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

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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.

Getting to know…Atherton Collieries

 Colls

Atherton Collieries currently play in the North West Counties League Premier Division. Ahead of my visit for an FA Cup qualifying game with Bacup Borough, I got in touch with media officer Joseph Gibbons to get the lowdown on the side from Alder House.

How did you get involved with Atherton Collieries?

I had a Bolton Wanderers season ticket for many years and followed them home and away. My initial aim was to complete the 92 (which I am still doing) but I have been heavily sidetracked since I found non-league football. I started watching Colls during the 2011/12 season. One afternoon when I was off to The Reebok I got chatting to a bloke at the bus stop who had an Atherton Collieries hat on. Curious about a team who I had been doing a bit of research on, he informed me they were at home on Monday night and told me I should head down.

It only took me five minutes to walk down to the ground and club secretary Emil let me in for free. Everybody was lovely and welcomed me despite the fact they didn’t know who I was. I was back again the following week and ever since then I have been hooked. 

Within a year I was helping out with the programme and was taking lots of photographs of the matches. My duties have been added to since then and I now help out with whatever needs doing alongside a large group of volunteers who all love helping out their football club.

When I first started watching the club, the attendance was around 30 on a Monday night. There’s a real buzz about the place these days, and we managed to attract 609 when we launched Friday night football against Daisy Hill a couple of seasons ago. We’ve also played Bolton Wanderers the last two summers and have recorded crowds of around 1,800 on both occasions. 

Favourite memory as a Colls fan?

I’m fortunate in the sense that during the five years I have been watching Colls, there has been a clear progression both on and off the field. The 2014/15 campaign went down as the best in the club’s history as we won the title, losing just one game in the process. We eventually clinched the title at our bitter rivals Atherton Laburnum Rovers and that afternoon will stay with me for the rest of my life. 

The memory that gets spoken about the most seems to be when we travelled to Brighouse Town in the FA Cup last season. They are the division above us and we went into the game as underdogs. All the players and fans piled on to the coach and we made our way up to Yorkshire, with the fans getting dropped off in the town centre to enjoy a few pre-match drinks. Spirits were high and we outnumbered our higher division hosts. We fell behind and had a goal disallowed, but Ben Hardcastle grabbed an equaliser during the second half and there was complete pandemonium with players and fans all hugging each other. The referee had to pick up a few cups off that pitch that had been full of beer prior to the goal.

It wasn’t the most important goal in our history and it only led to a draw but the whole day is fondly remembered. That for me is what makes Atherton Collieries special. Yes, it’s great if you win, but if not we still make the most of the day regardless.

Best game you’ve witnessed at Alder House?

In terms of entertainment, I would say that whenever we play AFC Darwen the games are always entertaining. Whether this is home or away there’s always drama and talking points. The home match against them back in 2013 saw the two teams share seven goals. It was a Monday night under the lights and both teams were battling it out towards the top of the First Division. Colls were leading 3-2 with a few seconds of the game remaining when Darwen equalised. It was a cruel blow as we had been playing well all night and tensions were high on the pitch as a number of rash challenges flew in. Deep into stoppage time, our striker Paul Atherton stabbed the ball into the roof of the net from close range to give us all three points. Our attendances were lower back then, but I can guarantee if that occasion were to happen now there would be fans on the pitch and everything. 

Best players to play for Atherton Collieries?

Probably the most famous player to pull on the black and white stripes is current Cardiff City striker Anthony Pilkington. He played for us in 2006 and made a name for himself scoring a hat-trick for us in a 3-0 victory against FC United. Stockport County signed him before he went on to play for Huddersfield Town and Norwich City. He also has nine caps for the Republic of Ireland to his name. 

We hope that members of our current team can go on to make a name for themselves in the Football League. Our players have all been young, local talents in the last couple of years and there is no reason why at least one of them can’t go a lot further if they are spotted by the right people. 

Best thing about Alder House?

Alder House has vastly changed even since I started watching during the 2011/12 season. Historically, it was a ramshackle ground that many supporters in the league would have considered amongst the worst. Thanks to hard work from the committee and fans it is a very nice place to spend your Saturday afternoon and improvements continue every single month. For me, the clubhouse is now up there with the best in the league after a total refurbishment. A quirky feature of the ground is the retractable tunnel that was taken from Leigh RMI’s old ground, Hilton Park. The wheels might need pumping up on it but it’s still going strong and is one of it’s kind at this level.

Worst grounds visited?

One thing I like about non-league football is that every ground has good and bad aspects. The imperfections that are on show are often the things that make a ground and give it some character. The less aesthetically pleasing a venue, the more I tend to like it. Yes, there are some grounds I have to go to when I’m watching Colls that I don’t particularly like… but I bet many people have moaned about having to visit us down the years! In short, there are no grounds I hate due to their appearance or facilities… there may be the odd one I hate as we always lose there or get a man sent off!

Enjoyable away days?

We organise a jolly boys outing every summer, where we travel to a club who aren’t in our division and make a full day of it. The fans and players all pile on the same coach and set off early in the morning. A couple of weeks ago around 80 of us travelled to Carlisle City and spent the day drinking in the city centre before piling in taxis down to the ground. I think I eventually got in at about 04:00 in the morning after heading out drinking with a few of the players when we got back? There aren’t that many long journeys in our division this year, but I’ve travelled to Whitley Bay, Durham and Anglesey with Colls in the last couple of years and each day is always fantastic regardless of the result.

Thoughts on ticket prices in general?

I don’t even look at ticket prices of Football League clubs anymore. I know the vast majority will be far too expensive and most of the time aren’t worth it. By the time you’ve paid £30 to watch Bolton Wanderers at home in League One this season, you could have paid for your train fare, admission, programme, pie and five pints at a non-league match. It is far easier to make a full day of it at non-league level and you can do it on a budget. Of course, I like ticking off the 92, so I do sometimes pay £30 to watch a match but that’s now only a couple of times a season when I fancy spoiling myself.

Any famous Colls fans?

Atherton Collieries are well known in local football circles and we do have a few famous faces who come down to watch us occasionally. Kevin Davies has trained with us quite a lot since he retired a couple of years ago as has Nicky Hunt, who is from Atherton. Carlisle midfielder Luke Joyce regularly comes to matches when he isn’t playing, as again he is from Atherton and enjoys watching us play. Last season Manchester United defender Luke Shaw came down for a match because one of his mates was playing for us. We get quite a few local footballers down who have an interest in the club, but when they do come they get treated just like everybody else and I think they quite like that.

Quirky fact time?

I don’t know if it’s quirky, but the club is currently celebrating it’s 100th anniversary. We were formed by workers from the six mining pits in the town and were originally called Atherton Collieries Joint Association. Our current badge reflects this, as it displays the ACJA initials. The clubhouse is still on the same foundations that it was 100 years ago, and the players baths used to be downstairs in what is now the cellar. Last season was our highest league finish ever in our history after we came third in the NWCFL Premier Division. During a match in 2014 we had three sets of brothers on the pitch, including twins Paul and Karl Atherton which caught the attention of the BBC Non-League Show.

Which club serves the best pies?

People all have different views on this contentious issue, but I have been to Clitheroe on two occasions and both times I have had what I consider to be the best pie, peas and gravy I’ve had at a match. It’s very good value for money and you can even get a large cup of tea with it. The tea hut at Shawebridge is run like a military operation and is busy throughout the match.

Twitter @JoeBillGibbo