“Are you free to go watch a player tonight? Chester v Witton Albion.” On Wednesday evening, Rochdale’s chief scout Larry had actually specifically asked me to go check out and offer an opinion on a player, but unfortunately I had a lot of work to do in my real job so I had to decline. However, I had not decided where I would be spending my Saturday afternoon, so I offered to go watch Chester on the upcoming Saturday, only to be told that the player they wanted me to watch was a Witton Albion midfielder. A quick peruse of the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League fixture list confirmed that Witton Albion would be playing Kendal Town at home on the Saturday and so it was agreed that I would venture down into Cheshire for this weekend’s Lost Boyo adventure. Larry even said he would kindly put a ticket on the turnstiles for me. Great stuff.
The stumbling block for this trip came in the fact that I had already planned to have a big night out in Wigan on the Friday night before the game. “Wigan? Night out?” That’s how many people reacted when I mentioned I would be sampling the nightlife of Wigan, but it came about thanks to colleagues in work raving about the quality of a Wigan night out. I had to agree. I loved it; so much so, that when I woke up in my friend’s house in Newton-le-Willows the next morning, I was feeling very rough. Having outlined my trip to Witton the night before, I was kindly given a lift to Newton-le-Willows train station and by 11:15 I was beginning my trip down to Northwich via a change over in Chester. The 100 minute train journey was not the most comfortable thanks to the lasting tastes of alcohol (the Arriva train coffee did little to repel this) and my worsening headache. I was more than happy when the train pulled into Northwich station, so that I could escape my train carriage and embrace the fresh Cheshire air.
Witton Albion play at Wincham Park, which is unsurprisingly located in Wincham, a small village just outside of Northwich town centre. I’d had a look at the map and I forecasted that I could walk from the station to the ground fairly easy, but first I needed some food to help me battle my Wigan-induced hangover. Fortunately, on exiting the station I was greeted by “Harry’s Fish and Chips Bar”. I ordered my sausage and chips (both excellent) and started my trek towards Wincham. There was very little to see en route, as the village of Wincham appeared to be quite isolated from the town centre of Northwich; in fact, I did not see the town centre of Northwich all day. After a 10-15 minute stroll down a country road, I finally came to a “Witton Albion FC” sign signalling a right turn into Chapel Street would take me to the ground. This turned out to be the small village of Wincham and it was hard to believe that a football club resided in this area. The village used to be the home of a large salt minig industry, but the industry is now non-existence in the area after British Salt bought the local company and closed it down. The village consists of a very small residential area and an industrial estate next to the Trent and Mersey Canal which runs through the heart of the village. I soon found the turn off to the ground, but I was there earlier than I had predicted, so I went in search of a pub – an arduous task. There seemed to be no pub near the ground, until I stumbled upon the Black Greyhound up the road from the industrial estate. Unfortunately, it looked closed down (although as I write this I realise that I did not even attempt to go in). I decided to turn to my phone for help and I soon found out that there was a pub called the Salt Barge, an ode to the area’s old trade, in the neighbouring village of Marston.
After another 10 minute walk (all the walking was doing wonders for my hangover) I arrived at the Salt Barge. The pub was huge and very traditional, even having a cosy fire in the main lounge. Unfortunately, for such a pleasant pub, it was dead in there. I enjoyed my pint, which was quite hard work after the night out before, and watched the build up to Six Nations rugby. The time was now past 2 o’clock, so I decided to head back over to Wincham, Park.
Wincham Park is located just off the main road through Wincham. On arriving, I tried to suss out where I was supposed to go to pick up the ticket put aside for me and after asking around I was directed towards one of the directors who was chatting in the car park. I was taken through the players/officials entrance where I was asked to give my name at the main office. After perusing the list ‘Matt Harrison’ was not showing up. “Who sent your name to us?” When I explained it was Rochdale FC the friendly director replied “Oh, you’re the Rochdale lad! Go on in. The bar is on the left at the end of the corridor.” I walked through the innards of Wincham Park’s main stand, past the players changing rooms, boardroom and medical centre until I arrived at the door to the club bar.
