Monday 16th May 2016 ko 19.00
North Berkshire League Division One
ABINGDON TOWN 3 (Davis 17 50 Pinkerton 90p)
KINTBURY RANGERS 3 (Allsopp 43 Collins 52 Mahoney 65)
Some time ago I told the sad story of Mile Oak Rovers & Youth and how I came to witness their final ever game. Now this tale does have the distinction of me not knowing for certain that this was to be this club’s last game, but I do remember the nagging doubt. The biggest difference here is though is Abingdon Town’s long and illustrious history.
The club were formed in 1870, which depending on who you count, made them the 10th oldest football club in the world, and certainly the oldest in Oxfordshire. They worked their up through the North Berkshire League, the Reading League, then up through the Hellenic League then into the Isthmian League. Their Culham Road ground was bought from Mrs G.Herbert Morrell scion of the Oxford brewing family for £300 in 1930 and the ground was improved to keep pace with the club’s rise in status.
The club’s halcyon days were the late 80’s and early 90’s when playing in the Isthmian League Division One the club were a mere two promotions from the Football League. I remember seeing them in 1994 when FIFA used the Isthmian League to experiment with kick-ins instead of throw-ins. The little ground was buzzing despite the Christmas cold and a 3-0 defeat to Berkhamsted. That season Town finished 11th, with future Football League club Aldershot Town finished 4th missing promotion, but trouble was on the horizon .
The issue was, and is the ground. It’s close to the Thames, with just a cricket ground between it and the water, it floods regularly. Money is always tight in non-league but Town’s cause was being made impossible when the club was forced almost every season to go without income for weeks at a time. Preliminary talks with cross-town rivals Abingdon United came to nothing; that wasn’t surprising, the two clubs never did get on, but gradually the pressure increased over the bridge.
The club returned to the Hellenic League in 2005, but the drop in standard didn’t seem to do much good. A series of low finishes from 2005 to 2014 saw the club opt to bypass the Hellenic’s lower division and re-enter the North Berkshire League for the first time since 1939.
Now as a committeeman for the NBFL I will happily admit to being biased in favour of the NBFL. The league has been very kind to me, and I hope I’ve been good for them! But when we gave Abingdon Town a game as a precursor to the North Berks Hop in 2014 as a fundraiser I remained sad that a grand old club like this had been reduced to this. I remember the night for many reasons but the main one was that the 192 people that turned out proved that there was still an appetite for football “Over the bridge.”
It was sadly a false dawn, even if on the field Town were competitive. They very nearly folded at the end of last season, but decided to battle on. But as this season the rumours started circulating. Firstly it was that Town would return to the Hellenic; the North Berks is off-pyramid so the Hellenic would be quite within their rights to cherry-pick them. That feeling looked reinforced when Town failed to send back their forms to carry on in the NBFL by the proscribed deadline.
Now there’s nothing especially unusual about that, most lower-level leagues are reasonably flexible over it, but when the Hellenic League commented they’d had no entry from the club either the alarm bells began to ring.
Even without that going on in the background this game was unusual. Normally the North Berkshire finishes with the Cup Final at Abingdon United’s Northcourt Road, but with Town having seen the usual multiplicity of postponements to flooding this game was outstanding.
On one hand the game didn’t matter too much. Town were destined to finish 9th but Kintbury had regained the championship so there was the imperative to present them the trophy at the end of a game. You could easily say I was there to take the pictures, and help end off another successful North Berkshire League season.
It was a cracking game too, good honest footballers playing out an excellent draw. The trophy was presented, we all said our goodbyes and assumed we’d all repeat the exercise next season.
But then the news came through that Town hadn’t reaffiliated to the Berks & Bucks FA giving them still fewer options. Over the next days and weeks all the local leagues held their AGM’s including the North Berks, and I’m sure many of us local football fans looked out for Abingdon Town. It was, crushingly, in vain and with just the Witney & District to go Town look to have finally succumbed to a mixture of flooding, bad luck, and in the end- apathy. It was rumoured that the club’s end-of-season celebration saw only 7 turn up.
But with the pre-season friendlies starting there still isn’t a definitive word from the club as to their plans, if any. Chairman Tom Larman seems to be beyond comment, and the question now seems to be if not Tom, and he put more into keeping the club alive than could be expected of anyone, then who will take Abingdon Town on? The problem now is that the club have now moved from a position where they had options to a position now where they have none. The noose has tightened without, it seems, any attempt wriggle free of it.
I’d hate to see the club die, even if there’s no signs of life as I write, the best that can be hoped for is a stint in Sunday football, with a return to the Saturday game next season. Then there’s the vexed question of the ground. Despite all that’s happened as far as I’m concerned it’s still the best non-league ground in Oxfordshire. But is there a club that could use it as a means of progressing to the Hellenic Division One? The North Berks doesn’t lack sides that that have the playing strength, but don’t have the facilities. The greater worry is that if no football is played, then the ground will be lost for housing. You could argue that the flooding issue is the main reason Culham Road still exists.
But that assumes that Abingdon Town have died. Even with no league and no affiliation there is still a club assuming Tom Larman wants there to be one, and as long as the lease is still held by someone who wants to play football then there’s hope. And where there’s hope, there’s life.