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

1 comment:

  1. Being one of the 76 present. This is an excellent, fair and well researched article. Let's hope as you do that Burscough is about to see the dawn of a new era, and that all of the internal struggles are pu behind them.