Sunday, May 8, 2016
I can hear the Nottingham racecourse PA announcer calling out the horses names as I slam shut the front door. I jaywalk across Daleside Road, which is clogged up with rush-hour traffic, and head down Racecourse Road towards the Colwick Hall Hotel. I peer through a clearing in the hedge as horses are loaded into the stalls; they're out in a flash.
I chance upon an elderly gentleman sat on a chair at one of the entrance gates, with a snowy white owl perched on his shoulder. Kim is five years old and lives on a diet of one day old chickpeas. I continue my walk, dropping into the Starting Gate, as my thirst needs quenching. I sink a pint of Spring Fever from the St Austell Brewery at £2.57 with CAMRA discount.
I stroll through some woodland as the vista of the grandstand at the racecourse comes back into view. The first horsebox I clock is one of leading flat trainer John Gosden from Newmarket. Three year old fillies are eating up the turf as they gallop up the final furlong in the 6:10pm. John Gosden's Snow Moon has won by three lengths at even money. All the clues were there Sticky - the snow owl, Gosden's horsebox and Ms Moon with her snotty nose, back home, slouched on the sofa watching Jeremy Kyle. I should have put my house on it.
It's Saturday morning and I'm having a chinwag with nasty Norwich fan Murphy Palmer the budgie. I took him to the vets last week to get his nails clipped. In the surgery waiting room he was surrounded by dogs whimpering, cats meowing and parrots squawking. Above it all you could hear Murphy whistling the Canaries anthem 'On the Ball City.' It was a different scenario on the operating table. He greeted the veterinary surgeon with a 'Glasgow Kiss' before being grabbed around the neck in a lock, with the vet's first two fingers and with a terrifying look his nails were clipped. He's still traumatized to this day.
We're in the 'Rolls Royce' today - Sticky is piloting. I hare down the A50, through Stoke and onto the A500. Today is the final game of 'our' groundhopping season. We've not missed a Saturday game since July 12th. I've earmarked The Badger at Church Minshull for lunch which is also a Good Pub Guide tick-off. It's a recently refurbished 18th Century coaching inn. I have a pint of Badger from the Tatton Brewery. Co-pilot Ms Moon has Stilton and celery soup accompanied with Beef and horseradish sauce on sour dough. Sticky plumps for Whitby scampi on flatbread.
Winsford is a short 15 minute drive away. 1874 Northwich groundshare with Winsford United at the Barton Stadium. On 15th November 2012 disillusioned fans of the Northwich Victoria Supporters' Trust voted with broken hearts to run a democratically supporters-run club.
Northwich is a town in Cheshire with a population of 20,000. It was once well known for its salt mines. Famous folk born or raised in the town include: The Charlatans lead singer Tim Burgess, singer Rupert Holmes (Pina Colada hit is a classic), FA boot 'n run merchant Charles Hughes and goalkeeping cousins Michael and Andy Oakes.
We park up on West Dudley Street, a no through road. A blue-aproned chef from the Phoenix Chinese and English takeaway throws away uneaten bagged-up food into a wheelie bin. The Top House pub is stacked out with beer-swilling Colne fans who are basking in the baking heat.
A draw today is enough for the visitors to clinch the North West Counties League title. We caught them on a dark, miserable day up in Birkenhead. Cammell Laird were ruthless on and off the pitch. Colne were thumped 4-0. They lost all discipline. Three players were shown Red and two coaching staff were ask to leave the technical area. Fair play to manager Stephen Cunningham for fronting it up and apologising on behalf of the club on Facebook. He went up in Sticky and Ms Moon's estimations.
The ground is a belter. It's £6 on the gate and £2 for the programme. On the nearest touchline is a rickety old stand with blue tip-up seats. Behind the far goal is a grassed area making the view at least 30 yards to the goal net. There is cover running along the farthest touchline and an open end behind the nearest goal.
Colne FC manager Steve Cunningham is a clever guy. He allows his team a relaxed warm-up, to relieve the tension. He shakes folks hands, fusses his Mum, acknowledges anyone who wishes him good luck. Ms Moon admires him. Inwardly this guy's stomach is churning. Nine months work rests on one game. Leading scorer Jason Hart is suspended.
One of the Northwich subs complains that he has forgot his suncream. Cunningham strikes up a conversation with some Northwich committee members. He says that he likes 1874 Northwich very much, but won't miss the North West Counties League if they go up. It's said without any malice - just maybe one or two clubs have niggled him.
