AFC Darwen v Leek CSOB
The Anchor Ground / NWCFL First Divsion Challenge Cup Quarter-Final / 19th February 2014
Sunday: The Olympiastadion in Berlin watching Bundesliga football. Wednesday night: The Anchor Ground in Darwen watching AFC Darwen v Leek CSOB in the NWCFL First Division Challenge Cup quarter-final. Groundhopping at its most random, beautiful and most fun. Going from one of the mega-stadiums of Europe to a diminutive ground in the 10th tier of English football. After a rather alcohol-fuelled weekend in Berlin, which I had only returned home from early Tuesday afternoon, I had planned to take a breather from my football travels before the weekend. However, typically on glimpsing the North West Counties website, I spotted the cup fixture up at Darwen. By the time I spotted the 7.45m kick-off game it was 4pm, but by 5pm I was already on a train to Darwen from Salford Crescent. So much for a few days off.
I do sometimes forget that many reading this blog are probably not situated in my part of the world, so I better explain where Darwen is. Darwen is a small, Lancashire market town located north of Bolton and slightly south of next door neighbour Blackburn. Apparently the town is known locally as ‘Darren’ and the natives as ‘Darreners’. From what I gather, despite being so close to Blackburn, the locals of Darwen do not enjoy being tied to their neighbours and certainly do not like being portrayed as a smaller brother to town.
Usually before heading off to a strange place I’ve never visited before, I’d do at least a little bit of background research on the place and I would certainly look up the location of the football ground I was planning to visit. Tonight, after the hasty decision to head into the heart of Lancashire, I had not done either. So on arriving in Darwen, I thought it best to set up camp in a nearby pub and find out where the hell I was going from there.
The sun was practically down by now, so I didn’t really have the best view of Darwen, but from what I could tell it is your typical Lancashire town with a fairly scenic backdrop (from what I could make out anyway). However, the greatest thing of beauty lay just down the road from the train station. When searching for a pub, Wetherspoons probably wouldn’t usually be top of my list, but the one I discovered in Darwen has to be the best Wetherspoons building I’ve seen. A thing of beauty. I could take a wild guess at what this Spoons used to be once upon time with it being named ‘The Old Chapel’. Despite the ‘Old’ in its name, it turns out that the Darwen branch of Spoons is a very recent acquisition to the town with it only opening its doors in January 2014; this was evident inside as the place was very plush and tidy, although the service at the bar was irritatingly slow.
Whilst drinking in Spoons, I discovered that Darwen’s ground was not exactly located in the town centre as I had predicted and hoped and it would be a 35 minute trek according to my Google Maps app, although that thing always likes to exaggerate a bit. Anyway, I thought it best to leave Wetherspoons and begin my plod towards the ground.
En route down the main road to the ground, I came across the The Cock pub. Like any like-minded person would, I immediately had to get a photo of this amusingly-named pub. It was whilst taking the photo that I spotted the ‘£1.89 a pint’ sign and decided that such cheap lager had to be taken advantage of. It turned out that the sign wasn’t bluffing and Fosters was indeed very cheap inside. Although the place seemed a bit more ‘local’ inside than the modern Spoons I had just visited, with beer so cheap it is safe to say that I love The Cock (stop sniggering).
The road to the ground seemed never-ending and I started to wonder whether I would arrive at Ewood Park in Blackburn before I would arrive at the Anchor Ground in Darwen. However, eventually, I came across an ‘AFC Darwen’ sign leading me onto a housing estate, which seemed to be engulfed in darkness as if everyone was hiding from me. This darkness though did make the ground easier to spot as the floodlights lightly beamed into the night sky just past the housing estate. Within 5 minutes, with 15 minutes to go until kick-off, I was outside the Anchor Ground, where I paid £4 entry fee for tonight’s cup game.
The original incarnation of football in Darwen was to be Darwen FC, one of the early clubs in the northern England with the club being formed way back in 1870. Darwen’s early history is littered with moments of glory with the club making the FA Cup semi-finals in 1990/81 and entering the Football League in 1890/91 as it was expanded to 14 teams. However, Darwen finished 14th out of the 14 and did not get re-elected. To this day, that last placed finish at the top league is their highest ever finish in the league. The club then broke a league record in 1888-89 that remains to this very day: Darwen lost 18 successive games to earn themselves the record for most consecutive defeats in the league. Unsurprisingly, this was their last season in the Football League before dropping down to the Lancashire League in 1889.
1899 would also see Darwen make the move to their current Anchor Ground home. However, the move was not one greeted to fondly and the club even continued to use their old Barley Bank home for trials, whilst the fans campaigned for years to get the club back to Barley Bank.
The club played in the Lancashire Combination and the Cheshire League throughout the next century, before becoming founder members of the North West Counties in 1982.
