Monday, 6 May 2019

North West Counties First Division South- The Pint of Football Complete Rundown

North West Counties First Division South- The Pint of Football Complete Rundown

Right then folks, the time has come for 'Pint of Football' to rejoice as I have finally completed a full league's worth of grounds. Aye, in a journey that started back in August 2015 at the Wood Park Stadium in Alsager and ended last March up in Wythenshawe, all eighteen of the NWCFL First Division South grounds are officially ticked off... until a month or so's time when the relegated and promoted teams are confirmed! As you'd expect at this level, there are a couple of stunning grounds, a few newbies and a more than a fair share of rundown old ens. Within the division, I have seen plenty of league matches of course, but additionally I have had the privileged of seeing everything from a CONIFA World Cup warm-up match to a Welsh Premier League encounter, the highs of the FA Cup right the way down to the lows of pre-season stuffings for the sides hosting higher league opponents- and loads more in between*.

*Disclaimer Do not read on if you are expecting glamour...

... some of the grounds are still being built as I type...

... and some are just perfect the way they are!
Jokes aside, I must clarify that as I poke fun at the imperfections of these level ten grounds, there is no question that I would rather see one hundred knackered downtrodden terraces and clubhouses full of community spirit and character than actively trying to "do the 92" so that I can tell everybody what I thought of the £6.50 I paid for a Cornish pasty at Stamford Bridge or how I almost met James Milner as he boarded the Liverpool coach at the end of the match. Boring! For me, it's all about these local grounds and showing support for the grassroots- so without further delay, I am now going to attempt to rank the grounds from "worst to first" based on the ground and their facilities. Expect drama and expect controversy, I've changed my mind on the order about 487 times so this is by no means anything but my opinion from my visit.

18. Ericstan Park (Wythenshawe Town)

As mentioned at the beginning of the entry, Wythenshawe is actually where my journey ended in terms of completing the league's grounds. Although the nicely presented clubhouse gave me an optimistic start to the afternoon, having already been over to Bootle for the first part of the Saturday instalment of the NWCL Groundhop, I was ultimately to be left disappointed by what was to follow. The crowd, roughly at 100 in fairness, were as dull as the stands that housed them and in fact a good third of them didn't even bother with the game- opting to sit in the clubhouse instead. A poor one to end on, but a good one to start my countdown with considering some of the belters that are to follow.
At least they are the first place I've been that owns one of these...

17. Gorsey Lance (Rylands)

Next up, we go to Gorsey Lane and the home of the league champions, Rylands. The two grounds that I've visited in Warrington so far have certainly been as rough and ready as they come, but both host tough and triumphant teams so I best watch what I say. On the plus side, they have a pretty stunning old clubhouse. Apart from that let's just say there is potential to improve and if my conversation with the club officials is anything to go by, the plans are afoot to get Gorsey Lane out of the slumps and into a ground worthy of the NWCL Premier Division. On the field, the side were a class above Stone Dominoes, but unfortunately "the field" is about the kindest description of this one in its current form.

Perhaps the best clubhouse to boast, though

16. Beech Grove (Ellesmere Rangers)

You may have started to notice a theme by now. Yes, that's right, I've been following most of these grounds with Stone Dominoes away games. In a depressing season for the Dominoes, who almost folded over Christmas, we turned up at Ellesmere in January knowing that only a win in this game could give us hope. The game was tense, the ground was being watched by 56 people and there would just be a goal in this basement battle. This dark Tuesday night was cold due to the lack of shelter inside the ground and the best thing I can find to tell you about is the complimentary pastries that were out on display. In a word, delicious!

Beech Grove's behind the goal stand

15. The Offside Trust Stadium (Barnton)

Considering The Offside Trust Stadium was, up until recently, cohabiting an Evo-Stik Divison One side alongside Barnton, there's not a huge amount of grace and glamour to behold. It has some of the tatty undertones that make grounds like Eccleshall's Pershall Park and Abbey Hulton's Birches Head Park so good, but there seemed to be a lack of character when I made the midweek jaunt up the M6 for this match. There's nothing in terms of stands behind the goals, but at least they had a few odd small covered areas dotted around the sides. Possibly one of the lowest attendances I've seen at this level, but a cracking game nonetheless.