The pitch is bobbly and bumpy and killing these players. Northwich are direct, Colne don't trust the pitch. Their game is hurried. They snatch at chances as nerves set in. Northwich waste two good chances as neither 'keeper is fully tested. I'm stood next to a Runcorn Town fan who can't abide Runcorn Linnets. If the Linnets score 6 goals at Padiham and Colne lose, then they will be crowned as champions - they're already two the good.
Colne have rocked up with 250 fans. Two of these are different class. Landlords Winsford United have been broken into two days ago. The bar has been trashed and the till smashed to smithereens. They walk circuit after circuit of the ground politely asking for donations to help Winsford. They raise £178 - this is why I watch and support Non League football. It brings a tear to my eye when they announce what these boys have raised.
It's still nip and tuck in the second half. Cunningham sends his troops out early to avoid a claustrophobic changing room. Danny Boyle begins to come alive, as his partner Ben Wharton, a good hold-up player, is well shackled by 1874 centre half Craig Farnworth. Colne's long throws are always speared in too close to the 'keeper who is catching for fun.
The game-changing moment happens on 65 minutes. A boy called Joel Melia is thrown on by Cunningham as Colne go 4-3-3. Cunningham is sweating buckets when he hears Linnets are 3-0 up. Meila's impact is instant. His low sense of gravity and positional sense creates width for the team. He survives a couple of bollockings from Cunningham, but the boy is never say die. I saw him play for Barnoldswick at Tadcaster during a 5-0 drubbing - he has the heart the size of a bucket.
Meilia picks up the ball on the right, he drifts past a defender, muscling him off the ball, before pulling the ball back from the byline. Danny Boyle flicks it up before firing a shot it into the corner of the net, despite the 'keeper's best efforts. The reaction is tear-jerking. Subs, coaching staff and players run to pile on Boyle - the relief to all is breathtaking.
Cunningham instructs the subs and coaches to form a line before the final whistle. The celebrations are wild and ad-hoc. We leave them be. It's not just about today - it's a been a long season.
Man of the Match: 1874 Northwich 5 Jacket - brilliant.
Monday, May 2, 2016
It's 7:00am on Saturday morning, I'm mooching about the kitchen making a brew. Today I'm ticking off my final Northern professional football league ground. It's 78 out of 92 after a painstaking 40 years of travelling up and down the accident-prone motorways of England.
We leave Murphy the budgie sulking on his perch, waiting with anticipation for his Uncle Brian Matthew and the Sound of the 60s Show on Radio 2. Ms Moon has fuelled-up with a large skinny decaf latte from Costa Coffee, where I'm on first-name terms with all the staff.
The dreaded M6 rears its ugly head with breakdowns and roadworks galore. We're hooking up with Oxford United fan Chris Hepburn, who has very kindly snapped up some tickets for us on the away terrace. Ms Moon and 'Heppers' used to work together as teenagers at Asda in West Bridgford, Nottingham, back in the day. It will be the best part of 30 years since they last met. I'm playing the part of Eamonn Andrews off This is Your Life.
Graham Norton has banged out a couple of good tunes including 'Stop Me' by Mark Ronson featuring Melbourne-born singer Daniel Merriweather. We're heading up Botcher Gate into the city centre. It's a grim part of town with some ugly buildings including a hotel we were supposed to stay in. Ms Moon cancelled the reservation after a flurry of poor reviews on Trip Advisor. It's adjacent to the Sexual Health Clinic - I'm not sure if the two are in a partnership.
The haunting voice of Nick Cave on the radio adds to the depressing surroundings. Professional drinkers clog up the entrance to Wetherspoon watering holes the Woodrow Wilson and the William Rufus, that are situated only a few hundred yards apart. A plethora of retail parks cause traffic congestion. We finally pitch up at the back of the old fire station, before wandering up to the King's Head on Fisher Street.
I shout up a pint of Boltmaker from the Timothy Taylor stable. Ms Moon has soup with a chicken baguette, I opt for a full English fry-up that I hope will keep me going until our evening meal at the Pheasant Inn at Casterton, just outside Kirkby Lonsdale. We take a window seat and peer out into the street. Heppers rocks up after two days of horse racing at Redcar and Musselburgh. He's reunited with Ms Moon, who says the last time she saw him he resembled Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran.
