Tuesday 20 August 2019

Atherton Collieries vs. Warrington Town

After missing out on Atherton Collieries’ historic friendly against Saudi Arabian giants, Al-Ittihad the other week, the next best thing would be for me to attend their next historic match – Colls’ first (home) game at the 7th level of English football. So I did.
Atherton Collieries Football Club - Alder House - Skuna StadiumWith the Northern Premier League starting the weekend just gone, Colls’ reportedly put in a spirited performance to draw their opening Premier Division match 2-2 at Ashton United (Ashton-under-Lyne, by the way – not Ashton-in-Makerfield near me, where I saw the annual Joseph’s Goal Charity game at Ashton Town FC in May).

I’m catching the train from work; I’m lucky (?) enough to make a living in Wigan’s town centre, so the train stations are just a short hop away. The closest train to kick-off is due to set off for the 12-minute journey at 6:57pm, so after leaving work at 5:30, I nip to The Moon Under Water to treat myself to some jackbit – a ‘tuna and cheese Panini’ – the crème de la crème of the Wetherspoons menu.

Located barely a 10-minute walk away from Atherton station, Alder House (currently known as ‘The Skuna Stadium’ for sponsorship reasons) is neatly located behind the tightly-packed streets. On approach to the ground, I can hear the speaker booming out pre-match music; I wouldn’t like to live here – especially if I didn’t like football. Then again, I wouldn’t like to live right next to any football stadium – I enjoy the journey to the ground because, for me, the match starts as soon as you leave the front door of your house. That trip to the ground could be a 15 minute walk or a 5-hour cross-country drive or train trip; your destination is the stadium but so many thoughts and feelings, laughs and pints can be experienced along the way. Football is more than just what happens in the 90-odd minutes.

Atherton Collieries sum up the true spirit of a community football club.  Formed by local miners in 1916 as a means of providing those involved with the war effort some activity outside of work, the nationalisation of the mines in 1947 saw the club gifted to the town of Atherton.  To reflect their history, the club has kept the ‘Collieries’ suffix – being a fan of history and tradition myself (especially if it places a unquie spin on a club and its supporter base), I think that’s brilliant. Since then, they have continued to progress in local leagues, coming into prominence in recent years as they've won promotions from the 10th tier to the 7th in just 5 years.  Notably, current Wigan Athletic winger Anthony Pilkington spent some time here before leaving for Stockport, then Norwich City (playing in the Premier League for them) and Cardiff City.

Today’s opponents, Warrington Town, are highly-fancied this season; missing out on promotion last term, due to the restructuring of non-league which saw a confusing ‘Super Play-Offs’ introduced. Despite winning the Northern Premier League play-offs (normally meaning winning a place in the National League North), they had to face Southern League play-off winners, Kings Lynn. Sadly, they lost the final (played at their home ground) 2-3 after extra-time.

They’re an ambitious club, with designs on eventually reaching The Football League. When you consider that Warrington is one of the largest towns in the country without a Football League side (the Borough has a population of >200,000), the potential is there to grow a substantially-sized Football League club. Another great thing about football though, is that it can be a great leveller, making a mockery of such ‘advantages’ and having these two teams playing in the same league (Atherton has a population of just over 20,000, by the way).

Atherton Colls - Alder Street - Skuna Stadium

With Bolton Wanderers’ midweek game against Doncaster being called off (the club were concerned about the welfare of their youth players, who have had to step up to play for the first-team due to their ongoing financial issues), Colls’ were offering Bolton supporters free entry to tonight’s match. There’s a few of them knocking about as I walk in – their Bolton club gear no doubt being worn in pride and defiance, despite the situation their club is in. I nearly got my Wigan season ticket out as a joke/to potentially gain free entry – then again, with many of the Colls’ committee members apparently being Bolton fans, they may have charged me more.

As I've not attended a non-league game for a while (only the tightly-governed professional matches), I forget about the novelty of bringing a beer out to the side of the pitch. My first port-of-call once through the turnstile is to Colls' clubhouse – and I see that sponsors Skuna make beer, so I get a pint of their ‘Smooth craft beer’. Not bad.

Speaking of sponsorship; Lupine Travel, a Wigan travel firm that’s known for its rather ‘off the beaten track’ tours, is sponsoring Colls’ training kit this season. With their Wigan-Pyongyang tour for next year booked up already, they have offered one from Atherton too – holidaymakers can take in a Colls’ game before embarking on the train journey that goes from Atherton to Wigan, London to Paris, across Western Europe to the East, through to China and eventually, North Korea . Like the Wigan trip, it sold out very quickly – but don’t worry if you’re intrigued as Lupine are running another tour from nearby Hag Fold after they (controversially, in my opinion), won a Twitter poll over my local Wigan train stop, Pemberton.

