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Friday 8th March 2019 ko 19.45

North West Counties League- Division One South

BARNTON 0 Cobley sent off FT (foul/abusive)

VAUXHALL MOTORS 2 (Webb 35p Hassall 70)

Att 272

Entry £5

Programme £1

I’d met the coach we at GroundhopUK were using at Ellesmere, in Shropshire, and from there we headed north to pick up a cohort of groundhoppers at Crewe station. It gave me rare time to think as Paul picked his way through a series of leafy Cheshire villages. The first North-West Counties League Hop was 6 games over the last 2 days of the 2017 Easter Hop but its roots lie in a phone conversation I’d had with then Atherton Collieries’ programme editor Joe Gibbons in 2013 that lead to the hop party diverting there when a game at AFC Emley on the Northern Counties East Hop had been postponed due to drifting snow.

That bit of co-operation had led to a proposal by Colls to make a NWCFL Hop happen. That got flatly refused by the league’s committee and it was only the appointment of Gary Langley as League Development Officer that saw minds changed and the event agreed for 2 years ago. GroundhopUK ran it, we were happy, so were the clubs and with an average attendance of 330 across the six games we couldn’t see it any other way than as a massive success.

With the Easter Hop currently being shared between ourselves and Phil Hiscox at the South-West Peninsula League we put the NWCFL Hop in abeyance for a season, and got thoroughly soaked in the South-West last year! It wasn’t great that a successful hop couldn’t run in consecutive  years, but together with August Bank Holiday, Easter is the most coveted slot for a hop so perhaps the wait was worth it!

So we were surprised when Gary emailed us to say that the management committee had decided they didn’t want the Easter slot citing an unwillingness to play on either Good Friday or Easter Sunday. If it had just been Easter Sunday I’ve little doubt that we’d have run with the Thursday/Friday/ Saturday format similar to that Phil uses. But with Good Friday not being available we had to change dates.

It goes without saying that the Hellenic League positively jumped at the chance to host at Easter, so in the end it was an easy task to swap the events around. The league scheduled the fixtures, but then something odd happened.

It was almost is if some parts of the committee didn’t realise we’d already run a North-West Counties Hop. At time it felt as if we were pitching the concept to a new and entirely skeptical committee. Poor Gary ended up in the middle of an exchange of emails questioning facet after facet of how the event was going to run, to the point that I wondered whether this hop would take place.

In the end both Chris Berezai and I were pleased to see this event actually take place- the clubs and hoppers deserved no less- but it left me wondering whether this hop would be the finale of hops within the league. There seemed to be a disconnect between the clubs, Gary and ourselves on one side, and parts of the committee on the other. Gary and the clubs were happy, but it was clear that despite the success of Easter 2017, there were people on committee who didn’t like the idea of a hop one bit.

In fact it all got a lot easier when we finally got to work with the clubs directly. Nevertheless the fact that even though ticket sales were excellent, and the coach and hotel sold out, Gary spent the weekend checking off how many times we set a new ground attendance record. Was it 4 times Gary? It was obvious that we were having to convince persons unseen all over again, but why? The phrase “They’re coming round to the idea,” was used on quite a few occasions!

I completed that Crewe pickup, the coach travelled to the hop hotel in Warrington to pick up those who travelled up by car, and then headed for Barnton. If this was to be the final North West Counties Hop then Chris and I were determined to make it a memorable one.

Barnton certainly managed that even if I’m fairly certain that the 200-or-so extra on the gate did cause something of a stir in the village. It was one of those evenings where if you wanted to find the ground you simply aimed for where the traffic was.

Barnton’s team of volunteers were a credit to both themselves and their club. They were clearly at the absolute limit of what they could do due to the crowd, but still every time a queue formed, it quickly was served and dissipated. Even with the benefit of hindsight I still don’t know how the ladies in the cafe managed to shift pie and chips and cups of tea at that bewildering rate. On a more general level this was a well-presented hop game and Barnton should look back on what happened with a good deal of satisfaction- they gave the hop an excellent start.

I’d last watched Vauxhall Motors 5 years ago just after they’d resigned from the Conference North, destined for a voluntary 5 division relegation to the West Cheshire League. It felt at the time that it was like using a sledgehammer to crack the egg that was the club’s finances so it was good seeing them back in pyramid football.

On a wet pitch on an evening punctuated by sharp showers they were good value for their win. Motors were able to move the ball more effectively and quicker than their hosts, and such were Barnton’s frustrations that Jordan Cobley saw red after the final whistle for a volley of verbals aimed at the referee.

I’ve been involved in the organisation of enough of these events to understand the barometer that is the coach party. It didn’t take long for the journey back to Warrington but the hubbub behind me told me all I needed to know. I did wonder whether any of the league committeemen had also picked up on that feeling?