Saturday, 7 December 2019

Bamber Bridge vs. Mickleover Sports

We must be in that season again. As I’m boarding the train to a football match, I’m suffering from a slight headache, a sore throat and I’ve been to the toilet three times already this morning. Yes, I’ve got a hangover from an all-day Friday drinking ‘session’ – taking place due to the thinly veiled excuse that ‘it’s Christmas’.

Anyone who has read volume one of my doing the 92 book will recall that I was once sick on a train to Derby after a heavy Friday night’s seasonal drinking – but that was 5 years ago and I’m all growned-up now. I’ve hit upon the revolutionary idea of replenishing my body with water throughout a hard-drinking session to limit the effect of the hangover – like an ageing footballer who changes their diet or does yoga or whatever to prolong their career.

So, I’m in decent shape (for someone who was baiting heavy rock fans by putting reggae on their jukebox last night, anyway) – so I’ve made the short journey to Bamber Bridge to see them take on Mickleover Sports in the Northern Premier League's Premier Division. Being a fan of booze and local history, this trip was right up my street.

Located 3 miles away from Preston, Bamber Bridge is described as an ‘urban village’ – the name deriving from the Old English words ‘bēam’ and ‘brycg’, which are believed to mean ‘tree trunk bridge’. Hosting a population of just over 13,000, the locals refer to the village as ‘Brig’, whilst the villagers themselves are known as ‘Briggers’. In terms of trade, cotton weaved itself into the place; the first factory in Lancashire, dedicated to printing calico (a plain-woven textile), was opened in Bamber Bridge in 1764. This notability hasn’t been forgotten it seems, as a recent housing development in the area saw a street named ‘Calico Close’.

I arrive by train and the station has a level crossing right next to it, putting a stop to traffic on the main road of the village – it’s a rather odd sight when you’re not used to seeing one! There’s another train due in just minutes after my arrival, so I stay standing on the street to see the people and cars, standing still, ready for the train to pass and the barrier to reopen. As soon as the barriers go up, everyone makes like racehorses, running out of their gates – all-in-all, everyone seemed to be quite patient, despite the barrier being down for a good five minutes, with traffic tailing back.

This main artery of the village, Station Road, is filled with several shops, eateries and rather depressingly, a plethora of betting shops (so pretty much like everywhere else in the country!) What I do like about this street though, is that there is a lack of empty spaces and closed-down shops – the only unit that is (clearly) not currently operating as a business has been stripped back to its shell and core, ready for someone to take up residency. It’s whilst walking down here that I make a delightful discovery in 'The Beer Box', a micropub – so obviously, I indulge. As all micropubs are, it’s a tight, homely place with comfortable seating and a chatty atmosphere. I plump for a pint of ‘Wobbly Bob’ – a 6% mid-brown by the Phoenix Brewery – the bitter taste beautifully cleansing my palette of the water I’ve been drinking.

Making my way back up the road, I pass the town’s Trades Hall, and this place has a particular distinction for fans of Blackburn Rovers and Preston North End. Following relegation to Division Two in 1948, Rovers’ supporters buried a coffin in the Bamber Bridge Trades Hall cellar, signifying the ‘death’ of their club. Preston were relegated from Division One a year later and also buried a coffin in the cellar. However, North End would win promotion back two years later, so their coffin was raised to signify the ‘rebirth’ of their club – this is a tradition that has been continued by both sets of supporters ever since. The last time a procession was held was in 2018 when Blackburn won promotion back to The Championship – a parade is held in celebration and supporters take the opportunity to raise money for local charities. The bizarre brilliance of football supporter culture summed up right there!

Brig, like many towns and villages across the country, played host to American GI’s during the Second World War, as the country was used as a giant carrier for the Allies to invade Europe. They brought with them many things; laughs, cultural differences, nylons for the ladies – and racial segregation. The Battle of Bamber Bridge brought the violent reality of American politics into focus for a small area of North West England. The next pub I visit is the Ye Olde Hobb Inn – it was here where it all kicked off.

The village hosted the 1511th Quartermaster Truck Regiment (part of the Eighth Air Force) – a regiment made up, almost entirely by black men (save for all but one officer and military policemen, who were white). Before their arrival in the country, the soldiers were given a pamphlet, offering advice on how to settle into their new surroundings. The best of which was that [in Britain] a ‘great place of recreation is the pub.' Having never seen an American before (let alone a black man), the Briggers welcomed their visitors with much intrigue.

