Manchopper in….Stafford (Stafford Town FC)

Result: Stafford Town 1-2 Redgate Clayton (Staffordshire County Senior League Premier Division)

Venue: Evans Park (Saturday 29th December 2018, 2pm)

Att: (no idea) 60 ish?

As my original planned game at St. Helens fell by the wayside due to travel issues, I was left with a free weekend for the first time in as long as I remember. With that being the case, I reckoned it best to head into Manchester and see what was on the go, but first I had to have some sort of an idea of where to go and when I had to get there. My perusing of the fixture lists of numerous leagues saw me eventually come across Stafford Town and Brocton, both of which were located in Stafford and so I would even have an option upon my arrival in the county town. It looked as though my likeliest destination had been sorted. But to which ground would I be headed?

I arrived into Manchester with still no plan set in stone, but a quick look at the screens showed the train down to Stafford was leaving in just ten minutes and it looked like it was meant to be. After buying my ticket and grabbing one of a number of, for once, available seats on a Crosscountry train, I was soon rocking and rolling down through Cheshire before getting to Stafford at just after 11.30am and having had a tour of the pretty Victoria Park opposite, I set my sights on the more important things as I headed through the strange mix of old and new in the centre (especially the shopping bit):- pubs and stadia.

Victoria Park

Lamb Inn

Old Rose & Crown

Stafford is the county town of Staffordshire and derives its name from ‘ford’ by a ‘staithe’ (landing-place) and the original settlement was on a dry sand and gravelly peninsula that provided a strategic crossing of the River Sow and a large area of the marshland that surrounded the area then still remains. It’s thought that Stafford in its current form was founded around the year 700 AD by a Mercian prince by the name of Bertelin who, according to legend, founded a hermitage on the peninsula, seemingly named after himself:- Betheney. It had been thought that an old wooden cross from the same era had been found under the remains of the church which bears his saintly name, but it was later found to have been nothing more than an old coffin, dating from the founding of the “burh” by Ethelflæd, Lady of Mercia, in 913AD and may have been an offering of sorts to St. Bertelin. This “burh” was fortified and industrialised to produce Roman-style pottery known as “Stafford Ware”.

Already a centre for deliveries of grain during the Middle Ages, the town grew under the Lady of Mercia (who herself was a formidable military leader and tactician) and she was making attempts to, along with brother Edward the Elder of Wessex, unify England into a single kingdom under their father King Alfred the Great. She also founded the “burh” at Runcorn and Tamworth amongst others. Stafford became a major military base and began to produce meat, baking coinage and weaponry and the Lady ruled over Mercia in 918 AD until her demise in Tamworth. Around this time, the county of Stafford was formed within the Pirehill hundred and in 1069, Stafford was the site of the Battle bearing the town’s name between Eadric the Wild (rebelling against the Norman conquest) and Edwin, Earl of Mercia, would follow his lead two years later but would be killed leading to William the Conquerer dividing his lands between his nobility. A castle was added in 1090, the ruins that remain today date from the later 19th century iteration, though uses much of the original stone.

Stafford

Stafford

Ancient High House

Redevelopment in the 12th century saw a motte created overlooking to ford, and trades and crafts flourished in trade until the 14th century (likely due to the Black Death) and upturned in fortunes again during the mid-16th century. In 1206, Stafford received its royal charter from King John which created the borough of Stafford and it became a market town dealing in cloth and wool. King Richard II was paraded through the town as prisoner of the future Henry IV in 1399 and Charles I stayed in the town’s Ancient High House after the outbreak of the English Civil War. The 1st Viscount of Stafford, William Howard, would be executed for involvement in the Popish plot (before being later exonerated and beatified as a Catholic martyr). The railways arrived in the town in 1837 (from Warrington to Birmingham) and later became an important junction, thus attracting many industries and Stafford is home to the Stafford(shire) knot, a distinctive three-looped knot that is the traditional symbol of the county.

I first went off in slightly the wrong direction but did end up coming around to finding the Lamb Inn, a pub dating from the 19th century. Sadly, as I did receive a warm welcome, it was empty upon my arrival (though this was at opening time) and this didn’t change throughout my short stay as I supped at a pint of Stella (£3.70) as the twitterverse decided on my venue. By the time I arrived at my second stop, the Joules outlet by the name of the Rose & Crown, my destination was certain – I was off to Evans Park, home of Stafford Town – and my pint of Pale Ale (£3.35) was all the better for knowing.

