Saturday, 25 January 2020

Burscough vs. Congleton Town

My destination for the first groundhop of 2020 is Burscough. A club who can be said to have ‘punched above their weight’ for much of the last two decades, The Linnets have dropped a couple of levels in more recent years and now find themselves in the North West Counties League Premier Division. Today, they’re hosting Congleton Town, hoping to pick up points to keep them from the bottom of the league – and the only relegation place to the First Division North (for this season at least).

Located (roughly) between the giant metropolises of Wigan and Southport, Burscough lies within West Lancashire and has a population of around 10,000. Originally developed as a small farming village, the Viking roots are reflected within the town’s name – Burh-skogr, meaning ‘fortress in the woods’. The building of Burscough Priory in the 12th century brought some prominence to the area (housing the tombs of the Earls of Derby), but it was the development of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and the railways in the 18th century that saw the area transform from a small village into a small town.

Today, Burscough can be seen as a genteel, relaxed place – if you enjoy the quiet, then it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area. The main attractions include Martin Mere Wetlands Centre (plenty of birds), Burscough Wharf (canalside eateries, arts centres and health & fitness facilities) and its Booths supermarket (if you’re not from the North West, Booths are basically a ‘Northern Waitrose’ – but not as poncy, obviously). Its position by the canal and the surrounding countryside makes it a particularly popular place for walkers – I know this, as I (nearly) bump into some on my way the Old Packing House, for my first pint of the day (High Wire by Magic Coast Brewery – 5.5% pale ale, about a 7.5/10 rating for me).

The current Burscough football club was formed in 1946 – following Burscough Association Football Club (1880-1900) and Burscough Rangers (1905-1935). Rangers developed the present ground (purchasing a grandstand from Everton) and went on to win the Liverpool County Combination three times – leading to a successful application to join the Lancashire Combination, one of the premier non-league divisions at the time. However, they struggled at this level and ran into financial difficulties – folding in 1935. The present Burscough club started life in the Liverpool CC and went on to join the Lancashire Combination in 1953.

In the early-mid 2000s, Burscough were going great guns in the sixth tier of English football, the Northern Premier League (obviously before the Conference North/South were introduced). In 2003, they reached the final of non-league’s most prestigious cup final, the FA Trophy – in which they faced Southern League side, Tamworth. Playing at centre-half and managing Burscough was Shaun Teale – the Southport lad who had spent four years at Aston Villa, making 147 league appearances, winning the League Cup and finishing as a Premier League runner-up. Watched by a crowd of 14,296 (numbering more than the population of the town), Burscough were two-up after 55 minutes, thanks to a double from Gary Martindale, before Tamworth pulled one back late on – to no avail. Crowds thronged the streets leading to the club’s ground; everyone wanting to join in with arguably the biggest moment since it was decided to conglomerate all of those settlements around the railway line to create the town.

A short stroll from Burscough Bridge railway station, the home of the football club, Victoria Park, will soon be no more – the club have already broken ground on building a new facility NEXT TO their current ground. The sale of Victoria Park for housing has allowed them to purchase the adjacent site; containing a 500-seat stand, ‘more spacious changing rooms’, ‘a more comfortable viewing experience’ and more energy-efficient (with floodlights said to be ‘less intrusive’ to the surrounding area), the new ground can be said to be a lifeline for a club who have struggled in recent years – the present-day Victoria Park being a sign of that.

Undoubtedly, the finest day Victoria Park has seen was the 3-2 win against League One Gillingham in the first round of the FA Cup in 2005. Playing in the ‘proper’ stage of the competition for only the second time in their history, the hosts took the lead in the first-half – but Gillingham equalised early in the second. Gillingham had a man sent off (former Wigan midfielder, Mike Flynn) but still managed to take a 2-1 lead thanks to future Premier League midfielder, Matt Jarvis. In front of a crowd of almost 2,000, Burscough never let up and as the 90th minute approached, they got their equaliser through an own goal, before an injury-time goalmouth scramble saw the ball fall to David Rowan who smashed it home to spark delirium for those squeezed into a viewing spot. I bet plenty of pints and pies were sunk that night!

However, on entry into the ground today (£6), it’s immediately clear the need the club has for a new facility – with the greatest of respect, it’s shabbier than Detective Columbo. The club’s struggles in recent years (dropping three levels in less than a decade – from the Conference North to the North West Counties League) has seen income drop severely, leaving them unable to keep atop of basic maintenance. Now, I’ve been to Victoria Park before, in 2013 when they played Radcliffe Borough in the FA Cup – although the crowd was around the 150 mark, the buzz around the ground was lively and the numbers were more than double than what they’re getting these days – as we know, every extra (paying) body at this level of football counts greatly.  So where have all the supporters gone? You don’t need to work for GCHQ to find this out (which is a good job, as I don’t. Although, I would say that if I did...).

