Manchopper in….Walsall

Result: Walsall 2-2 Darlington (FA Cup First Round)

Venue: Bescot Stadium (Saturday 9th November 2019, 3pm)

Att: 3,283

The FA Cup always offers up options for cheaper visits to league clubs and, as such, I usually have a look a little further afield to try and get the most out of it. As such, I did have a slight flirt with a long trip out to East Anglia and Portman Road, before deciding it was probably a little close to the time, and I’d be better off waiting and planning this one out properly. Then, I figured there was a game that was a little under-the-radar and that was at the Bescot Stadium, one of the few grounds I needed to get to “properly tick” off Walsall’s home by watching the Saddlers’ first team. You see, I’d visited quite a few years earlier for a youth team game which featured a few players who’ve gone on to feature in the senior ranks, but this can’t really go towards the true ’92’, can it? Regardless, I say no and to the Bescot it was.

In addition, a possible cupset was on the cards too, as re-emerging Darlington were the visitors and seemed to have a decent away following in the offing, judging by the bus numbers and requests from all around the country. As such, when I was propositioned by Darlo fan Charlotte to “get in the away end”, I thought it’d be rude to not back the non-league side I’d once seen play Northwich Victoria, away, at a mixed blue/green/white-clad, half dilapidated Valley Road ground in Flixton, back i’t’day. Ah, the joys of the non-league system! Anyhow, I grabbed the train out of Manchester (after securing tickets for a trip North of the border in a couple of weeks) and was en route down to Birmingham’s New Street station, where I’d connect onwards from. Well, that was the plan, anyway, and all seemed to be ok….until I arrived.

Delayed. Delayed. Delayed. “This train is delayed by approximately 36 minutes”. All these met my eyes and ears as I traversed the walkways of New Street, attempting to sort out my best options for the short hop out to the north east of the city. Eventually, it turned out that one train, that itself was delayed by 25 minutes, was actually due to leave about the same time as I should have done anyway and within all the madness, calm soon descended and I arrived into Walsall, bright (well, ok, not so bright) and early, at a little after midday. Drizzle hung over the town as I arrived, and I hoped this wasn’t a precursor for what I was about to witness a few hours later. With that in mind, I felt like I needed a drink or two…or three – you get the picture – to calm my nerves!

Finally arriving in a soggy Walsall

Red Lion

The Red Lion was first up and it was something a little special inside, a spiral iron staircase jutting out into the midst of the bar area, which added some fine character to a place that already looked interesting enough from the outside beforehand! A pint of Stella (£3.80) began the day here whilst I sorted out my acca (which, shock, horror, went awry swiftly) before I headed off back past the dulcet tones of a sole singer outside and through the precinct area and to a few pubs that are grouped in together. How thoughtful. First up was a small seemingly sports-centric pub by the name of the Old Bailey, where my curse of picking the beer that’s not on returned, and so, after being offered the hell-in-a-glass that is Carling, I was forced to settle for a Coors – though the £2.40 price tag went some way to easing the pain.

Next up was a pair of pubs just in behind the large, dominating St. Matthew’s Building that houses the Wetherspoons – these being, namely, the Registry and the Tap & Tanner. The Registry seemed to have been a chain or something in a previous life judging by its wide, open-plan layout, but it was ok enough and a pint of Heineken went down well. The Tap & Tanner lies just across the walk from the Registry and was really rather busy. Indeed, it took a fair bit of time to eventually get served due to there only being two on (I think, anyway), but eventually I was in possession of an Amstel which, at just the £2.70, was a fair bit more economical than Cambridge’s city-spanning offerings from the week before! Having lost track of the army cadets that I usually like to purchase a paper poppy from as they likely headed to more weather-protected selling areas, I instead bought one from here. It proceeded to last me no more than half an hour before parting company, though I did find another that had made a bid for freedom and decided to repurpose it and cut my losses!

Visiting the Old Bailey

Heading on to the Registry and Tap & Tanner

Walsall is a market town and administrative centre within the West Midlands area, sited some eight miles to the North East of Birmingham. Historically a part of Staffordshire, it is part of the wider Metropolitan Borough of Walsall which also encompasses the likes of Bloxwich, Darlaston, Willenhall, Pelsall and Brownhills. It’s name is thought to derive from the words “Walh Halh” (valley of the Welsh speakers – these being the Brython peoples) and is first referenced under the name ‘Walesho’ in a document dating from 1002, though is omitted from the Domesday Book, despite many surrounding areas, such as those referenced above, are included, though this could be down to an administrative error, as it’s thought a manor was held in the area by William FitzAnculf. By the 13th century, Walsall had become a market town – introduced in 1220 – and was later visited by Queen Elizabeth the I and queen consort, wife of Charles I and mother of his successors (if we ignore king in all but name Cromwell) Charles II and James II, Henrietta Maria.

It largely remained as a small market town right through until the Industrial Revolution, when it swiftly grew by over 85,000 people and trades of chains, buckles, plated ware and, of course, saddles, became focal points. It received gas lighting in the early-to-mid 1800’s and more improvements to the market area and required drainage systems were introduced, whilst the railway arrived in the town in 1847, some 48 years after canals had first linked Walsall to the larger cities surrounding it – though, incidentally, Bescot had been served by the Grand Central Railway for almost 10 years previous. It also has good, regular bus links to surrounding areas and easy motorway access, though lost it’s tram service and aerodrome during the early-to-mid 1900’s.

Walsall

Old and Older

During the First World War, Walsall lost circa 2000 men in combat, whilst the cenotaph they are commemorated upon is located upon damage caused by a German Zeppelin bomb which killed three, including the mayoress of the town, whilst the damage can still be seen on the corner of a town centre club. The war also saw two local men – John Henry Carless and Frederick Gibbs – receive the Victoria Cross, the latter of which was a flying ace that, when World War II broke out, gave up his officer’s position in favour of returning to the ranks. Post-war, the first Wurlitzer organ in Great Britain was installed within the town’s New Picture House and the town would later become more transformed in looks as the slums were replaced by estates and tower blocks whilst, from 1980, The Saddlers Centre has become a focal point in the centre of Walsall, located next to the station, though it was tested by the appearance of a tornado a year later!

Aside from a number of religious-centric people, Walsall has been home to successful business men such as one-time chairmen and Chief Executive of Ford and the NHS, actors Frank Windsor, Corrie’s Audrey (Sue Nicholls), Eastenders’ serial killer Lucas Johnson (Don Gilet) (as well as real Cannock Chase serial killer Raymond Morris), Meera Syal and Jeffrey Holland and actress/model Erin O’Connor, whilst also counting musical alumni such as Fleetwood Mac singer Dave Walker, Slade’s Noddy Holder, lead Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford, DJ Goldie and, more recently, Connie Talbot and Jorja Smith. Sporting-wise, Walsall is/has been home to the likes of Paralympian swimmer Ellie Simmonds, sprinter Mark Lewis-Francis, UFC and Cage Rage MMA fighter Vaughan Lee Harvey, England Test cricketer David Brown and in football; former referee Terry Holbrook, former Wolves, Celtic, Derby and Cardiff man Lee Naylor and former Walsall player and manager, Dean Keates.

Walsall

The Black Country Arms

My final pre-game stop was to be at the Black Country Arms which, like a pub I’d visited in Halesowen on a far better weather day earlier this season, terms itself as a ‘real ale speciality’ pub. Indeed, as I entered, the bar was far more modern than the building itself – you’d not really have much of a clue from the outside décor if you hadn’t done any research I’d say. Anyhow, I opted to play it rather safe and go for something a little weaker – and so went for a pint of Longwood Pale Ale (£3.20), before returning to the strange shopping centre/station entrance combo that Walsall is home to. Unfortunately, the trains here were delayed too, but not by too much to threaten my getting to the Bescot for kick-off luckily, although the automatic voice on the train caused some panic for some fellow match-going fans from Darlington, as it announced the next stop as being the one further along the line.

I arrived at the Bescot in good time and grabbed a programme off of two guys just before they so happened to head for the newly-arrived coachful of travelling fans in search of some bonus sales. The rain continued to fall all the way through the queuing phase and didn’t really go off whatsoever throughout the whole game. Luckily, the away end is rather sheltered from the elements, especially towards the rear of the stand where I’d, for some reason, been freely told to head! The Bescot is quite a nice ground in my opinion, it’s large two-tiered end (which sadly no-longer features dinosaur advertised tiles) dominates the remainder of the stadium, all of which consist of pretty similar one-tiered, all-seater stands. A food bar is located in the corner of the away end and the Main Stand, which looks a bit more traditional in appearance than the rest. The tunnel and dugouts jut out in front of the Main Stand too – though all home stands were, at best, sparsely populated for today’s game – whilst the away end made up about half of the total attendance. Good effort. Anyway, here’s the story of the Saddlers….

History Lesson:

Founded in 1888 as Walsall Town Swifts, after an amalgamation of Walsall Town (1877) and Walsall Swifts (1879), the club began life at the Chuckery, which had been home of both clubs prior to the merger. Their first game was a Birmingham Charity Cup Final against Aston Villa which ended goalless, though Villa would be awarded the trophy after a disagreement over the venue for the replay and after playing a couple of friendlies against Football League opposition, the new Walsall club began playing in the Midland Association, their first game there against Crewe Alexandra ending in a 2-2 draw – with Walsall going on to finish 3rd at the end of the season. After three years in the Football Alliance, Swifts were admitted to the Football League in 1892, Swifts became a founder member of the new Second Division and moved to West Bromwich Road after complaints from residents local to the Chuckery after a sole year there as a league club.

The change wouldn’t prove lucky and they failed to gain re-election in 1895 and moved again to long-term home Fellows Park. Their first pieces of silverware came around this time too with the Birmingham Senior Cup being won in 1897 & 1898 (along with another almost a century later in 1994) and the Walsall Senior Cup lifted in 1889 (added to in 2015 & ’17). Upon their joining of the Midland League after relegation, the club dropped the suffixes in their name and moved into the Midland League as, simply, Walsall F.C. and again spent just the one year there before returning back to the Football League’s Second Division ranks. They finished 6th in 1899, which actually remains the club’s best league finish to date, though this success soon faded and relegation was suffered via non-re-election again just two years later. The club played the next two seasons back in the Midland League prior to a switch into the Birmingham League in 1903, where they remained for fourteen years, alongside a two-year spell with a team in the Southern League, following their election as founding members.

The Bescot – just visible from the station

They would stay in the Southern League until after the end of World War I, when they again returned to the Football League, upon its expansion to becoming a three-division competition in 1921. They took a spot in the Third Division North and have remained a league club ever since. Success remained rather thin on the ground for the Saddlers though and a 3rd placed finish and first Staffordshire Senior Cup win in 1923 (added to in 1927, ’29 & ’68) would be the closest Walsall would come to promotion prior to World War II, though did upset Arsenal 2-0 in the 1933-’34 FA Cup, a season in which the Gunners would go on to become league champions. The next year saw another decent cup run, as Walsall reached the Third Division North Cup Final, though would lose out to Stockport County at Maine Road.

Post-WWII, the Saddlers competed in the pre-league resumption Third Division South cup and reached the final of this too, but suffered a repeat of their North final appearance, with AFC Bournemouth running out 2-0 victors. 1948 saw Walsall come close to promotion, ending up in 3rd place, before the 1950’s signalled troubling times for the club, re-election being required just to remain in the league on four consecutive occasions – finishing bottom from 1952-’54 and second bottom in 1955. Strong attendances went a fair way to ensuring that Walsall maintained their place as a league club, though would have to be happy with becoming a founding member of the Fourth Division in 1958 and, in doing so, had the distinction of being a founder of each of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th divisions. However this preceded a strong run for the Saddlers, a run which saw successive promotions lead to the club being in Division 2 for season 1961-’62, with Walsall lifting the Fourth Division title (their first league title in their existence) and ending up as 1961 Third Division runners-up.

The Bescot’s frontage, later on

Just two seasons would be spent back in the Second Division though, before Walsall would be relegated back to the Division 3, a final day defeat to relegation rivals Charlton Athletic condemning the club to the drop, with the Addicks surviving. Walsall remained in the third-tier until 1979 when they suffered the drop back into the 4th Division once again. The Saddlers would spend just one year back in the bottom division though, prior to returning to Division 3, upon which they went on to consolidate their position at that level over the next few seasons. 1982 saw Walsall narrowly miss out on a cup final appearance and place in Europe, when a run to the semi-final of the League Cup (which featured another victory over Arsenal, this time at Highbury) saw the club take Liverpool all the way after a 2-2 draw in the first-leg at Anfield. However, it would prove a bridge too far for the Saddlers, as Liverpool eventually saw off their stubborn opponents 2-0 in the second game. 1988 saw the club reach the Third Division play-offs and achieve promotion via this method – overcoming Bristol City in a replayed final at Fellows Park by a thumping score-line of 4-0.

Walsall’s return to the Second Division was again brief, lasting just one campaign, though this paled in significance when you consider they almost went out of business altogether soon afterwards, but despite seeing the danger off, a second consecutive relegation again saw the club in Division 4 by the turn of the decade, and this drop coincided with beginning life at the Bescot Stadium: the club’s new home following their move from their almost century-long home, Fellows. After a few years of re-setting the groundworks, Walsall were promoted to the newly-designated Division 2 in 1995 and 1999 saw them secure the runners-up placing in Division 2 and promotion to Division 1. However, they would last just the one season in the second-tier, being relegated again on the final day, although they would return at the first attempt after overcoming Reading, after extra-time, in the play-off final at the Millennium Stadium. 2004 saw the drop back to Division 2 come around once again, a horrible loss of form seeing them go down by just a single goal. Agonising, but it would soon get worse, as poor form under Paul Merson saw him out of a job and the Saddlers relegated to League 2 in 2006.

WFC

Once again, the club spent just one season in a division, being promoted from League 2 as champions, securing the title on the last day via a last minute Dean Keates strike. The Saddlers then embarked on a run of seven seasons of largely mid-table finishes, with little threat of league movement either way, although they came mighty close to relegation in 2011, escaping the drop-zone by just a sole point after a fine upturn in form under Dean Smith. 2015 saw Walsall make their first Wembley final appearance, as they reached the Football League Trophy’s final tie, but were on the wrong end of a 2-0 score-line at the hands of Bristol City. Smith left during the following season, with Walsall eventually just missing out on that year’s play-offs, though the loss of much of the playing staff from that team led to three years of struggle, culminating with relegation at the end of last season back to League 2, with Keates replaced as boss by Darrell Clarke for this campaign.

After a minutes silence of remembrance,- we got going on this wet, dull, overcast West Midlands afternoon. Grabbing a hot dog (all that was left) from the food bar, I headed up into the away end for the beginning of the first half, prior to re-locating more into the middle as I said earlier on. A fairly slow start came and went during the first quarter-hour, before Darlington began to threaten the far-end goal guarded by Saddlers’ keeper Jack Rose. Omar Holness was denied by Rose on said 15-minute mark, before the same duo again met in duel, but this time Holness would come out on to – rifling a low drive beyond Rose from close range to spark jubilant scenes within the massed away support.

