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Friday 24th March 2017 ko 19.45

Lowland League

PRESTON ATHLETIC 0 Cowan sent off (DOGSO) 53


Att 263

Entry £5

Programme £2

If there was ever a game I wanted to take place it was this one. On last year’s Scottish Hop Preston had seen their game called off late in the day due to a supposedly waterlogged pitch. My abiding memory of the piece was the gap in the car park where once the referee’s car once stood, he’d made a sharp exit, and club secretary Lesley Birrell in tears. We eventually ran the coaches to Civil Service Strollers (We’re still waiting for the programmes from them!) but that was no consolation to the Prestonpans club.

A very pleasant surprise was the goodwill the whole sorry episode created. Many hoppers offered to donate their refund from the advance tickets back to Preston, and the club donated their prepared food to local charities and the nearby British Legion enjoyed the hot pies! And while I hope this never happens again, at least some good came out of it all. But for Chris Berezai and I at GroundhopUK the circle could only really be squared by Preston Athletic featuring on our next jaunt north of the border.

In one sense that made things easier, with us taking in games in the East of Scotland League for the first time, visiting wouldn’t take us out of that league’s footprint. It did mean though that we’d have to leave our base of the last two years in East Kilbride. We needed a hotel that could cope with both a coach and its party, and staying in Edinburgh made sense. That sadly meant hotel prices went up and I quote what the hotels all said, “You’re not in East Kilbride now…..” I guess staying 200 yards from the Royal Yacht Britannia comes at a premium!

We put Preston first up, mainly because it would be easy to run the coaches there after crossing the border at Gretna, and kept a watching brief on the weather! Like, I’m sure many others we saw the games at Pennypit postponed and at one point I was even sent a link to a picture purportedly showing the state the pitch was in. Turns out it wasn’t taken in 2017… Some people eh?

But on Friday 24th March the biggest issue was fairly predictable, the M6 misbehaved. I’d checked people on to our coach at Hillingdon then drove behind it to Birmingham for our next pick-up where Chris would take on courier duties. 4 of us then headed north with me driving, the idea being for us to reach Prestonpans earlier enough to make up the programme packs in plenty of time for the coach’s arrival.

You factor in fail-safes for journeys like these, so the M6 being shut at Stoke wasn’t disasterous, we just got to see a little more of Staffordshire than we’d planned. Onward I drove, but just north of the Manchester there was a juggernaught on the hard shoulder with the remains of its tyre in the centre lane. I swerved to avoid it, someone behind me clearly didn’t, and an hour later the coach got caught up in the traffic jam it caused.

In a sense even that didn’t matter, my party reached Pennypit at 5.10 and the coach two hours later. The game was put back 15 minutes as a precaution, which I’d like to think helped the club sell more food and drink, even if in the final analysis the extra minutes probably weren’t needed. What it did for me though was give me more time to consider my surroundings better.

There are two grounds at Pennypit. The football moved to it’s current home from what’s now the rugby ground in 1984 when the local authority rebuilt the whole facility. Now I’m told the stand on the rugby side is bigger, but save for a rail and the posts they look pretty much identical!

Last year Preston were due to play Threave in that club’s relegation season, but this time round it’s Preston that are in trouble. You know there’s problems when club officials can give you chapter and verse on what permutations would keep them in the Lowland League, but none of those actually involve anything taking place on the pitch. Their hopes appear to involve no Lowland club being relegated from the SPFL and the champions of both the East and South of Scotland League refusing promotion. Even if the team haven’t performed this season, behind the scenes, and the facilities point to a successful Lowland League club.

And despite the vast majority of the crowd quietly hoping for a Preston win, Cumbernauld were just that little bit sharper where it mattered. Perhaps Preston expected this latest reverse, but I hope the financial rewards softened the blow a little. For me, pondering the evening as I drove the advance party to overnight at Leith, I realised that this was where the club ceased to be a victim of circumstance. For GroundhopUK it was a wonderful club to start the hop with.