Tuesday 5 July 2022

I'm Back! And There's A Major Tournament To Attend...

Hello! Long time no see! I never envisaged I would have been so busy since last August that
groundhopping had to take a backseat. Everything is (hopefully) in order now, so I’ll be back travelling around football grounds for the 2022/23 season. 

And it starts with a major tournament that’s kicking off tomorrow.

The Women’s European Championships is taking place in England and promises to be a great celebration (and examination of) the women’s game. Over 500,000 tickets have been sold and I’ve been fortunate enough to grab a ticket for five of the fixtures, including tomorrow’s opening game as England take on Austria at Old Trafford, as well as for the Final at Wembley at the end of the month.

I’ve been to a few women’s games for the purposes of this blog and each time it’s been an enjoyable watch – it offers a vastly different atmosphere to the men’s game (and that’s putting it lightly!), which I think is to its credit. I’ll probably expand on this more during the tournament, but I feel that the women’s game needs to offer something different to stand on its own – and there’s no doubt that this tournament offers a more ‘family friendly’ appeal which needs to be promoted throughout to try and get more people into enjoying the experience of supporting a football club.

Living in the North West has afforded me some decent games to attend in the next month – aside from the opening game at the home of Manchester United, I’m going to see a match this Saturday at Leigh Sports Village (a 40 minute bus ride from my home in Wigan!), another at Manchester City’s Academy Stadium and a semi-final at somewhere a bit ‘further afield’ – Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane! This is the biggest football tournament England has hosted since (the men’s) Euro 96 (the 2005 version of the Women’s Euros, ironically hosted in the North West of England, came and went without anywhere near the fanfare this edition has already had), so it represents a significant milestone in the women’s game in this country and I feel it’s important to document it.

Aside from the blogs about Euro 2022, I’ll be finishing a blog I started last year (yes, LAST YEAR!) as I attended ‘El Glassico’ – the derby between St. Helens Town and Pilkington. And of course, there’s the final part of my book series, Playing Offside, that needs to be finished. I started writing Volume Five nearly 3 years ago now and just haven’t had the time and the strength to complete it. I’m hoping it’ll be finished by late summer but cannot promise anything. I CAN promise that it’ll be the most expansive volume of the series as it takes in the 2018/19 season and part of the 2019/20 season (pre-COVID!)

Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading my upcoming blogs, the Euros and/or even any pre-season games you might be attending. I’m looking forward to getting back to blogging; hoping these Euros can act as a catalyst for me to get back to it full-time!


Sunday 1 August 2021

Wigan Athletic Legends vs. Wigan Athletic Academy – Joseph’s Goal Charity Game 2021

So, where were we? After almost A YEAR since my last groundhop, we’ve seen further lockdowns, a brief civil war in the top echelons of football, more clubs struggle under financial hardship and England lose a European Championship final on penalty kicks. With most of the country back open, vaccines rolled out to the majority and no mandatory restrictions in place, hopefully we’re back on track to enjoy football in person again. Hopefully.

I’m back at Ashton Town today – it’s the annual Joseph’s Goal charity match which in the past has pitted a Wigan Athletic ‘old boys’ side against former players from Manchester City, Manchester United, a Dutch Masters select and Hollyoaks. With COVID still a lurking concern, this year’s opponents have been drawn from the Wigan Athletic Academy – budding professionals taking on former professionals, adding fresh intrigue to the occasion.

Interestingly, the inaugural Joseph’s Goal charity match back in 2015 was supposed to feature the Latics youth team but that fixture was rained off and when a rearranged date was set, they couldn’t make it. So, in stepped the aforementioned team made up by actors and staff from the Channel 4 soap – despite a spirited effort, the Hollyoaks lads struggled to keep pace with the Latics veterans, who ran out 10-0 winners.

It’s quite apt that the academy are in action at this celebrated occasion today because it was the youth set-up that essentially saved Wigan Athletic from going under last year. The inexplicable move to put the club into administration by an owner who had only purchased the club a month previously led to Wigan being in danger of not paying the bills, in the middle of a pandemic with no income coming through the gates.

In the end, the club had to sell three talented youngsters – Jensen Weir, Alfie Devine and Joe Gelhardt to Premier League sides Brighton, Tottenham and Leeds for a fraction of what they were worth if the club didn’t need to sell right then and there. Together with money raised by supporters, the team got through to the end of the season where they just came up short in surviving the 12-point deduction and thus relegated to League One.

The 2-0 defeat at Ipswich on the opening day of the 2020-21 campaign saw half of the Wigan squad made up by academy players – this number grew throughout the first half of the season as more players left and injury plagued the squad. Somehow though, everyone railed together – the club was devastated as more than 70% of staff were made redundant leaving coaches performing 6 or 7 roles. The arrival of new owners, Bahraini-backed Phoenix 2021, a month or so before the end of the season gave everyone a lift and the cobbled-together squad of youth players, short-term contracts and loanees managed to do enough to survive a second successive relegation.

While, with smart investment, there’s hope we can challenge around the top end of the table this season, it’s the academy that will continue to provide the club with its heartbeat going forwards – graduates like Callum Lang, Thelo Aasgaard, Adam Long, Luke Robinson and Harry McHugh chief amongst them.

Funnily enough, one of my last groundhops before Corona shut everything down was Wigan’s youth cup quarter-final against Manchester United at Old Trafford. The scorer in the 2-1 defeat that day was Sean McGurk – another player who has recently left us, joining Gelhardt at Leeds for what was probably little more than a training fee. Academy Manager Gregor Ricoh (featuring in today’s Latics Legends team) recently commented that the set-up has been set back several years by the administration – the number of players leaving causing a vacuum to be formed that has seen U18s having to step up to the U23s. It was a relief to hear that the academy is a priority for the new owners – as I’ve just outlined, it saved my football club, creating bone-fide legends out of teenagers who had never played a game of professional football before. It’s only right that it should be protected and invested in going forwards.

