Wednesday, 28 October 2015

#13 Aggborough, Kidderminster Harriers

Worcester City 0 Nuneaton Town 1

Sunday 18th October 2015, National League North

Day two of the West Midlands double header didn't get off to the best of starts when Daz's new kitten Oscar decided to hide his wallet down the back of the sofa during the night. The 20 minute hunt that followed, mixed with some hefty M6 traffic meant that I walked through the turnstile at Aggborough with two minutes to spare before kick-off. If I wasn't in such a rush, I might have noticed that parking at the ground itself cost a mere £1, rather than the £2 I was charged to park near a pre-school much further away by man who on reflection may have just been some guy in a high-viz rather than a steward.


Worcester City, like most of the clubs featured on this blog come to think of it, have fallen on tough times in the last few years. On the plus side results have held up and they continue to play in the sixth tier, their highest ever position. This is thanks in no small part to a reprieve they received in 2010 due to a number of clubs going bust. On the negative side they no longer play games at their original home St George's Lane in Worcester. Instead fans must now travel 15 miles to the nearby town of Kidderminster to the home of Kiderminster Harriers, Aggborough.

How did they lose their home you ask? The club sold it in 2013 to a housing developer in order to fund the building of a brand new 6000 capacity stadium. Which sounds great but they sold it for less than their project ended up requiring. Ouch.

Despite this setback, Worcester have been having a lot of success in the FA cup of late, making it to the 2nd round last season, beating Coventry at the Ricoh in the process and only going out after a replay against Scunthorpe 14-13 (!) on penalties. At the time of writing Worcester have beaten national league Gateshead away to qualify for the first round for the current season. A doff of the PB cap to them.

Nuneaton Town are a club I'm more familiar with after Bristol Rovers met them last season in the conference and recorded two convincing wins in a season that would see Nuneaton relegated. They've existed in three incarnations, for a while going by the name Nuneaton Borough. Conference National is the highest they've ever played but they did beat Stoke City in the 2000-01 FA cup.

Having to groundshare in a different city can never be too fun but all things considered I don't think I'd feel too hard done by if I were a Worcester supporter by coming to Aggborough every other week. I wish I'd bothered with more away trips with Rovers last season so I could have seen it sooner.
I'd describe it as the (in my world at least) the ideal lower-league ground: close to the action, a terrace behind each goal (there should always be at least one terrace behind a goal) and a large seated stand with the team name spelled with seats (always love that). The ground was only about a quarter full so we could have sat anywhere but we went for some front row seats on the stand in front of the clubhouse for easy half-time access. 

We had to dip into the clubhouse straight away to get programmes and a scarf. I had to pry myself away from a man selling historical programmes and badges because I only had enough on me for a scarf and lunch. The kindly old lady who sold it to me joked about how I would need it to get on the coach to Gateshead next week an 8-hour round trip. Don't tempt me madam. The clubhouse was as nice a place to be, despite the swarm of kids running between their anxious pint-carrying elders and offered excellent pitch-side views for the chilly/hopeless alcoholic punter. The first obligatory quirky non-league feature presented itself in the form of this trophy shelf, which was at least a head taller than Daz and I rendering it's contents unreadable. Perhaps Kiddie and Worcester aren't too proud of their silverware to date.

There's a Champions League medal in there somewhere I'm sure of it...

Back out in the stands, I noticed something I'd never seen at football before. Between the pitch-side and in programme advertisements for pies and boiler servicing there appeared to be a political throw-down going on between the local Liberal Democrats, UKIP and Conservative parties:

I know politics and football have been bedfellows throughout history but this was a funny little window into solidly Conservative rural Worcestershire. Maybe in the Harriers' heyday ultras carried banners demanding the downfall of modern football and the immediate cutting of the deficit and the public sector but I digress...    

A surprising number of household names have washed up in the ranks of Worcester and Nuneaton, including Pompey, Wednesday and Derby mainstay Deon Burton, former Hammers and Forest star and petite-Heskey Marlon Harewood and Lee Hughes, who has come full circle since leaving the criminal line-up at Forest Green Rovers returning to where he began his career with Kidderminster.

