Hallam v Bottesford Town
Sandygate Road / North East Counties League First Division / 22nd February 2014
It was another late Friday night and I hadn’t decided where I would be heading the next day for my Saturday afternoon football fix. I was looking for a new ground to tick off and I was scanning the fixture lists of various leagues waiting for something to catch my eye. Eventually it would be a bit of football trivia that would sway me. The club I decided to visit could boast a Guinness World Record: which football ground is the oldest in world football? Well, Hallam FC of the North East Counties League of course and their Sandygate Road home. My decision to go to Hallam over their near neighbours and rivals Sheffield FC (who hold the record as the oldest club in the world) was swayed by the fact that the Hallam official Twitter account promised me a warm welcome if I was to visit; this is why non-league clubs should utilise Twitter – it’s a great tool for selling the club and getting more punters through the turnstiles.
I made the short journey from Manchester Victoria to Sheffield shortly after 10am and arrived into the Steel City not long after the clocks had struck 11. I’d only visited the city of Sheffield proper once before and that was over a year ago when I travelled to Hillsborough to watch Sheffield Wednesday knock Fulham out of the League Cup. The city had made a lasting impression on me and I had been keen to go back and visit the city properly in the near future. I never quite followed the plan through and in fact I wasn’t really going to follow that plan today. Hallam FC reside in the Crosspool suburb of the city, so I would once again not really have the opportunity to explore the city centre to the extent I desired. However, I decided that due to my early arrival I could at least complete a quick lap of the city centre before hopping on a bus heading west of the city towards Crosspool.
On my saunter of the city centre, I repeatedly came across branches of the Cooplands bakery. I was hungry by now and I could not resist popping into one, where I discovered the joys of a ‘Yorkshire Pasty’; I’m still not even sure what was in it, but it was glorious whatever it was.
Eventually I arrived back at the bus station, where I was to learn that there wasn’t a bus to Crosspool for over 30 minutes – to the pub! Conveniently there was a pub, The Old Queen’s Head, neatly positioned next to the station. I was enjoying my pint of real ale, before I feared the worst when a crowd of Millwall fans entered the establishment. Fortunately, they were not of the ‘knobhead Millwall fan’ variety (yes, they do have some decent fans) and they were all well meaning.
With the time just ticking over 1pm, I found myself on the bus heading through the Sheffield suburbs, past the various students houses and then into the fairly pleasant Crosspool area 2.5 miles outside the city centre. I alighted from the bus at what appeared to be the main high street of Crosspool and I was instantly greeted by the Crosspool Tavern – in I went. The place was abuzz with chatter and the smell of carvery beautifully invading the air. I resisted the urge to delve into the carvery and bought myself a pint, whilst enjoying the pleasant community feel to this warm and homely pub.
“Get here! Get here now!” These were the shouts of a crazy, angry, old man on the other side of the road to me waving his walking stick as I walked through the streets of Crosspool. I declined the man’s furious invitation to join him and carried on through a sloping housing estate towards the ground. There was no real sign of floodlights, but suddenly on turning a corner, I found myself face to face with the plaque declaring that I was at the entrance to ‘The Oldest Football Ground in the World – The Home of Hallam FC’. The sign should have got me chomping at the bit to get into Sandygate Road, but it wasn’t even 2pm yet, so I opted to visit the pub across the road instead.
With a pub so close to a football ground, I was expecting to find a busy, bustling pub, but aside from the barman and one lager-swigging gentleman at the bar, the place was devoid of punters and the sound of the Russian commentary on today’s early Premier League kick-off between Chelsea and Everton was echoing around the empty pub. However, the pub did introduce me to the self-explanatory ‘Yorkshire Crisps’; like the ‘Yorkshire Pasty earlier, Yorkshire produce had come up trumps once again (at least the Chardonnay Wine Vinegar flavour were lovely anyway). Despite the Plough Inn failing to impress me too much, this pub was actually vitally important in the founding of Hallam FC.