Market Vaults

The Bear

Shrewsbury Arms

A swift one in the pub the other side of the large gallery in the town square, by the name of the Market Vaults saw me begin my switch onto cider with an Old Rosie (£4.05) and from there then I continued to the nearby The Bear pub right in front of the impressive Tudor-era Ancient High House. A quick Dark Fruits (£3.45) in here also saw me kindly be allowed to reserve a programme for my arrival via Stafford’s twitter, which allowed me a stop off at my final pre-match hostelry, the Shrewsbury Arms, where my strange concoctions of real cider tasting began with an Apple & Pear offering, which came in at £3.80. Finishing up, it was off to the ground via getting stuck in an ASDA car park. (NB: I was on foot, don’t worry, I don’t drive….yet!).

A ten minute or so walk later, I arrived at the gates of Evans Park and after navigating the car-park I got to the gate, paid my £3 entry and was pointed in the direction of my programme – the food bar. Handing over my £1 fee for the bible, kick-off had just occurred and the game was going through its early stages. Evans Park is a tidy ground with a new-ish 3G (or something like it, it’s all 3G to me) surface providing a good quality of play. A large stand dominates the otherwise featureless ground, with seating located more-or-less centralised over the “tunnel” and the sides empty, giving it a rather strange look. The remainder of the ground is open, hard standing with the dressing rooms located below the stand, the food bar between it and the turnstiles down in the near corner.  That’s the ground and this is the story of Stafford Town….

History Lesson:

Stafford Town Football Club was founded in 1976 as Stafford F.C. and joined the Midland Combination Division 2 for the 1977-’78 season, winning the division at the second attempt. They changed their name to Stafford Town in 1981 though left the Combination the next year and joined the ranks of the newly founded Staffordshire County Senior League in 1984. Finishing a best of runners-up in 1992, they would remain until the end of the following campaign (spending two seasons there as Stafford MSHD after a merger with a Sunday League team of the suffix’s name) when the club joined the West Midlands Regional League and won the Division One at their first attempt, earning promotion to the Premier Division.

Arriving at the ground

They would win the Premier Division of the WMRL in the millennium season of 1999-2000 and were promoted to the Midland Football Alliance. However, they would finish bottom in 2004 and were relegated back to the WMRL Division One. The club wouldn’t return until 2010 when they finished as runners-up to secure promotion back to the Midland Alliance – missing out on the title on goal difference alone – and transferred to the Midland Combination Premier Division in 2013 remaining there through the league’s merger with the Midland Alliance the next year and winning the Les James Challenge Cup before being relegated last season after finishing 20th out of 22 and returned to the Staffordshire County Senior League after a 25-year absence.

The game began with Stafford on the front-foot, putting in a number of early shots on the Redgate Clayton goal, the first of which clipped the crossbar and another few were either saved easily or ended up off-target. Stafford’s domination of the first-half was quite surprising given the relative position of the two teams in the table being so close, but it was the hosts who would continue to threaten to grab the opener, with Clayton hardly creating a chance or a real stop out of the Stafford ‘keeper.

Match Action

Match Action

Match Action

As it was, Town continued on but found the Clayton ‘keeper in good form. First, he found himself in a one-on-one situation against Stafford’s #8 but saved well, and then denied Tom Duffy’s effort from inside the area in more routine fashion. However, he would eventually be beaten just a few minutes before the break – and just after I’d finished up my meat and potato pasty – when, after Duffy went close on a further couple of occasions, firing wide and forcing a further stop just a few moments earlier, he would be third-time lucky, finding the top corner from the edge of the area and giving the ‘keeper no chance. Half-Time arrived soon afterwards, the hosts deservedly leading but only by the slenderest of margins.

After a rather uneventful break, I soon got talking to a trio of Town supporters ahead of me whom I believe were named Ted, Emily and a young lad whose name escapes me (though it is definitely possible I may have fabricated the other two as well as I did forget to make a note) and the conversation spanned the vast majority of the second-half before I headed for a whistle-stop second-half lap of the ground with around ten/fifteen minutes or so left. It was good speaking and meeting you, so please accept my name-related ignorance! Meanwhile, back on the pitch, it began to appear as though Stafford (who I’d decided at this point must be miles ahead of Redgate by this performance) would continue their dominant display as a good move ended with #2 hitting just over. How wrong this view would be.

View from the stand

Match Action

Match Action

From then on it was pretty much all Redgate. First, one of the midfield headed off target from around eight-yards when he really ought to have at least hit the target but the visitors would be level shortly afterwards when Ben Mathews netted direct from a corner, meaning I’d now seen two in the space of three weeks having (I think) never seen one live in person before. Crazy. Anyway, Stafford responded to the set-back when #10 gambled well but upon being presented with a chance to shoot, hesitated, and ended up giving the Clayton ‘keeper an easier save than he might have had otherwise.

