Premier League, Championship, League One, League Two, Conference Premier, Conference North, Conference South, Evo-Stik Northern Premier Division, Evo-Stik Northern Premier First Division North, Evo-Stik Southern Football League Division One South & West, North West Counties Football League Premier Division and North West Counties Football League Division One: I have seen a lot of football at almost every tier of the football pyramid this season. Almost. There are ‘7 steps’ to the non-league ladder and I had seen football at the very top of it, in the Conference Premier (or Blue Square Premier if we want to be sponsorship friendly), to the lower regions in the NWCFL – but I’ve never been right to the bottom step. So, of course, with the football season drawing to a close I decided I wanted to be able to say I had visited every level this season. The quest to complete all ‘7 steps’ predictably led me to my local division: The Manchester League. A quick peruse of the Manchester League table led me to a familiar name and the place I pinpointed as my destination for the forthcoming Saturday, largely due to its proximity to where I live: Prestwich Heys FC.
I had spent a lot of money over the past month with weddings, stag dos, travelling and of course, football, so a short 15 minute trip north of my Manchester dwelling to a team in the 7th level of non-league football was very much welcoming to my now prudent wallet. I was actually very much looking forward to visiting the club – seriously, despite Prestwich once housing the largest mental asylum in Europe, I had not gone mad, I really was looking forward to checking out some Manchester League football for the first time. My journey to Prestwich was to begin on the number 93, the same bus I get most working days into Manchester, yet today I was going in the opposite direction from the Manchester metropolis and instead in the direction of Bury. In all honesty, I did not really have a clue where to disembark, but as soon as I saw a sign opposite a large Tesco stating that I was in Prestwich, I thought it was probably best to alight, before I ventured to far further on into Radcliffe or even Bury itself.
I had been through Prestwich on a couple of occasions and it had always seemed to me to just be a dual carriage way connecting Manchester and Bury; Prestwich sits almost directly in the middle of the two with Bury just short of 5 miles north and Manchester city centre just over 3 miles south of it. On having a couple of minutes of wandering the streets of Prestwich, my opinion did not change, although I did find a TGI Fridays which I resisted the urge to enter at 11.45am. After wandering the streets of Prestwich I eventually spotted a couple of pubs and I headed into the White Horse – a Joseph Holt brewery pub. For those unfamiliar, Joseph Holt is a Manchester-based brewery with over 120 pubs in Greater Manchester. On seeing the Joseph Holt sign I was hoping that the pub would be providing Crystal lager, a Joseph Holt lager, and a particular favourite of mine. Crystal lager was very much in attendance at White Horse and as always this cued me singing New Order’s ‘Crystal’ all day (I do love that song). The White Horse was your typical northern local pub and the locals all seemed very pleasant as they enjoyed their early afternoon drinks and reading their Saturday newspapers. I decided to join the pub dwellers in their beer drinking and paper reading, before heading back out into Prestwich in search of the home of Prestwich Heys.
The time had only just gone 13:00, but the Manchester League has the unique touch of having its Saturday kick offs at 14:00 and with me having no real idea where the ground actually was I thought it was best to set off with plenty of time. Whilst wandering through the streets of Prestwich my initial impression of Prestwich being just a ‘connecting road between Manchester and Bury’ appeared to be wrong; it turned out the place was actually a rather quaint, leafy suburb of Manchester. The small town is very much considered an affluent part of Manchester and just from passing by some of the houses it was easy to see this. A bit of Wikipedia searching also confirms to me that Prestwich has produced people that have had a significant impact on British culture – for example: Mark E. Smith of The Fall, comedian Victoria Wood and even choreographer and former Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips. Glamorous stuff.
After zig-zagging through the streets of Prestwich I had still yet to see any sort of signposting pointing me in the direction of Prestwich’s Grimshaw Park – I was just hoping that my Google Maps knew what it was doing. Eventually, with half hour to go until kick off, I spotted a large opening appearing between the typically red-bricked suburban houses up ahead and soon the ground was in site.
First impressions – well, ‘back to basics’ is putting it lightly, but this is what I expected and I’m no snob when it comes to football grounds. In fact, I quite liked the ‘quaint’ look of the place. I approached the one turnstile entrance to the ground to find nobody manning it, so I headed into the ground; I genuinely wasn’t sure if I was supposed to pay or whether I was at such a low level of football that entrance fees are not required. If I was supposed to pay some sort of fee, I apologise to Prestwich Heys and you are welcome to forward the bill onto Lost Boyos.
On entering I was met with structures which resembled half portacabin/half shipping container – these turned out to be the changing rooms and the clubhouse. As for stands, well there aren’t any; instead if you want a seat at Grimshaw Park there are an array of orange chairs stacked against the clubhouse which spectators are free to take and sit near the fence surrounding the pitch. On the opposite side of the pitch to the array of shipping containers are the two dugouts with the words ‘Home’ and ‘Away’ painted on to save confusion. Very near to the ground is the M60 which provided a constant buzzing noise throughout the entire 90 minutes with the rest of the ground being surrounded by the red bricked detached houses of the neighbouring estate and some sort of wasteland behind the wall behind the far goal.
