Opening a new football ground is tantamount to presenting a challenge to Pete Sixsmith. Let no ground, his philosophy runs, remain unvisited. Others consider Malaga, Bali or Florida for their summer hols. Pete found Rodney Parade and a night in Llanelli more to his liking …
Football’s coming home. It’s nearly another two weeks before it returns to the Stadium of Light. We gaze upon the “new, improved” Sunderland, but for the 72 clubs that make up the oldest football league in the world, the action started on Saturday.
The Football League owes its existence to one William McGregor, a Perthshire man domiciled in Birmingham and owner of a drapery business. An Aston Villa man, he suggested to a number of clubs that they might join together for the purpose of playing a regular set of fixtures. Thus, the Football League was born.
The first games involved the likes of Bolton Wanderers, Derby County, Everton and Aston Villa. Derby had the biggest win, walloping Bolton 6-3 at their Dilkes Lane ground, but it was Preston North End, already ensconced at Deepdale, who were the first title winners – and the second ones as well.
Burnley played at Turf Moor and are still there 125 years on, while Everton began their unbroken tenure in senior football at Anfield. I gather that Liverpool supporters sent telegrams accusing the Toffees of acting without class.
Since then, many clubs have come and gone. In the North East, we have had Darlington, Ashington and Durham City and the wonderfully named Middlesbrough Ironopolis.
Glossop are the smallest town ever to have had a club in the league and places like Aberdare, New Brighton and Maidstone have also been represented. Football League status has always put a town on the map; why else would anyone have ever taken an interest in Hartlepool?
On Saturday, I took in a game between two clubs who had been long serving members, gone bust, reformed and fought their way back through the FA Pyramid. One, Accrington Stanley, were the successors of the original Accrington club that had been there 125 years ago. They had made an emotional return to the league in 2006 and, although they have not set the world on fire, they have looked fairly comfortable.
This year, under new manager James Beattie, scorer of a wonder goal for Southampton at the SoL a few years ago, they are favourites to go down. Having seen them lose 4-1 at Newport County, the bookies are not far wrong.
For it was to Rodney Parade, Newport that my Senior Railcard took me on Saturday, to welcome Newport County AFC back to the Football League after a 25-year exile. They have fought their way back from the Hellenic League and a groundshare at Moreton-in-the Marsh, through the Southern League and the Conference South and National before taking their place in the elite 72 after a play off victory over Wrexham in May.
There was a real sense of pride around the Gwent city prior to the match. This was the day that many had longed for since they were relegated in 1988, with Somerton Park a wreck and the clubs finances even more so. They failed to complete the next season in the Conference, became involved in a squabble with the local council and the FA of Wales and were forced to leave the town.
Eventually, after sharing in Gloucestershire with Moreton Town and Gloucester City, they returned to Gwent, playing at a brand new sports centre in the beautifully named suburb of Spytty. It had a running track round it and stands a long way from the pitch, but it allowed County to clamber up the Leagues and make it into the Conference.
Last year, they left Spytty Park (although they did take their mascot Spytty the Dog) and moved in with the city’s Rugby Union clubs, Newport RFC and Newport Gwent Dragons.
Unlike the remote sports centre they used to call home, Rodney Parade is a 15-minute walk from the centre. It is well appointed and seems happy to welcome League football and has a capacity of 5,000, which can be raised if required.
The abundance of yellow shirts around the city were mostly stretched over the more than adequate frames of men who had wept when the original County went bust. I asked one for directions and he said how proud he was and that he felt that two of his friends who had recently passed away would be looking down on Rodney Parade with pride. Then he ruined the warm feeling by assuring me that he was a Chelsea diehard.
In fact, Liverpool seemed to be the Premier League club of choice in Newport. Lots of shirts manufactured by an obscure American manufacturer and sponsored by a Hong Kong based bank could be spied on a large number of males who had clearly not been attracted by Newport County v Trowbridge Town, Armitage 90 or Leicester United. If a club loses its League status, you can kiss goodbye to a couple of generations of fans.
The game was played on a warm, verging on hot, day and it was far too warm for Stanley who put up scant resistance as County romped it 4-1. Michael Liddle played for the visitors and looked decent, but their two central defenders were reminiscent of Gary Breen and Danny Collins circa 2005-06.
The four goals that The Exiles (once The Ironsides) scored were good ones and they were well organised and well drilled. Their manager, Justin Edinburgh, has built a side that should compete well in the bottom division and may well climb up the ladder sooner rather than later.
As for Stanley, it’s a difficult time for them.
I had travelled to Newport by rail, with an overnight stop in Llanelli. It was the long way round but it enabled me to travel on the Heart of Wales line that ambles across the principality from Shrewsbury.
Run by Sunderland-based Arriva, it has four trains a day in each direction, each train being made up of a single railcar. In his book On The Slow Train, Michael Williams describes it as one of the great railway journeys of the world as it meanders through “the unpronounceable heart of Wales”.
It was everything it was expected to be – tiny stations, remote valleys, glorious viaducts and friendly train staff. It took four hours to get to Llanelli, four hours well spent looking out of the window and listening to the sing-song Welsh accents. I was deposited in Llanelli, a town fiercely proud of its heritage and hanging on despite its decaying town centre.
A quick sprint to Newport on a crowded train, and then an enjoyable journey from Newport to Birmingham in the company of Leicester City fan and Leicestershire Second XI scorer, Pete Johnson. Alas, at New Street, a station almost as dismal as Sunderland’s, bad news as the train I was booked on was desperately late.
I took the next one to York, where East Coast Main Line held up the last train north so that we could catch it. It reminded me of the good old days of British Rail – and ECML is owned by you and me.
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