Whitchurch Alport v Eccleshall
Yockings Park / North West Counties Football League First Division / 6th February 2016
On this rain-soaked Saturday, making plans was futile. The week leading up to the Saturday had consisted of relentless rain and so we figured that the inevitable plethora of matches being abandoned on the Saturday morning would make making plans a pointless task. And with that in mind, me, Gibbo and George met at Piccadilly station – in my usual Starbucks of course – to survey the fixture lists and finally decide where our Saturday would take us.
Today was George’s birthday and he stated that he wanted to recreate a day akin to the wonderful, wacky we had day at AFC Emley for Gibbo’s birthday back in October. Our first choice was Eccleshill United in Bradford, but their game was soon taken away by the weather ( for some reason, “Sue Cook’s pulled out,” became my euphemism of the day for any abandoned games – one for you Partridge fans).. Then, football fixtures in the north began dropping like flies as games were called off left, right and centre. A lively debate ensued about where we should go as I suggested going to Widnes having never even stepped foot in the town, which Gibbo eloquently replied to with, “I’d rather catch AIDS than go to Widnes.” Ultimately, we left the decision with George with it being his birthday – not that he had many fixtures to choose from though.
After a whole hour of deliberating like an indecisive jury, the only viable option seemed to be Nantwich Town and although George had visited the home of the Dabbers before and expressed that he wasn’t exactly a fan of the place, he eventually accepted defeat and train tickets to Nantwich Town were purchased. All appeared rosy, but as Robert Burns once famously wrote, ” The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men /Gang aft a-gley.” Or, taken out of Burns’ Scottish dialect, ‘plans usually go tits up’.
The whole spontaneity of the day had clearly made us giddy wrecks judging from the train journey. Undoubtedly inspired by Gibbo, who was clearly still slightly drunk from the Atherton beer festival the night before, we somehowended up discussing what our favourite acids are (“Lactic, every time”); what would David Blunkett look like performing the YMCA and which member of the Village People he would dress as; and we also debated what a pub named after me would be called if I were to die (at the time, we settled on simply ‘’The Lost Boyo’ but a similar conversation the next day led me to changing my mind to ‘The Flat Cap and Thumbs’). We seemed to be keeping the lad opposite us entertained though as he watched and listened on with a mixture of amusement and bemusement. We later learned that he was learning his lines to be Heathcliff in an upcoming new film version of Wuthering Heights. Before we alighted, I made sure that we found out what his favourite acid was: Heathcliff’s favourite acid is sulphuric by the way.
Despite wasting most of the morning scrolling through fixture lists and non-league Twitter feeds, we still made it into Nantwich not long after midday. I had no idea what to expect on arriving into Nantwich, but what we found was a small, charming Cheshire town. Obviously, we couldn’t turn down the comical photo opportunity of us in the stocks in the town centre, although any attempt to get my head in the small hole of the stocks would be superfluous.
“They must have small heads in Nantwich,” quipped Gibbo, which led to a random lady passing by bursting into laughter. This led us to dubbing Gibbo some sort of comedic genius in Nantwich; you can expect his stand-up show to arrive into the town soon.
George’s prior knowledge of Nantwich took us to the Crown Hotel – ‘the famous Crown Hotel’ as George put it. It did look rather lovely in fairness with its half-timbered exterior and inside was equally pleasant too with its traditional feel and calming piano music playing in the background. There was even a ‘ballroom’. Beer was purchased (although they only had half a pint left of the Belgian fruit lager I ordered), whilst Gibbo went maverick and ordered a pot of tea. All was good and we thought our day was sorted.
We should have known better.
