Nelson v Maine Road
Victoria Park (AKA ‘Little Wembley’) / North West Counties Premier Division / 30th April 2016
Towards the end of November I came home from work after a hard day and dragged my body up the stairs towards my bedroom for a well-earned lie down. What I didn’t expect to find outside my bedroom was a young, half-naked, blonde German lad standing there. Initially, I was unsure of what to do with this apparent intruder, until he grinned and politely introduced himself and his French girlfriend, Muriel, who was sitting in the next room. My confusion further relieved itself when he introduced himself as my new housemate. This was Niklas and he would be living in our houseshare for the next 6 months. as he completed an internship in Manchester. Little did we know then that this would be the start of a beautiful bromance.
From virtually the first week we met, me and Niklas have become great pals and obviously that has meant forming a bond over football too. Niklas is very much a Borussia Dortmund fan, but I have tried to convert him into a part-time Swansea fan whilst he’s been over here. This has seen me take him to Old Trafford and the Britannia Stadium to watch the Swans over the past few months and I can officially confirm that Niklas is now a German ‘Jack Bastard’ in our eyes.
As well as Swans games, he has joined me at midweek games at Salford City and Curzon Ashton, yet he had not done what I would refer to as a ‘proper Lost Boyos day’ and thus never properly featured on this blog. Until now. With Niklas only having 2 weeks left in the UK before he heads back to Deutschland, I stated that it was now or never for him to make it onto these pages. He chose ‘now’. So which footballing outpost would I choose to take Niklas to for his proper Lost Boyos debut?
“I’m taking you to Nelson, Niklas,” I declared.
Compared to the usual Lost Boyos early starts, today was a relatively late one with us not arriving at Manchester Victoria until 10.30am and then boarding the train to Nelson (via a change at somewhere called Rose Grove) at 10.56am, armed with beer, Starbucks coffee and croissants. The majority of our journey was spent discussing sheep, a topic I obviously loved, as we soared past fields filled with them (alive and dead).
Time soared by and soon we found ourselves at Rose Grove, which a map had now taught us was on the edge of Burnley. On alighting here, it struck me as a rather dull place where I’d rather not spend any time at all. Plus, we were both a bit freaked out by the two gentlemen at the end of the platform staring us down and recording something with a camera on a tripod (I questioned whether someone was making a David Attenborough-style documentary following groundhoppers).
Through Burnley Barracks and Burnley Central our next train led us, before 10 minutes after leaving Rose Grove we alighted in Nelson itself. I grew up in Quakers Yard in the Merthyr valley with the village next to mine also called Nelson, but this is certainly a more typically Lancashire setup than the small village in South Wales. The name of the town actually derives from the Nelson Inn pub in the town. The original village was called Marsden, but as the village expanded and incorporated itself into others, a name change was decided upon to differentiate the place from nearby Marsden in Yorkshire. Naming it after the Nelson Inn seemed as good an idea as any and so it came to be Nelson (obviously the pub is in honour of Lord Nelson too).
Apparently, Nelson has some of the lowest house prices in the UK and as we walked through town it didn’t exactly strike us as the most affluent of areas. Like many of the towns in this neck of the woods, Nelson was once a thriving mill town, but the decline in industry in the area saw a decline in the local economy too. However, I do love this part of Lancashire, especially towns such as Colne and Barnoldswick and Nelson definitely falls into that category of ‘proper Lancashire town’. As we were in Nelson, the Nelson Inn itself seemed as good a place to start as any.
On walking in, I feared for us in the Nelson Inn. This was very much a large, small-town pub with many of the locals already looking half-cut, as they seemed to be taking full advantage of the 3 bottles of Carlsberg for £4 deal. I told Niklas to maybe keep the fact he’s a German low-key for now. That would be impossible. People joke about me talking to anyone and everyone, but Niklas can make me look like a shrinking violet. So, as always when I head out with him, Niklas was soon making friends outside the pub as he enjoyed his usual ‘well, I’m drinking, so I’ll smoke’ cigarettes routine and although some of the locals seemed a bit rough around the edges, they were nonetheless very pleasant.
