Northwich Victoria v Fleetwood Town
Valley Road / Friendly / 4th July 2014
It’s back! Football is back! Well for me anyway. Just 32 days after my last game, Manchester United Legends v Real Madrid Legends at Old Trafford, I’m back on my groundhopping adventures. I’m sure most people consider the real return of football to be the Community Shield, the opening weekend of the Football League or Premier League or maybe even the European qualifying games. However, for me, preseason football is still football and so I feel my exclamations at the start of this blog are wholeheartedly necessary. In fact, I would go on to say that one of the most enjoyable periods of my 2012/2013 travels was the preseason, as I got to visit a hell of a lot of new grounds, pay cheap entry to get into grounds (as is usually the case for these unimportant preseason fixtures) and generally had a joyous time – plus it was quite nice to watch football in the sunny weather for a change.
So, to kickstart my 2013/2014 travels (saying that gets me excited) which prestigious arena had the honour of opening the new ‘Lost in…’ campaign. Wembley? The Nou Camp? The Maracana? No, a truly auspicious stadium was required for such an event. How about Valley Road in Flixton? That’s more like it.
For those who are not up to speed with Greater Manchester geography, Flixton is a small village located about 6 miles southwest of Manchester, just between the leafy suburb of Urmston and small satellite town of Irlam, where I work. The last stop my train to work stops at before getting to Irlam is Flixton, yet thanks to the foliage surrounding Flixton station I realised that I had no idea what Flixton was like. I was actually quite surprised to find out towards the end of last season that the village even had a football club. I was even more surprised when I found out that one of the most historic clubs in English football had made temporary home in Flixton: Northwich Victoria (a lot more on them later).
My first venture of the season was to begin on a Thursday evening, after finishing work at 5pm and making the short 5 minute train journey to the next stop of Flixton. The weather forecast had been predicting an early July heatwave for Manchester, but throughout the workday the sky remained irritatingly grey. However, as I strolled to Irlam station the sun came blazing down. By the time I had arrived at the Church Inn, a charming pub just 2 minutes walk away from Flixton station, I was sitting in the beer garden with my shades on enjoying a £3.39 pint of San Miguel. Perhaps summer was arriving this year!
It may not have been the most financially prudent pint to start off the 2013/14 travels, but the pub was great nonetheless and clearly a very decent establishment. In fact, en route to the Church Inn I passed the Village Inn, which looked equally pleasant and it soon became clear to me that Flixton is a lovely part of Greater Manchester suburbia. This is when I think groundhopping is at its greatest: when else or why else would I visit a place such as Flixton apart from for football?
By 17:45 I found myself weaving my way through the red-bricked detached houses of Flixton, passing parks, a whole host of convenience stores and the odd take away until I arrived at the Fox and Hounds, a pub just down the road from Flixton FC’s Valley Road.
The Church Inn and its neighbouring Village Inn may have been located in the nicer Urmston Village area, but the Fox and Hounds was the far superior pub. The Fox and Hounds is a large pub with one main bar area and a smaller conservatory area, which looked like it was set aside for people eating, as well as there being two outside drinking areas either side of the pub’s main building. Also considering the quite plush interior of the pub, I was quite impressed to be met with a £2.90 price tag for a pint of Fosters – a reasonable price for such a nice pub in a nice area of Manchester.
I waited in the Fox and Hounds until Mr. Non-League himself, Aaron Flanagan showed up from his work (he’s gone big time since my early blogs and now works for the MEN), as he was joining me for tonight’s game. Aaron arrived just as I was finishing my drink and despite the short distance to the ground, Aaron drove us just down the road to Valley Road.
The ground was once host to the now defunct Flixton FC, a club once emblazoned in blue and white, but Aaron informed me that he had heard that since Vics moved to Flixton that the ground had been overcome with the green and white stripes of Northwich Victoria; this very much appeared to be the case as we pulled up just outside the ground. We paid our £5 entry and I was into my first football arena of the 2013/14 season. Of course, Valley Road was originally designed for the lesser Flixton FC, but it has now become the home of one of English football’s most famous non-league names.