On the 20th June 1943, race riots kicked off in Detroit and nervous of the prospect of unrest, US officers asked for one of the towns three pubs to be defined as a ‘colour bar’ (shepherding them into one place) – all three pubs ignored the request and instead placed ‘black troops only’ signs on their entrances in support. With tensions high, the last thing you would want is a fight to kick off over something as trivial as last orders – but it did.

After being refused drink after time was called, there was a little commotion (moaning about last orders, basically), drawing the attention of an officer who in turn alerted passing military policemen. One of the soldiers, a Private Eugene Nunn, was collared for wearing a field jacket (instead of his uniform) and not having a pass. The resulting argument drew the ire of Nunn’s unit mates (and the locals), eventually leading the officers to get reinforcements and being ordered to arrest the perpetrators. What happened next is disputed – the soldiers claim that the MP’s threatened them, whilst a British special constable maintained that the MP’s approached the situation calmly – whatever happened, it ended with Nunn throwing a punch and an officer firing off a round that hit a soldier in the neck.

Despite attempts to calm the situation (by making use of the unit’s only black officer), several soldiers left camp to confront the MP’s – and both fired on each other, on the streets of Bamber Bridge. Starting at around midnight on the 25th June 1943, The Battle of Bamber Bridge ended with one black soldier, Private William Crossland, dead and four wounded (two soldiers, two MP’s). 32 soldiers were court marshalled for various crimes including mutiny, seizing arms, rioting and firing upon the MP’s and officers.

All sentences were reduced on appeal; the use of racial slurs and poor leadership were cited as mitigating factors, but it was probably the embarrassment of a ‘race war’ kicking off on foreign soil that was enough for the Americans to try and sweep the incident under the carpet. As a result, morale improved amongst black troops stationed in England and the number of court marshals and (crucially for the unmarried British women, by all accounts) sexually-transmitted diseases fell. What a place to leave this otherwise ghastly story.

The pub sits on the end of Station Road and with its thatched roof, looks out of time with the rest of the buildings nearby. This is no surprise, as the pub is 400 years old! I’m quite fortunate to visit here today, rather than at the start of the season, as it’s only just reopened after a year out, suffering from fire damage. Inside, it’s snug – there are several tight, cosy rooms with contemporary décor and tellies showing sport. I don’t have too much time to spend in here but everything I do see is impressive – from the politeness of the staff, the food menu and of course, the beer selection (I plump for a Moretti).

Located roughly half-a-mile from the centre of the village, the home ground of Bamber Bridge Football Club is named the ‘Sir Tom Finney Stadium’ in honour of the legendary Preston and England forward after his death in 2014. Previously known as ‘Irongate’ (taking its name from the immediate area), the club moved here in 1987 after spending the previous four years developing the derelict land they purchased. Today, it has a capacity of 3000, with 550 seats and 800 covered spots. Blackburn Rovers Ladies play their Women's Championship games here, so there's a reason for me to return for another look at the rest of the village('s pubs), at least!

The ground’s record attendance is 2,300 for a friendly match against the Czech Republic national team shortly before Euro 96 (the Czechs were using Irongate as a training ground). Fresh off winning the Northern Premier League, Brig played a Czech side with Karel Poborsky, Patrik Berger, Pavel Nedved and Vladimír Šmicer in their team – and were promptly beaten 9-1. Still, the Czechs got to the final of Euro 96 and took Germany to extra-time (before losing to the first-ever ‘golden goal’), so it was an honourable loss for the part-timers!

The club can trace its roots back to 1952, as a Bamber Bridge Football Club played in the Preston & District League. It wasn’t until 1974 and through a merger with Walton-le-Dale that the present Bamber Bridge FC were formed; the ‘new’ club playing in the same league as their previous incarnation. The move to their own home (as opposed to playing on council pitches) allowed them to grow and progress; several Preston & District League titles followed, their success and growth forming the basis of a bid to join the North West Counties League in 1990.

Progressing on to the NPL, their title win in ’96 should have seen them promoted to the Football Conference, but Irongate was deemed not suitable for the league and they were denied a place in the fifth tier of English football. Since then, they have been consistent members of the NPL, with league reconstructions now deeming its top division as the seventh tier, rather than the sixth. The club's highlight of the last twenty years was reaching the second round of the FA Cup in 2000, narrowly losing to League One side, Cambridge United.

