Tomorrow we ride at dawn…apparently

Whilst there is complete truth in the fact that the league tables do not lie, if there was any justice in the world Oxford United would not be preparing to spend a third consecutive year in the fifth level of football in England, otherwise known as the Non-League Conference. Their relegation in May 2007 was seen as a temporary blip in their return to the Championship glory, and the club secured the services of legendary Jim Smith, the manager who took them to Milk Cup glory twenty years previously when a team including John Aldridge and Ray Houghton beat QPR at Wembley 3-0. In being relegated from the league structure they became the first club to have won a major honour to fall into the non-leagues (although they will very shortly be joined by Luton Town).The club have the finest ground in the non-leagues, a stadium that would not look out of place in the Championship, albeit that it only has three sides. It offers all fans an unobstructed view of the action, a decent playing services and facilities galore in and around the stadium. Compare this to Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road or QPR’s Loftus Road and you will see what a decent stadium is like and what a traversty it is that it hosts dozens of away fans from the likes of Barrow and Altrincham (no disrespect guys) instead of Burnley and Coventry City. The relegation has not dampened the support for the club either. Home and away in the Conference the Oxford fans have tried to get behind the team in significant numbers despite some frustrating performances. With just a handful of games left the club sat in 7th place, 6 points off the play off places and rueing the bizarre rules of the Conference that saw them docked 5 points because one of their players who had been at the club a number of years was not on the playing list submitted to the league due to simple human error – fair? I think not. Those 5 points would have put them in the mix for the Play Off places, but it is now a bridge too far.

However, the club had vowed not to give up hope and with an impressive home record of 15 wins out of 21 games they could surely rely on the final two games at the Kassam for 6 points. The game versus Wrexham at the start of the season would have been viewed by many as a potential champions decider, but the visitors had found life more difficult than expected in their first season at this level. Manager Dean Saunders is still an Oxford legend, and his return was keenly anticipated by many home fans. They came into the game in 10th place, 5 points behind the U’s and still hoping to finish on a roll that they could then continue into next year. With one club almost already promoted to the league who had never been there before (Burton Albion) and potentially one other via the play offs (Histon) next season would almost certainly be the toughest Blue Square Premier League ever. With Luton Town almost certain to drop to this level with significant funding from Nick Owen’s 2020 consortium, and AFC Wimbledon odds on to come up from the Conference South with their 4,000 season tickets, next season would see almost half of the division with league experience – hardly the easiest division to get out of at the best of times.

As part of an “inclusive” family weekend we had headed down to Oxford on Good Friday to do the cultural bits. Christchurch College and the other historic buildings were all visited as well as the modern cathedrals of Starbucks, Next and Game before a night away in the Premier Inn (no expense spared in the Fuller household during the credit crunch). Littlest Fuller had had her fill of football for the season so CMF was on play zone duty whilst Lolly and myself went to the football. As luck would have it, Oxford United is the perfect venue for such eventualities. Next to the Kassam, named after the former Chairman who bought the club when they played at the grotty Manor Ground and built the new stadium on the edge of one of the UK’s top TWOCing venues – Blackbird Leys (for those not up with such hip street talk TWOC stands for Taking WithOut Consent and refers to joyriding), is a “leisure” complex including a cinema, bowling alley, restaurant and indoor play area – perfect for a 5 year old for a few hours.

Twenty years ago. the Berlin Wall fell, the SkyDome in Toronto opened and Arsenal won the league by scoring at Anfield with the last kick of the season. I’d rather jack (than Fleetwood Mac – brilliant!) by the Reynolds Girls and Pat & Mick’s I haven’t stop dancing yet were the songs on our lips. Oxford were in the Second Division (still the 2nd tier of English football along with such small teams as Chelsea, Manchester City, Portsmouth, Sunderland and Blackburn Rovers after relegation the previous season from the top flight (and never to return) where as Wrexham eventually finished 7th in the Fourth Division, losing out in the play off final to Leyton Orient over two legs (this was before they were played as a one off at Wembley). Current Wrexham manager Dean Saunders was at the Manor ground at the start of the season but was sold to Derby County for £1m, a move that led to the sacking of Manager Mark Lawrenson (he of the Match of The Day sofa fame) when he complained publically about the short sightedness of the board for selling their best player.

