Sunday, 29 December 2019

28/12/19 Review: Hornchurch vs Brightlingsea Regent

Hornchurch 3-0 Brightlingsea Regent (BetVictor Isthmian League Premier Division)
Hornchurch Stadium

Waking up to the sound of squawking seagulls in Southend on the last weekend of the year has become a bit of a 'Pint of Football' tradition and alongside this would be yet another opportunity to check out a local ground as I have over the past three Decembers. Last season's trip to Rookery Hill for National League South action between East Thurrock and Dartford followed on from a successful outing to the Len Salmon at the end of 2017 where I saw a shock result for Ware as they beat Bowers & Pitsea. I could go on, put the point is that I could see no better way to complete a decade's worth of groundhopping by making my way over the suburbs of East London for the Isthmian Premier League battle between Upminster based Hornchurch and Essex side Brightlingsea Regent. Just a half-an-hour train ride separated me from the Hornchurch Stadium and so I hopped on to the 13:53 at Chalkwell and joined the full carriage of West Ham fans heading towards the capital hoping for some excitement on the pitch. Unfortunately for the Hammers followers, they possibly didn't get the right sort of excitement!

Always a pleasure to see the sea
Although there are no dead certs in non-league football at this time of the year, this classic encounter between promotion hopefuls and relegation candidates set itself up nicely as one that you'd expect the home side to win comfortably and as I walked through Upminster towards the Hornchurch Stadium, a place where no side has come and beaten the Urchins this season, I was feeling very optimistic for the hosts as they look to catch Folkestone Invicta at the top of the table and I predicted a 4-1 victory for them in my usual pre-match prophesy.

Was I about to enter the gates of the future champions?
Hornchurch Stadium would be my seventh ground in this division, a stat massively helped by the CONIFA World Cup of 2018 in which four of the visits came, and as is common for most in this area at this level I would say my initial impressions were that this East End stadium is to be described as "delightfully tatty". Much like with Coles Park in Haringey, the QEII over at Enfield and of course Rookery Hill where I was this time last year. In fact, I've almost come to expect this as a part of the charm of these London-bordering grounds and thankfully I was not to be disappointed on this occasion. Interestingly, all three of my games within the last month or so have come from BetVictor leagues and having ended November up in the Northern First Division equivalent at Pickering Town, I most recently went over to Nuneaton for Southern Prem action at Liberty Way, meaning that only the Isthmian League remained as I continue to mooch up and down the country seeking out the best of non-league. The thing that I love about these ventures is that despite being at the same level they all offered massively differing experiences. Pickering, who were welcoming "proper northerners" from Dunston, probably had the most basic of the trio of grounds and the least attendance, but was very memorable for the friendly atmosphere and banter- oh, and the fact that it was freeeeeezing! Liberty Way, visited three weeks back, is a classy setup and definitely a top ground for this level- but the former Conference side were lacking in passion on the pitch and were swept away by a tidy Rushall Olympic outfit. So that brings me to the here and now- and as I took a right-hand turn I was met by "Urchins Hot Dogs & Hamburgers", meaning that I was well and truly in the depths of Hornchurch Stadium and staring at the multi-use sports ground on display.
Running, jumping and even a bit of hammer throw if you fancy it
To the naked eye, there are many similarities to the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium 25-miles north-west of this, but unlike Enfield's ground I was already more of a fan of Hornchurch's effort as there are a few decent stands that you can get a good view from. The thing that a lot of grounds with running tracks surrounding them struggle with is getting the height and sight-lines of their stands right, but in fairness to Hornchurch this one wasn't a bad effort and although the stands were at ground-level, they did at least run the whole length of the pitch so there was plenty of space to find a good viewpoint. Granted, it wasn't as luxurious as the main stand at the Pingles Stadium towering over the running track at another Nuneaton based ground I've visited this season, but still a good effort overall. Besides, if you are that fussy, you can always set up camp in the clubhouse which has a great windowed view that almost resembles the directors boxes you get at other grounds.
Surely even the flakiest of armchair fans could appreciate this view...
I took the cue to check out what was going on up top and after passing a gazebo selling programmes and a wooden grotto selling club merch, I made my way into the bar which seemed to be housing most of the fans pre-match. The good thing with end-of-the-year games is that EVERYONE is having a beer and so I thought it would be rude not to join, before continuing my mooch around the ground which led me to the outdoor smoking area that doubled-up as a nifty viewing station of the pitch. We were approaching kick-off rapidly by this point, so I headed back down to pitch-side just in time to find a standing space next to the rowdy lot ready to cheer on the mighty Urchins.

