Most football fans’ perception of non-league football is the classic ‘one man and his dog’ at a rickety old stadium in an isolated town in the backwater of nowhere. A lot of this stereotype is inaccurate – you will find healthy crowds at non-league and some plush stadiums from the sixth step downwards. However, I do love a visit to a non-league club in the middle of nowhere; I’d already made trips to Glossop and Buxton and I considered these to be small isolated football communities, but my trip to Barnoldswick Town took my ‘backwater’experience to a new level. When two other groundhopping football bloggers (more on them later) stated that they were visiting the small town, I opted to join them, after I abandoned my original plan to visit Barnoldswick about 2 months ago.
The night before was spent working out how to get to this deserted part of Lancashire – or was it Yorkshire? The internet seemed confused to which county the town sat in and a look on maps confirmed that Barnoldswick did seem to sit right on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border with Lancashire towns such as Colne, Nelson and Burnley West of it and Yorkshire towns such as Skipton, Keighley and Silsden to the East of it. I eventually had my journey planned (bus to Burnley from Broughton, bus from Burnley to Barnoldswick) and also found out some ‘interesting’ facts about my destination. For example: did you know that Barnoldswick used to be the longest place name in the UK without repeating any letters? (it is now third) Did you know that Barnoldswick is one of the largest towns in the UK that is not served by an A-Road? And did you know that Rolls Royce is one of the largest employers in the town with the town hosting the company’s aero design centre? Well you do now (cheers Wikipedia).
Saturday morning: I almost called off my trip to the Dickensian sounding Barnoldswick as the north of the country appeared to be completely covered in a festive frost – I just could not see the game being on. Numerous game in the Evo Stik and the North West Counites league were called off early Saturday morning, but Barnoldswick’s Twitter account claimed that there was a 60% chance of today’s FA Vase game against AFC Emley being on, but the decision would be made by the match official before kick off. It seemed quite a trek all the way up to Barnoldswick only to be denied a game, but after much deliberation I decided to take a gameshow style gamble – “HE’S GOING TO GAMBLE FOLKS!”
I arrived in Burnley just before 12pm; I reflected on my last visit to the town when two of my mates and I were greeted in the Swan Inn (we went in purely because of the word ‘Swan’ in the name) by a large contingent of Burnley hooligans, who did not take to kindly to us entering their lair in Swansea shirts. One of the gang, a charming lad named ‘Shack’, declared we were just ‘kids’ (the three of us were 22/23 years old) and that he was going to ‘batter’ us; instead he gave us his phone number to pass on to Swansea’s ‘top boys’ and hoped we’d arrange some sort of ruckus for him. I still have Shack’s number on my phone to this day. Anyway, enough of reminiscing – I was soon on the number 29 bus to Barnoldswick. After exiting the town of Colne, the bus ride was a very pleasant rural affair through the frost-covered Lancashire countryside. 40 minutes after departing Burnley, I was in the 13-lettered town of Barnoldswick.
The town centre consisted of lots of small cafes, shops and chip shops (highly recommend ‘Chubby’s Chips’) and there was not a single big name store in site – everything seemed to be run by independent traders which was different and good to see. After a brief wander, I came across the Cross Keys pub and decided to have my first pint of the day there. There was only myself, the barman and one other customer in the pub, but pints cost £2.45 and they were friendly enough, so I was happy. The pub reminded me of the pubs around Treharris and Nelson (villages near my hometown in the Merthyr Valley for those unfamiliar) with it’s stubborn, outdated look, but it was large and spacious and had a big TV for sport, so no complaints really. I brought up the question “So, am I in Lancashire or Yorkshire?” a question that was greeted with glum looks, as the two gentlemen went on a long winding story about the divides in the town and how some locals claim it as Yorkshire, whilst others state Lancashire: ultimately, the story ended with them confirming that the town is officially recognised as a Lancashire town. I also learnt that the town is generally referred to as ‘Barlick’ by the locals, saving themselves a couple of syllables when talking about the town. When I told them of my groundhopping escapades, the barman declared eloquently “You must fucking love football to come all this way to bloody Barlick!” Indeed. I drank up and headed down the road to the Fountain Inn.