Northwich Victoria are one of the most historic names in English football, after being formed in 1874. The suffix of ‘Victoria’ comes from the name of the reigning queen at the time of their founding. The club began life playing at the famous Drill Field, a place they would call home for 125 years with many people believing it to be one of the oldest grounds to have football continuously played on it. However, after a new stand had been developed in the 90s (the opening of the new stand led to the club taking on a strong Manchester United XI in 1998 to commemorate the occasion) the club played their last game at Drill Field in 2002, as the ground was sold to property developers and eventually demolished. The Vics groundshared with their bitter rivals Witton Albion briefly before moving into their newly built home, the Victoria Stadium, in 2005. The ground was opened by Sir Alex Ferguson and was the home of Manchester United Reserves during the 2007/08 and 2008/09 season. The Victoria Stadium was even used in my favourite ever Nike Advert – the 2008 Guy Ritchie directed advert featuring the first person perspective of a footballer moving up through his career. The club moved briefly to Altrincham’s Moss Lane ground in 2009, before moving back to the Victoria Stadium until 2012.
Sadly, the 2000s had seen Northwich Victoria jump from one financial meltdown to the next, so much so that by 2008 they no longer owned their stadium. 2009/10 saw the club fall further as they were expelled from the Conference and placed in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League. The next huge blow for the club would come in early 2012 as it was announced that the Victoria Stadium had actually been bought by THOR Chemicals, the company that lives next door to the stadium. The club were kicked off the premises with immediate effect and led a nomadic existence for the second half to their season, playing their remaining games at a host of different grounds. After a stint groundsharing once again, this time with Stafford Rangers (40 miles from Northwich), the club moved slightly closer to home, but still just over 25 miles away in Flixton.
The club’s tumultuous recent history has seen a section of the support split off to form a supporter-owned breakaway club, 1874 Northwich, but we’ll save their story for another day (I visited 1874 Northwich’s adopted home at Winsford 3 months later, so you can read about them here) . Anyway, now back to us in Flixton.
First stop, as always, was to be the clubhouse, which was directly on our right as we entered through the turnstiles. Entry to the two-storied clubhouse (complete with balcony) was gained through making a step through what appeared to be a patio door and into a decent sized bar area with a small oven housing today’s collection of pies and pasties. I ordered a pint of Carling and a meat and potato pie (a fair pie, but nothing mind blowing), before I spotted my opportunity for a first of the 2013/14 season: a ‘non-league dog’ was sitting just outside the conservatory door to the clubhouse and shortly after being snapped, the dog was made the first dog published this season on Non-League Dogs, a website that is still a personal favourite of mine.
Soon the teamsheets were being dished out around the clubhouse and it was good to see that Fleetwood were fielding a strong team against their non-league opponents, but there was one name in particular that jumped out from the teamsheet.
“AARON! The number 3 for Fleetwood is Jon Parkin!” I shouted in delight as I realised that on this Thursday evening I was going to witness the man commonly referred to by football fans as ‘The Beast’. For those unaware of Big Jon, formerly of Preston and Cardiff City and now of Fleetwood, the man is an absolute monster of a striker – 6″4 and the size of a tank. “We can’t leave today until we have had a photo with Jon Parkin,” declared a determined Aaron.
As Parkin lumbered on to the pitch (wearing number 9 not number 3 as the teamsheet broadcasted), I thought that he looked in fairly decent shape and not as rotund as he has in the past. Despite his ties to Cardiff City, I’ve always been a massive fan of Parkin and was looking forward to seeing him play. It was to be Parkin who opened the scoring for Fleetwood. The game had been fairly uneventful, although Fleetwood were having the better of the game, until Parkin poked home after McLaughlin’s original shot was parried by Northwich goalie Nick Culkin (Yes, the ex-Manchester United goalkeeper) .