Stafford’s #1 then showed his best by pulling off a pair of quick-fire saves to deny #9 one-on-one, then palming away a drive from long-range, but he would be eventually beaten by Mathews’ second of the game as a free-kick ended as something of a cross-cum-shot and ended up drifting over everyone and into the far corner of the net to give Clayton a lead they would hold onto fairly comfortably until the end, only having to survive a spell of in-box pinball and a late effort from #3 to secure the points. Full-time: 1-2.

Sun Inn

Floodgate Ale House

Picture House

Bird In’ Hand

After the game, the short walk back around the cricket club and to the town-centre was undertaken and I was soon within the Sun Inn where I had a quick post-match surmise with Ted before finishing up my pint of Stowford (£3.75) and heading to the Floodgate Ale House, where I opted to try out a pint of the Rhubarb cider which was lovely at £3.50. From there, it was a back-track around the corner to the Wetherspoon’s on this side of the town, the rather grand and interesting Picture House, still with the screen and projector in situ behind the bar area. I settled in for a while over a bottle of Balitka, before realising the train back was a little too tight to bother with and instead opted to go for a final one at the Bird In’ Hand, located a couple of minutes away from the station.

This rounded off the day before grabbing the train back at a little after 7pm, and I arrived back in Manchester around a half-hour later, before making my way over to Piccadilly Gardens for the bus back home, though I did discover that tripping over a tram-line isn’t a great thing to do….! Either way, that was the only blot on a day which had proved a pretty fun one. Having made a choice all but on the fly, it was good to truly see Stafford, my prior visit to Rangers a number of years back having been far too short for my liking. The game was decent enough and the ground smart too and it always gives nice memories and opinions when you meet fans as open and friendly as I came across here. Cheers, Stafford, for a good one and I look forward to being back soon. That’s a year with no nil-nil. Could January 1st see a change….? (SPOILERS AOTS!).

RATINGS:

Game: 7

Ground: 6

Food: 6

Programme: 6

Value For Money: 7

 

 

Manchopper in….Ball Haye Green

Result: Ball Haye Green 1-2 Redgate Clayton (Staffordshire County Senior League Premier Division)

Venue: Ball Haye Green Sports Club (Saturday 24th February 2018, 2.30pm)

Att: 25 (approx.)

Just about beating the “Beast from the East” to the punch, the final weekend of February saw me heading down into the Staffordshire market town of Leek – but not for the club carrying the town’s name. Having already visited Leek Town the season before (during their FA Cup tie with Kettering Town), I was instead looking towards the far side and the Ball Haye area of Leek for Staffordshire League outfit Ball Haye Green. The main reason for this was the fact that this, somewhat uniquely back-dropped, ground is soon to be consigned to the history books, with the club to be turfed out at the end of the season at the request of the landowner. So, having wanted to visit since I found out about Ball Haye’s home a couple of years back, I decided that this was the perfect time to visit.

Heading off on a cold, crisp morning, I caught the train from Manchester for the short hop down to Macclesfield, where I’d then get the bus to Leek, the trip covered by the Greater Manchester Wayfarer ticket. The trip to Macclesfield was completed easily enough (with a Gillingham team sighting included) before a 20 minute wait had to be endured in Macc’s less than beautiful bus station, which also saw me helping to keep an automatic door from crushing pensioners. Great scenes occurring.

Leek

First stop, the Quietwoman

Eventually the bus arrived and I was soon heading down and through the picturesque hills of South Cheshire and Staffordshire. Arriving into Leek along with a few more of the older statespersons of the area at just before 1pm, I planned on heading to the pub near the bus stop by the name of the Britannia and planning out the rest of my route towards the ground from there. Unfortunately, this was soon by the wayside as the place was firmly shut up and so I instead continued on and towards the main area of the town, eventually spotting two pubs, the Wilkes Head back up the hill and the Quietwoman down it. I didn’t much fancy heading back up the fairly steep incline once more and so headed straight into the latter where I was soon supping a pint of Wrexham Brewery’s Lager for £3 in what is quite a decent place. Of course, still being at the far side of town to the ground, I had little in the way of time in here before heading onwards into the centre.

Having already tested out the Red Lion on my previous visit to Leek, I decided to forego another visit here and still had a choice of a number of others which, sadly, didn’t include Den Engel at this time as this was apparently shut until later in the day. So I was left with the Valiant, the Cock and the Roebuck. After a look at each, I decided on the latter and headed inside to find a good range of Titanic ales on. With me not being a huge ale drinker on the whole, I plumped for the session ale, which proved a decent enough pint to accompany me through the next twenty or so minutes before heading over to Ball Haye itself.