The pub jukey or i-Pod shuffle treats us to the Teardrop Explodes and EMF. Five Star's 'System Addict' results in a mass exodus across the road to the bookies. Heppers is a bundle of nerves as Oxford United stumble across the finishing line. We kill a bit of time at William Hill's. Ms Moon fancies an Oxford and Man Utd double. We park up at a youth centre, a ten minute walk away from Brunton Park.
Carlisle is a city and county town of Cumbria and is located at the confluence of the rivers Eden, Caldew and Petteril. It lies 10 miles south of the Scottish border and has a population of over 70,000 people. Carr's (now United Biscuits) began baking in 1831. I've always manage to find a half-eaten packet of their water table biscuits in the cupboard, but never have any cheese in the fridge. Production was halted in January 2016 after the factory was flooded. Both the builder John Laing and the haulage company Eddie Stobart have their HQ in the city.
Notable people from Carlisle include: the footballers Kevin Beattie, Grant Holt, Paul Simpson and Matt Jansen, former England rugby captain Steve Borthwick, Woodrow Wilson's Mum, Emmerdale actress Roxanne Pallet and the broadcaster and journalist Melvyn Bragg.
Carlisle United were founded in 1904 and have played at Brunton Park since 1909. Well known ex-players include: Peter Beardsley, Stan Bowles, Matt Jansen and Rory Delap. Notable former managers: Bill Shankly, Nigel Pearson and Bob Stokoe. Record transfer fee paid: Joe Garner £140,000. Record sale: Matt Jansen to Crystal Palace for £1.2 million.
We head down the Warwick Road, past red-bricked Victorian houses with huge bay windows. The Beehive pub is across the road - Northern Crisis are playing there over the weekend. We're directed by a friendly steward to the far side of the ground. It's £16 to stand on the terrace (thanks Chris) and just £2 for a programme. The ground is proper old school. I love the two tier rickety old stand to the right of the away end.
Ms Moon and I viewed Carlisle up at Morecambe a few months back. They didn't turn up for over an hour, but a couple of inspired substitutions turned the game on its head, when they scored two goals in a minute to snatch a game from the jaws of defeat.
Oxford are warming-up at our end. I recognise coaches Chris Allen (ex NFFC) and Derek Fazackerly who followed Kevin Keegan around. They look to have a lot of young uns. It's the business end of the season. They'll need a win to stay with the chasing pack, and will need to do it without leading scorer and Sky Bet Player of the Year Kemar Roofe. The Oxford chairman has shouted up 1000 pints and 1000 pies for the travelling fans at the The Magpie on Victoria Road.
Oxford's manager is highly-rated coach Michael Appleton. He's settling in following a few false starts at crisis clubs Portsmouth, Blackpool and Blackburn. The best warm-up songs are from The Killers and Dario G. £150,000 was spent on this freshly-laid pitch, following the floods. It's now, ironically, being doused with water from sprinklers.
Oxford play a beautiful game from the off. In the fourth minute Danny Hylton sees off the full back before finding Maguire, who is upended for a stone-wall penalty. Maguire keeps a cool head, with hands on hips, his run-up is short, arcing in from right to left, his strike is perfect and finds the inside corner of the net.
Local boy, Callum O'Dowda is running the show. His fleet of foot, change of direction and pace is bamboozling the Cumbrians. Oxford are shanking, scuffing and mistiming good opportunities as a sluggish Carlisle fail to get a grip on the game.
Penrith-born left back Danny Grainger is getting rinsed. He throws the ball like a hand grenade, and takes all the corners and set-pieces. Carlisle manager Keith Curle parades up and down the touchline in Savile Row attire. He's sporting a smoking jacket and beige trousers, fit to wear for a Gentlemen's Evening. His team inch their way back into the game, but find the Oxford rearguard in fine form.
Half-time allows a nervous, ashen-faced Hepburn a couple of toilet breaks as his stomach continues to churn. He turns down offers of hot food and cold drinks, preferring to chew on gum more furiously than Sam Allardyce and Billy Davies.
Carlisle have had a Keith Curle hair-drying at the break. They play with more purpose in the second half. It's like a cup tie, as the Cumbrians turn the screw. Against the run of play Oxford make it 2-0 with a smart finish from Liam Sercombe, who fires under the 'keeper Gillespie from close range.
At the end of the game an exhausted Oxford team can barely raise their arms to clap the 2238 visiting supporters who have stood on an open terrace that has not been used since the visit from Everton in the FA Cup in late January.
Man of the Match: Callum O'Dowda (and Heppers) xx