Anyone that has read this blog over the past week will know that I had one of the most amazing weekends last weekend, as I visited Brentford and watched Swansea win their first ever major trophy at Wembley. Whatever ground and game was to follow Wembley Weekend would have a lot to live up to.
On Friday night I had still not decided where I would head for my Saturday afternoon of football, but after a bit of Twitter deliberation (I put the decision to go to either Droylsden or Altrincham to my Twitter public) it was decided that I would be going to Moss Lane – the home of Altrincham FC.
This trip was actually a year in the making, as I had originally planned to go watch ‘Alty’ play Stalybridge Celtic in January 2012, but snow/frost put an end to that conquest.
Today was also a big debut for a new fashion item. On Monday 4th March I will be attending the Flat Cap Derby – Atherton Collieries v Atherton Labernum Rovers – at Alder Street. Whilst shopping in town the day before heading to Altrincham, I had spotted a flat cap (known as a ‘Dai Cap’ to us Welsh folk) and I had decided to buy it for the big occasion on Monday. I decided to give it an early run out for the trip to Altrincham as I had become quite fond of it (just in case you are wondering why I’m wearing a silly cap in some of the pictures).
I arrived at Piccadilly station just before 11am and picked up my customary Starbucks cappucino (I’m beginning to know the staff’s first names there, since I seem to be there at least once a week these days), before realising that my mate Jason might want to come along to watch some non-league football today. Just as I was about to get on the train to Altrincham, Jason texted me back confirming that he would indeed be interested in some live football today and that he’d join me in the small market town 8 miles south of Manchester.
The train journey was an uneventful one, as I enjoyed reading Guillem Balague’s Pep Guardiola biography (recommended reading by the way) before alighting in Altrincham just under 30 minutes after I had left Manchester Piccadilly station.
Jason would not be arriving in Altrincham until 12:30, so I decided to find a nearby pub whilst I waited for him. I walked past a number of pubs but with the clock still short of 12pm, nowhere seemed to be open apart from the small, Old Roebuck pub. This would do. The pub consisted of three small rooms and had a very nice, traditional feel to it. There was virtually no-one in the pub apart from two men, each in a different room. The pub’s appearance made me think that the place would be cheap, but a pint of Foster came to £3.10 – I guess I was in Cheshire now. The two men in the pub joined me at the bar and I told them my tales of Wembley and about my ‘groundhopping’ adventures. They were surprisingly very impressed and one even suggested “I bet nobody does that (groundhopping) mate. You should contact the Guinness World Record people.” Not quite mate, but I loved the enthusiasm. Eventually, Jason showed up and after another drink we went in search of Moss Lane.
The men in the pub had told me to head towards the large Tesco Extra and that the ground was about 10-15 minute walk from there. Now just to find Tesco Extra. When I mentioned my directions to Jason, he replied that he had actually been for a job interview in Altrincham once and he indeed knew where the Tesco Extra was located. Good stuff. We walked through the small town centre and eventually we found the impressively large Tesco.
“There’s the floodlights look. It’s that way” In fact what I had spotted was a very large telecommunications tower, but we had already set off in that direction and I’m not one for turning around when I’m heading in one direction. Fortunately, for my stubbornness, the ground was indeed in that direction, something that was confirmed by the “Altrincham FC” sign we found en route.
After a short walk past a very pleasant looking park, we found ourselves outside Moss Lane, which was actually right under the large tower I had spotted earlier- my ‘football ground finding’ intuition had clearly kicked in.
Jason had been wanting something to eat since he had arrived in Alty and on looking across the road from the entrance to Moss Lane, we spotted an eye-catching fish and chip shop. I was not particularly hungry, but having crossed the road (after being blocked by the Oxford City team bus) I noticed that ‘The Good Catch’ chip shop was brandished with signs boasting of it’s “5 star” award winning food. I thought I had to at least have a tray of chips and I have to say that they were delightful.
We went in search of another pub and just 2 minutes up the road from the ground we found the King George’ pub – a very large, Harvester-type pub. Inside was suitably nice with an abundance of comfy looking leather sofas and chairs and a number of big screens with Al Jazeera Sport displayed on them, ready to show the El Clasico which was kicking off at the unusual time of 3pm (unusual for El Clasico anyway). Jason bought the round, which was not cheap, and we sat down to watch the prematch coverage of El Clasico. It turns out Jason really, really dislikes Cesc Fabregas.
The time was now past 2 o’clock and we decided to head back to Moss Lane to sample the club house/bar.