As Niklas enjoyed the smoking area, I was more enraptured by the £2.10 a pint prices and the fact that we could stand at the bar and watch Bolton v Hull and Hearts v Celtic. I’d received word from Nelson FC’s Twitter account that the only other pub in the main hub of the town was the Station Hotel and so we opted to stay in the Nelson Inn for a large proportion of the afternoon, enjoying the football on TV and the cheap beer prices. Although I had to try dampen my excitement slightly and not cause a scene when Stephen Dobbie scored for Bolton; for those who don’t know, he’s one of my favourite ever Swansea players and his name is even proudly printed on the back of my 2011/12 Swansea orange away shirt.
For the second week in a row, I got chatting to a Glaswegian Celtic fan in a random northern town, before we decided that we would begin the 15 minute walk to the ground and drink there.
My walk to the ground was soundtracked by Niklas’ repeated declarations of how much he wanted chicken wings. It seemed he was really hungry, but I did emphasise the sheer unlikeliness of us finding chicken wings at Nelson FC; although admittedly, I didn’t fully dismiss the idea either just to keep Niklas walking towards the ground and not heading off path to search out a Nelson Fried Chicken (disclaimer: such a place is unlikely to exist – although who knows). Niklas seemed content with the possibility that he may find chicken at a NWCFL football ground and he seemed happy enough as long as there was food there that wasn’t pies – he’s not a fan of pies…or so he claimed.
The ground is situated away from the epicentre of the town with it being wedged between a small industrial estate and a public park, but after a 10-15 minute stroll we soon spotted ‘Little Wembley’ through the trees. The ground is officially called Victoria Park, but I’ll continue to use its more well-known moniker of ‘Little Wembley’ as it is most definitely a cooler name. It was as rustic looking as I was expecting too and certainly the furthest of far cries away from ‘Big Wembley. £6 entry and we were into the home of the Admirals.
Nelson FC began life way back in 1881, where they started in the Lancashire League. However, undoubtedly the club’s golden era would come during the 1920s when the club would become a Football League team as founder members of the Third Division North. They would go on to win promotion from the league in 1923 and what was to follow would immortalise the club with a milestone that cannot ever be taken away from the club.
The last game I had attended before heading to Nelson was 3 days before, as I witnessed Manchester City v Real Madrid in a packed Etihad Stadium for the Champions League semi-final. The game would end 0-0 with City failing to capitalise on their home advantage against a very ordinary Real Madrid team. One team that can boast of triumphing over Real Madrid is little, old Nelson FC in 1923. I promise I’m not lying to you. In fact, Nelson were the first English team to defeat Real Madrid in Madrid, when the club opted to embark on a Spanish tour before their first season in the Second Division. As well as Real Madrid, the team would also go on to defeat Manchester United at Old Trafford that season, yet sadly Nelson struggled throughout the rest of the campaign and their stint in the Second Division was short-lived, as they slumped back into the Third Division North, before eventually exiting the Football League altogether in 1931.
The club would fold in the mid-30s, although a new team was briefly created, only for that reincarnation to be interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. The modern day Nelson were founder members of the North West Counties and it is in these leagues that they have resided since the league began in the 1980s.
Little Wembley has been the club’s home since 1971-72, after playing at Seedhill Football Ground for the majority of their existence before that – a ground which once attracted 14,000 spectators for a game against Bradford Park Avenue back in 1926.
Undoubtedly, chaos would ensue if you tried to get 14,000 in Little Wembley as it is a small, compact ground, although admittedly with plenty of open space encircled by the surrounding trees. It is cracker of a non-league ground though! The ground only contains one real stand with this being split into four small compartments filled with green seating to match the slightly ramshackle-looking green paint job. The rest of the ground is completely open, although there is some makeshift fencing on one side of the ground to stop spectators disturbing the residences of the street overlooking the pitch (although I imagine residents of those houses have a great view of the action and an all year round season ticket for Nelson games). The street adjacent to the ground is definitely a quirk of the place and does provide the place with a more unique backdrop compared to the more ‘hilly’ grounds in the area.
