Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Chertsey Town v Cove

A homemade sign with golden bells in support of The Curfew.
Ton up! My one hundredth ground! Or is it?

I've been watching football matches since the age of five, when my dad first started taking me to Fratton Park. For most of my life, I've watched the majority of Pompey's home games, with a period in my teens and twenties when I travelled to watch them play away a few times a season. With Pompey, I've been to 35 different Football League grounds.

I've also watched non-league football on and off over the years, with my main interest coming since I started writing HAH in 2011. I've never considered myself to be a groundhopper, but since I realised how close I was to visiting my 100th ground, I've become rather excited.

It's just a number, and not a particularly impressive one at that. Thousands of people have visited the same number of grounds - or far more - than I have. Hundreds of players and coaches will have played and sweated and ranted and shouted from the dugouts at more grounds than I've passively watched games at. Nathan Pond of Fleetwood Town has been promoted seven times since 2003. He'll have played on at least 150 different grounds with just the one club.

Many serious groundhoppers will go to 100 different grounds in a single season, searching out organised groundhop weekends where they might visit as many as ten different grounds over three or four days, and at other times looking out for "cheeky doubles" (a 3pm kick-off preceded by a lunchtime start or followed by an evening kick-off).

So, not a particularly impressive statistic for me, but I'm content.

The Ted Mills Memorial Gate at the entrance to Chertsey Town's ground.
Chertsey Town FC (1) 2 v 3 (0) Cove FC
Cherry Red Records Combined Counties League Premier Division
Saturday 27th September 2014
Attendance: c70
Admission: £7
Programme: £1.50
Colours: Blue & white stripes / blue / blue v Yellow / black / yellow
National Grid reference: TQ0366 & TQ0367

Chertsey Town's 60-year-old wooden stand.
There was doubt in the first line. Did you spot it? I said "Or is it?" There was doubt because I've been to both old Wembley and new Wembley, and I've counted them as separate grounds in my list. Not sure about this. It's the one problem ground in my total. Are they different grounds, or essentially the same, being built on the same footprint? If I went back to Notts County's Meadow Lane after a 25 year absence, I wouldn't count the completely rebuilt ground as a separate entity, so I could be deluding myself. 99 or 100? It doesn't really matter.

It's this attitude of "not really mattering" that may mean I'm not a proper groundhopper. I should be keeping notebooks or spreadsheets full of statistics if I was doing it properly. I don't do that. I only know that Chertsey Town was my 99th/100th ground because I remembered all my Pompey away trips and added them to the number of grounds I've been to since I started HAH (plus a few random ones as a neutral at various times). Although I've probably forgotten at least one ground.

Wobbly old terrace cover opposite the stand.
I regularly read the Where Did You Go? section on the Non-league Matters forum, so I have a good idea of the typical match day of a groundhopper. As it was possibly a special day for me, I tried to replicate a typical groundhopper's day out for my trip to Chertsey last Saturday.

The "typical" hopper will travel to a ground by public transport. I normally drive to matches, but I can do buses and trains! I checked for times and fares two weeks before travelling. Apologists for the rail network's pricing strategy will tell you that you can find bargain fares if you book long enough before a journey. No evidence of that for the trip from Southampton Central to Chertsey. It was ludicrously expensive a fortnight before the game, and the price hadn't changed on the day. Driving would have cost about a third as much in petrol and I could have set off two hours later. Oh well, I did it anyway.

The first train was the fast service to Waterloo (highlight...spotting a rat scurrying around on the track just before Winchester station). This train consisted of five carriages and had people standing from Southampton Airport onwards.

Train number two was the stopping service from Basingstoke to Waterloo - eight carriages and three people getting on at Basingstoke. Highlight...having an entire carriage to myself until Woking. There must be some logic in the number of carriages allocated for each train, but it'll need an exceptionally good explanation from a PR suit at one of the privatised rail companies for me to accept it.

Anyway, the hopper will arrive at their destination early enough to go to the local Wetherspoons or Good Beer Guide pub (or, more accurately, will "tick" the pub - I presume there's a definitive list of Wetherspoons on the 'net which can be copied on to another tab on the hopping spreadsheet). Okay, I checked beforehand for the nearest Wetherspoons to Chertsey - it's in Walton-upon-Thames, which was too far away. However, there is a pub listed in the Good Beer Guide about a mile from the stadium (The Kingfisher). Sounded pleasant enough...but I missed the train connection to Chertsey from Weybridge by three minutes, which meant I would have arrived at the match after kick-off if I'd gone to the pub. Big Fail.

Never mind, there was bottled beer in the clubhouse, so that would have to do.