Santa's grotto was still in full-swing as I headed to the terrace
The main players I was looking out for to impress in this match were the hosts numbers 7 and 10. George Saunders, a teenager who has formally played for Billericay, Harold Hill and Kelvedon Hatch so far, has managed a whopping 17 assists already this campaign and a lot of these have been for the equally impressive Chris Dickson. Their veteran striker, who has plied his trade successfully in England as well as Cyprus and has even had international caps for Ghana, is one of the league's top scorers with 18 in all competitions over 25 appearances. So with the scene set, the game began and it wasn't too long before the opener was nodded in. The hosts started well and although most of the chances they forged came from set-pieces, it was a positive start in the opening proceedings. When a 15th minute ball was swung in, centre-back Rickie Hayles was quickest to react and he looked delighted to have given his side an early lead and it certainly settled down the crowd too, who would now be hoping for many more to come against the visitors. Hornchurch 1-0 Regent.

The Urchin Ultras looked thrilled too
Early signs suggested that the game would pan out as expected and with the division's lowest scorers not offering too much in the attacking department, the only hope for the few travelling fans would be to keep the score low and try to scramble a goal together of their own. In defence, they were competent enough for sure and captain Matt Cripps was doing his bit to get the ball away from the hungry Hornchurch strikers, but nothing could be done to stop the Urchins going in on goal in the 35th minute- nothing, that is, apart from the heroics of Charlie Turner who did well to flick the ball into the air and on to the roof of the net in a desperate attempt to keep the score at 0-1 at the break. Both of the sides had carved a couple of half-chances from set-plays at the back-end of the first-half, but none that would be as blatant as the penalty given to the hosts right on the stroke of the break. Goal master Dickson stepped-up and slotted home, meaning that the fifteen minute break that followed would be much more relaxing for the hosts and not so much for Brightlingsea. Hornchurch 2-0 Regent.

The hosts have obviously been hitting the gym... maybe not this one, though
I decided to take in a new location for the second-half and so I moved over to the sparsely populated Colin McBride Stand. Arguably my favourite part of the ground, this timber floored effort had a wonderfully topped corrugated roof, mildly worn plastic white and red seats and glass covered sides making for an excellent spot to see the Urchins see out the remainder of the game.

Well worth the 200m walk to see this little beauty
With the game now being played under the lights, Hornchurch continued to look likely of goals and in one of their 236 set-pieces within the game they did eventually grab the killing third. Initially, Dickson had a shot well-saved again by Turner, but the resulting corner eventually was scrambled home by Nathan Cooper. Hornchurch 3-0 Regent. The game was dead by this point and although we still had 25 minutes left to play, there would be no chance of a Regent comeback at all. The goalmouth strugglers best opportunity came in the last ten minutes when they were given a penalty as the Urchin's last scorer Cooper was dismissed for a push in the box that resulted in his second yellow. George Bugg stepped up for the Essex team and despite hitting a solid strike the keeper's left, Joe Wright was equal to it and he palmed it wide to ensure that he kept hold of his clean sheet for the day. In fairness, the hosts could have grabbed a few more on a more lethal day, but they were more than happy when the final whistle blew to give them three points, three goals, a clean sheet and with superior goal difference they know that they could still go level with Folkestone and Worthing as we approach the new year.

For me though, it was time to head back to Southend
It seems strange to be writing up my last entry of the decade, having seen so much football since my first ever game between Macclesfield Town and Burton in 2010. This past ten years has seen me take in over 200 matches at 181 grounds across 8 countries in Europe and I suppose all that is left to say is Happy New Year to the fans of Hornchurch, Brightlingsea and anyone else who stumbles across my Blog! Have a top one, guys, and see you all in 2020.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

07/12/19 Review: Nuneaton Borough vs Rushall Olympic

Nuneaton Borough 1-3 Rushall Olympic (BetVictor Southern League Premier, Central Division)
Liberty Way

For the first time this season I would get the opportunity of back-to-back Saturday groundhops and with a 2pm finish at work in Coventry there would be no better chance to go and see what all the fuss is about at Liberty Way as two of the top ten in the Southern League Prem Central would do battle. My first trip to Nuneaton for football came back in August as I saw Griff lose out at the Pingles Stadium, so the big question would be whether the town's most recognised team could do better against a team that I am personally fond of- Rushall Olympic!

