Monday 31st October 2016, Northern Premier League Premier Division
It was a cold and foggy Halloween night as we set off to Cannock Chase to complete the Partizan Bristle/Pint of Football Four Day Four Nation Groundhopping Extravaganza™. We'd now seen the champions of Ireland, the oldest club in Northern Ireland and the champions of Wales and were on our way down the English pyramid with a trip to Northern Premier side Hednesford Town. As a side note, this would be the most we'd have to pay to get into a game this trip. Cheers England. Entry to Keys Park will set you back £12/11 depending on whether you favour sitting or standing but to be fair it is by far the poshest ground of the four.
The Pitmen moved from their traditional home The Cross Keys which had been their ground for 92 years in 1995. A need to expand and the general disrepair of the old place was the given reason for the move that took them to Keys Park, built a mere 300 yards from The Cross Keys on the site of a disused brickyard. Town have had a decent amount of success in their time, spending six seasons in the Conference Premier between 1995 and 2001. They also won the FA Trophy in 2003-04.
We parked up outside the massive main stand, wandered through the turnstiles and up into the clubhouse. We sat for a while in the warm, spacious bar and watched Joe Hart let in a howler for Torino on the projector screen. Back out into the cold, we were instantly very impressed with Keys Park. With an overall capacity of 6039 (of which standing makes up a whopping 5028), Keys Park is a tidy ground that you can imagine wouldn't look out of place in League Two with a few more seats should Hednesford push on in the coming years.
Opposite the main stand; which can be accessed through sliding glass doors from the bar, there is a large terrace that stretches the entire side of the pitch. Behind the goal is another terrace of the same depth and opposite that is a small seated area. All of these stands are covered but there are various areas for uncovered standing should you wish to be damp. The main stand is all-seated, with a cantilever roof and while it doesn't accommodate a huge number and is a little on the short side it certainly does the job. A very plush ground for Hednesford's current level but one without much of the quirk or rustic charm you hope to encounter at a non-league ground. However after the trip we'd had it was nice to just be in a comfortable environment with lots of good views. This was also the first grass pitch we'd had on this trip and it was in fine condition.
The game kicked off and for the opening exchanges Hednesford, whilst by no means being perfect, were in control and looked the better side. On two occasions in the first 15 minutes the home team almost got things off the mark, once through a slick back-heel pass from a winger that came to nothing right in front of us and again when Gurjit Singh found himself in a good position in front of goal but scuffed his shot wide. You can imagine the shock in the ground when Sutton Coldfield drew the first blood at 16 minutes forcing a Hednesford own goal. Sutton had put a cross into the box which the Hednesford goalkeeper rushed out to gather, without banking on defender Michael Williams diving in for a headed clearance which headed straight for goal. A poor one to concede.
The action for the rest of the half was fairly open, with Sutton nearly doubling their lead in a box scramble towards the half. However on the brink of half-time a Hednesford corner was cleared but only to Joel Logan, who pressed forward with some lovely step-overs and stuck in a low cross which ricocheted off a Sutton player and fell to Simon Maye who was six yards out and couldn't fail. Hednesford had been the better side for sure but they were susceptible to counters though and Sutton attacked well at times and forced the blunder that had them level. A feisty midlands affair to be sure.
As we were walking out of the bar to the far terrace we witnessed Hednesford take the lead right off the bat through Jamie Matthews who was played in by Singh from the left wing and feinted past two defenders and slid a shot past the keeper.
At this point we were in for an unusual treat as a previously unheard group of Sutton Coldfield fans began blasting out a score of elaborate mariachi numbers from the stand opposite, much to everyone's amusement. Fair play to them for injecting some atmosphere on this cold night just as their team were beginning to get pushed back.
The Pitmen were in full flow now and after a long spell of constant attacks they got their third after the Royals keeper blocked but failed to gather a shot from Logan which Matthews rushed forward to tidy up. The rout was completed shortly after through a superb team effort as Logan received the ball 25 yards out, dribbled past a couple of defenders and picked out a pass to Tom Thorley who laid the ball off for the ever dangerous Matthews who whipped it to George Carline at the post, leaving the goalkeeper flummoxed.
Hednesford continued to fight and should have made it 5-1 when Singh struck the post from a couple of yards out. The fact that he didn't and the game ended 4-1 did leave us with the unlikely record of watching four teams in four days win at home by a margin of three goals. I hoped this run of good fortune would last until the day after where I would be off to watch Rovers take on Fleetwood Town at the Mem.
And so we had come to the end of our trip. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Dundalk, Cliftonville, The New Saints and Hednesford for their kind hospitality and especially Daz for organising the trip, putting me up and driving us. Rest assured we'll have another crazy adventure lined up for next year.