Result: Lostock Gralam 5-1 Middlewich Town Reserves (Mid-Cheshire District FA Cup Semi-Final)
Venue: Hartford Sports Village (Saturday 16th March 2019, 1.30pm)
Att: 40 (approx.)
The day began with me heading into Crewe on the basis that the long-standing Crewe vs Eagle Sports Cheshire League clash had somehow survived the weather. However, I was just approaching the end of the road leading up to the Cumberland Arena when the message came through. Game OFF. It was indeed too good to be true. So began the process of looking to find a replacement game (this is why I’ve started getting places early, honest) and eventually reckoned that Crewe Alex would be the safe bet – with Middlewich Town just a little too far off.
But just as I had returned to the station a thought hit me. The other semi-final which would decide Middlewich’s opponents in the final a few weeks later was being played at Hartford Sports Village, a ground not used above u21 level as far as I can determine and, as luck would have it, the train to Hartford was due in a few minutes allowing me to get to the high school it’s situated behind just in time for the 1.30pm kick-off. This was a welcome fact too, as the weather was fairly blustery and the odd sleet shower was never too far away.
Lostock Gralam itself is a village and civil parish located in the centre of the Cheshire Plain and its main street follows the route of the famed Watling Street Roman Road that linked Manchester and Chester. Transport-wise, it hosts its own station and the Trent and Mersey Canal. The area also includes the neighbouring hamlet of Lostock Green. Hartford, meanwhile, is another village and civil parish in Cheshire West and Chester within the ceremonial county of Chester and forms part of the Weaver Vale constituency. It lies on the West Coast mainline between Liverpool and Crewe (Hartford station itself dates from 1837 and also has Greenbank right next to today’s venue) and the intersection of the A559.
Recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, Hartford was the manor of Gilbert de Venables and part of the Barony of Kinderton. Prior to the reign of Edward III, it was held by a family who assumed the local name and it passed through numerous families thereafter. In 1644 and during the English Civil War, a battle was fought at Hartford Green when the Royalists of Chester met the Parliamentary forces of Northwich. The village church, St. John the Baptist, dates from 1875 and is on the site of a former chapel (c.1824) which was replaced as the village grew and rendered it too small. Hartford was originally a township split into two ancient parishes – the greater belonging to Witton chapelry of Great Budworth and the smaller to Waverham-cum-Milton. It also formed part of the Eddisbury Hundred prior to being designated as a civil parish in 1866 and later became part of the Northwich rural sanitary district in 1875.
After a short hop over on the train opposite a toilet that seemingly had seen some unsavoury happenings at some point judging by the reactions to it, I arrived into Hartford village at a little before 1pm and a slow walk had me arriving at the school gates with around 5 minutes to kick-off. Walking down the road the leads through the numerous buildings that make up the campus, I eventually navigated my way around the tunnel….well, taped off area with some cones, and into the cage where the game was just getting underway. The cage itself features a standing area that runs 3/4 the length of the near side, but not much else bar floodlights. Lostock Gralam finished last season in 6th place in the Cheshire League 1, whilst Town Reserves recorded a 5th position in the Reserve Division. The sides currently sat 1st and 6th respectively in the same divisions, as the latter looked to meet their firsts in the final. Would that even be able to happen?! Either way, let’s get onto the game…. (NB: For those who are interested, Lostock Gralam’s history can be found on my blog about my visit to the Park Stadium here).
The game got underway with the ‘hosts’ quickly going on the attack, though the first twenty minutes or so was, on the whole, very quiet as both sides got used to unfamiliar surroundings. Eventually, it would be the hosts who would break the deadlock as Jack Woolley finished from around the penalty spot. Strike-partner Robbie Hatton almost doubled the advantage soon afterwards with an almost identical chance, but his effort flew over and into the cage behind the Town Reserves goal. Speaking of the visitors, they responded to this early set back and #11 sliced wide from a promising position, but it looked as though they’d gone two down moments later when Woolley nodded home but was adjudged to have been in an offside position. He looked on to me though.
The Witches began to grow more into the game more after the half-hour and had a pair of decent sights of goal, with #4 clipping an effort narrowly over the bar from a corner and #8 followed this up shortly afterwards with a drive that flew just wide of the mark. Their best chance came with around ten minutes to the break, when a miskick in the Gralam defence allowed #9 in, but he would be denied by a fine stop by the Grey Lambs’ keeper Dane Rigby in his first real action of the game. This proved to be a vital moment because, with a couple of minutes remaining before the whistle, a ball though split the Town defence and Hatton fired home to give Gralam the comfort of a two-goal lead at half-time.