Twenty years on and the clubs were meeting for the first time at this level. Saunders had a few more grey hairs and Mark Lawrenson was still publically talking rubbish – only the venue had really improved – thank God. The Manor Ground was one of the worst grounds to visit as an away fan. Tucked away in the suburbs of Oxford with huge fences and CCTV everywhere there was no love lost from visiting fans when the club eventually moved out in the early years of this century. I had visited the new stadium a couple of times, the last being for the Heineken European Rugby Shield Final some years ago when Sale Sharks beat some random crap French team. I was working for (In)Active Matt and my important job was to radio up to the control room when any kicks sailed over the posts at the West (the open) end of the stadium. Whilst it was mid May (actually Cup Final day) it was foul weather, and I had somehow managed to gouge a deep and bloody cut behind my ear in getting out of the car that required stitches from the very pleasant looking (female!) Sale Physio. Not one kick came close to the posts all day and I simply looked like an oversize eager ball boy on the live coverage on Sky Sports 2. The only consolation was that 99% of the sporting viewing public would have been watching the Cup Final and so missed my humiliation.

Oxford United 1 Wrexham 0 – The Kassam Stadium – Saturday 11th April 2009 3pm

The Kassam Stadium

The Kassam Stadium

So after an hour or so in the nearby children’s play zone, Lolly and I headed into the ground. The local radio station (JackFM for all your Oxford news!) had been bigging up the game, and manager Chris Wilder had spoken about the need to “still believe”. It is all very well him going public with such sentiments but he really needed to tell the players this as for the first thirty minutes there was hardly a chance. The referee hardly put himself on anyone’s Christmas card list with fussy decision making and with thirty three minutes on the clock he had booked Murray and Constable from the home side, and Flynn from the away team.

The best chance of the first half fell to Constable who had just had his shirt ripped open before he took the ball on the edge of the penalty area, skipped passed a defender and rifled a shot just over the bar.
Chances were thin on the ground in the second half as well, with Wrexham’s neat passing game occasionally seeming if it would lead to a goal but Oxford held firm. With fifteen minutes to go the Wrexham keeper Neilson injured his hand in a clash with an Oxford player. Cue chaos as firstly the Oxford midfielder had to leave the field to have a stitch in his bleeding head but more significantly the Wrexham keeper could play on no more, and with no substitute stopper on the bench it was one of those moments that home fans pray for – a toss up as to who would be brave enough to take the green jersey and expose themselves to ridicule. The unenviable honour fell to Ashley Westwood who took the gloves and the home fans level of expectations of a game they had to win rose dramatically.

For ten minutes Oxford could not get near the goal. And then when they did the keeper threw his fists at any ball that entered the six yard box with great success. It seemed that the game would end up being a scoreless draw but with just two minutes left of the four minutes of added time Oxford United scored the winner as Constable got the goal that his energy and endeavour deserved, heading in via the crossbar from a great left wing cross by Craig Nelthorpe.

The goal was met with huge cheers of jubilation and relief on three sides of the ground (well 2 and 1/3rd as Wrexham’s travelling couple of hundred had the other 1/3rd of the North Stand). Behind the Family seating area where we were sitting was an Executive Box filled with drunk (to say the least) chavs who had spent most of the second half tunelessly chanting obscene songs about local rivals Swindon Town. With the goal going in, up went the beer they had been secretly drinking, covering themselves and leading to their immediate ejection by the stewards. What made it all more amusing was their favourite song which they had sung on a number of occasions was about Swindon Town and The Adams Family – trust me if the Adams Family and these morons were lined up together you would struggle to work out which ones were Lurch and Thing!

We headed out with barely a minute to go, into the waiting CMF taxi and back on the road home. Not the best of games to end a great couple of days away but I do not think Oxford fans will care. Other results certainly went in their favour with Kidderminster drawing, and Histon losing. If only that form had been filled in correctly back in July!

About the Kassam Stadium
Without a doubt one of the best stadiums in the Non-League, the three sided 12,500 all seater stadium replaced the old and tired Manor Ground in 2001 after a protracted battle to build a new stadium. Theclub were originally due to move out some seasons before but work had to be halted on the new ground due to finance issues, and only restarted when Firoz Kassam became chairman of the club and funded the construction. One of the concessions he made was to only build three stands, although foundations were put it if a fourth stand was ever required.