COVID has overseen what is probably a slimmed-down occasion for the Joseph’s Goal match this year – the Latics Legends side is made up of club staff, including the aforementioned Ricoh and first-team manager, Leam Richardson. Emmerson Boyce and Gary Caldwell (making his Latics Legends debut) are the standout former Latics players – but it’s the presence of an active professional that has been the headline-making news about this game. Sam Morsy, one of the players who had to be moved on last summer, has obtained permission from Middlesbrough manager, Neil Warnock, to play a part today – an incredibly brilliant gesture from them both. I sort-of feel sorry for the Academy lads now as their team is essentially a mix of the U18s team (possibly with some U16s?) against these legends – and to make things worse, several of the older lads from the U23s are lining up for the Legends too!

Co-managing the Legends today is a member of England’s coaching staff – former Latics striker and FA Cup-winning assistant manager, Graeme Jones. He was a major presence during England’s run to the final of Euro 2020 (well, I saw him on telly a lot) – a match that ended in heartbreak for England as they lost on penalties. It happened three weeks ago now and to be honest, I’ve been avoiding all the fallout from it. The reports of sickening online racial abuse just added to a day of utter cringeworthy behaviour from fans – England already has this prejudiced reputation of being arrogant (in fact, the opposite is true; you will never find a more self-deprecating people), but the combination of the occasion and the unlocking of Coronavirus restrictions just created this orgy of cringe.

England didn’t do enough to win it on the day, fair enough, but it isn’t the match itself that makes me not want to watch it again (or even think about the tournament with fondness) – it’s all this outside stuff (and accompanying political machinations) that hurt the most. It’s such a shame because the country was growing closer during the tournament – everyone of all backgrounds, walks of life and views uniting to support our team. It’s what football is so good at. Unfortunately, people can’t watch a game of football anymore without being dickheads and acting the ‘big I am’ or previously uninterested ‘fans’ using the fallout to further their partisan ends.

Speaking of which – the pandemic also saw an attempt by Europe’s biggest clubs to form a ‘European Super League’. It’s something that’s been talked about for more than 30 years so it’s not a surprise to see the idea floated, but it was the cheek of them pushing for it now, taking advantage of the pandemic, that angered most people. To make things worse, these clubs expected to be allowed to compete in their domestic leagues, effectively rendering them second-tier competitions while they played in their closed-off league, growing richer. It was an affront to the game we love – one of the best things about football is that clubs can grow from being small provincial clubs into ones that take on the best in their country week-in-week-out.

To me (and most others, it seems!) the move was purely a ‘pull the ladder up’ exercise that quite justly fell on its face almost as soon as it became public. The excuse given for them wanting their own league is that the top club ‘attract all the supporters and sponsors’ and ‘don’t get a fair cut of income’ – almost like their opponents don’t matter. They forget that the reason they’ve been successful in the first place is because there have been (supposed) ‘smaller’ clubs that provide fodder for them – the trouble is that this fodder beating them is often the difference in them winning something or not. So, let’s dismiss the ‘more competition’ argument – they wanted the ESL to make money, nothing else.

Fair play to supporters of the English clubs who responded in anger to the news; protests happening at all of those involved – but we all shouldn’t let it rest. These top clubs, their owners and the investment firms backing them will definitely try again to carve up more of the football finance cake for themselves. Whatever they come up with, it is the duty of our national associations, UEFA and FIFA to stamp them out before they ruin our game, taking away that dream for many of our clubs to compete at the very top levels. In the meantime, let’s stop pretending the top clubs care about football and the people who watch it, eh?

Far away from the shenanigans at the top level of our game is non-league football, proper football some might say. People say this because these clubs inhibit the philosophies that has seen football grow to be the biggest sport in the world – namely, its community spirit. Today, Ashton Town are once again hosting the match for a local charity, given global exposure during the 2013 FA Cup Final. Named after Joseph Kendrick, a now-12-year-old boy who suffers from NKH (Nonketotic Hyperglycinemia, a rare life-limiting disorder), the charity has come to represent the good of football and the people who watch it – growing a community of its own and even inspiring others to go on and create and got involved with other charitable endeavours.

This is always a well-organised event, but it looks to be even better this year – possibly due to COVID, there’s plenty of outdoor amenities around the ground; a cider bar, burger trailer, ice cream van and a can point. Like the maverick I am, I go into the empty clubhouse and get a pint of Skinny Lager – a brew that’s new to the club this year I believe, and it's actually really nice. It slips down the palette easy enough; it’s what I would describe as a ‘trendy lager’ – low-calorie (hence the name ‘Skinny’!), gluten-free and safe for vegans. The best thing is that it doesn’t compromise on the alcohol content too Along with Kopparberg on tap for even trendier cider drinkers, it's certainly a step up from the cans of Carling in previous years – there’s still no Leffe, though.

There’s a decent crowd around the ground, not as many as there’s been in previous years (for obvious reasons), but there’s still a good atmosphere nonetheless. The two teams enter the field and line up to have their photos taken – Morsy, Boyce and Caldwell all starting. The first 15 minutes of the match are decent – the U18s look good on the break and they open the scoring; a single pass splitting the Latics’ veteran defenders before an attacker hits the ball high, across the goalkeeper, and in.

Morsy was already off before the goal went in; he played 10 minutes, which was clearly the arrangement with Middlesbrough. Despite his role being a cameo, the combative midfielder saw plenty of the ball and even got to show his trademark aggression, by getting in front of an opponent to muscle him off the ball. Top lad. The U18s add a second goal not long after the first, which was almost a carbon copy – a through ball saw an attacker speed in from the right and hitting it into the opposite corner. It’s a shame for the Legends to be down 2-0 already as they’ve had most of the ball and done most of the attacking.

