Lost in…Bamber Bridge

Bamber Bridge v Morecambe

Sir Tom Finney Stadium / Preseason Friendly / 12th July 2016

My Lost Boyos ‘farewell to the north’ tour wouldn’t be complete without one last hurrah with Morecambe FC. Sadly, fitting in a visit to the Globe Arena was proving difficult during my final weeks leading to my ‘nexit’ (northern exit) and so an alternative Shrimps-orientated hurrah would be needed. To my delight, I noticed that Morecambe’s preseason calendar had them playing non-league Bamber Bridge on a Tuesday night and so that was pencilled in.

There are not many clubs in the north-west I haven’t visited, but for some reason a trip to Bamber Bridge had always eluded me. Bamber Bridge can be found a mere 3 miles south of Preston centre in the South Ribble district. It was hardly an epic journey for me take from Manchester on a Tuesday evening after work and so my plan to tick-off Bamber Bridge FC and see my beloved Morecambe FC fell into place nicely.

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A Tuesday evening adventure into Lancashire (this is Preston by the way).

With this being my last week working in Irlam, my workload has not exactly been burdensome in recent days, so at the sound of the bell, I was straight out the door and on the train into Manchester. My workload may not be proving too taxing currently, but, as per usual, the 3-6pm trains out of Manchester to the surrounding town were proving irksome. I wasn’t surprised to find that my train from Manchester Oxford Road to Preston was a sweaty undertaking with passengers crammed on desperate to get to their homes in Wigan and Preston.

Fortunately, the train journey to Preston is far from a long haul, but I was still relieved to step off at Preston station and see that ‘Welcome to Lancashire’ sign. My train to Bamber Bridge wasn’t due for another 20 minutes so into Preston station’s Hero’s Bar I headed. To be honest, it is far from heroic in there with expensive beers and a remarkably underwhelming choice of the usual generic shit you find in most half-arsed pubs. I had to settle with Fosters to quench my thirst.

By the time I was sitting on the train to Bamber Bridge, I found myself the victim of a severe case of ‘cheese & onion envy’. The old dear couple sitting opposite me had opened a packet of standard Walker’s cheese & onion, only to then be met with me eating my packet of Walker’s MAX cheese & onion across the table from. Their jaws were hitting the floor (although it may have been their false teeth) as they stared aghast at the packet.

“Oh don’t mind us love, we’ve just never seen those crisps before. Are they cheese & onion?”

“Yeah…they’ve apparently just got more flavour to them. Hence the ‘MAX’…”

“Oh wow! We’ll have to hunt for them.”

The rest of the 10 minute train journey was spent with them whispering and staring at me as if I was some sort of bohemian crisp-eater. I was happy to alight.

“Oh…Bamber Bridge,” I heard them declare as I stood up to get off.

Away from crisp-loving old people, there didn’t appear to be too much to Bamber Bridge as I walked through. The town does have the feel of a typical, traditional Lancashire town and like those towns around it, its history is steeped in industry; in the case of Bamber Bridge, the cotton and textiles industry.

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The Pump and Truncheon.

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Withy Arms.

The main hub of Bamber Bridge goes along the main road, Station Road, with all the various shops and amenities heading in both directions away from the train station. Of course, this was where my pub choices would be too. I did stumble upon the brilliant looking ‘The Pump & Truncheon’ – the town’s old police station converted into a boozer. As great as it looked, and with only time to really visit one pub, I had to snub it and plod on up Station Road already knowing my destination.

I had heard good things about the Withy Arms and I had to concur with such positive reviews. It is a bloody brilliant pub! It is also the only pub in Bamber Bridge in the Good Beer Guide. As soon as I walked into the modern and tidy, yet slightly traditional-feeling, setup of the pub, I knew I had struck gold; mainly because the bar was a parade of ales. The barmaids seemed to know what they were talking about beer-wise and after my own perusal of the pumps, I ended up with a pint of Galaxian for £2.90 – a decent price for a 5% ale. I was struck by the question though of “Do you want it in a barrel glass?” I had no idea what a ‘barrel glass’ was, so I asked to see one, only to learn that it was what we would call back home a ‘dimple glass’.  More importantly than the price and glass that it came was the fact it was absolutely beautiful. A proper stunner. So much so that I queried how far away from the ground we were. When the barmaid claimed we were a mere 2 minutes away, I was straight away ordering a 2nd Galaxian before leaving.