We wanted to hit the clubhouse, but with just a handful of non-descript cabins at the far end of the ground it was hard to work out where to head; that was until I saw a gentleman sipping away at a can of Fosters within one of the cabins. This was indeed the club bar – definitely not one of the NWCFL’s most glamorous, but it would do for me. Nothing on tap, so cans of Fosters for £2 had to suffice, whilst Niklas wanted to peruse the menu; his dream of chicken wings were obliterated instantly. My prediction of pies being the only option was correct, although at least Niklas had the option of 3 varieties. He pulled a face at the idea of steak and kidney in a pie (“like actual kidneys?”) before asking did they have “sausage pie?”. Typical German! After much laughing from behind the counter, Niklas ‘I don’t like pies’ Mode, walked away with not one, but two pies – a cheese and onion and meat and potato pie – before demolsihing the two of them. He did raise a valid question: what actually is the meat in meat and potato pies? Such philosophical questions (although I’m certain there’s a simple answer to this) would have to wait for later, as we glanced out the window to see the teams lining up ready to head onto the pitch.
I had to explain to Niklas that there were a few big play-off and promotion deciding games across the north-west this afternoon, but I had brought him to a rather meaningless mid-table clash between Nelson and Maine Road. As previously mentioned, my previous game of the week had been Tuesday night, where I took in the small matter of a Champions League semi-final between Manchester City v Real Madrid. Despite the fanfare that night, the game had finished 0-0, so I just hoped that Nelson and Maine Road could conjure up some goals for me.
We took our seats in the stand for the opening exchanges and despite a few half chances for both teams, there was not too much to get over-excited about – apart from one player. Fair to say, that me and Niklas were immediately enamoured with the skill and trickery of Nelson winger Nathan Webb. He really was a joy to watch in the first half and I would later learn that he was on loan at the club from Accrington Stanley all the way up in the Football League.
I headed off on my lap of the ground and after initially deciding that he was happy chilling in the stand, Niklas then came scampering after me. Our lap coincided with the opening goal of the game and it was to be our new favourite player, Webb (although Niklas had already decided that he was already on first name terms with him and calling him simply ‘Nathan’). A great touch in the box and then a powerful drive from ‘Nathan’ saw Nelson go 1-0 up.
There was little else to report in the first half, but I did find photographer David Fry snapping away in the crowd and having met him a few weeks earlier at Prescot Cables, he joined us for the rest of the afternoon.
Half-time: Nelson 1 – 0 Maine Road.
It seemed that the earlier anti-pie boasts were well and truly dismissed by my German friend by now, as he indulged in his 3rd pie of the afternoon, swiftly followed by his 4th. Having shared a house with him for the past 6 months, I can divulge that some of his eating habits are insane. I wanted a pie too and so I thought I better buy one now, before Niklas worked his way through the club’s entire stockpile. I saw why he kept going back for more too: superb pie effort at Little Wembley.
I took my can of Fosters outside for the start of the second half and we positioned ourselves behind the near goal, which Nelson were attacking towards. Positioned behind us on a picnic table sat a trophy that had been won by the club’s U16s that very day (I think) and it was a battle to resist pouring my Fosters into the large cup and drinking out of it like a celebratory goblet. But resist I did, and my can continued to act as my unimaginative drinking receptacle.
The second half was fairly dull and a typical end of season game for the most part, but Maine Road did make things a bit more interesting by equalising. However, the bland showing on the pitch saw my eyes begin to look away from the action and to elsewhere, which led to me spotting the small rowing boat in the corner of the ground. Why it was there, I don’t know; maybe they have bad flooding here. That’s what I thought anyway, until I realised that a large part of the boat had withered away and this vessel was certainly not fit for purpose. There was still a cheesy photo opportunity to be had here though and by golly did I seize it.
By the time, I returned from my sailing expedition between two trees at the very back of ‘Little Wembley,’ Nelson had earned themselves a penalty. However, I knew trouble was afoot for the home team when I heard the Maine Road players encouraging their goalie by repeatedly shouting at him about how he had saved a penalty in his last game. The tactic clearly worked, as he threw himself to his right and made a great save to keep the game at 1-1.
Me and Niklas carried on cheerleading for ‘Webby’ (I had learned from his team mates shouting at him that that was his inventive nickname by now), but fairplay to the very young-looking Maine Road right-back who battled well against him.
Full-time: Nelson 1 – 1 Maine Road.
To get back to Manchester, we now had the option of waiting an hour and half for the next train or rushing off for the train in 30 minutes. I put the decision to my guest for the day and Niklas had seen enough of this small part of Lancashire it seemed. We waved our goodbyes to Little Wembley and back up the hills we headed towards the train station with David deciding to join us on the train back too.