In 1804 the landlord of the Plough Inn decided to let the locals use one of his fields for cricket matches and so Hallam Cricket Club was born. As the number of members grew, there slowly became a desire to introduce football to the club with the nearby Sheffield FC arriving onto the scene. The less exclusive Hallam FC was founded in 1860 and they played their first game against Sheffield FC on Boxing Day 1860 at Sandygate Road. The Sheffield FC/Hallam FC is now considered the oldest derby in world football.
The Sheffield area is synonymous with some of football’s ‘oldest’ and football’s ‘first’ and once again Hallam FC can claim another ‘oldest’ record: Hallam FC can boast wining the oldest cup competition. The Youdan Cup, named after local theatre owner and football fan Thomas Youdan, was won by the club, after they defeated Norfolk in the final at Bramall Lane.
The club has spent the entirety of its existence playing at amateur level in the Yorkshire League, before joining the North East Counties League, where they play to this day.
I paid my £5 entry at the gate and I could officially say that I had been to the ‘Oldest Football Ground in the World’. Despite its tag as a ground that descends into the origins of football, you would not have thought it on entering. The clubhouse that emerged before me was as a clean and tidy looking as any I have seen at this level. Of course, this was where I would begin my exploration of Sandygate Road.
The little entrance hallway to the clubhouse was excellent with walls draped in the badge of Hallam FC (plus another large piece of text informing me that I was in the ‘Oldest Ground in the World’ – they seemed to be plastering this fact everywhere and I guess rightly so) and clean looking trophy cabinets proudly displaying the club’s silverware and history. This then led through to the main bar/lounge area. I was 100% sure that this wasn’t how the clubhouse had always looked and I suspected that this place had undergone refurbishment in recent years. I was to learn that this was the case and that there was a heartwarming story behind the renovation, as lifelong Hallam fan Roger Bell had actually left thousands of pounds in his will to the club, which had made the improvements to the clubhouse, now christened the ‘1860 suite’, and the ground possible.
I was then greeted by Steve, the fingers behind the club’s Twitter account and the club’s Vice chairman, amongst several others in the clubhouse. After conducting some official looking meeting with someone, Steve then introduced me to the chairman Chris Taylor (it seems to be becoming a regular theme meeting club chairmen on my travels), before giving me a little tour of the place, which I was very grateful of. The first item that was given to me was a custom made Hallam FC ball made by the people behind The Spirit of Football, (an interesting project that involves taking a football around the world before it arrives in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup) who had visited the ground at the start of the year. I was allowed to pose for photos with the ball in front of the large Hallam FC sign in the entrance hallway, which was followed by Steve talking me through the various trophies and awards on display in the cabinets.
However, easily my favourite feature of the clubhouse was the range of football memorabilia placed on the world, particularly the signed football shirts that the club had put efforts into buying,so that they could decorate their walls. Surely there are no other football grounds around where you walk past international shirts signed by Gordon Banks, Sir Geoff Hurst and Maradona en route to the toilet? Sadly, there was no Sean Bean shirt, as his character in When Saturday Comes begins life at Hallam FC , with the ground featuring in the film, before being scouted and moving on to Sheffield United.
After my tour of the clubhouse, and with kick-off looming, I headed outside to the small food hatch next to the clubhouse to squeeze in a prematch pie, which was a delight. With my pie in hand, I now had the chance to take in my surroundings and eye up Sandygate Road properly. As you would guess from a ground that features at the 6th step of non-league football, the place was fairly basic, although it was definitely not without its charm. As previously mentioned, the clubhouse added a touch of modernity to the place with it sitting plushly near the entrance of the ground. Adjacent to the clubhouse is the only proper stand in the ground, a 250-seater covered stand placed along side the halfway line. Behind the goal near the entrance is a small sheltered standing area, which today was occupied by one sole, lonely fan alongside a Hallam FC flag adorning the back wall. The other side of the ground consisted of a large open grassy area, which was evidently used for the ground’s cricket season. Today, this whole space was being manned by a Hallam tracksuit-clad man, who was acting as the club’s energetic and more elderly ballboy.
As the game got underway with Hallam in their usual blue and top of the league Bottesford in green and black stripes (which reminded me of Swansea’s 2007/08 away kit), I positioned myself in the far corner of the ground to take in my first experience of NCEL football. The young Hallam team entered the game as underdogs, but they made a great start to the game and got their just rewards with a 5th minute opening goal. A pinpoint through ball by Mark Kokot played in Joe Highfield, who neatly tucked home past the Bottesford keeper. A much deserved lead.
