Hednesford Town v Crawley Town
Keys Park / FA Cup 1st Round / 9th November 2013
David v Goliath. Form goes out the window. Potential banana skins. Getting your name in the hat. All these football clichés point towards one thing: ‘The Magic of the Cup’. Yes, that’s right it’s the first round of the FA Cup ‘proper’. I can safely say that I love the FA Cup, especially during these early stages when a host of non-league clubs can still be found in ‘the hat’. The first round has to be the most wondrous round of them all with the opportunity for non-league to take on the the Football League and the opportunities for Jack and the Beanstalk-esque ‘giantkilling’. As the weekend approached, there was no chance I was the shunning the opportunity to take in a cup game. But where to go? After a quick glance at the fixtures, which had been conjured up by ‘the hat’, one game immediately jumped out at me: Non-league v Football League; Conference North v League One; minnow v giant; Hednesford Town v Crawley Town. No doubt about it, I was heading to Hednesford Town’s Keys Park.
After visiting Burton Albion last weekend, this would be the second weekend in row that I would be visiting the county of Staffordshire. It would also be the second weekend in a row that I would have to get to my destination via a train change at Birmingham New Street station, my least favourite of all the major train stations in England for some reason.
I arrived into New Street shortly after 10.30am and then hopped onto the train to Rugley Trent Valley, which was stopping at Hednesford en route. All week I had been telling people that I was heading to ‘Hed- ness – ford’, yet it would take prompting from the Midlands train service announcer to teach me that the place is actually pronounced more like ‘Hens-ford’.
My train rolled up into Hednesford (now being pronounced correctly) just before 12 o’clock and I was soon wandering the streets of the small Staffordshire town in search of a pub. From my wanderings down the main high streets, I can comfortably say that there is very little to the town. Much like where I was brought up, the town is most famous for coal mining, something which is recognised by the large Miner’s Lamp in the centre of the town. I was even struggling to find a pub in the centre of the town, so I decided to head towards the ground located just over a mile away from the main high street. Before heading off though, I called in the bookies to put a few accumulators on the day’s football (of course, betting on Hednesford to win today).
“Have you come from Crawley?” asked the man behind the counter as I handed over my (what was to prove unsuccessful) betting slip. When I replied that I certainly wasn’t from Crawley, he explained his question: “Just the accent that’s all.” My Welsh valleys accent may be slightly tinged with northern-ness these days, but it does not have any trace of ‘southern’ at all.
On the walk towards the ground I went past the impressive looking Our Lady of Lourdes church, complete with outdoor congregation area, before I eventually arrived at a pub at the top of the hill called the Plough & Harrow. With the pub sharing a name with one of my favourite boozers in Swansea, I thought I should pop in. I was greeted by silence as the very plush pub was practically empty. Admittedly, the pub appeared to be more of a ‘food pub’ than a prematch football haunt. Anyway, a pleasant enough 20 minutes was spent in the Plough and Harrow chatting to the barman, who recognised that I had a Welsh accent, before I headed down the other side of the hill towards my next pub stop.
The Hednesford Town official Twitter account had recommended that I visit the Cross Keys pub, just 5 minutes walks away from the ground, before the game. And what a great idea this was to prove to be. The Cross Keys is one of the oldest buildings in Hednesford with it being built in 1746. The pub’s historical roots are still visible today with the ‘Coach House’, now used as a small hotel, attached to the pub. The Cross Keys consists of two main rooms and has the look of a classic traditional pub. I’ve visited a lot of pubs on my travels this season, but the Cross Keys is well up there as one of my favourites. It had been described to me beforehand as a ‘football pub’ and it was easy to see why, as with still two hours to go until kick-off the place was already rammed with a mix of Hednesford and some Crawley fans.
