Result: Walsall Wood 8-0 Coventry Alvis (Midland League Division 1)
Venue: Oak Park (Saturday 27th January 2018, 3pm)
I had been given a dilemma. Having bought tickets a few weeks earlier with the intention of re-visiting the Bescot and doing it properly (i.e. a first team game), Rochdale’s very selfish progression in the FA Cup left me with a postponement on my hands and, therefore, seemingly useless train tickets to the West Midlands town of Walsall. I needed something to come to the rescue and, wouldn’t you know it, Walsall’s non-league clubs came to the party and rescued my day.
Having originally set my sights on Darlaston Town, whose ground sits just outside of Walsall – around a 40 minute walk or so – my decision soon came under some threat when I saw that the ground was a rather uninspiring one. Had they still been in their old ground then this may have been a different story as that looked ramshackle and therefore pretty cool. Luckily, a further peruse of the West Midland fixture lists soon threw up another option: Walsall Wood. I’d heard good things about the ground before and it certainly looked the more interesting of the two. So come the morning of the final Saturday of the first month of 2018, I set off through yet another wet, murky Manchester morning and headed for the village just outside of its bigger neighbour. At least I hoped I was. The weather had been playing havoc with pitches all over the country once more and any further significant rainfall could have put paid to my plan.
Happily, this proved to be an unfounded concern and after arriving into Birmingham at just after midday, a short hop over to Walsall was completed before disembarking and heading straight up the steps leading out of the station, only to find myself immediately entering a shopping mall. Strange. Anyway, after getting my bearings, I undertook the 5 minute walk over to the bus station from where I’d grab my carriage up to Walsall Wood. Alas, as I’m unfamiliar with the buses in the area, I hadn’t realised that it was ‘correct change only’ upon my boarding of said bus and so ended up paying a fiver for a £4 day ticket. Boo, National Express buses. Boo indeed.
Regardless, I was en route through the drizzle and arrived at the foot of Walsall Wood at just after 1pm. You see, there was a reason I’d gotten off on the outskirts and the reason may be one that is rather unsurprising for the regular readers out there (I think there’s some anyway). Yes, this was where the first of the village’s pubs is located and it goes by the name of the Horse and Jockey. The pub is part of the Marston’s carvery style chain and so proved a decent respite from the rain during my brief stay here. After a short wait at the unguarded bar, I was soon in possession of a pint of San Miguel which, at £3.30-ish, was certainly decent value.
After a short while watching some of the Australian Open Women’s Final, I reckoned I might as well be lazy and make more use of my day ticket. As such, I headed straight out the door and to the adjoining stop where I was to get the bus up to the next one along….which I duly missed. Not too much to worry about though as the stop after that one was only a further two minutes walk down the road and so there wasn’t much keeping me from the finely named Drunken Duck. Upon entering I was greeted by a pair of dogs who were very lick-friendly! Once they had been called off by their parents, I was able to get myself a Kronenburg in for just £3. Not too bad on the pocket around here!
Polishing off the Kronie in the Duck, I next headed over the road and to the Boatman’s Rest. It was fairly quiet and unspectacular in here, but it was fine enough. A quick pint of Strongbow was had at £3.20 before I reckoned, with the clock approaching 2.30pm, I should really start making my way over to Wood’s Oak Park home. I had again decided to be lazy and hoped to jump on the bus up to the foot of the road leading to the ground but soon discovered this too had been missed as I spotted it driving into the distance. A cut across the park it was then.
Walsall Wood sprung up as a result of mining; first limestone and then coal from the later 19th century colliery, the latter of which saw the village expand. The colliery closed in 1964 after the accessible coal had been exhausted and a number of commemorative constructions located around the village keep this part of the area’s history alive. Interestingly, for me anyway, Wood was also home to ex-Formula 1 team Ensign Racing through the 1970’s.
The park was surprisingly not too boggy and I was soon approaching the gates of Oak Park. Paying £6 in, plus a further £1 for the decent programme, I was left with a good 20 minutes until kick-off, which is quite a rare occurrence for me. As such, I reckoned I may as well visit the bar and, for the second week in succession, I did what I very rarely do and bought a pint at a ground. Dark Fruits was my tipple of choice this time and for around that magic £3 mark once more, I had what would be my long-time companion throughout the first half and also popped my change in the collection pot for the family of the poor girl who was murdered in such horrendous circumstances earlier that week….
