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.

A kick in the privates


Two facts that you may not know about Goole. Firstly, when you type it into any Apple device, it will try to suggest to you that you really meant Google, and secondly it’s bloody cold. I can’t help think that the club have missed a trick with this whole naming thing. Perhaps the town could create their own global search engine or an email service? Goole Chrome has a good ring to it, Goole Drive could be a new road name whilst the local newspaper could rebrand as Goole Buzz – bound to be more successful than Google’s attempts. The domain name, Goole.com has actually been registered since 1999, almost at the same time Larry Page and Sergey Brin started making their magic in a Stanford University dorm room, whilst the town itself can trace its history back to 1629. Any court in its right mind would surely side with the people from the East Ridings of Yorkshire.

As we leave the M62 Northern Steve asks the valid question, in my opinion, as to whether the residents of the town refer to themselves as “Goolies”? His motivation for the question seemed to be the phallic looking structure on the horizon, which after a quick “Gooling” (using my new local Search Engine website) turns out to be a water tower. Such architectural follies are so British, so Victorian, so wonderful.

15979360558_6b25b4746f_kWe were keeping the Victorian theme by heading to the Pleasure Grounds (using Goole Maps as our guide) as one should do on annual days of rest. Alas, the Pleasure Grounds here do not have the traditional bandstand, rides, an orangery, menageries or even a zoo for exotic animals, such as those that used to exist in 19th century London. Instead the Goole version has two goalposts, a stand, some beer and pies (always with peas in these parts) home not of fine Victorian gentlemen but The Vikings of the Evostik League North, First Division South. The water towers, nicknamed salt and pepper, that overlook the ground act as beacons, lighting the way to the ground from the M62. Hands up who thinks modern Britain is crap now eh?

Driving through the town on the way to the Victoria Pleasure Grounds suggests that few other people in these parts were heading to the big festive derby with Lincoln United. Goole is a town of nearly 19,000 souls, once an important port but now struggling to find an identity as is the case with hundreds of other British towns. The High Street (well, Boothferry Road anyway) is symptomatic with the failing British retail scene. Pound stores, Charity shops, Bookies and Weatherspoons. No problem with that, especially as we handed over our £2.50 for our lunchtime pint but Goole was losing its identity.

The history of the football club stretches back over one hundred years and various different entities. They started off with a plain old Town, then Goole Shipyard Football Club. When the hull fell out of the shipbuilding industry they found the Town down the back of the sofa which they held onto until financial problems saw the club go under. From the ashes came Goole AFC in 1997, the current version although the club tried to sneak the Town back a few years ago, enraging the West Ridings FA in the process who take such matters very seriously – sod trivial matters like racism, match fixing and respect campaigns, the serious business is about a town wanting to add the word “town” after their name.

15981017447_19a7bf7f8a_kWhilst progress hasn’t yet happened on the pitch, the club are still fighting. Quite apt that the current manager, Curtis Woodhouse, held the British Light-Welterweight boxing title until June, although perhaps too much of that fighting spirit rubbed off on former captain Karl Colley back in January when after being sent off for violent conduct in a game against Coalville Town decided to attack a fan. The club acted swiftly, sacking Colley who had previously been sacked by Belper Town for his conduct. I’m sure the West Riding FA will get round to adding their sanctions once they’ve dealt with other major incidents such as teams deciding which colours to play in or renaming a tea bar. Reading the programme notes it appeared that the club’s ownership was once again unclear. Being part of a community-owned club like Lewes does make me feel blessed at times. Perhaps this is the model that could work for Goole, bring the much-needed identity and inclusion to the local community that they talk about being missing.

“There is so little to cheer (about) in Goole alone that sport is a way of transforming the image of a place and sadly Goole football over the last 30 years has been unable to do so.” Tough words from the club in the match programme but they are 100% bang on.

