Result: Malpas 4-0 Eagle Sports (Cheshire League Premier Division)
Venue: The Oxhays, Malpas Sports Club (Saturday 20th May 2018, 3pm)
Yes, they’re still playing! After the terrible weather we’ve seen strike the footballing calendar all season long, there haven’t been many leagues struck harder than the Cheshire League. Indeed, they won’t have finished up until the 30th May, leaving players to have 2-3 weeks, tops, off over the summer before reporting back for pre-season. I suspect there may be a few latecomers and, to be honest, you couldn’t blame them. Anyway, to be fair to the teams in the league, there haven’t been too many of the much-maligned walkovers despite the late finish to the season and, as a result, I saw the opportunity to tick off one of the more outlying outposts of the league, Malpas FC’s Oxhays ground, out towards the Welsh borderlands. It did once have a station, but that unhelpful bastard Dr. Richard Beeching put paid to that. Dick.
The weather was bloody good yet again as we rolled into the latter part of May and so I set off over to Warrington where I’d catch the connection down to Chester, before completing the journey out to the village by bus. The trip to Chester went smoothly, and I arrived at just after 11am. With half-an-hour in hand, I paid a visit to my usual Chester drinking hole the Town Crier, which stands opposite the station and was where the bus would leave from outside of. With a pint of Strongbow in hand (cider always seems better on a warm, sunny day doesn’t it?), I awaited its arrival.
Eventually the #41 service pulled in and, after paying a tick over £5 for a return ticket, I was off en route through the city centre’s narrow streets before heading out through the picturesque countryside and small villages of the southern end of the county, heading out towards its border with Shropshire. After passing through the likes of Tattenhall and Christleton (known to me via my soon to be rekindled summer cricket tours), the bus eventually dropped me in the centre of Malpas at just after 12.30pm. When I say the centre, I basically mean the road that goes through it. Malpas is only a small, quaint little village with the sort of shops and other buildings you’d expect, along with the war memorial cross, seen widely in these sorts of places. There was also a nice church and an old fire station that had been converted into a café-bar. No prizes for guessing where I was off to first!
Malpas is a small town on the Shropshire/Wales border likely dating from the Mercian era around the 10th century, though does host the old Roman Road to Whitchurch which passes through it. Later, it was mentioned under the name of Depenbech in the Norman “Domesday Book” of 1086 as belonging to Robert Fitzhugh, Baron of Malpas, an ancestor of the Cholmondeley family who still live in the castle that carries their family name. Malpas also once had its own castle, the remnants of which lie in the grounds of the 14th-century St. Oswald’s Church, though there is little obvious to the eye to suggest it existed remaining.
The market town still maintains the medieval layout it had when it received its market charter and was a part of Wales during the late 13th century and has thus avoided major redevelopment. It was also a fairly important place during the Tudor & Stuart eras, with Sir William Brereton (chamberlain of Chester & groom to Henry VIII) beheaded upon a suspected affair with Anne Boleyn (though it’s more likely to have been politically motivated). A second Sir William would then become a key figure in the defeat of the Royalist Irish reinforcements during the Civil War. The local wartime importance continued into the more present times, when the exiled Czech army was encamped in the nearby Cholmondeley Park.
Indeed, first up was the fire station bar, where I met a rather large dog on the way in before ordering a bottle of Amber Ale from Wrexham’s Magic Brewery, which came in at £4.25. With much in the way of time in hand, I remained here for a good 40 minutes or so, whilst watching the end of the “Royal Wedding”, with the bar itself getting into the spirit of things by decking out in some bunting, faces of Princes behind the bar and one of the staff wearing a crown. Another nice couple of touches were the old bucket and helmet located upon the display cabinet behind the bar, harking back to the building’s former life, of course!
Eventually finishing up in here and with the pomp and ceremony at Windsor beginning to wind down, I headed onwards down the road and back towards the cross where, to my horror, I found one of only two remaining pubs in the town shrouded in scaffolding. It couldn’t be shut, not with an hour and a half to kick-off! Luckily, it hadn’t gone the way of the old Red Lion opposite and it was well and truly open for business. A nice pint of Hop House 13 (£3.85)went down nicely, though I think it may be the first time I’ve sat alongside a pub sign indoors!
Polishing that off, it was off up the road and a little closer to the ground. On the way there you find the Vaults, a pub opposite, but below, the village church. Inside I found an unexpected display of football shirts & scarves decorating the rear part of the hostelry, whilst also being slightly in awe of the cabinet displaying a collection of model F1 cars and other memorabilia, including a Kimi Räikkönen one that I was very jealous of. Indeed, I had brief thought of asking how much it’d take to prize it away, but decided against it. I also made acquaintance with the large black dog from before again too, who came over for a couple of strokes and what have you, before leaving for the far more attractive proposition of treats….