We walked past the ground’s main stand and headed through a small gate, which solely gave access to the club bar and shop. The bar actually went into the main stand and was quite sizable with plenty of photos on the walls of Alty’s moments of glory, as well as the odd award/cup placed on display. With drinks purchased we went and sat in the corner near two men and two kids clad in the blue and white of Oxford City. Whilst Jason posed with my flat cap, one of the men asked “Excuse me, where are the toilets here mate?” When I replied I didn’t have a clue, he looked at me as if I was lying to him. He must have assumed that I was an Alty fan because of the red hoody that I was wearing.
His friend then asked me in almost stereotypical chat up fashion “So, do you come here often?”
“Never been here in my life” I answered and went on to explain about Lost Boyos.
It turned out that the guy was a Spurs fans and predictably we ended up having a long chat about my current footballing idol, Gareth Bale. I thought it was best to end the Bale love-in, as I was worried that I would go on forever talking about Welsh football’s golden boy and miss kick off. We left the clubhouse and headed around to the Golf Road Terrace turnstiles (ticket price: £13) to enter Moss Lane proper.
Altrincham FC formed in 1891 and Moss Lane has been home to Altrincham FC since the 1910/11 season, after the club played at several different venues before then. The club were founder members of the Alliance Premier League (today’s Conference) in 1979 and since then the club have been almost ever present in the Conference. The club currently play in the Conference North. However, Altrincham are perhaps not as renowned for their league exploits as they are their FA Cup feats. Over their history Alty have picked up a reputation as the ultimate non-league ‘giant killers’. Alty have defeated more league sides than any other non-league club (16 victories over league clubs) with their first league scalp coming in a 4th Round Qualifying tie against Tranmere Rovers in 1921-22. Most famously, they defeated top tier Birmingham City at St Andrews 2-1 whilst they still sat in Conference; until Luton’s recent victory over Norwich, Altrincham’s victory over Birmingham was the last time a non-league side defeated a top division side in the FA Cup.
Moss Lane is a great ground for this level of football and there’s plenty of character to the place. We had entered onto the Golf Road Terrace, a sheltered standing terrace behind the one goal, which appeared to be housing the more vocal Alty support. To our left was the Popular Side, another sheltered standing terrace running the length of the pitch with a small bit of scaffolding acting as a makeshift gantry on the halfway line. Opposite us was the Hale End, an open air standing terrace, which, when segregation is in place, houses the away end. Incidentally, with a small following coming up from Oxford and with no bad blood between the two clubs, there was no away segregation in place for today’s game. Finally, to our right was the club’s Main Stand and sitting next to it as a separate structure was the Goodwin Family Stand. The Family Stand is much smaller than the Main Stand next to it, with the Family Stand holding 190 spectators whilst the Main Stand, a large sheltered seating stand, holds 1,133 spectators.
In the corner between the Main Stand and the Golf Road Terrace sits the Club shop and more importantly the food hut. Pie time. For £2.50 I got myself a (Wright’s) Chicken Balti pie – after spending minutes trying to break through the thick layer of pastry, the pie was an overall decent effort, but nothing more.
The team’s began to walk out on the pitch for today’s Conference North fixture with Alty in their red and white vertical stripes and Oxford City in their blue and white horizontal stripes. I was pleased to see Duncan Watmore starting for Alty. There is currently a huge buzz around Watmore, a 19 year old forward who is supposedly being watched by a whole host of league clubs (Larry the Rochdale scout had asked me to give him an opinion on him post match) with Peterborough’s Darren Ferguson openly stating recently that he has been to watch him and that he is keeping a close eye on him. Also on show today was Alty striker Damian Reeves, the most prolific striker in English football last year with 44 league goals . There were supposed opportunities for Reeves to go to league club, but the former Leeds youngster eventually ended up signing a new contract with Alty and had scored 25 league goals already before today’s game.
(To see full highlights of the game, scroll to the bottom of the page. Altrincham FC runs its own highlights on Youtube, thanks to some Alty fans that film the game for free. Great stuff! I’m quite easy to spot throughout the video as the guy wearing the bright red hoody and flat cap behind the goal.)
The game kicked off and immediately the game was fast paced and open with both teams pursuing an early goal. The first glimpse of Watmore came inside the first ten minutes when he completely burned off two defenders before being tripped right on the edge of the box. Some of the home fans screamed for a penalty, but it was right in front of me and I think the ref got it right by awarding a freekick, although I think a yellow card was warranted for the guilty defender.
Oxford seemed to be dangerous from freekicks with Jamie Cook striking the crossbar from 20 yards and then coming close minutes later when the ball was rolled to him from a dead ball 30 yards out, but his powerful effort was brilliantly saved by Stuart Colburn in the Alty goal.
Me and Jason were most impressed with Oxford City’s lone striker Ashan Holgate. He was superb and with his dreadlocks bouncing around, he resembled a non-league version of Ruud Gullit in appearance and style of play. He was also in the Maraoune Fellaini class of using his chest to control the ball superbly. On countless occasions, me and Jason gasped in awe at some of his delightful touches.
