Swansea’s first away game of the 2012/13 season would find them hosted by Tottenham Hotspurs at White Hart Lane. Conveniently for me, my best mate Ed had actually moved to London the weekend before, so I had myself some kindly provided accommodation for the weekend. Of course, with such an offer, I had to take full advantage of it and decided to head out to watch some local Bank Holiday non-league football in the London area.
Originally, a trip to Farnborough was pencilled in, but the fact they were suspended from the league the week before meant that their fixture was obviously cancelled. Another scan through the various divisions brought me to the The Ryman Isthmian Football League Division South fixtures and one immediately screamed out at me: a game that appeared to be a derby. I’d never heard of Walton-on-Thames until that moment, but apparently it was the home of two football clubs who’d be meeting each other that Bank Holiday Monday: Walton & Hersham FC and Walton Casuals FC. With the game being hosted at Walton & Hersham’s Stompond Lane home and having found out it was enough to get to from Ed’s flat, Walton it was to be for my Bank Holiday football fix.
Me and Ed, who amazingly was making his ‘Lost in…’ debut after all this time, set off for Walton from Waterloo station shortly after 11 o’ clock. Before it was midday, we were pulling into the small town of Walton, located in Elmbridge borough of Surrey, just South West of central London.
On arrival at Walton-on-Thames train station, we realised we had no idea where we were going, but our Google Maps apps were informing us we should be on the other side of the track – problem was there didn’t appear be any sort of bridge to cross the track and I wasn’t really up for train dodging on the tracks of a busy London line. Fortunately, after a bit of looking around we found a subway footpath and on finally getting to the other side of the tracks we found a conveniently placed pub right in front of us.
The Ashley Park (or Ember Pub & Dining to give it it’s more corporate friendly and luxury sounding name) is a large pub directly opposite the station. It is far from a traditional pub and it is more like an upmarket Wetherspoons than anything, but it certainly did the job as a stop gap before carrying on our stroll through Walton and as a useful meeting point for our other companion for today’s Lost Boyos trip: Harry Hugo of The Bib Theorists and FreshPress fame , who has featured on this blog on several occasions before.
Me and Harry fall on different ends of the football stadium spectrum; whilst Harry is more comfortable in the surrounds of a plush new stadium’s press/VIP box, I’m more happy standing on a freezing cold standing terrace in the middle of winter at some crumbling stadium. When Harry arrived at the pub, he informed us that he had already parked his car at the ground which was about 5 minutes away.
“You’re going to love the ground by the way. It’s shit!” were Harry’s opening words on meeting up with me and Ed in the pub. Of course, when he means ‘shit’ he means the most positive kind of ‘shit’ to me – the kind of ‘shit’ that means traditional old ground. When Harry carried on to say that the ground also had a running track, I knew we were in for a treat.
After a couple of pints in The Ashley Park we thought we’d go in search of a new haunt and see a bit more of Walton. Harry was brought up in the Surrey area and, as he likes to boast, was an apparently fine footballer in the county in his youth, so he knew the areas around Surrey quite well. He’d claimed that Walton is one of the more upmarket areas of Surrey and from our walk down the main road towards Stompond Lane it was easy to see what he meant; some of the large, electric-fenced off houses we past would not have looked out of place on an episode of Footballers’ Cribs – in fact, it wouldn’t have be surprised me if some professional footballers did live in the area.
Speaking of people living in the area, it was only after posting my photos on Facebook after my visit to Walton, that my Danish friend Kristoffer, who I’d met in at FC Nordsjaelland v FC Copenhagen out in Denmark only a few weeks before, informed me that he was brought up on the very street we were walking down – a bizarre coincidence indeed!
With no pubs in site, we thought we may as well head around to the ground and have a nose around before kick off and then maybe head to Walton high street in pursuit of another drinking hole. We arrived in the large car park of Stompond Lane, a car park Harry praised highly (for some strange reason he enjoys rating the quality of car parks at football grounds), and it soon became clear why I would enjoy it – it did look like the classic sort of stadium that I would love.
As we walked past the turnstiles into the ground (well, the little outskirt area around the ground) I noticed a small bungalow-like building by itself on the other side of the turnstiles. “Is that the clubhouse?” I queried. When the steward replied in the affirmative and informed us that it was already open, we thought we may as well pay our £8 entry to the ground now and enjoy a few prematch bevvies in the clubhouse. The area behind the ground consisted of a small burger van (no pies today), the clubhouse and some tennis courts (more on them later).
The clubhouse at Walton & Hersham is great! It really is like a lovely small cottage at the back of the ground, but obviously with a bar. The inside of the clubhouse consisted of a bar (complete with signed Teddy Sheringham portrait and old school Holsten-era signed Spurs shirt), a few high top circular tables scattered around and a leather sofa in the corner in front of the large overhead screen, which was, impressively, showing the highlights of Walton & Hersham’s latest game.