The ground today consists of three seperate stands, decked out with blue seats. The Oxford Mail (East) and North Stands are single tier ones, with the South Stand two tier, with a row of Executive Boxes in between. The vocal home fans base themselves towards the back of the East stand, whilst the away fans are given the far third of the North Stand. Concourses are wide and have numerous food outlets although they are of the breeze block variety.

The club have never filled the stadium, although have on a number of occasions had crowds of over 11,000 (including a record breaking game for the Blue Square Premier in 2006). Unhappy with the way the club were being run last season the fans tried to launch a £13m campaign to buy the stadium but so far appear some way short.

How to get to the Kassam Stadium
The stadium is located some way out of the city centre, and on the outside of the ring road. It is nowhere near any public transport interchange, and so walking it not really an option. If you are driving head for the Ring Road south. You have two options depending on your direction. If you are heading from south or east (M40 junction 8) then take the exit for Cowley onto the B480 and turn left onto Watlington Road. Follow this until you reach a roundabout and there turn right into Grenoble Road. Continue to follow this until the ground appears on the right hand side behind the Holiday Inn Express. There is parking for 2,000 cars around the stadium available on a first come first serve basis which are shared with the cinema, bowling alley and the bingo, although parking is free.

If you are coming from the west or north then follow the ring road until the roundabout with the A4074 (Sainsbury’s is on the far side). Follow the A4074 south exiting at the first junction for the Science Park. Follow the signs for the football ground.

A taxi from the station will cost about £7. Buses also run from outside the station to the Science Park.

Getting a ticket for the Kassam Stadium
Whilst attendances at the Kassam are some of the highest in the Blue Square Premier, they have some way to go before sell outs are a concern for casual fans. Tickets can be bought online at where you can be a £2 discount on match day adult ticket prices. However, you will be charged £1.50 booking fee and a 50p postage charge for the pleasure so if you are just booking one seat it is hardly worth it. On match days tickets must be purchased from the ticket office before going to the turnstiles located next to the main entrance in the South Stand. Prices range from £16 in the East Stand to £22 for a seat in the Upper South Stand. There are discounts for concessions ranging from free tickets (if you book in advance in the family section) to £10.

A game of two halves….

Every week across Europe, football fans keen on squeezing the most out of their favourite past time will watch more than one game in a day.  Whether it be via Sky’s “Super Sunday” – because Wigan v Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City v Fulham aren’t on at all to keep up their quotas, or actually attending two games in a day, it is seen as a good way to spend an afternoon.  For those who actually go to the games there is always a smug inner feeling when you are at the second game that you have somehow beaten the system, that there is an unwritten rule that you cannot go to another game as you have already had your enjoyment.

One of my aims this season was to try and see three games in a day.  An early 12pm (ish) kic off followed by a 3pm and then a 5.30pm TV game.  The idea came to me on the first day of the Championship season when there were three Midlands based games scheduled for these times.  Since then the fixtures have not made this possible but it is always one for me to watch out for.  This was one of my five aims for the football season.  The others were:-

  • To complete the 92 club again by going to Shrewsbury, Colchester United (both new stadiums), Swansea City and Morecambe – Completed on 28th March 2009
  • To finish off visiting all of the current Bundesliga 1 stadiums (plus the 10 biggest in the 2nd Division) – Karlsruhe, Borussia Monchengladbach, Duisburg, Bochum and Mainz ticked off, Arminia Bielefeld, Hoffenheim and Augsburg arranged just leaving Energie Cottbus to do
  • To see West Ham play at one new ground – Step forward Hull City back in October
  • To see a game at all of the Blue Square Premier League grounds

So as you will know if you are a regular reader I have invested a lot of time and miles into trips to see tier 5 of English football.  And I have to say I have thoroughly enjoyed it.  Some of the clubs, and fans, have been very welcoming such as Lewes, Forest Green Rovers and Eastbourne Borough, and some of the football has been pretty good.  However, with time ticking down on the season I still had three to visit.  Not just any old three though – the three that were the the furthest from home – Barrow, Altrincham and Northwich Victoria.  There was no way I was going to fit them all in but an opportunity arose for a twist on the two games in a day….Altrincham and Northwich were both at home on the same day, and seperated by just 12 miles of (almost) dual carriageway it was surely possible to do a half at each. Not one for all of the purists but it would serve a purpose and surely I stand a better chance of seeing at least half a good game than one at all.

