Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Fifth Annual Festive Parade of Rusty Rollers

Brockenhurst FC. "The Cobra". Not bright enough.
I've not told anyone this before, but I've been an undercover detective these past few months. If you'd met me, you'd see a scruffy middle-aged bloke with a camera and a notebook who writes rather odd reports on non-league football matches involving Hampshire clubs. I'd be happy to pass the time of day talking about the weather with you, or swapping stories of football grounds we've both visited. I have as many opinions on the red hot topics of the day as anyone else, and I'll share them with you if you wish to listen.

But underneath this bonhomous exterior, I've been on the lookout for a criminal, who is thought to be hiding within a non-league football ground. However, it's reached the point where I need others to join in to help me find this vagabond, as I've had no success thus far.

Will you help me?

Fareham Town. Too big.
Think back to the beginning of August. Do you remember all the WANTED posters pasted up around town? The first one I saw was on the back of a bus stop in Shirley. It read something like this:







Larkhall Athletic. Too weedy.
Upon seeing this poster, my inner sleuth's curiosity was piqued. I wandered down to Shirley Police Station to find out more. At the front desk was a jolly, red-cheeked sergeant who filled me in on some details.

Apparently, ageless comedian Stu Francis (ex-Crackerjack, amongst other TV shows) had recently been in Southampton to hold talks with the management of the Mayflower Theatre about appearing in their Christmas pantomime. He'd brought his prestigious (and priceless) Golden Grape statuette with him, which was awarded to him in 1990 by the British Fruit Farmers Association for popularising grapes in his famous catchphrase "Ooh, I could crush a grape!"

The panto talks had gone well and, to celebrate, he'd gone to a local Wessex League ground to watch one of the opening matches of the season. He'd taken his Golden Grape award to show a friend of his on the club's committee. During the first half, he'd happened to comment on the rather dowdy nature of the club's roller and that if he got the pantomime gig, how he'd buy the club a sparkling new roller with his first night's earnings.

Stu had lain his award on the ground behind him and forgot it was there as he went to the tea hut at half-time. Upon his return, he was aghast to see that his Golden Grape had been crushed! Oh, the irony!

Swivelling around, he turned his gaze towards the dowdy club roller...

Salisbury FC. Spotless.
...But it wasn't there! It had mysteriously disappeared during the half-time break! Stu's committee member friend was most apologetic, but all he could do was call the groundsman over to ask the whereabouts of the roller. What the groundsman said shocked all who were listening:

"I haven't used the club roller for three weeks now. It's been locked away in my equipment container all that time". When Stu described the roller that he'd seen behind him, the groundsman denied ever seeing one that looked like that at the club.

This is when the police were called, and sure enough, nobody but Stu Francis had seen this phantom roller, thus he was the only witness to this ghostly phenomenon. He told the police that the roller had been approximately 4ft wide x 18in tall. It was extremely rusty and - weirdly - had a mark on the main roller mechanism in the shape of a Crackerjack pencil - almost like a birthmark.

The sergeant at Shirley Police Station was dubious that this had ever happened outside of Stu Francis's mind, but as the comedian had offered a large reward for the capture of the rogue roller (dubbed "Rusty Lee" in the local press as a strange kind of tribute to Stu's celebrity chef friend, Rustie Lee), he felt it incumbent on the force to at least be seen to be doing something.

It was at this moment that I offered my services in the hunt for the mystery roller. I explained that I travel the county and beyond taking photos of rusty groundsmen's equipment and that I might be able to find the roller in question. The sergeant gave me a queer kind of look, and giggling through his fingers, said "Yes, yes, go ahead, why not?"

Sway FC. "Naughty".
The first place I visited this season was Abingdon Town's ground for a match between Abingdon's groundsharers Chinnor and Hartley Wintney. Despite a thorough search, there were no rollers to be seen anywhere, so my attention turned to Brockenhurst a couple of weeks later. Brockenhurst's roller, "The Cobra", is notoriously clumsy, having broken one of their goals the previous season. Despite its rather dangerous-sounding nickname, it was surely not clever enough to have crushed the Golden Grape?

On to a floodlit match at Fareham Town. The club roller here was certainly rusty enough to be Rusty Lee, but was surely too big? Stu Francis had said that his nemesis was 4ft wide - Fareham's roller was a good 6ft, and could be safely ruled out.

Portland United. Inseparable.
Stu Francis came up with some more evidence a few days after Fareham. He'd contacted the police and told them that he thought that he'd heard someone - or something - whispering profanities in Welsh on the evening of the crime. I couldn't make it as far as Wales for my next roller search, but Bath's Larkhall Athletic was near enough. I found a green roller under a tree. Now, this one was about the right size, so I had a really close look at it. But it had obviously been there quite some time, as it had weeds growing all over it. It could not have been Rusty Lee.

Soon after the Larkhall visit, I went to Salisbury. I was delighted to see a roller appear after their match with Follands, being pulled along by a powerful Mario Kart. This roller didn't have a speck of rust on it, so could not possibly have been Stu's grape-crushing enemy. Another suspect ruled out.

