Result: Congleton Town 2-2 Longridge Town (AET, 1-1 after 90 minutes) (FA Vase 3rd Round)
Venue: Ivy Gardens/Booth Street (Saturday 30th November 2019, 3pm)
As another weekend rolled around, my intended plan to continue on with the FA Cup rounds fell apart pretty early on during, as the contracting of one of the many colds flying around largely did for me. As such, visits to the likes of Cheltenham & the Posh were off limits and I instead turned to the FA Vase fixtures. There was a few worth considering, but one stood out more, despite being a revisit. The fact being that (brace for a real shock) my previous blog to Congleton had missed out the vast majority of pubs in the town, and I’ve long since wanted to put that right. This Vase fixture against Longridge Town ticked those boxes and so I was off to Beartown once again.
Not without issue, however. Having queued for a good four minutes or so at the ticket office, I was then issued with a wrong ticket and told to buy on the train instead. First issue, no conductor was available on the journey into Oxford Road, and I hadn’t had time to put in for a “Promise to Pay” notice, as the train was about to leave. “No bother, I’ll buy at Oxford Road as I’ve done countless times before”, I thought – but OH, WHAT A MISTAKEA TO MAKEA! Making my way to the ticket office and still with the correct fare in my hand, that wasn’t good enough for the Northern jobsworth, and I was soon in possession of a penalty fare notice. Great. My own notice to Northern is….I’m not paying; it was already issued wrongly as I was allowed to start the journey by one of your employees. Check your T’s&C’s!!
Anyway, all that idiocy was soon out of the way and I was arriving into Congleton without further issue. I began with a brief visit to the Railway for perhaps the second flattest pint of Amstel (£3.60) I’ve ever had (a pub in Manchester owns that, ahem, distinction) before heading off on the short 15 minute walk into the town centre. I decided to make the Beartown Tap my second stop of the day, with the barman being quite pleased with my answer of “Anything, really!” to the question “What do you like to drink?”! I eventually opted for a Berliner Pilsner – lovely stuff too, at £4.40!
Congleton is a town and civil parish within the unitary authority of Cheshire East – part of the wider ceremonial county of Cheshire. The first more recent reference to the town’s name was made in 1282 when it was spelt as Congelton and it is theorised that the name of the town may derive from the Old Norse kang, meaning “bend”, and the Old English word tun, referring to a settlement. However, the area has history dating back to the Neolithic era, with both Stone and Bronze age artefacts having been discovered around the town, whilst the thought that Congleton grew up during the Roman occupation has since become less likely to be true. Instead, it became a market town upon the destruction of nearby Davenport by the marauding Vikings. Godwin, Earl of Wessex, held the town during the Saxon-era, and the town was mentioned in the Domesday Book as Cogeltone: Bigot de Loges upon the arrival of the Normans, with William the Conqueror giving the lands of Cheshire to his nephew, the Earl of Chester.
A castle was added in 1208 and the de Lacy family who came to own Congleton during the same century granted the town a charter to hold a market and fairs – whilst also being allowed a mayor, behead criminals and have an ale-taster. I know which one sounds the more attractive proposition! 1451 saw Congleton gutted by the flooding caused by the River Dane and the resultant recovery saw the river diverted and the town rebuilt upon higher ground. It was during the 1600’s that Congleton’s links with bears came into being, with the unfortunate “sports” of bear-baiting and cockfighting becoming popular with the locals, though crowds soon became lower due to the lack of aggression in the town’s bear and the lack of funds to purchase a more ferocious beast. The bear/bible trade legend comes from this, with bible funds collected being used to purchase a bear instead, with the fund replenished upon the bear’s arrival drawing larger attendances! So, it was not to actually purchase a new bear directly, as per the tale. The town’s nickname “Beartown” is duly derived from this folklore.
The Civil War involved Congleton indirectly, as the town’s former mayor, John Bradshaw, became the sitting President of the court that condemned Charles I to the hangman’s noose in 1649 and his signature, as Attorney General, was the first upon the King’s death warrant. The White Lion Hotel is said to have been the location where the articles where served by Bradshaw. After the return of the monarchy and under King Edward I, Congleton was granted permission to construct a mill and this allowed the town to become a centre of textile making – particularly leather and lace – in addition to its older silk-making mill from the 1700’s and despite steadily declining, the industry remained in the form of silk labels right through until the 1990’s.
