Today was a day for returning to reality. Over the past week I had watched football at a rugby league stadium and next to a golf course in the grounds of a 5-star hotel and watched teams such as Dinamo Bucharest, Otelul Galati and Club Brugge take to the field. This Saturday afternoon I was actually quite looking forward to returning to some sort of football normality by watching two good old-fashioned non-league teams fight it out at a typical non-league, and more importantly, football-specific venue.
I feel like I’ve been on repeat since I started blogging about my 2013/14 travels last week, but once again it was an absolute scorcher and so we originally began to scout out games to go to near the seaside. Places like Blackpool, Southport and even Rhyl were touted, but after Gibbo claimed that Abbey Hey’s ground was a nice place to go when it’s sunny, we decided to head to their Abbey Stadium – a ground I had never visited before.
Abbey Hey would be long a way from the 5-star hotel, Mottram Hall, I spent my Thursday night at watching football. Despite Abbey Hey having the name of a pleasant-sounding village community you might find in rural Cheshire or Devon, the football club is based in the less idyllic area of East Manchester. I’m no snob, I’m a Merthyr Tydfil boy born and bred, but I think it’s safe to say that East Manchester certainly has one of those ‘reputations’.
I arrived at Piccadilly Gardens shortly after 12:00 and the place was rammed with people reveling in the early afternoon sunshine. However, I would not be hanging around Piccadilly for long as I headed to bus stop EO to catch bus 203, which runs every 10 minutes towards Stockport and which passes through the Gorton area of Manchester. By 12:30 I was on the top floor of a Stagecoach double-decker breezing along down Hyde Road towards East Manchester. Hyde Road is basically just a long straight road heading east and when I thought I was near enough to Abbey Hey FC, I alighted and went in search of something to do with 2 hours to go until kick off.
Much of the area surrounding Abbey Hey consists of streets of the typical red-brick terraced and semi-detached houses you usually find in south and east Manchester, but instead of wandering the streets, I decided to go for a more scenic approach and explore Debdale Park. The park was right next to the bus stop where I had hopped off the bus and on entering it soon became apparent that Debdale Park was one of those brilliant parks in urban areas that so envelopes you it’s in scenery, you forget you’re in one of the biggest cities in the UK at all. OK, so Debdale Park wasn’t exactly the most well-maintained park I’ve ever been to, but the park was certainly nice enough to keep me occupied. After navigating my way around the reservoir, I thought I was roughly exiting the park where I had entered, but it appeared not as I came out by an unfamiliar McDonalds and fitness centre. Fortunately, in between both these establishments was a Holiday Inn with a Harvester-style pub sitting directly next to it. That would do me for now.
You know it is truly summertime weather when I, a big lager drinker, switch to cider; all day I had being craving the stuff, and soon my desire for cider was satisfied with a bottle of Summer Fruits Kopparberg. Whilst enjoying my Kopparberg, I received a text from Gibbo to tell me that he was at the clubhouse at Abbey Hey and I thought I better start walking over to the ground.
I found myself less than ten minutes away from the ground, before I got distracted by the nicely named Friendship Tavern which was advertising “Manchester United v Singha All Stars XI 1.30pm”. The time had just past 1.30pm and I decided I had plenty of time to go in for a pint and to watch at least some of David Moyes’ first game in charge of Manchester United. Unfortunately, the 1.30pm advertisement was for the start of the game’s coverage and not kick-off, but the Friendship Tavern seemed a pretty cool, traditional boozer with one half of the pub covered in light blue memorabilia in ode to City, whilst the opposite side had the red of United emblazoned on its walls (admittedly, the City side was a lot more eye-catching, probably thanks to pub’s proximity to the Etihad Stadium).
I departed the pub shortly after 2pm and worked my way through the streets of red-bricked houses towards the Abbey Stadium. Despite the area around the ground having a supposed notorious reputation, the place seemed just like your average housing estate to me with very little sign of trouble on this sunny afternoon.
Less than ten minutes after leaving the pub, the floodlights of the Abbey Stadium were in view and soon so was the gate leading into the ground. On paying my £5 entry at the turnstile (well giving my money to a man at the gate with a plastic tub full of money and a handful of programmes), I walked into the home of Abbey Hey FC. The first thing you notice on entering Abbey Stadium is the substantial amount of car parking room inside the gates of the ground itself, surrounding the two-storied clubhouse. The large clubhouse, complete with caged windows, perhaps a sign of the supposed trouble that can sometimes be found in the area, took up a large portion of the one side of the pitch and it houses the usual assortment of bars, offices and changing rooms. On the opposite side of the pitch, stands a long sheltered stand with a standing section in the middle of it, with two small seated areas flanking it either side; the seating area actually consists of two wooden benches in each little seating area of the stand. Behind the goal nearest the entrance to the ground is a small banking running down to a large grassy area, which today was being used by children as a makeshift football arena of their own, whilst there is nothing of note behind the opposite goal, except a fairly small fence which was doing a fairly shoddy job of keeping the match balls flying out of the ground during today’s match.
Abbey Hey came into being at the start of the 20th century and were repeatedly disbanded and reformed throughout the first half of their existence. For the majority of their existence, Abbey Hey have resided in the Manchester Leagues, until they were accepted into the North West Counties Football League towards the end of the 90s. Last season the club finished 2nd in the NWCFL Division One and earned themselves promotion to the NWCFL Premier Division for the upcoming season.