The club bar was a huge space complete with dance floor, stage and pool table which stood in front of the club’s ‘wall of fame’. I’ll be honest and say that none of the Witton legends rung any bells with me, but I was disappointed not to see comedian John Bishop on the wall, as the famous comedian had once played for the club alongside his brother Eddie. I purchased a pint of Carlsberg for £3 and made a lap of the room in search of someone who may have been able to provide me with a teamsheet for today’s game. I spotted someone in suit complete with a Witton Albion tie and assumed he was someone of some importance so I asked him for the document I desired. Although Mr. Witton Albion Tie didn’t have any to hand, he exited the bar and headed to the club office especially to get me one, something that was very much appreciated. I explained what I was doing at Witton’s home, both writing about the place and scouting, and he replied “Well, don’t talk us up to much. We’ve got a good young team coming together here.” He then wandered off to speak to others in the room and I got chatting to some of Witton’s fans, who were all very friendly. I regaled a small group of them with my story about how earlier in the season I had seen Witton play Buxton at Silverlands and how on that particular day I had been brandished “green and white scum” by the travelling Wittoners; this wasn’t because I had decided to support their local rivals Northwich Victoria, but because I had unfortunately chosen to wear my green and white New York Cosmos jacket that day, which led to the comparison with their green and white clad rivals. I was soon informed that Witton Albion have their very own ‘green and white pot’, in reference to their chant about the ‘green and white pot’ into which they all their fans urinate into; however, their green and white pot is only used for the more practical purpose of being the point where the Witton fans place their first goalscorer predictions before the game – no pissing to be seen.
Wincham Park is officially not titled Wincham Park anymore. The ground’s official name is the Help for Heroes Stadium. Witton Albion have had a long running partnership with the Help for Heroes charity and for the 2010/11 season their shirts were even sponsored by the charity, in a deal similar, yet obviously far less lucrative, to the one Barcelona had with UNICEF a couple of seasons ago. A percentage of every replica shirt sold by the club would go to the charity as well as the club offering free entry to members of the Armed Forces. In 2011 the club made the gesture of renaming their ground in honour of the charity and their act of generosity was awarded on the pitch with the club earning promotion to the Evo-Stik Northern Premier via the league playoffs. Witton have played at Wincham Park since it’s construction in 1989 after the club had previously played close to Northwich town centre in the aptly named Central Ground. When Sainsburys bought the area around the old ground, Witton invested in their future by building Wincham Park in 1989 and moving into what was then one of the more impressive grounds outside the Football League. Wincham Park has a capacity of 4,813 with 600 seats in the main stand, which also houses the majority of the club’s facilities. The other three stands of the ground are all sheltered standing terraces.
One of the joys I get out of non-league is not being relentlessly told to sit down, so as per usual I shunned the seating area and headed to the standing terrace behind the goal to my left. There was a sizable queue for the Snack Bar, so I decided to pass up a pie for now as kick off loomed. Witton came out in their red and white stripes and today’s visitors, Kendal Town, were adorned in black and white stripes.
Many had expected Witton to struggle in the division following their promotion, but the club have continued to excel in their new surroundings and they now find themselves sitting comfortably in the play-off places and in 3rd place in the league before kick off. Witton were in great form coming into the game, but they looked to have got off to a bad start in this game when Kendal’s Aaron Taylor went clean through on goal, only to be brought down by goalie Stuart Plant. The ref blew the whistle and the Witton players put their hands on their heads anticipating the awarding of a Kendal penalty. However, the ref jogged over to Taylor and booked him for diving. It was the opposite end of the pitch to where I was standing, but it looked a penalty from my position and most of the Wittoners around me seemed to agree.
If Kendal manager Steve Edmondson was angry with that decision he was soon to be truly incensed, as Witton went up the other end and captain Anthony Sheehan was clipped around the ankle and brought down for a penalty. Up-stepped Josh Hancock, the player I had been told to watch out for, and sent the charismatic Kendal goalkeeper the wrong way. In fact, the Kendal goalkeeper, Craig Dootson, had been the star of the show so far, but more for his ‘banter’ than his goalkeeping. Dootson was repeatedly engaging in conversation with the Witton fans behind the goal and he seemed to be joking around having the time of his life. “Sorry, I’ve got tourettes!” was one of his retorts when an old Witton fan shouted at him for repeatedly using foul language. Not that the telling off quashed his swearing, as the old Witton fan cajoled him for his four-letter expletives throughout the first half.