A fairly incident-free half concluded with the score at 1-0. Shortly before the half-time whistle we had gone for a wander of the ground. The ground is a typical non-league venue with one small, sheltered, seating stand running up half the one side of the pitch next to the clubhouse and on the oppsite side of the ground is a sheltered stand, which resembles more of a roofed passageway than an actual stand. The ground is very much two-sided and there is no sort of stand behind either goal. After completing our circuit of the ground, we headed back to the clubhouse for a half time pint, before re-emerging shortly after the second half had kicked off.
Such are preseason friendlies that for the second half Northwich and especially Fleetwood had made wholesale changes. Sadly, Parkin was taken off for Jamille Matt, a striker I had previously seen play for Kidderminster at Hereford on Boxing Day and for Fleetwood when I visited their ground in April – he had impressed me on both occasions.
As Fleetwood continued to dominate, Aaron spotted a large man sitting on a bench in the opposite stand: Jon Parkin! This was our chance to meet and obviously get a photo with the great man. We began to make our way sheepishly towards Big Jon, who was sitting on a bench with some other Fleetwood fans whilst still wearing his kit and with his right foot bandaged up and stretched out on the bench in front of him. Soon we were standing in front of the Beast.
“Excuse me Jon. Could we have a photo with you please?” I asked. When he happily agreed I thought I better point out the Swansea badge that I was wearing on my hoody to the former Cardiff striker, but he was cool with it.
“What are you doing all the way up here?” quizzed the Beast.
“I work in Salford as a teacher.”
“I don’t blame you mate – the Welsh are un-teachable,” stated Big Jon, much to the laughter of the Fleetwood fans surrounding him.
Soon Aaron asked could he also have a photo with the big man to which Jon replied with “Of course. Do you want to sit on my knee as well?” Brilliant. Aaron declined the offer of sitting on Parkin’s lap, but he did get his photo. In fairness to Jon Parkin, he seemed like a cool guy and he certainly provided us with a chuckle or two.
By the hour mark, it was deservedly 2-0 to Fleetwood as Matt squeezed through the defence and fired powerfully into the roof of the net from close range. At this point it looked like it might be a rout for Fleetwood.
The evening was also to be the first time I was to meet Mark, the guy behind the excellent groundhopping/photography website No Clash of Colours. Thanks to Twitter, I knew Mark was going to the game beforehand, but I had no idea what he looked like. I assumed he was the tall guy who I’d noticed circling the ground and taking photos from pitch side, so I bravely confronted him asking him if he was indeed Mr. No Clash of Colours. Fortunately he was that very man and we stood with Mark for the remainder of the game, trading stories about our various travels. Then Mark declared that he had brought something for me en route to the game just in case he did happen to bump into me at the game. “What could it be?” I thought as Mark rummaged around in his bag. To my delight he produced a packet of Haribo football mix! The first ever Lost Boyos gift – a gift from one blog to another blog.
Despite looking out of the game, Northwich scored just before the 80th minute to make it 2-1; the goal came from Scott Harries who scored with a precise right-footed volley after running clear of the Fleetwood defence. Despite pulling a goal back, the game still didn’t come to life and the visiting team held out to record a 2-1 win.
We remained chatting to Mark for a while after the game, enjoying the late evening Mancunian sunshine, before saying our goodbyes and heading off. I cannot recommend No Clash of Colours enough – a top blog and Mark’s a top guy as well. Hopefully, our blogs will cross paths more and more over the coming season.
Overall, a light, but fun way to start my 2013/14 travels. Jon Parkin even said goodbye to us as he was departing the ground.
Highlights: the first game of the season, nice area, Fox and Hounds pub, meeting Jon Parkin, meeting Mark from ‘No Clash of Colours’ (plus my gift of Haribo).
Low Points: typically bland preseason action on the pitch, fairly dull game.