A small shelter behind the far goal.
Upon arriving at a new ground, the typical hopper will buy a programme, which they will keep unfolded and uncreased in their hopper bag, ready to file away at home later. To keep my hopping experience real, I bought one, sliding my shiny new prog in to a pocket in what my son calls my "non-league bag". All hoppers have their own equivalent of my "non-league bag". On Saturday, it contained a camera, notebook, pencils and a jumper. My correspondent in the north, Jerry from The Onion Bag, describes his own version of a typical groundhopper's bag here.

What I failed to do on Saturday was ask for a team sheet. With no name board on display, I didn't know the names of any of the players. This would, of course, be unforgivable if I were to keep detailed records of every player I'd ever seen on a football pitch. (Not great if I'm going to write a match report for a blog either). Another Fail.

The next thing a proper hopper would do is seek out the company of other hoppers, so that they could discuss how many grounds they'd been to this season / ever / how many games since a "dreaded" 0-0 draw (they would know this immediately as they keep such detailed records) / how many grounds they need to complete the Perry Street League / the difficulties of reaching Denbigh Town on a Friday evening by public transport / why so-and-so's wife left him and set his house on fire / how many scotch pies the notorious X ate at half-time at Benburb... Having earwigged many serious hoppers' conversations, I have to say they tend to be both highly competitive about the number of grounds they've been to, and terribly gossipy about their fellow hobbyists.

However, I didn't spot any other groundhoppers at Chertsey, so that was another Big Fail. There was just me taking photos and jotting down facts in my notebook.

Plastic table cloth in club colours!
There aren't many grounds where I can sit in a stand that was built before I was born any more, but Chertsey Town is one of those places. The wooden structure was erected in 1954 and was very comfortable, with plenty of leg-stretching room. The usual type of blue plastic seats for ordinary spectators; blue plastic seats with wooden backs for club officials!

Not only is the stand older than me, but the wobbly terrace cover opposite is also over 50 years old, and thus senior to me. There are holes cut in to the roof of this cover, through which poke a pair of floodlight poles. At one point during the first half, a Cove player kicked the match ball out of play - it bounced off a conifer behind the terrace, and dropped straight down through one of the holes in the roof! "In all the years I've been coming here, I've never seen that happen before. What are the chances...?" said the fellow next to me.

"Ref! Surely that's a pen?!"
Chertsey is just down the road from Thorpe Park. Appropriately, this match was a rollercoaster ride. Table-topping Cove went a goal behind after four minutes when Chertsey's Keiran Woodley walloped one in from close range. "Top of the league? You're having a laugh!" A chant I've heard before, but not from this group of ten Chertsey Ultras behind the far goal. Fair play to them - I'd seen more people wearing Chelsea shirts on the train from Basingstoke than there were home fans inside Chertsey's ground.

At half-time, a squawk of parakeets flew over the ground (a "squawk" may not actually be the collective noun for parakeets, but it ought to be). These weren't the only winged objects above the ground, as several jumbo jets flew over the stand during the game - Chertsey being near Heathrow.

If you'd been in the plane flying overhead at 4.15, you might have glanced down and seen Cove's deserved equaliser, as a super-strength right-footer by Steven Duff from 10 yards left the Chertsey keeper rooted firmly in "nothing he could do about that" territory.

If your plane had been circling the ground for five minutes (unlikely, as all the overhead action was of jumbos taking off and heading south or west), you would have seen Cove take the lead when Paul Coventry hooked a bouncing ball over his shoulder and past Chertsey's man in green.

If you'd strapped a video camera to one of the parakeets and it had been flying above the nearside goal seven minutes later, you would have spectacular footage of the best goal of the game, as The Curfews' Jack Wadmore belted one from 25 yards, in off the bar.

And finally, if you'd had your digital camera switched on, you would have had a great action photo of Cove's Coventry being tripped five yards from goal and the ref immediately pointing to the spot for Jake Baxter to slot home the league leaders' winning goal. If, like me, you'd forgotten to switch your camera on, you would have had a photo of the Cove players appealing instead...

You can read another match report from the Chertsey Town website here.

A one in a million chance as the match ball dropped through this hole in the old terrace cover during the first half.
So how did I do as a "typical groundhopper"? Let's see...
  • Spreadsheet: No
  • Cheeky double: No
  • Public transport: Two buses and six trains, so Yes!
  • Wetherspoons / GBG tick: No
  • Pristine programme: Yes
  • Team sheet: No
  • Groundhopping bag: Yes
  • Take photos: Yes
  • Make notes in notebook: Yes
  • Meet other hoppers: No
That's a 5/10 then. I could certainly do better!

Anyway, the old Wembley / new Wembley conundrum will be irrelevant next week, as I visit another new ground in the FA Vase. This seaside ground in Dorset will be either number 100 or 101. But it doesn't really matter.

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