The goal settled Witton and they began to exert their authority on the game with plenty of neat passing. When I watched Witton play at Buxton in September I singled out their left back Mathew Wood for particular praise and once again today he was demonstrating that he is an excellent player. This time I was equally impressed with the Witton right back Anthony Gardner (no, not the one cap wonder who played for Spurs) who was relentless in his running down the right side of the pitch and he was also a half decent crosser of the ball. Witton carried on pressuring Kendal, but their final pass was just not coming off and the home team went in at half time only 1 goalto the good.
I was now hungry again, so I decided to head to the clearly signposted Snack Bar in the corner of the ground. For £1.60 I bought myself a Birtwistle’s meat and potato pie and I have to say it was very disappointing. There appeared to be very little meat inside and instead just small pieces of potato. Just as tragic was the pastry itself. After gnawing my way through most of it, I was left with a rock hard base which was a nightmare to bite through, so much so that I abandoned finishing the pie – an act I would usually consider utter heresy.
Before the second half could kick off, I began my lap of the ground taking photos and I noticed that almost the whole Witton support had moved from the one stand to one opposite where Witton would be attacking in the second half. Witton came out looking as comfortable as they had finished the second half, but Kendal came close to equalising when Martin Grundy curled a shot that looked destined for the goal, only for Plant to make a brilliant save at full stretch to deny the Cumbrians.
However, soon after Witton had the game all but won when Steve Foster played in Daniel Andrews, who coolly finished, despite the ball hitting Dootson’s legs on the way in.
Witton even had the audacity to leave their top goalscorer Shaun Tuck on the bench and with the team 2 goals up, Witton went for the jugular by introducing their 21 goal striker. It was Tuck who would create Witton’s third. After some trickery around the box, Tuck found himself bursting down the right side of the box and his powerful drive across the box landed at the feet of Hancock, who easily finished into a half-empty net. Hancock had impressed me throughout the game. Great first touch, good decision making and a real eye for a pass, especially Gerrard-esque crossfield passes. I did feel, however, that he was a little wasted on the left-side of the pitch and that he did go missing for large parts of the game.
The game ebbed out and Witton held out for their 3-0 victory, despite Zach Clark having a good chance to score for Kendal in the closing minutes. The were a number of good performances on the pitch, but my Man of the Match was Witton Albion’s tall centre back and my namesake, Ben Harrison. Harrison made his defensive duties look easy and he even launched many of the team’s attacks. Most impressively, in the first half he had made a superb, well-timed tackle on the halfway line and then singlehandedly went on a mazy run through the Kendal team before setting up a good goalscoring opportunity for Witton.
As I was leaving the stands at the end of the game, I found myself behind a Witton fan who had brought his dog to the game complete with red and white scarf. I saw an opportunity to submit an entry to ‘Non-League Dogs‘, but as I was getting my camera out the man turned around, looked at me and asked me immediately “Are you with Kendal?” What made him believe I was with Kendal Town I’m still unsure about, but when I replied no and I explained my groundhopping exploits to him, I asked nicely could I have a photo of the dog. “Of course mate. She’s quite a celebrity Pippa. She’s even on Twitter.” (I’ve had a look and I still can’t find Pippa on Twitter though.)
I decided to have one last drink in the club bar before making my way back to Northwich train station. A few of the directors came over to ask me my views on the ground and the game and I generally only had positive things to say about both. There was a nice touch after the game in the club house, as the home and away teams’ Man of the Match awards were presented on stage and having seen Kendal’s Maison McGeechan pick up the away award and Mike Powell for the home team (I still think Harrison should have received it), I decided to depart Wincham Park.
On the rainy walk back through Wincham towards Northwich station, I reflected that I had enjoyed my day at Wincham Park very much. For a club residing below the Conference divisions, Witton Albion’s home has great facilities and the Witton fans are a great, friendly bunch (even if they did once mockingly label me ‘green and white scum’). The only downside of the ground is the fact that it is tucked away in the middle of a small village with not too much to do around it, although the Salt Barge nearby did seem a decent pub.
Highlights: The Salt Barge, free ticket, nice ground, friendly fans, Witton put in a good display with plenty of good individual performances on show.
Low Points: the ground is quite isolated, poor pie effort.