Silhouette

Match Action

Darlo celebrate their opener

The travelling Quakers didn’t exactly have all that much to worry about overall either, and instead it was the non-league side who would go close to doubling their lead half-way through the first period, Stephen Thompson seeing a long-range drive kept out by the busy home ‘keeper. Indeed, it took until around ten minutes before the break for Walsall to really work Liam Connell, the visiting stopper denying Liam Hardy in fairly routine fashion on a couple of occasions in quick-fire time, with the Saddlers going closest to levelling the scores on the stroke of half time, when Wes McDonald’s initial close-range effort was kept out by Connell, before he then rattled the crossbar moments later. A let off for the visitors, perhaps, but as it was, half-time arrived and the “cupset” was well and truly on at the Bescot.

During half-time, Charlotte introduced a guy to me (who did tell me his name, though I couldn’t make it out over the noise, so will be mentioned as either Gary or Dave from hereon) which I’m sure he immediately regretted happening as I likely bored the crap out of him for the next 40 minutes or so – though hopefully I did go someway to lessening the nerves (though my match-reading wasn’t quite on point!)?! Anyhow, back out in the elements, the players were soon back playing and Jarrett Rivers immediately went close for the visitors, whilst Walsall’s dangerman Hardy headed wide down the other end moments later. Joe Wheatley saw an effort tipped onto the upright and the experienced Mat Sadler also went close as the pair traded chances at either end through to the hour but, from then on in, it was all the Saddlers, as Darlo sat back on their slender lead; a decision I immediately commented on as something that might just come back to bite them…

Match Action

Match Action

With the outstanding Will Hatfield covering every blade of grass in the meantime, to try and negate the space being afforded to Walsall, the hosts saw numerous chances come and go and it looked as though Darlington’s back-line might just hang on to advance directly within the ever descending gloom. Elijah Adebayo went close on a pair of occasions, before he somehow failed to convert into an open net from just a few yards out – the ball falling to his feet around the six-yard line, but the forward could only shovel the ball clear of the crossbar and into the two-tiered stand behind. He stood there with head in hands, the scene mirrored by a number of home fans facing him.

As the game entered its final minutes, Dan Scarr was sent off for a fairly needless second yellow and it well and truly looked as though that could be the final nail in Walsall’s coffin. But no. A comeback of WWE’s Undertaker proportions followed, as the Saddlers first drew level, a ball back ran into the path of Caolan Lavery, just perfectly for him to place a low shot beyond Connell and into the back of the net. A brief, stunned silence fell upon the away following upon this strike, and moments later it looked as though it was curtains for the visitors, when Connell failed to get a good connection on an Alfie Bates corner – the ball deflecting in off his attempted punch and seemingly going down as a goal from a corner.

Entering stoppage time, the scoreboard read 2-1, and it looked as though Walsall had clinched victory from the proverbial jaws of defeat. This especially seemed the case as Ben Hedley was dismissed, again for a second yellow….but this is the FA Cup after all. On (at least) the 97th minute, Darlington won a corner and everyone was thrown forwards. I’d already escaped the massed ranks crammed in the stand just above me and watched on from pitch-level for the final few minutes. As such, I was hovering around the exit in expectation of a swift exit upon the now imminent home win; but then in came the free-kick, won by the aforementioned, impressive Hatfield.

The moment of the equaliser. Honestly. It is!!

Connell was up there. Everyone in black-and-white was up there. Everyone in red was back there. The ball soon joined them and after a bit of pandemonium in the box, it ran loose and into the path of Joe Wheatley at the back-post and Wheatley, totally unmarked, rammed the ball home to spark absolute *ahem* scenes within the Quakers faithful. What a finish! What a game! What a result of Darlington. If you can’t win, get a home replay on live TV. The magic arrived early at the Bescot, and just like the trains during the day, returned very, very late on. 2-2, full-time.

After the game, I beat a hasty exit into the chilly evening air and left the jubilant Darlo fans to their celebrating as I did so. I’d already figured I could break up the walk back to the centre with a couple of pub stops which were nicely located to do so. The first of these was the Sir Charles Napier, just off the main road itself and was quite full as I entered ahead of the majority of the rush. I was asked by a guy if Walsall had won – despite Final Score being on – and responded by saying it finished 2-2. “They won?” came the reply. I can only try my best! A quick Coors and a welcome warm was had in a very traditional, bench-seating lay-out, before I continued on towards the Bradford Arms a short distance away, I first opted for a pint of the lesser-seen Cobra, but the (I presume) landlady wasn’t happy with the quality and so I was given the cheaper options again; and once more it was Coors that won out. Coor blimey.

Sir Charles Napier

Bradford Arms

‘Spoons

Finishing up shortly after Germany’s women had netted at Wembley as Phil Neville’s fall from grace continued on, I returned back down the main road and into the town centre once again. With time very much at a premium, I paid what was planned to be a swift visit to the aforementioned Wetherspoon’s for a Hooch, before returning, once again, to the station – this time though I had seen that delays were still on the go and so had a little more time than first expected, which was welcome as it cut down my wait back in Birmingham. Once on the go, the journey back went smoothly and that was that and the Bescot was finally, and properly, done. It was a good day out despite the weather, the Darlo fans creating a great atmosphere and the late action at both ends was something else. Pubs were good value and the only shame was how sparse the rest of the ground was attended. But anyway, both sides must do it again up at Blackwell Meadows. Attentions turn to the draw and, first, next week’s action. It’s got something to live up to….!

RATINGS:

Game: 9 (bonus points for mad ending)

Ground: 7

Programme: 6

Food: 5

Value For Money: 7

Manchopper in….Cambridge

Result: Cambridge United 2-1 Crawley Town (EFL League 2)

Venue: Abbey Stadium (Saturday 2nd November 2019, 3pm)

Att: 3,538

For the first time this season, I would finally be adding to my total of the EFL’s ’92’ with a trip down to one of the ground’s I’d most wanted to get to for quite some time – never mind the city itself being a place I’d always fancied paying a visit. Thankfully, the previous week’s issues with flooding and overall rainfall had subsided somewhat, and this meant my trip down to Cambridge was pretty smooth sailing. Catching the train from Manchester to London, I listened to those far more rugby-inclined than I, reacting to England’s seemingly dismal final performance against the South African Springboks, before arriving into the capital at around 11am and walking through the drizzle to King’s Cross. From here, a train through to Cambridge was direct, and though high winds seemed to be a factor elsewhere, these hadn’t quite reached their peak in this part of the country. Thank God!

I arrived into Cambridge just before 12.30pm and, as anyone who has been this way will know, the station is annoyingly placed within touching distance of the city centre, but also outside of comfortable distance. Missing the bus from outside made my mind up to save a little money for the time being (more on that later) and so I embarked on the half-hour-or-so walk through the initial parts of Cambridge, bypassing the Wetherspoons offering for the time being (I intended, though never got round to returning) prior to making my way towards the maze of thin streets weaving their way through numerous churches and sprawling colleges of the universities. Eventually, I arrived in the historic centre, and was immediately faced with a pair of pubs named the Eagle and the Bath House – a few doors separated from each other. The rather uninspiring Brewdog stood opposite, somewhat juxtaposed against its surroundings.

Arriving into Cambridge

On the way to the centre

The Bath House would be my first stop of the day and it was here that I’d come across my first experience of Cambridge’s rather strange monotony of available beers (it seemed, anyway), especially when it came to Amstel; not that I was complaining in that regard. Quite honestly, this made it easier to make up some time around the city’s drinking holes, as no less than my first four pints would all be the Dutch lager that does have a bit of a hold on me from their advertising of the Champions’ League growing up! Thinking about it, perhaps I should have seen these drinking habits coming all along….

First Amstel done (£4.30), I continued the said few doors down to the Eagle which is, apparently, the oldest pub still standing in the city. Also, rather fittingly considering the time of year, it is complete with an ‘RAF bar’ which, despite its name, is more of as USAAF bar, with graffiti from many a thirsty airman decorating its ceiling – and it really is superb to see this kept in situ, whilst being added to over the years by other visitors continuing the brave legacies of these fine aviators from many a-country (and ground crew, I suppose). Anyhow, surrounded by loads of stickers bearing the logo of numerous squadrons, I again polished off an Amstel (£4.75) before continuing away from the ground towards the river. However, there would be another stop before I got there!

The Bath House

The Eagle’s “RAF Bar”

I had a choice of two watering holes, in fact, with both the Mitre and interestingly named Baron of Beef. However, the more historic pub won out and the Mitre it was and, lo and behold, an Amstel (£4.60) was again the drink of choice in this rather popular pub, before I headed over the River Cam itself, via a bridge no less(!) and to the much-lauded Pickerel. This was another of the older, traditional pubs which I’d been seeking out on this trip and, after watching out for a rather small doorway near the bar area on a couple of occasions that I assume has seen a few inebriated heads meet it’s beams over the years, a final Amstel – for the moment at least – was had (£4.70), prior to me finally making my way back towards the Abbey Stadium.

Cambridge is a university city within (unsurprisingly) Cambridgeshire, of which it is the county town, and is a non-metropolitan borough. Evidence of settlements dating back to prehistoric times have been uncovered around the area, whilst an Iron Age settlement was discovered upon Castle Hill, dating back to the possible arrival of the cultural differences brought in by the Belgae peoples around the 1st century BC. A small, Roman-era fort named Duroliponte also stands on Castle Hill and is located nearer to the original village populated by the early British people, whilst further Roman farmsteads and the like have been discovered around the wider area. The withdrawal of the Romans in 410 AD saw the site likely become Cair Grauthe, one of the Britons’ 28 cities, and the Anglo-Saxons would see its importance later in the century, also seeing value in populating it. Their settlement, in and around the same Castle Hill area, would become known as Grantbryscge (Granta-bridge) and, by the Middle Ages, it, alongside the larger surrounding area, was known as Cambridge.

In the RAF Bar – graffiti on the ceiling

The Corpus Clock (the gold thing on the left)

It became a fairly important place for trade links to hard-to-travel fenlands, though did fall into disrepair – according to an account by Bede – who noted it was a “little ruined city”, that contained the burial place of Etheldreda. It stood upon the borders of the old kingdoms of East and Middle Anglia respectively, and grew up on both sides of the river after which it derives its name. The arrival of the Vikings in the 800’s AD also saw Danelaw applied and they grew the city up around their trading links, which the Saxons prospered from, following their reclamation of Cambridge following the Danes’ departure. Two years after his conquest, William The Conqueror built the namechecked castle upon the hill and thus Cambridge fell under the rule of the Normans. The 1100’s saw Cambridge gifted its first town charter by Henry I, recognising the town’s monopoly of waterborne traffic and hithe tolls, whilst also recognising the borough court there. Indeed, the city’s Round Church dates from this period, the University being founded in 1209, by students escaping hostile Oxfordian locals!

After almost having its population wiped from the map during the 1349 Black Death, a suggestion was made that two parishes should merge together due to a lack of parishioners and further colleges were founded to train clergy. A revised town charter was given to the town to show its loss of privileges due to Cambridge’s participation in the Peasant’s Revolt, though these were then gifted to the university anyway, so didn’t move all that far! The city’s famed King’s College Chapel began being built in 1446 and its construction lasted almost 70 years, overseen by numerous monarchs through the years of the Wars of the Roses and being completed during the reign of the Lancastrian Tudor king, Henry VIII. The area went on to be a wartime stronghold, becoming an Eastern Counties Association HQ for the East Anglian army, which would go on to become a mainstay for the Parliamentarian forces, prior to the formation of the New Model Army. Control of Cambridge was given to Parliament by Oliver Cromwell (who’d been educated there), though despite coming close, the Royalists never tested the town’s defences.

Cambridge

Cambridge

In more modern times, Cambridge expanded rapidly due to improvements in agriculture and supplies to the markets it held, whilst Inclosure acts saw its boundaries increased to take in more land to expand onto, whilst the arrival of the Great Eastern Railway only increased this, the link to the capital meaning building industries also grew in the town. During World War II, Cambridge was an important part of the Eastern defences of Great Britain, and became a military centre and RAF training camp. Indeed the town’s largely escaping of bombing raids allowed for a secret meeting of the Allied military leaders, in which the foundations of the 1944 invasion of Europe would be laid. It was granted a city charter in 1951 on account of its historical and administrative importance, though does not have the historic requirement of a cathedral – though isn’t exactly short of steeples. It maintains strong rail, bus and road links, whilst also being host to its own airport – not far from the Abbey Stadium. Indeed, the Cambridge Rules that played a part in the influence of ‘association football’ rules came about on the grassy fields of Parker’s Piece’ – both being played there first (apparently). It was also used for first-class cricket during the 1800’s, though Cambridgeshire is now a minor counties side, whilst the university team does compete in regular pre-season games against the major sides.

Of course, Cambridge has been home to many a famed name, the likes of the late Richard Attenborough, Grease actress Olivia Newton-John, St. Trinian’s creator Ronald Searle, and singers Charli XCX and Muse frontman Matt Bellamy – amongst a sizeable list of people I’m not schooled enough to recognise! Sporting-wise, footballers Luke Chadwick and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Touring Car driver Tom Blomqvist, Tommy Pryce, winner of the first post-war Speedway World Cup, Paralympic sprint star Jonnie Peacock, Winter Olympic Gold Medallist Amy Williams and cricketing great Jack Hobbs all have hailed from the city. Of course, many great minds have schooled in Cambridge too, such as Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, Alan Turing, Sir Francis Bacon and DNA biologists Crick and Watson. Also, literati figures Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare collaborator John Fletcher, Lord Byron and Samuel Pepys all studies there, as well as actors/presenters like Stephen Fry, Ian McKellen, Sacha Baron-Cohen and David Attenborough, and numerous royals, politicians and historical figures – including the (largely recognised) first British PM, Robert Walpole and signees of the US Declaration of Independence.

The Mitre

Looking down the river….

….before visiting the Pickerel!

Passing through the Christ’s Pieces green area of the city, I came upon a few pubs nestled out of way all close around each other. Unfortunately, with time at a premium, I had to choose just one and the Free Press, on account of its overall rather strange history (having produced one paper for , came out on top – although both the Cricketers and Elm Tree looked fine options too and will be on the list come another visit at some point in the future, all being well. What the Free Press did do – apart from another having an apparent ban on phones – was to allow me to escape from this Amstel purgatory I’d found myself in, though Beck’s (£4.90) wasn’t quite as far removed as some might have been! Anyhow, I polished this off and gave myself good time to get to the bus stop to catch the bus along Newmarket Road and to the ground itself in time for the remembrance ceremonies that the U’s had planned out. Well, we’ll see how well that went right now….!