Lincoln United are Northern Steve’s local team. They had lost the reverse fixture a week ago in Lincoln, so revenge was their primary motivation today. By attending this game he would be automatically elevated to the ranks of “hardcore” due to the unwritten code of football supporting. Talking of club names, the story behind Lincoln’s is a peach. Originally called Lincoln Amateurs, they signed a former Nottingham Forest professional in 1951, meaning they couldn’t keep their name. So the players had, according to the club’s own story, a “brainstorming” session in a pub in Sleaford and came up with the name United. The film rights to that story must have them queuing round the block at their Ashby Avenue ground.

Like Goole AFC, Lincoln United’s honours roster is modest to say the least. But that’s not to say they couldn’t serve up some silky football to warm up the hundred and fifty or so fans who had made the trip to the dockside. The exterior of the ground may have been stark but the welcome was warm. Pie, peas and mint sauce were the order of the day round these parts, perfect insulation against the hurricane that was blowing down the ground. Both teams would be fighting the elements as well as each other over the next 90 minutes. We took up our place opposite the main stand, still enthralled by the phallic structures behind the ground. Every 20 minutes or so a train passed by the ground, offering travellers a glimpse into the heart of grass roots football.

Goole AFC 1 Lincoln United 1 – Victoria Pleasure Gardens – Thursday 1st January 2015
With two minutes left the celebrations from the home side were as if they’d won the cup rather than just equalised against a mid-table rival. The goal, scored by Billy Law was completely unexpected and against the run of play – simply because of the conditions. The wind, coupled with the open aspect of the ground had led to some almost comical passages of play, with the home keeper struggling to kick the ball forward at all, whilst at the other end, the bookies had stopped taking bets on the next goal scorer being the Lincoln goalie.

15979399908_a05a84fab9_kBoth teams had started the game trying to keep the ball on the deck but the heavy conditions had made that problematic. Lincoln had set themselves up in an unusual 3-5-2 with the idea of getting their wing backs forward. Alas the wind blowing in their faces meant they spent most of the first half on their heels, trying to defend against lofted balls over their heads. Despite having the conditions in their favour, Goole struggled to trouble the away keeper Peet. Half-time and we were all square.

Lincoln opened the scoring ten minutes into the second half, making a meal of a clear-cut chance before Matt Cotton nudged the ball over the line. They immediately went on the front foot, playing the elements well. Whilst they hit the post twice and were denied by some astute goal keeping, there was only a few moments of quality. It took them eighty minutes to realise that placed rather than power was the key to using the elements for shots on goal.

15979358738_46b2a39bda_kWith time ticking away Goole tried to get the ball into the danger zone but were thwarted time and time again by the wind and a resolute defence. The post and Peet combined well to keep the ball out but they were powerless to prevent Law’s exquisite lob in the final minutes, timing it perfectly for a moment when the wind abated for a few seconds. Whilst they hadn’t used the favourable conditions to their advantage in the first period the goal was more than they deserved.

Goole probably wouldn’t have been many people’s preferred destination on the first day of 2015 but we had no regrets. Twenty miles down the road Hull City were celebrating their first Premier League win in front of 22,000, many of whom would have come from the terraces around the Victoria Pleasure Grounds. But were they really happy with their £35 seats? A tenner had given us a friendly club, a decent game, pie and peas plus a golden goal ticket. That’s the heart and soul of football. Let’s hope that Goole can engage the local community and grow as a result. If not then my search engine idea might just do the trick.

The Gladiators versus The Spartans


There can be few better feelings in life than watching a game of football with the sun beating down on your face, beer in hand surround by England’s green and pleasant land. Add in a view to die for and a pie with gravy and this could be Nirvana. I could have chosen one of twenty games in the Premier League or the Skybet divisions today that were within an hour’s drive of Northern HQ but instead I’m at Causeway Lane, Matlock, in the heart of Derbyshire’s Peak District. Even the sale of the naming rights to the ground (“The Autoworld Arena” conjures up images of Speedway to me) can’t spoil the beauty of the moment.