The big man
The first half passed by without much to excite, no one looked like scoring but at least it was nice and open. The only thing I can remember is some woeful crossing from Nuneaton, who narrowly had the better of the attacking chances.

Half-time provided me with an opportunity to try one of the much-vaunted Aggborough pies and my stake and kidney with actual puff pasty lid (!) kept me happily distracted throughout the first ten minutes of the second half.

Oh baby.
Luckily I'd just about finished munching away in time to catch the main entertainment of the afternoon, namely: the worst fucking refereeing I've seen in my short groundhopping career.

Worcester captain Ellis Deeney gave away a free kick on the edge of the box in the 56th minute, which to me looked very suspect but that's unprovable either way now. The ref took his time about booking Deeney and forced the Worcester wall back a number of times, all the while being unaware of Nuneaton placing the ball yards back from where the foul took place. While the ref was stood in front of the wall, the shot, which was taken without a whistle being blown, hit a Worcester player's arm resulting in a penalty which Nuneaton scored.

As if that wasn't enough, Deon Burton was booked after complaining about the lack of action taken by the ref after Daniel Nti was pushed off the ball, which everyone in the stadium witnessed except from, it would seem, the officials. Finally Sean Geddes was shown a straight red for dissent just to top off Worcester's afternoon.

I've got to say seeing a referee just completely lose control of a game from a neutral point of view is actually quite fun. The ref, who I shall now name and shame as Darren Strain continued to infuriate the Worcester players by refusing to let them take any of their own free-kicks quickly. One that was in a particularly decent attacking position was de-fanged spectacularly by ol' Dazza blowing the whistle several times before the home team could take advantage of the situation, which ultimately came to nothing as the Nuneaton goalkeeper gathered it up. During this exchange Alex Gudger slipped over in the box; or possibly dived judging by the reaction of Jordan Keane, a Nuneaton defender who was in his face seconds later, resulting in him being sent-off. As the ball was still in-play at the time of this sending-off, the City players appealed for a penalty, which wasn't given. Nuneaton had a player sent off the pitch for a foul in the box which didn't result in a penalty. Darren, take a fucking bow my son for you are a troll of galactic proportions.

There's a man in there somewhere who just wants it all to end.
Staggeringly, most Worcester fans remained fairly placid throughout this whole ordeal with comments such as: "Well, it's only a game at the end of the day..." and "He [Strain] was quite good in the first half..." which I overheard, open-mouthed.

One man who was getting upset was a large bloke sat behind us who was throwing out every clichéd nugget of ref abuse he could think of as loud as he could, until he was told to calm down by an old lady.

With only ten minutes remaining, both teams were throwing everything they had for a share of the points. Marlon Harewood came on for Nuneaton to waddle around looking lost for the duration; to my delight performing the touch ground, make cross on chest and kiss hand thing as he did. You can take the player out of the EPL... 

Right at the death the Worcester keeper came up for a corner and his head managed to connect with it for an easy catch for the opposition goalie. Which was a shame as I was on my feet and right behind the home team by this point.

At the end of the game, the crowd gathered by the dressing rooms to clap Worcester off, this turned into a delightful North Korean-style mass booing of the ref, who if he'd had any sense would've sprinted right off.

I felt bad for Worcester but to be honest they never looked like scoring, in this round of shithouses vs. donkeys, the shithouses came out on top but that's National League North for you: just terrible refs, amazing pie and super Marlon Harewood.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

#12 Marston Road, Stafford Rangers

Stafford Rangers 4 Rugby Town 0
Saturday 17th October 2015, Northern Premier League Division One South

It had been over a month since my last new ground. Some nights I would get the shakes and see little old men with radio Walkmans that weren't really there. I had three options available. One was the Western League groundhop, a gruelling seven match in one weekend event. This was tempting as it would've crossed a lot off the list for my initial goal of doing every ground in Avon above step 10 but it would have left me with a seven report backlog and I don't think I'd end up doing any of them justice. Another was a solo two-and-a-half hour each way drive to Mansfield to watch Rovers, which I couldn't be arsed with. So I decided to come good on my promise to pay Daz (Pint of Football) a visit and see what delights the West Midlands could throw up for us.

