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.

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