Lancaster City v Harrogate Railway
The Giant Axe / Northern Premier League Division One North / 4th January 2014
I think I’ve now well-publicised my adoration for Morecambe FC with the League Two club being the closest thing I have to a second team (although I still don’t believe you can have a real ‘second team’). For those who have made the journey to my favourite Lancashire town via train, you’ll know that there is a pit stop en route before you can arrive at the wonders that Morecambe and its wonderful bay has to offer: the city of Lancaster.
My encounters with Lancaster have been compounded to just two train changes at the city’s train station to make my way to the neighbouring home of the Shrimps. Despite my travels into Lancaster lasting only a matter of minutes each time, I vowed to always make the journey back to explore the city sometime in the near future, as from my interludes in Lancaster, I always found the city rather attractive looking. Plus it’s always nice to see a football stadium located just minutes away from a train station: Lancaster City’s intimidatingly named home, The Giant Axe (more on the ground name later).
I arrived into Lancaster shortly before 11:30am and after double-checking that I hadn’t made up the fact that the city’s football ground is just next to the station (I can confirm it was there), I headed up the hill towards the castle perched above the city. Lancaster Castle sits at the top of the hill in the middle of the city with the station and the ground on one side of it and the town centre on the other. As I was early enough, I thought of making my first castle visit since the trip to Dumbarton, but sadly you could only explore the castle on one of the guided tours, which isn’t really my cup of tea. It’s a shame really, as from what I had read the night before Lancaster Castle is one of the most famous castles in the country and there is plenty of history behind it – it was even a fully functioning prison as recently as 2011. For any history-buffs out there, I’m sure you’d enjoy reading about Lancaster Castle.
After an arduous traipse up the hill to outside the castle, Lancaster appeared below me and as I suspected, what a beautiful city it is. Even from the top of the hill it was easy to see the trendy clash of young and old in the city with the area being very much a student stronghold with Lancaster University and University of Cumbria in the city, as well as a mix of old Georgian architecture adding the traditional feel to the place.
My wander through the town took me through the main shopping high street and past a whole plethora of classical buildings, not to mention a whole lot of pubs. I like pubs, so I thought it would be rude for me not to launch into an impromptu pub crawl from the town centre back to the football ground. Said crawl was to begin as I past the predictably elegant looking town hall and discovered the Borough pub, which had been recommended to me via Twitter.
Just like the city around it, the Borough was also a mix of new and old for a cocktail of coolness. The walls were graced with old paintings and Spanish posters with red leather sofas scattered around the lounge area. Of course, such a place was to be quite steep in the beer price department – £3.90 a pint – but the surroundings fitted such a price.
Next stop on the pub crawl was the Penny Bank located directly in the centre of town. This was a more ‘normal’ pub, yet the beer price remained over the £3.50 mark and my beer took a bit longer to arrive in front of me than you would usually expect. I soon learned that the young lady that had served me had only started that morning and my time in the Penny Bank was left listening to an old regular helpfully advising the newbie on how to do her job, before the conversation took a strange turn onto the topic of whether Postman Pat is attractive or not; apparently, he’s ‘alright looking’ but the nose lets him down according to our novice barmaid. Unlucky Pat – you’re out of luck this time.
Directly across the road from the Penny Bank is the Brown Cow and this seemed as good a place as any to head next, especially as the Blackburn v Manchester City was just kicking off. The Brown Cow is a far more traditional and dingy pub and it was perhaps in this traditional spirit that I decided to embrace my surroundings and have a pint of Lancaster Bomber. I always say that I’m going to try and drink more real ale (in fact, it was my failed New Year’s resolution last year), but I always struggle to enjoy it; however, I loved my pint of Lancaster Bomber! Perhaps my more wisened taste buds are finally adapting to real ale and maybe it’s time for another attempt at embracing the proper stuff as we take our first steps into 2014.
After being told by a man at the bar that Swansea would get hammered by United at Old Trafford (the Swans won 2-1 if anyone needs reminding), I moved on further through the town and back towards the castle.
