Venue: The Royal British Legion Stadium, School Road (Saturday 4th April 2015, 3.00pm)
If Good Friday was a dull, wet, miserable and all over crap fest, then Easter Saturday didn’t really have to do much to outdo it. But, it started off on a fine note, with sun blazing out over the North West as I sat on the platform at Manchester Oxford Road awaiting my train to Preston. Indeed, I was off to Blackpool to enjoy the sun, but not in the same way that most others making the journey to one of England’s most famous seaside resorts were planning on, oh no. I was off to more entertaining matters….
A 45 minute journey later I was sat on a sunbaked Preston platform with a 40 minute wait to undertake amongst holiday makers heading to the seaside, or Carlisle. Luckily for me, the rain arrived a good 12 minutes before its scheduled departure time and soon I was off down the Fylde coast stops of Kirkham & Wesham, Lytham, St Annes before finally rocking up in the shadow of the Big One, at Squires Gate.
A 30-35minute stroll later, including passing the sort of open/not open yet Blackpool Airport and I was within sight of the floodlights of both Gate and their neighbours Blackpool Wren Rovers. Both grounds run alongside each other, effectively sharing a stand, Wren’s having more cover and looking full of character on the slight glimpse I had of it. But, that’s for another day. Today was all about School Road, The Royal British Legion Stadium. Sadly, I had arrived slightly too late to enjoy the Shovels pub which I had been recommended on Twitter, so it was straight to the ground for me, were I entered for my discounted rate. Upon entry, I was directly behind a couple who enquired about the programmes. They received the words that no-one wants to hear. “They’re all gone, sold out.” PANIC!!!
Luckily, the programme issue was sorted out by Mark Ashmore (I twigged who it was later on) who dug out a programme from somewhere, which is very much appreciated as it allows me to say just how good a read it is and how much effort is clearly put into it. Stats, head-to-head, staff and player articles and in colour. Really good effort. Worth the £1.50, no question, especially when the lads who man the gate were going to let me have it for £1.
I have to say that the day was going very much to plan up to about 12 minutes into the game when the ref became ill, gave up the ghost and was replaced by Premier League official Mike Salisbury. This did make my journey home somewhat rushed, as the resulting stoppage was a good 10 minutes or so. But as it was, we were back underway with Gate vs Runcorn Town. A bit about the ground first. School Road is a real Counties style ground, a rickety old place, full off character. It’s position at the end of the Blackpool runway is also something different. It features three stands, a bus-stop style covered terrace which runs the majority of the Wren Rovers side. Opposite is the clubhouse and another small terrace/seating combo and behind the goal is a small seated stand, which seemed the popular place for the old-timers, who gave out the “banter” to the ill ref. When he made his way off, one stated “Bet you don’t get clapped off often do you?!” When Salisbury was clapped on as a linesman, the ref remarked “Bloody Hell, you get clapped back on too!” Refs need love too sometimes! Oh, the far end is open standing, so nothing of note there. Capacity is only around 1,000. Now time to look at the history of the Gate, and its origins within the British Legion…
Formed in 1948 as Squires Gate British Legion, Gate originally competed in the Blackpool & District Amateur League. They remained here until 1960, winning numerous honours including the Rawling Shield in their first season, two First Division titles (’55-’56 & ’56-’57) and also a double Blackwell Cup win in 1958-’59 & ’59-’60. They spent the 1960-’61 season in the Fylde and District League, winning the Fylde Cup before moving into the West Lancashire League for the ’61-’62 season.
Gate remained in the West Lancs League for three decades, competing in the Division Two until winning it in 1981 and winning promotion to the Division 1 as a result. In 1987, the club lifted the league’s Richardson Cup, before continuing to play in Division 1 until 1991 when they switched to the North West Counties League (NWCFL).
