Artificial Intelligence or Pitch Perfect?


The calls for more clubs to install 3G pitches reaches fever pitch every time there is a spell of bad weather in this country but having an artificial surface is not necessarily the answer.

During the first few days of March, the ‘Beast from the East’ delivered snow and freezing temperatures to many parts of the United Kingdom that we had not seen for many years.  Public transport ground to a halt, many major roads became unpassable and unsurprisingly, sporting fixtures suffered.  At the time of writing three Championship games have already been cancelled, including Sky Sports Live game at Wolverhampton Wanderers as overnight temperatures have dropped as low as -11 in some parts.

The Non-League programme has been decimated with just four games surviving from steps 1 to 4 from a total of 140 games due to be played this Saturday.  Two of those four (Dover Athletic and Folkestone Invicta) have benefited from their coastal location whilst the other two (Grays Athletic and Worthing) both play their home games on a 3G surface.  So you could put an argument forward that 3G’s have proved their worth in this instance, with both Grays Athletic and Worthing likely to get bumper crowds due to the lack of other games in the area (many Lewes fans are heading to Worthing for instance rather than sitting at home, whilst I myself am heading to Aveley FC, where Grays Athletic play).  But that isn’t strictly true.

Many other clubs have 3G pitches and have seen their games cancelled.  Cray Wanderers, Horsham, Walton Casuals, Merthyr Town, Redditch Town and Romulus among others who use an artificial pitch have seen their games today cancelled whilst in Scotland, every professional side who uses a 3G pitch including Clyde, Alloa Athletic, Montrose and Airdrieonians has seen their games postponed too. Unfortunately, just because you replace grass with a synthetic material, you do not avoid all of the side-effects of the bad weather.

An artificial pitch is not simply a big roll of fake grass that is laid like a carpet.  There’s significant amounts of preparation work that has to happen to the ground itself before you get to that stage.  The shock-pad is like an underlay for a carpet.  That is the bit that does the hard work and like any underlay, the quality and therefore the longevity of the pitch itself is based on cost – the better shock pad used, the more expensive it is but the more wear the pitch will handle.  Once the “grass” is laid then the filler is used – in most instances rubber crumb – which keeps the blades of grass upright and also adds as an additional layer of absorption.

The issue at the moment is when snow falls and settles on a 3G you can’t simply sweep it off as you will remove the rubber crumb in the process.  No rubber crumb means you damage the top layer of the pitch when you play on it.  If the snow compacts and freezes and isn’t allowed to thaw or be removed, then playing on it will increase the pressure on the shock pad and could damage that.  Replacing that would involve completely removing the pitch first – a very expensive job.

Whilst some 3G playing surfaces may have been fit for football, the surrounding areas such as terraces, stands, walkways and car parks may not.  In the case of Cray Wanderers’s game today, at Bromley FC, this was the issue that saw their game postponed.  There’s very little a club can do to protect these areas from the freezing temperatures – again something that few people factor into their argument as to why clubs should have a 3G pitch.  I saw this first hand in December when I visited Airdrieonians for their game with Raith Rovers.  The temperatures fell well below zero and whilst the game went ahead on their frosty 3G, the car park was akin to a curling rink and was incredibly dangerous for spectators leaving the ground.

The costs in installing a 3G are prohibitive to many clubs.  Whilst there are huge benefits aside from being able to use it in bad weather, such as the opportunity to create a community facility and one that produces a regular revenue stream (and allows clubs to save costs on renting external training facilities), they have to find the initial cash to build one.  Like many things, costs can be reduced, but a decent 3G pitch will set a club back in excess of £500,000 – hardly small change.  There are some grants available from the Football Foundation and Sport England, but not every club is able to qualify for those.

And then, of course, there is the issue of the Football League rules.  Any clubs that have ambitions of moving up to the professional game in England is thwarted if they have a 3G by the rule, set by the Football League clubs themselves, that does not allow for 3G pitches to be used.  No such rule exists for the FA Cup, the Champions League, UEFA and FIFA competitions – in fact every professional league in Europe allows them (including Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) but England doesn’t.  So for clubs like Sutton United, Bromley and Maidstone United, challenging currently for the National League Play-offs, they face a dilemma of either dropping out of contention or ripping their 3G pitch up (which in part is the revenue generator that has allowed them to rise up the leagues).  Should they do neither and qualify for the Play-offs they face demotion down to the National League South.  How is that fair in a sporting sense?

Artificial surfaces have their benefits but let’s all just remember that they aren’t always the answer to the curve-balls that Mother Nature throws at us.

