In God’s Country

The new TV deal signed last season by the Premier League sides meant that this weekend’s football coverage started in unusual circumstances with a live Friday night game.  With games on Saturday, Sunday and Monday night, there has never been more games on TV than today (metaphorically not literally).  And for every game that is shown, cash flows onto the pockets of the clubs and ultimately the players pockets.  But whisper it quietly, Friday night also marked the start of the 2015/16 FA Cup.  In fact just 15 miles up the road from Villa Park, Coleshill Town were hosting Ellesmere Rangers at Tamworth FC in the FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round.  Whilst you would need the best part of £50 to get a top range ticket at Aston Villa versus Manchester United, you could pay almost a tenth of that to see the first step on the Road to Wembley.

The first few rounds of the FA Cup often bring some of the best moments of the season.  Normally, the FA will drawn the first three rounds of the competition, meaning that Step 7 clubs like Lewes will know the four potential opponents we will play before a ball in the competition is kicked.  I know that my good friend, and half of the brains and brawn behind The Real FA Cup, Damon Threadgold believes one way to bring a bit more interest into the competition is to draw all of the rounds up until the Semi-Final at the start of the season, so that every club know who they could play if they win their next game (and the nine after that).  Slipping on my Chairman’s coat again you also have an eye on the draw for the potential to earn some cash.  Three wins in the competition at our level means £15k in prize money plus half of the gate receipts, or around another £500 a week on the playing budget.

20009867753_9c172e40a1_kWhilst we all dream of a trip to the Third Round, few teams ever get that far in reality.  On Sunday one of the final ties of the round featured AFC Emley of the Northern Counties East League Division One host Parkgate.  Whilst they may be eight victories away from the Third Round, the club has been there before.  Well, sort of.  Back in 1997/98, Emley AFC reached the 3rd round where they were drawn against West Ham United. Given zero chance of getting anything from The Boleyn Ground, they found themselves 1-0 after just four minutes.  But they weathered the storm on and off the pitch and equalised in 55th minute.  West Ham finally found a winner with eight minutes to go but the Yorkshiremen were given a standing ovation as they left the field at full-time.

The glory day for the club was forgotten within a decade as the club had been forced into a merger with Wakefield, then lost their identity altogether.  But Non-League fans are made of sterner stuff and in 2005 the new club, AFC Emley had been formed, bringing football back to the Yorkshire village.  In their first season in the West Yorkshire League they gained promotion to the level they are at now.

So why was I driving up into God’s Country to watch the start of the FA Cup?  That will be David Hartrick’s fault.  Being not only a jolly good chap but also the publisher of my next book (in all good bookshops by Christmas) we had boring stuff like fonts, typefaces and binding to talk about. Back in the day Hartch used to grace the turf at The Welfare Ground, not that he likes to talk about it.  On doing my research for the game I couldn’t help noticing the following words on the Emley website, which too me could have been stolen straight off my Lewes FC laptop (in fact it probably was it is that good).

“We are a small club with very little money but what we can do, we try to do well and do “the right way”. On the playing side our vision is to develop the best local talent who want to succeed for the club and community we serve. The emphasis is on development of players who want to succeed for OUR club. This vision is underpinned, on and off the pitch, by the values of communication, respect, responsibility and solidarity.”

With such a mission, who was I not to pay them a visit, picking up Non League Day’s finest, and fellow Ockley Books author, Mike Bayly who just happened to be hanging around Barnsley Interchange on a Sunday lunchtime.  He was on his own mission to find the top 100 grounds that we should all visit before we lose our marbles and whilst I am quite sure that The Welfare Ground wasn’t on his list before the game, perhaps it could be afterwards.

20636702625_1b299a43fb_kThe opponents, Parkgate, played in the league above Emley – the Toolstation Northern Counties Eastern League Premier Division (that one rolls off the tongue – and came into the game full of confidence after a fine 4-3 win away at Tadcaster last week.  Few would have backed the home side to get anything from the tie, but fortune sometimes favours the brave.

Sometimes beauty comes from the most unlikely places.  There couldn’t have been anything more beautiful than the afternoon we spend in Kirklees, West Yorkshire.  “Go down the country lane and just head for the Big Tower”, Dave told us.  You can’t appreciate the instructions unless you have been to Emley and seen the Emley Transmitting Tower for yourselves, a 330m erection that is the tallest freestanding structure in the United Kingdom.