Elected into the NWCFL for the ’91-’92 season, Gate joined Division 2. They were losing finalists in the 1998 Division 2 Trophy, but won the competition in 2002. A year late, they missed out on the runners-up spot and promotion on goal difference, but were eventually promoted due to the demise of Stand Athletic who had been Division 2 champions, thus meaning third place got the second promotion spot. The club reached the quarter finals of the 2006 FA Vase. In June that year, the club chairman resigned in protest at the calls for the merger of the three local sides, Blackpool Mechanics (AFC Blackpool), Wren Rovers and Gate, but these calls eventually petered out.
In June 2012, the club renamed School Road as The Royal British Legion Stadium and in November of last year, Gate player Jack Sowerby was the latest in the recent trend of non-league starlets getting a chance in the League as he was snapped up by local-ish side Fleetwood Town of League 1. Last season, Gate finished in 19th place in the NWCFL Premier Division.
Back to the current time now and after the ref’s injury, the game resumed still goalless, that is until the liner who was now ref awarded gate a penalty kick midway through the first half. However, I only realised a penalty had been given when I heard a whistle and looked up to see the ball going into the bottom left hand corner of Runcorn ‘keeper Danny Lever’s goal, courtesy of the boot of Alex Murphy. 1-0. No idea why, though.
In truth, there was very little in the way of clear chances, so it was straight to half time and into the bar for me. Although, this time it was for pies rather than alcohol. The food hut is also behind the bar, so after paying £1.60/80 for pie, peas and gravy I sat down and devoured what has to be up there with the very best pies in the region. Superb, and this is becoming a trend. Not sure who makes them, but whomever it is does a good job! Soon enough, it was back out for the second period, which was even more even than the first, again chances were at a premium with a Gate midfielder coming closest, hitting the outside of the post with a drive from 20 yards, until a trip in the box meant another clear penalty for Gate.
Murphy again stepped up and again went to Lever’s left, but this time the keeper was able to get down to it. I know this is echoed in a number of places, Lever is one of the better keepers at this level in my opinion. Gate probably should have had a third penalty when a player was tripped in the box, but the ref took the view he was looking for it and rather put his leg into the defenders. To be fair, this may have been the case and having awarded two already, I doubt he was in much hurry to award a third to the same side!
Town’s best chance to level came when their right winger jinked his way past the defenders, but with teammates in better positions for a square pass, he decided to lash one into the side netting at the near post. His teammates weren’t best pleased and he was punished for his miss when Murphy got his second late on, tapping home a low cross.
Josh Kay was then stupidly and needlessly sent off, apparently on debut, late on for some altercation, with my sentiments being echoed by the lady who served me earlier after she asked if he’d been red carded. As it was, the card mattered little, the ref blew up (he blew his whistle, he’s fine) and Gate ran out deserved winners. I picked up my programme before jogging back up to Squires Gate station for the train back to Preston and then back onwards to Oxford Road. The train back to Preston was packed with people coming back from the Pleasure Beach, the highlight being the strange passenger who resembled a stuffed dog. I wonder what ticket they purchased for him? He was taking up a seat!
With little to lose, I decided to get an earlier service back on the off chance that my connection from Manchester may be delayed, but this all went out the window as the First TransPennine EXPRESS service sat idle on the tracks for a good five-plus minutes. As a result, I was forced into Grand Central, the pub just around the corner which is populated by the Metal/goth/rock people from around the city.
Soon enough, I was back home after a thoroughly enjoyable day at a thoroughly welcoming club. Great people and a great welcome is assured at Squires Gate, in the shadow of the Tower and Amusement Park, the best entertainment is sometimes found off the beaten track….
My Squires Gate M.o.M.- Harry Dunn.
My Runcorn Town M.o.M.- Chris Lawton.
Game: 5- Not the greatest of contests.
Ground: 7- One of those that you’ll like if you like the old, rickety ones.
Fans: 8- Good natured and some good shouts on the way.
Programme: 8- One of the better ones for the level, surely.
Food: 9- A highlight, properly good food. Alternative to Fish and Chips at Blackpool now?
Value For Money: 8- £10 travel, discount in, £1.50 programme and cheap food. Late cider too.