There were more fans than this, just about

14. Hollyhedge Park (Wythenshawe Amateurs)

If I was writing a positive write-up, I'd start with saying that Hollyhedge Park is the best ground in Wythenshawe. Much like their league rivals across the M56, the clubhouse is one of the better ones in the division and although the ground is largely still a construction site, I did actually enjoy my trip here. The sun was shining, the game was well contested in front of 123 folk and we were still in the unforgiving happiness of early season action. There wasn't really anywhere to sit and at time of visit and there was just one small sheltered stand, but when it's warm and the beers are flowing, that sort of stuff doesn't really matter to me.
I'm sure it'll be great when it's finished

13. Park Hall (Oswestry Town and St Martins)

Back in 2016 I "treated myself" to a trip to Park Hall in search of a top of the table clash in the Welsh Premier League. Park Hall, the home of Oswestry Town and St Martins as well, still remains one of the strangest places I've ever been to whilst groundhopping. Maybe it was the hangover after two days in Ireland watching Dundalk and Cliftonville, or maybe it was the play area inside the clubhouse, but something just doesn't quite sit right with me when I visit the Oswestry based ground. I revisited it this season with the Dominoes in their 1-2 defeat back in October and although I admire the high quality of the facility, I just cannot enjoy a game of football here.

I wonder why TNS can't play their big European games here...

12. The Proseal Stadium (Cheadle Heath Nomads)

In what was one of the most entertaining Dominoes away days of the season, I am pleased to report that The Proseal Stadium isn't a bad little setup if you can withstand the distractions of the constant flights going in and out of the nearby Manchester Airport. The majority of the facilities here seem pretty new and although there aren't thousands of spaces to stand and sit, the whole look of the place is very smart, with the only minor downside being that the clubhouse is a couple of minutes walk away from pitch-side. Not ideal for those mid-half pint replenishment journeys!

There goes the 15:26 to Venice

11. Sandbach Community Football Centre (Sandbach United)

Almost into the top ten now and allow me to introduce you to the home of Sandbach United, the boringly named Sandbach Community Football Centre. I visited this one in the latter stages of the 2017/18 season and as a couple of huge CONIFA fans, my pal Tom and I made the most of this Sunday afternoon outing. The ground itself is modern, with a sturdy wooden stand behind the goal and a porch-like area up the sideline with benches dotted around. We weren't overly fond of the slightly soulless clubhouse, but with it being a ground built in the heart of the community it is understandable that they didn't go for the "scruffy old pub" look for their facility.

Pretty smart overall

10. Wellbeing Park (Stone Dominoes and Stone Old Alleynians)

Forgive my bias here, but I love this little place. In the outskirts of Stone lies the sleepy village of Yarnfield and of course Wellbeing Park. The two clubs who play here were both newbies to the division, having spent the 2017/18 season in the Staffordshire Counties League and the West Midlands Regional League respectively. With a decent sized main stadium at the back of the ground, there are also several high-quality pitches in the front end and this is also where the clubhouse is situated. The main downfall with the location of the ground is that it doesn't exactly attract many fans, otherwise this could have the potential to be one of the better grounds in this division, having already got Stone OA who are undoubtedly one of the top sides in there. It was sad to see the Dominoes campaign go sour from the end of October onward, but ultimately I am pleased that they made it to the end of the season alive!

There's no place like home

9. Kirklands (Cammell Laird)

Proper Scouser land now and this one out on the docks of Cammell Laird is the most north-westerly ground in the division. Some grounds just scream out non-league classic and Kirklands is one of those, with a great history and some cracking people behind the scenes. The match I went to see up there was a cold and strange one, with Dominoes having their only keeper ruled out during the warm-up. This would explain an eventually heavy defeat for the visitors and my only real qualm with the ground is that there is no clubhouse. Not sure what the club's plans are moving forward, but judging by the facilities I'd say they are no strangers to surviving on a minimal budget.

