Tuesday, 29 May 2018

#77 Ball Haye Green Sports Ground, Ball Haye Green

Silverdale Athletic 5 - Ashbourne 0
Friday 27th April 2018, Leek Cup Final

Another year another footballing weekender with the Dresden Debacle, Mr Daz Knapton. You’d have thought we’d seen quite enough of one another after braving the Western League Groundhop together early in the season and the Notts County/Sporting Khalsa double in November. However I am nothing if not a lover of the big occasion and with Rovers’ season long over, I’d been eyeing up the final game at Daz’s beloved Macclesfield Town for some time. Thus one more joint trip was in order before we hit the CONIFA world cup in the summer.

Squeezing in a game on the Friday where I could reasonably be expected to arrive in time was a challenge. We wussed out of meeting at Airbus UK Broughton’s Flintshire home an hour or so before I departed work as Google maps suggested it would be a stretch too far and instead opted for a low-level cup final close to Daz’s Stoke-on-Trent home. Contrary to how it may appear, the Leek Cup is not a competition waged entirely between the handful of teams that play in the titular small Staffordshire Town but the name given to the Staffordshire County Senior League Cup. The three divisions of the SCSL sit at levels 11 to 13 and have been contested in the past by teams such as Vodafone Stoke, Holt JCB and Featherstone Prison. It’s Premier Division contains Stone Dominoes, a team that Daz currently volunteers for as a “Media Officer”.

Ball Haye Green is a suburb of Leek and therefore nominally a place of it’s own. This was pretty surprising to me because Leek is already a pretty small place but then what would a major North Staffordshire population centre be without at least 12 town squares. The streets were insanely narrow, not helped by the fact that everyone had parked up for the night, so when it came time to squeeze past the local bus service I damn near shat my pants. Daz hooting “Ahh, you’ll get through there! Get on with it!” from the passenger seat didn’t help. Unsure if the ground would offer on site parking, we decided to take a trip down the oddly named cul-de-sac of Milk Street (eschewing the similarly oddly named cul-de-sac of Pump Street). If you thought Leek was twee, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve taken a trip down Milk Street. Ball Haye Green is pure Coronation Street, with tightly packed West Midlands brown terraced houses as far as the eye can see. We were even accosted by a small ginger tabby named Bailey who had slunk down from a roofs, just to complete the effect.

Ball Haye Green FC are facing a bit of an uncertain future at present as the ground is set to be sold off by the landowner at the end of the season. Without wanting to weigh in too much on a short blog, it seems to be another case that we’re seeing far too often in non-league these days where nearly a century’s worth of work by generations of locals to build a community asset is being sacrificed in the name of a quick buck. It’s a shame because it’s not a perfectly adequate facility with lots of retro charm.

Set right in the heart of the little suburb, wedged between houses and the iron walls of a whopping great industrial warehouse, the Ball Haye Green Sports Ground does it’s job as a level 11 venue with aplomb and in truth was better equipped than I was expecting, despite having the odd very tatty bit. I suspect that one of the prime motivators for the landowner deciding to cash in is the dilapidated clubhouse that sits on the road leading up to the club. It can’t have been disused for that long because there were still sunbleached BT Sport launch posters hanging in it’s windows but it did look like it had seen happier times. This is also true of the distinctly 1930s not-quite-deep-enough-concrete-trough-in-small-poorly-ventilated-brick shed style toilets in the corner of the ground, an architectural misstep if ever there was one. Next to a clapped-out car with it’s wheels missing.

"I'm fixin' her up."

A long luminous green metal roof stretches along the far side of the ground and in front of that imposing grey warehouse it does actually look like something of a main stand, the closest thing you find at this level anyway. There is also the slightest suggestion of a terrace, one step’s worth of wonky paving in front of rickety concrete panel walls tipped with with barbed wire. The brutal magic of pre-1970s facilities maintenance (or lack thereof). It’s very easy to imagine the lads of yore pour out of the factory behind and into the ground for training and the whole place feels steeped in history from the knackered loudspeaker on the changing rooms (painted luminous green of course) to the slightly archaic practice of having the subs benches on opposite sides of the pitch rather than next to each other, more on that later. The ground also boasts a king’s ransom of sturdy floodlights (even the standard four is far from a given at county league) and a rustic-looking refreshments hatch hawking them good North Staffordshire cheesy oatcakes and hot tea. Myself, Daz and the rest of the assorted smattering of oiks that filled the ground chose to partake in smuggled in tinnies in the late spring sun however, as this is the one thing the club couldn’t provide.

