From the sofa to…Atherton Collieries

The FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round – Saturday 6th August 2016
ATHERTON COLLIERIES vs Bacup Borough – The Kensite Stadium (Alder House)

Goals galore and savouring the magic of the FA Cup, plus turning down some ‘hot’ Gillette products. The best value a man can get? Not far off. For me, today was truly a day of firsts. I decided to mark the opening day of the season with a maiden jaunt into the ninth level of the English football pyramid to take in the opening round of the famous domestic cup competition. Yes, contrary to belief, the proceedings start in August with six qualifying rounds to negotiate before the ‘proper’ stuff gets underway in November.

The Colls had been a hot topic of conversation amongst a couple of groundhoppers I befriended while out and about in pre-season. A bit of digging brought some fruitful results. When I read about a club possessing a striker who can say he outscored Lionel Messi in a single season, my interest was piqued. Throw in the fact that the club have outscored the rest of their division for two straight seasons and were celebrating their centenary year, this made Atherton Collieries a priority to visit.

The Colls are one of three teams representing the Atherton name and ply their trade in the North West Counties League system. The league has a split of 44 teams in two divisions, with the Colls currently competing in the Premier Division. The club posted an impressive 129 goals en route to winning the First Division two seasons ago. They knocked in another 103 on their way to a third place finish last season. I got the impression that 0-0 was a foreign concept in these parts, so promptly booked a train ticket.

Atherton railway station is served primarily by trains coming from Manchester, Wigan or Southport. Having travelled over to see my girlfriend on the Friday night, I made arrangements to travel from Southport, which ended up being cheaper and quicker than negotiaiting three changes from Chester. For those into their gardening, I thoroughly recommend the scenic route through rural Lancashire especially on a day when the sun is blazing. Some beautiful views. Take my word for it.

Anyone who knows me can attest that I like the odd accumulator or three. The town centre was very considerate in putting both Ladbrokes and William Hill directly next door to each other. I swung open the door and was met by an eerie silence and eyes poring a hole into the back of me. The regulars looked up at this newcomer invading their turf. A member of staff even had the audacity to curse the return of the football coupons. Absolute blasphemy!

With my gambling thirst quenched, I was now in the market for a drink. Coming face-to-face with an infamous ‘Pound pub’ I declined the offer of getting ‘more round for my pound’ and rejected a straggler’s plea for 50p outside in favour of finding a more friendly drinking establishment closer to the ground.

I’d made arrangements to meet Colls media man Joe Gibbons in the Rope and Anchor pub – the traditional pre and post match watering hole of choice for fans and players alike. The pub is situated on the bend of a stretch of road which takes you to the rear of the stadium. I could hear laughing and cheering and headed in – only to be met by an empty pub, save from a lone male playing darts on the other side of the bar. With a pint in hand I went and introduced myself to Joe. Only it wasn’t Joe. The befuddled guy looked at me with his darts primed and categorically told me I had the wrong person. I felt like a numpty and rightly so when Joe messaged to say he was upstairs finishing off a pre-match team meeting and he’d be down in a minute.

Joe and his sidekick Rob Clarke eventually came down once the players had been briefed by manager Michael Clegg (not to be confused with the former Manchester United player.) Carrying a box of tracksuits, bibs and kit, it quickly became clear that these two do a lot for the club. Managing Twitter, ordering kit, producing the programme, organising photos, these two were certainly on the pulse. Joe was an exiled Bolton Wanderers fan, while Rob was disillusioned with the circus going on at Blackpool. And who can blame him? As the three of us got acquainted, a dishevelled man with a bulging gut burst in, armed to the nines with a supply of Gillette fusion razors. Unfortunately for Nick (for lack of a better name) none of us were in the market for a close shave or closer brush with the law and declined his kind offer. I’m more of a Wilkinson Sword guy anyway.

Nick promptly disappeared and was replaced by Mark Hasselholdt who was more on our wavelength. A fellow groundhopper, Mark had got in touch with Joe and, like me was coming to see what the Colls experience was really like. Originally from Suffolk and a keen Ipswich Town fan, Mark had since relocated to Manchester and thrown himself into the non league scene. Mark had actually braved the Pound Pub before joining us and lived to tell the tale. At this point, Joe and Rob headed down to the ground to finish preparing for the game, allowing me and Mark to exchange groundhopping tales. He passed the due diligence test. Anyone who has Matt Trakker as their Twitter profile picture is OK in my book. People who grew up in the 80s watching Saturday morning television will get that last reference.