 

Tough at the top, tougher down the bottom


During the Leicester City vs Manchester United game on Saturday night, commentator Alan Parry mentioned the “stresses and strains” on the Premier League players at having to play four games over the Christmas period.  “Some of these players face four games in just nine day!” Parry remarked as if this was a massive hardship for them.  That will be the same four games in nine days that virtually every club playing at Steps 7 and 8 of the footballing pyramid face over Christmas.

I hear the arguments about the stresses and strains of the Premier League, apparently the fastest league in the world (although I am not sure how that has been measured) but these players are professional.  They have the best facilities for fitness and recovery at their disposal – Pep Guardiola’s 16 man management team includes such roles as a Sports Therapist, a Head of Human Performance, a Soft Tissue Therapist and a Head of Sports Medicine.  Below them is an army of experts whose job is to ensure that Pep’s record breaking team are in peak condition when they cross the white line.  In most instances they are told what to eat and drink, when and where.

Down in the Bostik League South (as with in most other Non-Leagues), today was the first of four games Lewes played in the next nine days.  Our players and physios head home to their families tonight for Christmas and some will return to their normal jobs tomorrow and even Christmas Day before regrouping on Tuesday for the next game meaning that they cannot spend any time with the players and their rehabilitation.  We share the same concern as Guardiola that four games over the Christmas period is too much, especially with small squads and half way through the season where suspensions are starting to bite.  Today was our 33rd game of the season, and whilst our three new signings who all made their debuts today due to the growing injury list took the number of players we have used over the 30 mark, only 20 have played in more than five games, exactly the same number of players Manchester City have used in their 28 games this season.

Ultimately, the commercialisation of the Premier League game means that clubs have little control as to when games are scheduled.  Whilst other leagues across Europe have mid-Winter breaks, that simply means the Premier League can charge a higher fee to overseas broadcasters to schedule games at times attractive to foreign audiences – why else would the Leicester City game be scheduled on a Saturday night two days before Christmas?  In the Non-Leagues Christmas games bring in vital revenue, with local derbies boosting attendances although the continued lack of public transport on Boxing Day does prove problematic to many – Lewes take on Hastings United on Boxing Day despite the fact there is no public transport running between the two East Sussex towns 29 miles apart.

Commentators and members of the media often talk about Premier League players in revered terms, forgetting the hundreds of other equally committed and passionate individuals give up their time to bring joy to thousands of us who prefer our football a little less sanitised than that at the top level.

Happy Christmas to everyone who will take part in those games over the next nine days and spread the joy of the beautiful game to us all.

 

 

Takeley, I’m yours


It’s a Tuesday night in early December. It’s freeing – no surprise there – and I’m the only person to align at Stansted Mountfichet station.  A loan taxi gets his hopes up as I walk towards him but he’s not going to be lucky this time.  My mind is focused on food and football, in that order.

Fortunately, I’ve arrived in take-away city by the look of it.  Quite why a village of 5,500 needs so many eateries is a mystery to many, especially when they appear to be quite literally in direct competition – the Mayflower and Lams Chinese takeaway guard the entrance to Station Road, trying to lure the passing trade (me) in with offers such as “unlimited prawn crackers” and “free chopsticks with every meal”.  Ruthless marketing, I tell you.

My relationship with Stansted Mountfichet is one of pure convenience.  Many a traveller will have been seduced by the thought of a visit to the House on the Hill Toy Museum, reputed to be the largest of its kind in the world, whilst others over the years will have arrived, suitcase being pulled a few metres behind like a disobedient dog, searching for the airport terminal.

The latter, wayward tourists would be too far out of their way.  Stansted Airport lays three miles to the east, 5 minutes on the train.  Originally a US Airforce base on the edge of the village of Stansted Mountfichet, it was taken over by the government and for a short period acted as a Prisoner of War camp before being developed as a commercial airport in 1966, today handling nearly 25 million passengers, one of which in just twelve hours would be me.

Despite Christmas approaching, work travel had not started to wind down for the festive period which meant that after flying out of Stansted on Monday morning, arriving back on Tuesday, I was about to go through the whole process again.  Rather than driving the hour or so back home I’d decided to stay at the airport so the 4am start became a much more reasonable 5am one.  CMF was hugely impressed that I chose to stay in a Travel Tavern than go home to her.

As luck would have it (genuinely), there a game to go to see almost on the doorstep of the airport.  Not just any old game either – a local derby pitting one of the front-runners for the Essex Senior League title with a team currently on an alarming and rapid slide down the table.  In these parts Stansted FC versus Takeley is talked about in hushed tones, normally reserved for the likes of Ossett Town versus Ossett Albion or even the Dunstable Derby.