I soon found myself in my favourite of the pubs I visited: the John O’ Gaunt. The staff in the pub were very friendly and kindly let me put my phone on charge behind the bar, as it had failed to charge properly overnight somehow. Soon, as talk usually does on my ventures into bars in strange parts of the country, talk turned to my accent and what the hell was I doing in Lancaster if I wasn’t a student. I explained the whole groundhopping malarkey,which caught the attention of the two lads near me at the bar. It turned out my fellow bar dwellers were also doing a spot of groundhopping this afternoon: Mark, a Sunderland fan, and Andy, a Bradford fan (of course, Swansea’s League Cup final victory over the Yorkshire club got its compulsory mention), were also off to the Giant Axe this afternoon and we spent the remainder of the afternoon talking about our travels with the odd bit of football trivia thrown in for good measure (something which seems to becoming a recurring theme on my travels).
Andy and Mark decided that they were going to do a bit more exploring of the town, whilst I decided to head back over the hill and to the Giant Axe.
So, it’s probably the question a lot of you have wanted answered since you started reading: why the Giant Axe? Is it the barbaric defensive unit that Lancaster City deploy? Does the chairman have a habit of repeatedly give managers the chop? Unsurprisingly, it’s nothing so farcical and instead the name comes from the simple fact that when the ground was first built, the shape of the old exterior walls around the sports club mimicked the shape of an axe when seen from above. I use the term ‘sports club’ as football was not the only sport played at the ground in its early years with tennis and cricket also being played at the venue. Football was merely a part of the sports club with the pitch being in the middle of a large grass circle in the centre of the ground known as ‘the sixpence’.
The ground has been the home of football in Lancaster since Lancaster Athletic formed in 1905. However, that club was to fold in 1910 and be reformed as Lancaster Town FC, the earliest guise of the city’s current club, Lancaster City. As the club made the switch from the Lancashire Combination to the Northern Premier League in the 1970s, the Giant Axe underwent renovation following a fire destroying the main stand, before the ground had another modern revamp in the 1990s. The Giant Axe now has a capacity of 3,500 with seating for 513.
As I entered the ground, after paying my £7 entry, I found myself in the corner of the opening standing terrace behind the goal; I thought the standing terrace beared a passing resemblance to the one which the away fans occupy at Accrington Stanley’s Crown Ground. Directly opposite, behind the other goals, is another sheltered standing terrace known as the Shed, whilst running down the one side of the pitch is the Long Side – another open terrace which also has the raised blue cabin, which acts as the club’s directors box. Finally, the other side of the pitch is dominated by the only seating stand in the ground: the John Bagguley Stand – named after the club’s late president. This side of the Giant Axe also accommodates all the ground’s various amenities such as the club shop, the changing rooms, ‘Dolly’s Diner’ and the club bar. Of course, as always, this was the first port of call.
My first impressions of the ground were very good, but the clubhouse has to be one of the smallest I’ve visited at this level. It consists of a small room, obviously complete with the usual array of club memorabilia and a large TV with Soccer Saturday on it, with a tiny bar packed into the corner. In fairness though, I couldn’t complain too much as the beer was fairly cheap (they even sold cans) and the place was clearly in tidy condition.
After squeezing into the clubhouse, I headed back outside the bar and to the adjoining Dolly’s Diner for a steak pie, which was very good without being spectacular. As I tucked into my pie, I watched the Lancaster City team warm up and this was the first time I got a glimpse of Lancaster’s manager.
