Stafford Rangers v Shaw Lane Aquaforce
Marston Road / Evo-Stik Northern Premier League First Division South / 20th February 2016
It was another Saturday of indecision as I rolled up into Manchester Piccadilly station’s Starbucks. I sat myself down scrolled through Twitter’s non-league football realms and weighed up the pros and cons of each fixture choice. Eventually I settled for Airbus v Gap Connah’s Quay in my native Wales, only to find out that the kick-off time had been moved back by 2 hours to 5.15pm for the Sgorio cameras (at 48 hours notice). Suddenly, storming out from the back of the pack came Stafford Rangers, emerging as a frontrunner for the day’s outing. My travels have been very Yorkshire-philic this season, but this month has been dominated by Staffordshire with trips to Newcastle Town and Tamworth in the space of a week, as well as nearby Whitchurch in Shropshire the week previous.
It all sort of happened very quickly, where one minute I was sitting in Starbucks and the next moment I was heading through Stockport, Macclesfield, Stoke and then eventually into Stafford within an hour of setting off from Manchester.
I suppose the nearest I’ve come to spending time in Stafford was by attending V Festival a couple of times in my teen years, the music festival hosted in nearby Weston Park. Today would be more about muddy football pitches than muddy fields though; although I would still find plenty of beer, shit toilets and abrasive footballers just like I had at the nearby V Festival in my student days (the abrasive footballer came in the form of Stan Collymore at v Festival – he barged me out of the way during a Hard-Fi set, whilst escaping some hecklers shouting “dogging” at him).
Stafford introduced itself well to me with a brief walk through the pleasant Victoria Park, then past the Church of St. Mary and then onwards to the high street. So, was it time to go find some culture? Well, Stafford’s castle seemed too faraway, so I thought why not combine culture and drinking in one fell swoop instead? To Wetherspoons – undoubtedly one of the finest Wetherspoons I have been in.
The culture side of this comes in the form of this branch of Spoons being an old theatre and still very much looking like one too. Apparently the Picture House opened as a theatre on the eve of World War I, but has been a pub since the 90s. It was time for some Punk IPA (as it’s ‘Punk every weekend…’ as those who follow me on Snapchat will know) and to enjoy the architectural beauty surrounding me.
I carried on up the main street and I eventually ended up in the plusher surroundings of the Swan Hotel. Many were enjoy the expensive-looking breakfast and their pots of tea, but I was perusing the real ale on offer and soon ended up with a pint from the local Joules brewery – apparently brewed with pure mineral water. It was good and so I went in pursuit of a proper real ale pub.
My search took me around the main market square and straight towards the Ye Olde Rose and Crown – which was apparently a ‘Brewery Tap’ pub; I’ve found that any pub associated with the word ‘Tap’ in its name tends to be a good one and here in Stafford it was no different. The traditional pub was still at early doors, so I thought I’d go for the healthy option: a Joule’s No./37 – a beer which the sign was unforming me had ‘remedial elixir for clean blood and healthy living’ and ‘hop oils & iron minerals for joint ailments’ amongst many other ‘restorative’ features. I felt like Popeye post-spinach after drinking it (DISCLAIMER: I didn’t).
Across the road, I thought I’d find more culture in a place called the Theatre Bar – located opposite the theatre – but instead I found a bit of a dive. This was one of those places where the place smells of floor bleach, there’s a couple of locals in there with kids running around and the beer is watered down beyond belief. In regards of watering down, I would say this was the worst watered down beer I’ve ever had – and I’ve drank some disgustingly watered down crap at some of the bigger football grounds around the country. I didn’t last long in there before I headed over to the Vine Hotel (lovely ale in here) and then decided it was onwards to Marston Road: the home of Stafford Rangers.
I’d realised that on making such an impulsive dart for Stafford that beforehand I hadn’t actually looked where the ground was located. I crossed my fingers and prayed for it to be near Stafford town centre (or just near Stafford to be honest), so I was delighted to find I had a mere 10 minute walk ahead of me. There wasn’t much to see of the residential areas of Stafford leading up to Marston Road (although I did clock a potential pub or two for the walk back), but soon I was at Marston Road. Not too much to see yet from the outside, but having heard good things about the club bar, that was obviously going to be my first port of call.
