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Saturday 20th September 2014 ko 19.45

North Berkshire League Division Three

BENSON LIONS 1 (Papa 47)

GROVE RANGERS 1 (Reid 59)

Att 172 at Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, Faringdon Road, Shrivenham

Entry & Programme £4

Badge £3

Catering: Beef and Veggie Burritos and Tacos

Beer: Chiltern brewery Flanders Pale Ale, Lord Lieutenants Porter

On the 2013 North Berkshire Hop we paid a highly enjoyable visit to see Benson Lions at their home ground at RAF Benson, report here. The base required an ID check, and we worked hard with Lions’ chairman Jon Radcliffe to ensure the event went smoothly.

In all groundhop games you have to have a good club and good officials to work with and that counts double for a game on an MOD base, and in Jon there’s a man who I could confidently hand the staging over to him in the knowledge it would be done beautifully. So when last year’s hop was over I phoned Jon with a proposal.

I am always on the look-out for grounds with floodlights that I can hold North Berkshire League games at, the league isn’t exactly blessed with them. A few years ago Shrivenham A used the MOD pitch, which was frustrating as enough hoppers won’t watch reserves to make giving them a game impossible. But a military team playing at a military base meant sense to me, and with Jon keen to host another game we decided to do it.

The MOD base at Shrivenham used to be RAF Watchfield, but now is a Defence Academy, serving all three services, and hosting over 40 nations. That means that the security was always likely to be tighter this time round, and with a team from another base proposing to play in front of then-unknown supporters Jon had to call in all sorts of favours to get permission to stage the game. He pulled off a minor miracle in doing so, and even then we had to negotiate to get those without photo ID on to the base.

The base asked for a manifest of all those coming, we provided one for the ticket holders, and there were others for league officials, including the referee, and there was a third for those attached to the two clubs. Anyone not on the list would gain entry only at the discretion of the guardroom; three tried, and three failed. One took the decision well and went home, one grumbled and waited until he convinced himself he wasn’t going to get in, and the third could easily have cost us the game.

This individual was turned away, but decided to jump into the passenger seat of another hopper’s car. He made it to pitchside and the first I got to hear about it was when midway through the first half when two policemen asked me where they could find Jon Radcliffe. What the hopper didn’t realise was that him catching a lift into the base had been caught on CCTV,  but there was a far scarier side to it all.

Let’s not forget this was an MOD base on a heightened state of security with an intruder. The policemen made it crystal clear that unless the intruder was identified quickly they would stop the game and ID check all present. That was straightforward with the manifests held, and just before half-time the intruder was ejected from the base. He was a lucky man, he was technically guilty of criminal trespass, and whilst he’ll never be allowed back on the base again, he could have been subject to far harsher sanctions.

The bigger worry for me is the long-term impact on groundhoppers in general. It is now possible that a group of organised football watchers will not now be allowed on to an MOD base. I have no plans at the moment to do anything like that, but I’d hate to be in the position to be disappointed through one man’s stupidity!

Thankfully it didn’t detract from a wonderful evening. The club were wonderful hosts and both catering and beers were delicious! We were royally entertained by the band of the 1244 Swindon Air Training Corps and I don’t think I’ll ever see the teams march to the pitch at a drum head! It was one of those special nights you thank your lucky stars you were there to witness, and I’m pleased that my elderly father, an RAF veteran was able to be there, and I’m grateful to Jon for sparing time on a busy night to spend time with him.

We were also proud to host the inaugural James Rennie Trophy game. James tragically died in May, and his family and friends donated a trophy in his memory. James loved the North Berkshire League so it was fitting that this game should be in his memory. I’m also thankful to Chris Garner for the wonderful piece in the programme about his friend, and to James’ two brothers for presenting the trophy, shared until next year. Given that Grove will host next year perhaps we could have a rematch?

It was a an evening when on regular occasions I found myself stood there trying to take it all in. I was pleased to see the Lions make a far better fist of the game than last year, but once again the club presented itself in the best possible light, and in my eyes Jon Radcliffe can do no wrong! I’d also like to thank the league, the base and Grove Rangers for without their cooperation this amazing, one-off event could not have taken place.

The next day I had a little time to consider what had happened, and how the clash with the Eastern Counties League affected us. Last year we averaged an attendance of 199, skewed by a lower than normal attendance at RAF Benson, and a higher than average one at Berinsfield. This time round we averaged 198, and I’ve no doubt the MOD base was why we didn’t hit 200! I know we lost hoppers to the East but their attendances deserve a little analysis too. Over their 6 previous games over 2 events their average gate was 199 too, but their average (over the 3 surviving games) dropped to 150.

Now I’m sure their clubs involved on Saturday would have welcomed the doubling (tripling?) of their normal attendances, but I do wonder whether if there had been no clash whether plenty who had gone to North Berks would have travelled east? The attendance figures would tend to suggest they might, although it is possible that local factors may have played a part.

We at GroundhopUK certainly over-estimated the impact of the ECL. Clearly there are some who will write-off the North Berks as “Fields” or “Park Pitch.” It is both of those, but we saw great loyalty from the vast majority of our regulars, and those of you who backed us, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. This is my local league, and I did not let them down. We managed to replace those who headed east with local support which speaks volumes for the clubs, and the villages they represent. I mentioned in the Abingdon Town report that the ECL have my contact details and although I don’t expect them to contact me, I am more than willing to listen if they do. I don’t know what their plans are after their spring event, but I will not deliberately schedule against them if they decide to organise further events.

It all means we can plan for the 2015 NBFL hop with confidence. The plan is to visit three of the four visiting clubs on this years hop, plus a game under lights. Provisionally speaking we’ll be at Grove, Ardington & Lockinge, East Hendred, and finish with Hagbourne United on Didcot Town’s number 2 pitch. It will be another joyous celebration of off-pyramid football, as we’ve come to expect from this league.

But if you’re the kind of person who feels they need a stand, even if its an Arena-type, or a rail, or a set of turnstiles, come and give the North Berkshire League a go. After all they changed at least one person’s mind,  and that was me, courtesy of a game at Blewbury around 10 years ago.