To say that Stansted FC were having a bit of a ‘wobble’ was an understatement.  It had been nearly two months since the side had experienced the joy of a win and came into the local derby on a run of eight consecutive defeats that had seen them fall to just three points off the Essex Senior League.  Takeley, on the other hand were firmly looking at the opportunity of promotion to the Isthmian League North.  With two teams likely to move up to step 4 of the Non-League game from the Essex Senior League at the end of the season they had been there or there abouts all season, off the back on an impressive home record that had seen them take 31 points from a possible 33. Not bad I suppose.

The home side had had little to shout about for a number of years.  They still talk about that team in and around the ground.  That team being the one in season 1983/84 that not only won the Eastern Floodlight Cup, The East Anglian Cup and the Essex Senior League Cup.  Oh, and a small matter of the FA Vase, beating Stamford 3-2 at Wembley Stadium.  Fast forward to 2010 and the team finally won the Essex Senior League but inadequacies with their Hargrave Park ground saw Witham Town promoted into the Isthmian League.

The internet is great for finding out facts such as Stansted’s record win came in that golden season when they beat Coggeshall Town 15-0, their assistant manager when they had their big day out at Wembley was Glenn Hoddle’s Uncle Dave or that an anagram of the name Takeley is Teak Eye but on this occasion it failed to mention that the 0.5 mile walk from the station to Hargrave Park should only be attempted with oxygen.  Granted it is not in the league of Stocksbridge but it was a bit of a shock to the system having just taken advantage of the freebies offered by the Chinese takeaway(s).  Note to village council – open a pub about halfway up the hill for unfit, random Non-League football fans who arrive by public transported.

I actually knew a resident of the village, who had promised to accompany me to the game.  Kevin is an accountant by trade and supports Everton, so he needed some escapism from the reality of pessimism.  What better way to lift the spirits than watching a Non-League game on a day and freezing night along with a few dozen other hardy souls.

You can understand why Hargrave Park didn’t quite make the ground grading for step 4.  It has a very shallow, albeit full of charm, main stand with a small cabin that reminded me of Santa’s workshop from various films that was the committee room.  Around the pitch the perimeter was a series of metal barriers, the ones used to keep screaming kids away from their pop star idols, or grandmas trying to get to Cliff Richard, which if I had my health and safety hat on would worry me considerably.

The teams were warming up when we arrived which involved, in Takeley’s case, smashing the balls as hard as they could from the penalty spot at a teenager in goal which either hit in or flew over the bar and into the gardens of the houses behind.  The referee suddenly appeared at our side, through a magic door on the side of the main stand, shook me by the hand (perhaps confused by my Lewes FC jacket) and said “Right, let’s get this circus pumping” before heading onto the pitch.


As for the game itself?  The differing fortunes of the two sides was clear to see as the first half wore on, with Takely opening the scoring through the impressive Mullings.  Whilst Stansted tried to break down the visitors, especially down the left-flank, the final ball was often misplaced or simply not there at all.  There wasn’t much between the two sides for long periods but a slice of luck with some cream on the side saw Takeley double their lead when a wickedly deflected shot from Todd saw the Stansted keeper flat on his arse as the ball trickled despairingly out of reach.  Mullings scored a cracker of a third late in the game when he flicked the ball up and volleyed home from the edge of the box.  Whilst the score line may have flattered the visitors, there’s no denying they were the better side.

With only one train an hour back to the airport I ducked out a few minutes before the end, gaining momentum from the strong wind as I headed down the south face of K2, avoiding the Chinese takeaway wars and onto the platform.  Mission accomplished.

Life is all about taking the opportunities as they are presented to you and I think I can quite-rightly claim 9/10 for making the most of an otherwise boring night in a hotel at the airport with nobody for company apart from a bunch of sales reps and overseas visitors who believed the hype that Stansted was actually in London.

Men of steel


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.

The Sands of time


On the 2nd June 1978 history was made at the Football League’s Annual General Meeting held at the Café Royal in London.  Every year the clubs got to vote on whether the teams who had finished at the bottom of the then Division Four would be “re-elected” to the Football League for the following season, or replaced by a team from the Non-Leagues.  There was no formalised pyramid as there is today with any club who felt they had the resources able to make an application to join the league.  In the previous decade, clubs such as Chelmsford City, Romford, Gravesend & Northfleet and Altrincham had made applications to get into the league without success, with the advantage always with the league sides.  That was until 1977 when Workington were voted out of the league, having finished adrift at the bottom of the Fourth Division, replaced by Wimbledon FC.  However, it was events on Regent Street a year later that would be remembered in the annuls of footballing history.

