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Friday 19th September 2014 ko 19.30

North Berkshire League Division One

ABINGDON TOWN 3 (Barroso 28 Lightfoot 83 Sutton 90og)


Att 192

Entry & Programme £4

The North Berkshire League has held 3 annual groundhops, but for this year’s event I was handed a couple of dilemnas that weren’t of my own making. Firstly, I’ve spent each of the last 3 years bemoaning the lack of floodlights in the league, so I ought to have been pleased when Abingdon Town dropped into the league. That was due to a landlord charging a rent the club could ill-afford when they’d been flooded for 3 months at a time for each of the last 2 years. The trouble was that the club had been on a Hellenic hop back in the day, which normally would mean that they wouldn’t get another game. However I wanted to help the club and chairman Tom Larman, so we decided to stage the game as a Friday night precursor to the main event. The other problem though, had the potential to be altogether more serious.

In the past all groundhop organisers have operated a “Gentleman’s agreement” that we will liase with each other to avoid clashes, a good example would be the agreement that we at GroundhopUK have with Phil Hiscox at the South West Peninsula League where we will run a hop in the Northern Counties East League next Easter, then the hop will alternate between the two leagues in subsequent years.

Last year the Eastern Counties League ran an event that would have clashed with Craig Dabbs’ Bedfordshire Hop; Craig contacted the league and was given short-shrift, so moved his event back a week. We emailed the league chairman Peter Hutchings twice, and got no reply, but I was sufficiently worried to phone him and try to bring the league into the fold.

We emailed again with details of all hops scheduled for the next 3 years, and the offer to keep the lines of communication open. That eventually produced a short email from him stating that the league was going to complete its March event (which didn’t clash with anything) and then hold no further events due to the poor reception their event had found amongst the groundhoppers. That was disappointing, an ECL hop was always likely to be a big draw due to its Step 5/6 status and its geographical isolation. So I was rather surprised in July when Craig sent me a text in early July saying, “They’re doing to you what they did to me!”

It transpired that the ECL’s fixture secretary had surprised everyone at their AGM by announcing 2 new sets of staggered kick-offs so they felt honour-bound to let him carry out his plan. The trouble was that the first set clashed with the North Berkshire Hop so I contacted the league again and asked whether they’d be prepared to move their event either back or forward a week.

In the meantime I contacted the NBFL to see what our options were. Other than cancelling altogether, moving our event back a week would mean no Crowmarsh Gifford as they’d agreed a free week with the league, and either back or forward would mean we’d lose the game at the Defence Academy in Shrivenham as Jon Radcliffe at Benson Lions had pulled in all kinds of favours to secure the event, and any deviation would see the base pull the plug.

It was of no surprise that the ECL replied that they couldn’t move their day, FA Cup, Vase, and County Cups saw to that, so a clash couldn’t avoided this time, but I sought to bring the ECL into the “Organisers’ Agreement,”  so as to avoid any further clashes. The Eastern Counties League‘s chairman Peter Hutchings replied as follows,

“I’m not prepared to give any undertaking which may impact on the League’s ability to carry out its function in whatever manner it sees fit. Nor am I prepared to continue this correspondence.”

That is, of course completely his right, and for the record we do not wish to run their hop, or to control the diary in any way shape or form. We simply want to avoid further clashes and so what it means going forward is that any groundhop organiser will now have to factor in the unexpected. However the league has my phone number and email and I am always prepared to listen.

I went back to the NBFL and pointed out the risks of running a hop against a league of higher status. They gave me their backing to carry on, and I looked at League Press Officer Phil Annets in the eye and said to him,

“I will make sure we all do our absolute best to make the clubs do not suffer from this clash.”

Chris Berezai and I looked through our list of who had bought tickets the previous year. The great advantage of knowing our customer base is that we could give ourselves a steer on who might choose the ECL over ourselves. We reckoned that would be around 10-15 tickets, which would add up to 20-30 hoppers in total. The sad part for me was watching hoppers having to make a choice, and in certain cases those were friends of mine. The question was how could we replace them?

I looked back at groundhop games we’d organised where the attendance was far higher than expected such those at Peterborough Northern Star and Berinsfield, and the common factor was that those clubs had made their game a community event, but could we do the same for all of these clubs?

Abingdon Town proved the point nicely that we could. I’d quietly hoped that we’d get 100 through the gate, but the town turned out in their droves to support 2 of their teams, and Chris, Phil, Tom Larman and I were stunned at getting nearly double that. Put simply the club put itself in the centre of its community and the community responded.

The news came through that the Eastern Counties League’s fixture at Felixstowe had been postponed due to the fog. Perhaps on reflection my elated reaction was too broad a brushstroke.  My sympathy is with the hoppers who wasted time and money in getting there through Friday night traffic, and to Felixstowe who will have wasted money on programmes, food and officials’ costs, however that is where my sympathy stops. Organising any events like these is not easy, and every so often you get gremlins, be it a postponement at AFC Emley, a waterlogged pitch at Lydney, or leisure centre politics at Kinmel Bay, and it’s how to work your way past them that earns you your reputation, either good or bad. My reaction was one based to having to deal with a refusal to negotiate, cooperate or communicate.

However on our side of things life was looking good. The club had laid on locally produced beer which proved popular, the food bar was selling food as fast as they could cook it, and Terry Hall of Terry’s Badges had donated a batch of specially designed NBFL hop badges. We decided to sell those for £1.50 each and donated the money to Abingdon Town.

If Town did good business off the pitch, then that was reflected on it although 3-0 was highly flattering. Town were a little sharper throughout and deserved the win in a feisty game. I thought Benny Sutton’s own goal was especially unfortunate.

In the end the game did what I hoped it would. Abingdon Town won, and received a windfall, the North Berkshire League again produced a high-quality game, and all present were royally entertained. The only question was whether we could carry that momentum through to the hop itself?