Somewhat brazenly for a County League side, Silverdale have adopted a home kit which is a near exact clone of the one worn by the Argentinian national team. Just as I was scoffing at this comparison, the Albicelestes knocked in their first goal of the night via corner which had fallen kindly at the feet of a striker after an ill-judged defensive header from Ashbourne. The forward wasted no time in deftly slotting the ball between the keeper’s legs. Not long after this opener, Silverdale nabbed a second from the same corner. The ball was crossed from the arc to the near post where it was first headed along the path of the crossbar and then into the net at the far post. Although I suspect that the first header was a mishit attempt rather than a worldie assist, it still ended up being a well-worked goal which left the little old lady next to be screaming “We need someone on the far post!” Bit late my love.   

Half time arrived, the local teens piled into a corner shop for more tins, we went back to my car for the same, we gave Bailey another fuss on the way. Lovely stuff.

Soon after we’d resettled under the “main stand” Silverdale proceeded to notch twice in quick succession. The first came from the number 9 striking for glory outside the area and the second came as a result of a turd pass back which the keeper fumbled out for a corner. Amazingly, the result was another headed goal at the far post. I didn’t hear anything out of the old lady so one assumes she’d left in disgust by this point. Ball Haye Green is a club which subscribes to the now rare but most noble art of serving tea and coffee not in small polystyrene cups but in actual ceramic mugs, usually bearing the bygone crests of other local clubs or adverts for defunct building firms. We were amused no end by the club official wandering around the ground collecting empties and plopping them nonchalantly in his plastic bucket-o’-mugs ready to make their re-entry into the ancient hot brew ecosystem.

Despite being four down and in the final quarter of the game, Ashbourne continued to push hard for a consolation goal. They looked sure to achieve this as a forward got a shot over the onrushing Silverdale keeper from 20 yards out. However despite curving down promisingly towards the target, it ended up hitting the post. This was the most memorable of a succession of unfortunately spurned chances for the visitors. One person who was greatly enjoying the futile effort from the boys in red was the man stood next to us who was positively bellowing instructions and encouragement throughout, at a volume which betrays the acute lack of self-awareness that so often characterizes passionate football support. I spent a good while assuming the chap was the Silverdale assistant manager practising an unorthodox proletarian coaching style; namely sending himself to the touchline before the referee had a chance to tell him to calm the fuck down. Indeed it was up to the aforementioned local youths to perform this act of charity as his yelps became too much even for their surly, alcopopped approval. The odd daggered glance and insular murmur gradually evolved into a volley of abuse everytime the Silverdale Screamer wound up for another period of hooted backing. Not that any of this stopped him. Didn’t even divert his gaze. Nor did the presence of what I assumed to be his wife, stood soundlessly by his side with unblinking, far away eyes that simply said “help me”.

Eventually the yutes grew bored of heckling the Silverdale fan and instead found a new game in the form of watching their female ringleader attempt to spank the nervous-looking linesman’s arse whenever he ran past. I bloody love North Staffordshire. I meanwhile was delighting in watching Daz seethe at the referee who had apparently botched a game at Stone Dominoes recently. That’s one of the fun things about this level, everyone knows the referee by name and probably ends up watching them in action 10 times a season. Anyway I won’t name and shame the bloke but I will say that towards the end of the match he booked an Ashbourne player for (as far as I could tell) trying to intercept a goalkeeper clearance, the joyless nerd. Just to add insult to injury, a chunky substitute forward scored a fifth goal in injury time to make absolutely certain that Silverdale would be lifting the Silverware.

After watching an official from the Staffordshire FA struggling to make a rousing speech without a microphone in a big windy field, followed by the obligatory “Whooooooaaaaaaahhh!” trophy lift (and the forced half dozen afterwards because the local paper photographer missed his moment), Daz and I toddled off back to Stoke to consider tomorrow’s adventure.