Result: Leek Town 2-3 Kettering Town (FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round)
Venue: Harrison Park (Saturday 3rd September 2016, 3pm)
The FA Cup trail continues into a third round and after seeing two home wins over the previous two rounds, for Padiham and Tadcaster Albion respectively, the draw threw up a fair few options of where to visit next. For the task of deciding, a liaison with fellow ‘hopper (and ever more regular blog appearance maker) Paul was needed and eventually we settled on the fine Staffordshire town of Leek and, more notably, Harrison Park, home of Leek Town FC.
Non-League Day started in the usual fashion, heading into Manchester while taking advantage of the city’s Wayfarer ticket which stretches all the way down to Leek, allowing a fairly cheap day of travel. After happening to jump on the Norwich-bound train to Manchester Piccadilly at the nearest door available, it just so happened that I’d got on just across from where Paul had stationed himself during his trip over from Liverpool. After a quick change at Piccadilly, we were onward bound for Macclesfield.
After being regaled by a guy about the fact the train journey to Oxford was the first his dog had ever taken (you do get some exciting tales), we disembarked in the Cheshire town at just before midday. With around an hour to our bus to Leek, we decided to seek out some cover from the precipitation. Unfortunately, the majority of drinking holes around town were still shut and so we fell into the ever faithful Wetherspoons, Macc’s being titled the “Society Rooms”.
The Society Rooms is a decent, if unspectacular, ‘Spoons, but one that more than passed the test of where to spend a half-hour. With Punk IPA’s finished off, Paul and I headed back uphill, past a restaurant offering “Bombs £1” and to Macclesfield bus station for our connection to Leek. After a small delay, we set off on our pink and sparkle-clad bus, though Paul was far from enamoured with his £5.50 ticket.
After a half-hour’s journey through the Cheshire countryside, we pulled into the town centre and with the steady rain continuing to fall, headed uphill once more, this time to the town’s Market Place and, more specifically, the Red Lion pub. The Red Lion is a nice place with a selection of ales to suit. After being offered a taste of those before we had to request it (big plus for that), I settled on a Tiger Bullion which was ok, but nothing to write home about.
With the clock heading towards two, we decided to head back towards the ground, stopping of at the second Wetherspoon’s of the day, the Green Dragon. This is a slightly strange establishment, with an old, timber-framed part being attached to a bigger hall-type space. It was here that we found the bar and, much to my delight, the F1 qualifying. With Punk IPA once more purchased, I watched on as the Iceman secured 4th place. Decent stuff. Again, though, not much of note happened in here and we soon set off on our way out from the town towards Harrison Park.
About 10 minutes later, we arrived at the far side of the ground, having to head round half of it to reach the turnstiles. £8 admission later (plus £1.50 programme from the kiosk next door) and we were into what is my 190th ground. As is becoming part and parcel now, it was straight to the bar with 30 minutes to kick-off. After deciding to have an impromptu passing match with a miniature ball, we eventually got this bit of childish “see ball, must kick ball” out of our system, we grabbed a table near the window where we could witness the early stages of the game. Magic.
Harrison Park is a really good ground to visit. It’s Main Stand is all seater, between the clubhouse and turnstiles, is raised above the pitch and provides good views over the game. The other three stands are covered terraced areas, with the stands behind the goals being closer to the pitch, slightly, than the one on the far side. As for Leek Town’s history…
Leek Town FC was formed in 1946, though football was played in the town from 1876 at least, including an earlier Leek FC side who competed in the Combination during the 1890’s. However, the current club traces its roots from Leek Lowe Hamil, the team formed in 1946 (though it may have been earlier under a different name) and who won their first league, the Staffordshire County League, in 1949-’50 (possibly ’50-’51, very mysterious club this one), their third season in it.
In 1951, the club switched to the Manchester League, where they adopted the Leek Town name. They won the title at the first attempt, switched to the Mid-Cheshire League immediately following their glory, but again only stayed for one year here, before switching into the Birmingham & District League for 1954. However, during the ’56-’57 season, Leek resigned citing financial issues, had a brief stay back in the Manchester League which was als plagued with monetary problems, before eventually returning back to the Staffs League.
During the late 60’s & early 70’s, Leek were no strangers to silverware, seeing two titles in both the Staffs League & Manchester League (’72 & ’73) arrive. After the second Manchester League title, the club moved into the Cheshire County League, where they won the league at the second attempt (1974-’75). 1982 saw the league merge with the Lancashire Combination to form the North West Counties League, of which Leek became founder members, spending five mediocre years.
However, in 1987, the club were selected to be a founder member of the Northern Premier League’s new Division 1 and won this in 1990 and with it promotion to the NPL Premier Division. They also reached that year’s FA Trophy final, beating Conference champions Darlington along the way, only to fall to Barrow, under the famed twin towers. ’94 saw Leek finish runners-up, but were refused promotion due to financial problems. To compound this, the club were moved to the Southern League, worsening the issues, but after the sole year here, Leek were allocated back to the NPL.
In 1997, Leek went one better and won the NPL Premier by ten clear points to attain promotion to the Conference, but only lasted two years of struggle, before dropping back. 2001 saw a further drop back into the NPL Division 1, but regained their place in the Premier Division in 2004, as a result of league restructuring and the creation of the Conference North. The club had to stave off a winding-up order in 2006 as the financial problems returned, but the club survived this setback and continued on.
2008 saw Leek relegated into the Division 1 South and have remained there to this day. The closest the club have come to getting back into the Premier Division of the NPL was in 2012, when the Blues lost out to Ilkeston FC in the play-off final. Last season, the club finished up in a respectable 8th place in the NPL Division One South table.