Dyffryn Nantlle Vale. Mud sculpture.
I was hopeful that I'd found the criminal roller on a visit to Sway, but speaking to a committee member there, it transpired that their rollers had been locked up in a cage for several months since they'd been "naughty". He didn't specify what he meant by "naughty", but he was adamant that they couldn't have escaped and reappeared at the Wessex League ground near Southampton in early August. I took his word for it.

Portland United in early November was my next opportunity to track down the bad roller. As the sun set over the peninsula, I spotted a pair of rollers cuddling each other by the far wall. Upon closer inspection, it transpired that they weren't cuddling, but were actually stuck together with super-strength glue. Why? I don't know, but Stu had only seen one roller, and these two were like Siamese twins. One wasn't going anywhere without the other any time soon.

Porthmadog FC. Knows no Welsh profanities.
With no rollers on show at either Bemerton Heath Harlequins or Alton Town, I was left with only my two visits to grounds in North Wales this autumn. Now, this was a proper long-shot, based on Stu hearing some whispering noises in Welsh...

There were a pair of rollers at Dyffryn Nantlle Vale lying down next to an ancient standing stone. The blue one had something that looked like a birthmark! Could it be the mysterious Crackerjack pencil "birthmark" that Stu had seen? I had a look and was disappointed to see that the "birthmark" was actually a clod of mud. However, my disappointment soon turned to joy when I noted that the mud clod was shaped exactly like the British Isles - England, Scotland, Wales and the island of Ireland all in perfect outline! There was even a miniature Isle of Wight with a tiny River Medina!

The final hope of success came at Porthmadog on the only cold day of the winter so far - the wind was blowing straight down from the surrounding snow-capped mountains when I spotted their roller sat down in front of a hedge. It was rusty, 4ft x 18in, and had a mark upon it which resembled a pencil. Could it be...? I went up to it and asked it if it knew any profanities in Welsh. In reply, he said: "Nah mate, I'm from the East End. I'm here on holiday! I wouldn't know a Welsh profanity from an Anglesey eel!"

No luck with the mystery roller in the first half of the season then. I'm going to need some help in the second half of the season with this. Would you be so kind as to keep your eyes peeled and tell me if you see anything suspicious? Remember, there's a reward!

Other festive parades and roller round-ups can be found by clicking on the tag "Rollers etc". And yes, they're just as weird as this one...

Happy New Year everyone! I think I'll be back with a match report from a ground near Southampton on January 16th, weather permitting.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Alton Town v East Cowes Victoria Athletic

The final game at the Bass, as advertised outside the gate.
[Reader's voice: Hey, Andy! You're normally pretty good at publishing match reports on the Monday or Tuesday after a game! Why has this one taken so long?]

Ah, it's a long story, dear reader! This is the short version:

Firstly, I had no intention of going to Alton Town for their final match at the Bass Sports Ground (pronounce Bass as in "Mass" for the southerners reading this - or "Class" for my northern friends; and not as in "Bass, how low can you go?" for the Public Enemy fans amongst you). I'd woken up on the morning of Saturday 5th December hoping to go to Romsey Town's Bypass Ground to see them play promotion-chasing Amesbury Town. Unfortunately, the game was called off due to a tree root becoming exposed on the pitch (obviously quite a dangerous thing if a player should twist an ankle on it or fall on it knee-first). As it happened, Romsey got a bit of publicity out of this, being featured on BBC 5Live's Non-League Show, amongst other media outlets. Romsey Town fans were "stumped" by this turn of events, apparently.

So, I looked at the fixtures afresh, and decided that Alton Town would be a good alternative for my Saturday afternoon footy fix. I'd liked the Bass Sports Ground immensely on my previous visit. I'd liked the spirit of the people of Alton, standing up to Molson-Coors' corporate bullying in large numbers, and I'd loved the old stand, broken but unbowed, defiantly old school. It would be my last chance to go there, so...go there I did, to say goodbye and to pay my respects.

Leaving the pavilion changing rooms for one final match.
Alton Town FC (2) 4 v 0 (0) East Cowes Victoria Athletic FC
Saturday 5th December 2015
Sydenhams Wessex League Division One
Attendance: 102
Admission: £5
Programme: £2 (an excellent end-of-an-era special with plenty of colour photos. Badges were also on sale at the turnstile)
Colours: White / black / black and white hoops v Yellow / blue / blue
National Grid reference: SU7240

The bench seats in the stand went black-white-black-white...all the way up. This is one of the white benches from the side.
The famous train picture. I mean, it's alright, but I thought I'd got myself a photo to rival one of Jurgen Vantomme's best...
I went to Alton, I took my camera, but I still hadn't intended writing about this match. I was going to do a report on Otterbourne v Hamble Club in the Hampshire Premier Football League on the 12th as my final pre-Christmas missive. But, with all the rain this past week, the game at Otterbourne was called off. So, I had a problem: should I leave my last pre-Christmas report to the final Saturday before Christmas, risking another postponement, or should I write about Alton instead?

