It has been awhile since I have filed a match report on these hallowed digital pages. A combination of not having much more to say about the mighty Rooks that the world and his various wives have not read elsewhere, a duty of care in my positions on various boards of directors meaning I can no longer say anything bad/mean/defamatory/blatantly untrue about anyone in the game south of the M6 and only writing about my overseas visits in the next chapter of The Football Tourist (@OckleyBooks), due for publication in 2018.
It is even rarer these days that I miss a Rooks game other than when I am posted somewhere around the world for work. But sometimes even the most ardent fan has to put family before football and today was one of those days. Two months ago when I agreed to take Lolly, my eldest daughter, up to Leeds (Leeds, Leeds) to look at the University campus I had no idea we would still be playing in the FA Trophy. Our national cup competitions are normally done and dusted by mid-October, falling less than heroically to a side from a lower division.
But Lewes 2017 are made of stronger stuff and wins over East Grinstead Town, Dunstable Town and Bishop’s Stortford (the last two playing a division higher than us no less) had seen us progress through to the Final Qualifying Round – a stage of the competition we last played at in 2014 when we conceded five first half goals away at Oxford City to crash out. We gathered round the laptop a few weeks ago, pressing F5 on the FA’s Twitter feed waiting to hear who we would be playing.
“Anyone at home” said Ross
“Anyone from our level” said Darren
“Anyone near Leeds” was my response
“Home to Truro City” said Baz, who had been emailed the details 10 minutes earlier and assumed we were looking at the new Sports Illustrated calendar online, rather than waiting for the draw
Technically, Leeds is actually closer to Lewes than Truro by a few miles which just goes to show how crazy the geographical split of the Non-League system is. But that wouldn’t help me in the slightest, meaning that I would miss one of our biggest home games in years.
I’d done the dutiful thing and gone to watch Truro City on Tuesday night as they made another 700 mile round trip for a National League South game, albeit it one that could have taken them top of the table and meant that we could not have possibly drawn a higher ranked team in this round of the competition. Scouting report filed with our management team and back of quinoa packet drawing complete of how I would exploit their deep-sitting 5-3-2 formation, I could concentrate on where I would get my football fix on Saturday afternoon, post University visit, and as Lolly suggested, write something for my blog so that she could show her Maths teacher. Apparently my last piece, “PSYCHOLOGY THEORY EXPLAINED BY FOOTBALL – 1. EXISTENTIALISM“, was a bit pretentious for his liking.
My source of inspiration was my publisher, and good friend, David Hartrick who quickly drew up a short-list of games which were a) on my way home to London, b) that I’d never been to before, c) had a bit of a story behind and d) served chips with gravy. Point d) was definitely the deal breaker but the lad did good when he emailed the results of his extensive research (that’s what his invoice suggested anyway) and said we would be heading to the town of Stocksbridge, home to around 10,000 people, experimental rock group Rolo Tomassi and a football club with a pedigree of England Internationals.
Stocksbridge Park Steels Football Club came into existence in 1986 as a result of the merger of Stocksbridge Works, the team from the local steel plant, and Oxley Park Sports. Their place in Non-League folklore has been cemented by five footballing facts, which to those from these parts will be as dull as dishwater but to us Southerners, are the stuff of legends.
Fact number 1 – In August 2002 the club beat Oldham Town in the FA Cup Preliminary Round 17-1. Striker Paul Jackson claimed 3 match balls, almost bankrupting the club after his record goal scoring haul of 10 goals in that game, a record that still stands today.
Fact number 2 – With 22 different sides below the senior team, the club are recognised as the biggest community club in South Yorkshire.
Fact number 3 – In 2002, former England international Chris Waddle joined the club and played one game for them at the age of 42 years old. Also at the same age, relegation specialist and king of the Yorkshire clubs, Neil Redfearn joined the club.
Fact number 4 – The ground only has 3 sides, with the fourth being a fence, albeit a nice wooden one. It sits on top of a hill, with oxygen needed for those making the journey up the hill from the town centre.
Fact number 5 – A certain Jamie Vardy started his career off at Bracken Moor, after being released by Sheffield Wednesday at the age of sixteen. Vardy spent seven seasons at the club, three in the senior squad on a reputed £30 a week before joining Halifax Town. He scored 54 goals (all listed in the match programme) including a remarkable three-minute hatrick in the FA Trophy game against Mossley back in October 2008. Two weeks previous he had scored a six-minute treble against Grantham Town. The club is understandably proud of the association with the England international, naming their main stand in his honour.
Today, the club play in the 8th tier of English football, like Lewes and are challenging for one of the two promotion places into the Premier League (Evostik rather than the sticker Bostik version), like Lewes and part of my interest in this game would be to understand how different life up here was compared to down south. Whilst I would be watching most of the action with one eye on events 242 miles due south, it would be good to catch up with Dave and listen to his enthralling stories that would undoubtedly involve snooker, Marvel comics and another one of his hatricks in five-a-side (for those who don’t know, Dave has a block booking at the Goals centre in Huddersfield on a Thursday night at 10pm where he is the only player and consequently, the top scorer in the league).