Daz and I attended Staffordshire University together and spent three years living in Stoke-on-Trent, the county's main city. Staffordshire is a veritable footballing paradise boasting not only three league teams (Stoke City, Port Vale and Burton Albion) but also a number of fairly successful non-league teams: Tamworth, Hednesford Town, Leek Town and Chasetown to name a few.

Rangers were last in the conference between 2005-06 and 2007-08 and made it to the second round of the FA Cup in 2006-07, going out to Brighton. The club's finest hours came in 1971-72 and 1978–79 when they beat Barnet and Kettering Town respectively to win the FA Trophy. However these heady times were not to continue and the club have suffered three relegations since 2008 leaving them at level 8, Northern Premier League Division One South (you're having a laugh). 

During a brief period in 2014 where I was on the brink of moving to Stafford I became somewhat fascinated by the club, this was fuelled partly by my trips to visit friends on the Stafford campus. While Stoke's landscape consisted of endless rows of compact terrace housing and industrial sprawl, Stafford was full of medieval-style timber frame buildings and had a sleepy market town feel. This contrast made me curious about what kind of club would be birthed from such a place: a Burton Albion Jr, without the fancy modern ground? A hangout for the old timers and young families of the town put off by the ruckus of City and Vale? A hidden gem filled with embattled non-league stalwarts? I had to know.

We spent the early afternoon in a nearby pub watching Spurs face the all-new Klopp wielding Liverpool. I volunteered to drive for the day as I was half way through Go Sober October, an absolutely murderous task when faced with cheap non-league beer prices (*cough* sponsor me if you want *cough*). The bar was nice and busy and a friendly local passed the time of day with us speaking fondly of Boro's Wembley trips of yore and the open-top bus parades that followed.   

I was impressed by the cushiness of the clubhouse. A well stocked bar with pitch-view windows adorned with images from the FA Trophy victories, a massive function room and an executive suite which we didn't attempt to enter due to the weird looks we were getting for getting overly excited by the obscure trophies the team had amassed throughout the years. 

Once we'd enjoyed the facilities, we made our way into the ground itself in plenty of time to have a poke about.

Marston Road, surrounded on three sides by peaceful green suburbia made up of new flats and typical Staffordshire brown terraced houses, is what we ground bores would call a good old fashioned ground. The kind of characterful, unpretentious place that makes seeking it out worthwhile. A ground, to get a bit misty-eyed, that you can instantly feel has seen a lot of history as soon as you enter.

The main focal point is the big seated stand pictured at the start of the post, which I'd guess is a relatively new feature. Opposite that is a long, rickety, corrugated metal roofed shed, which I'd guess probably isn't. The rest of the stadium is uncovered and has some of the widest terracing I've ever seen. One particularly enjoyable feature of the end opposite the clubhouse were the weather-beaten flags who's owners apparently had given up taking them home between games. Another were the lexically awkward words of inspiration (pictured below) of R. B. Woodward, the former chairman of the club (not the famous Harvard research chemist, that would be weird) which loomed over one corner of the ground suspended from a floodlight.

By the time we'd found a good spot to stand, the ground had filled nicely with up for it Staffies immaculately adorned in black and white scarfs and hats, not to mention a hearty smattering of Rugby(ites/ovians?) adding their own much more well kempt flags to the fences. All in the crowd was 562, pretty decent we thought for this level. And why not? Considering Stafford Rangers began the game in the top spot of the NPLDOS with the only slight party-pooper being the draw with Newcastle Town and the defeat to the bizarrely named Shaw Lane Aquaforce they had suffered in the two matches prior to today.

That wasn't about to ruin these fine folk's day though and everyone we passed was a picture of jolly optimism. We ventured into the club shop to bag my customary scarf and Daz had a chat with the proprietor which went something like:

D: "Optimistic about this afternoon then?"
SK: "Well they just gotta win really. We need to get out of this division. They gotta win."
D: "Yeah. I mean they got to the play-offs last year didn't they?"
SK: "Yeah well they just gotta win lads. That's all there is to it."
D: "...Mmm."