15007767741_867b992671_zNobody was telling me to sit down, taking my beer away or trying to sell me a credit card. Watching football at the highest level of the game in a England has been a joyless experience for a number of years. As each season passes and clubs find more ways to justify ticket price hikes whilst greedily scooping up more cash from TV deals, pre-season tours and bizarre commercial partnerships.  It’s no surprise that the governing body, the Football Association are just as guilty these days, happy to put aside their unelected mandate to run our game with a focus on all aspects and all levels for the latest sponsorship deal.  I still find it incredible that an organisation that talks about the importance of sport for children to maintain a healthy lifestyle by signing long-term commercial deals with the world’s most recognised fast food brand and a brand of beer.

I was here on a mission from God. Well, sort of.  The little Fuller’s had been enjoying a week of a Northern life at the in-laws and I was here to collect them and re-as simulate them back into normal life.  Whilst the Current Mrs Fuller was conducting a Southern language lesson I took my leave and headed 39 miles west to Matlock. How could anyone resist this game? The Gladiators versus The Spartans played in one of the finest arenas that England has to offer.

I was disappointed when I rang the club in the week and asked if I wore my toga I’d get in free? It appeared that the Matlock Town marketing machine had let the opportunity of a themed match day experience pass them by.  I’m sure Woburn Safari Park could’ve had done without a lion or two for the afternoon and as for an orgy? Well I’ve still got the numbers for a couple of trainee Bunny Girls I met at the Playboy Mansion a few years ago (Did I tell you I’ve been to the Playboy Mansion?).  But any sad face soon disappeared when I pulled into the car park on the cricket pitched, stopped at mid wicket and looked straight ahead at the three-sided Causeway Lane ground. Ruddy marvellous.

The Northern Premier League, just like its southern cousins, is a pig to get out of with only the winners guaranteed a spot in the Vanarama Conference North.  Last season, Blyth finished in 8th spot, not too far off the play-offs although quite how they would fair in tier 2 of Non-League football is another matter, with significant away trips to Oxford City(550 miles), Worcester City (500 miles), Gloucester City (550 miles) and a whopping 600 mile round trip to Lowestoft. This underlines the main issue with the current non-league structure – trying to fit clubs into a rigid structure that ignores geography.  The big elephant in the room, still, is FC United of Manchester with their travelling legions and inability to progress out of the NPL Play-offs. A visit by the bootleg Red Devils swells the coiffures of all the clubs in this league.

14824252268_da93451cac_zI handed over my £9 for entry, £2.50 for my pie and £2.70 for my pint and I was a happy man for the next two hours. My afternoon was completed by seeing two of the finest Non-League photographers known to man, Chris Hayes and Paul Paxford at the far end and made my way down there to get snap happy.

Matlock Town 1 Blyth Spartans 1 – Causeway Lane – Saturday 23rd August 2014
Opposite the ground is Hall Leys Park, where their Bank Holiday festivities were well underway.  As the two teams emerged the sound of Disney filled the air. Surely they had better walk out music than this? Then it dawned on me that it was the theme tune to Frozen which was being shown on a big screen in the park opposite. And so the songs punctuated the air for the rest of the afternoon as the two rivals cancelled each other out in an entertaining draw.

The Spartans started the game with the smell of blood in their nostrils. Roared on by a small group of away fans, the leader of whom loved nothing more than an occasional jig around the terrace outside the bar, spilling most of his beer each time. He had something to really shout about just before half-time when a Holland skipped passed his marker and fired the ball into the corner of the net.

14987846766_0633f5f872_zThe second half saw a re-energised (I.e bollocked) Matlock team emerge, realising the weaknesses in the Spartans right hand side.  The away keeper was forced into half a dozen good saves before he was finally beaten when Hawkins reacted fastest to a deflected cross and smartly headed home.  If the game was to produce a winner it was undoubtably going to come from the home side but then they sat back, almost inviting The Spartans to attack with numbers.