As ever, my first port of call was the clubhouse, where Gibbo said I’d find him. En route to the clubhouse I said my hellos to Curzon’s manager (and blog regular Aaron’s Dad) John Flanagan, before heading inside in search of beer. I walked in and found myself in a very small bar area with no sign of Gibbo. In fact, there was no sign of anybody. I soon realised there was a sign on door saying the bar was for executives and officials and that the supporters’ bar was on the top floor. My mistake. On the upper floor of the building, I found a much more sizable bar with a lot more people, including Gibbo, Joe Lawton, Oliver, the young stadium announcer at Curzon Ashton’s Tameside Stadium and Aaron’s younger brother. Joe had warned me not to have the Becks Vier, so instead I asked for a pint of Stella 4% at the bar, only for the barman to pour me a £2.70 pint of Becks anyway (Stella was apparently off); Joe was right, there was something not quite right with the Becks, but I battled through and learnt my lesson not to buy it next time. The clubhouse was actually very impressive and in very good condition. I was even amazed at the bar mats advertising Heineken Cup fixtures from 2001 and the incredible condition they appeared to be in!
The groundhopper fraternity was completed as Gibbo found another groundhopper/blogger Zach Pierce outside in his Burnley shirt and with kick-off looming we headed pitchside to find a spot on the surrounding railing to lean on.
The East of Manchester is very much associated with Manchester City, with the club being born in the area and the club now once again being housed in east at the Etihad Stadium, so it was quite surprising to find Abbey Hey wearing all red. Curzon Ashton on the other hand, didn’t even bother wearing a regular shirt and it appeared as if their light blue shirts were merely training tops complete with no numbers on the back.
Perhaps it was inevitable with the heat burning down on the pitch, but the game was a tired and sluggish affair for ninety minutes. Firstly, I thought that perhaps my perception of football had been slightly highered having witnessed three technically excellent teams (sorry Hearts) over the past week, but after only minutes of today’s game I was sure that it wasn’t that and this could be a long ninety minutes of scrappy football.
Curzon were the better team throughout the first half without creating an awful lot, although the Abbey Hey keeper did make a couple of great saves. Curzon eventually opened the scoring through a very quickly taken freekick from new signing Matty Warburton – cue a lot of bread puns from our party. “He’s bread-ly in front of goal’, “I thought he sliced that effort’ were just two examples of a whole array of crappy bread jokes that we made for the next ten minutes. Gibbo seemed determined to make some sort of ‘batch’ pun but despite his determination it just wasn’t happening for him.
With ten minutes to go until half-time and with very little happening during the game, me and Gibbo went for a wander of the ground to see what hidden delights we could find. Easily my favourite feature was the random ladder we found leaning against the far wall, almost as if a spectator had had enough of the game and decided to escape the ground (which wasn’t too bad an idea having seen the way the game was going). In the far corner we also found small walled-in area with nothing within – it didn’t take us long to work out that this was a toilet area and for Gibbo to use its facilities. Then, we wandered down passed the part seating,part standing stand until we eventually made it back to where we had started just before the half time whistle.
We returned to the clubhouse for some half-time refreshments and this time I resorted to a bottle of Corona at a decently priced £2.50 (although lime to put in the top of it). Usually half-time conversation would turn to the half of football that we had just witnessed, but there was really very little to say.
The second half carried on in much the same way as the first with Curzon dominating possession, but without really forcing the issue. The heat was clearly playing a part in making this a slow-paced and languid affair and I even heard the Abbey Hey captain shout out in frustration that he was “fucked” after running in the heat for over an hour; he was duly taken off following his outburst.
Shortly before this, Curzon had actually doubled their lead, after Lawrence Hunter finished neatly from a tight angle when one-on-one with the Abbey Hey keeper. And that was it really. Not much else happened. As Zach noted in his excellent blog on the game (which can be read here) “The game got so boring that conversation changed to Matt’s uncle’s combine harvester. How? I really don’t know.” Or me!
The game got slower and slower as the preseason exhaustion really began to hit home, but eventually the final whistle went and I think the players and fans were both respectively relieved.
FT: Abbey 0 – 2 Curzon Ashton.
We decided to head back inside for one more drink before heading off, but I soon realised that it was something to eat that craved rather than a drink. Soon my thoughts turned to what takeaway I would get on the way home, before my thoughts were interrupted by another voice:
“I’m just going to put these rolls for the players here lads.”
The voice was the man who seemed to work at the club and he had decided to put a pretty full plate of assorted rolls on the table right between. We all eyed them up and soon it appeared that we had a game of “who-is-going-to-crack-first-and-eat-the-food-allocated-for-the teams” going on. We all held out until a few of Curzon’s players and staff came and sat with us and seemingly uninterested in the rolls said:
“Help yourselves lads.”
That’s all we needed. Me and Gibbo were straight in there and although it was quite difficult to work out what was in each roll at times before taking a bite, we weren’t really too bothered. As we were leaving there was still a mountain of food left so we made sure that we had a roll for the road as well.
It was unfortunate really that the Abbey Stadium had to follow Thursday’s quite special trip. It was a shame that the game didn’t deliver, but on such a hot day and with it still being early preseason it was to be expected I guess. Abbey Hey’s Abbey Stadium is a small, decent non-league ground, nothing more, nothing less – it does its job. Like all non-league clubs, the staff at Abbey Hey seemed utterly faultless and very friendly and you can sense that there is a lot of work going on at the club to keep it plodding along and to develop it further. Good luck to Abbey Hey in the new season following their step up from NWCFL Division One to the Premier Division.
Highlights: great clubhouse, friendly club, great for car parking if you visit by car, Friendship Tavern down the road.
Low Points: Dull game.