Thursday, 28 March 2019

27/03/19 Review: Leek CSOB vs Tunstall Town

Leek CSOB 2-1 Tunstall Town (Staffordshire County Senior League Premier)
Pointon Park

Imagine being nine points off the top of the table with three games in hand. Now, imagine that top of the table have already played all of their matches and the ball is now in your court as the second placed team. Great, right? Finally, imagine all of the aforementioned is true but your goal difference is massively inferior. That's the kick in the teeth you need if you are following Leek CSOB this season. Yes, the Old Boys were in a position in which only a win would do, but ideally it needed to be a ten goal win and with a match against fourth place Tunstall Town coming up it was always going to be a big ask. Before yesterday evening's clash, CSOB had already managed 98 goals from 25 matches but unfortunately for the Pointon Park based side that was still a whopping 27 behind Silverdale Athletic and therefore meant that it is almost a dead cert that the Newcastle-under-Lyme side will eventually be crowned champions. Still, the hosts couldn't be blamed for dreaming and after a 6-0 victory over Ashbourne FC and a 23-0 win against whipping boys Florence FC, the very least the Old Boys would be asking is for three final wins to leave them level on points in a very respectable finish. Having lost only twice in the league this season, both against Silverdale Athletic, the only real setback that the club had encountered in the 2018/19 campaign was last Wednesday night in the Challenge Cup Final in which Stafford Town came back from two goals down to pip them to the Cup at Hanley Town.

I just about made it in time for kickoff
Seems as how I am moving out of Stoke and into Stafford soon, I wanted to get over to Pointon Park before leaving as I knew it was a ground worthy of visiting, but equally not one worth travelling more than the 17 minutes from my current house in Dresden. I have been lucky enough to visit a good number of the Staffs County League grounds already through my travels with Stone Dominoes last season at this level, but it's still nice to visit them as a neutral too and with only this match or a trip to Keele Uni on the cards, there really was only one choice for me on this nippy night. Arriving at Pointon Park just as the Ref blew to get the ball rolling, I strolled in to the ground and did my best to first of all decipher which team was which. My calculated guess was correct and it was the hosts in red and white, whilst their Tunstall opponents wore a yellow and blue kit and they were in ascendance when I approached pitchside. Town's towering striker headed the first chance over following a long-throw that Rory Delap would've been chuffed with, whilst at the other end the Old Boys number 9 fluffed his lines with an easy chance that could've given the perfect start with just a few minutes on the clock. Soon enough the quarter-hour mark passed and with that Tunstall shot themselves in the foot by surrendering the ball from an over-forced attack which led to Michael Keates getting the ball, having an initial shot saved and then following up to slide the first goal home. Leek 1-0 Tunstall.

Nobody could bear to sit down, scintillating stuff from the hosts
The twenty or so folk in attendance gave an optimistic cheer to suggest that with another half a dozen on the night, plus a couple of big wins against Foley Meir and Eastwood Hanley, the title was still a possibility. To be fair, the standard wasn't great in this match but it also wasn't a boring one and with Tunstall getting stuck in I was keen to see how things would pan out. We had to wait until almost the half-time whistle for the next big chance though and when the Tunstall left-back completely missed the ball and allowed Leek's number 11 in one-on-one, it was left up to the backtracking defender to make amends and get back to clear the eventual shot off the line as the visitors held on. During the break, the aforementioned number 3 for Tunstall, named Hussain, was subbed off in place of Sam Hati- a lad I'd seen a couple of times earlier in the season for the Dominoes. I was looking forward to seeing how the former Hanley Town player would get on in what was bound to be a tight second-half.

Let's hope he stuck to the strict regime available at the Outdoor Fitness Centre!
As the players reemerged for the restart, the neighbouring five-a-side pitch began to become vocal as the "Lads & Dads" match was obviously getting tasty. I'll be honest, I did almost get hit with the ball from the main pitch whilst glancing over. One man shouted "next goooooal winnnnnner", how could I resist?