I made my way back to Christ’s Pieces and after spending around a minute at the stop, I felt something wasn’t quite right. As is the norm with me – IT WASN’T THE RIGHT ONE!!! “Ok, no panic, the other stop is just there, around the corner”, I thought to myself, “I have time to get there”. I was correct too, though the problem was I was five seconds too late and I turned the corner just as the bus was pulling out and heading off into the distance. Cue profanities emanating from my lips, but I soon came to peace that I had a mission ahead of me. A mile in twenty-five minutes, plus needing a ticket and all that comes with these pages…let’s do this!

Free Press

Finally at the Abbey

I arrived at the Abbey’s gates as the minute’s silence was ongoing and had a ticket in hand from the office outside, as the Last Post sounded out over the sullen ground as it has done around the country and battlefields many a-time before. The usual kick-off roar came around soon enough to break the silence and the game was on. Luckily, everyone was already in the ground pretty much by this time, and so I could head straight in with no issue, my decently priced £18 ticket gaining me entry and it was soon joined by a programme (£3) from one of the sellers alongside the terrace behind the goal, where I’d opted to settle for.

The ground itself was well-attended, the grand, traditional-looking main stand adds the character that is much needed in many new builds all over the country. That’s not to say the newer areas of the Abbey aren’t decent too, and its newer bits, as with Tamworth’s Lamb Ground the previous week, certainly add nicely to the ground’s overall image. An all-seater stand is located behind the far goal and today housed the band of travelling Crawley fans, whilst an older covered terrace runs the length of the other side of the pitch to the all-seater Main Stand. The terrace I was in is a more-modern construction compared to its neighbours, but the old floodlights which tower over all may just trump the stands themselves…lovely stuff – a real throwback that is sadly becoming more and more threadbare as the years pass. Such is progress, I suppose. Anyhow, with the game in progress, here’s the story of the U’s of Cambridge….

History Lesson:

The current club was founded in 1912 as Abbey United, derived from the district of Cambridge in which the club is located. There had been a short-lived Cambridge United (from 1909) side prior to the current club’s forming, with Abbey taking on the mantle in 1951. Before that, however, Abbey began life in local amateur leagues and took up residence at numerous grounds during their more formative years, prior to settling in at the Abbey Stadium in 1932. After the end of WWII, Abbey joined the United Counties League and turned professional in 1949 and upon their re-naming to Cambridge United, they joined the Eastern Counties Football League and remained there through to 1958, when a runners-up placing saw them promoted to the Southern League’s South Eastern zone. After a further three seasons there, they then secured promotion to the Premier Division as runners-up and remained there through to their Football League election in 1970, winning the league title in both of their last two seasons there, whilst also lifting the 1969 Southern League Cup to secure a double, alongside their first title success.

Replacing Bradford (Park Avenue) in the league ranks, Cambridge took a spot in Division 4 and quickly justified this by being promoted in 1973 – although they would be relegated back after just the sole campaign in Division 3. However, they soon rose up again as, under Ron Atkinson (and John Docherty completing the job), the U’s won successive promotions to reach the Second Division for 1978, but unfortunately for Cambridge, things would take a turn for the worse a few years later. After being relegated in 1984 and setting a record for most successive league games without a win (which wasn’t surpassed until Derby County’s ill-fated 2008 Premier League sojourn) in the process, the next year saw the U’s drop back in the Fourth Division, a season which saw them setting another unwanted record in the process; this time equalling the then record for most defeats in a league season, and then had to apply for re-election after a third consecutive poor season – finances also taking an understandable hit.

Finally at the Abbey

The 1990’s saw a change for the better once more for the U’s, as promotion from Division 4 was secured in their first professional appearance at Wembley Stadium, via a play-off final triumph over Chesterfield, Dion Dublin netting the only goal of the game to see Cambridge get promoted for the first time in a dozen years. That year, and the one following, both saw United make fine cup runs to the FA Cup’s quarter-final stage, whilst the latter campaign also saw them achieve promotion to Division 2 once again, this time as Third Division champions. They then continued their strong run with a 5th placed finish, although defeat in the play-offs would mean Cambridge missed out on being a founding member of the Premier League. That 5th placed finish technically remains the U’s best to date, although they did spend a year in the newly-designated First Division, this seeing United’s form desert them as they were relegated to Division 2, now the third-tier, despite a run to the Football League Cup quarter-finals.

Two seasons later, Cambridge found themselves dropping into the Third Division ranks once again, and although they would return to the Second Division in 1998 as runners-up, they would again suffer the dreaded drop in 2002 – despite a run to the Football League Trophy Final at the Millennium Stadium, which ended in a convincing 4-1 reverse at the hands of Blackpool. If this wasn’t bad enough, 2005 saw disaster at the Abbey, with Cambridge relegated from the League for the first time since their admission 35 years earlier. Now in the Football Conference, the Amber-clad side would have to fight off administration and a threat of the drop in 2007, before finishing up 2nd in 2008 and making it to the play-off final at Wembley where, after seeing off Burton Albion in the semis, the club would miss out on a relatively quick return to League football, losing 1-0 under the arch to Exeter City. They then repeated this unfortunate trick the next year, another runners-up spot and semi victory – this time over Stevenage Borough – led them to Wembley Way once more, but again they would come unstuck, at the hands of Torquay United, on this occasion.

Famous Names

A bit of upheaval both on and off the field led to Cambridge again flirting with the drop zone in 2011, but things soon settled with the U’s again making the play-offs as Conference runners-up in 2014, but this time they would be successful in their quest to return to the Football League – defeating FC Halifax Town and Gateshead respectively in the process – a case of third time lucky for Cambridge! Ending their nine-year absence, they soon celebrated this fact even further upon their Wembley return, seeing off Gosport Borough 4-0 to lift that year’s FA Trophy. Their return to FA Cup action as a League club saw Cambridge force Manchester United into a replay after a goalless draw at the Abbey, although the U’s would eventually succumb 3-0 at Old Trafford, whilst Cambridge have since largely cemented themselves as a rather solid mid-table outfit, finishing 9th in 2016, although they did have to fight off the threat of relegation to the National League last season, finishing up 21st come the season’s end.

The game got underway as I entered the Abbey Stadium’s turnstiles, though there was very little true action early in proceedings. Most of the danger came via Crawley’s outlet on the wing, Panutche Camara. His pace threatened the Cambridge defence on a few occasions, with him setting up Nathan Ferguson to fire wide, shortly after Bez Lubala had also missed the target for the Red Devils. Cambridge would respond with Marc Richards’ shot evading the upright on its way the wrong side of the woodwork from a U’s persuasion, before Crawley forced the first save of note in the game out of United stopper Dimitar Mitov, Reece Grego-Cox’s low effort being kept out in fairly routine fashion.

Match Action

Match Action

Chance?!

Mitov was also tested by Ashley Nathaniel-George shortly afterwards, before the game again settled into something of a bitty contest, with neither side overly troubling the other. I missed little during my trip to the food truck behind the stand for some chips and curry (£2.50), before I returned in time to see Camara go close this time, his drive flying over the bar. That would be largely that in terms of first-half action, and I was already in some fear that my 0-0-less run was in danger of ending. The break was taken up by a pair of former United players embarking on a kind of lap of honour, before the present day players entered the field once again for the second period.

As in the first half, it was the visitors who came out of the blocks the stronger, with the direct play of Grego-Cox and Camara proving fruitful once again. The former cleared the cross-bar from the edge of the area moments after the whistle, whilst a Tom Dallison header from a set-piece was denied by Mitov between the Cambridge sticks. Speaking of the sticks, it would actually be Cambridge who would go the closest to breaking the deadlock in the 70th minute – Sam Smith meeting a low ball in and directing the ball goalwards – only for the ball to be deflected onto the woodwork. A close call and, for me, some hope that a goal was on its way!

Half-time band action

View from the Terrace

 

George Maris then really should have done better when released by a fine back-heeled ball into his path, but he wastefully drove a shot straight at Crawley ‘keeper Glenn Morris in what was his first real test of the game, and after Grego-Cox had again gone close down the other end, the game suddenly burst into life in the final ten minutes, pretty much out of the blue (or red, I suppose). A ball into Lubala allowed him to advance into the box, whereupon he smashed the ball beyond Mitov at his near post, to send the Crawley fans behind the goal into raptures. The home fans didn’t have to suffer being behind for all that long though – just the three minutes in fact, as the previously unfortunate Smith was gifted a second chance by Elliot Ward’s fine ball across to him. Smith showed a good touch to make space for the shot, which fizzed along the ground and just beyond the outstretched hand of Morris on its way into the far corner.

1-1 from out of nowhere and, if that wasn’t crazy enough, what would prove to be the winner was quite fitting for the overall game as a whole, when it came to the attacking third. Cambridge cleared long from a Crawley corner, with the ball ending up half-way between the box and the touchline out on the left-side. Morris rushed out to meet it, but arrived at the same time as the gambling Paul Lewis, and his persistence was awarded when the attempted clearance cannoned off him and flew agonisingly (at both ends of the spectrum) into the unguarded net – nestling centimetres inside the post. 2-1 to the hosts and Crawley’s players, officials and supporters could be afforded their shock.

Darkness descends as United level!

Late on

The U’s safely saw out the remainder of the match to secure the points that, to be honest, no-one really deserved on the day. Anyway, post-match, I swiftly made my exit and headed back city-wards, though found the nearest pub to the ground that I saw, the Wrestlers, between opening times and going about re-opening as I got there. I didn’t have time to spare and so continued on back towards the city itself and to the Corner House instead, a place I’d planned on getting in anyway, as I had no idea the Wrestlers existed before I’d actually seen it with my own eyes. The Corner House was a decent little boozer too and got me back on the Amstel path (£4.20), before I headed off station-wards, but not before paying a visit to an old centre of Cambridge’s transportation past. This was the Tram Depot, so named because it used to be the depot for Cambridge’s old tram network, back in t’day. I know, shocking that isn’t it?!

The (barely visible) Corner House

and slightly better Tram Depot

Aaaaanyway, after finally gaining entry, I popped over to the bar for a Peroni (£5.10) before returning back to the station for the train back into the capital which, delays notwithstanding, would deliver me back into London nicely in time for my train back up North. Indeed, this went like clockwork and after walking between the two termini, I boarded the Virgin service to Manchester a few minutes before its departure, the journey passing nice and quickly thanks to a bit of nodding off on the way. However, the toileting facilities weren’t exactly working like clockwork, with two or three being completely out of order and the one I found open, I soon discovered, had its flush operator broken. Fantastic scenes that obviously forced me into a drink in the Piccadilly Tap upon arrival in Manchester, before I caught the bus back home, an hour’s wait one I couldn’t be arsed with.

So ends off the day and finally my 64th ground of the ’92’ is done. Cambridge didn’t disappoint – it is a bloody lovely place – and the ground, too, was characterful, especially under the lights. The pubs were great, the Amstel dominance helping me in gaining back lost time through the day and the programme and food on offer back at the Abbey were of good quality too. Transport was easy and allowed me to practice out other trips I’d have to do at some point, as I’d never been to Cambridgeshire (as far as I know) before and so was stepping on new ground, as it were. Anyway, I’m rambling and it’s back on the FA Cup trail next week as I search for a cupset. A solid Wall of all would be useful to secure or deny this….

RATINGS:

Game: 5

Ground: 8

Food: 7

Programme: 7

Value For Money: 7

 

Manchopper in….Mansfield

Result: Mansfield Town 4-0 Morecambe (EFL League 2)

Venue: Field Mill (Friday 19th April 2019, 3pm)

Att: 5,177

My first game of the Easter weekend’s festivities saw me heading over to another ground of the 92, though this one had been earmarked somewhat earlier than the previous Saturday’s visit to Stoke’s Britannia Stadium had been. This time I was off to Mansfield Town’s Field Mill as they welcomed the Shrimps of Morecambe, the hosts looking to keep up their strong promotion challenge, whilst Morecambe were on a mission to secure their evermore likely safety. The weather had taken a turn for the better also and so all was set up for a decent trip.

After taking the trip through Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham, a change at the latter of the three had me on a stopper service along the Robin Hood line to Mansfield. Arriving at just before midday, the rarity of the sun’s heat was something to behold as I clocked the floodlights of the ground peering up over the nearby retail estate, but with me certain that tickets weren’t going to be an issue within the away end today, I instead took a left turn away from the ground and towards the town centre. However, the Railway Inn just across from the bus station was calling and I popped in for one here to plan out something of a trip around town that would bring me back groundwards. After finishing up a pint of Stella in the beer garden, off I went to see what sights and sounds Mansfield holds.

Railway Inn

Mansfield

In Ye Olde Ramme Inn. Ah, ‘e’.

Walking alongside the railway, the towering viaduct that seems to split the town into two’s size really becomes apparent once you reach the high-street. It’s a decent sight, but I had little time to stare as my tour de pub continued unabated with a visit to the old, wooden-beamed Ye Olde Ramme Inn (many ‘e’s in there) and due to it being a Friday, they had offers on (though I must admit I bemoaned my bad luck on entering, thinking it was a Saturday) and so the San Miguel I opted for set me back just the £2.30. The same would happen just up the way too, the White Hart just the other side of the viaduct’s arches seeing a Taddy Lager come in at the same price. Don’t you just love a Sam Smith’s?

Next door to this was the Swan Hotel which was a pleasant place but was, unsurprisingly, the home of the dearest drink of the day as a pint of Estrella cost £4.10. Still not too bad when you consider the prices this reaches here and there. From there I crossed the bustling market square and to another pair of neighbouring pubs – the Market Inn and the Dial. The Market was ok but empty, bar me, and so I opted for a Strongbow (£2.50) on the case of finding somewhere a little more on the lively side and the Dial was that place – although the curse of the “choosing beers that are off” would strike hard on this day as not one, but two went down before I settled on the safety of a £2.90 Dark Fruits….only for the barrel to run out almost immediately. By that point, even the barmaid was a believer in the ‘Chopper Curse! Luckily, another barrel was on the go soon after and I quickly downed it before any more bad luck could befall me in there and headed for the ground.

Under the viaduct to the neighbouring White Hart & Swan Hotel

Next couple of stops, the Market and Dial

Mansfield is a market town in Nottinghamshire and is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the main town in the District of Mansfield and the urban area thereof. The area has been heavily influenced by its pastimes of coal mining and textile making that continued through to the 1990’s and led to the growth of the town into the place it is today. Settlement of Mansfield is thought to date back to Roman times with the discovery of a villa between Mansfield Woodhouse and Pleasley found in the 18th century and the early English monarchy is said to have lived in the area at times in the 12th century King John’s Palace (the remains of which lie near Clipstone) and hunted within Sherwood Forest. Indeed a plaque on West Gate marks the spot thought to have once been the middle of the forest in its heyday. Not sure if Robin Hood was about, though….

