each week.”

Townfield Lane is a simple affair. The pitch is on a noticeable slope, while each side has a tiny sheltered area for fans. There wasn’t any danger of crowd congestion due to the low number in attendance. A pleasant weather forecast meant that most opted to stand behind the goals. Of the 57 in attendance, I estimated that at least 45-50 of those were from Atherton. I’m not exaggerating either. Plenty of Colls flags had been affixed to the fences. It was almost like a de-facto home game for the visitors. The players emerged from a makeshift cabin next to the toilets and referee’s changing area.

My premonition for goals couldn’t have been more right…for once! Colls were 3-1 up inside the first 15 minutes, giving Zach quite the job of updating the Colls Twitter account. Both teams set out to attack and the game was quite the spectacle. Loanee Rhys Nevins acquitted himself to the Colls fans by tucking away a low finish, before Christoper Smith hit back instantly by rifling the ball into the top corner. Colls ‘keeper Adam Reid didn’t have time to move and I’m surprised the ball didn’t pierce the net, such was the ferocity it was hit with.

Colls quickly re-took the lead. Battersby unselfishly picked out Ben Hardcastle at the far post for a simple tap in. Hardcastle was denied a second by a smart point blank stop from Matt Conkie, but the goalkeeper’s parry landed fortuitously at the feet of Vinny Bailey, who clinically dispatched the rebound.

Matty Chadwick looked to have made the game safe with a superb solo effort to make it 4-1. Twisting his way into the Barnton box, Chadwick advanced along the byline toward goal and slipped the ball under the keeper’s legs from an acute angle when everyone else was expecting a pass.

Barnton refused to roll over and made it a half to remember when they gave themselves a lifeline before the break. The Colls defence gave Smith too much time in the box and the forward punished the sloppy play, composing himself before hammering a well placed effort into the far corner.

The goals may have dried up somewhat, but the second half remained end-to-end. Barnton pressed, knowing that if they were to get within one then they could perhaps nick a draw, while Colls wanted to kill the game off. Chadwick rattled the crossbar from a precise pullback when it was perhaps easier to score. Nevertheless, the away side were given a chance to seal the points from the penalty spot. The referee spotted a handball and Mark Ayres coolly sent the goalkeeper the wrong way.

The tiny contingent of Barnton fans finally made their voices heard at the final whistle, barracking the referee with insults on his way back to his changing cabin. Everyone else was a tad more respectful, clapping both sets of players off. Barnton defender Nathan Williams looked like he’d been in the wars more than anyone, judging by the way he was noticeably limping and gutting through the pain of a nasty looking foot injury.

Players from both sides soon joined us in the clubhouse, eagerly checking their phones and catching up with the Division’s other results, whilst devouring a plate of complimentary sausage rolls. With only one promotion spot up for grabs from the Premier Division, the competition is certainly healthy amongst the frontrunners tipped to be there or thereabouts come the business end of the season. With players and fans car sharing and heading back to Atherton/Wigan, the kind lady in the clubhouse ordered me a taxi back to the station. The foreign driver was a little creepy, constantly smiling and nodding his head like the Churchill dog. He had no clue which match I had been to and it was one of those uncomfortable taxi rides you just wanted to end.

More ‘entertainment’ was waiting for me back at the station. I use that term very loosely. Talk about out of the frying pan and into the fire. A double act in the form of an angry drunk and a youth running around in his socks made up the unwanted encore presentation. I didn’t ask why the troubled teen was carrying his trainers in his hands and opted to leave him to his own devices, which was mainly scooping up cigarette ends from the floor and yelling at people to shut up.

Maybe I should have gone to the Barn Owl after all.

Best chant: “Referee, was that your first game? That was the drizzling shits.” An inebriated and angry Barnton fan giving the referee some friendly words of encouragement.
Match ticket: £6 and worth every penny. A great afternoon’s entertainment!
Match programme: £2.00. A bit on the short side at 16 pages. Contained a double page spread on the Colls, but next to nothing on Barnton, aside from squad pics and a brief write-up of previous results and the Reserves.
Cost of food: £1.50 for a steak pie.
Food rating: 4/5. Much like the team, the pie was easy to pull apart, although both brought a high level of enjoyment.