According to the club’s own history page on its website (which hasn’t been updated since 2015), former chairman and majority shareholder, Chris Lloyd ‘stood down and withdrew all funding’ during 2009-10 and it was left to the Supporters Club to raise the funds to see the season out. With the club facing debts of around £800,000, Lloyd’s shareholding and the ground were sold to Chequer Properties Ltd – and ‘not wanting to be involved with the day-to-day running of the football side of the business’, they appointed Frank Parr as chairman to work alongside the club’s long-standing secretary, Stan Petherbridge. This arrangement didn’t last for long; the club’s owners were soon forced to appoint a new Chairman at the end of the 2010/11 season – as a temporary move to groundshare with Skelmersdale United was signed.

There was no mention of the reasons behind the move on the club website, but news reports (since copied and pasted onto a Chester FC forum) assert that the owners sacked the chairman and secretary, and sought to sell the ground. The only snag being that a covenant exists on the ground – the site of can only be built on if there is another site for the team to play on in Burscough. Despite the move being called ‘temporary’, the report says that Chequer Properties searched for ways to bypass the covenant and move the club out of town permanently.

The move to Skem did indeed turn out to be temporary and instead of selling Victoria Park immediately, the owners of the club seemingly chose to abide by the covenant and in January 2018, purchased the land adjacent to the current ground to develop the new facility. Whilst all this was going on, the club was in turmoil on and off the pitch – the supporters even held talks with Supporters Direct to look into the possibility of forming a new club should the old one (forced to pay rent at Skem on a permanent basis, thus becoming unsustainable), close. There have even been reports that ex-players haven’t been paid, the existing ground has been left to rot and the pitch not sufficiently treated.

The irony about this whole saga is that the club should end up in a better position (in terms of infrastructure) than they were before Chequer Properties took over. The new ground can be used by the community, providing a safe, comfortable place for youngsters to play – and to watch their local side. Looking at all of the evidence I’ve had access to, it’s obvious to me that the attraction for Chequer was the land that Victoria Park sat on – they just didn’t bargain on the covenant. This is a prime example of why covenants of this type should be placed on all football grounds – it ensures that, whatever happens to a club, the local community will still have a place to play and to watch football. The plan for Victoria Park is to build houses, adding to the population – so getting rid of an asset to the locality makes little sense to a local council, so good on them for standing firm on the terms of the covenant, not wilting like weaker administrations may do.

Meanwhile, there’s a match to watch! With it being cold and wet, I sit in the stand – the broken, fading green seats presenting an accurate picture of the state of the club at the moment. I could do with a good portion of meat (or some money, if they don’t give meat away at the football anymore), so I get a strip of raffle tickets. I happen to sit next to the old lady who makes the draw during the early part of the first-half, but needless to say, my mouth will be meat-free tonight. There isn’t really much of a crowd on – incidentally, when I came here last time, I stood in the terrace on the opposite side of the pitch to where I’m sat now. Except, today, that roofed terrace (and the entire side) has been fenced off, with rubble visible in the background.

The first-half was decent enough, but the scoresheet remained clean – although both sides had half-chances, there wasn’t much in the way of clear-cut opportunities that should have been put away. I queue up in the café for a half-time brew and I’m sorry to use such a description, but I can’t think of anything more apt – the place has the feeling of an emergency refugee centre, with people huddled around the tables in a freezing room, clutching their brews tightly. I did laugh at what must have been the ‘executive area’, which was screened off from us normies – through the gaps I can see a buffet of chips was put on. I must add (so I don’t seem like too much of a prick), that all the staff were extremely friendly, despite being overworked – they deserve better than this.

There’s more notable action in the second-half – particularly from Burscough’s No10 (both in number and position), James Salkeld; his pace when running with the ball has been opening up gaps in the Congleton defence. On the 69th-minute mark, he takes the ball 35-yards out and runs, and runs and keeps on running – inside the area, before slipping the ball across the reach of the goalkeeper and into the far corner. It’s a brilliant goal – the best I’ve seen for some weeks. This has become a cliché in itself, but if Lionel Messi would have scored that goal, you’d hear about it for weeks.

An amusing moment transpires late on, as a Burscough player goes down injured – and a supporter is convinced that a Congleton player stood on his head. By chance, some chaps are recording the game near me (from the stand), so the supporter shouts ‘VAR’ to them (it’s V.A.R, by the way) in an attempt to gain justice. Needless to say, the resulting laughs from everyone, echoing around the vastly-empty stand, brightened up an otherwise bleak atmosphere inside Victoria Park.