Some of you may know that my childhood club was Newcastle United, as my love with football began at the same time as the Premier League was still a fairly new arrival on the footballing landscape and Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle had become the Premier League’s ultimate entertainers. Only on the morning of me departing for Lancaster did I happen to stumble upon who their manager is and I was excited to learn that it was one of the fulcrums of Keegan’s Newcastle. Was it the elegant David Ginola? Tino Aspirlla wanting a shot at management in the North West? Or maybe even everyone’s favourite Czech goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek? No, cooler than all those. The current Lancaster manager is everyone’s favourite former Newcastle centre back…no, not Phillip Albert…Darren Peacock! And yes he still has the long hair, even if it is a slightly greyer tone of blonde these days. When I informed Twitter of my discovery it seemed many of my followers were equally stoked to hear that Peacock still dwells within the realms of football. And so the idea was forged via Twitter: by the end of the day I had to get Darren Peacock to perform the trademark double thumbs up Lost Boyos pose with me; especially since Morecambe’s Jim Bentley had joyfully delivered the post just over 5 months before.
The Peacock challenge got off to a bad start, as on walking by me after the warm up, the former QPR, Blackburn and Newcastle defender basically blanked me. Nevermind – I was confident I would catch him later.
Soon enough, today’s Evo-Stik Northern Premier League Division One North fixture between Lancaster City and Harrogate Railway Athletic, with the ‘Dolly Blues’ playing in…well, blue, and the away team playing in a red and green kitreminiscent of Swansea’s Welsh-orientated away kit from last season, was underway
As the game kicked off, I went for a wander of the ground and also to find my favourite Morecambe-supporting father and son combo, the aptly named John and Dom Lancaster, who you may remember from previous blogs on my travels with the Shrimp Army. The Lancasters had agreed to join me at the Giant Axe instead of making the long trip to Morecambe’s game in Torquay and I eventually found them walking away from the open terrace behind the goal, where Dom informed me he had tried to participate in some Harrogate chants with their fans. And there was me thinking Morecambe and Lancaster was a nothing rivalry! Despite Dom’s attempts to join the fans of Lancaster’s opponents today in singing, I did ask around about the Lancaster-Morecambe rivalry and since Morecambe shot up to the heady heights of League Two and the Football League, it appears that the rivalry is quite a subdued and light-hearted one these days; there were even some people in the crowd wearing Morecambe jackets, a sign of the sheer lack of animosity between the neighbouring clubs. Whilst Dom was happy enough mixing with the fans, I was fairly sure that Lancaster native John, a train driver, had only come for the great views of the train station nearby and to witness a team with ‘Railway’ in their name.
As the game took its time to truly get going, I followed the Lancasters back down to Dolly’s Diner, where they informed me that I had made a huge error in choosing a pie over the monstrous burger that the Giant Axe had an offer. I explained that I’m pie over burger every time at football. But enough, of food: now time for football.
For the first half we positioned ourselves in the seats at the front of the main stand, although for some reason we sat right in the corner near a supporting and view-obstructing pillar, when we could have quite easily chosen a seat (or moved) elsewhere in the stand.
Lancaster were having the better of the first half and it was the Dolly Blues who claimed the first goal in almost comical fashion. As a ball was played over the top, the onrushing Harrogate keeper failed to clear his lines sufficiently and the ball fell to Tom Kilfin, who put the ball past the stranded Harrogate goalie into an empty net. The goal looked even more humorous as it almost looked like Kilfin had tried to lob the goalie, but he hardly put any lift on the ball and it just seemed to clumsily bobble towards the goal instead of elegantly floating into the net. A deserved 1-0 lead to the home team.
It looked like Lancaster would hold onto their lead until half-time, but a fine move by Harrogate would see the Yorkshire team equalise right on half-time. An exquisite pass over the Lancaster defence led to Nathan Cartman controlling excellently, running through on goal and powering his shot home. As Dom tweeted ‘#NonLeagueSuarez’ – a bit exaggerated of course, but a very nice goal indeed.
John and Dom had not visited the clubhouse yet, so we headed to the bar and their reaction was also one of shock as they were also surprised at the diminutive nature of the clubhouse. It was during the half-time interval that I learnt that the club had had a much larger social club just outside the ground as recently as August 2012, but the closed down bar is now to be redeveloped into housing (according to Wikipedia anyway). It would be great if a brilliant ground like the Giant Axe could invest in a larger social club to match such a great location.