Final Score:
Barnton FC 2 (Smith 3, 40)
Atherton Collieries 5 (Nevins 2, Hardcastle 4, Bailey 15, Chadwick 27, Ayres 76 pen)
Attendance: 57

Getting to know…AFC Liverpool

Ahead of visiting AFC Liverpool, I caught up with matchday programme editor Adrian Cork for a quick chat.

How did you get involved with AFC Liverpool?
I was secretary at Formby FC for the final three seasons of its 95 year history and was part of the committee that made the decision to disband the club in 2014. During my time there I also produced the matchday programme, a publication that won First Division Programme of the Year in 2012/13 and 2013/14. I continued to follow the progress of ex-Formby players at their new clubs and went to watch the occasional game. I went to AFC Liverpool last season after they appointed former Formby FC boss Kevin Dally as their manager. Kev managed to bring together the majority of the old Formby squad so it was inevitable I would attend more games. At one of them, AFC Liverpool approached me and asked if I would consider doing their matchday programme as their current editor wanted to step down and they liked the Formby one.

Best players to pull on an AFC Liverpool shirt?
Darren Torpey, Steve Jones and John Lawless would be three that spring to mind. I’m sure some of the current squad will make their mark though.

Where are some of the best/worst grounds you’ve visited as a fan?
Visiting non league grounds is a real pleasure as they all have their individual quirks. Best grounds would be Irlam FC, AFC Darwen, Barnoldswick Town. Worst would be Holker Old Boys, Atherton Collieries, but I sill like them. Holker is half way up a mountain in Cumbria so has more to deal with than most.

What’s the best AFC Liverpool game you’ve witnessed?
A defeat to Formby FC in the Liverpool Senior Cup. AFC were in the division above, but Formby took a two goal lead. AFC pulled it back to 2-2, but the game couldn’t be settled in extra time so went to penalties. Formby won the shoot out 5-4. It was a great match played in a great spirit in front of a three figure gate.

Any famous AFC Liverpool fans?
Not really. George “The Voice of Anfield” Sephton is a fan and comes to watch when Liverpool FC aren’t playing.

Which club serves the best pies?
I wouldn’t say pies. A favourite among NWCFL clubs are the Staffordshire Oatcakes served up at Eccleshall. Unique!

Thoughts on ticket prices in general?
Ticket prices for Premier League games are far too high, £50+ to watch a Premier League game has taken it away from traditional fans as has the difficulty of getting tickets. That is why AFC Liverpool were formed. You couldn’t spend £50 at a non league game if your tried and if you did the home club would invite you on to their board! Footy for a fiver is our mantra and I would encourage anyone who loves the game to visit the local non league club and get involved.

From the sofa to…Chester FC

The National League – Tuesday 9th August 2016
CHESTER FC vs Dagenham & Redbridge – The Lookers Vauxhall Stadium

Watching Chester is like going to McDonald’s. Good in theory, but bad for your health in the long run. OK, maybe that’s a little harsh. One thing’s for sure, it’s certainly not been boring following the Blues in recent times.  There have been some low points (shoddy owners running Chester City into the ground) but on the other hand, the re-birth of Chester FC has brought plenty of highs – not least the three successive promotions during the phoenix club’s first three years in existence. Re-living Matty McGinn’s thunderbolt from 2012 which clinched promotion to the Conference in front of a sell-out crowd of 5,000 is a personal favourite.

I make a point to support my local team a handful of times each season. Sometimes more. Whenever Manchester United aren’t playing, Chester’s are the first results I always look out for/keep track of. The club have been keeping their head above water in the National League – well just about for the past three seasons.

Yes, half of the ground is in England and the other half is in Wales. It’s also true that the rivalry of the cross-border derby with Wrexham has been spoken about in the same breath as Boca Juniors and River Plate in Argentina. That’s absurd, although the less said about the current bubble arrangement in place for these derby games the better. Being rounded up onto ‘organised coaches’ isn’t for me, so I continue to boycott the fixture in the hope of common sense being restored.