This season, Brig haven’t made the best of starts – in fact, they’re down near the bottom end of the table and manager, Joey Collins, left his job in the week. The club have posted on their website that they expect to announce some news of a managerial appointment in the week but in the meantime, Director of Football (and former first team manager), Neil Cowe and goalkeeping coach, Stuart Barton, are taking the team for today.

I can’t describe the Sir Tom Finney Stadium as anything other than ‘tidy’; not just there’s a lack of litter about the place, but the layout of the ground and the facilities are neatly organised – as soon as I’m through the turnstile (£10 entry) a raffle ticket seller appears from thin air to offer me a strip (of tickets). My favourite part of the ground is seeing the balcony that overlooks one of the goals – people are stood atop it, pints in hand, watching the action. I take a seat in the stand for much of the match; the side-on angle affording me a great view of an entertaining first half as four goals were scored. Brig take the lead after just 6 minutes; a free-kick from around 30 yards out being whipped into the top corner.

I notice that Mickleover have an old, bald No.9 playing upfront and I immediately think ‘that can’t be Lee Hughes, can it?’ After the same player equalised from a rebound just a few minutes after the opening goal, it was confirmed it was him – the former West Bromwich Albion and Coventry City striker still knocking about semi-pro football at the age of 43. It’s been over a decade since I last saw him play – he ran rings around a ‘Premier League’ Wigan Athletic defence in the FA Cup and League Cup, whilst he was playing in League Two (and later League One) for Notts County. Despite him looking much better than the level he was playing at, at the time, I think it’s reasonable to say that he was considered ‘damaged goods’ by clubs higher up the leagues – his career was curtailed in 2004 after he was found guilty of death by dangerous driving and jailed for six years (serving three). Perhaps those lost years are a factor in him still ploughing up the pitches in non-league football.

Despite being pegged back, Brig push forward and almost go back ahead when a cross into the Mickleover penalty area is hit towards the goal, only for the goalkeeper to make a diving save. It proved to be a frustrating moment as a few minutes later, Mickleover take the lead from a corner – whipped in, straight onto a head, straight in the back of the net. Rather than feel down about it, as any side in poor form that has just lost their manager may do, Brig continued to put pressure on their visitors, as a header from a cross was a whisker away from dropping under the bar.

Just before the injury time is announced, and it seeming Mickleover will go in leading, Brig equalise. Alistair Waddecar cuts inside from the left, isn’t closed down by the defence and his resulting shot beats the outstretched hand of the goalkeeper to nestle into the corner. I pay a visit to the clubhouse during the break to have a nosy around, but mainly to have a wee. Like the rest of the ground, it looks a tidy place – plenty of space, comfortable seating, tellies, staff dressed as elves and good beers on tap. Suffering from the onset of heartburn and a night's drinking ahead, I forgo a pint and indulge in my water.

The ‘balcony end’ certainly plays its part in the second half, as the Mickleover goalie gets all sort of good-natured banter from the drinkers above. One particular cross is misjudged so badly that the keeper punches it back towards his own goal and needed a last-ditch clearance from a defender to prevent it from going in. From the resulting corner, Waddecar was again afforded space and this time he flicked a header across goal and into the far corner of the net, erupting the banter lads above.

Brig have a couple of chances to wrap the game up; a volley that dipped towards goal, hitting the top of the netting, and an effort that went wide of the post. Mickleover didn’t provide much threat; Hughes had been pushed out wide in the second half and was clearly lacking in legs before being replaced. The home side held on for a much-needed victory that gives them a bit more breathing space from the relegation zone – the players taking some well-deserved applause from most around the ground, especially those on the balcony, who I now suspect were also out on a few pre-Christmas drinks.

So, that was my trip to Bamber Bridge. All that remains is for me to get back on the train to Wigan – and do some more boozing myself. Changing in Preston, I get on a Virgin Train home for the final time – with their West Coast franchise ending at the end of today, the trains that took me to/from Preston already had their exteriors scrubbed bare. Apparently, new franchise holders, Avanti (owned by FirstGroup and Italian firm, Trenitali), have promised refurbished trains with all mod cons – like seating. We shall see.

I ended up meeting some mates to watch the Ruiz-Joshua fight – a masterclass in planning, technique and precision. No, not AJ’s unanimous points win, us putting into practice our strategy to get the best table in the pub to see the telly. With a bottle of water from the Morrisons in Bamber Bridge inside my belly, I’m ready for another night for boozing. Well, it is Christmas (apparently), after all. 

Bamber Bridge 3

Mickleover Sports 2

Attendance: 291


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