The Domesday Book lists Mammesfield within its pages but this had changed to Maunnesfield by the mid-13th century and by the time King Richard II had signed a market warrant in 1377, the town was known as Mannesfeld and its name has since become simplified to its current title. A number of the town’s old coaching inns served as stopping points and were known to date back to medieval times, though many of the older buildings have been lost, sadly, with only a handful remaining standing strong. Its market dates back to the original 1227 charter and the Mansfield Brewery was once the largest independent brewery in the UK prior to it being sold in 1999 and production spread far and wide across the country, though not in its homeland. On a side-note, Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington is from the town.

Mansfield market place

Mansfield

Prior to the re-introduction of the railway to Mansfield in 1995, it was thought in many quarters to be the largest town in Britain to be without a rail connection, though Alfreton was known as Alfreton & Mansfield Parkway until that date, though it’s not exactly local if we’re honest. Having once been home to two rail stations (Mansfield Town and Mansfield Central) one previously for each of the service providers Midland Railway and the independent Mansfield Railway, also served by Grand Central. The latter of the two lost its passenger link in 1956 and Town duly followed in 1964 with no link until the Robin Hood Line came into being and restored it. A tram link was operated for a time from 1905-’32 and the Midland Railway line was previously utilised by the Mansfield and Pinxton railway as terminus and home to a horse-drawn plateway from 1819.

Passing through the aforementioned retail park, I arrived at the ground’s exterior to find a booth reading “programmes” outside the away end. As you would, I headed up and asked for one only to be told that this was in fact the away ticket booth and the programmes were actually around the front end. At least I’d found the tickets early, as this could have proved an issue had I been later and in something of a rush! Anyway, ticket (a mesmerising £24!!) and programme (£3) were soon in my possession and I reckoned I may as well head inside and get a bite to eat before the remainder of fans came in, just in case there wasn’t much on. This wasn’t an issue and being the good Christian man that I am(!!) I tried out a cheese and onion pie on the basis I’ve been beginning to enjoy cheese and onion on pretty much anything I can eat at this point. It was decent too and kept me busy through until kick-off.

Onwards to t’Mill

Heading up into the away end, Field Mill is a ground that, despite being relatively modern in many ways, still maintains its character. Indeed its old, almost condemned stand that lies on the far side of the pitch and is filled with adverts certainly gives it a unique look and one that, I’m sure, the club won’t be too keen to lose. Imagine all that prime estate sponsorship cash was the conversation between a few of us! Opposite that is the large, imposing Main Stand that towers over its elder statesman and the two almost identical structures, one at each end, with the corners all open – though a scoreboard does stand alongside the old stand/repurposed advertisement hoarding, though good luck seeing that from my position today. I could just about make out a stag when it was pointed out! Anyway, that’s Field Mill in a nutshell and this is the story of the Stags of Mansfield….

History Lesson:

Mansfield Town Football Club was founded in 1897 as Mansfield Wesleyans and would enter the local Mansfield & District Amateur league after five years playing friendlies and the like, later joining the Notts & District League after four years there, when the league dropped its amateur suffix and the church abandoned the club. This lead the club to shorten their name to Mansfield Wesley for this stint, but they hey would soon become Mansfield Town in 1910 and a year later the club moved from the now named Notts & Derbyshire League to the Central Alliance. They would remain here through to World War One and after moving to a new home in the form of Field Mill – recently vacated by the turfed out (pun intended) Mansfield Mechanics – won the league after the end of hostilities in 1920, going on to then join the Midland League for 1921 onwards and taking the title here on three occasions (1924, 1925 & 1929). The latter season of the three title winning campaigns also saw Town reach the FA Cup Fourth Round, a run which saw a defeat of 2nd Division Wolves along the way before they bowed out to First Division side Arsenal.

The Stags were admitted to the Football League in 1931, joining the Third Division South for a year before going North and they would remain at the level, switching between North and South fairly regularly, through its change to a national division. Avoiding requiring re-election with no relegation forthcoming in 1947 after ending up bottom, they went on with little change in fortunes until 1960 and their eventual relegation to the Fourth Division. The club returned to the Third Division in 1963 and stayed for a further nine seasons before being relegated once more, however things would quickly take a turn for the better.

Teams line-up for the pleasantries

Town swiftly made it through to the Second Division for the first time via two title wins – the 4th Division won in 1975 and Division 3 in 1977, only to then juxtapose this with two relegations in three seasons meaning the Stags found themselves back in the bottom division by the turn of the decade. A lengthy spell of six years would follow prior to their promotion in 1986 and further silverware would arrive at Field Mill the following year in the form of the Football League Trophy via a penalty shoot-out triumph over Bristol City.

The start of the 1990’s saw Mansfield enter something of a yo-yo existence – relegation back to Division 4 in 1991 was followed by a promotion and relegation over each of the next two seasons which meant they would maintain a place in the bottom tier (now Third Division after the creation of the Premier League in ’92) through to the early 2000’s when they would achieve another promotion to Division 2, only to again suffer an immediate return at the close of the following campaign. The club would stay in the newly titled League 2 until 2008 when they were relegated from the Football League for the first time since their admission and entered into the Conference.

The old-school stand – now prime ad space!

After losing out in the 2011 FA Trophy Final to Darlington and in the 2012 play-off semis to York City, the club’s four-year stint in the top-tier in non-league was ended with the Stags winning the Conference title in 2013 after winning 20 of their last 24 games (including 12 consecutive triumphs), a strong run in the FA Cup prior to their bowing out in the Third Round to Liverpool giving the club momentum to build on and began going on to consolidate a place in the League 2 ranks under new owner John Radford.

The game got underway with promotion chasing Mansfield quickly asserting themselves on their long relegation threatened rivals. Gethin Jones saw a header superbly saved by Barry Roche when the keeper had no right to get there in the first clear chance of the half and Jacob Mellis stung the hands of the Shrimps stopper from range. Roche then had to get back to claw a Jorge Grant effort behind from on the line, before the Stags finally broke the deadlock when Mellis drilled a low effort through a crowded area that left Roche rooted to the spot. 1-0.

Match Action

Match Action

I did manage to seek out a now mohican-less Shrimps fan Paul in the crowd, largely by asking another Morecambe follower, Steve, where the man in question was. You can’t be too careful! Town almost added a second soon after when Grant curled a free kick just over the bar, before Mellis almost notched his second of the game minutes later as his low drive was deflected inches wide of Roche’s upright with the stopper left helpless.

After the break, the game continued on in the same vein with Mansfield dominant against the visitors who were on course for mathematical survival, regardless of the result at Field Mill. It was probably a good thing too as Town went on to well and truly secure the game. Grant was again denied by Roche – the veteran having a fine game between the sticks – but he was beaten again on 70 minutes when skipper Krystian Pearce found the corner after good play from him afforded space. Game over, you felt.

Match Action

Getting under it.

A few minutes later and it well and truly was as CJ Hamilton’s mazy run saw him advance towards goal where he fired under Roche to record a fine solo effort and the ground was a cacophony of noise at this point. The cherry was placed on top of the win with five minutes to play as Mal Bennett fizzed one off the post and in from distance to round off a fine display from the Stags. Full-time, 4-0.

After the game, I bid goodbye to Steve and Paul (now I’d got used to his non-Mohican ways) and I returned from whence I came, back through the retail outlets and its milling shoppers and I headed to what I thought was a ‘Spoons, only to find out it didn’t actually seem to be a ‘Spoons, despite saying it was a ‘Spoons on it and displaying all the hallmarks of being a ‘Spoons including having ‘Spoons like furniture and a number of ‘Spoons’ selection of drinks. Still with me?! A bottle of Baltika was selected (£3.20) and I was out of there before the confusion truly got to me!

The hidden brown building there = fake Spoons!

The Byron was, unsurprisingly, popular!

The Midland.

A stop-off on the way back to the station in the Byron was enjoyed (largely on the basis the Strongbow was just £1.99 here!) before I opted to pop into the station neighbouring Midland Hotel to grab a bottle for the train ride home. However, I would be informed that you can’t take bottles out on match days for some reason and despite it having been about two hours since it had finished and the fact there were around about five people dotted around, so I was left with a bottle of Bud and just over five minutes to get rid of it in. Easy-peasy. The journey back was uneventful until we arrived at Sheffield, where we spent the best part of an hour awaiting a “member of train crew” to arrive and we could eventually set off, though this did bring a strange sense of camaraderie between the three of us sharing a table seat, a student, an alcohol-fuelled groundhopper and a travel weary gentleman. Make a joke, anyone?!

That ends off another trip and it was a great way to begin the weekend. Mansfield is a nice town and an enjoyable place to spend an afternoon. Indeed, I look forward to getting back there for AFC Mansfield at some point in the near future. Football-related, the ground was fine and is strangely up there in my count for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, the game was ok before the Stags ran away with it and the food and programme were decent too. The following day would see a return back down into the lower-leagues as I visited Crewe F.C. of the Cheshire League as they welcomed Eagle Sports in a game to decide third-place and ‘best of the rest’. I needed a rest too….

RATINGS:

Game: 6

Ground: 8

Food: 6

Programme: 6

Value For Money: 7

Manchopper in….Grimsby

Result: Grimsby Town 0-0 Bury (EFL League 2)

Venue: Blundell Park (Saturday 23rd March 2019, 3pm)

Att: 4,375

“Hail fellow, well met!” I really should start a mission to bring that phrase back into mass usage, I thought as I headed over to the East Coast and to Grimsby, where I’d bring up the big 300. Blundell Park seemed a fitting venue for such an honour and despite my bored thoughts delving off into Alan Partridge levels of 16th century welcomes, I was very much up for seeing what the town had to offer. I just hoped that the name wasn’t reflective!

Eventually arriving at about a quarter to midday, I headed slightly out-of-the-way to have a quick peruse of Grimsby “Minster” before walking on through the surrounding gardens and into the centre, passing a striking fisherman statue as I went. Soon enough, I came upon my first stop of the day, The Parity, which is one of those large ranging free houses in the mould of a Spoons. A rowdy group of lads were providing the soundtrack in here as I entered before they were told off by a youngster for doing so and disturbing her dinner. Fair play, though they soon departed and the place quietened down markedly as I supped at a pint of Coors which, at £2.80, provided me with a fair amount of hope when it came to the rest of the day, wallet-wise!

Grimsby

The Parity

The Friary

From there I continued onwards through the centre, passing by the closed Tivoli Tavern as I did so and coming upon my second stop- The Friary. As I approached the bar, I began to see things, crazy things – things like beers costing £1.50. I must have had something I ought to have not, I figured but nope, there was the drinks all lined up with only Stella taking the “normal” price approach. As such, I opted for a Carlsberg for the magical price stated above which came in a pretty attractive glass too. Not too bad so far that’s for sure and I was loving Grimsby!

Speaking of which, Grimsby is a large coastal seaport on the East coast of England and is located in North East Lincolnshire on the River Humber’s South Bank close to the river’s estuary into the North Sea. Titled as Great Grimsby as to avoid any confusion with Little Grimsby, a village 14 miles away, it is neighboured and linked with Cleethorpes and many local villages that are now encompassed within the town’s overall reach. It is located within old marshlands and was originally founded upon islands and low-lying areas within them and the areas of East and West Marsh hark back to this. There is some evidence to suggest a small Roman presence, but the Vikings are far more prevalent, their settlement dating back to the 9th century and, indeed, it is thought that Grimsby comes from a Viking fisherman, Grim, with the suffix ‘by’ meaning village in Old Norse, with mythology suggesting the God Odin would travel in this form whilst in the presence of mortals.

Grimsby

Grimsby did make an appearance in the Domesday Book as a small settlement of around 200 people and transformed into a fishing and trading port in the 12th century and was later granted its town charter by King John in 1201 and its medieval St. James’ Church now serves as the “minster”. However, the 15th century saw the river’s estuary begin to silt up, restricting access and therefore leading to a decline in Grimsby’s fortunes which would last into the late-1700’s. However, upon the river’s dredging around this time, the port was revived and the area boomed once more with new docks created to cope with the new demands. The arrival of the railways in 1848 took some stress off the port and allowed for ease of transport of goods and this allowed the town’s fishing exports to grow in popularity and gain the status it holds. The upturn continued until the Great Depression and the setbacks that came with it.

During WWII, many of the area’s trawlers were commissioned by the Royal Navy into the ‘Patrol Service’, but this came at a cost with over 2,000 crew killed and a memorial alongside the 19th century Dock Tower commemorates those lost. 196 further lives were lost during numerous bombing raids at the hands of the Luftwaffe. Grimsby’s local industries soon fell apart post-war and the closures of many port companies and mines left many redundant, with the food processing apparently one of those that continued to expand instead. The town’s tram system also became redundant in the 1950’s as buses became the better option.

Old Lloyds Arms

The Barge

A few doors down sits the Old Lloyds Arms which seems to be Grimsby’s rock/metal haunt, disguised as an old-school, traditional boozer. A Stella (£3.15) was had here with little to set the pulse racing on offer once more (that’s probably the biggest gripe I had with the drinking holes of Grimsby) and I swiftly dispatched that as my head had been turned by what was across the way. It was a bar, yes, but not as we know it. No, it was on a Barge. An actual canal boat. Scenes were AOTS as I headed up what I termed the “gangplank” and down a fairly sizeable set of steps to the bar area. Again, the beer choices weren’t too amazing, but I did spy Dandelion & Burdock (alcoholic, don’t worry) in the fridge and my mind was made up.

Serving as my designated ‘refresher’ the D&B went down well enough but it was soon time to head onwards and next up was a choice of the Duke of Wellington or the Hope & Anchor. I opted for the latter as it was right in front of me and not about ten seconds walk down the side road. A second Coors of the day was had here as I awaited the bus on towards the Wellington Arms, the very pub that the Mariners were formed in back in 1878. It seemed more akin to a sports club within, and was decorated with many a piece of Grimsby related memorabilia and the like, and again the beer choices sort of reflected this as I had to settle for Coors once again.

Hope & Anchor

Wellington Arms

Blundell Park

As I complained about earlier, this day hadn’t been too adventurous, disappointingly, and I hopped back on the bus to two Blundell Parks in the hope of better things. The ground would come second however, the pub would come first, with the closest thing to Carling (their Black Fruits offering at £3) that will ever pass my lips being chosen due to….well, you know the story by now, before it was finally time to head to the “real” Blundell Park. Ground 300, let’s hope the game lives up to it, I thought to myself. How to get your hopes up….

Blundell Park itself is a brilliant, old school ground. Yes, its views from the away end aren’t superb (and that’s being rather kind), but I’d rather have somewhere with character than one of the soulless new builds that continue to rise up around the country – anyway, I digress. The old Main Stand sits to the right as you look and the middle part of the structure is apparently the oldest bit of Football League stand still in situ in the country. The large, domineering two-tiered stand opposite this towers over the rest of the ground and gives it a somewhat lopsided look, almost akin to that of Gresty Road, whilst the far end features a more modern seated stand. The away end seems to be pretty similar to the Main Stand on the whole and is all but connected to it with the one corner filled in between them. That’s Blundell Park in a nutshell, and this is the story of the Mariners….