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This way to BBFC.

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Found the ground.

The ground was to be found not too far away, but it seemed I shouldn’t have taken the barmaid’s throwaway ‘it’s a 2 minute walk away’ comment too literally with the winding road taking 10 minutes. But, soon enough I found myself in front of the sign declaring my arrival at the Sir Tom Finney Stadium.

The club were formed in 1974 and opened their current ground in 1983, which they have developed over the past 30 years or so. Originally the ground was named Irongate, before the club renamed it the Sir Tom Finney Stadium in 2004, shortly after the local Preston legend’s death. I worked my way past the crowd of excitable kids kitted out in some sort of local football club’s colours and entered the ground after paying the £5 entry.

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On entering the ground.

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Behind the goal – those steps would be our base for the night.

Bamber Bridge’s home is a rather idiosyncratic one. Undoubtedly your eyes are immediately to the large Wez Murray Stand that sits on one side of the ground. This stand is a modern one with 500 seats and the letters BBFC scrawled across the seating. Apparently this more grandiose stand was funded by the Football League Trust and the club’s 1999-2000 FA Cup run, where they made it to the 2nd round only to be knocked out  by then League One Cambridge United in a tightly fought 1-0 loss.

The rest of the ground is largely open with the Bamber Bridge End being the only other shelter with its small sheltered standing terrace running the width of the pitch behind the far goal. My home for the evening would be behind the opposite goal though and the end nearest the entrance. The fact it is dubbed the ‘Social Club End’ hints at why I spent most of my time there. And of course the social club would be were I headed first.

Bamber Bridge’s clubhouse is an absolute classic. Everything is very retro but neat and tidy in here and, unlike most non-league clubhouses, you’ll find a selection of ales. There was a signed Sir Tom Finney shirt on the wall too, although there was undoubtedly one stand out feature. Norwich fan and north-west non-league aficionado  Richard Bishop had tweeted me beforehand to emphasise how much I would enjoy the club bar carpet; I was obviously curious to find out why. The picture below shows why. Superb and possibly the best club bar carpet I’ve stepped foot on since going to Walsall (I bet there’s a blog out there called ‘Non-League Carpets’ – or if there isn’t, someone get that started).

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Superb club carpet.

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In the club bar.

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Sir Tom Finney’s signed Preston shirt.

There were a fair few Morecambe fans who had made their way south down to Preston, including one I didn’t recognise straightaway. Undoubtedly, my gateway into Morecambe becoming the closest thing I have to a ‘second team’ (I still insist I don’t believe in second teams) was Coventry-born Morecambe fan Paul Carter. On that first trip to the Globe Arena it was Paul who looked after me and made me feel like a VIP at the Globe. You couldn’t miss Paul that day as he had a large bright red mohican to go with his red Morecambe shirt. I learned over the years since that this is his trademark with the purple mohican to go with his purple away shirt being a particular favourite of mine. Because of his extravagant signature hairstyle, I didn’t recognise the gentleman in regular sportswear and short grey hair on this evening, but it was definitely him.

With Bamber Bridge supplying plastic cups tonight, the Morecambe end became the large step (complete with picnic tables) in front of the club bar  for the night. It was a sunny(ish) evening, so we were content being out in the open. Vitally for the Shrimps fans too, there was a teamsheet being held on the table, so they could learn the name of the several trialists on show for the club that evening. This would be the second time this week league opposition had played here at Bamber Bridge, after Preston had scraped a 1-0 win against the Brig a few days earlier. However, undoubtedly neither league club are the biggest names to have visited the ground.

