Pies. The concept of the pie is still fairly new to me, but I can safely say that I have bought into the spirit of the pie since moving to North-West England two years ago. From my years watching football in South Wales, I’d never really experienced or been initiated the ‘pie + football’ phenomena, but after moving ‘t’up north’ I became more ‘pie-curious’. After delving into some pies, I now consider it almost sacrilegious not to ‘pie up’ at football. My favourites so far have been at Delia-inspired Norwich and pie-loving Wigan, but when Gibbo promised some of the finest pies in the land at his local club, Atherton Collieries, I had to go check these bad boy pies out.
After a day of packing and tidying ready to return back to the homeland of South Wales the next day, I was really looking forward to my night at the football, especially in a place I had no idea about – I even had to Google Atherton before setting off; all I knew was that it was someone in the region of Wigan and Bolton. I soon learned it was about 5 miles east of Wigan and 5 miles south of Bolton. With the general area of my destination learnt, I set off at 17:30 for Salford Crescent train station to make the estimated 17 minute journey to Atherton. On the train I met with Aaron, who informed me that I was actually going to a league game tonight; with it still being early August I assumed I was going to another preseason friendly, but I was told that the North West Counties First Division (10th tier of the English football pyramid), which Atherton Collieries play in, had begun the weekend before. Atherton Colls had won their opening game 3-2, as had their opponents this August evening, Formby, so I was hoping for a good, goal-filled game.
After a lengthy delay on the train because there was a trolley blocking the track and a debate whether Atherton was a town or a village (we decided since it had three football teams that it had to at least be a town) we arrived into Atherton station, where we met Gibbo. We made the ten minute walk to the ground through the streets of Atherton (pronounced like the cricketer I was told, as apparently I kept saying it wrong) with a local fan regaling us with tales of travelling to West Country non-league club Larkhall Athletic FC – he really did make the place sound truly magical and I definitely need to go there.
At the end of the road appeared the Alder House which the Colls’ ground, Alder Street, takes its name from. The grade II listed building had gone from being a grand house to a clinic, to a school and I was informed it now existed as a cattery – not many football grounds share a name with a cattery.
We went through the turnstiles and paid the £5 entry – good price for a league game. I’d been given the lowdown on the ground en route there, so I wasn’t surprised with the typically non-league facilities, but I had also been given the lowdown on the friendly manner of the club and I soon found this to be true. Everyone was very welcoming and friendly and the club seemed like a real ‘heart of the community’ sort of club. As mentioned previously, the town has three clubs: Atherton Collieries along with neighbours Atherton Laburnum Rovers and Atherton Town FC; fortunately for the locals, the town has the fun of two Atherton derbies to look forward to this season with both Colls and Atherton LR residing in the North West Counties First Division.
The Collieries in the club’s name comes from the club’s creation in 1916 during the First World War with the founders being a group of miners that served the local community. 1982-83 saw Atherton become one of the founder members of the newly-created North West Counties Football League. Colls have mulled around the North West Counties Leagues since their inception with their highest league position coming in the 2006-07 season when the club finished 7th in the North West Counties Premier League – that season would also see one of their star players depart for Stockport County: Anthony Pilkington, now excelling for Norwich in the Premier League just 6 years later. The whole of Atherton’s history had been spent at the club’s Alder Street ground.