With no post match pub stops, I decided I’d bring the pub to the train home, so the walk back involved me scouting out off-licenses to purchase some beer from. It seems Nelson don’t really do off-licenses. Instead, I found myself panicking and running into the town’s Pendle Rise shopping centre and hoping for the best. Sadly, the best option it seemed was Home Bargains and soon I emerged back onto the street with the first ale I could grab and buy. For some reason, unbeknownst to me in the rush of the moment, my brain had decided that buying IPA inspired by former Scottish rugby commentator Bill McLaren was a good idea. Yes, I now had myself two warm bottles of ‘Unmistakably Bill’s’ for the train back to Manchester – and by golly was it disgusting. I shouldn’t complain though, as I did eventually get that pub stop…
I cocked up. Much to mine and Niklas’ annoyance, I had got my train changes a bit muddled and this left me with the task of explaining to Niklas we would be stranded somewhere for the best part of an hour. Remember that Rose Grove place from earlier? The place which I stated ‘struck me as a rather dull place where I’d rather not spend any time at all’? Well, I was about to spend some time there.
As we exited Rose Grove station, there seemed to be nothing nearby and so I put faith in Niklas to choose ‘left or right’ and hope one way led to a pub. His ‘right’ choice proved a good call, as within seconds we spotted The Junction pub – although we seemed to be the only people walking the streets in this suburb of Burnley.
We had been in the pub a matter of minutes and I had never heard Niklas go so quiet. Our company at the bar were 3 men, pushing into their 60s I’d say, who had talked of how they had been out since 9am. A Welshman and a German entering these premises may have been the most exciting thing to happen here in a long while, as the men seemed slightly baffled about how we had ended up in this nothingness. I’m sure the wacky tale of the ‘Welshman and the German’ will be told for many a year in these parts. We had one beer, whilst we listened to one man, who could barely string a sentence together, state to our small audience how Burnley would “100% beat QPR 3-0 on Moday and get promoted.” He may have been steaming, but at least he got the ‘promoted’ bit right – Burnley only won 1-0 though.
“Why were you so quiet in there? I’ve never heard you not talk before,” I asked Niklas as we finally began our extraction from Rose Grove.
“I was just sitting there thinking ‘how has my life led me to this grim place’,” he muttered in reply.
“Oh, well that’s just kind of what happens all the time to us when we have these Lost Boyos outings. It’s part of the fun.”
I’m not sure he was contented with my answer as we got back to Manchester over an hour later than planned. Yet, somehow I convinced him to come join me in Wetherspoons to meet up with the Curzon Ashton gang, who had had quite the party that day by going to their last game of the season in fancy dress. My Facebook that day had been dominated with pictures of the Curzon faithful (plus, Gibbo) wandering and dancing around the stands of Stockport County dressed as the likes of Duffman, the Honey Monster and even Tina Turner. So, I was a little disappointed to find them all dressed back in ‘normal’ clothing by the time I rolled into town. Although I did make sure I pretended to be a Lost Boyos version of the Honey Monster for a short time.
I was glad that Niklas had finally experienced a ‘proper Lost Boyos’ day before he heads back to the continent this month and I’d like to think I showed him a part of the country that many tourists would unlikely venture to. Plus, he can spread the word of Nathan Webb in Germany now and, who knows, he could help him trigger a move and ‘do a Dale Jennings’ (who moved from Tranmere Rovers to Bayern Munich a few years ago).
From a personal level, I was happy to finally tick off the much heralded ‘Little Wembley’ and it had lived up to its billing as a ‘proper non-league ground’.
Oh, and just in case he’s reading this and he thinks I’ve forgotten it, I should end the blog as my day that day ended: on a personal triumph. Since last May, following our fun-filled day at Chapel Town, me and Gibbo have had several duels on the table football table in the Piccadilly Tap with me losing every single time. After all the Curzon fans went home from Wetherspoons, a small group of us headed over to the Tap and almost a year after our first match, I finally conquered Gibbo at table football. Just thought I’d put that here in case it never gets recorded on here. Thanks for indulging me.
Highlights: Niklas for company, cheap beer in Nelson Inn, great ground, good pie, Nathan Webb.
Low Points: dull game, Rose Grove.
See all my photos from my trip to Nelson here.