It would take until I moved to Liverpool in 2010 for this whole groundhopping thing to really take off for me. There was never really any plan to going rallying up and down watching football in various stadiums and grounds at all. However, the move to Liverpool meant I could no longer go to the Liberty Stadium to watch my beloved Swansea City and instead I mainly found my football fix from largely watching Swansea play away and watching other teams play, particularly Tranmere Rovers. One day, after I counted up my grounds, I realised I’d been to more than I realised and soon the notion of ‘completing the 92’ was flooding my head. When I moved to Manchester a year later the groundhopping went up a gear and I’ve definitely become far more obsessive about it since the move across the East Lancs. The move to Manchester introduced me to non-league football properly and I fell in love with football in the lower regions of the football pyramid, almost as much as watching Swansea play in the top tier. I moved my groundhopping goalposts from ‘completing the 92’ to completing 100 grounds, thanks mainly to my burgeoning love of non-league football and my attendance at various non-league arenas up and down the country.
Last weekend I visited my 99th ground, Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park, meaning that this Saturday I could tick off my 100th football ground. I had to choose somewhere special – but where? I scoured ahead for somewhere to go at least 2 weeks in advance and one day it just hit me – the perfect place to visit: Leek Town. Why Leek? No not because of the Welsh connotations associated with Leeks, but because the ground is poignantly and beautifully named Harrison Park (for those unclear, my second name is Harrison). Leek Town’s Harrison Park was to be my landmark 100th ground.
I could have perhaps chosen a town that was easier to get to by public transport, as Leek does not have its own train station, but my heart was set on the trip to the Staffordshire town and to get there I had to go via a place that gives me the shivers: Stoke. I arrived in Stoke just before 10.30am and the next destination was the town centre area of Hanley to get a bus to Leek. My Google Maps was determined that Hanley was a 40 minute walk away from Stoke station, but I defied that by making it there in just over 20 minutes. Soon enough, I was on the number 18 First Potteries bus to Leek.
At 11:30am I arrived into the town of Leek and a quick exploration of the town centre confirmed to me what I had heard before visiting the town: Leek is a lovely town. The town is a very quaint, old market town, which resides just west of the Peal District in the Staffordshire Moorlands. Apparently, one of Leek’s most famed attractions is the fact that you can see the ‘astro-geographical phenomenon’ of a double sunset in certain areas around the town when the sun sets twice in the same place on the same evening. I almost wanted to go in search of such a magically sounding place and pretend to be Luke Skywalker in that famous Star Wars scene on Tatoonie; sadly, this phenomenon only occurs around the Summer solstice.
As I wandered the town, I couldn’t help popping into the ‘Old School Gamer Shop’ to peruse some of the old Mega Drive, N64, Seg Saturn and Dreamcast classics that I once owned. I even found a copy of the very first FIFA game, which we once owned (before it was stolen when our house was burgled if I remember rightly) and even a copy of hidden footballing gem for the Sega Saturn , Sega Worldwide Soccer – a Harrison household favourite back in the day.
As I walked on to the town’s main high street, my head was immediately turned by a small, green shop called ‘Lawton’s Famous Pies’ – of course, I could not resist and decided to sample these ‘Famous Pies’. And what a decision! Firstly, the pies on sale cost 98p (wow!) and the portion, although not exactly massive, was respectable enough (and for that price you may as well buy 2 if you are particularly peckish). I opted for a steak pie and it was unbelievably good – it was perfection; dare I say, Lawton’s Famous Pies even trumps Wigan’s Galloways pie shop – quite a claim as anyone who has been to Galloways will testify to! I could already sense this was going to be a good day.
Next stop was to be the Roebuck pub, a old looking Tudor-style building with signs plastered all over it advertising its ‘Titanic Brewery’ connection. The bar was covered in a variety of Titanic Brewery’s ales and I decided to sample an Iceberg beer. Of course, I couldn’t resist saying to the barmaid “I hope this Titanic beer goes down well,” but she didn’t appear amused; I guess they get that joke all the time.
Following my Iceberg beer, which I can confirm went down an absolute treat, I headed across the road to the Cock Inn (yes, I giggled as well). The Cock Inn (hehehe) was very nice and tidy inside and the staff were very friendly, as they gave me directions to the ground and even gave me a brief history lesson on the Harrison family who are linked to Leek Town and Harrison Park.
After passing Leek’s main square, where today there was a large market in full swing, I headed down the street to Den Engel, a Belgian themed pub recommended to me by someone on Twitter. And what a cool pub it is. The whole bar, unsurprisingly, is crammed with all sorts of Belgian beers on tap and the walls of the pub are a celebration of the Belgian drinking scene. Not that I had any food (after my steak pie), but the food looked and smelt beautiful and I heard one couple praising it highly. Definitely worth a visit.
It was now time to make my way to Harrison Park, apparently about a 15 minute walk from the town centre. The staff at the Cock Inn (I’ll stop sniggering now) had given me rather helpful directions, but for some reason I decided to try lead my way to the ground by using my Google Maps App, which had admittedly been temperamental all day. Indeed, this was a bad move as the app started leading me away from the ground and it was only a sense that I was going the wrong way that made me turn back. After then leading myself down multiple dead-end streets, I eventually arrived at the Dyer Arms, which I was told was right next to Harrison Park, although from standing outside the pub I could still not see any sign of a football ground – not even a set of floodlights shooting up into the air. Anyway, I thought I’d solve the mystery of ‘where on Earth is Harrison Park?’ later on. There was still 45 minutes to go until kick-off and with the Spurs v Chelsea game on Sky Sports I headed into the Dyer Arms, a small, dingy pub with the lounge full of punters watching the early kick-off on TV. The pub also had the harrowing image of a large Stoke badge under the TV. Always enough to terrify me anyway!