Just as the second half was restarting, and a very pretty red sky descended around Lancaster Castle in the background, we bumped into my new pals Mark and Andy and had the usual Lost Boyos ‘double thumbs up’ photos. With our posing over, we all headed to the standing terrace behind the goal, where Dom insisted we have a ‘selfie’; for those unfamiliar with ‘selfies’, they are those photos people take of themselves with their own camera phone in their hand whilst pulling some sort of confused gesture to look cool. Although I’m not a fan, here’s an interesting linguistic fact for you: ‘selfie’ was named the Word of 2013 by Oxford Dictionaries beating other linguistic giants such as ‘twerk’, ‘binge-watch’ and ‘Schmeat’ to the coverted title. I do like words – you can tell I teach English (apart from the several typos and grammatical errors that probably litter this very page and previous blogs).
The standing terrace was also now housing a small group of Morecambe fans, who had also decided not to brave the Shrimps away day at Torquay. I was unaware who the guy was, but the Morecambe contingent around me lavished love and praise on Lancaster player Gary Hunter – it became very clear that he was a former Shrimps player and the lads around me were determined to let him know that they still loved him, whilst they also repeatedly checked Twitter for the latest Morecambe score.
The second half was a much more open affair than the first half and both teams went looking for the win. However, it was the home team who capitalised on the openness of the game in brilliant fashion. It was to be Jordan Connerton, a great non-league goalscorer who originally left Lancaster for Crewe a few seasons ago only to recently return to the Dolly Blues via Kendal Town, who scored with a fantastic right footed shot into the top corner from the edge of the box. 2-1 to Lancaster.
Both clubs carried on pushing forward with Connerton coming close again only to stopped by a superb reaction save from the Harrogate keeper. Harrogate came closest after the home goalie fumbled a save, which led to mini scramble in the box, but Lancaster hung on until the end for their 3 points, which launched them up into the league’s play-off places.
Full-time: Lancaster City 2 – 1 Harrogate Railway Athletic.
I said my farewells to the Lancasters and I was about to head out of the ground. However, I had set myself a challenge on Twitter and with beer still floating around inside me, I went to the clubhouse to see if I could find Darren Peacock and to get him to do the ‘double thumbs up’ pose. I didn’t even make it to the bar, as I found him by himself cleaning his boots next to the tunnel. After congratulating him on his team’s win, I asked for the photo which he happily obliged to, yet despite me asking him to do the thumbs up, he was determined to do a ‘cool’ hands on hips pose instead. When the first photo went tits up as I didn’t have my flash on, I said to the Darren before the retake”Do the double thumbs up Darren, it’s sort of our trademark. And it’s only a shitty football blog.” This seemed to win over the Lancaster gaffer and seconds later my challenge was complete as below will show.
I had a quick drink in the clubhouse so I could catch up with today’s football scores from the Soccer Saturday lads and even bumped into Peacock again just to berate his old club Newcastle for losing to Solskjaer’s Cardiff in the Norwegian’s first game in charge of the ‘Redbirds’.
Darkness had ascended on the Giant Axe by the time I exited the ground and the silhouette of the castle still loomed majestically in the background. Minutes later, I was walking past the castle again in search of one last pub before catching the train home.
My final stop of the day was to be the Merchant Arms and what an excellent last pub call of the day it was to be. The Merchant Arms is a quite stylish pub with the inside consisting of a series of small cavernous rooms with seating booths tucked against the walls – it was certainly different and reminded me of some of my favourite drinking haunts from my Liverpool-dwelling days. One pint and I thought I better hit the road (well, catch the train), as I had a big day the next day with Swansea travelling to Old Trafford – and what a day that turned out to be!
Cheers for a great day Lancaster and its local football club – I look forward to returning to the Giant Axe again.
Highlights: brilliant city, lots of pubs, friendly locals, good ground (near train station and town centre), decent game, good food, Darren Peacock!
Low Points: the clubhouse is a bit of a squeeze.