Pete Sixsmith had his say with Gary Bennett on the radio as he left the Sunderland-West Ham game, had his say at Salut! Sunderland and then started to enjoy his Easter football programme. Read on for a groundhopper’s fascinating description of journeys to Yorkshire and across the Pennines to add another batch of grounds to those he has hopped between …
In the Good Old Days, when Gary Lineker was bawling out his wares in Leicester Market and Alan Shearer was learning how to creosote a fence, Easter was a time for three games in four days, six points if you were pushing for promotion or one if you were heading for relegation.
I wrote a while ago about the epic camping trip to Wem in 1979, where, after beating the Mags on Good Friday at Roker, we won at the Racecourse and Gay Meadow to seal a six-point Easter and gain promotion by beating West Ham United on a Monday night in front of Monsieur and Madame Salut at a packed Roker Park [I promised if we secured promotion that we’d go for a curry at the very good Indian restaurant Sunderland had then, but bought her egg and chips at the Wimpy beforehand just in case – Ed]
Those days are long gone and we had a single game (and a single point) over Easter. Next season we may get two although they could be at any time of the day or night as the Championship TV schedules are as flexible as Nat Jackley, the original rubber man, so it could be Maundy Thursday and Easter Monday for us – in the unlikely event that we are promotion candidates.
But there is plenty of football about. On Maundy Thursday this year, after I had collected my bag of money from the Queen, I tootled off to Manningham in Bradford to watch Campion (named after Gerald, the man who played Billy Bunter – or it could have been the Catholic martyr Edmund) play Dinnington Town in game one of a 13 game fiesta organised by the Northern Counties East League, the North West Counties League and Groundhop UK, a company that specialises in tours for those who need to travel to new stadiums, ie the likes of me.
The game was a decent one and the home team won 4-1 but the star of the night was Manningham Mill. It sits on top of a hill overlooking the city and within sight of Valley Parade, so we may have a chance of seeing it next season.
It really is a magnificent structure, built in 1871 to produce silk and employing over 11,000 people – more than can cram into AFC Bournemouth’s Premier League stadium. The man behind it, Samuel Cunliffe Lister, also gouged out a park for his workers and the splendid houses on Manningham Lane give us some idea of how important and influential a city Bradford was in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
I skipped the Yorkshire games on Friday and Saturday having already “done” those grounds but fired up the trusty Mazda to scoot across the A66 on Sunday morning and take in games in the pie fields of Wigan and the chemical works of Runcorn. That was followed on Monday by a visit to Atherton and two to South Manchester, giving me five new grounds and one revisit after 20 years. Not a bad weekend for a groundhopper.
The first two took place in Ashton-in-Makerfield, part of Wigan Borough and close to Haydock Park. Sixsmith Minor had taught there for while in the late 70s which explains the number of 50-year-old locals quoting David Hare and Edward Bond and it was also the site of a famous gravel pit that featured in Harold Wilson’s resignation honours list. Something to do with a businessman called Ronald Millhench and Harold’s private secretary Marcia Williams if memory serves.
There are two teams in Ashton. Athletic were up first and are sitting in mid table in the NWC Premier Division and they saw off visitors Squires Gate 2-1 in a game played in continuous rain. It lead to 100 middle aged males crowding into a shelter designed for 50 and constricted those who liked to write down the details of the game as they sought to fill in their pads using the man in front as a desk.
From there, we ambled across town to the home of Town, the older of the two sides. They are hopelessly stranded at the bottom of the second level and are making plans for the Manchester League. Visitors Stockport Town left with the points as the weather (and mood) improved. Old acquaintances were bumped into and new friends were made including a Brighton supporter who was nervous about their promotion outcome. No need for that now, Steve.
I must confess that I am the originator of the Groundhop Weekend. Twenty five years ago, as we prepared to take on Liverpool in the FA Cup Final, the Northern League put on the first Festival of Football over Easter. It came about after I had submitted a letter to the NL magazine, Northern Ventures, suggesting such a thing, although it was with a large amount of tongue in a large amount of cheek. Mike Amos, then a NL committee member, had lots of enquiries about putting one on and he rose to the occasion.
There were four which covered the whole league between 1992 and 1995 and then another one in 2014 for the League’s 125th anniversary which brought folk back together. There were many memories to share over this weekend; the torrential downpour at Esh Winning, the bus breakdown at Shildon, the great programme hijack at Sunderland Ryhope CA, the day at Ashington when a horse walked into the ground, nonchalantly watched the game for ten minutes and then snorted with derision and trotted off.
The caravan moved on to Runcorn, Merseyside’s version of Billingham, where Town (not to be confused with Runcorn Linnets or the old Runcorn FC ) won 4-1 against Barnton against a backdrop of a former ICI factory, now owned by those nice people from Ineos. More rain, more good companionship and more football followed by a drive to Southport and the Hampton Hilton run by my sister-in-law.
The next day is was back to pie land and Atherton for Collieries (not to be confused with Laburnum Rovers) game with AFC Darwen. Colls had put Shildon out of the FA Vase earlier in the season and had caused me to miss the FA Cup tie with Burnley, so they have my undying affection for that. Despite going out to Cleethorpes Town in the next round, they have kept going in their league and are now a spit and a throw from promotion to the Northern Premier League Division One (North) where they will lock horns with South Shields next season.
Their ground is s truly evocative one and looks as a non-league ground should with stands built in strange places and lots of standing. As befits a club near Leigh and Wigan, the pies went well and drew many positive comments from the Southerner’s present who have to make do with sushi, quinoa and the odd spot of caviar on the effete stadiums of the Isthmian Premier and the Combined Counties League.
South Manchester next for two games in the Chorlton area (alas, the Wheelies failed to make it). Game one saw a good game between West Didsbury and Chorlton and Congleton Town in a rather posh part of town. The veggie chilli hit the spot here as did the WD&C sub, who scored a fine goal to give his team a win by the odd goal in three.
The curtain came down after a five minute drive through suburban streets festooned with Vote Labour signboards. Had Mrs May let it slip to a local resident who had bumped into her and husband half way up Mount Snowdon? No; it was for the upcoming Gorton by-election caused by the death of Gerald Kaufmann, whose verdict on the 1983 Labour Manifesto (“the longest suicide note in history”) may well be superseded in a few weeks’ time.
The final game was between Maine Road, sponsored by Manchester City Supporters’ Club, and Abbey Hey, another Manchester based team. The shouts from the pitch were redolent of Oasis, Shameless and Paul Calf (one of the players looked a wee bit like Fat Bob) and it ended in a 2-2 draw.
Twenty five years on, the Groundhop is going well. This one was not as scenic as the Scottish one undertaken three weeks ago but it was equally pleasurable and a footballing feast for anoraks like me – although we tend to wear Berghaus, North Face and Helly Hansen now.
And it was a pleasure to leave a ground without bemoaning the dreadful rubbish I had just sat through.
Thank goodness for non-league football.