History Lesson:

Grimsby Town Football Club was formed in 1878 as Grimsby Pelham by members of the Worsley Cricket Club, though would only spend a year under that name before changing to their current Town name. The club moved into Blundell Park in 1898 after spending time at locations on Clee Lane and latterly Abbey Park, first competing in the Combination from 1888 and, upon the league’s collapse shortly after, applied and failed to join the Football League – instead heading to the Football Alliance. However, their stay here would be rather brief and 1892 saw Grimsby accepted to the newly expanded Football League’s 2nd Division.

The title was won in 1902 along with promotion to Division 1 but after spending two years in the top division, they were relegated and returned to the non-league ranks within a decade. However, their time outside the League ranks was short, the Mariners winning the Midland League title in their sole season out before replacing rivals Lincoln City by virtue of election process. Interestingly, Grimsby and Hull City were the two teams allowed to compete on Christmas Day due to the fishing trade’s demands, though this would later fall out of use as the trade became less of a bind. Meanwhile, the era around WWI saw Town immediately relegated to the new Third Division in the first season post-war, and though 1921 saw the club play against the newly accepted Southern League but an equivalent Third Division North was created the next season with Grimsby subsequently switching.

Small inscription about GTFC’s founding

By 1929, Grimsby were back in Division 1 where they stayed until 1939 (outside of a two season stint out between 1932-’34) recording their highest finish of 5th in Division 1 in 1935. Town reached the FA Cup semi-final in 1936, losing out Arsenal at Huddersfield’s Leeds Road ground. They did so again in 1939, but again were on the wrong side of the result, and this time to Wolverhampton Wanderers in front of a record Old Trafford crowd. Post-WWII, Grimsby were relegated from Division 1 in 1948 and have not returned since, with the vast majority of the 50’s & ’60’s saw the Mariners flit between the Second and Third Divisions, the latter of which ceased to be regionalised during this time. Under Bill Shankly, Town finished as Third Division North runners-up to local rivals Lincoln City in 1952, missing out on promotion due to only one from each region going up at the time. Shankly would later depart, though Town were still promoted as champions in 1956, despite having to apply for re-election the previous season, in doing so, becoming the only club to go from that extreme to the other consecutively.

However, things would soon turn to the wrong side again and by 1968 Grimsby were in the 4th Division and were again forced to seek re-election successfully the next year upon ending the campaign second-bottom. Again things would soon look more rosy for the Mariners and they lifted the Division 4 title in 1972, going on to spend five seasons in Division 3 prior to relegation in 1977,though they would return just two years later. They would take promotion form into a further season as the club took the Third Division championship and returned to Division 2 where they’d remain until 1987 when a horrendous run of form saw them drop from 8th to the drop zone. The following year saw a second consecutive relegation suffered and Grimsby were again back in Division 4. Not only that, but Grimsby also, had to stave off a very real threat of going under altogether. They Would do so happily and continued on to a swift return to Division 2 by 1991.

Heading to the ground

Division 2 would become the Division 1 upon the Premier League coming into being the next year and Grimsby set about setting the ground works to be a steady side in the second tier. They remained there until 1997 she was they were relegated once more, this despite the efforts of the legend that is Clive Mendonca. 1998 was a good season for the team and after a 3rd placed finish in Division 3, Grimsby would make a double appearance under the twin towers of Wembley, and the first of which saw them defeat AFC Bournemouth (not just Bournemouth remember, that’s a different club altogether) to lift the Football League Trophy, having defeated Burnley in the Northern Section final to get there. Their second was in the play off final where they met Northampton Town and again were successful, a 1-0 triumph meaning Grimsby were back in Division 1 – and with a 100% Wembley success rate!

This spell wasn’t particularly good for Town and they regularly battled the drop over their five-year stint, eventually going down in 2003, though they did record victory over holders Liverpool at Anfield in the League Cup. Financial issues were suffered again due to the collapse of ITV Digital (I still remember the silhouette of Monkey, hanging in the background of an ad – imagine that nowadays, though PG tips has Lazarus effects it seems!) and 2005 saw Grimsby relegated back to Division 3, or League 2 as it was, and still is I suppose(!), known. Despite a strong promotion challenge, they missed out on an immediate return after dropping into the play-off places and going on to lose out in the final to Cheltenham Town at the Millennium Stadium. 2007-’08 saw their 100% Wembley record end (though this was at the “new” one) as the Mariners lost out in the Football League Trophy final to MK Dons, though things would still go on to get worse as Grimsby were relegated from the Football League in 2010 after the best part of a century there.

Arriving at Blundell Park

In the Conference for the first time, Grimsby started out in mid-table before finding their feet and reaching the 2013 play-off semi final, losing out to Newport County, the season seeing double disappointment after Town had previously lost to Wrexham in the FA Trophy final at Wembley on penalties. 2015 saw a second play-off place reached, but again the club were defeated on spot-kicks this time in the final to Rovers, as the new Wembley proved less kind than its predecessor. However, it would finally reward Grimsby for its persistence in 2016 as they overcame Forest Green Rovers in the National League play-off final under the arch to return to the EFL League 2 after six years away, despite having suffered a second FA Trophy disappointment months earlier at the hands of FC Halifax Town. They have finished the last two seasons in 14th and 18th as they look to gain a foothold with a view to another rise up the leagues, akin to those that they’ve done before.

The game got underway and there was little in the way of action early on with the first twenty minutes or so seeing just the one shot per side, Martyn Woolford seeing a shot comfortably saved by Bury stopper Joe Murphy in the 9th minute, whilst Jay O’Shea saw his own effort kept out by Murphy’s opposite number, and Grimsby skipper, James McKeown, some ten minutes later as both teams tested each other out.

Match Action

Match Action

As the half continued on towards the half-hour, the game continued to be a pretty uneventful contest in truth (despite the match report on Auntie Beeb trying to convince otherwise) and after Luke Hendrie’s drive was kept out for the hosts, Bury duo Eoghan O’Connell and Jordan Rossiter both spurned chances on goal, with only the former forcing McKeown into any kind of action. The remaining minutes somewhat mirrored those of the early part as the action died out and the half came as something of a relief. 0-0 and it was…..well, grim.

I was lucky enough to spend the second half in the company of Shakers fan Mick towards the rear of the stand where it turned out it mattered even less where you were for this match as even less went on to occur by the seaside. Bury, now attacking the away end, started the half strongly – O’Connell testing that McKeown was alert a couple of minutes in, whilst O’Shea fired over with the Shakers looking to press home their possible title and more likely promotion credentials.

Match Action

Match Action

The best chances of the game would come along during the final quarter, with Bury’s Byron Moore seeing a goal-bound effort superbly blocked on the line and the resultant loose ball cleared away, before Nicky Maynard was well denied by McKeown from close range. However, the Mariners would come on strong as the contest drew to a conclusion – Jake Hessenthaler, Harry Clifton and Charles Vernam all seeing shots fly just off-target, whilst Bury would reply as Grimsby looked to drop in and consolidate late-on, but due to substitute Gold Omotayo not quite having the touch his name promised on a couple of occasions, the sides would deservedly share the spoils in a game that threatened to, but never quite got into full flow.

Having lost my bus ticket somewhere along the way, I set off on the half-hour walk back into Grimsby with the goal of beating the bus – one which I achieved. Splitting the walk up with the earlier missed Duke of Wellington, a decent watering hole, for a pint of Stella (£3.10), I then completed the day with a visit to Grimsby’s ‘Spoons offering:- the Yarborough Arms, which handily neighbours the station. As such, I could wile away the time through to the train back to Manchester without issue whilst sipping at a Punk IPA. No problems it seemed, but then I saw it. Delayed. Cancelled. Trains were falling apart and I had no idea of the cause. As it was, the train eventually pulled in and we set off, seemingly clear of issue….that was until we arrived in Barnetby – a place that is now ingrained in my memory for all the wrong reasons. Despite nodding off two times, both times I awoke saw us still in the Humberside outpost and we were soon informed of likely ‘alternative transport’ that was being arranged. And we all know what that means.

Duke of Wellington

Yarborough Arms

With a Northern service stuck along with us, we soon got the news we were waiting for. After a good hour-and-a-half’s wait, the track was clear and we could proceed. As everyone piled back on, I couldn’t be arsed finding a seat and so settled in on the floor opposite a group of, who I’d later find out to be, Bury fans with conversation certainly not being of normal circumstance from one of these. Upon his disembarkation at Doncaster (if memory serves me correct), I was invited up to join the group, finding out this fella wasn’t part of their group and instead was a randomer they’d encountered whilst in Barnetby. It will do this sort of thing to you, drinks, nil-nils and Barnetby.

Anyway, I’d remain with Joanna, Dave Don, Mark, Mike through the remainder of the journey (including the unwelcome switch of train at Sheffield) though we eventually rocked up in Manchester. I bid goodbye to the guys and girls from Bury and jogged off over to Oxford Road for my connection I figured I could just about make….only to miss it by seconds – I arrived just in time to see it pulling away from the platform. In some sort of slight luck, a bus was due shortly anyway and so I was still home by midnight. It had been a long day for sure, the ground being the highlight, with Grimsby’s beer offerings not being too inspiring and the game being pretty poor overall. At least the pie was decent! Oh, and I just got back my train fare in full too; isn’t it great this delay repay, when it works, that is! Anyway, onwards to another week and it’s back off over the border to a town fame for its castle….

RATINGS:

Game: 4

Ground: 7

Food: 8

Programme: 6

Value For Money: 5 (added point for getting money back!)

Manchopper in….Lincoln

 

Result: Lincoln City 2-0 Carlisle United (FA Cup 2nd Round)

Venue: Sincil Bank (Saturday 1st December 2018, 3pm)

Att: 6,438

So it’s FA Cup Second Round weekend with the attraction of the prospect of meeting one of the “big boys” in the 3rd Round the reward for the victors of each tie. Of course, for the Imps of Lincoln City, the lure of such a tie may not have been quite so attractive – what with their cup run and shock defeat of Burnley still fresh in the minds of the Sincil Bank faithful – however, a fair pay-day will always be a welcome addition to anyone’s footballing calendar. The visitors, Carlisle United, would have their own sights set on their own run, though had been presented with, arguably, one of the harder second round ties to get through. Anyway, this trip was also my regular accompanier Dan’s birthday weekend game and, as such, provided a fine opportunity to have a mooch around the famous, historic city itself…..and sample some of the local public houses, of course!

Meeting in Piccadilly at a little after 8am, we were soon on our service through to Doncaster, where we’d have to endure a good 50 minutes until our connection which weren’t exactly favourable, what with the lack of Northern services yet again. Luckily for myself (in a very selfish way, I admit) I had a blog to write and so got to work both en route and whilst wasting away time in a Donny waiting room. It really was as exciting as it sounds. Soon enough, our excitement was ruined by the arrival of our service which would take us the forty-five minutes into the county town (city?) of Lincolnshire and we were swiftly rolling through the likes of Gainsborough and a couple of other stops before arriving into sight of the towering Lincoln Cathedral spires, accompanied by a drizzly, greying sky. After agreeing that grabbing a bus to avoid traipsing up the imaginatively named “Steep Hill” (which, would you believe, is rather steep), we disembarked outside the cathedral and began our “tour de Drinkoln” (sorry!) at the ‘ancient’ Lion and Snake, which apparently dates from the 16th century. Though it had been modernised somewhat inside, it still had a-hold of a fair bit of character and was a good place to begin our day in – especially as it was the only one in the immediate area that seemingly opened before midday, the round here costing just £6.05!

Lincoln

Lion & Snake

Strugglers

Lincoln is a highly historic cathedral city and the county town of Lincolnshire. It began life in the Iron Age around the Brayford Pool area at the foot of the hill where the castle and cathedral now reside and it is thought the Brayford Pool lent the city its original name of “Lindon” (or “The Pool”). It would later become the Roman settlement of Lindum, which continued to grow up around the River Witham, with the Romans originally conquering the area in 48 AD and constructing a legionary fortress at the end of the northern part of the Fosse Way. The legions would later move on to York with the town being given the suffix “Colonia” when it became a residence for army veterans. It would continue to flourish, being accessible by both the rivers Witham and Trent, though despite being thought of as the capital of the Flavia Caesariensis,  would fall into near desertion by the end of the 5th century. Having its name later shortened to the Old English Lindocolina and then Lincylene, the city rose once more after the first Viking raids with and would become an important Viking trading post, which also minted its own coins. This would culminate in an explosion in the economy with the settlement of the Danes, though only the upper part of the city seemed to have been populated, for the most part during this period, though by the mid 10th century, it was being re-populated with the suburb of Wigford becoming a trading post in its own right, the castle being added in 1068 by the Normans on the orders of William I, for strategic means. The original cathedral was completed by 1092 though had to be rebuilt after a fire originally and a later earthquake in 1185. Upon its latter rebuilding, the cathedral is widely agreed to have usurped the Great Pyramid of Giza as the world’s tallest building.

The city was the site of an 1141 battle between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda’s forces during ‘the anarchy’, with the King’s men defeated and the man himself taken prisoner. Within a decade, Lincoln had become one of the most wealthy towns in England, largely on account of its cotton and wool industries (Lincoln Green was worn by Robin Hood in legend) though would later be a scene of a large anti-Semitic riot in the 1200’s, with the large Jewish population eventually expelled by the end of the century, with 18 of the more prominent members of the community executed at the Tower of London for murder. It again saw battle in the 13th century in the First Barons War as those who’d aligned with the French fought the English and lost, and the Second Barons War saw one of the aforementioned attacks on the Jewish people occur, as the synagogue was ransacked and debt records burned. Made a county in its own right in 1409, it would enter decline within the next century or so, and the dissolution of the monasteries didn’t help its cause. Seven were closed within the city, with the cathedral’s spire rotting away and collapsing and never replaced, a signal of the decline in political and economic fields. During the Civil War, Lincoln was on the borderline of the Royalist/Parliamentarian forces and therefore changed hands on a number of occasions and its ability to trade and create saw the city decline further into a “one street town”.

Lincoln (and Magna Carta)

Lincoln Castle

The Georgian-era would see the Agricultural Revolution begin to help Lincoln recover and the re-opening of the Fosse Canal saw trade and industry become far easier to take part in. Lincoln grew in both economic and geographical ways and the Industrial Revolution of the 19th-century saw this continue, the railways seeing locomotives and heavy machinery made and many (latterly) large companies take residence and 1857 saw a permanent military base set up. The early twentieth century saw the city hit by a couple of disease epidemics, but it would recover and become a big player in wartime production, the first tanks being made in Lincoln and this was added to with aircraft and the like during WWII. Toward the end of the 20th century, the heavy industry began to fall by the wayside, though the area around the growing university has seen the city continue to grow in size and the city is also home to its famed Christmas Market.