I'd have to write about Alton Town with no new photos. What do you mean, you ask - there's eight pictures here...

True enough. But I'd lost them all. I'd come home from Alton last Saturday evening, and whilst uploading the match photos to my PC, the programme that I use for uploading crashed, wiping all my pics from the memory card. They were gone, seemingly forever. Whatever I did, I couldn't find a way of getting them back.

In the meantime, I told the other members of the HAH Facebook group how amazing these photos of the Bass Sports Ground had been, exaggerating in the manner of an old fisherman describing the ones that had gotten away. There was the warm and fuzzy pic of the tea urn, boiling away in the boardroom post-match with Christmas fairy lights twinkling away in the background; there was the poignant one of the fella writing out his match report, taken through the broken perspex of the old stand - the last person sat in the stand at the very last match at the ground; then there was the train picture - the famous train picture, which in my mind rivalled one of the great football photographer Jurgen Vantomme's finest...

Peeking at the stand through a gate.
Post-match huddle for Alton Town.
How did I get the photos back in the end? Well, it was like a miracle, one of the Yuletide variety. When Otterbourne's game was called off, I decided to go and watch Romsey Town play away at Totton & Eling. And yes, I took my camera. The pictures from Alton were still not there as I snapped away in the late afternoon gloom at Millers Park...until I wandered out of the ground with ten minutes remaining to take a pic of some AFC Totton fans next door (they were thrashing Bishops Cleeve 7-0 and looked pretty happy). As I steadied my camera to take the photo, I suddenly saw a picture of a squirrel on the screen...then a cat...then another cat...and then some puffins...and, what was this? The pictures from Alton were back! I have no idea how that happened! I didn't touch anything - it just happened...

...and here they are! (I'll be posting a few more on the Facebook page later).

The last man in the stand at the final match, busily scribbling down his match report.
I'm glad I went to the Bass Sports Ground for one last visit. The first thing I noticed was that the bowling green behind the stand had been abandoned. Next to the bowling green, the once-thriving tennis courts were derelict, with saplings growing through the tarmac. Inside the football ground, the old stand had not seen any love for quite some time - although, as the club knew they'd be leaving many years ago, it's easy to understand why the old girl hadn't had a lick of paint for so long. Where the broken perspex sides had been left unrepaired, rain had blown in and made the top corners of the stand, in particular, damp to the point of nearly rotten. Walking around the stand, with the floorboards bouncing beneath my feet, I was afraid that I might tread on some rotten wood and fall through. It didn't happen though.

It was one of those days when it seemed like everyone else was carrying a camera - there was Howard Gadsby, a former player who was there on behalf of the club. He had access all areas and took a superb set of photos, which you can see on Flickr here. Then there was poor old Paul Paxford, hobbling around the pitch grimacing from backache.

Then over there was a film camera. I didn't ask why the cameraman was there at the time, but it turns out that he was filming a short piece for Sky Sports on Liam Priday, the 4-year-old boy from Havant who has been to 100 different football grounds with his dad, Chris. You can watch the report on Liam here - it also features Alton's first goal and plenty of footage of the ground. Oh, how I wish I'd owned all those Corinthian figures when I was four!

As before at Alton Town, everyone was very friendly. I spent some time speaking with an old fan who reminisced with me about the good old days at Alton, when they were a major force in amateur football, about some of the big matches against some of the famous London amateur clubs of the 1950s and 1960s, when there were regular large crowds to cheer on the team. He was sad that the Bass Ground would be covered in rabbit hutch houses in a year from now - he was equally sad that Molson-Coors had shut down the brewery in town and sold it for housing - the biggest employer for miles around, taken over by a faceless American corporation, asset stripped and then shut down, just like that.

The kettle steaming away in the boardroom guessed it, one last time at the Bass.
Alton's most famous footballing son, Jimmy Dickinson, would not have approved. However, I'm sure Gentleman Jim would be raising a glass to The Brewers' future at their new home just up the hill.

Secondary to the occasion was the match itself, which Alton Town won easily enough, by 4-0. They had the wind behind them in the first half and took a 2-0 lead early on. It looked like it could be an 8 or 9 goal thrashing at that point, but credit to East Cowes, who dug in and kept the score down to 2-0 until late in the second half, when Alton scored twice more to give the old ground a decent send off.

There's a lovely tribute to the Bass from Alton's Mr Chairman here. So much more eloquent than anything I've ever written.

I'll visit Alton Town's new ground in the New Year. By all accounts, they had a grand old time at the opening ceremony this Saturday just gone. Another big win in front of a crowd of over 200. I read that Mr Chairman was also handing out free crisps. I don't know whether Jimmy Dickinson would have approved of this, but I certainly do!

The festive roller round-up will be my next post. After that, I'll be back on either January 9th or the 16th for my 93rd match report on HAH. See you then.