After grabbing one of the free teamsheets being handed out around the clubhouse, it was time to head outside for the clash of top vs bottom. Wood were welcoming Coventry Alvis who have had, quite obviously, something of a struggle this season. Handshakes done and we were all set to go at what is a top little ground. Bar the fantastic old stand (apparently the last of its type still standing, pardon the pun) on the far side of the ground which I found somewhat reminiscent of the former concrete stand at Salford’s Moor Lane, there is little in the way of furniture otherwise. The near side is populated by all the necessary buildings: dressing rooms, bar etc., with this area and both ends being open, hard standing, though the far Shaw End (and seemingly the play area just past the dressing rooms) were out-of-bounds today. It does however play host to the sight of an old colliery wheel just outside the ground’s perimeter wall, which is pretty cool. The near Osbourne End also plays host to a food van in the car park which, as far as I could decipher, was the only food outlet at the ground. With the ground description done, here’s a bit on the background of Walsall Wood F.C….
Founded in around 1915 as the catchy named Walsall Wood Ebenezer Primitive Methodists FC. During the years between the two World Wars, the club was regarded as one of the stronger outfits in the region as they went on to jointly lift the Walsall Senior Cup in 1923 & 1935 and the Walsall Senior League in both 1946 & 1947. After joining the Worcestershire Combination in 1951, Wood won the championship at the first attempt, before finishing as runners-up on five occasions over the next decade (1954, ’55, ’58, ’59 & ’61). In addition, the club would add a further three Walsall Senior Cup titles to their honours board – these arriving in 1952, 1958 & 1961 – as well as a sole Staffordshire Senior Cup in 1954.
After the Worcestershire Combination became the wider-ranging Midland Combination in 1968, the club struggled for the most part prior to an eventual relegation from the Division 1 to Division 2 in 1975, though their stay in the second tier of the Combination was only a short one, lasting three seasons before they were promoted back to the top-flight after finishing third. In 1982, the original Walsall Wood outfit merged with Walsall Sportsco FC and the two’s amalgamation formed a new club, Walsall Borough, whose existence would be brief under that name – just four seasons – before returning to the Walsall Wood name in 1986.
In 1992, Wood switched to the Staffordshire Senior League for a sole season (finishing 4th) before a further move into the West Midlands Regional League’s Division 1 at the end of the ’92-’93 season. Finishing their first season here in 5th place, this was enough to ensure promotion to the Premier Division where the club would remain through to their relegation back to the Division 1 in 2003, successfully appealing a relegation in 2000, with the FA finding in favour of Wood’s case. The club also won the 2001 Wednesbury Charity Cup during their stay within the WMRL.
After spending a season in the regionalised Division 1 North of the West Midlands League, the regional divisions were brought to an end and were split into Divisions One & Two at the end of the 2003-’04 season, with Wood taking a spot in Division 1. They spent a further two seasons in the league, finishing 6th and 4th respectively and winning the Wednesbury Charity Cup for a second time in 2006, before undertaking another league move, this time back into the Midland Combination, at the end of that season due to a redrafting of the league’s boundaries. Taking a place in the Premier Division, Wood consolidated themselves as an upper mid-table outfit for the most part, before having a bit of a struggle in 2011-’12, finishing in 14th out of 17 clubs. This proved to be no indication of a lengthy downturn in form, however, as Wood would go on to lift the title the following season and were thusly promoted, taking a place in the Midland Alliance for Season 2013-’14. The title-winning 2012-’13 season also saw Wood reach the Midland Combination League Cup Final and embark on a club-best run to the FA Vase quarter-finals, where they eventually fell to Guernsey after a replay.
A 6th placed finish was achieved in their one and only season in the Midland Alliance, before the Alliance and Combination leagues combined to form the new Midland League in 2015. Wood would go on to compete in the Premier Division for the next three seasons, reaching the final of the 2016 Midland League Cup, but were relegated at the end of last season. However, they look set for an instant return to the Midland League’s top-flight, currently sitting atop the Division One table.
After what must have been some great work from the groundsman (etc) to get it on considering the pitch was still pretty boggy, the game got underway with it becoming apparent that Walsall Wood were not about to be on the wrong end of a shock result. Very, very quickly. It took just six minutes for the game to be killed off as a contest and only two of those to open the scoring. A ball in from the right flank was only half cleared, with Wood recovering possession and working the ball to Jordan Fitzpatrick who fired into the top corner from around 12 yards, via the boot of Abidan Edwards in the Alvis goal.