Finishing off my pint of Hop House (whilst Dan was on a Carling binge for some reason), we headed off towards the castle walls and the Strugglers – the board outside portraying a guy struggling at the gallows in an explanation of the name! This was a real old school pub, tight and cosy and split into two parts, with one being pretty much behind the bar in what is more of a living room than anything else. A nice little place to have a pint and I opted for a pint of the Cornish Pale Ale, whilst Dan went for….*sigh* Carling. Deary me, though at least the rather pocket-friendly prices continued at £7.05. Unfortunately, the Victoria around the corner is closed on Saturdays apparently (according to Maps at least) and so we back-tracked towards the top of “Steep Hill” and to the Magna Carta, just outside the castle’s main entrance. This was another apparently old pub, its name coming from the 11th century copy of the book of the same name (one of only four) which resides within the stronghold opposite though, to my eye, this had gone slightly the wrong side of modernising. As I said to Dan at the time though, this could, of course, have been impossible to avoid for one reason or another, though this isn’t to say its a bad place, far from it in fact. The pint of Estrella was really good too, whilst Dan remained on his tried and tested formula, the round coming in at a touch over £8.00.

Looking up towards Steep Hill

Cardinal’s Hat

Medieval High Bridge

Unfortunately, we couldn’t spot the Imp hidden somewhere within the Magna Carta before we departed down “Steep Hill”, bypassing the small-ish bar on the way down in preference of getting to more within range of the ground itself. Well, that was the plan anyway, until we came across the Cardinal’s Hat (not an actual hat) and I decided we couldn’t go on by without popping in, especially with it being only about twenty minutes walk away from the ground. With that being said, this would be our final stop pre-match, with Dan’s Carling vigil coming to an end with the self-badged Cardinal’s Lager going to him instead (via the recommendation of the barman), whilst I ventured a little more to try out the Swiss Stiegl, a round of £7.75. I’m not sure what it is with Lincoln and the 5p thing, but it did allow me lighten the load via a fair bit of shrapnel. Finishing off in here, we headed off straight down the high street and over the level crossing in the nick of time to avoid the dropping of the barriers, arriving at Sincil Bank a little before quarter to three, despite having somehow got separated in the crowds whilst heading around the far end. Eventually having re-united, we handed our £15 over at the turnstiles and were into Sincil Bank and we went about sorting out a pie pre-match, myself opting for the Steak pie in the end with my initial option being off the menu, only to result in an upgrade, in my opinion. Anyway, the ground is all-seater, with two larger stands, one to each side, being joined by two smaller stands, with these running the width of the pitch at either end. The cathedral was just about visible from our viewpoint, its spires peering above the stand opposite. That’s Sincil Bank in short and this is the story of Lincoln City….

History Lesson:

Lincoln City Football Club was founded in 1884 as an amateur outfit, though football had been a prominent player in the city since the mid-19th century, with the major player before City being Lincoln Rovers (née Recreation) who had disbanded the same year. Their first competitive games would be highly successful affairs, with City coming out 9-1 Victor’s over Sleaford in their opener, before thrashing Boston Excelsior 11-0 in their first home clash and their first silverware arrived in the form of the Lincolnshire County Cup, with a 2-0 replay win over Grimsby Town. However, amateur status at the club would be short-lived and Lincoln would turn professional come 1891, and moving from their original John O’Gaunts home to Sincil Bank in 1895.

Come 1892 and the recently undertook professional switch allowed a move into the Football League, with Lincoln taking a spot in the newly formed Division 2. After moving from the old ground on account of the landlord’s passing, Lincoln’s first game at the Bank ended in a goalless draw, with the first competitive game – against Arsenal – ending in a draw also, this time one-a-piece. Through to the 1920’s, the Imps spent time yo-yo-ing between Divisions 2 & lower leagues including the Midland and Central Leagues. However, they would form the next new expansion division of the league in 1921, taking a spot in Division 3 (North). Again, Lincoln would spend a large period going between both the Second and Third Divisions right up until the 1960’s, when they would eventually drop into the Fourth Division, the regionalised system of the third tier having long gone.

Arriving at Sincil Bank

Season 1975-76 saw Lincoln make history in scoring 75 points under the 2-point for a win system, which stands as the record under these rules, and take the 4th Division title in doing so, whilst also becoming the first side in almost a decade to pass 100 goals, these feats coming under the late Graham Taylor. The early 80’s saw City narrowly miss out on promotion to Division 2 in both 1982 & ’83 and tragedy would later strike both Lincoln and Bradford City in the terrible Valley Parade fire, which claimed the lives of 56 people, the two City fans killed remembered in the Stacey West Stand, the two men’s surnames. The following season saw Lincoln relegated to Division 4 once more before suffering the drop into non-league at the end of the very next campaign.

The club soon recovered, becoming the first club to be promoted from the Conference (as opposed to being elected) as Champions, they would cement their spot back on the League, though the end of 2001-’02 saw them enter administration. Despite this and an overhaul of the squad to make ends meet, the late Keith Alexander almost got the side promoted, rather than suffering the dreaded drop, only losing out in the play-off final to AFC Bournemouth. They would repeat the trick following Alexander’s recovery from a brain injury, losing out in the 2004 semis to another future Premier League outfit in Huddersfield Town. 2005 saw a hat-trick of play-off appearances under Alexander secured, and despite defeating Macclesfield Town on the semi finals (whom Keith would be managing at the time of his passing of course), they would go on to suffer final heartbreak once again, this time at the hands of Southend United. A fourth straight play-off spot was made in 2006, though Alexander would depart the club at the end of the next season after disagreements with the great and good.

On their way…

Despite and prior to this, Lincoln again made the play-offs for a fifth successive season, but defeat in the final to local, rivals Grimsby Town saw them become the first club to lose in four consecutive play-off finals. They again made the play-offs in 2007 after finishing 5th – the highest Lincoln have finished in qualifying for them – though would lose out once again, again setting a record for the most unsuccessful consecutive play-off campaigns. Worse was to come though and after a few unsuccessful years and managerial changes, the club were relegated back to the Conference in 2011 after a poor late season run. Struggling the next season to just above the Conference drop zone, a change of management saw results improve enough to ensure safety, whilst cup runs were also non-existent. After another season where safety became the main aim, a few seasons of mid-table security followed prior to the appointment of the Danny Cowley as boss for 2016-’17.

Their league form, though initially inconsistent, turned into a promotion chance and after defeating seemingly runaway leaders Forest Green Rovers after a late comeback, reeled in their 12-point advantage to take the National League title and with it promotion back into the League 2. The seasons also, saw the Imps embark on their famed FA Cup run when, as a non-league outfit, they made the quarter finals by defeating Premier League Burnley at Turf Moor before bowing out to Arsenal, their first Football League opponents. Last season saw Lincoln get their hands on silverware in the form of the much-maligned EFL Trophy, as they at least overcame an u21- side, Chelsea, in the semi-finals, securing their first Wembley appearance in the club’s 134-year history. It would prove a fruitful visit as the Imps overcame Shrewsbury Town to lift the trophy by a solitary goal and have started this season strongly and are in a good position to push on and look for promotion back to the third-tier of English football.

The game got underway after a minute’s applause in commemoration of the career and life of the late Kevin Austin, who had spent time at the Imps during his time as a player, and in the complete opposite end of the spectrum to Tuesday night at Old Trafford, the deadlock was broken immediately, as Matt Rhead netted within 30 seconds, meeting a Bruno Andrade delivery to control a close-range volley into the back of the net. Quite the start and certainly the quickest goal I’ve seen for quite some time, and possibly the second quickest I’ve ever seen I suspect, beaten only by a 21-second Llandridnod Wells goal a couple of years back. That game went on to finish one-nil. Surely, history wouldn’t repeat itself here….could it?!

Match Action

Match Action

Neal Eardley went close shortly afterwards, his free-kick hitting the side-netting just the wrong side of the post from his perspective, whilst Adam Collin between the Carlisle sticks had to pull off a fine save to deny the second Matt up front – Matt Green. However, Lincoln were almost made to pay for these missed chances when a deep cross wasn’t fully cleared and the ball came to Regan Slater who’s shot from the angle flew through a group of bodies, somehow evading everyone, with the ball smacking back into play off the upright directly in front of us. A wake-up call for the hosts that it wouldn’t be all plain sailing for them and Josh Vickers in the Lincoln goal had to be alert to dive away and tip over a Richie Bennett drive that looked destined for the top corner. Lincoln would go close again at the end of the half, Harry Anderson’s drive across goal going narrowly wide of the mark, as the sides headed in at the break with that early goal still separating them and it looked as though the first-minute curse would strike once more.

The second-half began with the familiar fifteen-to-twenty minute spell of the side behind coming out strong with Carlisle, now attacking the end at which their band of supporters were situated, striving to get themselves back to parity. Regan Slater had the better of the sights of goal the Cumbrians would create during this spell, with his effort flying over the crossbar before Lincoln began to regain the front-foot and went close with a few efforts that were well defended by the solid Carlisle defence, until on came John Akinde, a man who always seems to find the net when I am about. I commented on the fact to Dan as well and gave him a confident prediction that the former Barnet man would bag under the ever more dominant Sincil Bank lights.

Match Action

Match Action

Celebrations

However, it would be Lee Frecklington who’d twice go close to finding the net and putting his side two-up. First, he hit a crisp volley which Collin flung himself at to his right and pulled off a fine save (even better at close quarters) to keep his side in the contest and he later scuffed an effort up and over the bar when he ought to have done far better. If the contacts had been reversed, he would likely have been far happier! However, these missed chances wouldn’t prove to be vital as that man Akinde popped up with around four minutes left to slide home a low cross by the impressive Andrade at the back-post to seal the Imps’ place in the hat for the Third Round.

That would prove to be that for the game in truth with the whistle going after a few minutes of stoppages and we beat a hasty exit and popped in to the nearby Shakespeare pub, which was the first we came across, just at the top of a side-street leading to the main road from the bridge over the stadium neighbouring stream. The highlight in here? The pool table being covered by a 1978-’79 (that’s what we tried to decipher, anyway) season sticker collection. Finishing off our drinks of a Heineken and Carling – yes, normal service was resumed – which came in at the now standard £6.90 with an extra 5p, we grabbed a bus from right outside and up towards the station. However, we weren’t ready to depart Lincoln just yet, no sir. First, we had stops at the Ritz Wetherspoon’s (a former theatre) which is far more impressive from outside than inside to be honest, where I got a Punk IPA for £3.95, and the interesting looking Treaty of Commerce, a narrow Tudor-style, wood-clad building just short of the level-crossing, where we had a round of Kronenbourg and Carling whilst breaking into an occasional sing-along on account of the fine tunes being played out.

The Shakespeare’s collection

Ritz

Treaty of Commerce

Heading to the Witch & Wardrobe (to the right)

By the point I’d finished my pint, Dan had decided to play safe on his drink here and so I headed off over the crossing to the Witch and Wardrobe, which sat next to a nicely lit church and another small waterway. After a quick pint of Strongbow in here whilst suffering through the last few minutes of the Southampton-Manchester United game, I headed back to the station and Dan prior to boarding our train back to Doncaster and then onwards back to Manchester once again. On the second train, we got talking to Rochdale fan Chris who had got us agreeing to go to Spotland the following day to watch their cup tie against Portsmouth. Unfortunately, things would conspire against us, causing these plans to go awry, and so my weekend came to a premature end. At least the Saturday had been a fine one! Lincoln is a brilliant city and it was certainly far cheaper than I suspected/feared! The game was decent, the ground the same food and programme both of good quality (the latter surprisingly so, as they usually seem to be cut-back issues in the Cup most places) and the travel went as well as could be expected, all things considered. So on to next week and a return down to the Big Smoke for the first time this season. In true GTA San Andreas style, Gunners will be involved. I’ve just gotta follow the damn train…..!

RATINGS:

Game: 7

Ground: 7

Food: 7

Programme: 8

Value For Money: 8

Manchopper in….Birkenhead (Tranmere Rovers FC)

Result: Tranmere Rovers 2-0 Exeter City (EFL League 2)

Venue: Prenton Park (Saturday 3rd November 2018, 3pm)

Att: 6,209

I’d already visited Tranmere Rovers’ Prenton Park, but that game was in the Cheshire Senior Cup and, as such, I always felt as though it was one I couldn’t really count (first team games only at regular grounds being a rule of mine now). So when I found myself with an empty weekend and not looking to travel all that far, I felt it looked like a perfect storm was forming on the banks of the River Mersey. Back to Birkenhead I would be headed and for Rovers’ home clash with fellow League 2 high-riders Exeter City.

With the never-ending RMT strikes still taking their toll on the local rail system up North, I was forced into an earlier than ideal start, though this did mean a quicker service to Liverpool Lime Street was in service, so I guess there was some silver lining to be found within the mayhem. Having arrived in Merseyside, a quick trip down into the depths of the station’s Merseyrail system platforms had me on my way under the river and into Cheshire (I hope that gives me some brownie points with the locals!), the short trip to Birkenhead Park station taking just 15 minutes. With the time being way too early for beer, especially with regards to my 11am self-imposed acceptable start-time, I decided to pay a visit to the park which supplies the station with its name. There was a fair amount to see too, including some discarded pumpkins, a man mowing a cricket pitch and some joggers. Exciting just doesn’t cover it.

Birkenhead Park’s Grand Entrance

Hamilton Square

‘Spoons

Having spent a good 40 minutes exploring the town’s large greenery, I passed the grand (no joke this time) pillared entrance to the park, the time was slowly ticking towards eleven and so the DRINK – said in Father Jack voice – was on the horizon. As such, I looked for somewhere to begin my tour, though these looked to be very few and far between at that hour and so I chose to err on the safe side and opted to pay a visit to the Wetherspoons first. The Spoons here goes by the name of the Brass Balance, though my visit wouldn’t be too smooth as my ordered Baltika would turn into a Bud as it was served. Not one to care too much, I took said bottle and settled in to begin the final bits of my Sunderland blog from my previous week. Oh, and I’d get that extra Baltika back later on.

From there it was off towards the river and the ferry terminal, with the Liverpool skyline looming over the Mersey as I entered my second stop-off of the day: Gallagher’s. This pub is a brilliant little place, filled with an assortment of maritime paraphernalia all over the ceilings and walls including a story of a legend of H.M.S. Birkenhead’s ‘heroic’ (bar the gunpoint bit) act which lends its name to the “Birkenhead Drill” – the “Women & children first” call came to be on the ship for the first of only two occasions for it to have taken place. A pint of Hop House here came in at the decently priced £3.80 before I finished up and popped next door to the River View where I opted for a pint of Coors (£3.30) whilst watching the start of the Bournemouth-Manchester United game aside a window, shockingly, overlooking the river. After around twenty minutes of the game had been played, I began to work my way back towards the ground, which still stood a good mile-and-a-half or so away. Of course, this trek would be getting broken up along the way and after crossing a bridge over what seemed to be a long gone railway line, I came upon the interestingly named Swinging Arm. Despite the visions of what sort of things within may have inspired such a name, the place was actually very musically driven and a pint of the Spanish Palax Craft Lager came in at just the £3.45. It was bloody good too.