A full-back during his playing career (at least from what I remember!), Leam Richardson is looking excellent in central midfield, dictating the play (well, he’s either playing well or the young lads don’t want to go in hard on the club’s First Team manager!). He has a great chance to get a goal back after a volley from the edge of the area is deflected and the keeper, who was diving the wrong way, just about grabbed a hold of the ball. That’s him getting nowhere near the First Team! The young keeper then does well to parry a shot from Boyce, as the right-back skips past a few challenges to shoot – typically, they break upfield and almost grab a third but pressure from the opposing keeper sees the ball lifted over the bar.

Just as it seemed like the U18s would run riot against a Latics Legends defence containing three men over 40, Harry McHugh (only 18 himself) showed the quality that he demonstrated in his fleeting First Team appearances last season – finding space to slide the ball across to a U23 teammate who lashed home. It got better just before half-time as the Legends found an equaliser through a near-post corner – completely unmarked, another U23 player side-foot volleyed in. It caps off an entertaining half; the teams are better matched than I thought. While the Legends are showing great skill and obvious experience, they lack the legs to keep up with the young lads – the U23 players helping to redress the balance somewhat. U23 captain, Scott Smith, is usually a midfielder but seems to be playing as a third centre-back, doing the running for Caldwell and Co! In fairness, Boycey is showing he still has a great engine – even at 40, he’s getting up-and-down the right-hand side well!

Bizarrely, the teams don't swap sides for the second half – not sure what that's about? The Legends take the half-time opportunity to sub off the more ‘senior’ players; the side now being a Wigan Athletic U23 Select, plus Gary Caldwell. The fresh legs make a huge difference as they add two goals – a long ball that’s chested down brilliantly and fired past the onrushing goalkeeper, and then yet another through-ball sees an attacker clip past the beleaguered keeper (I wish they would have announced the goalscorers!)

With 20 minutes to go, the Legends believe it’s safe for the veterans to return as a whole host of seniors are subbed on. Among them is Academy manager, Gregor Ricoh; a brilliant coach who basically created the production line of youth the club enjoys and is someone who stuck by the club last season to help with the first team. The first thing the youth head honcho does is give one of his U18 opponents a shoulder squeeze – classic intimidation!

As if the result was scripted (it definitely wasn’t – the match seemed like a Dads vs Lads game for the last 20 minutes!), the U18s score twice. First, the goal of the day when a long-range strike finds the top corner and then a late penalty (it was) is tucked away, signalling to the ref to blow up for full-time (not sure it was). Penalties it was – not the first time in this annual charity game! First up for the Legends is Gary Caldwell – the last time he stepped up first to take a penalty was in the 2014 FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal at Wembley. Can he exorcise those ghosts by tucking one away at Ashton Town? He did – giving the teenager between the sticks no chance; “That’s what I meant to do last time” he shouts amongst the good-natured banter that sounds after the ball hits the net.

Emmerson Boyce slots home his penalty

The shoot-out goes to sudden death, where the Legends keeper pulls off a fine save and it’s left to another U23 player to score the goal that takes the win. Another great occasion, one that was definitely affected by the pandemic but was nevertheless no less entertaining, raising money for a great cause in the process. Here’s hoping for a larger occasion next season, as well as an uninterrupted season and many more groundhops! You can learn more about the Joseph’s Goal charity here.

Thursday 31 December 2020

Happy New Year & Groundhopping Hopes For 2021

Happy New Year! It’s been a difficult year for most of us, to say the least – for those of us who like to forget about the pressures of everyday life on a weekend afternoon by watching people kick a ball about, the last few months has been a constant rollercoaster of hope and disappointment. No supporters have been allowed in grounds for most of the year, then non-league clubs were permitted supporters back, then professional sides in select areas – and now, following the news yesterday of large swathes of England being put into ‘Tier 4’ restrictions, it’s back to square one.

Of course, us not being able to go to a football match pales in comparison to what other industries (and not mention, people who have been affected by the virus) are going through at the moment, but with football being a representation of our culture, it’s a good screen on which to see how our way of life has changed. As I said in my groundhop to Ashton Town just before lockdown became official; the only times football has been suspended was during the First and Second World Wars (and even then, friendly matches and wartime leagues were held). So, with such a upheaval, it’s no surprise that many people have felt lost without their usual routine and social contact with others – making the famous football quote by Pope John Paul II that more poignant; “Amongst all unimportant subjects, football is by far the most important”.

And we’ve seen this, with all clubs doing various things in their local communities, trying to connect with people – community trusts', football club staff and even players helping to deliver items, hosting virtual events, making phone calls, giving things away, etc. All of this is an example of the impact football has on society, why it’s been frustrating to see the continuing situation unfold – and why we must continue to push for a return to some semblance of normality at the earliest opportunity.

Groundhopping In 2021 – and My Book

As it happened, I only got to see two matches after non-league sides were originally permitted to welcome crowds in again. Now, it’s difficult to assess when games will be able to restart – we don’t even know if non-league will even be able to continue beyond January as many leagues have already been suspended (some for the second time this season).

So, playing by ear it is – hopefully, the right solution can be found to protect our clubs, even if it means cancelling the season again. The initial lockdown was a leap into the unknown, so with the experience and resulting measures put in place by leagues, you’d imagine that swifter decisions can be made in everyone's best interests.

The unfortunate break has seen us all trying to fill the football void in some way; On this blog, I’ve written about a few different things (including my own team, Wigan Athletic's, fall into adminstration – unresolved as of yet). I've also featured a couple of interviews with people who use football as means to produce something – so far, I’ve spoken to a Norweigan groundhopper who has been to no less than 500 English grounds, and a bloke who has built the grounds of the 92 out of Lego! Unfortunately, it’s not been as much as much content as I would have liked to have produced, but there’s a reason for it – which brings me to some self-indulgent selling!

From the 2014-15 season through to the early part of 2019-20, I travelled across the country in a bid to ‘do the 92’. After each season I released a volume of the all the grounds I visited that season, ticking all the visits off. Containing an ever-expansive historical, social, and (often) irreverent look at our clubs and English football in general, I was delighted to see them warmly received.