Mind you, it was getting a bit cold by now
The hosts started off with an early chance and I must admit that I was astounded to see the offside flag deny the Old Boys a second goal just three minutes in. Tim, who would become a prominent feature in the second-half, was a tall and slow lino who struggled to keep up with play at the best of times unfortunately and when the Tunstall defence was unlocked they raised an arm as the Leek striker ran in. Tim, practically still bumbling around at halfway, ran down his wing and raised the flag just as the ball was struck into the net. A few fans began to shout their thoughts out and this caused a reaction from the big man who was clearly struggling to remain focused. "You best shut up or the club will report you" proclaimed Tim. Imagine the lino shouting that out at a Premier League game to the fifteen thousand abusive fans giving him a roasting. Hilarious. Back on the pitch there was to be a goal and it was a similar move to the previously ruled out effort. Leek's pass through the middle was inch perfect for Keates and he ran on to it, rounded the keeper, took a look up behind him at the backtracking defenders before tapping it into net. Two down, only another eight to go! Leek 2-0 Tunstall.

Game over?
The remainder of the match was very competitive, well fought and often scrappy, but the hosts did seem the more likely to score again. With five minutes to go CSOB squandered a good chance and just a minute later there would be a late twist to the tale as Flattley fired home after a classic goalmouth struggle. The scramble would see Tunstall shots ricocheting off of home defenders, the keeper, the woodwork before it was eventually forced home. Leek 2-1 Tunstall. I spent the remaining few minutes thinking about how much of a damp squib it must be for Silverdale Athletic to know that they are almost guaranteed the league, but also know that they won't get it through a result of their own. The title almost was sealed tonight as Tunstall went close to an equaliser in stoppage time, but ultimately the spoils would go to the hosts and the attentions now turn to Wednesday. The former FA Cup and FA Vase competitors next face off against third placed Foley Meir on Wednesday knowing that only a double figures win can realistically keep the fight alive.

Monday, 11 March 2019

09/03/19 Review: St Helens Town vs Garstang

St Helens Town 1-3 Garstang (North West Counties Division One South)
Acroframe Stadium

Wayhay, it's time for another landmark entry for 'Pint of Football' and this one is the big 150! Yes that's right, as time has gone by and the years have passed since my first ground visit to the Moss Rose in Macclesfield, I have proceeded to travel about in a journey that has seen be take in matches as far and wide as Mallorca and Belfast and as close and near as the local teams in Stoke and Staffordshire. With adventures in London, Bristol, Scotland and East Yorkshire, it became my destiny last weekend to end up in the North West of the country for St Helens Town versus Garstang, aka my 150th ground.

GroundhopUK were here too, obviously
Due to the fact that I'd already attended two games on this blistery and wet Saturday, my early arrival was a great excuse for me to grab a much needed pre-match nap. I know, I know, old man, young body. In fairness, with a 6am shift earlier that day and one more to come the following Sunday, this three game haul was a real stretch for me and after starting the morning in Stoke, going to work in Stafford, driving up to Bootle, then across to Wythenshawe, before heading over to St Helens, I was more than ready for kip by the time the 7:45pm kickoff rolled around. Some would even have settled on the back-to-back matches I'd done already, with Bootle versus Ashton Athletic proving to be a proper cracker of a game in the 11am start, alas that's not the 'Pint of Football' way and knowing that the GroundhopUK gang had managed one more match than me already today I soldiered on into the green fenced new build known as the Acroframe Stadium.

You know it's gonna be fancy when they have a map showing you to the damn pitch!
Unlike the grounds visited on my 50th and 100th outings, the Acroframe was in near-perfect nick and with an astroturf pitch it is clear to see that the club have worked well with their local council to secure a sustainable and economical ground. Are they my favourite type? No, but I can't help but sympathise with a club when they go forward with a basic and modern facility in these times of struggle for non-league clubs. Compared to the Barton Stadium in Winsford, the home of my 50th, the differences are monumental and from a club's point of view I'd say it is for the better. Sure, the smell of chip fat, bobbling pitch and broken seats at Winsford United are more my scene, but this enclosed football pitch does exactly what it needs to and with a healthy ground share arrangement with Pilkington FC of the Cheshire League, you can't knock St Helens. With that said, I made my way into the stadium about twenty minutes before game time and it was at this point I realised the biggest mistake of my pre-match snooze. With the starving footy fans piling into the ground, I overheard one chap at the back of a mega queue tell his mate that the pies had already sold out. Meat and Potato, gone. Steak and Ale, nope. Even a Cheese and Onion was out of the question as I sulked past the van and into the stand. Thankfully, I was able to have a natter with the club Chairman who I know through Stone Dominoes and he very kindly offered me a cuppa and a chat as the game began. Garstang, a small town just North of Preston, were tonight's opposition and the midtable side were fancied by most to grab a win in the build-up. One groundhopper went as far as to say that he felt this was the only "nailed on" result when he'd looked at the stats beforehand. I preferred to be an optimist for the hosts in my pre-match prediction, selecting a 1-1 draw. However the newly promoted side, winners of the 2017-18 West Lancs Premier, were soon putting doubt in my mind as they took an early lead through Rich Coar as the forward got in ahead of the St Helens keeper to poach the ball into the net and put the side in red ahead. St Helens 0-1 Garstang. Much like my first match of the day both sides had a host of opportunities and I found myself almost gobsmacked when three huge chances went begging for St Helens. Liam Diggle's was the worst one as he rifled over the bar from close-range. Half-time was soon upon us and the near 300 fans in attendance rushed back over to the van for a top up of tea on this now very cold night.