The game got underway and was played at a good pace. I was more distracted by the fact that a usual Football Manager signing of mine, Spencer Weir-Daley, was in the Kettering side and he was looking quite dangerous early on. But, it was his fellow forward, Rene Howe, who’d open the scoring after 23 minutes, his header dropping into the bottom corner. 0-1 to the Poppies.
This goal seemed to give Kettering the impetus and they looked more likely to add a second than Leek did to draw level. They should have done so just after I’d purchased my food for the day, a fine chips, peas and curry, but Leek ‘keeper Chris Martin (neither the Coldplay frontman nor ex-New Zealand bowler) pulled off a good stop with his legs to keep his side in the game.
This save proved even more important as Leek drew level five minutes before the break, Jordan Johnson whipping a fine free-kick around the wall and into the bottom corner. His celebration proved just how much he enjoyed that strike as he pulled out the ever-popular knee-slide. Only problem was, he chose the almost completely vacant open terraced area to do it in front of. But, it’s the goal that counts and the sides went in at one-a-piece. The timing of the strike was made better, though, by the fact I stated just prior to it “Let’s have a picture of food & a goal. Voila, Johnson delivered. Top man.
The second half began with Leek almost forcing an equaliser after putting the visiting defence under pressure and almost fashioning a chance, only for the goalkeeper to be alert enough to narrow the angle and the header went wide of the mark.
Kettering recovered from their slow start to the second period and went ahead for the second time in the game, with Nathan Hick’s daisy-cutter skimming into the bottom left-hand corner from 20+ yards. Despite Weir-Daley being given the goal initially by the PA man, Hicks was eventually given his due. The 1-2 lead only lasted for 10 minutes, though, as Leek again found a leveller. This time, a quick move down the flank saw a ball into the area collected by Tim Grice and he slotted home calmly to make it all to play for once more.
Both sides were going for the win, with neither wanting to replay the game in midweek for obvious reasons, but it was the Poppies who were having the better of it late on and as we entered stoppage time a pull in the area at a corner meant the referee was pointing to the spot. Up stepped sub Aaron O’Connor, but he fired the spot-kick wide of Martin’s left upright.
It was a poor penalty, but as fate would have it O’Connor went from zero-to-hero within a minute as, from the very next attack, the ball fell to O’Connor on the edge of the box. He took his time and smashed a low shot which creeped under Martin and into the net sparking crazy scenes within the travelling support behind the goal with no-one entering the pitch. No-one. Absolutely no-one at all. Leek’s assistant manager was sent off in the aftermath, as his side fell just short against their higher-level opponents. We looked suspiciously like away fans in the main stand, as we celebrated a game settled on the day, as attending the replay was a bit unlikely…..
With the final whistle blew, we quickly exited the ground and headed for the White Lion pub (as to not show any favouritism to Lions of any sort). Being the first ones in is always awkward, as it appeared to be more of a restaurant-pub than a pure pub. Luckily, though, we were soon joined by Kettering fans Chris and Dave who seemed a bit disappointed that none of their numbers had shared their fine decision to have a celebratory one here.
Talk, as usual, turned to grounds and famed Kettering games in the past, with Paul’s favourite being the Leeds Utd game which he seemed pleased to be able to talk about, having mentioned it a couple of times earlier in the day, but I have no real recollection of it, so couldn’t share the enthusiasm! Also, the trivia we were given was that Kettering are the FA Cup’s highest scorers, over the years, which was something none of us were aware of, but was also stated in the programme, so that is good to know.
Eventually, it was time for us to head up the road slightly for our bus back, so we bid goodbye to Chris and Dave and headed up the road, deciding we just had time for a quick one in the Dyers Arms. After having some issues finding the stop following our drink (signs aren’t utilised it seems), the locals told us that the road light doubles as the stop and so we trusted their word with bated breath, but knowing the Leek locals would be trustworthy, right?
Of course they were, if you thought otherwise then shame! The bus journey back was a strange one with a Geordie Liverpool fan talking to a Cumbrian Manchester United fan while we, as natives of both respective club’s cities decided it was our right to involve ourselves in the conversation! The United fan’s wide, though, had only come out for the pub crawl with her husband and wasn’t looking too appreciative of the football talk, but it certainly helped to pass the time for us as we were soon passing by Moss Rose and into Macc town once again. With an hour to our train back to Manchester, we decided the Queen’s Arms would be the best place for a quick stop, with a honey beer being a good accompaniment.
Paul’s celebrity non-league manager identifying-eye came into its own as her declared ” That’s Garry Hill!” Indeed, the Woking coat-clad Hill and his assistant were sat at the bar doing their own side’s post-mortem after their defeat to Macclesfield earlier in the day. As such, he wasn’t too talkative, as is understandable, but still gave a few minutes of his time in discussion, though I think he wanted us to go away, which we did soon enough!
After a quick trip to the station for a non-existent train, we spotted the banished Woking side populating the waiting room on the far side. Eventually, our train pulled in too and off we set for a final stop off in Manchester, namely the legendary Peveril of the Peak pub. What we didn’t know was that our fierce table football rivalry would be renewed in here, with the result sadly slipping my mind (that’s the truth…), but the real stars of the show were the Saharas nuts. Glorious!
Closing Thoughts: Anyway, thus ended our venture out to Leek and everything in between. It was a really good day, with the town, ground, game and just pretty much everything else lending itself to making the trip a fine one. Next round will be a continuation, but where will it be? Not long left to find out…
Value For Money: 7