Leek

Leek Town Centre

Roebuck

Soon finding myself traipsing uphill once more, I at least consoled myself that I was on Ball Haye Road and, therefore, not too far from the Sports Club that Ball Haye Green have called home for the last 80-plus years. I arrived at the gates of the ground to find a few people heading in already, whereas I figured that, with 15 minutes to kick-off, it was a little early to pop inside yet and decided to visit the nearby Ball Haye Tavern, located just a few doors further on down, first. This would prove a good call with regards to the events around an hour later!

Squeezed into a row of terraced houses, the faux Tudor façade of the pub helps it be pretty unmissable. I was soon inside and watching the final throes of Stoke City’s game at Leicester, with the locals gathered around the TV and most definitely feeling the nerves as the Stokies held on for a point despite a late scare. Upon the end of the game, I finished up my pint of Carlsberg and back-tracked to the Ball Haye Sports Club where I handed over my £2 for entry to the tidy little ground and, in addition, was handed a raffle ticket to go along with entry. Not bad really is it?!

All roads lead to Ball Haye

Ball Haye Tavern

Ball Haye Sports ground is a nice enough place, situated between a number of factories/warehouses with a particularly large one, immediately behind the small covered area, towering over the ground. This gives the ground a feeling of something a bit different and definitely offers quite the sight as it dominates the ground. The covered standing area runs the majority of the far side of the pitch with a small area at both ends of it being uncovered, hard standing. The remainder of the ground also plays host to further open, hard standing but, whereas the stand side is a two-stepped “terrace”, the remainder of the standing is a flat affair. Behind the goal from which you enter stands the seemingly defunct social club, hospitality building and the dressing rooms and tea bar building, which also can double as a little extra covered standing if required, I’d guess. As I say, a good venue for the level and one that, in my opinion, will be missed. Anyway, here’s the rest of the story of Ball Haye Green FC….

History Lesson:

Despite dating from 1880, information on Ball Haye Green is remarkably hard to come across. I know from Dave (read more to find out who he is) that they definitely were playing prior to the earliest record I can find (apparently the Wycombe Wanderer, Russ, had this issue too) other than their date of formation is when the club became a founder member of the Staffordshire Senior League in 1984.

They have remained here through to this day and after being a largely mid-table side early on in their tenure here, prior to a couple of years of struggle, Green finished runners-up in 1994 & went on to win the league title the next season, 1994-’95, which was also the first year the league was known under the Midland League name. After a couple of upper mid-table finishes after the earlier successes, the club again dropped away to the lower end of the table. 2005 saw a return to some sort of form, the club finishing as runners-up in rounding off the Midland League’s tenure.

After a ten-year stint known as the Midland League, the league’s name changed to the Staffordshire County Senior League upon its merger with the Staffordshire County League. The following season saw Green again finish as runners-up, missing out on a second title at this level on goal-difference only. However, 2011 saw the club achieve their second league title and their last one to date.

Arriving back at the ground

Teams enter the pitch

The game got underway with Redgate striking the first blow pretty early on, the #10 Matt Hope, who’d go on to be their most potent threat throughout the game, capitalising on a mistake by the Ball Haye ‘keeper to fire into the rather unguarded net. He almost had a chance to double up soon after too but, after getting clear, wastefully clipped the ball into the ‘keeper’s grateful arms.

This miss looked an even worse one a few minutes later as the hosts grabbed the equaliser, a pretty speculative effort by their #9, Mike Keates, seemingly bouncing awkwardly in front of the diving Redgate Clayton custodian, the prone ‘keeper seeing the ball then bounce over his arms and nestle into the back of the net. One apiece and an all action start to the game gave more hope to one of those entertaining goal-gluts.

Match Action

Match Action

Match Action

I continued on towards the far end of the ground where I met Ball Haye fan, groundstaff member and general volunteer, Dave. A veteran follower of the club, Dave gave me a good run-down of the issues facing the club and the hopes for some sort of resolution going forward, as well as a couple of other tales and what have you. It’s always cool to meet these guys and girls out and about! Alas, I would leave Dave (who’d returned to Leek from the similar surroundings of India a few years earlier) in something of a disappointment when, after both sides had wasted good chances to go ahead – Clayton’s Hope again going close, firing wide when he ought to have netted and a scramble seeing Green just unable to force the ball home, the ever-present danger of Hope again came to the fore as he nicely lifted the ball over the ‘keeper for 1-2.