The shopkeep unfortunately looked to have had some sort of accident recently and was hobbling about on crutches. He wasn't about to get any sympathy from the locals though judging from the Zimmer frame someone had gleefully left in the cabin with a note saying "Neil, it could not have happened to a nicer chap."

Other fun features of Marston Road include but are not limited to:

  • The toilets being underneath the steps of the main stand and having several nests of non-league Starlings living in them.
  • A fundraising drive for a new covered stand advertised with the Shedometer™, a picture of a thermometer coloured in with a red-felt tip.
  • Four individual fold-out seats near each corner flag for the weary lino/cameraman.
  • The same lady operating the turnstile appearing moments after taking my money at the next window along to offer me a programme.
  • Someone misspelling Bovril as "Brovil" on the food van sign, then hearing someone ask for a cup of Brovil.
  • Overhearing a player admitting to a young fan he was chatting with pre-match that he was "bloody knackered" when asked if we was ready for the 90 minutes ahead. Lovely bit of confidence for the supporters is what we like to see.

In the first half it was quite obvious that Rangers had recently had two goalless games. They had the ball in the Rugby half more often than not but were easily undone by the away side who made some good clearances but posed very little attacking threat of their own.

Our referee for this afternoon was none other than Lisa Rashid, who some may recall from a particularly shit article from an even shitter paper. Daz and I agreed that she controlled the game pretty well and took absolutely zero stick from the players, despite her diminutive stature. Sadly the same could not be said for the linesman we stood behind for the first half. A monumental berk who continually called throws and corners incorrectly, most likely due to his insistence on standing half a pitch away from the action often with the managers and technical team obscuring his view. There was one point where a member of the crowd had to tell him where to stand during a goal kick. Although this would prove to be small-fry compared to the baffling incompetence we were to witness the next day...

Official is boob
Official with boobs

Half-time reared it's goalless head and I got a burger which smashed the burger I had at Wolves in to bits because it came with FREE ONIONS.

Daz wanted to go in the stands after this and we ended up sat directly behind the players and manager for the second half. This gave us valuable insight into the Stafford manager's tactical ploy of repeatedly telling whoever was challenging to "compete" and screaming a player's name after they'd done something good until they turned around to see him give them a little clap. Positive reinforcement that, it's in all the manuals.

The second half was a slaughter by Stafford with Nathan Rooney poaching former Macclesfield and Port Vale man Levi Reid's saved shot. Ben Haseley scored from an advantage minutes later followed by Rooney getting his brace in the 62nd. By this point the home team were just having fun and a relaxed goal by sub George Cater was just the icing on the cake.

The main vocal support came in three flavours:
  • A chant of "ROO-NAY, ROO-NAY!" in the style of the England captain enjoyed by the home fans.
  • A small gaggle of 12 year old Rugby fans stood behind the Stafford keeper shouting what I think I heard as "YOU FAT BASTARD AND YOUR MUM'S A SLAG" to every goal kick.
  • A solitary middle-aged lady who spent the entire second half doing vague commentary in an incredibly loud voice. My favourite was her haughtily shouting "in the mix!" during a scramble for a poor aerial pass.

Throughout the second half, a man sat beside me who seemed to be trying to construct a match report on his phone kept asking me who scored, to which I could only reply at the time based on what I'd heard over the tannoy as "uhh... Nathan something. I think... Sorry." I haven't checked the official write-up but there's a good chance I ruined it.

For my final bonus anecdotes that don't really go anywhere else:

  • There was a man who had a dress sense and hair style that was strikingly reminiscent of present-day Paul McCartney who job it was to collect stray balls off the clubhouse roof (pictured below).
  • After being subbed, one of the Stafford players' first order of business was to ask us for the Aston Villa score. Magic.

With my inexplicable curiosity for this ground thoroughly quenched, we headed back to Stoke to get ready for the next exciting edition of The Partizan Bristle/Pint of Football west-midlands weekend extravaganzaaa (tm).