I wandered onto Twtter and saw the heart-wrenching tweet which I think the 3 of us knew deep down could be coming. ‘Nantwich v Stourbridge is OFF’. Bugger. I looked over at George and Gibbo and pondered how to break the news to them; although on catching my eye I think they already knew what was coming. All morning the rhetoric of Nantwich’s Twitter feed had been confident that the game was going to be played – a referee thought otherwise it seemed. It seemed us and Nantwich just don’t mix, as me and Gibbo got ourselves all the way to Frickley just before Christmas, only for their game v Nantwich to be called off (some very last ditch actions that day eventually took us to Brodsworth Miners’ Welfare).
Nantwich’s postponement was certainly a hindrance, but fortunately we already had a Plan B ready to spring into action. Plan B was Whitchurch Alport FC.
We had noticed that Whitchruch Alport’s NWCFL First Division clash with Eccleshall remained unscathed by the dreaded ‘P-P’ but we were just expecting it to eventually fall by the wayside too. But we took another glance at Whitchurch’s Twitter feed and the game seemed to be still very much on having passed a pitch inspection. Train times were looked at and soon we were back at Nantwich station ready to shuffle on to Whitchurch.
Conveniently, Whitchurch is located only 2 stops and 20 minutes away from Nantwich and so with a new plan in place we found ourselves arriving into Whitchurch at 13:45. We’d also gathered ourselves a new companion: Stourbridge and WBA fan Mark. As he was about to alight the train at Nantwich with the purpose of attending Nantwich v Stourbridge, Mark heard us boarding the same train bemoaning the postponement. On double-checking with us that he had heard correctly, we confirmed that Nantwich v Stourbridge was indeed off and then told him we were heading to Whitchurch. Clearly we look like very trustworthy people as Mark got straight back on the train and joined us, unlike the lad we saw in Warrington Town FC gear, who seemed to ignore us when we tried to explain to him that Nantwich was off (“I’ll go along anyway.”)
So once again, we were in another random town and wondering where the hell we were going. Fortunately, we had spotted Alport’s impressive looking floodlights from the train and so we headed towards them. Obviously, I wanted to find a pub first though.
As I pointed out on several occasions throughout the day, I had only had one other experience of Whitchurch and that was having a Harvester somewhere on the outskirts on a car journey from Manchester back to Wales. A bit of quick googling on the train between Nantwich and Whitchurch informed me that we were no longer in Cheshire, but now in Shropshire and just a couple of miles east of the Wales/England border. Today was rather rushed, so we didn’t get a lot of time to explore, but we did find the superb Wheatsheaf pub (opposite a cobblers with a full Stormtrooper in the window).
“They sell Wrexham Lager in here!” I blurted out on spotting the tap of it on entering the Wheatsheaf. Immediately I ordered a pint and reeled out my my Wrexham Lager fact, which I found it almost compulsory to state every time I drink the beer: “Do you know that Wrexham lager was the beer sold on the Titanic?” The barmaid straightaway looked annoyed, as she told us that she also states the very same fact every time someone order order Wrexham’s finest in the pub; it seemed I’d stolen her thunder. Of course, immediately on mentioning the Titanic link, I started throwing out my usual rubbish “I’ll sink a few of these,” and “this always goes down well,” jokes. Poor.
The staff and locals we encountered in The Wheatsheaf were all extremely friendly, although they did question our sanity a little bit, especially when we explained how we started the day with no clue where we were going. One fellow who didn’t find us totally insane though was the gentleman in the corner, who turned out to be a fellow groundhoppper and had travelled up from London for some northern football. Fairplay to that man.
“This is probably my favourite pub of the season,” declared Gibbo. Those be big words, but I did agree that the Wheatsheaf was a rousing success. We’d been told that we had a ten minute walk to the ground ahead of us and so with kick-off approaching we began that undertaking.
The ground was found easily enough as we made our way through a small residential area and then down a quiet road just alongside the railway track. Plus, the large floodlights made the place easy to track down. After so many postponements today, we were half-expecting someone to come walking towards us and tell us the game was off, but all seemed good at Yockings Park and it finally looked like we had found a game. £5 entry was handed over at the turnstiles, which included a free programme, and we were in.