The town has been home to a Saint, Margaret Ward, who was executed by order of Elizabeth I for enabling a priest’s prison escape, the great-great-great grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II, Robert Hodgson, Cpt. Percy Wilson MC (WWI flying ace) and Victoria Cross recipient G.H. Eardley VC MM. Olympic gold-winning couple Ann Packer and Robbie Brightwell have also lived in the town, as have their sons; ex-footballers Ian and David Brightwell. Other older footballers include Hugh Moffat (ex-Burnley and Oldham Athletic), Bill Fielding (Manchester Utd, Bolton Wanderers, Cardiff City) and George Cawley (Stoke City, Southampton, Manchester City), along with the far more recent England international striker, Daniel Sturridge.
From the Tap, I continued back towards the high street, bypassing another pub bearing (sorry) the Beartown name, this time the Beartown Cock (a pub, not an unfortunate nickname) for the moment and instead diving into the rather easily missable Young Pretender- somewhat fitting considering my visit to Dumfries the previous weekend. Another continental pint here, this time Flensburger (£4.10), went down well, before I began to visit the more historic, listed offerings Congleton has to offer. The first of the three that are in close formation with each other was the Prince of Wales, a Joules’ pub, which of course offered up the usual Joules choice of mine – the Pale Ale (£3.40). With time beginning to run short after popping into the small, yet striking Olde King’s Arms for a San Miguel (£3.80) , the White Lion was ticked off the list via a bottle of Corona (£3.20), before I headed on the few minutes walk up to Booth Street – or Ivy Gardens, whichever you prefer!
Paying the £6 entry at the gate in the corner of the ground, you have to climb a couple of steps to get up to pitch level, where you quickly come across the programme hut. Another £2 was paid here, prior to a visit to the food hut (for a fine portion of chips, peas and gravy) which is connected to the clubhouse, and situated in behind the ground’s all-seater Main Stand that straddles the halfway line. Between this and the turnstiles, there is a small club shop and a covered terrace area, with another one at each end too – the latter of these being the most recent addition to Booth Street. The other side of the field is home to another, fairly recent, covered standing area, which is neighboured by the dugouts out front, interestingly across the field from the dressing rooms/tunnel. The remainder of the ground is open, hard standing, with the old banking still in situ at the far-end, now flanking the new stand. That’s the ground in a nutshell, and this is the story of Congleton’s footballing bears….
Congleton Town Football Club was founded in 1901 and originally joined the Crewe & District League, which they went on to win in each of their first three seasons, alongside the 1904 Crewe & District Cup, prior to joining the North Staffordshire & District League in 1906. They finished runners-up in 1915, before ceasing playing during WWI, returning for one post-war season there, whereupon they became 1919-’20 champions. They subsequently joined the Cheshire County League where they lifted a first Cheshire Senior Cup in 1921, whilst finishing 2nd to Winsford United in their first campaign there. The club remained in the league through to 1939, winning their second Cheshire Senior Cup a year earlier, whereupon they spent a sole season in the Macclesfield & District League, finishing as equal-winners in the table prior to defeating Bollington Cross in a title-play-off to be crowned champions.
After the end of World War II, the Bears returned to the Cheshire County League, but struggled for the most part, finishing bottom in 1948 and never getting out of the bottom-end of the table during the next decade. They again finished bottom in 1965, and so joined the Manchester League instead, where they spent three seasons before joining Mid-Cheshire League. Finishing runners-up in each of 1970 and 1972, 1974 saw Congleton win the league and they repeated the feat two seasons later. They again finished 2nd in 1977, before winning their third Mid-Cheshire League title the next year (alongside the 1978 Cheshire Saturday Cup), a win which preceded their move back up to the Cheshire County League for the following season, where they became champions in the league’s final year, 1981-’82, prior to its merger with the Lancashire Combination to form the North West Counties Football League, which Congleton duly became founder members of.
Playing in the new league’s Division One, the Bears finished runners-up in 1986, missing out on the title on goal difference alone, before they joined another newly-formed division – the Northern Premier League’s Division One – in 1988. When here, Congleton made the First Round of the FA Cup, defeating Witton Albion in the 4th Qualifying Round before going down to local Football League side Crewe Alexandra 2-0. However, for the most part they struggled, and after finishing bottom in 2001, the club was relegated to the NWCFL Division One once more. Interestingly, the club lost the 2002 Mid-Cheshire Senior Cup final to Northwich Victoria, despite the Trickies having subbed their final penalty-taker during the match. Despite this, the result was allowed to stand and Vics remained the…ahem…victors, although the Bears got their day in the sun in 2007, when they did lift the trophy. The club have remained in the Counties’ top-tier, through its 2008 name change to the Premier Division, to this day, finishing last season in 3rd position under manager Brian Pritchard.
