Sunday, 21 July 2019

DARTFORD v LEYTON ORIENT

PRINCES PARK

PRE-SEASON FRIENDLY

SATURDAY, JULY 20, 2019

GROUND No 216












OF all Princes Park's unique and endearing features, the 18ft tall wooden sculpture of a fan on the terraces has to be the most striking.

I mean, have you ever seen anything like it?

Arms outstretched, gaze firmly set on the pitch, Dartford's biggest fan is just one of remarkable features of this eco-friendly stadium that blows completely out of the water the notion that all new builds are boring, soulless structures.

Since 2006 when they moved here (they'd led a nomadic existence for  number of years after being forced to leave Watling Street) Dartford have played not only on grass but underneath it.

That's because covering the four sides of the ground are curved coverings, each with a 'living roof' - layers of vegetation that provide an air filtration system.

Glued laminated timber beans support them, and the heavy use of timber around the ground gives it the feel of belonging in a Norwegian forest rather than a stone's throw from the Dartford Tunnel.

The pitch is sunk two metres below ground level to reduce noise and light pollution, there are solar panels on the changing room roof and rainwater is collected in two ponds to serve the toilets.

They really have thought of everything. When I went to the loo at half-time, I expected a notice telling me that any deposits would be used as a natural fertiliser on an organic farm behind the car park where hand-reared cattle were raised to provide meat for the burgers in the snack bar.

Concrete steps - covered by those grass-topped roofs - ring the pitch, save for the South Stand side where 642 seats nestle in front of the clubhouse, function suite and changing rooms.

Another nice touch is an area of the back wall where you can buy a brick your name or that of a loved one on, and a tribute to the Dartford team that reached the 1974 FA Trophy final at Wembley.

A banner in amongst the advertising hoardings n front of it reads: "If only all stadiums were like Princes Park."

Not half.


Sunday, 14 July 2019

DORKING WANDERERS v KINGSTONIAN

Meadowbank

Pre-season friendly

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Ground No 215















THE majestic spire of St Martin's Church that peers over Meadowbank from behind the main stand like a proud parent watching over its offspring could tell some stories.

Not all of them would be an easy listen, mind.

It could tell of a great FA Vase run in the early Noughties and the time Dorking - who had called it home since 1956 - gave Peter Shilton's Plymouth Argyle a run for their money in the first round of the FA Cup in the early 90s.

But it could also tell of how Dorking merged with Guildford City then folded before rising from the ashes as a new club and then finally disappearing into the cupboard marked 'former football clubs' in 2017.

And it could tell of how Meadowbank, wonderfully situated just behind one of the most idyllic high streets you'll find anywhere, fell into seemingly terminal disrepair - its crumbling terraces and rundown stand deemed unsafe in 2013.

Thankfully, though, the story doesn't end there and the spire could tell how the developers moved in, not to put up trendy apartments or affordable housing but to transform Meadowbank into an £8 million stadium fit for the 21st century that's also home to Surrey FA and a soft play area that the local council seem particularly excited about.

Reopened in July 2018, it's now home to serial promotion winners Dorking Wanderers,

A true non-league fairytale club, in the 20 short years since their formation, they have risen from the Crawley and District League to National League South - thanks to hard work and dedication rather than a millionaire owner/chairman hell bent on buying their way through the leagues.

"My dad and I got there half way through the first half and we were the 14th and 15th paying customers on the day with an audience of just 15," recalls programme editor Hugo Manuel in today's column.

That occasion was just five years ago. That's how far Dorking Wanderers have come in such a short space of time.

And their home is a joy to visit.

A new build (on an old footprint) it may be, but Meadowbank still has a certain charm about it - thanks in no small part to its wooden perimeter fence, wooden tea hut (nice cuppa for £1.20) and the traditional look of the main stand… plus of course than grand old spire rising in its shadow.