I completed the project (spoilers!) in September 2019 and have been working on the final volume, Volume Five, ever since. It’s taken a lot longer than I envisioned – it’s by far the largest volume of the series and with COVID and everything, I’ve been pre-occupied with other things to get it all finished. I suppose an ironic twist to all our football grounds being shut is that I’m technically still ‘in the club’ in regards to having been to them all. Us groundhoppers can’t visit Barrow or Harrogate, or Brentford and Wimbledon’s new grounds until the start of the 2021/22 season at the earliest – so that’s good enough reasoning for me to justify the time taken to release the book!

Anyway, Volume Five will (hopefully) be out in late-February and I’ll no doubt be pushing it on here! If you’re interested in the series, you can buy the first four volumes of 'Playing Offside' on Amazon Kindle for £4.96. You don’t actually need a Kindle to read them – you can download the app from Google Play or the Apple Store and read on there.

So that’s all I have for 2020 – a frustrating year for us all, but however you’re celebrating its end, ensure you throw yourself into it because you doubtless deserve it. Hopefully 2021 will be much better, so take care of yourself and everyone around you, and hopefully we'll be back on those terraces, drinking, chatting, laughing and shouting as soon as possible!

Wednesday 16 September 2020

The Future of Football: Ticketing Apps and Livestreaming

As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to rumble on, many industries are predicting what their futures may look like – whether that’s offices who want to establish a more flexible way of working (as employees divide time between the office and home), schools testing out new contact systems, through to pubs and bars that have established table service arrangements – we’re living in a time of experimentation.

Football is no different – this weekend (19th September), some experiments are going ahead in the EFL with a maximum of 1000 people attending select games. Non-League has been back for a few weeks now but even at these levels, maximum capacities and experimentation is happening.

As the last groundhop I did before lockdown, I returned to Ashton Town this week to have a look at the innovations they put in place for their first home game back – how will they affect games at these levels going forward? Well, that and a Wigan Athletic legend making his debut for the club encouraged me to go too!

Emmerson Boyce, the 40-year-old former Wigan Athletic captain, who lifted the FA Cup in 2013, signed for Ashton Town 3 weeks ago  – saying it was a ‘thank-you’ to chairman Mark Hayes for his years of charity work. Ashton have big ambitions for promotion this season (also appointing former Chesterfield striker, Glynn Hurst, as manager) and this signing made waves on the non-league scene. The capacity for this match was set at 150 – while this is certainly far more than the average crowd 10th-tier Ashton get, they would have got far more in if no restrictions were in place. And it was all marshalled by a new Manchester-based ticketing app, Shocal.

The lockdown has undoubtedly provided the perfect opportunity for these types of apps to grow their user base (I’m absolutely pig sick of seeing that Just Eat advert with Snoop Dogg – and no, I’m not linking to it) – and Shocal have moved quickly in an attempt to establish themselves as ‘the home of local deliveries’ for a range of different business in Greater Manchester. They aren’t the only home delivery app that has created a ticketing arm – I’ve seen other non-league sides promoting different ones – but I believe Shocal is one of very few that offer partners more than just an avenue to sell tickets. In fact, Ashton have put their entire club shop on the app – you can buy season tickets, scarves, player sponsorship and a plethora of Emmerson Boyce memorabilia on there.

For football clubs, having a means to make the purchasing process easier will help to promote them, working to increase their revenue – customers appreciate a quick, no-nonsense way of finding what they need above everything else. Mobile phone apps (especially ones that work!) offer such convenience – and I’m pleased to report that Shocal offered a seamless, secure way of buying my ticket (I was even tempted by the Emmerson Boyce cushion they had in the shop too). On approach to the ground, the representative of Shocal scanned the QR code on my phone and I was in – no waiting around, no fishing in my pocket for the right change; straight in to beat the queue at the bar for my can-of-Carling-in-a-plastic-cup. Yep, still no Leffe behind the bar.

Whist having the club shop on an app is great for non-league sides to potentially increase their revenue on a more consistent basis, it should go without saying that ticketing apps won’t be needed for the vast majority of games at this level. However, I won’t be surprised to see ticketing apps brought forward into the professional ranks in the next year or two. As someone who has apps for buses, taxis and Wetherspoons, I’m actually a bit surprised they haven’t been introduced already – the ordering ease they provide can’t be questioned. Not great news for paper tickets – as a collector myself, it’ll be a shame to see these physical reminders go, but with the time and money it costs to produce, print and send them out, it doesn’t make sense to keep doing it.

Another experiment that was conducted for this match was a livestream. Broadcasting games over the internet is nothing new, but the pandemic has provided an opportunity for service providers, leagues and clubs to experiment with it on a mass level. As a groundhopper, you can probably guess that I’m against streaming and television in general – I don’t think the way it has influenced the game (changing kick-off times, encouraging people to not go to the match, growing a generation of fans who have never been to a match, who then label clubs as ‘tinpot’ for having empty seats, etc) has been positive – but we mustn’t kid ourselves any different; just like the ticketing apps, they provide a quick and convenient way of watching football.

For the professional level, I’m very worried about the effect it’ll have when things eventually (hopefully!) get back to normal. Despite a few boomer hiccups with the EFL’s iFollow service, it has generally been a success in providing fans with access to games. Before the pandemic, football games held at 3pm were not allowed to be streamed in the UK to protect crowd numbers – but as we’ve seen through the rise of streaming services and YouTube, the money is moving from television into the streaming market – Amazon already have a Premier League TV deal and will no doubt be pushing for more slices of the Sky/BT pie in the next few years.

If television has the power to move games, streaming companies will be powerful enough to dictate what they want too – it isn’t inconceivable that a streaming company will come in with a big offer for the EFL and as many of clubs (including my own) are currently on their arse, it stands to sense they’d submit to anything asked of them. Unless clubs let people in for free, I can’t ever see the vast majority of stadiums being anywhere near full – again though, it makes perfect sense; people don’t want to travel to games, spend extra money on programmes and catering when they are able to watch it from the comfort of their own home.