With the final whistle being blown on the Spurs v Chelsea game, that was the cue to head out and finally find Harrison Park. As I was told, the ground was literally around the corner from the pub, but it was snuggly squeezed into the surrounding houses and the small hill overlooking the ground on one side and the derelict factory on the other side of it. The fact that the floodlights were rather puny, didn’t help me find the place.
I paid the strange price of £7.50 and I was into my 100th ground. Harrison Park has been the home of Leek Town since 1948 (and is also the current home of NWCFL team Leek CSOB), although football has been played in the town of Leek since the 1870s with club side Leek FC. However, the current Leek Town club is a descendant of a team called Leek Lowe Hamil. The club started life playing in numerous local and county leagues, before entering the North West Counties leagues in 1980s and eventually the Northern Premier Divisions. The club even had two seasons at Conference level, before sinking back down a level. Despite the club being located in the Staffordshire area, the structuring of the Evo-Stik Northern Leagues means Leek find themselves in the Division One South region of the league – a league they currently sit on top of.
As the club climbed the leagues, Harrison Park has also improved significantly. The ground was originally named Hamil Park, but the ground’s name changed to Harrison Park in honour of former chairman Geoff Harrison. The main hub of the ground is the Main Stand which sits on the halfway line and is quite an impressive structure for the level at which Leek Town play football. Directly next to the Main Stand is the clubhouse and the tea hut, accessible from the hatch at pitchside. The rest of the ground consists of three sheltered standing terraces with the factory overlooking the stand behind one goal, and the hill with some sort of housing estate on it, overlooking the other stand behind the opposite goals. I have to say that Harrison Park is a superb non-league ground!
I had a quick pint in the fairly basic clubhouse and then headed to the food hut; I decided to leave the pies alone, as I felt that nothiing would top the Lawton’s pies effort from earlier, and instead I bought myself a portion of chips (£1.50), which were also pretty awesome.
With prematch refreshments done it was now time for the game to kick-off with Leek playing in all blue (they are excitingly nicknamed ‘The Blues) and Goole in all red. Leek started the game the better teaM, although both sides failed to truly impose themselves on the game. It would eventually be from a Leek attack that Goole would score, as they rapidly counterattacked from the home team’s corner to score one-on-one past the Leek keeper (I think that’s what happened anyway – I was at the wrong side of the ground for a great view).
The first half never really sprung into life and so I went for a wander of the ground, particularly the nooks and crannies of the Main Stand. A couple of months ago, I met two Leek Town directors, Allan Clarke and Graham Richards, on my way back from watching Swansea play at WBA (they make an appearance at the end of my WBA blog actually); they had told me to come say hello if I ever did go to Leek Town, but sadly I could not spot them in the main stand’s director box and I was told they were not in attendance today (they had told me that they go watch Aston Villa a bit, so I assumed that they were at Villa Park watching the Villa beat Manchester City that afternoon).
Half-time: Leek Town 0 – 1 Goole.
As the second half got into full swing I was approached by a Leek fan, who said he had heard me talking to the landlord in the Dyer Arms about my groundhopping escapades and was curioous to hear more of my travels – I clearly must be a fascinating character! Rob (that turned out to be his name) is a regular at Harrison Park and chatted to me about the club for a while along with Stoke season ticket holder Jeff and both were good company during the second half.
As we chatted away, Leek began to pile on the pressure with a series of glorious chances being missed by the The Blues, including a rocket shot from 6 yards against the left hand post, when it looked easier to score. As the Leek fan next to me sighed, “It’s just not going to be our day.” I had to agree with him.
However, with 18 minutes left, Leek finally equalised through Jordan Johnson who finished from close range. The game was now Leek’s for the taking it seemed, but yet they still continued to make mess of a host of chances. As many began to accept that the home side would only be getting a point today, which would still leave Leek clear at the top of the table, Leek launched another attack. A superb cross from the left-wing, after a decent passage of passing, led to Leek’s Danny Smith sprinting into the box and sending a soaring header past the wrong footed Goole keeper and into the back of the net. The fans behind the goal went crazy and Smith decided to join them and bask in his glory. Game over and 3 points looked certain now for the Blues.
Full time Leek Town 2 – 1 Goole AFC.
Following the final whistle, my original plan was to go back to the Dyer Arms to watch the late evening kick-off between Swansea and Arsenal on Sky, but instead I decided to head a bit closer to town to make getting home after the game had finished that little bit easier. Soon enough, i was back in the square, which was thriving with the hustle and bustle of the market place earlier, but was now deserted.
For the Swansea v Arsenal I set up camp in the Engine Room pub and watched the early stages of the game with an old Brighton fan, who pined for the glory days of 1970/80s football as he reeled off a load of classic matches I should watch on YouTube when I got home. Incidentally, my Brighton friend’s name was also Harrison.
Sadly, my great day in Leek was slightly tarnished by Swansea going on to lose 2-1 to Arsenal; not even my shouts at the TV screen, much to the bemusement of the other punters in the Engine Room, had helped Swansea on to victory. The loss wasn’t helped by the Arsenal supporting barman either.
Swansea result aside, I had a fantastic day at Leek Town. Easily one of my favourite non-league grounds that I’ve visited (and with easily the best name) and the town itself is charming and fun at the same time with a whole host of nice pubs and not forgetting the magnificence of ‘Lawton’s Famous Pies’. I’ll be back again soon Leek.
Highlights: Lovely town, plenty of pubs, Lawton’s Famous Pies, great ground
Low Points: small floodlights (I like my non-league floodlights to be gargantuan), not a great game really.