The ground has a very outdated and dilapidated charm to it with the one standing area down one side of the pitch on its last legs and another similar rusty looking seating area down the other side. Behind the goal nearest to the turnstiles we came though stood the changing rooms and a small hut entitled ‘The Jimmy Fielding Suite’. One feature I particularly liked was the plastic player tunnel, complete with Fly Emirates sponsor, that could be attached to the changing rooms. Down the left side of the pitch was what looked like cargo container that contained the club’s refreshment hut and next to that was the sizeable clubhouse. Despite the promise of such fine pies, I resisted the urge to dive straight into the pie hut and opted to save such a treat for kick-off. Our first port of call was the clubhouse, which was very nice inside with it looking like it had had a makeover in recent times; the walls were even decorated with a signed Bolton Wanderers shirt, another signed shirt of Jussi Jaasklenainen’s and a signed Norwich City shirt of former club favourite Anthony Pilkington. £2.40 a pint and all was good. With kick-off looming, next stop was the pie-hut. Given the choice of meat or meat and meat & potato pie, I opted for the latter at the reasonably priced £1.50. The verdict: the pie was exceptional and certainly in the same league as Norwich and Wigan’s efforts and arguably betters them through the large portion you get for you money. Well played Colls! Enough of food – the game.
As mentioned previously, I was now looking forward the game more now that I knew it was a competitive fixture, but there was also something else that had made me rather excited: Aaron had informed me on the train that Formby had a centre back by the name of Michael White playing for them, who had scored 60 odd goals over the past two seasons! I refused to call White by his birth name for the rest of the game and only referred to the centre back as the monikers ‘Becknebauer’ or ‘Der Kaiser’. After watching the opening minutes, it soon transpired that White was very good and also very hard. He could play a pinpoint pass across the pitch, but he could also smash a striker and give players the hairdryer treaments, even screaming in his keeper’s face after a highly impressive save. I loved this guy!
It took less than 5 minutes for Formby to take the lead after dominating the opening exchanges. The rapid left winger Mini Adegbenro (great name)burst clear into the box before playing a neat pass across the box giving Jason Carey a simple finish. Following the goal we decided to head up to the other end of the pitch towards the Formby goal. On arriving at the other end of the pitch, I noticed something brilliant: a comically large mound that protruded on the goal line. When the goalkeeper stood at the top of the mound he could put his hands over the crossbar easily. This mound led to some comical shots on goal bouncing away or being halted by it. Not long after our switch to the this goal, Colls equalised through Gary Burnett after coming back strongly following the early goal. The rest of the half was a real end to end affair and it was hard to call who was going to get the next goal. Just as it looked like we would be going in 1-1 at half-time, Formby earned themselves a stonewall penalty. The Formby striker was taken down by a nasty tackle from behind; the striker did not move for a long time and he was substituted immediately – it transpired after the game that he had broken his foot. Penalty: up stepped ‘Der Kaiser’. I had been told that he’d already scored two goals on the opening day of the season, but his hatrick alluded him after he skied a penalty. No such problems on this Monday evening, as Beckenbauer coolly rolled the ball into the bottom left corner, sending the goalkeeper the wrong way in the process. 2-1 to Formby at the break after a highly entertaining first half.
Half-time was spent in the clubhouse with a pint and watching some of the Olympic women’s football between USA and Canada and reflecting on a good half of football.
The opening minutes of the second half were watched through the clubhouse windows as we had been too slow in finishing our half-time pints, but the game carried on at the same entertaining pace as the first half. Colls came out of the blocks the better side and soon after the restart they had their equaliser after Burnett scored again, this time bundling in from a corner. There were signs that there were still more goals in the game and this eventually proved true as Formby took the lead again just after the hour mark. Once again, Carey scored, this time a header at the far post. The Squirrels (their amazing badge even complete with red squirrel) were now 3-2 up. Following Formby’s 3rd goal the game died down and there were far less chances than what had come before. Full time: Atherton Collieries 2 Formby 3.
This would be the last game of my odyssey around the non-league grounds of Greater Manchester during the summer, before a three week sojourn to South Wales. What a blast I’d had on my travels and Atherton was a great way to finish it off. All the best to the Colls in the coming season. A great little club.
Highlights: pies….wow!, very friendly people at the club, that non-league charm from their ramshackled ground, cheap food and drink, nice clubhouse, great game, Michael ‘Der Kaiser’ White of Formby FC.
Low Points: Pitch is shocking (the mound), stands not the best.