Emmerson Boyce in debut action for Ashton Town

 So where does that leave non-league clubs? Here at Ashton Town, they provided those who couldn’t get a ticket with an opportunity to stream the match for £1 – and 362 took them up on that offer. I have no idea of the cut they may have got, but let’s just say it was half – that’s £131 going to a club that usually gets 50 people on the gate (add that to 150 who were the game, and that’s over 500 people watching a game between a 10th tier side and an amateur club). The signing of Emmerson Boyce was the obvious attraction, which is why (beyond the odd curiosity like a former pro in action or a big match), I can’t see the streaming of non-league games lasting long-term – there simply isn’t a big pre-existing audience there to tap into. The attraction of non-league football is the ground and what you experience there, so unless they bring in some virtual reality app that recreates everything (the smell of the mud, the materials of the wonky stand, a dog pissing on an advertisement board, etc), the same people will continue to go these games.

However, just like how the shop app provides a way for non-league sides to promote themselves, I think the streaming of matches in non-league can give a curious local the opportunity to see a side in action, potentially encouraging them to go one day or at the very least, buy an Emmerson Boyce keyring. It’s how you use the technology that matters – and as these experiments continue, I hope clubs and leagues are able to find a way of encouraging people back to games, rather than presenting them with reasons to stay on this ‘new normal’, streaming games long after the pandemic is over.

As for the match itself, it was great to see Boycey back playing football – he’s obviously a legend at Wigan for his 9 years service and winning the FA Cup, but he’s a great man to boot; always willing to get involved with local community projects and charity work. Playing at centre-half, he marshalled his new side to a 5-1 win over Orrell Athletic – who despite playing their football many levels below their hosts in the South Lancs League, put up a great show. They certainly scored the goal of the game when their forward lobbed the Ashton goalkeeper from just inside the penalty area!

While the signing of Boycey can be seen as great marketing for the club, his ability and experience will undoubtedly help Ashton on the pitch too. Straight from kick-off, he was rallying his teammates and dishing out instructions – just by this brief insight, I can only imagine playing alongside him will encourage players, getting the most out of their own abilities and even help to improve their own game. I hope more former professionals consider similar moves; if grassroots clubs are given the means by the FA to offer a way into coaching for them, I’m sure we may see more of this.

As it turned it, the experiment on this night was a success; everyone had a great time, easily socially distancing in the 2,000-capacity ground and the ice cream van parked inside the ground even played the Match of the Day theme for our half-time entertainment. Ashton have already got tickets on the app for their opening league home match against St. Helens Town in October, with a maximum of 300 now allowed in – so I made sure to snap one up.

Here’s hoping the professional clubs are just as successful with their own experiments so we can all get to games as safely as possible. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for the television and livestreaming.

Saturday 29 August 2020

Ashton Athletic vs. Greenalls Padgate St Oswalds

After FIVE MONTHS of not watching a football match in person, I’m delighted to say that I’m back on the groundhopping bandwagon – but rather than spread my own brand of disease throughout the public transportation network, I decided to keep my first trip as local as possible. This is why I’m at Brocstedes Park to see North West Counties League Premier Division Ashton Athletic play Cheshire League side, Greenalls Padgate St Oswalds in a pre-season friendly.

If you recall from my last groundhop at Athletic’s rivals, Ashton Town on the 14th March, I was planning on coming to Brocstedes on that day but the game was postponed due to the developing pandemic. As it turned out, the following 10 days saw the country placed on lockdown and football at all levels wasn’t played for months – even now still, the professional game is being held behind closed doors. That was initially the plan for non-league too, but as these clubs’ entire income is based on what comes from the gate, sense prevailed and the authorities gave the go-ahead for limited capacities to be let in. As most clubs below the National Leagues have ground capacities of more than a thousand and a couple of hundred (at most) coming through the gate, it really isn’t difficult to upkeep social distancing measures.

During the pandemic, in the strive to keep up a fitness regime of sorts, I took up walking like many others; I had many a great day (and still do), walking to the local country park, spotting wildlife, getting pissed on rum-and-coke, etc. As Brocstedes Park is roughly four miles from where I live, I decided to make more of a day of it by walking to-and-from the ground, naturally with a pub stop on the way.

After an epic 45-minute ramble, I stop for a pint break at The Park in Bryn; a Marston's-owned pub, it's quite cosy inside (not always the case with Marston's – they sold The Swan and Railway 18 months ago, a notable pub in Wigan town centre as it sits opposite the mainline train station, after many years of genuinely not knowing what to do with it. After a refurb and a reimagining of the beer selection, it’s doing better now). In The Park today, there are social distancing markers everywhere, staff wearing face shields, me wearing a snazzy light-grey cardigan…so let battle commence. After a quick peruse of their taps, I plump for a pint of their own-brand Smooth to cleanse the palette. You always know what you're getting with a Marston's Smooth, it does a job; the James Milner of mass-produced bitter.

Most of the walk to the ground from there (just over a mile) is done in complete shock after seeing an advert for festive menu bookings. How is it (almost) September already? We've lost a year through all this – normally, I’m moaning about Christmas advertisements at this time of year, but it all hits home just how much time has gone, so I’m too stunned to moan about it. Still, it was a nice walk to the ground; it’s all country lanes and farms, occasionally bleeding into motorway bridges – Brocstedes Park itself sits in the middle of a group of farms who make it quite clear what they are with ornate signage on their gates, and sheep roaming around provide a big clue too.

Whilst it’s great the club have a home to call their own, it isn’t exactly ideal for the foot traveller or and/or those who want to have a few jars – the nearest bus stop is a good mile away. With land difficult to come by at the best of times, it just goes to show how difficult it is for non-league sides to find an ideal location that suits the club in terms of building a facility that will attract and develop players, but also to build the supporter base that provides the finances for them to push on.