Only 20 to go now before I reach 200...
So after cheering for the Pikes last weekend I'd be 150 miles further south than my trip to Mill Lane in Pickering, trading in the Betvictor Northern League for the Betvictor South and today I would be pledging my allegiance to the Pics. For those of you who are sad enough to read my write-ups regularly, you'll perhaps recall my August outing to Dales Lane back in 2016 in what would be my 40th ground and more importantly the first time I'd get to see Rushall Olympic in action. Back then, they were considered a "northern" team and like most of the Midlands they have yo-yo'ed between the borders- now sitting in one of the southern editions of the seventh tier of English football. An eighth place finish last season was a good effort for the visiting club, meanwhile the hosts sadly join the division after a devastating campaign last year that saw them finish rock bottom of the National League North. To put it into context, Boro have already won double the amount of league games this season than they did throughout the whole of the last- and we aren't even halfway through yet. Although yesterday would be my first visit to Liberty Way, this was not in fact my first time watching Nuneaton, having seen them play Worcester City at Aggborough four seasons ago- and I still talk about that fateful Sunday afternoon in Kidderminster. More to follow on that later.

In the meantime, let's eat and drink
Back to Liberty Way, I was now well embroiled in the hidden gem that hides within a concrete jungle of the industrial estate that sits upon River Anker. The ground itself is a delight and gives off the vibe of a great non-league stadium, with plenty of fans wandering about, a great selection of places to sit or stand to oversee the game, as well as a well-attended bar in the back serving up a fine selection of pre-match beers. As is often the case on my visits I made a point of checking out the Boro' Sports Bar and having initially wondered where everyone was hiding, I was pleasantly relieved to see how vibrant the clubhouse was and many fans in blue, as well as a good sprinkle of amber coloured away supporters, were all hiding away from the cold and enjoying a natter before the big game. The ground had so far impressed me a lot, giving a feel of being like a "mini Swansway" with having a few similarities in style, location and colour to that of Chester's ground, but despite my almost instant love developing for Liberty Way, I remained loyal to the colours I'd vowed to cheer on this afternoon- despite the fact that I'd annoyingly forgotten to bring my Rushall scarf along with me. Still, it didn't stop me getting out there in time for kick-off, having made a 1-2 prediction for the in-form Pics.

Let's get out there folks, it's match time
Within just a few minutes of the action played, there was a huge early chance for the visitors and their quick break from defending a corner was swooped up to Daniel Waldron, who ran in and some how screwed up the chance as he watched it go wide. This early miss did not deter the visiting side though and into the 12th minute their magician number 10, Jonathan Letford, twisted and turned through the Nuneaton defence before slotting home. Nuneaton 0-1 Rushall. By this stage, the game had settled into a fair rhythm and as I did the full lap of the ground I swooped past the large standing terraced area behind the one goal, before walking along another standing section that housed a lot of the older Boro boys. The least populated, but also noisiest section of the walk around came as I checked in on the dozen or so Rushall fans who were having a lovely time. "E-I-E-I-E-I-OH, up the football league we go!" rang out as the Pics played another half-chance in front of them, whilst the home fans located in the only seated stand in the ground were mainly resorting to moaning and groaning about the decisions being made by the referee.

The Ref was bad, but I've seen worse...
As mentioned earlier, the last time I watched Nuneaton will always remain a historic day for me as it will no doubt be forever known as the day that I witnessed the worst refereeing display in history. It's hard to sum up Darren Strain's display that day, but to quote my Blog entry from back in 2015, "following the matches end, most fans stuck around to hurl abuse at the referee, with us being included in the hurling" and although today's ref was a bit of a nightmare- he was no Darren Strain!
I bet one or two of this lot remember it
Back to today's outing and Nuneaton had been forced into an early sub, with Miles Addison coming on at the back presumably because of an injury. Now, I'm not one to often pass judgement on a player's appearance, but when I saw the number 16 start to run around on the field I almost approached the subs bench to check with Jimmy Ginnelly that he hadn't mistakenly picked one of Nuneaton's rugby lads to play. I know that the rugby team also plays here, but crikey, what a meaty lad the hosts now had at the back.

Still, even with a bolstered defence, the hosts went in 0-1 down at half-time
The second-half began with the hosts looking rejuvenated and ready to fight their way back into the game. Boro looked to make the pressure pay, but instead were denied by the man in the middle again as he denied them what looked to me to be a penalty claim at one end, whilst at the other Rushall took full advantage by rushing up-field and Letford this time was the provider as he crossed for a leaping Waldron to hit home with a bullet header. Nuneaton 0-2 Rushall. The only hope for the game to be salvaged at this stage was (surprise, surprise) a goal of their own and when a set-piece was left in the hands of centurion James Clifton. The right-back celebrated his 100th appearance for Boro by slotting home a free-kick of great quality, meaning that it was game back on. Nuneaton 1-2 Rushall. And as if that wasn't exciting enough, the next few minutes would belong to Nuneaton's announcer as he revealed that not only was this goal a momentous one for James, but it was also the 400th Nuneaton goal at Liberty Way. AND not only was it the 400th Nuneaton goal at Liberty Way, but it was also the 900th competitive goal to be scored at Liberty Way too.