So on Tuesday 7th April, the Little Fuller’s and I headed off for a day at Alton Towers, followed by a night of 44 men and some leather (a title taken from one of Football Jo’s DVDs).  Altrincham was going to be first on the agenda, with the first half of their game with Eastbourne Borough before heading down to the second half of Northwich’s six pointer with Woking.

Altrincham are one of the great names in Non-League football.  They were one of the founder members of the Conference in 1979 and won the league for the first two seasons.  However, at the time there was still an end of season vote to get into the league, and not surprisingly the League Chairman closed ranks and outvoted the motion for their promotion.  During the next few seasons they underlined their cup giant killing reputation, pulling off one the FA Cup results of the century when in 1986 they beat First Division (the top league at the time) Birmingham City at St Andrews.  The past few seasons have seen the club collecting more four leaf clovers that a busy leprechaun in the run up to St Patricks Day.  In season 2005/06 the club were deducted 18 points after it was found they had fielded an illegible player (during the games he played they won 18 points, hence the penalty) which saw them finish bottom.  After all avenues of appeal had failed the club woke up one summer’s morning to find that Canvey Island could not longer compete and withdrew from the league, and Scarborough had breached the league rules on ownership and had all of their points taken away, meaning that Altricnham got a stay of execution.

Twelve months later it was a similar story.  Relegation was confirmed on the last day of the season, but Boston United saved the day after their financial situation on losing their Football League status saw them immediately demoted to the Conference North thus earning Altrincham their second successive reprieve. Did they learn?  Not really as twelve months later it was the turn of Halifax Town to go into financial meltdown to save Altrincham from relegation.

So what of this season?  Well to start with you have had the disasterous situation at Lewes from day one which reduced the number of relegation places to three.  Then the situation at Northwich (see below) reduced the places to two.  Add in the impending demotion of Weymouth (they have lost their last ten games, conceding 37 and scoring just 2 goals in the process) and there was only going to be one place to avoid.  And avoid they had done on the most part.  Never dropping too many points to be sucked into the relegation mix the club had a decent home record that kept them out of trouble.

Northwich’s season couldn’t have been any more dramatic.  Forced out of their home for a period in early 2009 (they actually played home games at Altrincham) and still carrying a ban on signing any players they were all but relegated coming into this game.  In fact anything less than a win against relegation rivals Woking would see them return to the Conference North (hopefully, but based on some of the strange financial criteria of the non-leagues, even that is not a given) where they had been playing a few years previously.  Not that the problems have been that recent.  In 2003/04 the club finished in the relegation places, but in a similar story to Altrincham’s they were saved by the fact that Margate, Telford United and Hucknall Town could not compete in the league the following season.

The following season they were forced into Administration, and whilst the ten point penalty was not fatal, the clubd had to chose at the end of the season between voluntary relegation or complete expulsion from the non-leagues after some harsh to say the least deadlines on the club ownership were not met – after all the registering of a name change of a club is a mjor issue and affected everyone right?

Their stay in the National League North was brief and they were soon back in the top level.  That is when the fun (sorry Northwich fans it is only a pun) begun.  The club was bought by a consortium but the new stadium – the Marston Arena (having moved from the historic Drill Field in 2005) was owned by a property development company who went bust in 2008.  So with relegation looming it would be interesting to see how the fans would react.  I had tried to get a bit more information on the club but with the website offline it was a tad difficult so I apologise if any of the above in inaccurate.

So the hour finally arrived after a day at Alton Towers with the Little Fullers and a slap up tea at Little Chef (yes they are still going), and we eventually found the Marston Arena.  It is certainly remote, down a few country lanes and then down an industrial estate road.  CMF will have been gutted she missed this as slap bang outside the ground was a Fireman’s training school, and there they all were polishing their helmets just waiting for a damsal in distress.