Sadly, after just over 20 years in the league the club were threatened with a winding up order in 2003 by Carlsberg Tetley, before there was a second threat in 2008 from The Bee radio station who were claiming £8000 that they were owed in advertising. Finally, in 2009, the club was wound up following more threats from other companies and Darwen FC ceased to exist. In May 2009, from its ashes emerged AFC Darwen, who began life in the West Lancashire League before being re-elected to the NWCFL Division One for the 2010-11 season, where they still currently reside.
The ground I was encountered with on my entry was a mix of old and new. The first area I was met with was the clubhouse and raised balcony/patio area; clearly an area of the ground that had been refurbished as part of the ground’s recent modernisation. As far as clubhouse’s go, although not exactly possessing the biggest bar area, it has to be one of the best I’ve been in at this level of football. Whoever had completed the recent renovation had done a brilliant job and the room resembled a rich’s person massive, fancy conservatory complete with bar and football pitch outside of it, rather than the usual ramshackle (and admittedly lovable) clubhouses of these nether regions of non-league. With the night suddenly turning chilly, the warmth of the clubhouse was particularly welcoming and with still enough time before kick-off, I perched myself by the window with a pint and watched the players run through their final warm ups.
As Arsenal v Bayern Munich was kicking off in the Champions League on ITV on the screens around the clubhouse, I made my way out to pitchside for my very own glamour game. Directly adjacent to the left of the clubhouse building is the ground’s only sheltered stand, which runs along most of the one side of the pitch, and it was here I headed to take in the opening moments of the game. The stand itself is a bit of a strange one, as the stand slopes down meaning the seats face slightly forward because of the gradient. However, there was to be plenty to lean forward and watch during this game, as one of the best halves of football I’ve seen all season unfolded in front of me.
Despite Darwen attacking from the off, Leek took the lead through Thomas Lowe within five minutes with Lowe celebrating with a bird-like wing flapping motion celebration. The goal encouraged Darwen to attack even more and a goal for the home team looked inevitable.
It eventually came in the 14th minute, as a superb through ball played in Ryan Steele. The rather rotund Leek goalie initially started to come out to meet the pass, but then got Grobelaar-esque wobbly legs, stuttered and Steele beat him to it to finish easily.
The relentless attacking football continued from both teams, but Darwen deservedly took the lead as a corner led to a scramble in the box, which was eventually headed in by Adam Douglas via the back of the keeper’s feet. 2-1 to Darwen, but with only 20 minutes gone, there were evidently a lot more goals to come.
Leek pushed on and their couple of nippy forwards were beginning to impress. Soon enough it was 2-2 as the ball was blasted home precisely into bottom corner from 20 yards out by Ryan Green. The game was breathless stuff to watch and it was unsurprising to see the score 3-2 shortly after the equaliser, as Darwen took the lead with an easy tap-in.
The half would eventually finish 4-2 to Darwen with Bobby Langford scoring his first, but not his last, goal of the night. A great cross into the box saw the ball land for Langford, who did a little shimmy to send the keeper the wrong way, before firing home easily.
Half-time: Darwen 4-2 Leek CSOB. Brilliant stuff so far! Not bad for £4!
As per usual, half-time was spent in the bar watching the highlights of the first half of an Arsenal v Bayern game that had not lived up to tonight’s Darwen v Leek CSOB game. I bumped into fellow groundhopper Graeme Holmes who couldn’t agree more – we had witnessed one hell of a half of attacking football.
I said I’d go join Graeme at the back of the stand for the second half, but as I headed out I got distracted by a wonderful smell. The smell of the sausages cooking behind the food hatch door was immense and I could not resist purchasing a sausage bap to join me at pitchside for the second half.
On finding Graeme, I began to describe my German adventure from a few days before whilst watching a predictably slower second half unfold; in fairness, there was no chance that both sides could maintain the pace of the first half. It would actually take until the 63rd minute for Darwen to grab a 5th, as Bobby Langford grabbed his second of the night with a header from a corner.
As the young, Leek-supporting boy near us bleakly had the odd sporadic bash at his drum, it was a matter of time for goal number six and it was soon scored by Steve Lee. 6-2 to Darwen.
The night’s scoring was finished off in the last-minute as a merciless Darwen made it 7 from the spot. When the home team won a penalty with three minutes remaining, there was only going to be one person to take it as Bobby Langford stepped up and scored to ensure he earned himself a hatrick.
Full-time: AFC Darwen 7 – 2 Leek CSOB. For my £4, I paid less than 50p a goal!
After the final whistle I made the trek back down the main road towards Darwen town centre. With just under an hour until the train, I popped into one last bar on the main street, which I’ve forgotten the name of, but I also couldn’t resist one last drink in Wetherspoons before hitting the train home.
Highlights: The Old Chapel Wetherspoons, nice clubhouse, brilliant game of football.
Low Points: quite a basic ground.