The match finished as a (much-needed) win for Burscough, who now place a cushion between themselves and the relegation spot. I pop into the Hop Vine after the match; some say (people on Tripadvisor) that this is Burscough’s premier pub – and it doesn’t disappoint. Built in 1874, the interior retains much of its orignal fittings, creating a snug, homely feel – ideal for a bitter day such as this. Serving a gastro menu, you can tell it’s a classy place because the staff wear black. I sup a pint of ‘Rush Hour’ (Spitting Feathers, 4.5%, 7/10) in the pub’s ‘Piano Room’ (there’s a sign above the door and a piano in the corner, just to confirm it). I feel like a million pounds, I’m not going to lie (hopefully I’ll be able to shift that weight soon, though).

Situated just yards away from the train platform, The Bridge pub makes for an obvious last stop before I go home. As I relax in a chair with my pint of Amstel, watching Hull play Chelsea in the FA Cup, who did I see in the back of the pub, but some of the Burscough team! Resplendent in their club tracksuits, the lads are having pints and banter and I’m shitting you not here – the pub has laid on a buffet of chips and bread. So the post-match meal for these athletes (and anyone else – including the dog roaming around) is chip butties. I need to ignore every single cell of my body, telling me to get a plate for myself – I’m going for a meal when I get back in Wigan, so I don’t want to spoil it. A few minutes later, the chap from behind the bar tells me to ‘help myself to a chip butty’. So I do.

I’ve had an interesting visit to Burscough and I do hope they can sort out their issues, the owners make good on their promise to complete the new ground and the disaffected supporters can return to cheer on their side. But then again, I’m an optimist when it comes to football. 

Burscough 1
(Salkeld, 69) 

Congleton Town 0

Attendance: 78

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Wigan Athletic U18 vs. Tottenham Hotspur U18

Happy New Year! As we’re now in the future (‘2020’ sounds somewhat Science Fictiony to me), I thought it would be a good idea to look towards the next decade and see what kind of players our teams are producing. Fortunately for me, Wigan Athletic U18’s have made it to the fourth round of the FA Youth Cup and tonight, they face a stern test against Tottenham Hotspur U18’s.

Despite our current struggles in The Championship, there’s much hope that we’re about to establish a fruitful production line of players at the club – already this season, 17-year-old forward Joe Gelhardt has made several appearances from the bench, most notably scoring the equaliser at Hull in a 2-2 draw. Whilst he isn’t the tallest, he has a great low-centre-of gravity and natural strength; his floating around the forward line and general bullishness has even seen him being compared to Wayne Rooney.

At the start of the season, Latics were given ‘Category 2’ status under the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). This enabled the youth team to join the Professional Development League (the second tier of U18 football, basically), playing matches against clubs from around the country rather than just the North West. At the time of writing, Latics’ U18’s sit top of their group, 8 points clear of second – so the hope that we can produce players for the first-team is understandably high right now.

Speaking about the club’s progression to Cat 2, this was only made possible thanks to plans to develop a dedicated indoor facility for the Academy – Stadium Way, created inside a former Powerleague centre – opened yesterday. Containing a full-size pitch, gym, several outdoor pitches, office space, classrooms and amenities for parents and families, the facility will be given over for community use at various times in the year too.

My one major criticism of the club during our time in the Premier League was that we did not invest sufficiently into the infrastructure with the television riches we received – the old training ground (now being the main base for the academy) was upgraded in increments, whilst we didn’t really have much of an academy set-up. I felt we missed out on a source of talent during those years – instead of taking a risk and paying out (often over-the-odds) for foreign or lower league players, we could have dipped into the youth set-up for squad depth. These players would be used to the club, played in positions and roles that would have suited the style of play – Callum McManaman (man-of-the-match in the 2013 FA Cup Final) being a rare example of a youth player coming through our system during those years.

All that’s in the past though and now, as Wigan is located in a favourable position in the North West, there’s optimism that we can attract the best youngsters around, especially now that we've got these facilities (for one, they’ll have far more chance of playing in the first team here than for Liverpool and Manchester United, for example). Even if the worst comes to the worst and we get relegated to League One (yet again) at the end of the season, the infrastructure will still be there to support the first team squad, meaning that the club has players to come into the team as they sell others off. Every club should be striving to have such facilities, one day, I hope everyone will.

My interest in youth development (at least at the professional level) was peaked as I attended an England U18 international at the then-named JJB Stadium in 2000 as they took on France. I’ve posted the back of the programme below for you to have a look at (see how many players – as well as a glaring error with one of the sides – you can recognise), but my abiding memory was of a French team that toyed with England for most of the game, eventually winning 3-0 – all the goals scored by Djibril Cisse. He looked simply unplayable – quick and strong, he helped himself to his goals in the style of a seasoned professional and he seemed destined to play at the very top levels of the game.