The Fountain Inn was a much nicer and more polished looking pub than the Cross Keys, but inevitably this meant a price hike in the beer (£3.20 a pint). I got chatting to some locals at the bar, who gave me directions towards Barnoldswick’s football ground, and soon the conversation turned to the ‘Lancashire or Yorkshire?’ question. One local regaled with a tale from the summer when two locals in another pub up the road, ended up in the car park, shirts off, fighting in the street; one had a “Barnoldswick: Yorkshire” tattoo whilst his rival had a tattoo of a Lancashire rose on his chest. The town seemed to be having it’s own internal War of the Roses. One of the locals in the pub, Neil, then introduced me to Jack. Jack was a Burnley fan living in Malta and he was back home in Barnoldswick for a couple of months to do some work in the midst of his semi-retirement. After chatting for a bit, it became clear that Jack had some brilliant stories about travelling around the country with Burnley FC and around Europe with England from over the years. When I asked him was he linked with Burnley’s infamous “Suicide Squad” back in the day, he just smiled and said “sort of”. In the book “Soul Crew” which tells the story of Cardiff City’s firm, Jack claimed he is one of the Burnley fans mentioned, and praised by the hooligan narrator, who once battered the Cardiff hardcore. I didn’t know whether to laugh or be scared. I told him about my experience of the Swan Inn pub in Burnley and my encounter with ‘Shack’ – it soon transpired that he knew my old pal Shack! I asked him to pass on my “Best Wishes” to a man that had once threatened me (well he sort of did). We made our way to ground with Jack leading the way through the streets of Barnoldswick towards Victory Park: situated in the heart of Victory Park was The Silentnight Stadium – the home of Barnoldswick Town.
As you would expect, the stadium’s name comes from the bed and mattress company Silentnight who are located in the town; I thought it was quite fitting to spend a Saturday afternoon in the festive period at a ground called the ‘Silentnight’. The club only came into existence in 2003 after the town’s two clubs, Barnoldswick United and Barnoldswick Park Rovers, merged to become one. Barnoldswick joined the North West Counties leagues in 2009-10 after plying their trade in the West Lancashire Football League and in their first season in the NWCFL , Barnoldswick achieved promotion from the first division to the league’s Premier Division. Victory Park had three pitches at it’s heart with a rugby pitch on one side of the football ground (there was even a rugby match going on during today’s football match) and a cricket ground on the other side.
Jack and I paid our £5 each and entered Barlick’s home. The ground was very tidy for the level we were watching football at: behind one goal stood a sizable clubhouse, complete with bar and food hut, and a stand adorned with a small flag, affectionately calling it the ‘Sewer End’. Down the one side of the touchline was the ground’s mainstand (made of stone) with the two dugouts in front of it. The opposite side of the pitch was completely unsheltered and open to the elements and behind the other goal was a large house overlooking the ground – a great place to live if you are a fan of Barnoldswick Town. I should also add that despite the weather, the pitch looked brilliant and the efforts put in by the club to ensure the game went ahead had clearly paid off. Well done Barlick!
On working our way around to the clubhouse, it seemed like everyone knew Jack as everyone greeted him and shook his hand. As mentioned earlier, the clubhouse was big and one of the better ones I’ve been to on my non-league travels with plenty of tables and chairs scattered around to enjoy our prematch drinks. Whilst Jack was at the bar buying our drinks, I spotted two people I had arranged to rendezvous with: Tony OneLeg and Johnny the Rhino – the duo behind the excellent, and very funny, groundhopping football blog, 1 Leg on the Cup. The lads’ mission for this season was to attend a game at every round of the FA Cup, FA Trophy and FA Vase, a task comprising of 35 fixtures overall and with all three competitions ending with finals at Wembley. We traded stories on how we had got to the ground and Barnoldswick itself, before heading out to pitchside to take in the FA Vase fixture between Barnoldswick Town and AFC Emley. AFC Emley play their football in the league below Barlick, so there was a chance that we would witness a “Vase upset” today.
As the game kicked off, I began a lap of the ground to take some photos, whilst Tony and the Rhino found themselves a seat in one of the stands in the “Sewer End”. There would be two moments of embarrassment on this day with the first coming during my lap of the ground; with the ball going over the the small fence separating spectators from the pitch, I realised it was coming straight for me; with a second to think, I decided I was going to do a cheeky dink back over the fence back to the team awaiting to take their throw in – I sliced my ‘dink’ and the ball embarrassingly didn’t make it over the 3ft fence. I scuttled away red faced. I did recover enough from my embarrassment to get my now customary photo for Non-League Dogs though.
I eventually met back up with the ‘1 Leg on the Cup’ lads and me and Tony agreed that Emley, in the yellow and blue, had started the game excellently. After admiring Emley’s play for a good 30 minutes, it soon occurred to me that the corner flags at Barlick’s home were yellow and blue and the Barnoldswick “Sewer End” flag was yellow and blue. STRANGE. It then dawned on me that the impressive Emley team was not Emley but in fact the home team! Emley were the team playing in claret and blue. Oops! I think the confusion came from the fact that many Barlick fans were wearing the claret and blue of Burnley and we had just assumed that Barlick had adopted the colours of their nearest professional team. With the teams sorted out, the lively number 9 of Emley (the team that had been dominated up to now, if you’re still confused who’s who), Ashley Flynn, stuck a foot out onto a low cross to roll the ball past Barnoldswick keeper. 1-0 to AFC Emley and the “Vase upset” was on. The half carried on with very little goaline action and Emley held on to their lead at the break. Back to the warmth of the clubhouse.