I should add here that Hallam definitely had one thing in their favour in the first half: the pitch’s gradient. I think it is fair to say that Hallam FC have one of the most sloping pitches I have come across, but I suppose it all adds to the character.
Bottesford tried to compose themselves, but there was a lot of shouting going on amongst their ranks with their very vocal, Pepe Reina lookalike goalkeeper being particularly critical of his team mates. By this time, I had wandered around to the side of the ground with the open cricket pitch to take some photos, before the makeshift ball boy(man) told me that I wasn’t allowed over that end of the ground; I did rebelliously take some photos though before scampering off.
There were no further chances of real note, despite Bottesford dominating possession, and the score was to remain unchanged.
Half-time: Hallam 1 – 0 Bottesford.
I headed back to the clubhouse for half-time and with the sun rapidly setting and turning the ground into a rather chilly environment. From the warmth of the clubhouse, I witnessed the away team take full advantage of the sloping pitch, which was now in their favour, and inevitably Bottesford took the lead. There was a touch of fortune to the equaliser as the ball rebounded off the Hallam post only for Danny Boulton to finish off the rebound. 1-1.
As I sat up in the main stand with the Hallam fans around me, many expected that Hallam would fold and that Bottesford would go all guns blazing for the win; so it was quite surprising when Hallam regained the lead. Sam Eckhardt, the player described by the club website as ‘The Wizard of Sandygate Road’ regained the lead for the home team with a powerful shot into the goal to emphatically make it 2-1.
I’d highlighted Eckhardt as Hallam’s best player from the opening minutes and he certainly stood out from the crowd with his beard and long flowing locks. Steve and Chris, who were now sitting behind me, informed me that he was even a model for Armani when he was gracing the pitches of NCEL clubs! It seemed that Eckhardt certainly wasn’t your average non-league player.
As the clock slowly ticked towards 90:00 for the home fans, Bottesford continued to attack the home goal relentlessly. The away team would eventually win a freekick with the inital effort being illegally blocked by the onrushing and intrusive Julian Lawrence. The retake was cleared by Hallam, but soon the ball was heading back to their box and after a series of clever passes, Karl Slack made it 2-2 to Bottesford and the home fans were left heartbroken, as they were three minutes away from victory.
The clock struck 90 and things looked to have got worse for Hallam, as Lawrence was harshly (and I felt wrongly) adjudged to have fouled a Bottesford player in the box – an incident which was followed by Lawrence receiving a red card and his marching orders. The ground held its breath as Bottesford took their penalty to surely win the game, but the ground erupted as the ball was launched over the bar from the spot.
Fullt-time: Hallam 2 – 2 Bottesford.
Before heading back into Sheffield, I revisited the club bar and spent some time thanking my hosts, particularly Chris and Steve, who had both been particularly welcoming. It was also great to see the presentation of the Man of the Match award in the clubhouse and there was a pleasant mix of Bottesford and Hallam, before I left the ground for the city centre.
I have always been a big fan of pubs in train stations, so it was unsurprising to find me ending my day in Sheffield train station and more specifically the highly touted Sheffield Tap, a place recommended to me by a few people on Twitter. Clearly I had timed my visit just right, as the place was absolutely jam-packed and within 5 minutes of me entering there was a queue outside the place (I’m assuming not as a result of me entering). Fairplay the place was evidently one of the best railway station pubs in the country with a wide selection of continental lagers and real ales – it was a just a a shame that the place was so, so busy on this Saturday evening.
Anyway, I can’t thank Hallam FC enough for their hospitality and it’s club I would definitely recommend to others. And, of course, you’ll also be able to tell your mates in the pub that you have visited the ‘Oldest Football Ground in the World’ – have I mentioned that fact yet?
Highlights: a visit to the Steel City, Crosspool Tavern, friendly people at Hallam FC, good clubhouse, decent game of football, the performance of Sam Eckhardt.
Low Points: not getting to visit Sheffield properly again.