There's hard tarmac standing all around, a 3G pitch (so no worries about potential rain-offs), small covered standing areas at one end and on one side of the main stand and a bar area on the other side of the stand in the modern box-shape building that also houses Surrey FA's HQ and the changing rooms.

Chairman/manager Marc White is clearly delighted at the club's progress and in a tantalising glimpse of what Meadowbank's future may hold, he told Surrey Live last year: "There's a lot of space to add additional buildings."

He's not wrong there, and you suspect that grand old spire could well have more stories to tell in years to come.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

BRAINTREE TOWN v SALFORD CITY

Cressing Road Stadium

National League

February 9, 2019

Ground No 214







AND so I found myself in the away end at Braintree on a Saturday afternoon when Britain's most high profile non-league team rolled into town.

My 16-year-old Mancunian nephew is a Salford season ticket holder you see and, full of youthful exuberance, he'd headed south for a weekend with his handily-placed groundhopping uncle, hoping to see the Ammies take another step towards the Football League.

I think he's bored of me telling him how, the first time I saw Salford play at home, the crowd was barely into three figures - in the days well before some lads with a few bob who played for a team up the road took them over.

So any how, an hour before kick-off we were driving into a small close made up entirely of strange, flat-roofed houses, and parking up ahead of the game. 

Nineteen quid in and three quid for a not especially substantial programme was a bit steep for this level in my opinion but on the plus side, the bacon roll was very nice.

Cressing Road has been Braintree's home since 1923. Much of the way it looks now is down to work carried out since the 1990s, but it still retains a homely and traditional feel. 

Its orange barriers and blue fences - reflecting the team's colours - give it a bright look too.

The away end is a small terraced area at the far end, just the other side of the man stand, which contains around 500 seats. There's a similar area of terracing on the other side too.

A long, mostly covered, terraces extends along the side opposite the main stain while there are identical banks of terracing behind the goal - one left uninhabited, giving the brightly coloured barriers even more prominence on this gloomy February day, and the other home to the Braintree faithful.

Those fans haven't had much to cheer this season, but went home the happiest thanks to an injury time winner.

"The Football League is waiting for us," sang the City fans around me. They'll be waiting a little longer at this rate.

Monday, 27 August 2018

HEYBRIDGE SWIFTS v WEST ESSEX

ASPEN WAITE ARENA

FA CUP PLEMINARY ROUND

AUGUST 26, 2018

GROUND NO 211











AAAH, the magic of the cup.

It was the FA Cup that first awakened my interest in non-league football. Tuning in on a Saturday night  to watch first round highlights on telly and being introduced to teams I'd never heard of from places I never knew existed take on the relative big guns from the lofty heights of the Football League at tiny, ramshackle grounds was something to savour every year.

Tales of the left-back being a postman who was up at 4am to do his round before heading to the ground or the painter and decorator who pulled on the No 6 shirt in the very dressing room he'd given a lick of paint to no more than a week earlier... Magical stuff.

I fancied a bit of that and started checking out non-league grounds for myself.

It would take the most ambitious - or foolish - of gamblers to have a wager on any club making it all the way to Wembley after appearing at the preliminary round stage. You'd probably get better odds on Lord Lucan singing the National Anthem while sitting on Shergar before the final kicks off.

But the FA Cup is nonetheless a 'thing' at this level. Dreams of making it all the way to the first round proper and playing Sunderland or Swindon at home live on the box are very much alive and kicking.

And there's the cash too. Today's winners picked up £2,890 in prize money for clearing the preliminary round hurdle. That's more than Heybridge Swifts banked from attracting a crowd of 206 for their first ever fixture against West Essex.

Deal with their first qualifying round opponents and they'll have a bumper cheque for six grand to pay into the Heybridge branch of the HSBC.

So extra preliminary round day seemed to be an appropriate way to collect my first tick of the season.

