Friday 20th March 2015 ko 19.45
EAST KILBRIDE 1 (McLeish 64)
WHITEHILL WELFARE 0
In 1992 the Northern League’s Mike Amos invented the organised groundhop, a series of staggered kick-offs with transport between the fixtures. Phil Hiscox took the concept to the South-West and GroundhopUK’s Chris Berezai to Wales, but Scotland had never seen a groundhop. That wasn’t through lack of trying, we at GroundhopUK tried for the Highland League who told us variously that they didn’t need any extra crowds, and that we’ve never bring them, “More than 30 hoppers.” A region of the Juniors even told us we could hold a hop in their leagues but all the games would have to kick-off at 2.30 on a Saturday….
To be honest, we’d given up and when hoppers mentioned the idea we’d trot out one of the stories and shrug our shoulders. A shame, but that was life.
All that changed in May last year, I was watching Camelon Juniors when two Scots hoppers tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You do realise the Lowland League are interested in doing a hop?” They gave me a phone number, Jamie McQueen of Whitehill Welfare’s and when I spoke to him, the idea hadn’t even been mentioned!
However he took the idea to his chairman and then on to the League committee. Several meetings and two marathon driving stints for Chris Berezai later, and the concept and dates were agreed. The date wasn’t easy, the diary is congested, and the league wanted last week, which we turned down as it clashed with another league’s event. This week meant the Lowland League had to work with the East of Scotland FA to get their cup final moved, which they were able to do.
We needed a go-ahead league and perhaps a league in its second season was a marriage made in heaven for both sides. They needed a way of boosting interest, and the financial boost a groundhop should bring, and for us a new league and the chance to prove the doubters at the more established leagues wrong!
With the majority of our customers in England and Wales we decided to move away from our normal modus operandi of running coaches from the hop hotel/HQ and run one from London travelling up via the M1 with the other from Cardiff on the M4/5/6. It was gratifying to see the pick-up points reduce in the days prior to Friday as the hoppers found ways to make our drivers task that little bit easier. We were pushing their hours to the limit so the thought was appreciated.
Unquestionably this was the hop that had caught the imagination like no other I’d been involved in. Social media positively buzzed in anticipation, and even our loudest critic decided to attend 4 of the games. He may criticise, but his attendance proves that Chris and I must be doing something right!
But as the coaches crossed the border at Gretna Green (no marriage proposals on either coach to report) I did wonder how the weekend would fare. I knew the clubs were energised but this was a new league in new country. The first club had created a few issues that we’d had to work with to give the club a fighting chance of coping with a larger than average crowd.
East Kilbride were formed in May 2010, a merger of Stewartfield and Jackton Boys Club. The club was baby of local men James Kean and Iain King, who had supported the town’s East Kilbride Thistle in the Junior ranks, and thwarted in attempts to get them to go senior decided to turn their attention to creating an entirely new club.
They play at the K-Park Training Academy in the Calderglen Country Park, the ground has one viewable side, with a capacity of 498, due mainly to licensing regulations. That meant we had to make the game all-ticket, as we wanted to make sure no-one got turned away, and both sides could get their supporters in to the game. After all, the clubs’ supporters will return, the hoppers will not.
The other issue was with so little space was how the club were going to earn money outwith gate receipts. There was a small tea hut inside the ground, but the rest of the catering and merchandise was outside the viewing area. The club laid on an excellent buffet for a bargain £7, we advertised it on the coaches but I do wonder how many made it over to the clubhouse despite the map on the back of the flyers we handed out. Other than that the burger van looked overpriced and under-used as a result but the crowd at least put a smile on everyone’s faces.
The pipers and dancing-girls were a lovely touch and the place crackled with anticipation as people stood, stared and in their own ways digested what many thought they’d never see.
We counted the attendance on two clickers without looking at the displays until we’d finished, so the fact that we were just 7 off capacity was a wonderful coincidence I promise. It felt full, although the process of distributing 180 programme packs to the hoppers may have had something to do with it. I grabbed a mug of tea with Jamie at half-time and watched Craig McLeish’s solitary goal win the tie for East Kilbride and the title for Edinburgh City in the second half.
All too soon it was all over, I thanked the clubs for their efforts, and after an exhausted Phil used the last of his driver’s hours to get my coach to our hotel, sat on my own with an overpriced pint to contemplate the little slice of groundhopping history we’d collectively created. Now the baby’s been born, I wonder how it will grow?