I was already quite peed off to learn that Swansea were losing 3-0 to Norwich at half time, so my mood was not helped when at half time I was denied a pie because they had sold out; I had to settle for a ham roll (which was nice in all fairness). I purchased myself and Jack a drink at half time and I joined him and his mates to discuss the first half and to watch the half time results from the rest of the country on one of the large TV screens in the room. I was very slow in drinking my half time pint so I positioned myself by the clubhouse window to watch the opening minutes of the second half. Minutes would not be needed for the second goal of the game, as Barnoldswick’s Mark Threlfall surged straight at the Emley defence before unleashing a powerful low shot into the bottom corner to make it 1-1; we were just 19 seconds into the second half. The early goal made the second half a much more exciting and open affair as both teams went for the win (a draw would mean extra time and penalties). Barlick had plenty of chances to make it 2-1 but Emley’s goalkeeper Luke Herriot was in inspired form, with an impressive double save to deny Threlfall and superb low save to stop Lewis Jordan’s header rolling in the bottom corner.
It was soon time for my second embarrassing moment of the day: with us happily nestled back in the shelter behind the one goal, my mood had improved thanks to some of my Swansea pals texting me informing me that Swansea had pulled it back from 3-0 down at the Liberty to 3-2 and there was still half hour to go! I was sure we were going to win now. I began half watching the game in front of me as well as eyeing my phone for a new message and checking my Twitter timeline repeatedly for that message/tweet that would say 3-3. Then, my Samsung Galaxy S3 (best phone around by the way) made it’s whistle noise to confirm a text: my AGAFTG podcast partner Harry Hugo (listen to the podcast here by the way), who you may remember from my trip to Southampton, texted me the magic numbers; the text solely read “3-3”. Surrounded by Tony and Johnny and some young Barlick fans, I went absolutely mental as I basked in the Swans’ brilliant comeback and soon I was getting stinking looks from everyone around me – “why was this idiot jumping about and shouting like a dickhead?” their cynical eyes said. A minute later my phone whistled again to confirm a second text message; Harry once again: “I lied.” The cruellest text ever. I roared in anger. I was fuming. (In the lad’s defence he had originally texted me the ‘3-3’ text when Itay Shecthter looked to have equalised for Swansea, but the goal was ruled out).
Emley made two substitutes with 25 minutes remaining and for some bizarre reason one of the outgoing players decided to do a rolly-polly off the pitch – I’ve never seen a showboating exit from the field of play before. The double switch seemed to improve the away team who began to stamp their authority on the game again. Soon after the change,Emley’s Flynn found himself in the box, controlling the ball and burying his and Emley’s second goal of the day past the Barlick keeper. 2-1 to Emley and the players and staff celebrated emphatically. Flynn looked a top player and Barlick struggled to deal with the short, dogged striker all afternoon. Barlick”s goalkeeper, Alexander Woodcock, made a succession of top saves to keep Barlick in the game, but in the 80th it was 3-1 to Emley thanks to an easy finish from sub Doran Jordan. There was still time for Barlick to miss an open goal from 3 yards, but Emley looked comfortable for the closing ten minutes. The ref blew his whistle and the ‘giantkilling’ of Barnoldswick Town was complete. The Emley players, staff and fans (of which there were a fair few) went into hysterics and danced and celebrated in the Barnoldswick rain for many minutes after the game had concluded. Their loud singing and shouting from their changing rooms could be heard clearly as I made my way back to the clubhouse for a departing drink.
I joined Tony and the Rhino for a final drink before we made our separate ways back to different parts of Greater Manchester. We departed the Silentnight Stadium the way Tony and Johnny had entered it. This exit/entrance involved walking down a hard to navigate, wet country path in complete darkness and I was worried who or what would be lurking on it. We worked our way out of the park and soon discovered the main road. The lads’ bus was due any moment, but I had a 30 minute wait for mine, so I said my goodbyes and went in search of some food. However, on walking up the main road, I spotted the number 29 bus pulling up to another bus stop so I hopped on and began my journey back to Manchester via a change in Burnley.
On arriving in Burnley, I had another half hour to wait, so I went to see my old favourite drinking haunt in Burnley: the infamous Swan Inn where I met my Burnley ‘friends’ a few years ago. At least I could tell them that I knew Jack now, but I thought better of going in.
Another excellent day out and another notch to my non-league bedpost.
Highlights: The Fountain Inn, listening to Jack’s Burnley tales, great non-league ground, large clubhouse, meeting Tony and Johnny, seeing a “Vase upset” and Emley’s joyous celebrations.
Low Points: Town was difficult to reach, embarrassing myself twice (failed kick over a short fence and unnecessary and overzealous celebrations for Swansea’s non-equaliser), not getting a pie at half time.