Another healthy crowd, lovely
The home side got things back underway in style within a few minutes of the restart as Diggle made the most of a scrappy set-piece to force the ball over the line and give the home fans something to cheer about. St Helens 1-1 Garstang. To be honest it was well deserved for the boys in blue and the romantic in me wanted to see them push on. The football on the whole had been scrappy in this one and with the cards being dished out for an unlimited amount of second-half fouls, it would take moments of magic or disaster to settle this one. Shaun Sailor, the best player on the pitch in my opinion, was the one to take the game by the scruff of the neck and his goal on the hour mark ensured we'd be in for a tense last thirty. St Helens 1-2 Garstang. The visitors would ultimately look more likely of getting a third than the hosts of an equaliser and despite a fantastic double save from Carl Williams, a penalty was eventually conceded from the defence and that allowed Jonathon Hothersall to claim the points for his side. St Helens 1-3 Garstang. The final ten minutes could've seen the scoreline become more devastating but with Williams producing a smashing goalkeeping display it remained as it was. I can honestly say I haven't seen shot stopping like that since Cribbs 2016.

Full time, 1-3
The match ended and the hoppers filed back into the bus, but for me it was time to get back on the road and head for home. A tiring but rewarding day all round.

09/03/19 Review: Bootle vs Ashton Athletic

Bootle 4-2 Ashton Athletic (North West Counties Premier League)
TDP Solicitors Stadium

A big weekend for Pint of Football arrived and passed by as Saturday 9th March would come to be known as the day that I visited three North West Counties grounds to get me up to 150. The great coincidence of this groundhopping landmark is that it came on a GroundhopUK weekend in which a group of thirsty enthusiasts from around the country head over to a chosen area and hop around as many matches as possible. I myself have attended one of these events back in 2017 as I took in seven Western League grounds in a hectic weekend with Bristol based hopper Tom (Partizan Bristle), but since then I have also made an effort to support the event as I drove through to Holbrook St.Michael's for a one-off match within their 2018 Midlands endeavours. Being a committee member of a NWCFL side, I already had plans to go and see my Stone Dominoes side away at Wythenshawe Town so it seemed only right that I sandwich the 3pm fixture in between the early fixture at Bootle and the late nighter at St Helens. It wasn't quite the four match haul the GroundhopUK lads were embarking on, but it was certainly a fair slog!

Before Frankie & Benny's there was....
Due to unfortunate circumstances at work, I began my day with a 6am shift in Stafford and as soon as I was physically able to I began my trawl up the gusty M6 in search of the 11am kickoff at Bootle. This Merseyside docking town would be the second I'd visited in as many weeks, with Cammell Laird being my away day with the Dominoes just seven days earlier. The main difference this time around would be that the match was a Premier Division fixture and with that I'd hopefully get to see the quality that has led the hosts to second in the league, whilst their opponents lingered in sixth- a massive nineteen points off the Bucks before this game. Knowing that the hosts would be well up for this high attendance crunch match, I predicted a comprehensive win for Bootle and set my stall out with a 4-1 triumph.