Northwich Victoria 2 Woking 0 – Marston Arena– Tuesday 7th April 2009 – 7.45pm to 8.30pm

Northwich open the scoring

Northwich open the scoring

With the lure of Manchester United v Porto in the Champions League on ITV, the crowd at the Marston was very sparse.  I got the Little Fuller’s on a maths exercise and they soon told me that there were 439 people in the stadium including stewards and players – not sure how they worked that out so quickly, but when the official attendance was announced of 450 I bowed in admiration at their achievement (although by then we had already left so should they have revised the figure by 3?).

Woking came into the game managerless after the sacking of Phil Gilchrist last week and just one place above the home team but never looked at the races.  The strong wind that whipped around the arena didn’t help matters and that hampered play to an extent.  We wandered around the ground, trying to find some shelter, which was hard with such a small crowd.  Littlest Fuller decided to try and put off the linesman on our side of the pitch by shouting “boo” at him and for the first ten minutes that was the highlight of the game.  News filtered through that West Ham loanee Jack Jeffrey’s had opened the scoring at Moss Lane (filtered means I checked on my mobile internet!) and I already had pangs of regret that I had not chosen that game first.

The first chance of the half fell to Northwich when a short back pass was almost ceased upon by Jonny Allan but the ball was scrambled away for a corner.  On twenty four minutes the deadlock was broken as Joel Bryom’s deep free kick from the right was headed home by Simon Grand at the far post.  Cue wild celebrations – wel as much as a couple of hundred could muster anyway.

The rest of the half was really a battle against the elements although Woking nearly got an equaliser on the stroke of half time.  As soon as the whistle went for the break, we were off….through the gate, into the car, no time to wait for seatbelts, and off down the lanes to the A556 that runs 12 miles from Northwich to Altrincham.  Keeping within the speed limit and using our friend TomTom to good effect, exactly 14 minutes later we pulled up outside Moss Lane, where we immediately found a parking space opposite the main stand.  Mission accomplished.

Altrincham 2 Eastbourne Borough 2 – Moss Lane – Tuesday 7th April 2009 – 8.45pm to 9.30pm

Altrincham 2 Eastbourne Borough 2

Altrincham 2 Eastbourne Borough 2

I had already emailed the club and vice-chairman no less Grahame Rowley had said just come to the players entrance and ask for him if we had any issues getting in.  As all the gates were locked we went to said entrance and the officials couldn’t have been any nicer – shown straight into the bar, beer for me, cokes for the Little Fullers, programme thrust in hand and a quick summary of events of the first half from one of the Altrincham coaching team!  It definitely sounded like I had missed the wrong game as this seemed like a belter.  Two one to Eastbourne, but the quality of all three goals sounded impressive.  Ben Austin’s 2nd for Eastbourne was the pick of the bunch and would have been lauded 6 miles down the road at Old Trafford let alone Moss Lane.

We followed the teams down the tunnel and took our (free) seats in the main stand.  Altrincham’s ground is brilliant.  Everything that is right about non-league football with small terraces and loads of obscure advertising boards.  The away fans (all 16 having made the 300+ mile trip from the south coast) were on the “Carole Nashe & Family Terrace”.  Obviously they could have been part of the Nashe family, but I think it does take segregation to the extreme if one person and her family get their own part of the ground.

We hadn’t missed any of the action in the second half which was perfect.  Both teams were obviously desperate for a win despite their safe mid-table status.  This was the first opportunity I had had to watch young Jeffrey but he seemed relatively anonymous.  He will certainly have to raise his game if he expects to be competing with the current crop of youngsters at West Ham such as Junior Stanislas and Zavron Haines for a first team spot.  On sixty minutes the referee decided he could not continue.  As with the case at Woking earlier in the season a call has to be made for a local referee to act as Fourth Official whilst the other officials swap around.  One of the groundstaff was called by name over the PA and shortly appeared in jeans and smart jumper and was swiftly given the coat and the Sub’s board to manage.

On seventy minutes Altrincham earnt a free kick on the edge of the area which seemed harsh to say the least.  Up stepped Shaun Densmore to curl the ball over the wall and into the net to draw the scores level.  It seemed both teams then were happy to play out for a draw – Altrincham created a couple of openings, none better than a fantastic drive from 20 yards on the run by Colin Little in the last few minutes.