Gallagher’s & River View

Gallagher’s

Swinging Arm

Birkenhead is a town on the west bank of the Wirral peninsula, historically in Cheshire. Its name likely derives from the Old English ‘bircen’ meaning ‘birch tree’ and probably means headland overgrown with birch, with regards to the many trees which grew on the headland that jutted out at Woodside and not the Birket stream which enters the Mersey nearby. Ferry “services” began operating from Birkenhead in 1150 for the Benedictine monks who’d built the Birkenhead Priory which would later be visited by King Edward I and was later granted further rights in a 1330 charted by Edward III. Distanced from the Industrial Revolution in Liverpool, Birkenhead retained its agricultural status through to the advent of the steam ferry services which introduced something like the service which runs today in 1817, along with services to Ireland and Isle of Man, and five years later the paddle steamer Royal Mail would begin operating between Liverpool and the Woodside terminal Maritime business continued to grow and shipbuilding began on the peninsula from 1829 following on from an initial iron works built by William Laird in 1824. This eventually grew to become Cammell Laird with the likes of HMS Ark Royal, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Birkenhead itself being constructed on the site, as well as the submarine HMS Thetis which sank in sea trials in Liverpool Bay prior to being raised and commissioned as HMS Thunderbolt. Sadly, this would later be lost in action with the loss of its full crew.

The Mersey Railway tunnel opened towards the end of the 19th century, becoming the world’s first tunnel under a tidal estuary, providing direct rail access to the city across the water and this was later joined by the Queensway road tunnel (1934) and this opened the peninsula up to development, due to it providing easier access. Previously, Birkenhead became home to the first street tramway in Britain, which was later electrified in 1901, prior to its closure, though a heritage line still remains with a pair of trams brought over from Hong Kong along with a maintained original. With growing links, the area began to become more industrialised and urbanised, with the town growing from just 110 inhabitants in 1801 to almost 111,000 inside a century, with an influx of workers and settlers from Ireland, Wales and other parts of Cheshire. However, the 20th century would signal a period of decline and a reduction in port activity. A few side notes saw Birkenhead Park become the first publicly funded park in Britain and it is home to a Greek-style Grand Entrance, modelled on the Temple of Illysus in Athens, an ornate ‘Swiss Bridge’ and a ‘Roman Boathouse’ as well as two lakes. Hamilton Square contains the most Grade I listed buildings in one place outside of Trafalgar Square, including the Birkenhead Town Hall (on the site of the original Birkenhead Market which saw Michael Marks of M&S open up a penny bazaar), whilst scenes for the film Chariots of Fire were shot at Woodside, substituting for 1920’s Dover. Its priory remains standing too….

After a brief visit to the peninsula’s oldest building, the Birkenhead Priory, I continued heading for the Glen Affric Brewery in an otherwise unspectacular warehouse estate by the side of a busy intersection. However, inside the warehouse bearing the brewery’s name is a “tap” bar with a decent selection of its own stuff brewed on site, all equipment is located by the side of the tables, with the benched areas being home to vintage Nintendo game consoles too. A bit of a throwback to my youth for sure there! It was quite fun watching it go through its demo runs and seeing the vintage classics loaded upon it, but it was soon time to up sticks once again and set my sights on my final planned pre-match stop, the Sportsman’s Arms, which was eventually reached a good 15 minutes later having walked through a few side-streets and encountering a rather steep hill from outta nowhere. Dark Fruits would be my choice of refresher here whilst I watched the final throes of the match and Marcus Rashford grabbing us the three points. At least I wasn’t alone in exclaiming “YES!!!” or I may have been in some bother….

Birkenhead Priory

Glen Affric Brewery

Sportsman’s Arms

A short walk later had me at Prenton Park where, having a few extra minutes in hand, completed a lap of the ground before opting to head into the first of the cash turnstiles I came across, completely forgetting my best-laid plan to take a place in the Kop. Instead, I ended up right on half-way, so I couldn’t be too aggrieved! After a quick visit to the food bar for some chips (more like potato wedges really) it was off to pitchside ahead of the game, which was only a few minutes away. Having again got to my seat in time for the minute’s silence – this being a dual one, with it also serving to remember the victims of Leicester’s helicopter accident – it was soon time to get into the match. First, Prenton Park is a decent ground with the all-seater, one-tiered Kop stand behind the left-hand goal (from my point of view) largely dominating the ground, with only the Main Stand opposite my seat being anything close, and having something of a hint of age about it, giving the ground some extra character. Both the right-hand Cowshed End, housing the away fans today (and that appears to slope away to one side due to its seating arrangements and not due to drink) and the Johnny King Stand – named after the club’s most successful manager – that I was in are both fairly small affairs, though are easily capable, the latter running the length of the pitch. That’s the ground described in short and this is the story of Tranmere Rovers….

History Lesson:

Initially formed as Belmont Football Club in 1884, upon the merger of two cricket clubs’ footballing arms – Lyndhurst Wanderers and Belmont, the club played, largely, only friendly matches through to 1888 due to a lack of a league, though did enter the Liverpool and District Challenge Cup in 1886. They would play their initial matches at Steeles Lane in Birkenhead before changing their name to Tranmere Rovers prior to the beginning of their second season in existence (a previous Tranmere Rovers side had existed as an offshoot of the cricket club of the same name in 1881-’82, though this side was unrelated to the current club) and would later purchase Tranmere Rugby Club’s Ravenshaws Field in 1887, renaming it as the first ‘Prenton Park’, 25 years before Tranmere would move into their current home. Entering their first league – the West Lancashire League – in 1889, the club would spend eight years here prior to switching to the stronger Combination in 1897, winning the title in 1908. Two years later, Tranmere would join the Lancashire Combination and 1912 saw them make the move to the current Prenton Park home, complete with 800-seater stand. A further two seasons later, the club would lift the Lancashire Combination title and they would remain in the league through to the First World War, whereupon Tranmere did continue to remain active throughout the conflict, though players were criticised for avoiding active service, despite working in the local shipyards.

After Leeds City Reserves were ousted from the Central League in 1919, Tranmere were able to take their spot and this timing proved a further blessing as after just the one campaign there, four clubs were invited to join the newly formed Third Division North of the Football League as founder members. They duly accepted and won their first league clash 4-1 at home to Crewe Alexandra. 1924 saw Dixie Dean make his debut for Rovers and he went on to net 27 goals in 30 matches before moving to Everton where he would make his name, with further local players would follow in his footsteps up the leagues. In 1934, an FA Cup tie pitted Rovers against Liverpool at Anfield in a game watched by just a tick over 61,000 fans, Tranmere would latterly achieve a place in goal-scoring history, as they defeated Oldham Athletic 13-4 on Boxing Day of 1935, with the game’s 17 goals remaining the highest aggregate scored in one Football League game. Bunny Bell netted nine in that game. During the same period, Rovers would compete in the Welsh Cup and reached the final twice, losing to Bristol City in the 1934 final after a replay first time around, before defeating Chester one-nil in the next season, the club’s first silverware as a Football League Club.

Rovers would win their first League title in 1938, lifting the Division Three North championship and promotion to Division Two for the first time and this remains their first and only League title to date. Success didn’t immediately follow either, with Tranmere relegated at the end of the next season. Post-WWII, Tranmere re-joined the League and again took their spot in Division 3 North. They would remain here until the restructure of 1958 with Tranmere’s 11th placed finish seeing them achieve a high enough spot to remain in the newly nationalised Third Division. The final match, against Wrexham attracted a crowd of 19,615, which remains a record at Prenton Park for a league match.

Prenton Park and Johnny King

In 1961, Rovers skipper Harold Bell left the club, having not missed a game from the first game post-war through to 1955 when he was eventually dropped from the side, a total of 459 consecutive games which also remains a record. His influenced was missed, as Tranmere were relegated that same year to Division 4, and the club switched up their kit from blue shirts, white shorts to all white, to distinguish themselves from Everton. 1967 saw them return to Division 3 and the following season saw the club reach the FA Cup Fifth Round for the first time, ahead of a game in that competition three years later achieving a club record attendance at Prenton Park of over 24,000 for a tie vs Stoke City. 1972 saw Ron Yeats join the club and his links to Liverpool saw the likes of Ian St. John join the club as well as Bill Shankly in a consultancy role. This team would go on to record one of the most memorable Tranmere results as they won one-nil at First Division side Arsenal in the League Cup. However, things soon went awry and 1975 saw them return to Division 4 once again, though they would be here for just one season, with promotion immediately won the following year.

After another drop back to Division 4, many poor seasons would follow, with Rovers rarely troubling the top-half of the table, though after a resurgence in the latter part of the 1980’s (including a first appearance at Wembley in the League Centenary Tournament), 1989 would see them recover up the division to the runners-up spot and the rise back up to the Third Division once again. They missed out in the following year’s play-offs, having had a strong season, losing in the Final at Wembley to Notts County, just a week after lifting the league’s Trophy at the same venue with a 2-1 win over Bristol Rovers, and they would have play-off success the next season, with wins over Brentford and Bolton Wanderers seeing the club in Division 2 for the first time since the 1930’s, though lost out in their second consecutive League Trophy final. After Division Two became Division One upon the formation of the Premier League in 1992, and with John Aldridge beginning his decade-long spell at the club (going on to net 170 goals for the SWA and becoming Tranmere’s first – and only to date – player to score at a World Cup), Tranmere went on to reach the play-offs for the next three successive seasons, missing out on promotion to the Premier League in each of 1993, 1994 and 1995, and ’94 saw further disappointment as they went out in the League Cup semi-finals to Aston Villa on penalties.

Prenton Park was reconstructed and re-opened in 1995 but financial constraints took a-hold over the millennium season, though they did reach the Sixth Round of the FA Cup and reached the 2000 League Cup Final, losing out to Leicester City by 2-1 in the last game played at the ‘old’ Wembley. The all-white kit was re-introduced ahead of the next season but despite success in the cups (including a 3-0 win over Everton), the club were relegated to Division 2 ending a decade-long spell in Division 1. The play-offs were reached in 2005, but the campaign was unsuccessful and despite going close to reaching them again, they never would. Just avoiding the drop to the now-named ‘League Two’ in 2010, 2013 saw manager Ronnie Moore sacked after admitting breaching betting rules and the season would eventually end with Rovers relegated to League Two for 2014-’15. Further disappointment was to follow immediately, as Tranmere dropped out of the League in 2015 ending their 94-year stay.

A poor start to their non-league life in the Conference followed, though a resurgence saw the club just miss-out on the play-offs and after double disappointment in 2017 saw Rovers lose out in the FA Trophy semis and miss out on promotion in the play-off final to the extra-green Forest Green in, despite a runners-up spot and 95 points being achieved, last season saw the club eventually return to League football as they recovered from another sluggish start to again reach the play-offs where they overcame Ebbsfleet United in the semis before overcoming Boreham Wood 2-1 in the Final at the ‘new’ Wembley and they have bucked the trend of the last few years in starting a season strongly, sitting towards the right half of the table.

We got underway with Exeter forcing a couple of fairly comfortable stops out of the home ‘keeper Scott Davies, before Connor Jennings responded for the hosts, with his low shot being kept out by Davies’ opposite number James Hamon. The first-half hour came and went with the game still all-square in deadlock but on 31 minutes it was finally broken from a Paul Mullin cross – Mullin himself had gone close minutes before, his delivery being guided into the net by James Norwood, despite the Hamon seeming to get a good piece of the ball on its way into the net. Be that as it may, it was another game closer to a calendar year without a nil-nil. Just the three weeks to go!

Match Action

Match Action

Outside of a few blocked shots, Norwood going close to adding a second to both his and his team’s tally, very little happened in terms of real action in the remaining fifteen minutes or so of the first half as Tranmere headed in with their slender advantage still intact at the break. Half-time saw little in the way of action, so let’s get straight on with the action! Again, it was City who would fashion the first chance of the half, Matt Jay this time forcing Davies into action to maintain his clean sheet for the time being at least.

After Jennings and Jay had traded chances for their respective sides, Tranmere would grab that vital second goal and it was Norwood who would grab it, showing some real striker’s instinct in the process. After the impressive Larnell Cole had seen his rasping drive from a good 25 yards beat Hamon only to unluckily smash into the post, Norwood responded well to be in the right place at the right time to slot the rebound home and send the fans in the Kop behind the goal into brief delirium. That looked to be that in truth, as Exeter were pretty disappointing overall and their display was summed up by Dean Moxey receiving a second yellow card within 15 minutes to receive his marching orders for (I think I remember) handball.

Match Action

Match Action

From there it was a pretty routine quest for Rovers to see out the final twenty minutes or so, though they also looked to take advantage of their extra man and add one or two more strikes to their scoring sheet. However, Hamon was in no mood to let any more past and kept out efforts from each of Johnny Smith, Jennings and the hat-trick chasing Norwood. Lee Martin would go close for the visitors as the game ran down, keeping Davies alert to the end, but that would be that and it was a big three points for Tranmere in this top(ish) of the table clash. Not a bad return so far for the SWA. As for me, that’s two games and no goals this season for Exeter, so maybe I have something to do with it?

Post-match, I took in a swift visit to the ground neighbouring, and appropriately named, Prenton Park for a quick Dark Fruits (£3.10), before heading off and up to Rock Ferry station where I’d pay a visit to the two station neighbouring hostelries, namely the, again fittingly named, Rock Station (Coors £2.7/95) prior to popping over the road to the Bedford where a Rekorderlig Mixed Berry came in at a decent £3.20 ahead of the train back into the lower reaches of Lime Street. Arriving with a good 40 minutes to spare ahead of my train back, I thought I’d grab that Baltika I’d missed out on earlier in the station’s Spoons, whereupon I would be rewarded for my day’s good deed, giving up a table for a group of guys and girls who’d come into the packed place, meaning a free one was on them, despite my protestations to the contrary. Ah well, if you can’t beat them!!

Rock Station. Camera didn’t play ball on the others!

My gift.

So that ended another trip and it was good to truly get Prenton Park done. The game was decent, Birkenhead is too for a few and all else went smoothly, so can’t have too many complaints, especially with a nice early return home being secured (i.e. before 8pm), a distinct rarity these days. Anyway, it’s back onto the FA Cup trail next (this just gone as it is) weekend and a visit to a club who are just experiencing their first season in non-league, having replaced this very club for this season. Twisted….

RATINGS:

Game: 6

Ground: 6

Food: 4

Programme: 6

Value For Money: 6

Manchopper in….Exeter

Result: Exeter City 0-3 Lincoln City (EFL League 2)

Venue: St. James’ Park (Saturday 1st September 2018, 3pm)

Att: 4,067

The second of my trips to Devon in consecutive weekends saw me heading the slightly shorter distance this time around out of the county’s two League sides. Yes, I was off to Exeter this time around, having been further down the line at Plymouth the previous week, for their 5-1 drubbing at the hands of the Posh. Plymouth was a decent day, question was :- could Exeter go one better?