(click to enlarge)
Since then, I followed Cisse’ progress – I got really excited when he signed for Liverpool in 2004, acting like an expert because I ‘discovered’ him. Sadly, I think injury probably put paid to what would have been a great top-level career for him but despite that, he didn’t do too badly (winning the FA Cup, Champions League and Super Cup with The Reds, as well as becoming the Lord of the Manor of Frodsham). Big up to Jermaine Defoe who is one of very few players in those squad lists that is still active as a professional today (although, they’re now all aged 37/38, to be fair!)

Aside from Gelhardt, another one of our England U18 internationals is Jensen Weir. A central midfielder, Weir is the son of former Rangers and Everton centre-back, David (no doubt irking his dad by switching from Scotland’s U17’s last season!) – and as I arrive at the stadium and grab a teamsheet, I see he’s in the team for tonight. Gelhardt is also starting, having been drafted in from the first team, with our other youth internationals – MacKenzie O’Neil (Northern Ireland), Kyle Joseph and Luke Robinson (Scotland) also in the team for today. We even have another ex-footballer’s son, James Carragher – offspring of Liverpool legend, Jamie – playing at the back too.

This fourth round tie is a huge test for these players, however; Spurs (a Category 1 club – they must have an indoor training centre in space or something) are 2nd in the U18 Premier League and beat lastyear’s FA Youth Cup winners, Liverpool, in the last round of this competition. Incidentally, our U18’s went out last season’s competition with a defeat to Liverpool – however, after winning 12 games on the bounce at a higher level this season, I’ve detected a quiet confidence from the comments by the staff that we’ll give them a game.

And we certainly did – right from the kick-off, Latics were direct and aggressive in their pressing, dominating the ball in the opening 15 minutes, deservedly going ahead through a Weir free-kick. Having scored one in the 8-1 victory over Croydon in the last round, he’s marked himself as a bit of a specialist to this novice youth team watcher. There was a bit of fortune to the goal, though – the ‘foul’ for the free-kick looked like a good tackle from the Tottenham lad (indeed, it got some applause from some in the crowd). Then, the shot took a deflection on its way towards goal, wrong-footing the goalkeeper.

Spurs have clearly marked Gelhardt out as the danger man, as he has no less than two players a time on his case whenever he receives the ball – he handles it okay and is linking up with Joseph well. I like the look of Joseph (no, not in that way!); he’s tall, got a bit of pace about him and he seems to be a bit of shithouse – nothing nasty, like leaving a foot in, but he seems to enjoy barrelling into defenders.

As the half wore on, both sides had long spells with the ball, but not creating much in the way of clear-cut chances. Latics did make the Spurs keeper work with a few shots from distance that he handled comfortably, with everything else blocked. The best of the blocked chances being a volley from lively winger, Sean McGurk, that would have taken the net off if the ball had hit it. Instead, a defender was left with a sore knee.

The away side come out fighting in the second half, putting pressure on the defence with some through-ball attempts, but Carragher managed things well (where have we heard that before?) Latics have a great chance for a second McGurk cut inside from the right, his shot from just inside the area hitting the crossbar. Picking the ball up from the byline, Gelhardt proceeded to drive towards the area, past a defender, laying it off to O’Neil, who in turn laid to it off to Joseph – who smashed the ball in the corner of the net! It was a brilliant, well-worked goal that was a sure-fire sign of a side that were confident in front of goal – the very antithesis of the first team at the moment!

Spurs try to rally but the Wigan team are now bursting with confidence and are buzzing around, nipping the ball off their increasingly-frustrated opponents. They do have a decent shot from distance, but home goalie, Sam Tickle, gathers the ball well. Late on, Latics think they have a third when O’Neil turns in Gelhardt's deflected shot – the players run to the corner to celebrate, only for it to be ruled offside. A comical scene then transpires as they all sprint back from the corner and back into position!

The match finishes 2-0 to Wigan, the players taking the well-deserved applause of the majority of the 668 crowd (later, I would learn this was the highest of the night in the FA Youth Cup). Hopefully, the fifth round will see us get another home draw and a four-figure crowd – if they hand in a performance like tonight, it’ll certainly please many of our supporters who have been bereft of slick, attacking football and goals of late.

Whatever happens, I’ll look forward to reading back this report in 2040 to see how many of tonight’s players made a decent career for themselves – remember, I and I alone discovered these players!

Wigan Athletic U18 2
(Weir, 17. Joseph, 62) 

Tottenham Hotspur U18 0

Attendance: 668