Chester’s ground has had several name changes in recent times to appease various sponsors. The majority – including myself still refer to it as the Deva. The name it was given upon opening in 1992.  Uncharacteristically, I’d taken in two pre-season games in the weeks leading up to this season – a stalemate against Wigan Athletic and a 3-0 drubbing by Burton Albion. I’ve got to admit that I detest friendlies. They’re bereft of any real atmosphere and only used as a training exercise to sharpen fitness and get as many people on the pitch as possible. The warm-up games had left as bad a taste in the mouth as the ‘Cheshire Pie,’ – both dry and salty. Go with the peppered steak option. Much better. I digress.

It had been a frustrating summer in terms of assembling a squad. A change in manager led to a delay in contract talks with numerous players. That was the catalyst which allowed 20 goal striker Ross Hannah and ex-Stoke City defender Ben Heneghan to depart for pastures new. Hannah was a throwback to famous goalgetters such as Stuart Rimmer, Daryl Clare and Michael Wilde. Unfortunately, prolific strikers in a Chester shirt don’t come around too often these days. Heneghan meanwhile had earned cult hero status after a last minute goal sunk Wrexham a few years back. Many jubilant fans happily told Heneghan he “would never have to buy another pint in Chester.”

In stark contrast, playmaker John Rooney (brother of Wayne) provided the ultimate kick in the teeth when he crossed the Anglo-Welsh divide to sign a one year contract with the fierce city rivals. Credit where it’s due, John was a dead ball specialist, but often went missing in games. My instant reaction at his departure was disappointment, although having had time to think, freeing up a chunk of his salary for two/three better all round players seemed more prudent.

The pre-match optimism (or lack of) was evident as I came across familiar faces and the usual suspects during the walk to the ground. “We’ll do well to get a draw,” said one programme seller. “Here we go again,” groaned one of the stewards on the gate. Even Dad deserted me in favour of watching something called the Olympics. I refused to buy into the scepticism.

Chester isn’t a happy hunting ground for Dagenham.  The freshly relegated Londoners fancied their chances in this fixture 14 years earlier and went away with a 5-2 hiding. I believe teams dropping down from League Two are prone to a culture shock, especially so early into a new season and when new personnel are trying to bed in. I was quietly confident of a home win.

You won’t struggle for a seat at Chester. Three of its four sides are all seated, but I tend to favour the Harry McNally terrace (named after the ex-manager) behind the goal. Mixing with Chester’s version of Blazin’ Squad singing songs and beating a drum, while standing next to the middle-aged diehards. It’s where the only real atmosphere is generated, plus you can’t beat a good crash barrier to lean on. Perfect to balance the pie and programme.

Just before kick-off, both sets of fans and players remembered Chester fans who had passed on from the end of last season with an impeccable minute’s applause. Everyone showed the proper respect and class. It was heartwarming stuff.

I promised to keep a Birmingham based friend/fan up to date with score updates. Those in the vicinity had a similar idea of sorts. No sooner had we kicked off and attention turned to Wrexham’s game. The news filtered through about Rooney scoring, but the groans were just as quickly drowned out by euphoric cheers. Chester scored! Twice. Oh and they were both worldies too.

Elliott Durrell – the man pegged to ironically fill the void left by Rooney fizzed in a stunning half volley from 25 yards. The diminutive playmaker had picked the perfect time to endear himself to his new fans and he duly lapped up the plaudits. Just when the excitement had died down, teammate Tom Shaw set himself up from a similar distance and curled an effort past the despairing Elliot Justham in the Dagenham goal. It was sheer bedlam. A splodge of pie went flying out of my mouth and splattered across my programme, which had been in pristine condition up until that point.

Chester added some much needed height to their rearguard in the close season. The gargantuan Ryan Astles didn’t put a foot wrong, and on-loan goalkeeper Liam Roberts was alert on the couple of occasions the shell-shocked Daggers created a potential scoring opportunity.

It was now a case of Rooney who, as far as the Harry Mac were concerned. Chester grew in confidence and sealed the victory just short of the hour mark. Forward James Alabi had enjoyed a fruitful loan spell at the Deva last season. Now a permanent member of the squad, the ex-Rochdale man powered home a header from a corner. It could have been more, but for Justham keeping the hosts at bay.