The final whistle saw a round of applause from the 260-odd souls in the ground.  “Better than the bloody rubbish we saw on Tuesday but we are still rubbish” said one fan as he waked past me “still liver and bacon for tea and Tess Daly on Strictly. Life isn’t all bad, son.” Wise words indeed and with that I headed back east to the Littlest Fuller’s. He was spot on, life in the Non-Leagues in the English Summer wasn’t bad at all.

Matlock Town face the same issue many Non-League clubs have each and every week. Within a 30 minute drive of the town this afternoon, Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Alfreton Town all played at home.  That’s the challenge – trying to encourage the locals of Matlock not to hop on the bus or train at 2pm but to stay at head down to Causeway Lane.

My good friend Mike Bayly is currently researching a book on the grounds you have to visit before you die. Matlock would be on my recommended top 10 list on a sunny day like today although I’d give it a swerve when the cold Peak District wind blows on a wet Tuesday in February.

Cunning Linguists


It’s taken me the best part of two decades to realise that those in the North of England are a funny bunch.  Twenty years of learning to communicate with my In-Laws.  I understand that “cobs” are rolls, “tash” means good and “Now then” means hello, how are you.  But this week I was left perplexed when looking for a game on Saturday.

12703150145_f3214ba3b7_bWith Lewes not playing until Sunday I took the opportunity to head up North to take in a game.  When I suggested to Northern Steve that we headed to Rainworth today to watch their game against Loughborough Dynamo, he looked at me blankly.  “Where is Rainworth?” he said.  I explained it was the small village on the road from Newark-on-Trent to Mansfield, home to Rainworth Miners Welfare FC of the Evostik League.  His eyes lit up…Ah, you mean “Rannoth”…”No, I mean R-A-I-N W-O-R-T-H”. “Yes, Rannoth”.  To paraphrase my good friend Asterix, “These Lincolners are crazy”.

It appears there is a different language in these parts.  I have become a patient linguist in my years of travelling the globe.  I know the Danes have soft J’s but hard G’s and the Swedes the other way round – meaning that if you want a person for a party who can artistically throw balls in the air in Copenhagen then you ask for a “yuggler”, but in Stockholm it is a “jyler”.  And don’t get me started about the five different ways to say your A’s depending if it is an ä, å, æ or a ã.  But I expected a bit more sense from my fellow Englishmen.  I sought solace with the Current Mrs Fuller but she just made the situation worse by reminding me of the places where we used to court nearby.  Averham (“Airham”) and Belvoir Castle (“Beaver” obviously).  I couldn’t win. Continue reading

17 Again….


Twenty four years ago I was in my first ever serious relationship.  A lovely Welsh lass who lived opposite my school who was a year older than me and on a year out before going to university.  What made the relationship perfect was her Mum taught at my school, so I knew exactly when she would be about and co-ordinated my absence from school accordingly to maximise my discovery time.  I could wax lyrical about the whole affair, that lasted until I was at least 18.  But you have come here for some football chat and football chat is what you will get.

The reason for the slight detour into my past is to prove a point that in twenty four years a lot can change.  I’m now married to the wonderful CMF and whilst my love of the Welsh fairer sex is never in doubt, my life is very different to the one I was planning in Easter 1997. And so too is that of Retford United.  Back in April 1997 they were the figment of the imagination of a group of chaps in the Half Moon pub in Retford, a small market town on the borders of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire.

It's a good life in Retford

Just a few months later they had formed their own football team, naming themselves Retford United and gained a place in the Gainsborough League.  From small acorns grow great oaks and the club slowly moved up the leagues, reaching the Northern Premier League (aka Unibond and now Evostik) structure in 2007.  They won the Division One South in their first season but were denied promotion due to ground grading issues (because an extra 20 fans would have caused a huge problem).  Undeterred by letting red tape get in their way they won the league again the following season as well as the Nottinghamshire Senior Cup, to take their place at the big boys table in the Unibond Premier League, just three steps below the Football League. Continue reading