I immediately liked the ground. It’s very humble, but it definitely holds character. On walking in, the small, old sheltered stand is directly in front of you with a small clubhouse alongside it. The rest of the ground is largely open with some basic sheltering provided down half of the one side of the ground. Whitchurch were only accepted into the North West Counties Football League (Step 6) this season and it was easy to say why they gained entry, as the ground looked no worse than quite a few others in the league.
The weather wasn’t great still and so the small clubhouse was packed with people embracing the warmth before braving it outside for the game itself. No beer taps here, so today’s refreshments were to come in the form of £2 cans of Carling.
With the wind and rain sweeping around Yockings Park, we spent the start of the game in the stand, which was wonderfully cosy. However, we soon got bored of standing still and off we went to explore Yockings Park.
On the pitch, the game was entertaining with the opening 20 minutes being a relatively end-to-end game. It would take 18 minutes for the deadlock to be broken and it would be the visitors Eccleshall who would take the lead. A shot from 20 yards from Dan Counter headed straight for the bottom corner, although it did look like the keeper should have probably saved it. 1-0 to Eccleshall.
The goal seemed to have knocked the stuffing out of Whitchurch and the rest of the half was fairly one-sided in Eccleshall’s favour. The away team were denied by a couple of saves and the crossbar at one point, but they failed to add to their tally and the score remained 1-0 at half-time.
Half-time: Whitchurch Alport 0 – 1 Eccleshall.
At half-time we spotted that the Warrington Town fan had finally decided to join us in Whitchurch; apparently he told Gibbo that he didn’t follow us onto the train to Whitchurch as he wanted to check out Nantwich’s pitch for himself; he clearly thought we looked like shift characters, unlike our Stourbridge pal. Also, Gibbo had found us another friend in the shape of another groundhopper ‘The Moon Hopper’, who was proudly wearing a Truro City hat having recently ventured down there; I’d want a memento too for heading all that way.
Half-time was spent with chips from the food hatch housed within the club bar, more Carling and Jeff Stelling feeding us the half-time scores from around the country. The gathering of players out on the field though soon prompted us to head back outside into the rain.
The second half would prove more eventful than the first. ‘Eventful’ usually implies lots of cards or the referee taking centre stage somehow, but this couldn’t have been further from the truth. As George noted, the game had been competitive and very clean and fairplay to both sets of players and the referee and his assistants for that.
It took just a matter of minutes into the second half for the away team to make it 2-0. A cross from out wide was met at the backpost Steve Hughes who scored with a header.
The game was made more interesting for us neutrals in the 66th minute when Whitchurch’s goalie had to go off with an injury and, just like when I went to Burscough two weeks ago, I found myself witnessing an outfield player being forced to play in goals with no substitute goalie on the bench. It was very different to Burscough though, as the Burscough ‘keeper’ that day had nothing to do, whereas today the makeshift keeper certainly had a lot to do.
It was soon 3-0 when Eccleshall’s forward broke through on goal and simply rolled past Whitchurch’s new goalie and a minute after that it was 4-0. Hughes with his second of the game.
Undoubtedly my favourite moment of the game was Eccleshall’s 5th, although stand-in goalkeeper Will Hopkins will probably want to forget it. A poor throw out went straight to Eccleshall’s Dean Twigg, who took a touch and then went for a 20 yard chip; it wasn’t exactly the most looping of chips, but it seemed to go directly past Hopkins and into the far corner. 5-0 and there looked like there was to be more to come.
Despite having a baptism of fire in between the sticks, Hopkins redeemed himself with several saves with his feet similar to Lost Boyos legend and the ultimate outfield-player-cum-goalkeeper Matt Harrold. Hopkins did well to keep the score at 5-0 in the closing stages.
Full-time: Whitchurch Alport 0 – 5 Eccleshall.
There was the option of leaving the game early and catching the 16:57 back to Manchester or we could head back to the pub until the 18:07. Predictably, we took the pub option, although Mark decided that he’d seen enough of Whitchurch and went for the earlier train; in fairness, he had put up with us for a few hours and probably wanted to escape.