As I’ve learnt over the past couple of years, if you want to know more about a club, a good place to start is the club barman and the one at Walton & Hersham was particularly friendly. I was well aware that the club were brilliantly nicknamed the Swans, but I was not aware that the club had actually played Swansea in an FA Cup tie in November 1994; many of the more old-school Swans fans actually tweeted me after the game asking was the club that I visited the same club they had visited in the early 90s – I informed them it certainly was. However, Swans are not the only big name to have been linked with the club over the years. The club have had former Premier League manager Dave Bassett as a player in the 70s, Sir Stanley Matthews as club president for a brief time and even Dragons’ Den and former Millwall chairman Theo Paphitis was even a part of the board of directors. The club can also lay claim to defeating a Brian Clough team, albeit during his ill-fated time at Brighton & Hove Albion (wikipedia even claims that following the defeat to such minnows that Clough ended up in a fight with Brighton fan and comedian Eric Sykes). The famous punk band Sham 69 were even formed in the area and supposedly even named themselves after a bit of faded graffiti, which read “Walton & Hersham 69” in reference to the year that the club won the Athenian League title.
After a couple of pints in the bar (and some cheesy chips for Harry: great chips, although the cheese was just two slabs of plastic-y cheese placed on top of the chips) we decided to make our way pitchside ready for the kick off for the biggest derby on the Thames that day.
The ground really is great looking non-league ground. The focal point of the ground is the main stand that sits on the halfway line, which can hold 404 fans on the wooden bench/plastic seat combos fitted into the stand, plus another 40 in the director boxes. On the opposite side of the ground is a very rundown looking covered standing terrace, which runs the length of the one side of the pitch, but, sadly, this stand was not opened for the match today. As mentioned previously, the pitch itself is surrounded by a running track (the ground’s official name is the originally named Sports Ground) and the curve of the track to the left of the main stand led to another opening standing terrace, which follows the curve of the track. However, the majority of the fans had gathered on the small grass bankings adjacent either side of the main stand (perhaps put off by the 50p entry fee into the main stand) and it was on one of these small bankings that we positioned ourselves for the kick off to the Walton-on-Thames derby. The home team started the half as the much better team, exerting constant pressure on their neighbouring rivals, although not creating too many chances. The closest Walton & Hersham would come to scoring came shortly after the half hour mark when the lively looking Warren Gladdy took the ball past a couple of defenders and around the goalie only to see his goal line effort stopped on the line.
By now we had decided to go for a wander of the ground so I could get some photos taken of the ground from the curving open standing terrace. It was while wandering along the top row of the standing terrace behind the goal that I noticed that you could look over the stand and seen a whole array of tennis courts and some sort of tennis club going on. Fortunately for the tennis players, I’m not too big a tennis fan and so they avoided my prising eyes. The real game changing moment would come towards the end of the half, as the Swans found themselves down to ten men; with the ball free near the far touchline, Steve Betancourt dived into a tackle, a tackle that the referee deemed dangerous and thus produced the game changing red card. Shortly, after the dismissal of Belancourt, the half-time whistle blew, giving Walton & Hersham time to readjust themselves and for us to head to the bar for a quick half-time pint and piss. With the numerical advantage over Walton & Hersham, Walton Casuals took the lead early into the second half with Malachi Hudson comfortably finishing a ball across the box.
We had now noticed that the 50p entry to the main stand rule had been exterminated, so we decided to enjoy the rest of the second half from a vantage point up in the stand. As we watched on from our new seats, the Swans were actually beginning to exert some pressure on their rivals with a series of corners, yet the more the home team pushed on, the more prone they were to being caught on the counter attack. Throw in the fact that the Casuals’ forwards were very quick indeed and it became clear that the Swans were in trouble.
After one such a counter attack, in which the Casuals somehow blazed an easy effort over the bar inside the box, the home team sound found themselves 2-0 down when Scott Day volleyed home from inside the box. 2-0 to the Stags and it was pretty much game over now, although to Walton & Hersham’s credit they had a proper go at it in the last ten minutes and created a series of chances; however it was too little too late. Full time: Walton & Hersham 0 – 2 Walton Casuals. A decent game. “Are you still here!?” declared the charming barman. Yes, we were. Instead of heading straight back to the train station, and with a good clubhouse on offer, we thought we may as well head back there for post match analysis and drinks. On asking Ed what he thought of his first ever non-league match, like many people who pop their non-league cherry, he said that he was surprised of the quality of football on show even in these dark depths of the English football pyramid – a message for all you who are weary of sampling the delights of non-league football as you feel it’ll be like watching 22 men running around like headless chickens, hoofing the ball repeatedly and killing each other on unloved, muddy pitches. In fairness, it had been an enjoyable game, but it was a bit of shame that a red card had unbalanced the game. I have to say though, I did very much like Walton & Hersham’s ground – maybe a trip to Walton Casuals for the return derby is needed.
Highlights: nice part of the country, great clubhouse, good car park (that’s Harry’s contribution) great ground, good game of football Low Points: red card spoiled the game slightly, I wish the other shabbier looking standing terrace was open.