Expansive. That would definitely be the word I would use to describe the clubhouse with its two bar rooms – one including a hall – and its general working man’s club feel. The place was choc-a-bloc on this Saturday afternoon with many taking shelter from the rain that had just hit Stafford. Apparently, the clubhouse has seen extensive investment over recent years and it was definitely showing. Kick-off was looming though and so I only had time for a quick pint, before I headed back outside into the rain, where I actually found a queue to get through the turnstiles. Seemed there was quite the crowd at Stafford Rangers today.
Having paid my £8, I strutted in and I was struck by a wonderful, traditional non-league ground. The place really did look superb. Behind the goal nearest the entrance is an open walkway in front of the club bar and there was not a lot to see there, but there was something to see on every other side of the ground. Opposite, behind the further goals, is a larger open terrace and it seemed it was here where the Stafford fans had pitched up for the first half. On one side of the ground you’ll find a sheltered standing terrace, whilst opposite is the ground’s pièce de résistance: the main stand. It does look magnificent looming over the rest of the ground, but I did not get the chance to sit in one of the 530 blue seats in the stand – apparently taken from Leicester City’s old Filbert Street.
Stafford Rangers have called Marston Road home for a 110 years and unsurprisingly the ground has seen periods of denigration (including a fire in 1929) and more recent rejuvenation. In recent years the ground capacity was increased through the use of temporary stands when the club competed in the Conference leagues, but they were then brought down again when the club slunk back into the Evo-Stik leagues below because of the financial costs.
I’m definitely a ‘pie man’ more than a ‘burger man’, so in bizarre chain of events this would be the second game in a row I was subjected to a burger over a pie (once again, no pies sold here just like at Eccleshill). The double burger, served by a rather hoarse lady, was immense though and kept me contented throughout the afternoon. Off around the back of the stand I headed to claim a place on the far terrace with the majority of the Stafford faithful.
I obviously found myself rooting for the home team today, but it’s fair to say that I have a vested interest in the away team. I had never seen today’s away team play before, nor did I know very much about them apart from they come from the Barnsley area. However, this was a club I have been trying to take the Lost Boyos bandwagon to for the best part of 18 months now. What allures me there considering I show so little knowledge of them? The club’s name: Stafford’s opponents today were the wonderfully, aquatically named, Shaw Lane Aquaforce. Plus, they were wearing pink today, which I believe in football terms makes them extra ‘hipster’. I’d curb my affection for the Aquaforce (still sounds like a scuba-based superhero squad to me) until I roll up into Barnsley sometime soon (hopefully by the time the 2015/16 season is out).
Today was forecasted to be a barnstormer of a game too as this was a top of the table clash in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier Fist Division South – 1st v 2nd.
The game certainly started in a feisty manner with light rain and wind swirling through Marston Road, but there was very little quality on show in the opening exchanges. So I got distracted and ended up chatting to some Stafford fans, who all seemed a good bunch. On hearing me chatting to their dads, I clearly startled some children as they began to ask their fathers what the hell a Swansea fan was doing at Stafford Rangers v Shaw Lane Aquaforce (the dads made polite comments in response to the questioning, but I believe the subtext read as, “He’s clearly a nutcase lads.”)
The more I wandered Marston Road, the more I liked it; especially the view from the open terrace looking out over at the main stand. Still the game was a tough affair on the pitch, whereas the toilets were similarly tough looking affair. Got to love a caveman-esque toilet behind the stand consisting of a gutter on the floor and the word ‘GENTS’ painted on the wall in a DIY fashion.
I was most of the way around the ground and talking to one of the stewards, when Stafford easily created the best chance of the half. A cross across the box was controlled well by the Stafford forward, who set up his team mate to hit the ball over the bar from close range.
And that was about as good as it got in the first half.
Half-time: Stafford Rangers 0 – 0 Shaw Lane Aquaforce.
As I ended up back in the club bar, I began to speculate whether this could be my 4th 0-0 of the season (only my 2nd on British soil in two years having seen Curzon Ashton draw 0-0 Stalybridge Celtic). The game really had been a poor one and my semi-beloved Aquaforce were not doing much to entice me to Shaw Lane to watch them either (well, I know that isn’t true – the name is enticing alone).
Stafford looked up for the second half and definitely started the half the better team in front of the 1007 strong crowd at Marston Road; the highest crowd at the ground in two years (they must have heard Lost Boyos were coming).