The gang at The Wheatsheaf seemed happy to have us back anyway and more Wrexham Lager was purchased, whilst George was given a pint on the house in honour of his birthday. Top gesture from the Wheatsheaf. Conversation eventually turned to when we should leave for the train station, when a quick browse of the National Rail app informed us that there was no rush: train delayed by an hour. It was just one of those days (more on trains later too). The extra hour we had been ‘awarded’ led me to suggest that we should try seeing some more of Whitchurch (which basically means visit a different pub). Despite ditching them for another, the folk in the Wheatsheaf told us that if we wanted something a bit different, then we should head to Percy’s.
It was definitely different with a whole gallimaufry of randomness gracing every nook and cranny ranging from an actual cross from a grave to an old dentist chair in the corner (I couldn’t resist a Gazza impression). There was also a range of absinthes on offer too, but I resisted and stuck to the beer. Where did I sit down to enjoy my beer? In some old seats from an aeroplane of course. Standard. The only inhabitants in the bar were me, George and Gibbo and so the barman chatted away to us about what a standard night in Whitchurch is like. He didn’t exactly sell it to us to be honest, but I certainly got the impression that a proper night out in his establishment would be fun. I also decided that I couldn’t go without having a photo of the moose on the wall just to replicate a moment from my first night in Copenhagen back in the summer of 2013, where I had a photo with a fake moose on the wall with a lit cigarette in its mouth (well, I seemed to remember it as a moose, but the photo below seems to show it to be some sort of ram, but you get the idea). I opted not to defy health and safety laws by giving the taxidermy a lit cigarette back here on British soil.
We assumed that leaving Whitchurch would be a simple task, but this also proved arduous. I was going for a night out in Huddersfield (ready for some more football the next day – blog to follow about that one) and on paper getting from Whitchurch to Huddersfield via Manchester appeared to be a basic journey; it proved to be anything but basic. Firstly, the already delayed train from Whitchurch to Crewe was a further 25 minutes late and so we found ourselves hanging around Whitchurch station longer than we would have liked; although we were now rejoined by Chelsea fan Fred, who made us join him in a toast to the love of his life: Elizabeth II.
Eventually, we got ourselves to Crewe and after saying our goodbyes to Frank, who hopped on a train back to London, we were soon on a train Manchester-bound. This proved to be the simple part. Gibbo was heading back to York, so we opted to catch a train from Manchester together – after I had dragged him for one more drink up in the Hourglass on the upper floor of Piccadilly station. Then our train nightmares continued…
We were finally about to head off for Yorkshire, when the train announcer declared that we would all have to get off the train as the engine was knackered. Over to another platform we headed where we hopped on a second train. This time we got as far as Stalybridge before that train broke down again with another knackered engine. A third train change was required – this one one of the crappy old trains that stops everywhere between Manchester and Huddersfield (who knew there were so many places between Manchester and Huddersfield either).
So after planning on leave Whitchurch for Huddersfield at 6pm (not that we even planned to be in Whitchurch in the first place), I ended up getting into Huddesrfield around the 11pm mark. Luck was definitely not on our side today – yet in a way it sort of was. George had stated he wanted a birthday similar to the randomness of Gibbo’s Emley day out and we had definitely provided him with that. If there’s anything we’ve learned about our excursions over the past few seasons it is that generally the best ones are the ones that go awry and you have to ad-lib a bit. Maybe Robert Burns was wrong to be so negative about plans going ugly. Maybe he just needed to enjoy a day out with us in Whitchurch.
Highlights: eventually finding a game to go to, pub stop in Nantwich, The Wheatsheaf, decent ground at Whitchurch, good game,
Low Points: the weather destroying plans, Nantwich being called off, multiple train cock ups.
See all my photos from our day out at Whitchurch (via Nantwich) here.