Merchandise sales would be the way forward for me

8. Birches Head Road (Abbey Hulton United)

Keeping it local next as I move on to Birches Head Road, the home of Stokie side Abbey Hulton United. With everything from dodgy foreign TV being streamed in the clubhouse, to the tasty oatcakes for sale in the food hatch, there is something very homily about this one. Some of the grounds are undoubtedly in better condition, whilst many have more of a clubhouse to boast about, but for me there isn't enough ramshackle grounds like this knocking about anymore and no set of fans have been as friendly as this in all of my travels in this division. Keep doing what you do, Abbey Hulton, and let the Manchester clubs get fancy.
A proper old footy fan's clubhouse here

7. Brantingham Road (Maine Road)

You know how Manchester United have their own off-branch side called FC United? Well, this isn't quite the same thing, but Maine Road has indeed got a flavour of City in its genetics. Their ground and the land it sits on is probably only worth one week of Raheem Stirling's wage packet, but nevertheless there is a solid community feel here at Brantingham Road. I was fortunate enough to visit during their FA Cup Qualifier game on the August Bank Holiday of 2017, so the place was in pretty good spirits and I had the pleasure of chatting with some good folk during this trip. Old wooden benches, sun glistening down and a hefty slab terrace to stand and shout from- that'll do me.

Just don't tell the local vicar about the clubhouse benches...

6. Wood Park Stadium (Alsager Town)

Back in the naive younger days of my groundhopping ventures, back when 'Pint of Football' first began, I remember thinking to myself as I visited Alsager Town that this would probably one of the least glamorous grounds I'd see. How wrong my 2015 self was as I visited my 11th ground, Wood Park. Now that I've opened my eyes to the delights of places like Foley Meir, Walsall Phoenix and Holbrook St Michael's (just to name a few), I have come to realise that I was to be in one of the top grounds of its division. The things that make it great for me are the classic old seats, the welcoming clubhouse and the old chaps in attendance who clearly keep the club going. It is beyond being "nestled" in the local estate, which those who've visited may well know what I mean... if you could find it!

Believe it or not, these are the posh seats

5. Church Lane (New Mills)

Has your club been featured yet? If not, get the champers out because you've made the top five! Derbyshire isn't necessarily what I think of when I think of 'North West', alas I am pleased that New Mills are knocking about in these parts as it gave me the chance to visit their former Evo-Stik ground, Church Lane. When I think of places like this (in the sticks) I like to imagine whether I could be a fan of the club if I were an old man with nothing better to do than watch my local side. Safe to say I would certainly be down cheering on New Mills every other week if that were the case and I was counting down my years here in the High Peaks. The drive was glorious from Stoke, the ground was in really good nick and there was a great game of football to behold on this Saturday afternoon in November.

If you can't appreciate this, you are no friend of mine

4. Pershall Park (Eccleshall)

The best of the Staffordshire grounds in the league in my eyes also happens to be the one that is geographically the closest to my south Stafford home. Much like some of its predecessors, it's a proper footy ground and for every "rough around the edges" aspect of Pershall Park comes with an added element to behold. There's always something quite nice about having a stand attached to the clubhouse and it means that on those rainy July nights you can pop in for a swift tinny without missing twenty minutes of action. Additionally, there's a nice little standing terrace around halfway on the opposite side and another behind the goal. Even on a sodden pre-season evening, there was a decent turnout by the locals of this one-team town.

Just make sure you park close enough to pitch side....

3. Park Road Stadium (Cheadle Town)

Okay, here we are, the top three! Even though my mind has changed about the ordering of the rest of the grounds a million times or so, I always had the top three locked in from the start and these are the stadiums that stand firmly above the rest in the race to become the best in the division. Cheadle Town's ground is a class act from start to finish and I think they've developed the ground the way that all teams at this level should. The main stand, which looked like an old one that has been painted and a new roof built on to it, is rather grand and offered a fabulous combination of raised seating and standing to allow a great view of the game, whilst also managing to support the dressing room areas underneath. Although the clubhouse isn't glamorous, it is at least in good condition and has an additional tea hatch between the main facility and the stand. They've sproosed the place up with some nice bright red paint on the entry to the ground and there is some high-end patio decking down to give the place a real classy look. The pitch was in fine form the day I visited, too, making it a very close third place in my hunt for the best ground in the league. Other teams who have a bit of money at this level should take note- get your pitch up to scratch, tart up your main stand (don't knock it down!), get a bold paint job of your team's colours. DON'T JUST SPEND IT ALL ON GENERIC METAL STANDS WITH PLASTIC SEATS- IT LOOKS GARBAGE!