Admission, programme, pie and soft drink all came to less than a tenner, which was simply stunning. I wasn’t used to this. Upon entry, Joe had added to his list of duties by reading out the two teams and relaying information over the house mic. Alder House (or the freshly sponsored Kensite Stadium) as it’s now called is a largely open ground and the definition of ramshackle. A small sheltered standing area mirrors a sloping old stand opposite – made up with seats from a defunct side in Leigh. The players emerged from a spacious cabin behind the goal and through a Fly Emirates sponsored pullout tunnel. A slew of local companies have taken the opportunity to sponsor the club down the side of the pitch. I was disappointed not to see any sort of branding from the FA. The fact it was an FA Cup game and they couldn’t be bothered to send each club a solitary banner to display doesn’t sit right with me. I’m a traditionalist for minor details like that.

Colls were favoured slightly over Bacup (playing in the Division below) and could boast of having a local celebrity in their ranks. Unfortunately, frontman Jordan Cover – famous for being part of the Blackout Crew had pulled a hamstring in a pre-season game and was relegated to playing cheerleader in the stands. While he couldn’t ‘put a donk on it,’ the Colls did stamp their authority on the game right from the kick-off.

Mark Battersby is the definition of a goal machine after rattling in 61 goals two seasons ago. However, he could have had five goals here in the opening 20 minutes. Colls exploited the offside trap on numerous occasions, allowing Battersby to burst clear, only for him to be thwarted by under-fire ‘keeper Aaron Ashley.

Bacup simply couldn’t deal with Colls, particularly lively midfielder Gareth Peet. It was he who won Colls two early penalties. Ashley guessed right to thwart Battersby’s first effort, but the frontman shook off his previous disappointments to send Ashley the wrong way with his second spot kick. It was coolness personified and two more goals quickly followed. Vinny Bailey curled a peach of an effort in from the edge of the box, before Battersby turned provider for Ben Hardcastle to deftly direct the ball into the bottom corner. So far so good. Even when Colls sat on their three goal cushion, there certainly didn’t look like being any way back for Bacup. Famous last words.

The referee handed Bacup a dubious penalty when a free kick ricocheted off an Atherton hand in the wall. The hapless defender had no chance to get out of the way in time. Midfielder turned goalkeeper Dave Sherlock was deputising between the sticks due to a shortage of available shotstoppers. Up until this point, he had nothing to do but read his newspaper. Darcy O’Connor reduced the arrears with a low shot. Bacup remarkably ensured a nervy finish by netting again in stoppage time. Davey Thompson was left unmarked in the box and given ample time to pick his spot. It was a very flattering scoreline, but the referee signalled for full time and Colls were through to face Evo Stik side Witton Albion in the next qualifying round.

After the game, it was into the clubhouse for some post match beers. The Strongbow was cold and very nicely priced. Joe came in to join us, and together with club secretary Emil produced copies of the first NWCFL sticker book. The initiative has been paid for and approved by the league with the objective being to visit all 44 teams in the North West Counties over the coming season. The rules are simple. Collect a sticker of each club’s crest from said team’s bar. If anyone gets all 44 done in a season, they get a certificate and a free ticket to a game of their choice. Given my record of completing 72 Football League clubs and my failure at completing the Euro 2016 sticker book, I’m tempted to take the challenge. My non-football loving girlfriend might have other ideas though.

With the Colls players enjoying a well earned beer outside, Midfielder Brad Cooke proved his talents stretched to photography when he captured a fitting picture of me with Joe and Mark on the pitch. I walked back to the station happy with my lot. Even the neighbouring Bolton Wanderers had picked up a win, giving their fans something to smile about. In one final first, I managed to negotiate the use of a toilet on a moving Northern train. I’m still amazed I was able to squeeze into the box hole and get out again in one piece.

I’m sure this will be the first of many trips to Alder House. Based on first impressions, I’ll definitely be back again. Up the Colls!

View from the stands – Mark Hasselholdt

“It was the most one-sided 3-2 I’ve ever seen. I loved the Kensite. It was ramshackle, but it also had a clear identity with so much of it bedecked in black and white stripes. In spite of the less than modern feel you could also sense they were a team on the up. They reminded me of Glossop when they were a NWCFL team with the support and off-pitch set up. One other (but no lesser) point was that the cheese and onion pies were magnificent.”

Best chant: “You can’t get cramp in August! Have you had a pre-season?” An Atherton fan heckling the Bacup players short on fitness towards the end.
Match ticket: £5. The going rate around the League. An absolute bargain!
Match programme: £1.50. ‘The Carbon’ was a well put together edition, containing plenty of pre-season coverage and stats. Joe made it as a double edition to serve for the upcoming game against West Didsbury & Chorlton, which ended up being postponed due to West Didsbury needing to contest an FA Cup replay against AFC Liverpool.
Cost of food: £1.80 for a pie fresh out of the oven. Meat and potato variation was filling and piping hot, with a crunchy crust and a raised lid.
Pie rating: 3/5 – a fair offering. I regret declining the offer of peas and gravy.

Final Score:
Atherton Collieries 3 (Battersby pen 14, Bailey 16, Hardcastle 20)
Bacup Borough 2 (O’Connor pen 79, Thompson 90)
Attendance: 146