After finishing my pint of Symonds Cider (£3.50) whilst listening to a soundtrack full of Michael Jackson’s many hits, I set off towards the ground, making a quick detour off up the steps and through the churchyard, just to be nosey more than anything. After passing by a few quaint, old cottages and a field full of horses, I arrived at the gates of the Malpas Sports Club, where the Oxhays ground lies at the rear beyond the cricket pitch which is located immediately outside of the clubhouse/pavilion building. Having spotted a guy near what seemed to be a pay-box, I asked if he was taking for the match, which he was and was given a programme for “free” in return for £3 (effectively £2 in and £1 for the paper). A nice issue and it’s always a pleasant surprise at Cheshire League level to pick one up. From there, I popped into the clubhouse for a pint of Coors (£3.75) to watch some cricket and waste away the remaining time before kick-off, as the footballers warmed up away in the distance.
The Oxhays is a in a pleasant setting, alongside fields that run off from the back of the club’s grounds and has view extending out over to the England/Wales border in the distance. It hosts no hard standing, and is only a roped off pitch but, interestingly, does have a decently sized seating stand just to the right of half-way on the near side as you enter. A small grass mound is located off to the side of that, further towards the far end, and there is a slightly raised grassy area off on the far side too. One I’d recommend to leave for a day like today as it looks resplendent in the sun, and with cricket in full flow next door. That’s the Oxhays at Malpas Sports Club then and this is the story of Malpas F.C….
Malpas Football Club was founded in 1901, but I can’t find anything out about the club prior to them joining the Mid-Cheshire League in 1985. They started off comfortably enough, finishing in mid-table for the first two seasons of their stay here, before the league expanded to become a two-division competition and Malpas were placed in Division 1. Here they began to struggle and finished second bottom twice with the latter occasion, in 1991, seeing them relegated to Division 2.
The club would spend the next two seasons in the Second Division before being crown as 1992-’93 champions and returning to the top division. However, they again struggled upon promotion and finished 11th, 15th, 15th and 16th out of the 16 First Division teams, with the last-placed finished resulting in a second relegation in 1997. This began a long spell in the second level of the Mid-Cheshire League which saw them remain there right through to 2007 and the league’s dropping of the “Mid” part of the name, becoming simply the Cheshire League. By that time, Malpas were again really struggling and had finished second-bottom of the last two-seasons, despite having a brief upturn in form in the early part of the millennium which saw them record a 4th and 3rd place finish in consecutive seasons; 2001-’02 and ’02-’03 respectively.
When the Cheshire League split into three divisions in 2014 (consisting of the Premier Division, League 1 and League 2), Malpas were placed in League 1 having finished 4th at the end of the previous season, a distinct improvement on recent campaigns. 2014-’15 saw them immediately promoted from the League 1 as runners-up and they duly took their place in the Premier Division, where they remain to this day. Having finished towards the wrong end of the 16-strong division for their first two years – finishing 12th and 13th, they are looking at their highest ever league finish, with 3rd looking likely, but the runners-up spot looking more than a possibility also.
After having a chat with the Eagle player-manager, Rob, in the loos (the first time I think that’s ever happened to me) where I was told to expect them to have a bit of a struggle, the players made their way around the boundary of the cricket field and under the rope surrounding the football pitch. After engaging in the usual pleasantries and observing a minute’s silence for the late manager of Cheshire League side Egerton FC, the ex-Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers and former England international defender JLloyd Samuel, who was tragically killed in a road accident a couple of days earlier.
With a somewhat sobering atmosphere still hanging over the Oxhays despite the sun beating down, the game got underway, with second-place chasing Malpas quickly hitting their stride against the under-strength visitors. Indeed, they were two-up within the first ten minutes, the first coming courtesy of the #9, skipper Alex Hughes, who took full advantage of some poor defending to fire in, despite the ‘keeper getting a fair bit on it. The second arrived following another piece of dubious defending, which saw an awful mix-up seized upon by Hughes and he lifted the ball over the ‘keeper nicely to give the hosts a comfortable early advantage.