The bottom four sides in the Fourth Division in that season in order were:-

Hartlepool United – 37 Pts
York City – 36 Pts
Southport – 31 Pts
Rochdale – 24 Pts

They would be joined in the vote by Bath City and Wigan Athletic, the two representatives from the Southern and Northern Leagues respectively.  Wigan hadn’t even won their league, finishing runners-up to Boston United although they were no strangers to playing their hand in trying to gain election, having made 34 previous applications.

In the first round of voting, York City, Rochdale and Hartlepool United topped the voting, meaning they were safe, whilst Bath City received just 21 votes and were discounted.  But Wigan Athletic and Southport both gained 26 votes meaning a second vote was needed.  Unfortunately, Southport lost by 29 votes to 20 and were ceremoniously kicked out of the league, the last club ever to suffer the re-election fate.  The fans blamed the trumpet-playing pub landlord and chairman, Walter Stanley Giller although Wigan Athletic had been very canny in their campaigning, bringing in former England Manager Sir Alf Ramsey to help influence some of the voters – every Football League club got to vote, not just the teams in Division Four and he was still a revered character in English football.

Almost forty years later, Southport were lining up against Lincoln City in the Conference Premier in the final game of the regular season.  In just a few months time the two clubs would be playing their football two divisions apart as the Imps would be returning to the Football League after a six-year hiatus whilst Southport would head in the other direction after seven years at the highest level of Non-League football.  Since that June day nearly 40 years ago they’d rarely come close to returning to the Football League – a 3rd place finish in 1994/95, eight points behind champions Macclesfield Town was the closest they came.

With the Isthmian League season done I could put the stresses and strains of my Lewes role behind me and go back to being a wandering football fan for a few weeks.  Come July time and I am itching to get back into action at The Dripping Pan but by the end of April I am looking forward to a break.  Don’t get me wrong – I’d have loved for us to be playing 250 miles south in the Isthmian League South Play-off Final but we weren’t (although next year will be different I am sure) and so I could get the footballing map out and find some new grounds to visit.  This time last season I saw a double-header in snowy Harrogate Town and Guiseley – this year I would be heading North-West to take one step closer to finishing off the 92 for the third time (after the weekend there would be just Morecambe left to do) and also take in some racing at Haydock Park and Rugby League at Salford Red Devils and their new A.J. Bell stadium.

Southport have undoubtedly suffered as Liverpool and Everton have benefited from the ever-generous Premier League revenue streams.  As I walked down Haigh Avenue I passed a group of youngsters heading in the opposite direction of the ground – 3 Liverpool and 2 Barcelona shirts, oblivious to the game about to start on their doorstep.  Before the season-high attendance, they had averaged just over 1,000, down by around 800 from their Football League days.

In the same season that Southport were facing up to life outside the Football League, Fleetwood Town were formed, starting their life in the Cheshire League.  Twenty years later they folded, reformed and took their place in the tenth tier of English football as Fleetwood Freeport.  They regained the Town name in 2002 and since then they have been on an upward trajectory unlike anything else that has been seen in Non-League football, thanks in main to Chairman Andy Pilley who has run the club since 2004.  Their story is one of the only successes of the single investor models.  Whilst the soap opera continues to play out at Billericay Town, the carcasses of similar stories litters the Non-Leagues.  Margate, Kings Lynn and Histon, to name but a few are examples of where such a strategy has gone horribly wrong but at Fleetwood, the success is all too clear to see with a club that is thriving off the pitch as well as on it.  The club was promoted five years ago into the Football League, with striker Jamie Vardy leaving at the end of the season for a Non-League record fee of £1m paid by Leicester City.  Almost a year to the day of my visit, the club opened an £8m training facilities, putting them on a par with clubs in the Championship.

Southport 1 Lincoln City 1 – Merseyrail Community Stadium – Saturday 29th April 2017
On paper this was a dead rubber with both sides fate already determined.  In reality it played out like one.  Lincoln City had made a number of changes to their side and consequently none of the urgency that had characterised their games in recent weeks was there.  Southport showed in the opening period why they had been in the bottom four for over three-quarters of the Conference Premier season, with the fans seemingly resigned to defeat before a ball had been kicked.

Lincoln City had sold their allocation of tickets, and some more, occupying two sides of the ground and a fair section of the main stand.  The home side formed a guard of honour for the Imps as they entered the field accompanied by a riot of red and white from the away fans.  The home fans looked on in envy – relegation would see few such days in the coming twelve months, especially as local upstarts AFC Fylde would be heading the other way.