Atherton to Pyongyang - Lupine Travel - North Korea Tour

Whilst there are spots of rain in the air, I go and sit in the small stand by the entrance side of the ground. There’s another covered stand on the other side, with the rest of the ground open to the elements – Warrington have brought plenty of support and they’ve stood behind one of the goals, singing and banging a drum. The crowd immediately around me are a good mix of ages – from young kids with their replica shirts to an old lady sat next to me with her black-and-white Colls’ scarf on – again, summing up the community aspect of Colls’ and non-league football in general. It’s whilst sat here that I spot Lupine’s VISIT IRAQ advertisement hoarding behind one of the goals – apparently it's one of their more popular destinations. I just hope the net the ad sits behind will be the destination for some good goals tonight!

The two teams walk out to the tune of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ – through a rather extravagant Fly Emirates­­-branded retractable tunnel. It’s (obviously/probably) been donated to the club – and it does make me laugh as they don’t really need it. It doesn't even match up with the door to the changing rooms – the players even have to walk up some steps to get to them!

Colls’ start well; a shot from all of 25 yards hits the post, rebounding out to an attacker whose resulting header went just wide. Warrington took this as a warning and quickly endeavoured to take control of the ball – they seem very adept at switching the play from defence to attack quickly, leaving their opponents chasing shadows.

Warrington take the lead around the 25th minute; a quick exchange of passes sees an attacker with a sight of goal, but before he can act upon it, he’s clipped and the referee blows up and points to the spot. The penalty was neatly converted past ex-Wigan youth keeper Theo Roberts – and just 3 minutes later, he was picking the ball out of the net again when Tony Gray headed home. “He’s bald but he doesn’t care, Tony, Tony Gray’ sing the Warrington contingent about their striker.

Atherton Collieries vs. Warrington Town - August 2019

Colls’ waste a decent chance when a free-kick is crossed high into the Warrington penalty area and with a free header, the attacker doesn’t even get it on target. They were quickly punished – a thunderous strike from outside the Colls penalty area puts the visitors three goals up. Hard lesson to learn for the Premier League newbies here. “You’re just a bus stop in Wigan” sing the visiting supporters – bit harsh; they’re a train stop at least.

With the rains starting to come down hard during half-time, I was glad that I was able to nip for a cup of tea just before the break – I’m now snugly sat back in the stand whilst much of the 645 crowd are getting soaked. Some Warrington supporters come to sit in the stand just before the start of the second half, one of whom waxes lyrical about the size of the crowd that’s turned up – this sort of crowd would be decent for the National League North, let alone this division below it.

Warrington grab a fourth after an hour played, putting the game to bed – moments after Roberts made a great double-save, the ball was whipped back in and headed home. It’s just a question of ‘how many they’ll get’ now.

Or is it?

Colls’ haul themselves back into the game with two quick-fire goals – first a header from a corner sees the ball power into the top corner of the net and then a clumsy trip allows Gareth Peet to step up and smash home a penalty. The Colls supporters are buoyed now; shouting on their side, whilst those Warrington supporters sat nearby, are audibly nervous.

The match turns into a great watch in the last quarter as both sides are pushing for the next, crucial goal – I’m that invested, I decide to get involved. The ball is kicked out near us and bounces on the concrete. Despite the Warrington supporters pleas of ‘take your time’, I move quicker than The Flash to fag the ball and chuck it back to the Colls’ left-back. If they DO come back from this, I’ve played my part.

Into the last 10 minutes and Colls come within a whisker of getting their third – a shot from outside the area (visibly) rattles the post. You sense that was their last chance to set up a barnstorming finish – and it was. Warrington held on for a win that they (their supporters, anyway) probably thought they had wrapped up at half-time. They nearly didn’t.

Atherton Colls 2 Warrington Town 4 - Scoreboard

On the way back to the station, I reflect on Colls’ performance, although seeming nervous at times, they did show promise. They played one of the promotion favourites tonight, after all, so a first half hiding off them shouldn't be that much of concern (more of a 'welcome lesson'). Everything I’ve experienced at the ground tonight was impressive and I hope Colls can establish themselves at this level and grow even more. 

I’m just hoping the train I’m on stops in Wigan and not North Korea; I’ve got work and more tuna-and-cheese Panini’s to eat tomorrow. 

Atherton Collieries 2

Warrington Town 4

Attendance: 645


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