Half-Time would arrive soon after with little in the way of action following the second Clayton goal and I headed for the tea bar for a mug of soup and, yes, it was served in a proper mug. Extra props for that! Anyway it was whilst queuing up that the events I referred to earlier occurred. As the PA system guy announced the raffle winning number to the twenty-plus crowd, I reckoned that the number sounded somewhat familiar, but then I’ve done that before and been mistaken. By some way. Then the guy behind me in the queue exclaimed “It must have been whoever was after me!” and the thought grew ever more prevalent in my mind. I bought the soup (70p) and headed to the nearby wall and, after a bit of scrambling around to find the strip of paper that may or may not have held the key to the treasure.

I eventually came across it just as the announcement again rang out and, lo and behold, I had indeed won a raffle! For the first time (off the top of my head) whilst doing this silly traversing of the country, I had won a raffle. Unbelievable scenes were occurring in this sleepy corner of Leek and I was soon in possession of a nice bottle of Chardonnay. Thanks for the late birthday present!

After all that excitement and with my soup and new gift in tow, I turned my attention back towards the pitch for the second half. The visitors again stated the stronger but this time it was the #7 who was the man causing issues for the Ball Haye Green stopper. First he saw a shot from range saved fairly comfortably before a foul a good thirty yards saw the same player’s free-kick also kept out. A poor kick by the ‘keeper then gave that man Hope a great chance to put some real distance between the sides, but he again had set his sights wayward and fired wastefully wide from inside the area.

Match Action

Match Action

The home side looked to be on the wane as the game continued (apparently they were lacking a lot of players) and Redgate continued to look as though they’d get a probable third and seal the points. But the chances continued to be wasted, #11 being denied by the increasingly busy Ball Haye gloveman, Hope again spurning a pair of good chances, scuffing an effort when well placed before firing an effort comfortably over before #7 looked to have found the top corner with a curling set-piece, only for the Green ‘keeper to pull off a great save to deny him.

This save almost proved to be a turning point as the final ten minutes or so saw Ball Haye begin to get something of a second wind and they fashioned two fantastic late chances which would have secured them a good point. Both these chances fell to Keates who, between all the earlier Redgate efforts, had forced a rare second-half save out of the visiting #1. He firstly found himself in behind the defence but fired over before a more difficult chance just before the end saw his strong effort beaten away by the ‘keeper to ensure the visitors would be heading back to the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent with the points.

BHG’s ‘keeper about to deny Gate’s #7

Match Action

I made a hasty exit from the increasingly nippy ground and made my way back towards the town via a different route. This one would take me to the Cattle Market and, no, that’s not a name I’m giving something in a distinctly unimpressed fashion, but a pub just around the corner from the town’s bus station. Unfortunately, the handily placed pub looked shut from side on, but luckily I’d just passed the unspectacular-looking Fountain and so I reckoned I’d try my luck in here. I struck lucky too, as the place was a brilliant little pub and well worth the visit for a pint of cider at just a tick over £3. I settled in the empty back part of the pub to watch Final Score away from the noisier front area, only for the place to be swamped about ten minutes after I arrived and the TV ended up timing out or something anyway. Not to worry, it was onwards again.

As I passed the Cattle Market once more, I this time spied people at the table by the window, therefore confirming the place was open….or there were squatters in there. Either way, I went round for a look and was soon at the bar and drinking another Carlsberg, this one coming in at under the magic £3 mark. After watching some of England’s 6Nations clash with Scotland up at Murrayfield (which, incidentally, I watched Hearts play St. Johnstone at earlier this season), I headed back into the ever colder Leek evening and to the final stop of the day, Beyond the Pale which, I figured, sounding like a modern-style ale house/tap. It sort of was too, though I settled on a pint of the Dark Fruits-style cider they had on here before popping round the corner and to the neighbouring bus station where the bus was waiting to whisk me back into Macc. This went pretty quickly too, as I nodded off on a few occasions!

Fountain

Cattle Market & Memorial

Beyond the Pale

Soon enough I was safely on the train and dozing once more before being awakened at Piccadilly by someone who thankfully did “pity the fool”. All other connections were easy and no further issues saw a fine day come to a close and it had been another decent trip. As I said earlier, the ground is one I’ve had on my wish-list for a while and the game was pretty good too. Leek is a great town and getting there for £13 isn’t too bad either, considering the extortionate prices we pay to get anywhere in this country at the moment. Meeting Dave was cool and the cherry on top came with the raffle triumph. Get in there! Now, time to survive the “Beast from the East” and “Storm Emma” (which is a great wrestling name if reversed, btw) and hopefully reach the next weekend and visit a certain Park featuring the name of a large house seen often in the Roman-era….

RATINGS:

Game: 8

Ground: 7

Food: 5 (soup)

Programme: N/A

Value For Money: 8