Despite the weakened side, Lincoln City were looking to finish the season on a high, coming into the game on the back of a ten game unbeaten streak.  They looked to get the ball wide as often as they could, trying to find space behind the Southport full-backs, whilst the enigma that is Matt Rhead played the pantomime villain to a tee, winding up the home players and fans alike, constantly in the ear of the referee about the treatment he was receiving.  On the half-hour his presence in the area caused all sorts of chaos and Lee Angol had the simplest job of putting the Imps into the lead.

Back in 1973 when both sides were in the Football League, the crowd was entertained by an appearance from Red Rum at half-time, who had just won his first of three Grand Nationals.  Today, we had the excitement of a kids five-a-side tournament and the songs of Coldplay.  Don’t get me started about the demise of half-time entertainment…oh OK if you insist then have a read of this.

The rest of the game was played with the intensity of a pre-season friendly.  The home fans around me on the Scarisbrick Terrace were reading out the teams currently in the Conference North, mentally ticking off where they had been, getting very excited about a day trip to Blyth Spartans, although the claim by one that they were from Blythe in Staffordshire rather than Blyth in Northumberland was amusing to listen to.  Just as most of the home fans were getting ready to head home for an afternoon of Jeff Stelling, Southport scored through Neil Ashton.  I had made my excuses before the final whistle, heading down to Haydock Park to watch the action on and off the track.

Twenty two hours after leaving Haigh Avenue I was on my way into Fleetwood, about an hour north of Southport, past the town’s most famous feature, the Fisherman’s Friend factory.  I’d been tipped off that if I could get into the club lounge area then I may meet up with Syd Little, a long-time fan of the club and often seen helping out his wife who runs the kitchen.  Alas, with that avenue of pleasure closed off, I headed to the Highbury Chippy, which came highly recommended but like Chessington World of Adventures was a disappointment.  Apparently it is under new management but it appears they are yet to get to grips with exactly how long to cook food for.

Fleetwood Town 0 Port Vale 0 – Highbury Stadium – Sunday 30th April 2017
It is rare that you watch a game that is so bad you wish someone had invented a time machine to get those 2 hours of your life back to do something more interesting, like watching paint dry.  There’s no disrespect in that statement to Fleetwood Town as hosts – after all they had little to play for once Bolton Wanderers had taken an early lead.  However, at the other end of the pitch, if I was one of the thousand plus Port Vale fans who had turned up in hope they could get a win, I would have been furious that the team simply looked ill-prepared, tactically inept and completely devoid of motivation.  For the home side, they had to hope Bolton Wanderers slipped up for them to have any chance of automatic promotion.  Possible, but unlikely.  For Port Vale, the maths was much simpler.  Better the Gillingham result and they would be safe.

The strong cross wind made it difficult for both sides, but it was clear what the issue was from early in the game so why continue to try to plan long cross-balls?  Neither keeper really had anything to worry about in the first half bar dodging the litter blowing onto the pitch whilst the fans put on their best smiles for the completely over the top Police presence and their roving video camera man.

I cannot really tell you anything of interest in the second half.  With five minutes to go and the police readying themselves for a potential pitch invasion from the away fans I headed out.  As I got to the corner of Highbury Avenue a huge cheer went up.  I got to the car and checked the score, expecting to see one of the sides had scored but there was nothing.  I can only assume the cheer was for a corner, so bad the game was.  In the end Port Vale went down without a whimper and I hope for the fans sake that they find some comfort in an opportunity to be at the top end of the table next season, albeit at a lower level although I think there may need to be a big chance off the field before the good times start to roll again.

Football has moved on beyond comparison in the last forty years, mostly for the good.  The anarchic process of re-election, the perfect example of the old-boys club in action, has fortunately been scrapped but that’s no comfort to Southport (although it may be for Port Vale next season!).  For Lincoln City and Fleetwood Town the future looks bright.  Even if the latter do not find success through the Play-offs, they will get stronger on and off the pitch, looking forward to having a local(ish) derby with at least Wigan Athletic and possibly even former Premier League Champions, Blackburn Rovers.  Strong foundations built on and off the pitch, with a good local fan base can only lead to good times ahead for the Trawlermen and the Imps.

Postscript:
Just one week later Hartlepool United, the club with the most reprieves from re-election (14 times) were relegated from the Football League after rivals Newport County scored an 89th minute winner in their game against Notts County to leapfrog United and send them down in the final minute of the season, having spent just two weeks in the bottom two all season.