The full time whistle brought about one final cheer with gusto. I had certainly enjoyed my McDonald’s tonight. Lovin’ it you could say. Having traipsed back dejectedly down Bumpers Lane on the walk home so many times, it made a nice change to do quite the opposite. Even Dad admitted the error if his ways in choosing gymnastics over a game.

It’s a shame that the performance was a one-off. In true Jekyll and Hyde fashion, the Blues went and lost their next match 3-1 at home to newly promoted Maidstone United. The magic under the floodlights simply hadn’t transcended to Saturday afternoon. Work commitments had kept me away, but the appetite to return will lure me back soon enough.

Best chant: “Can we play you every week?” The Chester fans. They weren’t joking either.
Match ticket: £15 to stand, as opposed to £18 sitting down. A tad expensive for this level.
Match programme: £2.50. A worthy purchase and fun read. Previous match reports are brought to life with speech bubbles, while IFK Gothenburg get a brief write-up purely for playing in Chester’s colours. The club’s thriving academy gets a two-page spread after a successful trophy winning season, while current and former local reporters have their say on who’s Chester’s best striker.
Cost of food: £4.50 for a meal deal of pie, drink and chocolate.
Food rating: 4/5. Holland’s supply a fine peppered steak pie. Full of flavour, meat and gravy. Piping hot too.

Final Score:
Chester FC 3 (Durrell 12, Shaw 24, Alabi 59)
Dagenham & Redbridge 0
Attendance: 1,841Chester FC

From the sofa to…Widnes FC

North West Counties League Division One – Monday 8th August 2016
WIDNES FC vs Sandbach United – The Select Security Stadium

It’s always a challenge forming a football team in a Rugby orientated town. That was my exact thought process on my first ever voyage into Widnes for the season premiere of Monday night football (the untelevised version at least.)

In a bid to escape from the shadow of their eggchasing namesakes, Widnes shed the Vikings part from their name in 2014. Meanwhile, Sandbach were relative newcomers to the North West Counties scene. Being an unknown entity, the threat of an upset was very much in the air. A pre-match research exercise on both teams didn’t throw up many recognisable names, barring the exception of Widnes player-manager Danny Meadowcroft. The tough-tackling defender holds the honour of being Chester FC’s first ever signing during their re-birth in 2010 and signed on to take charge along with Brian Pritchard in the summer. Satisfied, I’d know at least one person at the proverbial party, I set off with optimism as bright as the summer sunshine gracing me on this fine evening.

The kind souls at National Rail gave me the option of travelling via Liverpool or Crewe. A £9.20 return ticket was suddenly bumped up to £11.10, despite my ticket displaying the ‘any route’ option. Given the amount of money I plough into the train system, another £2 was neither here nor there so I accepted the additional tax. Anything to avoid a measly penalty fare and eliminate the risk of getting thrown off in some dodgy Merseyside suburb.

The stadium is a simple 15-20 minute walk from the station. I ignored the fact that I saw more people walking away from the stadium during the home stretch. The lure of the local chippy was far greater to some than the big game about to go down in the North West Counties League. Given its size, the Select Security Stadium is tucked away and somewhat springs out on you at the last second. At least it did to me from the route I was walking.

Only the South Stand is operational for the football, thus meaning there are no turnstiles. Entrance is granted through the aptly named ‘Stadium Fitness’ gym. A guy on reception decided I didn’t look dodgy and directed me past a vending machine. A sharp left turn took me to a kind lady sitting at a table with an array of Widnes pin badges on sale. It remains a mystery why she stored the groundhop stickers underneath the desk like they were a dirty secret, as they were a lot more popular amongst the punters than the badges. Needing to relieve myself, I was directed to go back on myself and into the gym changing rooms. The sight of Mr Moobs (post shower and letting it all hang out) made me wish I’d peed earlier. Needless to say, I didn’t hang around to make small talk or join in with the song he was butchering.

The search for a pie to relieve the trauma led me to the ‘Legends’ bar. Too bad for me, they weren’t on sale. The barman said all food went on sale at 8pm and I was curtly told to come back at half time. That made little to no sense. A healthy crowd of 131 were on show and necessitated the need for several stewards to basically have a night off. Four excitable kids raced to the front of the stand and one steward lapped up the attention by walking past and slapping hands with his ‘fans.’