Founded in 1968, Ashton Athletic started life in the Wigan Sunday League, moving up through the divisions and winning various cup competitions – a later switch to Saturday football in the Warrington League brought similar successes. After developing a ground at Brocstedes Park, the club joined the Lancashire Combination, later becoming founder members of the North West Counties League when the LC combined with the Cheshire League in 1982. Non-League football was changed, becoming more organised in a sense – which meant money was needed to bring clubs and their grounds up to a set standard. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much money knocking about to be spent on Brocstedes, so in 1986, Ashton were effectively relegated to the second tier of the Manchester League.

At the turn of the millennium, the club embarked on a youth development policy, forming part of
their ten-year plan to improve the club and its facilities. This helped them to gain access to several grants made available from the Football Foundation and Wigan Council; the main pitch got a new drainage system, a second pitch was acquired and improved, new changing facilities and a clubhouse was built. All these enhancements allowed the club to regain their membership to the NWCFL in 2006 – additional improvements to the ground since then have seen more seating installed. Their second season in Division One of the league saw a third-place finish, which was enough to gain them a promotion to the top tier of the North West Counties. A level they have remained at ever since.

In more recent times, the club have had three great runs in the FA Cup – winning three ties to reach the Second Qualifying Round in 2016, where a crowd of 479 saw the visit of FC Halifax Town, who ran out 5-0 winners. Ashton went one better a year later, facing another Step 2 side in the shape of Chorley, again at home. A record crowd of 610 packed into Brocstedes as the visitors squeezed into the final Qualifying Round – winning 1-0, the match streamed live on the BBC Sport website. In 2018, the club reached the Second Qualifying Round again, being drawn away to York City – although they suffered another 5-0 defeat to yet another National League North side, they nevertheless learned a lot from playing such a prestigious club in front of a crowd of more than a thousand.

These three huge shots of income have undoubtedly further helped to develop the club; aiding their push to get in the Northern Premier League – they were lying in 5th in the NWCFL’s Premier Division when football at these levels was abandoned last season, and hopes remain high that they can get there sooner rather than later. Their youth development philosophy has continued; they currently have a wide array of teams; from Under-7s, right through to Under-18s and even a Development Squad (‘Reserves’ in old money) – not necessarily something that’s common at this level of football. They’re certainly making great strides to become Wigan Borough’s second-best producer of youth footballers, anyway (after Wigan Athletic, obviously!)

There are full social distancing measures and a one-way system in place in the clubhouse; a nice, roomy facility that’s well-set to make concessions for this ‘new normal’. With a choice of Coors or Tetley’s Smooth on tap, it isn’t really a choice – it’s another smooth bitter for me. I got here just after 2:15 pm, expecting there to be quite a few here at the first public game they’ve held since March – there’s a couple of others in the clubhouse and a small crowd outside, but not as many as I’d have hoped. I’m not complaining – it at least lessens the chances of me getting COVID – but it would have been great for the club to get more £4 entries on the gate. 

As much as I'm revelling being back in a clubhouse, drinking my Tetley’s and watching Cash In The Attic on one of the big tellies, there was a game to watch! I walk out to the side of the pitch for the kick-off, before moving to the larger of the two stands midway through the half – this structure has three rows and covers most of one half of the pitch. The other stand is tiny and lies right in the corner – I’ve no idea, but I suspect this was put there to abide by ground grading rules for 'number of seats'!

Today’s visitors, from Padgate in Warrington, play in the Premier Division of the Cheshire League – two tiers below Ashton. It’s no surprise then, that the home side look the much stronger team – they’re quicker to the ball, spending much of the first 20 minutes probing down their opponents’ side (why does everything I write seem to be an enthusiasm these days?) Despite the dominance, it takes ‘The Yellows’ 23 minutes to score the opening goal  a well-placed finish from the edge of the area. The floodgates were open; just a minute later, Ashton swarm up Greenalls half again, winning a penalty that was slotted home with ease.

By the time I get my second pint of Tetley’s and take my seat in the stand, the temperature has dropped and there’s a cutting breeze in the air – my decision to wear a snazzy cardigan is looking increasingly idiotic by the minute. Half-an-hour in, Ashton add a third through a close-range finish – the dejected Greenalls players must have felt even more put out by the sound of two kids singing ‘three-nil, three-nil’ in their angelic tones. At least these players get to run about and keep warm, not be freezing like some people who have come out, ill-dressed for the weather.

After slipping in a fourth just before half-time (another close-range finish), Ashton don’t let off at the start of the second; scoring the pick of the goals early on. Some careful, intricate play down the right-hand side (where I'm sat) eventually sees the ball crossed in and headed home. Not long later, it's six; a shot inside the area is saved by the keeper, but it falls back to the striker who lays it across to a teammate to roll in. Greenalls do get one back – a break sees them 2-on-1, the ball played across and side-footed in. It was a decent finish as it came to him quite quickly – Ashton respond by netting another from close-range.

The main issue with Greenalls (as highlighted by one of two blokes with high-quality digital cameras sat below me – definitely groundhoppers!), is that they keep playing the ball out from the back every time they have a goal-kick. This recent rule change that allows for defenders to stay in the penalty area for a goal-kick (so they can receive it short) has been interesting to watch – while it undoubtedly allows for the play to be built up from the back, it does lead to the other team pressing you into mistakes – I’m not sure it’s a good idea for a team who plays in the 11th tier of English football to constantly keep doing this. I understand the need to learn and improve, but at least belt it long once in a while when you're under pressure, lads!

Ashton add two more; the eighth is a well-placed finish, across the goal and in the corner, whereas the ninth is a result of a ball being slipped through the defence (claims for offside not given) and the striker places it in the corner. There was even a chance for a tenth; the keeper making a save and the ball just-about cleared before the referee blew the whistle to end the match – two minutes early, by my clock! Fair play to Ashton for not letting up and keeping on putting pressure on their opponents. While there was an obvious gap in quality, it will do them no harm to sharpen their attacking play with the season approaching. If all teams play out from the back, they’ll be champions by March.