Situated just outside Maldon, the Aspen Waite Arena is a neat little ground and has been the Swifts' home since 1966 after a troubled period in which their original ground became hardcore for a new shopping centre and they nearly went under. Prior to that it was a carrot field.

Entry is via turnstiles behind one goal, the changing rooms immediately to the left, a tea bar a little further on and a sizable Union Flag fluttering proudly atop its pole.

Midway down one side is the main stand, a breeze block and steel structure built in the mid-90s with possibly one or two more supporting poles than what any spectator sitting there would want for ideal viewing.

Opposite is an older, wooden stand containing wo rows wooden slats arranged in such a way that I was left confused as to whether both were for sitting on or whether the bottom row was for putting your feet on if you were sitting on the upper level. Or both. In the end I avoided the potential for making myself look silly by walking past it to take up a standing position in the covered end beyond it.

The Swifts are flying high this season and a 3-0 win put them into the pot for the next FA Cup draw. It's two early for replica cups made out of tinfoil on the terraces or songs about going to Wemberleeee, but it's a few quid in the bank and a step closer to potentially earning the 'plucky minnows' tag in tie against someone much higher up the pyramid.



Monday, 4 June 2018

Tamil Eelam v Cascadia

ST PAUL'S SPORTS GROUND

CONIFA WORLD CUP

JUNE 3, 2018

GROUND NO 209













IF St Paul's Sports Ground were a pair of trousers, you'd have to squeeze them on, breathe in for at least a minute while you're doing your top button up and the most pleasurable experience you'll have all day is undoing it again before you go to bed and letting your belly flop out.

Tightly packed into a plot surrounded by homes, trees, a road and a school, there's just enough space to fit in the bare essentials needed for a football ground.

That it's there at all. of course, is something to be hugely grateful for.

Fisher Athletic thought they were only groundsharing with Dulwich Hamlet while the Surrey Docks Stadium - which stood some 200 yards from St Paul's - was being done up. But the debts were piling up and Athletic became a former football club without ever returning home.

From the fans' point of view it was like moving in with a mate while the builders were in, staying until you'd finished the last jar of peanut butter in the cupboard and then finding your own gaff had been bulldozed when you popped in to see how the new kitchen was coming along.

Quick as a flash, though, the supporters founded Fisher FC, a phoenix club, and in 2016 they moved into their new ground.

The dark green turnstile blocks are a little uninviting, to be honest, and the compact little ground ins functional rather than homely.

With very little space between the plastic pitch and the perimeter wall, it's as though someone has picked the ground up and pushed and prodded it into a hole that's barely big enough to fit it in.

A simple, small prefabricated stand sits on the other side of the Salter Road perimeter wall, with the changing rooms and modest clubhouse - don't ask for a beer, it's not licensed.

There's a small covered stand behind one goal - offering a great view of Canary Wharf rising up impressively behind the far goal - and dugouts on the side opposite side to the stand and that's that really.

The ground is managed by Millwall's Community Trust so the branding around the pitch is almost exclusively for the Lionesses, who play their Women's Super League matches there.

But it was neither Fisher nor Millwall Ladies who were playing on this occasion - the match pitched Cascadia against Tamil Eelam in the CONIFA World Cup, a sort of non-league World Cup.

CONIFA is the voluntary body which brings together non-recognised states, regions, cultural entities and peoples and gives them a platform on which to play international football - and the result is a glorious carnival of culture, a sporting tournament and a geography lesson all rolled into one,

I decided to support Cascadia because they sounded like a stage at Glastonbury (it's actually an area of the USA and Canada) and the free stickers given out by their merch dude only reinforced that view.

The locals threw their support behind them too, with songs like "Cascadia is wonderful, it's got weed, coffee and Frasier" ringing out around the ground.

And the boys on the pitch responded, banging in six goals without reply despite finishing with ten men, to progress to the quarter-finals on goal difference.

Football in the sun, nations you've never heard of and a club back from the dead - what's not to like?