By now I was mingling with the pub dwellers and I found myself in the company of Malcolm and Wendy, a friendly couple who were interested in my travels. When we were joined by their friends Phil and Carlos, conversation turned to a succession of football trivia questions with Carlos bamboozling us all with his “Who has captained the England national team, but never played above the Third Division?” question (answer to follow at the end of the blog. so you can all think that one over first). It turned out that Carlos and Phil both lived on the estate behind the pub, where Hednesford Town’s old ground had once sat – also called The Cross Keys. Carlos lived so close to the pub that his England/Hednesford flag even hung over the fence at the back of the pub. He informed me that his flag had seen plenty of action over the past 20 years with the flag cropping up at a Euro 96 game, as well as making an appearance in Frankfurt during the 2006 World Cup.
As the clock ticked towards 2 o’clock, I decided to wander up to the ground and get in before the big rush. The ground is situated just away from a retail park on what I imagine was once a patch of barren land judging from the very spacious car park. As I approached the ground through the wet and muddy car park, I didn’t think that there was very much to the ground with the only real visible structure being the Main Stand. The turnstiles I entered through actually went through the middle of the Main Stand and once through I found myself halfway up a staircase with the pitch and two burger vans below me.
Despite my slight misgivings from outside the ground, on entering I thought the ground was pretty cool. Obviously, Keys Park is mainly dominated by the large Main Stand that takes up most of the one side of the pitch. The Main Stand has 750 seats, the changing rooms, the main reception and the club bar. On the opposite side of the pitch is the Wimblebury Terrace, a sheltered standing terrace, which has the Heath Hayes Terrace to its left – another sheltered standing terrace which houses the more vocal Hednesford support. Finally, behind the opposite goals is the Hednesford End, a small sheltered seating stand which was today housing the Crawley support.
As mentioned earlier, Keys Park is not the first home of the Pitmen with the club previously playing 90 years at Cross Keys, before moving to their new ground in 1995. However, the club’s very first home from 1880-1903 was the brilliantly named ‘The Tins’ – named so because of the large amount of metal sheeting which surrounded the ground. The ground would then play at the previously mentioned Cross Keys ground from 1903-1995, before the club began moving up the leagues and the club decided that the Pitmen needed to move away from the crumbling ground. In 1995 Hednesford Town moved into £1.3million Keys Park
It was clear to see that FA Cup fever had truly swept the club on entering the club bar, as the queue went through the whole bar and straight out of the door. It was insanely busy and the club must have made a fortune from the bar alone. It took the best part of 20 minutes to queue for my beer and after finishing my drink whilst the players went through their warm-ups, I decided to head back into the stands ready for the big kick-off.
I had been informed before the game that the Heath Hayes Stand was the place to be for atmosphere and on walking down the front of the stand it was easy to see why. In the midst of the standing terrace was a small collection of Hednesford fans who were in full voice and bouncing around a good ten minutes before kick-off, whilst the people on the outskirts of the stand were still full of sound.
As the teams walked out onto the pitch, the 2000+ crowd burst into choruses of “We’re the White and Black Army” and nearby to where I was standing was lit up by the home fans’ flares, adding to the crescendo in the atmosphere.
Hednesford started the game brightly without creating too much, but as the half settled Crawley began to get a foothold in the game with their best chance falling to Josh Simpson, who hit the home team’s post from close range. Hednesford survived the storm and the game settled down into a decent, yet scrappy, game as the clock ticked down to half-time.
I’d also been quite interested to see Jamie Proctor play for Crawley, after he was signed by Brendan Rodgers for Swansea from Preston, before Michael Laudrup sold him without the young striker ever featuring for the Swans. From today’s showing, it was very evident why Swansea got rid of him – he wasn’t up to much on the pitch.
As tends to happen when the game dies down, the action in the stand became just as entertaining as the action on the pitch. The rowdy bunch of the Hednesford fans in the Heath Hayes Stand had taken to mocking the stewards throughout the first half and the most amusing moment was to come in the chant of “We’ve got your radio!”, accompanied by one fan swinging a walkie-talkie above his head, which had clearly been sneakily retrieved by one fan from an unsuspecting steward. The radio then went flying through the air towards the pitch to chants of “Have back your radio!” More on things found on the pitch later.
Half-time: Hednesford Town 0-0 Crawley.