The second goal arrived just seconds later, a long ball over the top found Ben Lund in the inside right channel and he continued his run, pretty much unopposed, into the box before placing his shot wide of Edwards for two-nil. A minute later and it was three. Lund was instrumental in the lead up this time, again getting free down the right and crossing for the unmarked Lei Brown who had all the time in the world to turn, pick his spot and knock the ball home.
Alvis were beleaguered at this point and it looked like a cricket score was on the cards. This certainly looked the case on that six-minute mark as Wood’s fourth arrived, with the right side of midfield again proving fruitful for the hosts. Lund forced a corner from the initial attack and the resultant set-piece was met by a towering, yet again unmarked, header by Brown who powered the ball beyond the helpless Edwards. Four-nil and game over within 360 seconds or so. Crazy.
Wood’s goal lust didn’t end there and they went on the search for yet more joy. Tony Clarke really should have made it five when he was put in one-on-one with the besieged ‘keeper, but he could only strike the upright with his effort. A few more chances were spurned by Wood which included Lund being denied his hat-trick by a fine save from Edwards (who I thought had a pretty decent game all things considered), however the fifth would duly arrive not long before the break when Clarke atoned for his earlier miss by coolly lifting the ball over the ‘keeper and into the side of the net. Half-Time five-nil and burger time. Cheeseburger and onions. Lovely stuff.
After doing a lap of the ground (well as much of it as I could) during the first half, the second half saw me largely camp out up at the top of the stand’s stepped seating, if that’s how you’d term it (again, think Salford if you are familiar). The half also looked to be about to follow the same story as the first, with Wood striking early on in proceedings. A purposeful run forward by the impressive Lund saw him advance into the area where, whilst being well blocked out by an Alvis defender, he played a lovely reverse ball to Clarke and he finished smartly, firing into the top-corner. Six.
The sixth goal seemed to, rather strangely, spur Alvis into some sort of attacking mindset and this saw them manage a few chances in a ten minute spell, the best of which saw Wood ‘keeper Lloyd Ransome forced into a save from one of the visiting sky-blue clad forwards, before Edwards denied Clarke his third goal, a good save seeing him divert the ball wide of the upright.
Substitute Paul Sullivan was then introduced into the fray by Wood and he quickly went about giving Alvis some issues to think about, forcing Edwards into another stop before the woodwork would also come to the rescue (if you can call it that at this point) for the visitors. The respite was only brief, though, as the early sub, Lee Butler tapped home from point-blank range after Sullivan had drawn Edwards out of his net, before Sullivan himself rounded off the scoring, firing a low drive into the far corner. Eight-nil and that was that. Fair play to Alvis and their manager, though, who kept going for the whole game despite it having long gone. The boss wasn’t all too happy with the linesman about the last goal though! Anyway, I was off to a final pair of pubs to round off my visit.
After bailing on a lethal artificially surfaced path leading out of the ground, I headed round to the far side of the ground and the bridge over the stream which leads to the Black Cock. Yes, I still have a childish chuckle at a pub with cock in its name….The Black Cock was a decent enough pub too and after a fairly swift Dark Fruits in here, I set off to visit the Royal Exchange back on the main road where the bus back to Walsall runs. Luckily, this pub stands right opposite the bus stop, so I could take my time over my final pint, a Coors Light, which again was £3~. However, it was only whilst in here that I realised why I was planning on getting the earlier bus. This one gave me just 10 minutes to make it over from bus station to train station! Any delays and I was in some bother of missing my booked train back from Brum. Not too pressing an issue maybe, but certainly one I preferred to avoid!
Finishing up in the Exchange, I caught the bus (which was mercifully on time) and was back in Walsall with copious time remaining. A cut through the shops got me back to the station a little quicker than I expected too, so there was no problems and I was soon heading to Birmingham and, after a short wait, back to Manchester where I’d be joined not long into my journey by a group of lads, encompassing Liverpool, Man City, Man United and Newcastle fans, the City fan being, interestingly (so I was told anyway), the grandson of (ex, brief-United manager) Jimmy Murphy. It’s crazy the people you come across sometimes in this mad hobby. Anyway, the remainder of the trip was spent trying to figure out some tough questions before getting back to Manchester, where my last leg was completed problem free. Again! Scenes.
So Walsall Wood then. It was decent enough. The village was cheap enough for drinks and entrance, food etc. at the ground similarly. Oak Park itself is a great little ground and the game was entertaining if only for the amount of goals, rather than as a contest. Either way, it was a great divert when the Walsall game went tits up. So on to next week and a visit to another of the historic grounds. Any idea which…..?
Value For Money: 7