So as I’m walking back to civilisation, I’m left to reflect on this ‘new way’ of watching football; sanitising your hands, one-way systems, keeping your distance from people – what new way? The only thing that’s new here is my new-found passion for walking; something that I’m hoping to continue for a few more groundhops in the coming months. Well, until Christmas, anyway – the only season when I'm properly dressed for the weather!

Ashton Athletic 9

Greenalls Padgate St. Oswalds 1

Sunday 26 July 2020

Football: Together In Adversity

It’s been a couple of days now since Wigan Athletic were relegated* from The Championship – despite 1 defeat in 15 games, collecting 18 points in 9 games after the Coronavirus lockdown, sealing a 13th–place finish. After being put into administration for unfathomable reasons, the club was deducted 12 points, dropping them into the relegation zone after the final whistle sounded at the end of the 46th and final game of the season.

An appeal* against the removal of the 12 points is in the works, but it’s the immediate future of the club that’s the biggest concern at the moment – everyone is for sale at rock-bottom prices, including many of the talented U18 team that I’ve covered this season on this blog. It’s sickening to think about the progress we have made is about to be flushed away; our future ‘assets’ being sold for peanuts just so the club can keep going until a buyer is found.

It can be easy to get angry and appropriate blame – but there is nothing I can do but hope justice is done. In the meantime, instead of dwelling on the negatives, here’s why I’m feeling proud of the club at the moment: 

The Players and Staff. It can be easy today, what with the vast amounts of money players receive (even in The Championship), to criticise them. Every mistake, bad shot or poor cross is set upon and labelled as an example of them being ‘overpaid’, ‘not worth the money’ or simply ‘not bothered’. Their commitment is questioned when a run of results doesn’t go the way as expected – they ‘don’t care’ about the club and ‘can’t wait’ to leave.

By this episode alone, I can say all that is bollocks. To a man, the players at Wigan Athletic have strived to get the club out of a mess that wasn’t anyone’s making but the owners in Hong Kong. Already on reduced wages thanks to the Coronavirus, the players accepted an 80% pay-cut for their June payment, apparently with no dissension. They went on to record 2 wins and 3 draws after that – including the amazing spectacle that saw them beat Hull City 8-0, with 7 goals coming in the first-half. I hadn’t seen anything like that before – and I’ve played amateur football!

We came up agonisingly short in the end, but it’s no disgrace. These players will be remembered for their commitment and willingness to keep the club in The Championship, despite many of them being set to leave/sold on. People like captain, Sam Morsy, who leads the club on and off the pitch; putting out positive messages to supporters, even calling at a young supporter’s house, unannounced, to give him his shirt. Manager, Paul Cook, creating a positive environment around the club when times were hard (especially earlier in the season when we couldn’t buy a win!), taking it upon himself to ring up staff who had been made redundant. Then there’s staff like Jonathan Jackson, the chief executive who himself was made redundant, but has still been going into the club, working tirelessly to help out the administrators.

These people may earn more money than we do, but the vast majority of professional footballers come from the same backgrounds as many of us – they understand what these clubs mean to supporters. Many club owners obviously do not. 

The Supporters. In a similar manner as players, it can be easy for people to throw their arms up and flounce off when things are hard. It’s a well-worn cliché, but supporting a club the size of Wigan Athletic is like a family (indeed, there are probably families out there much larger than our fan base!) – Yeah, we may argue with one another most of the time but when there’s a crisis to deal with, everyone comes together.

From positive messages to the club and players online, donating money to the crowdfunding page, thinking about ways to raise even more money; selling their memorabilia, throwing garage sales, creating t-shirts, mugs, art prints, keyrings, etc, to spending days investigating the shady characters that have put the club in administration – Wigan Athletic supporters have been relentless in trying to do everything to save their club. They haven’t turned on the staff or each other during all this – all they’ve asked is ‘how can we help?

It isn’t just Latics supporters though, as people from other clubs have been a big help in trying to spread information about what’s happened, pressuring the EFL, even donating money themselves. Nothing I can say will be enough to thank them – they know that unstable owners are a plague on the game in England and it has happened too many times and it needs to end. 

Journalists and Politicians. I never thought I’d be writing this (what with these two groups often battling one another), but the media and local politicians have worked brilliantly together; quick to listen to what was happening at Wigan Athletic. The administration was initially reported as solely being a result of Coronavirus, but as it became apparent there was more to it (a club with no external creditors being put into administration is odd, to the say the least); they rallied around and got information out there, seeking answers.

Wigan MP, Lisa Nandy and the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, have been a great help in liaising with the EFL and communicating with supporters, the Shadow Cabinet Leader, Kier Starmer and Shadow Sports Minister, Jo Stevens, also got involved in bringing it to the attention of the government. Media figures such as Colin Murray used his platform on Radio Five Live and the EFL highlights show on Quest to draw attention to it too – then there are the numerous commentators, bloggers, vloggers, podcasters, experts in various fields many of them, who also helped.

All these people have recognised that football clubs are a crucial part of the local community – they don’t just provide us with something to watch and shout at every other week, but their presence allows local people to find work, pubs, shops and restaurants to make money, kids somewhere safe to play football (and dream about playing for their team) – football clubs like ours are a vital part of people's lives. They’re more than a business.

I think it’s this aspect that has struck a chord with people outside of the club – just like Bury, Wigan Athletic aren’t a brand to shopped about around the world; they are community club that welcomes anyone with open arms. What happened to Bury should never happen again, what happened to us should never happen again and what is currently happening to Charlton (uncertainty over their own ownership) should not be happening. It could easily be YOUR club next – so when will things change?

A great place to start would be the government petition set up by the Wigan Athletic Supporters Club – calling for a review into how the EFL’s ‘owners and directors test', it is the best way to push for change. It needs 100,000 signatures to be put up for debate, so if you would like to offer your support, you can find it here.