Thanks for the updates, Landmark Larry!
An exciting final twenty minutes in the game saw some end-to-end action that would see Ryan Edmunds go close, only for his tricky turn in the box to lead to a blocked shot on the Pics line. Having ridden out the pressure for so long, the fourth official held up his board stating five more minutes and with that the Rushall fans began to wonder whether their side could hold on. A little girl in front of me led the Olympic chants behind the goal and with just a few minutes to go Letford completed a stunning performance by grabbing a second assist, this time for sub striker Shaquille Leachman-Whittingham. Nuneaton 1-3 Rushall. The Nuneaton faithful took this as their cue to leave the ground, knowing that it had been a disappointing afternoon all-round. The Pics lot continued to scream and shout about another well-earned three points that would see them continue their ascension in the league. Seventh place Rushall were thrilled to see the final whistle go and attention would soon turn to another tough away day- this time at Stourbridge's legendary War Memorial Ground. Nuneaton would also be on the road in their next game, with Keys Park being the destination for Boro as they search a bounce-back result against another one of the Midlands finest non-league outfits. It is true that this league is littered with phenomenal local grounds and I am thrilled to have checked out Liberty Way for my 180th- another great afternoon and another tick closer to the big 200.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

30/11/19 Review: Pickering Town vs Dunston UTS

Pickering Town 4-1 Dunston UTS (BetVictor Northern Premier League, North West Division)
Mill Lane

With the chances of me reaching my aim of making it to 200 grounds by the end of the 2019/20 season fading away quicker than Man City's title credentials, my only hope now is to crack on with "bulk hops", a phrase that I made up to describe my groundhopping method lately. At the start of November I was fortunate enough to get down to Bristol for a quadruple-bill that included trips to some cracking new grounds, leaving me at 177 and still with time to get to my target. The month passed with no real opportunity to get to a new ground, but with a weekend back home in Flamborough scheduled in I was optimistic of knocking off a couple of grounds. Strangely, I managed to seek out a Friday afternoon game between Leeds and Sheff United under 23's and then on Saturday I managed to resist the temptation to revisit my hometown team Brid Town and the even bigger draw that was a second trip to The Flamingoland Stadium in search of the seaside derby between Scarborough and Whitby, meaning that my best option for a local game would come in the shape of Pickering Town versus Dunston UTS in an early season basement battle between the bottom two clubs in the BetVictor North West Division.

Howay the Dunston boys!
Being a local lad, people are always astonished at the lack of Yorkshire grounds I've frequented, but the simple fact of the matter is that until moving to Staffordshire I was always just a general football fanatic, but when I went to my first ever game between Macc Town and Burton Albion I truly fell in love with the match day experience- meaning that when I visit the east coast to see my family, I have to make up for lost time. The great thing about my trip on this occasion is that it was to a town that already has great memories for me, which could surely only be added to with this trip to Mill Lane. As a youth, my parents used to take me camping in Pickering and we also visited the delightful log cabins that border the North Yorkshire Moors, whilst other reminders of the town include a fishing trip, rides on the legendary steam train to Goathland, and even the carboot sales that my family used to force us to visit every so often!

Looking at the pitch, the carboot may well have been here
For today, though, it was all about the footy and I arrived at Mill Lane with plenty of time to spare- which meant that I'd have the chance to have a skeg around the ground and check out the local beer situation. Foolishly, I parked up outside the sign for the park, which was actually a good few minutes walk away from the entrance into the ground. I continued to walk around the edges until I eventually came to the sign that pointed me towards the actual car park, passing by the fancy Dunston coach and then eventually arriving at the turnstile. First impressions were good- I love an old wreck of a ground and this one certainly had some character to it. As my old Grandad would say, there have been some balls kicked around here over the years!

That sub's bench is sublime
Yes, the 1888 local ground is a bit of a classic to say the least and although the generic footy fan would not appreciate the huge efforts that go into keeping a place like this going, I certainly do. As I walked in past a team of club locals, I was impressed to see the three stands surrounding me all of different size and type. The one furthest away from the entrance, behind the goal, looks to be the newest and comes in the typical "tin shed" style that is very common up and down the country. Although there is nothing across one side of the pitch, the main stand sits at the opposite and is a meaty piece of work, showing off a similar metal roof to that of the others, but also with a substantial risen seating area that had plenty of seats for the fans attending on this frosty afternoon. Finally, along the length of the other goal, is the stand only terrace which led me to my original point of interest- the clubhouse in the corner.