In the 20th minute, Oxford broke the deadlock after a City cross was saved by Colburn, only for the rebound to fall to City’s Brazilian Felipe Barcelos to score easily from 12 yards out.
The goal sparked Alty back into life and they began to attack with purpose, mainly through the impressive attacking left back Nicky Clee, who even got a cheeky nutmeg in on one of his forays forward. This was shortly followed by another moment of brilliance from Watmore; with three defenders around him, the youngster dinked the ball through the three of them and left them all for dead, but when through on goal with only the keeper to beat, Matthew Ingram came out quickly to block his effort. Watmore then went close with a left footed effort from outside the box, after leaving the Oxford City defenders flat footed after an excellent piece of trickery. The boy really did look special, but it would have been nice to see more of him on the ball. Alty moved him from playing off Reeves, to the right wing and back again; I felt he was more effective in the free role behind the striker.
We were absolutely gutted to see Gull…I mean Holgate have to leave the field (it turned out he had lost his contact lense), but his final contribution was a delightful backheel to put Oxford through on goal, only for the chance to be cleared by the Alty defence.
Shortly after Holgate left the pitch, Alty equalised. “Stop trying to pass it into the net” screamed an elderly fan near me only for Alty’s neat passing to get out to the right wing for James Lawrie to cross to the back post for Reeves (who else?) to header into an empty net.
Half time: Altrincham 1-1 Oxford City. An excellent first half of football. Same second half please.
At half-time I went and completed a lap of the ground taking photos. On my circuit of the ground I found a lone rose taped to one of the fences, but when I asked about what it was there for, no-one seemed to have a clue. The mystery of the rose remained unresolved and I headed to the bar for a half-time pint and to get the half-time scores from Jeff Stelling.
The second half kicked off and it was to be a half of pure dominance from Altrincham. Clee once again flew up the left side of the pitch and his lay off to Reeves was blasted over by the usually clinical striker. Altrincham were passing the ball around Oxford with ease now, although the away team came close with a long range effort from Declan Benjamin.
In search of a goal, Clee moved further forward and Altrincham became a far more aggressive attacking team and a goal looked to be coming. Watmore once again went close as he took the ball around the goalie only to be denied by a excellent last ditch tackle from a chasing Oxford defender. Watmore then went even closer when he latched onto an excellent past, but his clever shot hit the inside of the post and bounced out again. The woodwork was to deny Alty again as a well struck shot from Lawrie hit the upright.
Finally, Altrincham’s second goal came as substitute Carl Rodgers’ initial shot was excellently saved, Clee dinked the rebound over the helpless keeper only for the ball to hit the bar again, but Reeves was on hand to header the second rebound into the net.
A minute later it was 3-1 and Watmore got the goal his performance had deserved. Reeves controlled the ball out on the right, played in Watmore who hit the ball past the defence and smashed the ball into the far corner. Watmore departed the game soon after to a rousing reception from all in the ground. He was outstanding and was awarded the Man of the Match award. However, I personally would have given the accolade to the equally excellent Nicky Clee, who was a constant menace to Oxford City on the left side of the pitch.
Full time: Altrincham 3 – 1 Oxford City. An enjoyable game of football and a deserved victory for the Robins in their pursuit of securing a playoff spot in the Conference North.
Back to the bar for one last drink, before making the 10 minute walk back to the train station. Whilst Jason and I discussed the game and the precocious talent of Duncan Watmore, Jason suddenly went silent. “Oh my god! He’s there. Gullit is at the bar.” I peaked around the corner to see Ashan Holgate by the bar and I decided that we had to go congratulate the great man and tell him of how much we had enjoyed his mercurial 40 minute display today. He seemed a bit shell-shocked as I told him how much we enjoyed his performance and how gutted we were to see him have to go off. It also turned out he made one of his only first team appearances for Swindon Town, where he spent the early part of his career, against Swansea at the Vetch. After chatting about all things football (well, mainly Swansea City) Holgate went and joined the rest of the Oxford team in other room with the free sandwiches. Jason admitted after that he “just clammed up” on meeting the great man.
A very enjoyable afternoon of football at a sunny Moss Lane. Since the turn of the year, I have not seen too many good games, but this was certainly an entertaining one! All the best to Altrincham FC for the rest of the season and their push for promotion. And good luck keeping hold of Duncan Watmmore.
Highlights: Great weather for football, award winning chips from ‘Good Catch’, decent clubhouse, nice ground, good game of football, plenty of good individual performances to admire (Clee, Reeves and Holgate), seeing the talent that is Duncan Watmore.
Low Points: pubs were not up to much today, nothing special about the pie, Ashan Holgate’s (Gullit) afternoon ending prematurely.