Grabbing the 8am train down from Manchester, I arrived into St. David’s station at a little before a quarter to midday, after having to endure a tortuous 10 minutes of sitting stationary outside on the station approach. This duly meant my first drink of the day would need to be a swift one, and so the walk to my first stop would need to be too. After eventually gaining my bearings (I’m getting a little better by now!), I set off towards the side of the River Exe and the appropriately named “Mill on the Exe” which, you may be surprised to learn, used to be a mill. I know, I share your disbelief!! Anyway, a swift pint of Rattler cider (the locally brewed stuff) was enjoyed out on the balcony overlooking the river bridge crossing, prior to me continuing onwards into ‘town’.

View from the Mill

The Iron Bridge…called Iron Bridge

View to the city, Iron Bridge Inn on the right

After heading past what first appeared to be an old, grand garden (though a later deduced it was actually a seemingly abandoned cemetery), I approached a large iron bridge which, again, was fittingly named “Iron Bridge”. Hence, there had to be a pub named just as well, and, shock of shocks, there stood the Iron Bridge Inn, right there upon the bridge. Just kidding, I knew this was there! What I didn’t fully expect was the pint I ordered to cost a full £6.50, though I was of course informed prior to the matter. Not being one to shy away when it comes to a good beer, the Tropical Pale Ale was, as promised, bloody fantastic. The pub was a lovely old classic too, so well worth a visit.

Next on the list was something of a diversion, if I’m to be honest. Having planned to seek out the Beer Cellar first, I couldn’t spot it for one reason or another and so instead popped into the far easier to see City Gates, which I just so happened to be stood right outside of. This was another elder statesperson of the city, dating from the 19th century and age seemed to equal cost here, as a bottle of Sol came in at a full £4.40. Jesus. Anyhow, I took it out into the nice ‘Walled Garden’ outdoor area, which also allowed a quick exit out of the old coaching entrance.

City Gates

The price didn’t make me feel sunny….

The name Exeter derives from the Old English Escanceaster, from the anglicised from of the river now known as the Exe and the suffix -ceaster, used to mark important fortresses and towns. Exe is a separate Brittonic name meaning “water” or, more specifically, “full of fish”. The area began as a riverside settlement, likely dating from around the times of the Roman occupation, with coins from the Mediterranean – especially the Hellenic region, having been found dating back to 250 BC. It would later grow into a fort, with it becoming the southwest terminus of the Fosse Way and served as base for the legion presided over by Vespasian, who would later become Emperor. The fort grew into a larger settlement containing the families of those based here, alongside natives, becoming the tribal capital of the Dumnonii area. Upon the forts abandonment in 75 AD (CE can piss off), the grounds were converted for civilian use and is located close to the cathedral.

Exeter would latterly be conquered by the Saxons, though they did leave a quarter of the city to remain under native control, the road named Bartholomew Street (nee Britayne Street until 1637) was formerly named, apparently, in memory of these people. In 876, it was attacked and captured by Viking raiders, though they were driven out rather quickly by Alfred the Great. King Athelstan, who went on to further fortify the city, drove out the British to (perhaps) the St. David’s area just outside the city’s walls. After a further failed Danish attack, the Norman conquest took hold and, despite the city’s peoples rebelling a couple of years in, a siege put in place by King William put paid to that. In later years, the town would become a more market-based area, for the benefits of the locals.

Exeter

Old church

As time went on, into the Tudor period, the city withstood a siege from the local Cornish and Devonians, outraged by the religious instructions of the monarchy at the time. This was ended in battle, with many rebels meeting their end soon afterwards. The city would go on to play a major part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, whereupon it is said it gained its motto “Semper Fidelis” from Elizabeth I in recognition of its service, though schools teach that it was in fact bestowed by Charles II in 1660 after the Restoration due to its part in the English Civil War. Around this time, Exeter became a stronghold of the wool and cloth trades, trading with many areas of the world, with the industrial revolution of the 19th century bringing agricultural goods to the fore. Bridges, tramways and railways were also introduced to help expand transport links both locally and to the rest of the country.

The city was bombed extensively by the Luftwaffe during WWII, Exeter defended by a squadron of Polish night-fighters, named the Lwów Eagle Owls, based out of Exeter Airport. Incidentally, the Polish city Lwów shared the same city motto with Exeter. The city was the first to be gifted a Polish flag in friendship and one is duly raised on each 15 November. In recent years, a serious fire damaged the Royal Clarence Hotel (said to be the first venue to call itself a hotel in England), though restorations ended up uncovering medieval pictures. The hotel’s restoration is still ongoing.

White Hart

Inside too. Full of all sorts.

George’s Meeting House. I had no-one to meet.

Continuing on, I headed onwards towards the cathedral part of town and to a pair of drinking holes just across the way from each other. The first, the White Hart, was another oldie worldy place, dating from the 1500’s. However, this wasn’t so apparent when outside, though once you head on through the entry way, it quickly became timber-framed and narrow. Indoors, the bar off to the right was the one in use, and it was, fittingly, dimly lit and full of all sorts of various paraphernalia lining the walls. This time, the older place was a little more easy on the pocket, the pint of Thatcher’s coming in at £3.95. Crossing over the way, it was to another fittingly named pub (personally anyway), George’s Meeting House, which was also the first Spoons visit of the day. This is an old chapel or something of sorts and is one of the more interesting ones I’ve visited in a while. It was cool for a quick one, the now staple Hooch at £2.39 to round off the pre-match drinking session.

Cutting through the cathedral grounds, I continued on through down a little side road before again having to figure out where I was to be going. Eventually, I spotted a couple of guys who looked like match goers (you get to know them eventually) and followed them up to a large roundabout, from where I could actually recognise roads and the like. However, this didn’t help me in a pursuit of a programme, as I instead ended up with a fanzine but, for a quid, I wasn’t fussed at that and was actually looking forward to having a look through one of these for the first time since….maybe Huddersfield a couple of years back. It turned out to be a decent little read too.

Exeter Cathedral

Through the grounds

Eventually, I did locate the programmes via the help of “helpers” outside the ground and was soon in the queue for the Big Bank. Handing over £16 for entry (not too bad, really), I was into the already crowded terrace, though I did pop into the line for food first up, the Steak pie (I think it was) went down very well indeed. Anyway, St. James’ Park is a pretty smart-looking ground, though it does sadly now lack the traditional old stand I enjoy, though I dare say the Grecians fans may indeed like the new facilities better. The new grandstand is now pretty much complete bar the shouting, and is all-seater. The big bank is a large, covered terraced area, which stretches back a fair way above the playing area, affording decent views out to the city at the far, open, unused end. The current “Main” Stand is also all seater, though is a smaller affair than the grandstand in terms of overall size, it is longer, running the majority of the pitch. So that’s the ground and this is the story of Exeter City….

History Lesson:

Exeter City Football Club was founded in 1904, upon the merger of local clubs St. Sidwell’s United and Exeter United, the sides having backdated football in Exeter back to 1890. In 1904, Exeter lost 3-1 to St. Sidwell’s whereupon, after the game had finished, the two sides agreed that the two merging was best for the future. The new team took on the Exeter City name and continued on playing at Exeter United’s ground, St. James’ Park. The new club’s first competitive outing came in September, where they defeated the 110th battery of the Royal Artillery by 2-1 at St. James’ Park, in the East Devon League. City would duly go on to lift the title at the end of the season and transferred into the Plymouth & District League for the next few years.

1908 saw the club turn professional and successfully applied to join the Southern League, replacing Tottenham Hotspur in doing so. They got rid of their supposed “unlucky” green and yellow kit (derived from St. Sidwell’s colours) and switched to their now familiar red and white stripes. Upon the change, a 0-0 draw with West Ham United was followed by five consecutive victories, thus confirming the switch was indeed for the better, in those of a superstitious view. City would go on to tour South America in 1914, just prior to the outbreak of WWI, where they played eight matches against Argentine and Brazilian opposition, whilst also apparently providing the first ever opposition for the future Selecao, the Brazilian national team. This game ended in a 2-0 loss, or a 3-3 draw, depending on whom you believe!

Post-war, 1920 saw Exeter invited to join the Football League’s Third Division South, and invite they duly took up. They took on Brentford in their first league match, a game which ended in a 3-0 home success. 1931 saw the Grecians record their joint best FA Cup run, as they reached the sixth round prior to bowing out to Sunderland. They would repeat the trick again 50 years later, this time eventually going down at the hands of eventual winners, Spurs, by 2-0. 1964 saw City secure their first ever Football League promotion, as they finally exited the bottom tier and duly took a spot in the, by this point, nationalised Third Division. However, their stay would only be a short one, as they would be relegated just two seasons later. They would remain in the Fourth Division for a further long spell, though this would eventually end in a first ever Championship title in League football, with this being lifted in 1990, ahead with a return to the Third Division. This time, the Grecians doubled their previous tenure here, but were relegated in 1994, from the current Second Division (re-designated upon the birth of the Premier League).

Man takes picture of man taking picture of sign

Back in the bottom division, Exeter would go on to struggle for the most part, entering administration and almost folding in the latter part of 1994 and having to sell off their ground to property developers, though were eventually able to remain at St. James’ upon the council purchasing it latterly. They would eventually exit administration in 1996, though things didn’t improve too much and, seven years later, City would be relegated out of the Football League to the Conference National, the club becoming the first to suffer this fate having not finished bottom (they ended 23rd). Continuing financial issues and off-field shenanigans continued to threaten the club’s existence for the next few seasons, but hard work from supporters and a helpful replayed FA Cup tie against Manchester United (after a 0-0 draw had been secured at Old Trafford) in 2005 helped boost the coffers.

2007 saw Exeter reach the play-offs, whereupon they reached the final with a semi-final win over Oxford United. However, they would go on to lose out at Wembley to Morecambe. They went one better the next season, though, as they defeated local rivals Torquay United after an away second-leg comeback, before defeating Cambridge United by a single strike in the Final, thus securing a return to the League. Their first season in League 2 was an immediate success, as Exeter went straight on through to League One, a final day one-nil win at Rotherham United securing their promotion as runners-up to Brentford.

They would remain in League one for the next four years, though scraped survival in 2010 by overcoming promotion chasing Huddersfield Town on the last day by 2-1 and so condemned Gillingham to the drop instead. The following campaign saw the club bounce back from the tragic loss of Adam Stansfield to just miss out on the play-offs (by a single point) and finish up a strong eighth. However, this season was a false dawn of sorts for the Grecians, as they were relegated at the end of the following campaign, back to League 2. Here they have remained, despite a strong showing initially in 2013 before a tail off in performances.  Meanwhile, 2015 saw the club become the victims of an FA Cup giant-killing, as they went out at the First Round stage on live TV at the hands of Northern Premier League side, Warrington Town. Their next cup campaign would be memorable for the right reasons though, the highlight being a 2-2 draw with Liverpool.

I think he saw me.

2017 saw the club recover from a poor start to just miss out on promotion through the play-offs, a fifth placed finish being the precursor to a dramatic last-minute success in the semi-finals over two-legs against Carlisle, before they were defeated by Blackpool in the final at Wembley. Last season saw the Grecians end up in 4th, whereupon they again entered the play-offs, but were unsuccessful in the final again, despite seeing off today’s visitors in the semis, Exeter again fell at the final hurdle, this time to Coventry City. Paul Tisdale departed the club afterwards, with former skipper Matt Taylor taking the reigns for the coming season, which has seen another strong start.

The game got underway soon after I took up a spot within the Grecian support up in the Bank, with very little happening in the first half hour or so, though Exeter were probably just about having the better of the play. After a few blocked shots had come and gone for both sides, it was the hosts’ Pierce Sweeney who eventually got in an attempt on goal, his shot flying over the bar and out of the ground, following a corner.

Lincoln responded well and forced a few consecutive corners which ended in Tom Pett firing narrowly wide, before it all went wrong for the hosts in the final few minutes of the half. First, Lincoln skipper Lee Frecklington finished off from a couple of yards following good work by the ever dangerous John Akinde, who was played in on the left side of the area and slid across the face for Frecklington to add the finishing touch.

Match Action

Far end action

Akinde would then grab a goal himself on the stroke of the break, netting in the second minute of stoppage time. He completed a solo effort by traipsing his way across the edge of the box, beating two defenders as he went, prior to sliding his effort beyond Exeter stopper Christy Pym, who was left rooted and wrong-footed. Half-time duly arrived with the game having taken on a very different look than it appeared to have been meandering towards.

After a half time lit up by many attempted chips into a large bin, which also saw the mascot end up in there for a short while too for some reason, we were back playing once more. Again, there wasn’t a whole lot of action early on but, on 56 minutes, the Imps secures the points when Harry Toffolo (who is definitely the most famous person with that surname, ok?) drove into the box and delivered a low cross which was diverted into his own net by Troy Brown, denying the waiting Akinde behind a second goal in the process.

Match Action

Match Action

ECFC

Jayden Stockley and Sweeney again saw shots drift off target as Exeter strove in vain to get back into the game in some respect, but it would be Lincoln who would go the closest to finding the net again when Akinde struck the upright with around ten to fifteen to play. But that would be that and the Imps held out comfortably to gain a measure of revenge for their play-off defeat at the hands of Exeter a few months back. Full-time, 0-3.

After the game, a hasty retreat back to the city was beat with a visit paid to the old Ship Inn, hidden away down a small, unassuming side street lined with scaffolding. A lucky spot, really, but it would prove to be a second week in succession where I’d drank in an apparent favourite of Sir Drake. A pint of Amstel in this lovely, old pub cost a very decent £3.85 before I resisted the urge to seek out the Beer Cellar once more and took the far more sensible option of heading to the Imperial ‘Spoons near to the station to await my carriage home. In something of a stately home, Exeter certainly has some of the more intriguing offerings! A Kopparberg (again £2.39) was had here to give something of a refresh before I hopped on back over to St. David’s and onto the train for the journey back north.

The Ship. Just about visible!

Exeter from the graveyard walkway

Imperial

After spending all but around twenty minutes without having to endure anyone sitting next to me, I arrived back into Manchester in time to meet up with blog regular Dan for a quick one in Piccadilly Gardens’ own ‘Spoons (which is certainly a fair bit less interesting) before grabbing the bus back on account of the bloody train strikes. But there ends my last long-range trip for a while. I really enjoyed visiting the city and the ground was decent too. The game wasn’t up to much, but the programme and food were both good and at least there were goals, so there’s that. Onto next week and a return to the FA Cup trail, with somewhere a little closer to home on the horizon….

RATINGS:

Game: 5

Ground: 6

Food: 7

Programme: 7

Value For Money: 7