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