So with the final whistle blowing we were off and the teams happy with a draw, we were off for our long drive south.  Both girls were on the snooze express by the time we hit the M6 and we would have been home by 12.30am if it wasn’t for the usual night time M1 and M25 roadworks that see 3 out of 4 lanes coned off and no one working.  So at 1am we arrived home.  CMF greeted us at the door (she worries when I have to drive home late at night) and both girls woke up excited to tell her about their day.

So I did it – two games in 90 minutes.  Northwich had scored a second in the second half to win 2-0 and keep their slim hopes of survival still alive.  It’s not something I would recommend doing all the time but hats off to Grahame Rowley and the officials at Altrincham who were marvellous.  Shame their Forum administrator doesn’t want to let me on their message board to post my thanks but such is life.

About Moss Lane
Another classic Non-League ground, having been home to the club for many years. On one side of the ground is the Carole Nash Insurance Main Stand. This is a small single tiered all seated stand that sits astride the half way line. An old classic looking stand, it has glass windshields on either side, plus a number of supporting pillars, one of which is centrally located at the front of the stand.

Views of the pitch may be further impaired by two small floodlight pylons that are located at the two front edges of the stand. On one side of this stand is a smaller separate structure, the Goodwin Family Stand. This is a very small covered all seated stand. On the other side of the Main Stand is a small open terrace that is only a couple of large steps high. Opposite the Main Stand is the Popular Side. This is a covered terrace that runs the full length of the pitch, made unusual by having a section in the middle that has a higher roof compared to either side.

At the Golf Road End is a small covered terrace, whilst opposite the Hale End is a small open terrace. Moss Lane is completed with a set eight floodlight pylons, which run down each side of the ground (four on each side).

Many thanks to Duncan Adams for the above information from his excellent Conference Football Grounds website.

How to get to Moss LaneIf you are driving from from the south, exit the M6 at junction 19 and take A556 signposted Manchester Airport. When you get to the M56 roundabout go straight on and pick up the signs for Altrincham and then the football ground. From the north exit M6 at junction 20a onto M56 and exit at junction 5 then as south. It’s street parking for all around the ground.

How to get a ticket for Moss Lane
As with virtually all Conference grounds sell outs are unheard of so you can buy your tickets on the gate.  Adults can either pay £12 to stand or £14 for a seat and its £5 for concessions and just £2 for the under 12’s.

About the Marston Arena
The relatively new stadium that was opened in 2005. On one side is the large Dane Bank covered terrace. Interestingly it was transported piece by piece from the Club’s old Drill Field Ground and erected at the new stadium. Opposite is the tidy looking Victoria Stand. This all seated covered stand runs for around half the length of the pitch and sits astride the half way line.

Running across the back of the stand is a glass fronted area which includes some corporate hospitality areas. Both ends are small open terraces. The ground has a set of four modern looking floodlights. Away fans are mostly housed in the West Terrace at one end of the ground, with some seats also being made available in the Victoria Stand.

It is throwing distance from Witton Albion’s ground across the canal making it the closest two “proper” football grounds in England.

Many thanks to Duncan Adams for the above information from his excellent Conference Football Grounds website.

How to get to the Marston Arena
Northwich station is the best railway station as it is served by trains from Manchester Picadilly, although it is not the nearest to the ground, being around two miles away. The nearest is Lostock Gralam which is about a mile away. Simply take a left out of the station and carry on into Wincham Lane for the ground.

If you are driving then leave the M6 at junction 19 and take the A556 towards Northwich. After three miles, turn right onto the A559 signposted towards Northwich. At the traffic lights turn right in the direction of Warrington. Then turn left at the crossroads by the Black Greyhound pub. Follow the road until the garage appears on the lef and turn left into Wincham Avenue. The ground is at the bottom of the road. There is a large car park at the stadium which costs £2 per vehicle.

How to get a ticket for the Marston Arena
It’s pay on the door for everyone and will cost £14 for a seat and £12 for standing for Adults, with concessions being £3.50 and £2.50 respectively.