An uneventful short half-time came and went, the game getting going again with an immediate third and it was Gralam who would grab the game’s decisive strike. Just a couple of minutes into the second period, Hatton was tripped in the area, the ref duly pointed to the spot and Jack Woolley netted his second of the day to seemingly wrap up the Grey Lambs’ place in the final. However, Town would continue on with their spirited challenge and after #8 had seen his, admittedly weak, effort saved when well-placed, “home” stopper Rigby than evaded a red when bringing down a forward who was advancing towards him one-on-one. However, with his touch taking him wide and defenders likely to have duly covered in time as a result, the resulting yellow was JUST the correct call, in my view.
It would be another ‘keeping error that would result in the game’s fourth goal and it was a totally avoidable one at that. A weak effort crawled towards the visiting ‘keeper, but he somehow allowed it to creep under his body in a Massimo Taibi-esque manner and full-back Connor Hooks was on hand to knock the ball over the line after a highly opportunistic run to much fanfare from his teammates! The Witches’ Reserves wouldn’t go down with a whimper though and, to their credit, continued to fight on and really deserved a consolation for their efforts. After Town had forced the Gralam defence into a pair of last-ditch blocks, Matthew Cann curled just over the crossbar in something of a prelude to what he would do minutes later when he drifted a free-kick, likely wind-assisted admittedly, over the ‘keeper’s head and into the far side-netting. There was their goal.
But it would be Lostock Gralam who would stamp their mark on the game last and head into the final in emphatic fashion as they grabbed fifth with around ten minutes to play, when pressure on the defence forced them into a mistake and sub Myles Wadey capitalised on the weak clearance to finish and that was that. Woolley had a late chance to secure a hat-trick, but drove his shot over as the Grey Lambs advanced to meet the Middlewich Town first-team in the final in a few weeks time. Full-Time, 5-1.
Post-match I returned back to the village via the new-build housing route I’d taken to get there and dived out of the rain and into my first stop of the day – Relish, a smart café-bar type of place. Not only did it give me a welcome respite from the elements, but it also had Blue Moon on draught (£4.95) and I was more than happy with myself and my decision making at that point! Just across the way from the village church, it sits not far from a pair of neighbouring watering holes – though they are a fair bit different from each other when it comes down to it. Anyway, more on them later on. Upon the rain’s abatement, I headed off down the road and out of the centre – heading for the Hartford Hall, an 18th century former nunnery. It was pleasant enough too, and surprisingly on the cheap side, with a pint of Amstel coming in at £3.65. Not too shabby.
I headed off before the remainder of the guests for the party that were beginning to arrive did so and once again retraced my steps, this time back past the grand “White Hall” (unsurprisingly, a large white hall) and an old schoolhouse which had a claim to fame I can’t remember off the top of my head) before again reaching the junction at the church and this time peeling off and beginning to head towards Hartford station, via the two places I mentioned earlier. I reckoned I’d pop into the first of the two, Chime, just to be safe, and found it to be as I expected from the exterior – a food-centric place with a selection of gins and cocktails aplenty, it seemed. Not having any of that was I, instead opting for a Hop House (£4.50) before heading next door to the far more traditional Red Lion for a San Miguel (£3.90).
Finishing up in the Red Lion, I set off on the ten-minute-or-so walk back to Hartford station and this was completed with little issue. It mercifully stayed dry for once throughout this leg of the trip, allowing me to get to the station-neighbouring Coachman for a final pint of Amstel (£4.35) where I could take a bit of time to recoup and await my train back to Crewe for the change onwards to Manchester and home. This all went easy as and I even had time to pop into the Crewe Hero on the station for a Desperados for the train home (though this wasn’t exactly the shrewdest option I’d made, so I retract my earlier self-congratulation) and this set me back just under a fiver. It’s nothing short of daylight robbery that, is it?! Anyway, best that than losing it somewhere along the way and so I boarded my train back the short hop to Piccadilly with little in the way to cause any problems…..
Well, look at that. Something had happened up the tracks somethwere and we were turfed off at Wilmslow, only to be immediately re-trained and told that we were actually now continuing on as the “issue” had been cleared away. None of us had any idea what had just happened and it turned out that I hopped back on along with a couple of Wycombe fans, Mark and Paul, who’d been watching the Chairboys’ away game at Shrewsbury. We swapped a couple of stories and the like during the short time we had whilst trying to make sense of the swiftest cancellation/reinstatement known to man, before we finally pulled into Manchester in one piece. However, this travel-related problem would be dwarfed by next week….
A good day on the whole and one that had continued on my recent run of pocket-friendly trips. The game had been a decent one despite the one-sided scoreline as this wasn’t fully reflective of the whole game’s story. A bonus also to get Hartford in during a senior game too (though I’d guess Hartford FC themselves may pop up sooner rather than later in the Cheshier League or something). That’s that for this cut-back bite-size issue and it’s on to next week and ground #300. Let’s hope it’s not too grim….
Value For Money: 8