Prestwich Heys were once one of the most revered amateur clubs in the country, but following the restructuring of semi-professional football throughout the 1970s the club entered a barren spell. In 1982 the club became one of the founder members of the newly created North West Counties League – a league formed through a merger between the Cheshire County League and the Lancashire Combination league. However, by the 1986 NWCFL season, Prestwich Heys found themselves demoted to the Manchester League with their home not meeting the required ground grading. The club have resided in the Manchester Leagues ever since, but they are currently putting plans in place to improve Grimshaw Park and make a push to get the club back in the North West Counties; the club’s website states that a £100k redevelopment is planned with the installation of floodlights and a stand penciled in for completion by 2015.
I headed straight for the portacabin labelled ‘clubhouse’ and on going through the door the place was Tardis-esque in its deceptive size. The clubhouse was divided in half with half the room consisting of a series of tables and chairs with two large TVs mounted on opposite walls: one showing the Manchester City v West Ham game; the other showing snooker. Strangely, this side of the clubhouse also had three large pictures of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart all in their England kits hanging from the one wall – I’m guessing the club had inherited the large photos from somewhere. The other side of the clubhouse was a slightly more cosy looking seating area with plenty of Heys memorabilia on the wall and there was also the bar/kitchen selling an array of drinks and pies. When I say an ‘array’ I really do mean that; on asking the lovely old lady behind the counter what pies were on sale, she began listing an endless list of what was on offer. After she had stopped for breath I asked for a Steak and Kidney pie (which was very good) to accompany my bottle of Budweiser. Budweiser may not be to everyone’s liking, but I love the stuff and it is certainly my ‘sat in front of the TV watching football’ beer of choice.
I wandered out pitchside just before kick off and I noticed that the Prestwich players were warming up in Sunderland tracksuits. This was odd enough, but I thought it was even stranger as Atherton Collieries also warm up in the very same light blue Sunderland tracksuits. On questioning a man in a Prestwich Heys tracksuit about this choice of gear, he just used phrased such as “struck a deal” and “good price”.
The teams were now ready to kick off with Prestwich Heys in red and white stripes and Manchester Gregorians (a club based at Manchester City’s Academy at Platt Lane) in an all blue kit. Gregorians started the game much the better team and were playing some nice football, but not really getting anywhere. Heys on the other hand were trying the long ball and playing some woeful stuff and also not getting anywhere. As the game carried on in its monotonous way, I decided to complete a lap of the ground to take some photos. More interesting than the clash on the pitch was the off-field duel ensuing between two non-league dogs – the owners eventually thought it wise to move to opposite sides of the ground. By the time I completed my circuit it was half time and the score was still 0-0. To the clubhouse for a half time Budweiser.
Word seemed to have spread that there was a groundhopper present at the game and as the lovely old lady behind the food/bar counter informed me “We get a lot of your sort up here. Come from all over the place.” I’m assuming she meant groundhoppers anyway and not something more sinister. All the Prestwich fans that approached me were all very friendly with many commending me for coming to watch ‘real football’ as they dubbed it. I was hoping that the ‘real football’ would improve in the second half.
Minutes into the second half and the Gregorians were once again looking much the better team with Prestwich still to create any real chances. Admittedly, the Heys defence was holding strong but it was to be a moment of brilliance that would lead to Gregorians grabbing their deserved lead. The Gregorians number 2 (I had no teamsheet, but his team mates I think were calling him “Thommo” – a proper football nickname) had plenty of space 25 yards out from goal and unleashed an unstoppable drive. As soon as the ball left his foot there was never any doubt it was in and even the outstretched hands of the Heys keeper couldn’t get near it as it smashed into the back of the net. It was a goal of sheer class, incongruous with the rest of the game so far.
Heys could not string two passes together and as they got more and more agitated, Gregs pushed them further and went close to scoring again when they hit the outside of the post from a corner. Gregs continued pressured forced Heys into making a couple of changes and soon Heys were starting to get themselves back into the game. Prestwich almost equalised through a 20 yard freekick, which had the Gregs keeper scrambling to keep it out and from the resulting corner Heys hit the bar following a goalmouth scramble.
Time appeared to be up on a Prestwich comeback as the clock ticked well into injury time. However, a hopeful ball into the box landed to Jon Paul Caruana, who turned on the ball and finished from 12 yards out to make it 1-1. This was to be the last action of the game as following the Gregs’ restart the referee blew his whistle to confirm the sharing of the points.
Full Time: Prestwich Heys 1 – 1 Manchester Gregorians
I ventured into the clubhouse to see the full time scores from around the country, but of course I had forgotten that the game had kicked off at 14:00 and the rest of the games in the country were only at half time. Instead of hanging around, I decided to exit Grimshaw Park and call my first adventure into the Manchester League a day.
The football had not been the greatest, although the second half was a vast improvement on the first and I guess you can’t argue when you witness a 25 yard screamer and a last minute equaliser. However, overall, I had enjoyed my afternoon at Prestwich Heys and I wish them all the best with their attempts to redevelop the ground and their bid to re-enter the NWCFL.
Highlights: liked the ‘back to basics’ feel of the ground, the clubhouse, whole range of pies, selling Budweiser, cheap food/drink/entry, Gregs’ 25 yard screamer and Heys’ last minute equaliser.
Low Points: not that much around the ground, no stands, poor game.