The use of an artificial pitch has divided opinion, although I’m a fan if the surface is going to be used regularly for a multitude of sports. It’s also handy when winter comes calling, particularly at this level of the football pyramid.

Teamsheets were available to anyone who required them. Although the squad lists were printed on the back of the programme, it made it easier to marry up the names to the numbers on display. Most fans were in the same boat, given the fact that Widnes had overhauled all bar three of their squad over the summer. It was very much like going back to your first day at school where everyone was getting acquainted.

With Meadowcroft taking his place in the heart of the Widnes defence, it was left to Pritchard to give the instructions from the touchline. He ended up being the one taking the first order when the referee admonished him for not wearing a high vis bib to avoid a kit clash with his players.

The game took a while to come to life. Only Sandbach’s Alfred Hammond knows how he missed a diving header from point blank range. My nan could have tucked that away with ease. Widnes were guilty of wasteful finishing too. Darrhyl Mason – who showed good composure and looked like he had an eye for a pass, threaded through a Pirlo-esque ball only to see his teammate lift the ball too high over the onrushing keeper and into the stands.

Widnes hit the front right on half time. Kev Towey’s looping header caught Sandbach shotstopper Simon Hilton unaware and crept in at the far post. It was somewhat scruffy and Towey barely showed any enthusiasm as he turned away to acknowledge rather than celebrate his first goal for the club. The lack of post goal music didn’t help. Come on Widnes, you’re missing a trick here. Even a few riffs of Blur’s ‘Song 2’ is better than silence. Just a suggestion.

Half time meant it was feeding time. It felt wrong walking past the fitness room to buy stodge, although the guilt didn’t last longer than a few fleeting seconds. Hey, I didn’t have tea before coming out. A rookie mistake I know. The bar staff had now doubled, but were caught cold by the large demand and struggled to deal with the queues. Chips were the only thing on the menu, plus they were made to order which meant many people missed the start of the second half. I’d barely tucked into my snack when a guy in front got my attention. “Hey mate, where did you get that trough from?” Credit where it’s due, the portion sizes were more than generous.

Sandbach skipper Thomas Watkin caught the eye in the second half. Despite a heavy build, his touch on the ball was sublime. After preventing Jon Dawson from netting with a well timed tackle, Watkin raced down the byline and flashed a pinpoint ball into the box. All it needed was a deft touch, but Josh Lane fluffed his lines. It was a head scratcher when Sandbach took Watkin off with 20 minutes to play. He didn’t look fatigued or injured. The visitors were in the ascendency, but their push for an equaliser led to their undoing.

Widnes wrapped things up with a touch of individual brilliance. Mason made fools of two defenders after being boxed in the corner, before racing free and bringing a save out of Hilton. The rebound fell kindly to the frontman, who was left with an easy header to bag a goal that his performance deserved. The final whistle meant it was two wins from two for Meadowcroft’s men. Rugby may be the main sport making a mark in Widnes, but the football club seem determined to leave a footprint.

On reflection, playing at the 13,000 + stadium provided both pros and cons. On one hand, the facilities were quite decent, although the downside was playing in a massive arena in front of the average crowd of a Johnstone’s Paint Tro….sorry I mean Checkatrade Trophy game killed any sort of atmosphere.

The journey home was less than smooth. One inebriated female took it upon herself to scream her lungs out for no apparent reason. Whether it was a mating call for the male reprobates at the front of the carriage I don’t know. Still, it was the loudest noise I’d heard all night. Could have done with her being at the game.

Best chant: There wasn’t one. Although some kids did a mini-conga when the first goal went in. It didn’t catch on.
Match ticket: £5.
Match programme: £2.00. The full colour infomercial proved to be a handy tool to get a bit of background on both clubs.
Cost of food: £1.50 for a large portion of chips.
Food rating: 4/5. Thick cut, piping hot and sprinkled with a healthy dash of vinegar. Warmed the cockles nicely when the temperature started to drop.

Final Score:
Widnes FC 2 (Towey 42, Mason 88)
Sandbach United 0
Attendance: 131