Tuesday 3 September 2019

Southport vs. Altrincham

Seven days after Bury FC were expelled from The Football League, the criticism of the governing body has been growing – their refusal to listen to a new proposal to allow the club to rejoin as a League Two side next season (subject to a takeover going through), isn’t making them seem like they’re acting in the best interests of the clubs they profess to protect. It feels like a momentous stance they’re taking in the event of anything like this happening again.

This got me thinking about other watershed moments in the history of The Football League – and (somewhat conveniently)  I’m off groundhopping to Southport FC tonight, who in 1978 became the last club to drop out of The Football League after failing to gain re-election.  And guess who would replace them? My team, Wigan Athletic (I just don’t throw these blogs together, you know).

Currently playing in the National League North, Southport are rebuilding after a couple of seasons of struggle that has seen them relegated from the top tier of non-league football, down towards the bottom end of this division. Their Football League existence began in 1921, as a founder member of the Third Division North – coming to an end when their third consecutive 23rd –placed finish saw them (eventually) voted out in favour of Wigan.

I should probably feel a bit sheepish at this, but as one of the biggest and most successful non-league clubs at the time; having over twenty applications to join the league turned down, it was nothing short of a scandal that Wigan didn’t already have a Football League place by ‘78 – it was just a shame a near neighbour had to pay the price. 

The election system effectively created a ‘closed shop’ with members, who would generally vote with each other to ensure that they all remained Football League clubs. Southport would end up finishing 7 points ahead of bottom side Rochdale, but it was them who ended up being replaced (also, Wigan had actually finished second to Boston United in the Northern Premier League, but they were unable to apply because of their ground didn’t come up to scratch). 

It just shines a light on how difficult it was to bring a team up from non-league during this era – although Southport were the last Football League team to lose an election, it wouldn’t be until 1986 that the system was scrapped and replaced by one automatic promotion sport (dependent on ground grading, of course). 

Today, many people are calling for three automatic promotion spots from the National League (up from two at the moment) – I honestly believe it would be a good thing because it would make relegation from the Football League less of a disastrous proposition for clubs; it would make them cut their cloths accordingly and be ran with sensible budgets. Being mostly a professional league these days (if it isn’t already), with clubs such as Stockport County, Notts County and Chesterfield in there this season, the National League is pretty much a ‘League Three’ anyway. With three promotion spots, perhaps there could be an opportunity for The Sandgrounders to return, sooner rather than later?

The town of Southport was founded in 1792, when William Sutton, an innkeeper from the nearby village of Churchtown built a bathing house at what is now the southern end of Lord Street – arguably the busiest shopping and leisure area in Southport today (there’s plenty of pubs on there, believe me!) The area was known as ‘South Hawes’, which was sparsely populated and dominated by sand dunes. The area’s access to the Leeds-Liverpool canal saw ‘Southport’ grow from that humble bathhouse into a town that subsumed the villages around it, even creating a tourist industry in the Victorian era. Its main attractions include its world-class golf courses (which have hosted The British Open), its funfair and its pier (which at 3,633ft, is the second-longest in the British Isles after Southend – which is the longest pleasure pier in the world at a whopping 7,080ft!) I also once found a tenner on Southport’s beach and took some sand home in a bag and got it in my eyes. Great days.

If you’re coming here on the train via the Manchester-Southport line, the nearest stop to the ground is Meols Cop – the walk from here is straight down Norwood Road and once you reach The Thatch and Thistle pub, cross the road down Haig Avenue and follow the winding street to the ground. I (naturally) stop off for a pint in The Thatch (I don’t know if it’s nicknamed that by locals, but I’m going with it regardless); a pint of Robinson's ‘Unicorn Golden Ale’ is my poison of choice (and it’s a good choice). I did feel a bit weird on approach to the pub (more weird than usual, anyway) – I thought it was closed at first, such was the lack of activity around the place. No, as I approach the entry I can hear the clatter of plates and the chatter of voices.

With a nice, quiet country-style pub five minutes away, the approach to the ground is made complete thanks to the presence of a chippy and convenience store. In my opinion, every football ground should have a pub (to have a drink and a laugh in), a chippy (for healthy sustenance) and a shop (to get some pop and crisps to sneak under your clothing and into the ground so you don't have to pay their exorbitant prices). I didn't indulge in either chippy nor shop – this is ‘Pies, Pints and Goalmouth Scrambles’ not 'Pints, Chippys and Sneaking Four Packets of Monster Munch Under Your Jumper'.

Haig Avenue (known as ‘The Pure Stadium’ for sponsorship reasons) is surrounded by the residential area – and they aren’t short of a few bob around here too (this hit home when I saw a young lady treat her gran with wine and a meal in The Thatch earlier. Where I live, you’ll be lucky to have a gran who’s still alive). Southport is well-known for its affluence; you’re likely to find that successful people from across Merseyside move to the Borough of Sefton that Southport is now a part of. According to online estate agents, Zoopla, the average house price around here is £189,873 – making it the most expensive in Merseyside. 

All this makes you wonder why the club can’t get the finances in place to have a good go at promotion to The Football League – then I see several people wearing Everton jackets as I walk down to the ground. Being the affluent area that has seen people move here from across Merseyside, it must be difficult for the club to grow a dedicated supporter base large enough to garner the funds to challenge at the top of non-league. To underline their link with Liverpool’s oldest professional football club, Everton Ladies currently play their Women’s Super League games at Haig Avenue (until they move to their new ground at Walton Hall Park at the end of this month, anyway).

