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Saturday 16th September 2017 ko 16.15

North Berkshire League Division One/ James Rennie Trophy

WESTMINSTER 5 (Connolly 18og Younie 26 72 75 78) Hughes missed pen 5 Hickey sent off 65 (Serious Foul Play)

NORTH OXFORD 1 (Hamis 19) Ward sent off 88 (2nd booking)

Att 108 at Appleton Sportsfield

Entry by programme £4

In planning this event I’d come close to drawing a blank with where to head for our last game. An option was Ardington & Lockinge but I want the hop to visit there next season, and another was Hagbourne United but the Parish Council’s habit of booking out their clubhouse at short notice causing late postponements made that a non-starter. The answer came when I was doing a spot of stadium announcing for the NBFL’s War Memorial Cup Final, and Westminster were one of the finalists.

The club was started as a means of friends graduating university to continue playing football together. They hired a pitch at Westminster College in the Botley district of Oxford and simply “Borrowed” the name! They were the opposition to Benson Lions back in 2013 and since that had involved the inconvenience of both an early start and the security check at the RAF base I offered them the chance to host next time round.

They turned it down, and even then I could see why. The pitch at Westminster College was extremely open, and so taking a gate and providing catering would have been difficult. But a couple of years ago, the club moved at a ground formally used by a team with cult status amongst groundhoppers- the Appleton Stars.

We wished upon the Stars on the 2012 hop where the charming but perennially unsuccessful Appleton lost 12-0 at Uffington United . I’d offered the club the chance to host but by then they’d moved into a groundshare at Hanney United and were unwilling to play even one game back at Appleton due to a dispute over rent with the local authorities. Sadly the Stars folded in 2014 but the rump of the club play on as Hanney 66 FC, still sharing at Hanney United.

Again I know some hoppers misjudged why I wanted to take the hop here. My reason was simple; this is Westminster’s home ground, and with far better facilities than back at Botley they were keen and able to host. On a personal level, I was eager to see how the place had changed in the 7 years since my visit a visit where I, and many of the then committee thrashed out how we’d make the very first NBFL hop work.

The answer was that very little had changed, and with a dairy farm on one side, and a sewage farm on the other the smells do seem to compete with each other. Perhaps it was no bad thing that the rains came.

Now as organiser your task is to offer the opportunity and provide guidance. Everything else is down to the club. Some ask loads of questions, some prefer to simply get on with the job, and it’s fair to say that Westminster simply read and acted on the GroundhopUK briefing notes and my sole input was to answer the odd email. In the end I drove my minibus down the lane to the ground and let the club to their thing, which turned out to be rather good!

In fact the only issue they seemed to have was North Oxford’s late arrival which made putting together the line-ups board awkward as quite rightly getting the correct information to referee Coby Woodley was far more of a priority. I did allow myself a smile when one of our linesmen joked we should have told them the game was a 3pm kickoff! It would, on reflection, have probably worked!

But as with all things having the time to iron out the gremlins we were able to do so, and I was impressed at how the club had taken my guidelines and adapted them to work with what was there. They even managed to find me a table to place the James Rennie trophy on, at pitchside.

The Rennie trophy is our way of remembering James, a popular hopper who died in 2014. He loved grassroots football and his great friend Chris Garner bought the trophy and each year has provided a piece for the matchday programme. This was also the fourth occasion that Paul and Simon, James’ brothers have been with us to present the cup.

There has been one issue though, the cup has been competed for 3 times and 3 draws has seen the cup shared each time. Thankfully this time the cup never looked likely to be shared for a fourth time. Despite missing an early penalty Westminster looked the stronger of the two sides with their opponents looking as ill-at-ease on the pitch as they had been off of it. They began to rack up the bookings and the only real surprise was that the first red card was issued to a Westminster player, Hickey seeing red for a headbutt, before North Oxford’s Ward saw red late on.

But this was Andy Younie’s evening. I remember him playing for Oxford United’s youth team and thinking he was unlucky to be released. Whilst it’s fair to say North Oxford collapsed after his second goal, his four-goal blast was clinical to put it mildly. So finally the James Rennie Trophy finally got a outright winner, and thanks go to both sets of players for waiting in the rain for the presentation. The deluge did excuse me from having to make a long speech!

This was easily the most difficult North Berks Hop of the 7 to organise but there are so many people to thank for making the Hummingbird Hop fly once again. The League are as always uncredibly supportive of what I’ve trying to do here, and particular thanks should go to Duncan Francis for running the line in all 3 games. Thanks too, to all at our host and visiting clubs, you’ve helped show the hopping world the very best of down-to-earth grassroots football.

My thanks to Bedfordshire Hop organiser Craig Dabbs for driving one of our minibuses. He knows what it takes to make a hop like this work, and finally thanks to everyone who attended, played, officiated, or volunteered.

So where will we head next? I reckon we’ve got 2, maybe 3 years left in the NBFL assuming we don’t see a massive influx of clubs. I want to return to attracting more locals to these games, the financial boost a big attendance gives is important but a hopper seldom returns, but a local may well do.

A sadness of this hop was that all 3 attendances consisted almost exclusively of hoppers. Legacy is important, and I’m not convinced playing a game at an unusual venue is worth the effort unless the resultant crowd is likely to be huge. All three clubs did well and made a significant financial gain but there’s more to a groundhop than just money.

My idea for next year at present, would be visits to Lambourn, Ardington & Lockinge, and Saxton Rovers. I know the Hellenic League want to resume their hops so it may well be that we could do a hybrid hop along the lines of the United Counties/ Peterborough & District League Hop. That format has worked well, boosting attendances in both leagues. Discussions continue, but I’d observe that if it were to come to pass, the Hellenic clubs will have a hard time putting on the show the North Berks clubs have done over the last 7 hops!