Leaving my early spot on the pitch-side mound and heading off on a lap of the ground, I would only witness further domination by the strong Malpas outfit. Hughes went close again after the referee awarded a good advantage following a likely foul and this gave the striker a great chance to grab his second of the game but, on this occasion, he scuffed wastefully wide. This seemed to stir the Eagle side into life somewhat and they began to come into the game around the 20 minute mark and saw two quick-fire chances go begging. Firstly, a low ball in found player-manager Hope whose effort crawled wide of the mark, before a good ball from the left-wing found the Eagle #9 who met it pretty well but saw his header end up also going wayward.
The visitors were punished for these missed chances to get back into the game not long before the break when the Eagle ‘keeper brought down the Malpas attacker and the penalty was duly awarded with little in the way of complaints coming the referee’s way. The spot-kick was confidently dispatched by Ben Parry to send the sides in at the break with the hosts looking comfortable and odds-on to take another three points.
As I was in the stand during the break, I was approached by a guy who asked if I was ‘at the East Manchester game a couple of years (ago)’. How he saw me, never mind remembered me from that game, given the horrendous weather endured there which saw the all-weather pitch begin to get waterlogged, was beyond me! Anyway, after agreeing that our respective soakings would never be forgotten, I spoke to Mark for the remainder of the break and the beginning of the second half too, which duly saw Malpas continue to dominate the game against their youthful-looking opponents.
The ever-dangerous Hughes beat a challenge and forced the Eagle ‘keeper into a stop early on in the half, before his strike-partner, wearing the #10 shirt, chipped narrowly over the bar. However, the two would link up for the fourth goal shortly afterwards, when the latter played in the former to finish nicely and complete his hat-trick (he’s since made it four hat-tricks in three games) after a swift counter-attack saw the visiting defence overwhelmed. From there, though, the game would settle down somewhat and chances would begin to dry up somewhat. I reckoned I should leave Mark in peace for a while(!) and went over to the far side to say a quick “Hello” to Mark and Colin on the Eagle bench before continuing on around towards the cricket pitch and the exit.
Malpas almost netted a fifth late on, which brought a decent stop out of the visiting ‘keeper “Aaron” (I deduced that from the shouts afterwards) Lee, before Eagle almost grabbed a consolation late-on in the play, when the under-worked home ‘keeper was alert enough to pull off a pair of decent late stops, the latter denying the #9 again from close range following a corner, to preserve his and his side’s clean-sheet and put the cherry on top of a fine performance from the hosts. The full-time whistle blew shortly afterwards, to put an end to a testing day for Eagle.
As I was heading back towards Malpas and trying to figure out the best place to spend the next hour or so before the bus home, a “beep” from behind caused me to stop. It turned out to be Mark who offered to drop me at a station on the way back, which ended up being as far as Wilmslow, with it being not far from his home. This duly made things a hell of a lot easier, though provided the unfortunate opportunity to hear Chelsea score their eventual winner in the FA Cup Final. Such is life!
Mark dropped me right outside the station and refused to take any money for his troubles and I can only thank him for doing so (so if you do by chance find and read this; Cheers!), though I then messed up by overhearing a train to Piccadilly was due in as I arrived and so jumped on without taking a minute to think of where it was going. It only went via the Airport with a 15 minute stop there, whilst the trains I looked at getting were all but direct back to the city. Damn.
Upon arriving into the Airport station, I then found I had a couple of connections I could catch to swiftly get back. Unfortunately, one pulled out just as I arrived and the other seemed to be out of reach, with the bridge over only seeming to be accessible via a one-way escalator system. With signage proving less than helpful in my quest, I soon got lost and ended up returning, tail between legs, to the train I’d just got off. What. An. Arse. Anyway, I eventually got back to Piccadilly, though did miss my connection in the end and thus was left with an hour to wait and this obviously meant a call into the Piccadilly Tap was called for. The highlight of this little sojourn? The sight of a PCSO being made to have a picture with a naked doll by a hen party. I shared a look with a punter opposite and the doorman too. No ideas were offered up!
So there ends yet another trip and the season is FINALLY almost at it a close. Two weeks remain, with a trip to North Wales up next, followed by my first ever trip down to Wembley the following year and a possible bonus game that same weekend too. As for this trip, well, Malpas is a delight. A really nice little place that is almost a throwback in time to a point. The pubs are decent, the village is pretty, the only real issue is the transport in getting there isn’t the best if you don’t drive. But it’s not all that bad, I guess. The game was a little boring on account of it not being too competitive for long periods, the ground was fairly basic (unsurprisingly), though a stand and a programme is more than many have for the level. The weather just topped the whole trip off, making it all the more enjoyable. Anyway, that’s that for this venture and a trip to the seaside is on the horizon….
Food: N/A (cold snacks in clubhouse/pavilion)
Value For Money: 6