It’s a decent ground though; I’m sat in The Main Stand, which as the only seated area, dominates the terracing that snakes around the rest of the ground. I'm not 100% up on ground grading but I'm pretty sure this is EFL quality. What is also EFL quality, is this National League North side offering online tickets – I’m a big fan of these; you simply pay online and print off your tickets to be scanned at the turnstile. No having to take the time out of your day to travel to the ticket office, no hanging on the telephone and no having to hunt around for a good seat – you can book a seat for yourself (although not in Southport’s unreserved stand). Sadly, my printer was out of ink, so instead of paying the discounted online price of £13.50, I paid £15 on the gate.

Whilst I was taking my seat (after getting a cup of tea for £1.50, which was a bit of rip-off, to be honest – the one I got for a quid at Atherton Colls was twice the size), I notice Southport’s mascot walking around. I think it’s a lion, but it seems to have gone through some extreme weight loss in a short space of time – there are folds of fur, flapping about all over the place. I give it a wave, anyway. It doesn't wave back.

Southport were the better team in the opening half-hour; manager Liam Watson (in what I think is his 58th spell as manager) barking at his yellow-shirted side to press their opponents up the pitch. It was no surprise to see them go ahead – a long throw into the penalty area was nodded on to the back post and headed in. "Goal for Southport, scored by number 9, Raul Correia…Raul is sponsored by Pinetree Garden Maintenance" says the PA lady to 'woos' from people around me. One bloke (more about him later) shouts “well done Pinetree Garden Maintenance” to the guffaws of everyone. They've had their advertising money's worth tonight – I’ve even mentioned them on here.

The Southport ‘Ultras’ are grouped in the Jack Carr Stand to my right and are in great voice; their chanting and banging echoing throughout the ground. You’d usually expect the away supporters to be the more boisterous, but with this being a Tuesday night, you can forgive them for not being so. With a lull in play around the 40 minute mark, I nip to the food van again to see if they have any pies left. They do – a cheese one. Whilst I was being served, Southport only went and got their second goal! Fortunately, the club were swift on publishing their match report, even including video highlights, so I/they can describe it:

The ball’s on the right, just outside the Alty penalty area, it’s lifted towards the edge of ‘the D’ where, first time on the volley, Kieran Glynn smashes it into the top corner. The cheers told me that it was a great goal, the video evidence just confirmed it. I’m honestly gutted I missed it (for more reasons than the aesthetic quality of the goal, as you’re about to find out). 2-0 up, it’s all looking great for Port.

What isn't looking great, is the pie. Although I'm fond of cheese and a girlfriend once told me 'I'm cheesy' (whatever that means) I just don't think it’s suitable to be the main ingredient in a pie. Cheese is an additional flavouring, it's on the undercard, the support warm-up act – it isn’t the main event. To top it off, the pie is as tough as old boots; once I've penetrated the top of the pastry, the rest of it crumbles away like a mummified corpse. I’m very disappointed, Willow Catering (who also sponsor the open terrace to my left that houses the away support) – for 3 quid, you should be doing better. Maybe have a word with Galloway's Pies – the world-leading purveyor of Wigan-made pies and gingerbread men with creepy eyes (I wonder if I’ll get some free stuff if mention them enough on this blog? Let’s hope Galloways follow their backlinks like a trail of breadcrumbs).

Just after the half-time whistle sounds, the PA announcer tells us that an Altrincham supporter has left his coat and wallet in Wetherspoons, leading to hilarity around the ground. Even she couldn't contain her laughter as she finished her annoucement with the perfect call-to-action:  '...so you better get it'. I would imagine the Wetherspoons she’s talking about is the one on Lord Street itself, which is a good 40-minute walk away – so I hope someone can give him a lift, as it’s just started to piss it down.

One aspect that connects football crowds at all levels, is the presence of a 'Banter Man' – you know the types; those who take it upon themselves to make loud, humorous comments on the game we’re all watching. They're perhaps more prevalent at non-league games due to the smaller crowds. Southport’s Banter Man was the chap who commented upon the goalscorer’s sponsor earlier, and his latest shout was to advise an injured Alty player to 'keep rolling [that way] and you’ll get to the hospital'.

Banter Man isn't best pleased when an Alty player 'goes down like a skittle'. Sadly for him, the ref doesn't agree, gives the free-kick which is whipped in and headed back across goal and into the net. A group of young girls sat in front of me on the first row (well, younger than me – they look about 25ish) cheer heartily, as their kids run about. Alty WAGS?

The rain has been sheeting down for most of the second half, making me feel glad that I’m sat in here and not on the open terraces. Fortunately for the Ultras, their stand has a roof as they continue to try and sing a third goal into the back of the Alty net. In the end, they didn’t need to; although they tried to rally towards the end, Alty didn’t get behind their hosts’ defence as they did enough to hold them at bay.

Thankfully, the break in the rain holds up as I make the 10-minute walk back to the station. I hope Southport can have a decent season, maybe even sneak into those play-offs for a chance to regain their fifth tier status. As I'm sat in the shelter on the platform of Meols Cop station, the rain starts to come down again, I feel quite hungry, but the only ‘cheesy pie’ I want contact with again is, erm, myself.

Southport 2

Altrincham 1

Attendance: 904


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