After a minute’s silence for a number of reasons which I couldn’t quite catch due to being in the queue for the food bar, we were underway in this all-North West Counties Vase clash. Longridge began slightly on top with marginally the better of the play, but it was the hosts who created the better sights of goal. Dan Cope would go close on a couple of occasions, before the same man then thought he’d broken the deadlock with a finely taken, acrobatic effort, only for his strike to be ruled out by the linesman’s flag. The dangerous Cope then saw his header held on the line by Longridge stopper Lee Dovey, and the visitors responded to this with Finlay Sinclair-Smith forcing Bears ‘keeper Riccardo Longato into a fine stop – the debutant gloveman tipping his drive onto the post.
After going close again through Scott Harries, Longridge then also found themselves on the wrong end of the offside flag, a George Thomason finish from close range being ruled out by the other assistant, but it was Congleton that almost grabbed the elusive opener, Cope once more being denied by a fine stop in the latest chapter of his battle against Dovey. That was largely that for the first half, a half that had been highly watchable, but despite having seen the ball hit the net at either end, still remained goalless. Half-time saw me and Richard (the other half of non-league dogs) come across each other during what I assume was a lap of the ground and this thankfully, considering the cold that was beginning to envelop the Booth Street ground, was to keep me entertained for the next 45, so cheers Rich!
Anyway, the second half got going with the visitors this time seeing largely the better of the play, though there was less in the way of overall chances for both sides, compared to the first period. Indeed, it took the best part of fifteen minutes for the first one of note to come around and even then it was one made out of nothing. Tom Ince advanced forward into the hosts’ half before meeting a loose ball and unleashing a fizzing, rising volley that cannoned off the crossbar and over onto the grass bank behind Longato’s goal. As the half wore on, Congleton centre-back Josh Ryder saw his headed effort cleared off the line and Longridge were again denied by Longato and after Cope had gone close yet again for the Bears, Tom Ince looked to have won it five minutes from time, when he calmly slotted into the bottom corner from just outside the area.
It looked like the Bears’ Vase run would end on this chilly Cheshire evening, but Bevan Burey had other ideas. On 92 minutes, the striker, who’d come on half-way through the second forty-five, reacted quickest to Kyle Diskin’s low shot being tipped onto the bar, to slot beyond the helpless, luckless Dovey and send the home fans into raptures. Extra-time it was and the first 15 yielded a second Longridge goal, as Scott Harries fired in after 102 minutes of play to become the second player from the Lancastrian side to seemingly be sending them through to Round 4. But again, the hosts wouldn’t go down without a fight, and the final quarter-hour saw them again draw level, Cope finally seeing one of his strikes find the target without issue – the forward latching onto a free-kick at the back-post to knock home.
Dramatically, Kieran Brislen almost won the tie for Congleton with the last meaningful kick of the game, but saw his shot fly narrowly wide of the mark, and that would be that, the 2-2 draw meaning both sides would meet again in midweek to settle the score once-and-for-all (Longridge would take it 2-0 back up Preston way). Post-match, I returned back through the frosty, slippery back-streets and towards the centre once more, paying a visit to another of the town’s elder statesmen, the interestingly named Lion & Swan Hotel. A pint of Estrella (£4.20) was had in here as I took in a very enjoyable warm (though was chilled by a “ghosthunting” poster I spotted, before continuing on to the town’s Wetherspoon’s offering, the Counting House, where I tested out the Monkey Mango cider. This was a very decent pint and you can’t go far wrong with the price at £3.09 anyway, can you?
After returning to the Beartown Cock for a Berries & Cherries Old Mout offering, I headed back uphill to the station, nicely in time for the train back to Manchester. No issues here, though the next two trains home were then cancelled (oh, the irony – I wonder if the penalty fare ties in, perhaps) and so it was a bus job instead….which included a jog down to Piccadilly Gardens to give me any chance of catching it. Thank God nothing can keep to timetables is all I can say!!
So that’s that for my third visit to the home of the Bears. A good game which had been a highly entertaining watch, regardless of it being goalless for almost the whole 90. Congleton is a great little town in my opinion, and the ground has the rustic charm that is often missing nowadays. Richard’s company kept the cold off somewhat during the second-half although, as he said later, I’m sure the replay was even colder still. So another week is done, a small courts visit may still be on the cards at time of writing, so there’s another new experience peering over the horizon! Footballing-wise, it’s off to somewhere that brews up quite a fair bit, but not trouble, I’d hope….
Value For Money: 8