I arrived a few minutes late, but thankfully didn't miss the opener
To put things into perspective, the crowd attracted by the early kickoff for this opening GroundhopUK tie of the day would be recorded at 391- the third highest non-league step five crowd in the country. As I arrived through the TDP Solicitors Stadium doors I was delighted to see the place in good form with a great mix of groundhoppers, locals and kids all wrapped around the outskirts of the pitch. Despite the early start time, the beers were flowing nicely and after taking on a sausage butty I joined in the social atmosphere by heading into the clubhouse for a pint of my own. Overall, the ground was impressive and had plenty of places to stand to have a decent view, the wind was blowing around the open stadium and on the pitch of course was the main attraction. The hosts had made a solid start and it would be their pint-sized captain and leading forward who made the first breakthrough with what looked like a well-placed nutmeg through the Ashton keeper's legs. Bootle 1-0 Ashton. That goal from Peers set Bootle on their way to more early dominance and the club's top scorer was soon doubling his tally with a strike from just outside the box lofting into the net. Bootle 2-0 Ashton. You'd be forgiven by this point for thinking the game was going to become a classic, because that's exactly what would happen. No sooner had Bootle ran into a two goal lead and it would be Ashton's turn to turn on the heat. They'd already had chances of their own but when they got the chance to break in the 23rd minute they made the most of their swift counter and of course that meant it was game back on. Bootle 2-1 Ashton.

The Bootle boys looked bamboozled!
There were to be no more goals in the opening 45 and so I began to do my usual walk around of the ground. The highlights for me were the hustling and bustling Dodge Kop Stand, the wonderfully popular Bootle bobble hats (pictured above) and the obvious split of red and blue fans in attendance within the local contingent. Yes, being in the heart of Merseyside is always great for listening out for banter and on this occasion there were some great laughs to be had with one youngster, fully dressed in Liverpool attire, as the other Bucks fans kept stealing his red teddy bear and pretending to throw it over the fence. He responded with some anti-Toffees slurs and before we knew it, that was half-time.

Lovely clubhouse
After spending the break in the spacious and modern clubhouse looking through the collection of badges that "Terry's Badges" had brought to town, I made my way back out to the pitch ready for another great half of football. In what was undoubtedly game of the day for me, I was also able to witness the best of the fourteen goals I'd see as Athletic grabbed themselves an equaliser. The move was simple but effective as a quick free-kick was tapped over to Charlie Munro. The midfielder had time to look up, gather his thoughts and then launch a precise left-footed drive into the net from 25-yards. A great goal, albeit a disappointing one to concede from the hosts point of view. Bootle 2-2 Ashton. The comeback from two goals down was very impressive and all of a sudden Bootle looked shaken up to the point of looking likely to surrender the match. Ashton continued to press forward as we approached the hour mark and all the home side could do is try to ride the waves out until they could make their own chance again.

Time to freshen things up for Bootle
To the full credit of the Bucks, they did survive the pressure of Athletic and with the final twenty minutes to play they were now back in full control of the game. Eventually the decisive moment of the game would come as Ryan Cox crept into the box at the right time to gather up a parried save by Martin Pearson before reacting quickest to walk the ball into the net. Bootle 3-2 Ashton. The celebrations said it all as the Bootle kop end ran to the fence to celebrate with Cox, knowing the a win would keep them within touching distance of table-topping City of Liverpool. Once play restarted the fans began to shout a round of the "Heartbeat" theme tune which is obviously the sign of a delighted bunch of supporters. Most of the groundhop brigade had already started to crowd towards the exit ready for their trip over to the next game and I also knew that I needed to make a swift escape as I had a drive over to Wythenshawe in Greater Manchester, but thankfully none of us left prematurely and as a result we were treated to the game's final goal. Ashton's efforts to search for another equaliser were foiled as Ste Jones caught them out on the break and ploughed home their fourth goal. Bootle 4-2 Ashton.

Full-time, 4-2
A great way to start the day and a well-deserved victory meant that this potential banana skin of a fixture was done and dusted for Bootle. As I left amongst the GroundhopUK gang I overheard a lot of positive feedback about the game itself, the ground and of course one man asked his mate the ultimate question- "can the rest of the day live up to this?" I suppose the only way to find out is to tune in for my next entry, which comes from the fourth and final match of the day at St Helens. In the meantime, the hoppers had two mid-afternoon matches to get to and I myself would be on official duty at Wythenshawe Town- my 149th ground and the last one I was yet to see in the South Division of the North West Counties Division.

Next stop, Ericstan Park!