Amazingly, in 1996,in the build-up to Euro 96, Bamber Bridge took on the Czech Republic – the very same Czech Republic that would narrowly lose the final of that tournament to the Germans at Wembley. With the Czechs based up in the north, they offered Preston a warm-up game, but the Lilywhites turned them down for some reason. So, the likes of Berger, Poborksy and Nedved headed to Bamber Bridge instead for a pre-Euro 96 warm up game. Bamber Bridge were told not to be too physical with the Czechs as this was just days before the tournament kicked-off and the Brig duly lost 9-1. It was still a day of celebration for the small town though, who greeted the Czechs with a brass band and bunting lining the street, as well as a Czech brewery (who were sponsoring the national team) flying over a bar full of beer for the occasion.

13 years later, on this Tuesday summer evening, there was no Pavel Nedved on show, but I was momentarily starstruck by a former Premier League player strolling past us. Strolling yards in front of us was Blackburn legend David Dunn. Morecambe fan Stu retorted that he couldn’t believe I didn’t go ask him for a double thumbs up photo, but as he was with his kid, I seemed to stop myself; although I did add that if I had had another pint or two he wouldn’t have stood a chance at avoiding a photo.

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Match action.

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Match action.

Morecambe were strangely in their home kit from two seasons and Bamber Bridge in their usual black and white as we got underway. The Morecambe fans around me spent the opening minutes trying to suss out who was who and who had actually played for the club last season.

Word had got around that the tall no.9 up front for Morecambe was a former Ghanaian international. A bit of googling on my phone confirmed that Daniel Agyei was indeed a Ghanian international – yet the Agyei I had unearthed had 5 caps as a goalie for Ghana; this guy definitely wasn’t a goalie. More research led me to another Daniel Agyei alongside terms such as ‘whizz-kid’ and ‘sought after’. It seemed this Agyei was some sort of goal machine for AFC Wimbledon U18s a couple of seasons ago and had been chased by the likes of Palace, West Ham and even Chelsea. He eventually ended up at Burnley and now somehow here at Bamber Bridge playing for Morecambe.

The opening 15-20 minutes saw Morecambe relentlessly attack the home goal and I’m still not sure how they didn’t score a goal. Bamber Bridge’s keeper seemed in inspired form and the defence seemed to be blocking anything that was goalbound in the six yard box. Plus, Agyei was ballsing up several chances, but, despite this, I was a big fan of his. In fact, I think with a couple of goals to gain a bit of confidence, I think he could be a great asset at League Two level. If Morecambe or someone else sign him, watch this space.

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Match action.

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Match action.

As the Morecambe attack dried up, along with my pint glass, I went for a wander of the ground to take some photos. Halfway around I got speaking to some Bamber Bridge folk and everyone I encountered seemed very friendly; apart from the more youthful fans behind the goal, who looked at my like some sort of invasive piece of shit as they glared at my Morecambe away shirt. It seemed that the gang behind the goal were the more vocal of the Brig support, so I was disappointed that they hadn’t sussed out a Bamber Bridge/’La Bamba’ chant yet (admittedly, I spent the rest of the evening trying to compose such a chant and struggled).

I headed past the main stand, where David Dunn was engaged in lively conversation with Morecambe manager Jim ‘Jimbo’ Bentley, who had left dugout duties to his coaching staff for the evening. Back at the Morecambe step behind the goal, Paul had kindly bought me another ale and the rest of the half was spent watching Morecambe miss more chances – especially my new favourite striker, Agyei.

Half-time: Bamber Bridge 0 – 0 Morecambe.

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With a barely recognisable, non-mohicaned Paul.

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Stu (with a very impressive pint on head thumbs up), me, Mark and Sam.

I could have spent the whole of half-time staring lovingly at the Bamber Bridge club bar carpet, but thought better of it and instead spent my time socialising with the various Shrimps fans who had gathered for the evening and catching up on the gossip from my favourite Lancashire seaside town. I was particularly upset to learn that my precious Ranch House – a rather ramshackle, western themed pub by the Morecambe seafront – had burned down after recently being closed down. I adored that dive and thus was heartbroken.

There wasn’t too much time to mourn the loss of the Ranch House when the two teams re-emerged for the second half; well, I say the teams re-emerged, the majority of the Morecambe team were emerging for the first time with ten changes made for the second half.

Our talk at half-time about second halves of friendlies usually being worse than the first, and the idea that this game could well finish 0-0, were soon dismissed as Morecambe took the lead. 3 minutes into the second half. An Alex Kenyon cross across goal deflected in and the Shrimps were 1-0 up.

