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