AFC Emley 7 Parkgate 1 – The Welfare Ground – Sunday 16th August 2015
20444075419_cfeb6c092b_kFrom the moment we paid £6 (SIX!) to get into the ground and saw the first prize in the raffle was a “do-it-yourself” breakfast, an upmarket spin on a meat raffle – well, it contained at least two non-meat products, we knew we had arrived in one of the closest places to Non League heaven.  Decent food, served with a smile and just for a pound (pie, peas and gravy – tick), locals who loved to chat and one of the best team displays I’ve seen for a long long time.

Emley didn’t just win, they destroyed a team from a higher division.  It could have easily have been double figures.  Parkgate were missing a number of key players due to work commitments but even Huddersfield Town may have struggled to contain the attacking threat of Emley, who at times seemed to play with five up front.  Defending appeared to have gone out of fashion this far north.

It all started relatively calmly, with both teams playing the ball around, feeling each other out.  Then in the space for seven first half minutes Ash Flynn scored a hatrick, notable for the fact that Mike missed the first two (on the pie and peas run then toilet) and Hartch the third (bathroom).  Parkgate pulled one back from the penalty spot and had they gone on to convert one of their other chances before the break it could have been a different story.

20604498906_5ef88aa001_kBut Emley went for the kill as soon as the second half started.  Flynn scored a fourth, again missed by Hartch before the star of the show, right midfielder Jordan Conduri set up Kieron Ryan for the fifth after a superb exchange of passes, before scoring the sixth himself.  Number seven came in injury time when Alex Hallam drove home.  It was truly a rout and one that Parkgate will want to forget very quickly.  For Emley, the delights of Burscough await in the Preliminary Round.  Half as good a performance as this will see them progress even further.

Alas, we didn’t win the raffle but we did find the winner – he offered us the prize for a tenner, fifteen if we wanted to go to his Mum’s house and she would cook it for our tea.

Seeing double in the land of the Silver King

The beauty of the FA Cup is that it can throw up some great days out.  With the first three rounds all being drawn at the start of the competition, you can start working out the permutations of where you may be watching a game in weeks to come.  This season Lewes would enter the competition away to Worthing United, Ashford United or Peacehaven and Telscombe, the last of which would be a big local derby for one of the Ryman League’s newest sides.  But before then I had a free northern weekend pass to take in a game in the Preliminary Round of the world’s oldest domestic cup competition. A swift look at the fixtures threw up a few options, but one, or should I say two, stood out.  Add in the Hors D’oeuvre of a trip to Elland Road for the lunchtime game between Leeds United and Queens Park Rangers and it promised to be a day up there with my wedding and birth of my first-born.

So after the final whistle blew at Elland Road I was back in the car, did a right out of Elland Road and headed straight down the A653, under the M1, waving at Dewsbury as I passed and finally taking a left into Owl Lane.  I was heading to a point that was almost equidistant between the East and West coasts of England.  A town that could call Gail Platt, Black Lace and David Peace (author of Damned United) home;  a town that had not one but two breweries in and a town that had two non league teams playing at home in the FA Cup on the same day.  Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Ossett.

9636509089_65c5a31426_bWhat do you mean, where?  Ossett, a market town within the boundaries of the City of Wakefield.  West Yorkshire, or simply “Up north” to many who live down that there London.  The two breweries?  The Ossett Brewery, producer of such delights as Silver King, Big Red and Excelsior is the more traditional beer producer, whilst the new upstart Bob’s Brewery has a stable of beers including Sherunkel, Bidazzler, Slayah and of course Erjob (“Made for sipping with Cheddar Ploughmans Lunch, a smoked mackerel fillet or an England Test victory”).  And the football teams?  Well, welcome to the biggest rivalry in the Northern Premier League Division One North.

There are plenty of cities around Britain that have dual club rivalries.  London, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Dundee.  But what about the towns?  Few have two teams in so the situation in non-league terms in Ossett is quite unique.  Two clubs separated by 478 yards across the town centre.  It seems amazing that with Emley and Wakefield also within a few minutes drive, the clubs could continue to survive.  But survive they do, and for only the third time this season (probably), both Ossett teams would be kicking off at the same time (obviously, the other two are where they play each other!).  Initially, it was a case of trying to decide which one to choose for my Road to Wembley.  Local football guru and of course, my publisher (I still love saying that), David Hartrick then made a bold suggestion.  “A half in each?”.  You had me at “. Continue reading