At the start of this Coronavirus pandemic, I was reminded of a quote by the Starbucks chairman, Howard Schultz. Responsible for saving the coffee company from going bust and turning them around to become the corporate multinational giant they are today, the overriding sentence from his book, Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul, was “In times of adversity and change, we really discover who we are and what we’re made of."

I thought about that while hearing about all the panic buying going on; how it would make us look in the annals of history? I think it’s an apt quote for what’s going on with Latics right now too; there’s a lot of work ahead to save the club but whatever happens, everyone can hold their heads up and say we did all we could. Which is more than what I can say about the body that runs our leagues – but we’ll leave that for another time!

Sunday 5 July 2020

92 Lego Football Grounds: An Interview With The Master Builder

Creating models seems to be a rite of passage for many us – Lego bricks being a particularly favourite building material. Whilst there are a plentiful supply of old and new sets that can be purchased to build a pre-defined model, the true creativity of Lego is the way in which something completely new can be created from a bucket of bricks. For us football lovers, the stadium of our team would be one of the first things we aim to build – but imagine being creative, patient and skilful enough to build the grounds of every team?

Wembley Stadium - In Lego!

In the latest Q&A with a creative football fan, I chatted to Jules, a Cardiff City supporter who decided to build the 92 grounds of the English (and Welsh!) professional clubs in Lego, completely from scratch. Armed with a bucket of bricks and his own wits, the detail in these models is quite something and he’s rightly been lauded for his efforts. After building his models, he sells them to supporters of the clubs – ensuring they go to a good home and not back in the brick box!

I asked Jules about his process, his favourite models, the positive effects of Lego building and whether he takes precautions against brick-related injuries… 

Hi Jules, let’s start with the obvious question – what inspired you to build the 92 stadiums out of Lego? 

I saw some people’s attempts at Lego grounds and thought I'd have a go. I built Cardiff City Stadium and when a friend said "you should do them all" after building about 6 different grounds (Hillsborough, Carrow Road and Wigan were a few of them), I thought he was mad but I started to order more Lego and it just took off from that point. 

Lego obviously has a presence in many a person’s childhood. In the last few decades more people seem to be carrying the hobby into adulthood – is this the case for you? 

Yeah I think so. I played with Lego as a boy and never lost interest in it. But for many years didn’t go near it as in my eyes it was too expensive.  A lot of Lego I started using was up in the loft and gathering dust so at least it came into use. 

Wigan Athletic - DW Stadium - In Lego!

How important can Lego be in providing that literal building block between different generations, say between a parent (who has those fond memories of building their sets) and their own child? 

I think that's really important and if parents share what they used and played with when younger it's great then for that child to see that. By using the same toy, they can produce anything and build things they see now compared to what their parents may of seen and have been used to. A car back in the day is very different to one now, for example. 

I’ve read about how ‘brick therapy’ is used as a thinking, social and calming activity for children (specifically for those who have developmental disorders). Even as an adult, do you find building Lego models to be therapeutic? 

Absolutely! I was building pretty much most evenings when not at work or on my days off and I said to many people it was very therapeutic (although it could be stressful at times!) Lots of people have many hobbies and this was my only one, and it was rewarding when seeing some pictures & comments of how happy people were with their builds. But yes, very therapeutic and a calming way to relax after a stressful day at work.

Wolves - Molineux - In Lego!
Lincoln City - Sincil Bank - In Lego!

How do you plan each model? Do you just look at pictures and play around with the bricks, or do you make use of tech to colour-in and map out where you place each brick? 

I have never used any of the technology, I have seen others use it to plan builds. Literally Google Street View, Google aerial shots and any pictures I could look at. When I did a Turf Moor for someone he sent me pictures of the whole perimeter of the ground through the post. But yeah study the ground, inside and out of it. Looking for detail around the ground like programme outlets, or statues etc. Write down roughly what bricks and pieces I need and then order what I need.  

Which Lego stadium (aside from Cardiff’s!) are you most proud of, and why? 

Yeah the Cardiff City one as you say is my fave and not my first attempt cos the most recent one I did was much better. Either Ninian Park which obviously is Cardiff's old home but as a ballboy there for 7 seasons it brings back great memories. Apart from those I would say Burnley which I enjoyed doing because the detail of the ground, in particular the back of the stadium, I didn't think would be possible. Also Molineux I would say which again is a quirky ground in places  but again thankfully I was able to replicate it well and I would say I'm most proud of those two particular builds.  Nottingham Forest also was a personal fave.

Turf Moor - Burnley FC - In Lego
Ninian Park - Cardiff City - In Lego

Which of the stadiums were the most straightforward and the most difficult to build? 

Most straightforward one I would say was AFC Wimbledon. The toughest I would say was Huddersfield’s John Smith Stadium, Molineux, Upton Park & Chelsea. Huddersfield has curved roofs like Fleetwood and Brighton but that was deffo one of the toughest parts of that Huddersfield build. Chelsea was the 3-tier stand and the surrounding hotels and exterior was also tough. 

What’s your favourite (official) Lego set to build? 

You may be surprised but I have never built a big Lego set. Had a few in the past but smaller ones. I would say, although I've never built them, Big Ben and Houses of Parliament would be good ones. 

Gluing the bricks together to maintain a model’s structure – good idea or sacrilege? 

I would say sacrilege. I never glued any of my builds as I was never able to source the glue. Normal glue would ruin the bricks, which made it tricky in terms of sending them, so I never did. I've always drove them to people or met up. The first model I did for someone [was sent to them] and obviously it fell apart. But I drove to his and fixed it in a few hours.  

And finally, how many Lego bricks have you stepped on over the years? 

A few! Thankfully not as many as I have laminate floor so could hear them fall. I did sit on a mini build I did for someone once forgetting it was on the chair! 

Thanks to Jules for answering my questions and for providing these excellent photos. You can follow his progress on Twitter @CCFC_jules