We parked up outside the turnstiles just as the snow started, giving the ground a magical look and feel. I’d literally taken two steps in the ground before being ushered into the boardroom and had a cup of tea thrust in my hand. The power of Social Media had meant my impending arrival had been announced and I spent ten minutes discussing the various merits of our clubs and leagues with Stocksbridge Park Steels Commercial Manager Roger Gissing.
With around a hundred hardy souls taking their place in the stand, sheltering from the biting wind and flurries of snow, Roger explained the club’s (and the league’s) issues. They faced a huge struggle to attract fans, averaging around 110 this season or about 1% of the town’s population. Sitting just 10 miles from Sheffield and 30 miles each from Manchester and Leeds, football fans in these parts head off to the glitz and glamour of the Premier League and Championship most Saturday’s rather than supporting their local team. They have a thriving juniors section and community programme but come 3pm on a Saturday many of those kids are nowhere to be seen. Despite offering the cheapest admission in the league, at just £7 and the club once again doing well, it seemed that the X-factor in getting people to watch the game was still missing.
I have no idea why as even before the game had kicked off I was struck with how fantastic the club was. Everyone to a (wo)man was friendly, the set up of the club with its quirky stands and fantastic warm bar, offering a bird’s-eye view of the action. Fifteen pounds got Lolly and I admission, a programme, a pint and a coke and a large sausage roll. Add on top the potential to see a cracking game of football and you have a fantastic value afternoon.
The club also face issues with how the geographical split of the league has been made and something that is a real concern with a further restructure due at the end of the season. Their shortest journey is to Sheffield FC, 21 miles away yet the two Ossett clubs, who play in the North Division, are around the same distance away. Rather make those short journeys, they have away trips to Peterborough Sports, Alvechurch, Market Drayton Town and Corby Town, all 200 mile plus round trips.
However, they were once again challenging towards the top of the table and a win over Loughborough Dynamo (named after the great Dynamo Moscow should you want to know) then they could climb up to 2nd place and into the automatic promotion places behind runaway leaders Basford United.
Stocksbridge Park Steels 4 Loughborough Dynamo 3 – Bracken Moor – Saturday 25th November 2017
In terms of value for money, you cannot complain about a seven-goal thriller, with a last-minute winner. Except we didn’t realise it was a) a seven-goal thriller or b) there was a last-minute winner. In fact, we missed four of the seven goals through a variety of reasons.
As the teams emerged down the steep steps and into the mini-blizzard, we finished up our cup of tea in the boardroom, zipped up the coats and made our way outside. As I did the gentlemanly thing and held the door open for a lady coming in, the home side scored. Fifteen seconds had elapsed since I put down my cup but in that time the home side and won a free-kick 30 yards out. Jack Poulton sent his ball into the box and it fooled everyone and ended up in the back of the net.
The game was a relatively cagey affair, with both sides trying to make the best of the conditions. Just as the referee was about to blow for half-time the home side grabbed a second as Matt Reay’s shot eluded everyone and trickled into the corner.
We took refuge from the cold in the bar, which positioned in the corner of the ground and on the first floor, offered outstanding views of the action. Unsurprisingly, the window seats were at a premium – why wouldn’t they with Bracken Moor Smooth on draft and Jeff Stelling updating everyone in the corner (not literally Jeff). The second half was about six minutes old when we headed downstairs, stopping for a toilet break. I heard a muffled cheer whilst I was in there but thought nothing more of it.
The tide seemed to be turning and the visitors grabbed a couple of goals through Riley to level the scores (at this point we assumed it was 2-2). The final fifteen minutes were as action-filled as you could ever hope to see. Bodies were being thrown on the line at both ends to keep efforts out and there was a real cup tie feel about the game with both sides wanting a winner. However, it was the home side who prevailed, scoring in the first minute of four in injury time when Litchfield bundled in from close range after the mother of all scrambles.
Full time and Stocksbridge’s fans celebrated the win with reserved confidence, a win that took them back to third place in the table. As we waited for the players to make their way off the pitch a fan shouted at the ref: –
“7/10 for that today ref”
The ref looked at the fan and responded “If you knew my wife then you’d know that would be a good assessment of my performance at any time especially in the cold”
We ducked into the boardroom, thanked our hosts for their hospitality and started our long journey south, still in complete ignorance of the two goals, one for each side we missed on our comfort break in the second half.
I’d urge any fan of football, whether they lived in South Yorkshire or not, to make a trip to visit this wonderful club. Like hundreds of others up and down the land, they survive thanks to the efforts of their volunteers rather than the numbers that come through the turnstile. If ten percent of the regular fans who go to Bramall Lane and Hillsborough came to watch just one game a season at Bracken Moor it would more than double their average attendance. And that, could be the difference between having a community club for years to come or not.