The Cheadle Town Club Sec insists "we must improve" after third place finish

2. Lambeth Grove (Stockport Town)

If you asked me to choose between a shiny new build and a scruffy old relic, I'd usually tell you that a modern stadium cannot have the character and beauty of a stadium that has been forged in stone and sits deep within the roots of its community. So, why did I love Lambeth Grove so much then? As I boldly alluded to in my brief write-up of Cheadle Town's delightful ground, my problem with new grounds on the whole is that they are soulless, generic, plain and lack the personality of the rusty stands and hole-filled terraces of the past- but Stockport Town have actually managed to put their own stamp on Lambeth Grove and what they've ended up with is a stunning newbie. Much like at the Park Road Stadium, the main stand also houses the dressing rooms underneath and it makes for a really nice moment when the teams enter the field from within the fans. The glass windows at the back of the stand give access to media people and club representatives, which is also very stylish, but aside from all of this is their crowning glory. The huge grey building at the side of the stand is a gym and clubhouse combo that looks nothing short of pristine! I was lucky enough to spend some time up there and the view from the clubhouse is actually really nice due to the raised posture of the facility. Top notch! It's up there with Arbour Park in Slough as being one of my favourite modern grounds- and it also gets a bonus point for being the only away day that I saw in which Stone Dominoes didn't lose. Ohhhhh yeeeeeeah!

Go on then, I suppose I should announce the winner...

1. The Syncreon Arena (Vauxhall Motors)

For anybody else who's been to all of the grounds in this division, it probably won't surprise you to see that ex-Conference side Vauxhall Motors have risen to the top of the pile and their ground, The Syncreon Arena, is a deserved winner in my search to crown the best ground in the league.

Two story clubhouse- YES PLEASE!
As I entered the home of the Motormen at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire, I was instantly impressed as I looked around the ground. From where I stood, over to my left is a rugged standing terrace which would be worthy of welcoming any non-league big boy and its masses of away fans, whilst on the right is an equally sturdy looking seated area that seems to be in almost pristine condition for a facility at this level. Don't get me wrong, it's certainly not a new-build, but the blue and white paint job is almost certainly looked after by one of the club's many exceptional volunteers. There is the potential for the club shop to be restored if needed, which currently is used as an office and a bit of a memorabilia hut, and then of course we have the beautiful double-decker clubhouse as you complete the clockwise circle of the ground.

I know of a couple of Football League sides who would kill to have this terrace
With the club also hosting a rugby team on the adjacent pitch and also having other sports teams involved on campus, it is clear to see that all of their facilities get fair usage and with that I must continue to pile on the praise at the ability of the club to keep everything looking as good as new. Inside the clubhouse is as busy and atmospheric as you'd hope, with plenty of folk- young and old- spending over the bars and making sure that everyone is out for a good day at The Syncreon Arena. After searching high and low throughout the division, I have to take my hat off to this one as being the cream of the North West Counties First Division South crop. Lovely stuff!

And they like a bit of Macc Town... top class!
And so with that my complete rundown is in fact complete! I hope that you've had a good read and if you have also visited the whole lot then I would love to know what you thought. Was Rylands really that bad? Is Cheadle Town a top three ground? You probably have a different opinion to me and although I'm now 150 or so grounds in to my non-stop pursuit, it was still very hard for me to rank these grounds in a definitive order. Of course, with Stone Doms and Ellesmere being relegated, there is a chance that I may be on the road again in 2019/20 for the new clubs and they well force me to have to rewrite my rankings! One thing's for sure though, it'll take something pretty damn good to knock these top three of their perch. Until next time, cheers for reading!

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