I wondered where everyone was hiding...
The day's visitors, who had made a near two hour journey down from Gateshead, have had a frustrating start to their first campaign in the North West Division and even at this early stage they have an unprecedented EIGHT games in hand on the side they faced this afternoon, which is madness when you consider we haven't approached winter yet. The start of this afternoon saw UTS, who won the Northern Football League by a whopping seventeen points last season, sitting just three points above the Pikes and although they feel confident in catching the likes of Ossett United and Widnes who sit just above them having played six and four games more, they will need to start picking up wins sooner rather than later and there is surely no better time to do so than against the side propping up the table.... right?

Not too many stood behind the Pikes attacking end. More fool them
Meanwhile for the hosts, who were struggling to build on the 16th place finish they fought for in last season's Division One East, they would need to improve massively on the 1-8 drubbing they suffered last time out at Trafford, but with home field advantage I backed them to avoid defeat this time- making my pre-match prediction of 2-2. Not knowing at the time how wrong I would be, I sat with my pint in the bar and engaged in something that the kids are calling "banter" as a tipsy travelling fan approached me, struggled to balance his empty glass on the bar mat, then looked at me and said "wobbly". I replied with "what? The glass, or you?"- oh yes, the bantz brigade was well and truly present.

Is it match time yet?
On a more serious note, it was almost time for the big kickoff here in Pickering and with the Gents toilet being out of commission I got to spend a lengthy time outside the one disabled toilet available to the clubhouse users, which was appearing to cause one away fan issues as he eventually emerged and worryingly expressed to us in the queue, "whatever you do, don't pull the red cord!". Point taken- and with that, it was time to head outside and watch the game. The Pikes had managed to make a decent start to the game and in this battle between blue and red, there was instantly an open match underway. Although there was attacking intent from both sides, in truth the quality in the final third was not up to scratch and the question would be which team could show a bit of grit to get the ball in the net. Half an hour in and the Pikes grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and a bobbling through-ball bounced into the path of Flynn McNaughton, giving the number 11 the chance to run in and firmly place the ball into the Dunston goal, sparking a relieved celebration from the home fans. Pickering 1-0 Dunston. UTS saw this opening goal as a wake-up call and no later than five minutes later their own number 11 had a chance to equalise. The big lad used his strength and control to his advantage to steady himself before rifling home- meaning that there would be all to play for in the second forty-five. Pickering 1-1 Dunston.

My prediction had been spot on.... so far
Although the first-half had been well-fought and end-to-end, the home team clearly came out in the second ready to rumble and with the remains of the match to be played in darkness and in near-frozen conditions, the Pikes had managed to find an inspiring half of football in their lockers, which would be unleashed upon Dunston. The second-half Pickering perfection began just a few minutes in when Danny Earl glanced home. Pickering 2-1 Dunston. But unlike the first goal, the hosts did not sit back and wait for the Fed to response and instead continued to rally forward. McNaughton, scorer of that opener, should've got the third as he rounded Karl Dryden, but his lacklustre shot was blocked on the line and instead led to a scrappy scramble that eventually saw Earl receive the ball with an unmissable chance setting up his second goal and the home side's third. Pickering 3-1 Dunston.

The fans may be freezing, but the players were scorching on the field
The quickfire double had set the side in good stead by this point and on the hour mark the points would be sealed with another McLaughlin strike. Some would argue it should've been his hat-trick, but either way he will have been chuffed as the Pike player cut in from the left and struck on his right boot, watching as the ball landed in the bottom corner and put the blues on course for a second league win of the campaign. Pickering 4-1 Dunston. There wouldn't be much that could ruin the fun for Town now but into the final twenty minutes Dunston were handed a lifeline as Jackson Jowett was sent off, which I can only surmise was Matthew East's attempt to make the remains of the match a little more entertaining for the neutral! Obviously, it didn't really have much bearing and although Dunston did carve a few half-chances and the odd strike on goal, it was fairly comfortable in the end for Pickering and they saw out the game with a three goal triumph courtesy of a wonderful fifteen minutes from the home side. The next game for Pickering will be a biggy, as they travel west to face Prescot Cables, a mid-table side who've not won a league game in six. The two sides have already played twice in the FA Trophy this season, with a 0-0 draw in Merseyside being followed up with a 0-3 Cables win at Mill Lane. Should make for a fascinating game as the Pikes look to leapfrog Dunston, who will also travel to a bottom-half side in Mossley.