During half-time, I made my way around to the two burger vans, which were wedged into the small area to the side of the Main Stand and with people heading to the toilets, the bar and the burger vans, there was chaos as everyone tried to squeeze through the cramped area. I began to wonder how cramped the ground must have been for the visit of FC United last season in the Evo-Stik Premier League play-off final (which saw Hednesford win and get promoted to the Conference North) with the record crowd of 4412 – almost double what it was today.
Eventually I emerged from the squeeze with a hot dog and a coffee and I then bumped into groundhopper Paul Brockett, who had informed me he would also be at the game via Twitter. Paul had travelled down from North Yorkshire with a few of his mates and I agreed to go and join them for the second half.
I was positioned in my new spot in the Wimblesbury Terrace with Paul and his gang ready for the second half, as more ‘pyro’ was ignited on the terrace behind the goal. There was plenty for the home fans to shout about as the Pitmen started the second half the better team and kept their league opponents on the backfoot. However, sadly for the home team, Crawley were to steal a goal against the run of play.
A powerful low cross/shot across the 6 yard box from Crawley’s Nicky Adams saw the ball deflect off Hednesford captain’s Darren Campion and head agonisingly into the home net. It was a real shame for Hednesford and Campion, who had had a great game so far.
Hednesford refused to drop the high tempo they had played at since the kick-off for the second half and soon they were awarded for their persistence. Jamey Osborne made a mockery of former Birmingham defender Matt Sadler by skinning him down the right-wing, before the left back took retribution by chopping him down in the box. Penalty to Hednesford! Up stepped Elliot Durrell to score the penalty and to make the score 1-1.
Sadly, Hednesford could not keep out Crawley, as Emile Sinclair buried a volley from a corner just moments after coming onto the pitch as a sub. There was now only ten minutes left for the Pitmen to find an equaliser.
Despite the home fans (plus me, Paul and his mates) getting well behind the home team, and even with Hednesford deploying their brilliantly named monster centre back Francino Francis up front, the goal just would not come and time would run out.
Full-time: Hednesford Town 1-2 Crawley.
The queue to get out of the ground was a long one, as everyone once again tried to squeeze through the small corner by the Main Stand and burger vans. I found myself stuck in a queue behind the goals when a steward approached and asked, “Does anybody smoke?” as he brandished a lighter in his hand, which had been thrown on the pitch. The steward was generally shunned. Then the same steward came back to us moments later with “Does anybody want a mobile phone? Just found this by the goal post.” Someone had thrown a phone at the goals! There was a nice collection going behind that goal it seemed.
Finally I found myself in the muddy car park and after saying my goodbyes to Paul, I headed back to the Cross Keys for postmatch beverages.
Just as it was before the game, the Cross Keys was already rammed and as I waited at the bar I was called over to join Malcolm and Wendy once again, who had popped back in for another drink it seemed. They also introduced me to Cross Keys royalty – Tom, the landlord of the place. A top guy! Weirdly enough, they then began to talk about how two minibuses full of Morecambe fans had arrived at the pub last weekend – it turned out to be the very same Morecambe fans I had spent the weekend before with at Burton. The ‘party bus’ had visited the Cross Keys!
I kept going to exit the pub, but somehow kept thinking ‘I’ll have one more for the road’. The Cross Keys had clearly charmed me. I had got chatting to John, a retired physics teacher, about teaching, football and how great the pub was whilst watching Norwich launch a comeback over West Ham on Sky’s Saturday Night Football, but at the final whistle of Norwich’s 3-1 victory, I thought that was as good a time as any to leave. Cheers to the Cross Keys!
A good day out. Hednesford Town’s ground is well worth a visit and if you do head that way, make sure you call in the Cross Keys for a pint beforehand (and possibly after as well).
Highlights: Cross Keys, Keys Park is a good ground, good game in the second half, great atmosphere.
Low Points: not much to the town centre, the game was rammed/long queues (great for the club though!)
(And the answer to that trivia question: Ian Botham – played for Scunthorpe in the Third Division and then went on to captain England’s cricket team. A sneaky question/answer if ever there was one).