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).

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