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Match action.

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Match action.

The rest of the game was played in default mode for a preseason game, before Cole Stockton, on-loan from Tranmere, came to life in the closing stages to make Morecambe’s win far more comfortable. Firstly, he made it 2-0 11 minutes from time, when he rounded the keeper and fired home, before he then finished off a wonderful passing move to make it 3-0 and close the evening’s scoring.

Full-time: Bamber Bridge 0 – 3 Morecambe.

Not a bad friendly and a pleasant evening at the Sir Tom Finney Stadium. In fact, I was going to head back to the Withy Arms, but I was enjoying myself with the Morecambe gang, so I ordered one more ale to enjoy pitchside as the sun began to set over Lancashire.

Sam and Mark were grilling some important looking chap in a suit, shirt and Morecambe tie. This turned out to be the Morecambe’s vice-president and he came across very well, not shying away from the lads amicable questioning and seeming to be being brutally honest in his answers too. Mark introduced me to him then the way he had introduced me to everyone else that evening: “This is Matt. He went to a 101 games last year you know?” before appealing to the person he was introducing me to for an incredulous reaction. Mark seems to think I’m some sort of football groundhopping Indiana Jones the way he hyperbolises my antics.

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Sam, Mr. Vice-Chairman and me.

After speaking to Mr. Vice-Chairman, I then spotted assistant manager Ken McKenna, the scouser who became a Welsh Premier League legend in his playing and coaching days on that side of the border. It sounded like he had switched allegiances to Wales during our heroic Euro 2016 campaign and he came over to me repeatedly shouting ‘Iechyd da!’ (google it you non-Welshies).

Then the main man arrived on the scene:

“Ey, you’re the Welsh lad who does that Boyos site that likes us,” came the scouse-tinged retort of Morecambe manager of Jim Bentley. Jimbo is easily my favourite league manager as he has always been very approachable, friendly and fun guy. I’ve also heard several stories of his acts of goodness, so he’s a nice guy to boot -as I know myself from experience. 24 hours after attending Morecambe v Newcastle in the League Cup in 2013, I ended up spending the night in hospital (it’s a long story). Having been in the Globe Arena bar with Jimbo the night before, he sent me a message hoping I was well, via Paul. Classy guy. He seemed to have half-remembered this act when I reminded, before checking up on my health again; I assured him I was fine now 3 years later. I finished our chat by telling him about my upcoming move to Slovakia and I’d spy out some players for him; this was now the 3rd football manager in the space of 10 days I had promised to find some Slovakian football talent for. I’m going to have to become some sort of Slovakia super agent at this rate!

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With Morecambe assistant manager Ken Mckenna (photobombed by Mark)>

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The main man himself. The legend that is Jim ‘Jimbo’ Bentley.

I departed the ground in good spirits having enjoyed my evening at a very friendly and welcoming Bamber Bridge. I even bumped into a Bamber Bridge fan on the train back to Preston, who wasn’t to be fooled by my Morecambe shirt and had sussed out that I was a Welsh imposter (apparently he had heard me talking on the phone). Like many these days, it seemed that he was growing tired of supporting his league club, Preston, and was slowly converting to following the more engaging and welcoming non-league side of things at Bamber Bridge.

I’ll leave the final say of the evening to  Morecambe fan Mark Lewis and his comment on my Facebook status later that night:

“Isn’t it great? Having a laugh, watching the football, going to the bar, bringing your drink out, having pie and chips, talking to friends, sharing thoughts with players, management, staff, directors and board members and nobody bothering you. I call it enjoying yourself.”

I’m sure he won’t mind me tidying that up statement grammatically, but he absolutely hits the nail on the head. It’s evenings like this I love the laid back nature of preseason. And it’s evenings like this why I love Morecambe FC.

Highlights: Withy Arms, an evening with the ever likable Shrimps, good ground, good club ar (the carpet!), Daniel Agyei, meeting Jimbo again.

Low Points: not too much to Bamber Bridge, letting David Dunn escape.

See all my photos from Bamber Bridge here.

 

 

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