Sadly, for the home team, it would be the superhero escapades of the Aquaforce who would take the lead. A 50/50 between the Stafford keeper and the away attacker was won by the forward, who took it past the keeper and slid a shot goalwards from a tight angle; however, he was to be denied by a heroic clearance from the defence. Cruelly for Stafford though, Shaw Lane would score from the subsequent corner, as Matt Thornhill scored an easy header, before he and a crowd of pink shirts ran off celebrating in front of the main stand.
The majority of the Stafford fanbase had seemed to have mobilised themselves from the main terrace to behind the club bar end (the goal Stafford were attacking), so I found myself all alone on the open terrace over the other side of the ground watching the closing stages in the chilly, Staffordshire wind.
The game was still a bit of a non-event and there was probably more exciting football being played by the three lads behind me having a kickabout with a tennis ball. Stafford tried to gather some momentum to launch a late bid for a point, but were failing to create much. That was until the final moments when the ball hung around the box and an effort was sent goalwards, only for it to be smothered on the line by the Shaw Lane keeper.
Full-time: Stafford Rangers 0 – 1 Shaw Lane Aquaforce.
Not the most thrilling of games, but Marston Road had definitely impressed.
I soon found myself at the The Four Crosses, located on the corner of the fork in the road leading up Marston Road. A proper Saturday evening pub this and the place was already abuzz with certain characters, including one punter who thought he was Bez by jiving his way around the pub, while everyone else was trying to catch up with the days football scores.
As I continued plodding back towards the town centre, I became excitable as I accidentally found a second Wetherspoons within Stafford (you can never have too many). This one was far less traditional than the one earlier and it had a slightly glitzier tone to it (if a Lloyd’s branch of Wetherspoons can be considered ‘glitzy). More Punk IPA was purchased and I carried on my crawl back to the train station.
I won’t lie, it gets a bit blurry here, but I went with my theory that pubs called Coach and Horses are usually good. Well, my theory sort of work here, although this Coach and Horses was a tad more colourful compared to others I’ve been in. The place was certainly tacky and the England flags plastered all over the walls were slightly unnerving for a Welshman, but I was content in there watching the late FA Cup game between Bournemouth and Everton, whilst talking football with a few lads at the bar; although I did sit a bit too close to the dartboard for comfort and came close to being a bullseye a few times. It was here I began to plot my exit plan out of Stafford, but it seemed I had a bit of a wait for the next train, so instead I decided to head back to The Picture House – and it was still mighty fine.
When I eventually did roll up at Stafford station, it seemed I had formed some sort of telepathic connection with a couple of my Morecambe-supporting pals. On stepping onto the platform at Stafford for the 19:30 train back to Manchester, I instantly received a message from Morecambe fan Mark asking “Are you getting on the 19:30 train arriving into Stafford?” Yes, I was. I imagined I’d be joining both Mark and Phil, on their way back from Bristol Rovers, but soon they were on the platform shaking my hand, declaring me a ‘legend’ and then on their way to another train, whilst I boarded the train back to Manchester.
Stafford had been fun, but undoubtedly the thought of this being my last free night before going back to the daily grind of work on Monday led to me staying out in Manchester for another drink in my beloved Piccadilly Tap…well, another 3.
I usually save my remorseless rants for the likes of Milton Keynes and Stoke-on-Trent on these pages, but there’s one place that may well rival them for suffering one of my more vicious diatribes: Chinley in the Peak District – a lovely place, but bloody boring (you can read where my disdain comes from here). So, when a lad approached me in the Tap and said he was from Chinley and that he’d tweeted me during my Chniley ordeal. I was a bit worried that he may take umbridge with my derisory comments on Chinley, but James proved good company with his gang, before they headed off into the Peak District and I headed off into the Northern Quarter.
We’ll say from here that I was determined to not finish the day’s trip and the last night of the my week off, so the party went on into the early hours of the morning.
And so ended a week off work and a fun week of football. I’d visited exotic climes like Newcastle-under-Lyme, Atherton, Tamworth, Eccleshill and finally Stafford and it was undoubtedly the latter that brought me the most joy in regards of the ground. A beautiful, traditional ground and I hope any talk of Stafford Rangers moving in the future is merely just talk.
Highlights:plenty of pubs, awesome Wetherspoons, Ye Old Rose and Crown, good club bar, awesome ground, seeing the Aquaforce.
Low Points: poor game, a few dodgy pubs.
See all my photos from Stafford here.