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Sunday 10th March 2019 ko 11.00

North West Counties League Division One South

RYLANDS 3 (Boothman 5 45 White 86)

CHEADLE HEATH NOMADS 5 (Green 10 27p Herbert 36 Harrison 68 Simpson 71)

Att 319

Entry £4

Programme £2

The final day of the hop was defined by the weather from start to finish. From the moment I glanced through the curtains at the Holiday Inn in Warrington to the moment I did the final drop-offs at Crewe station I wondered whether I’d be rained, sleeted or hailed on. At times it felt like all three simultaneously! It was one of those days where on arrival at the ground, the coach party takes it’s time to get off… why be in a rush to get cold and wet?

The journey from the hotel wasn’t far enough to give the cold rain a chance to abate so once the hoppers had been coaxed from our coach we fairly dashed into the sports and social club. Rylands take their name from Peter Rylands, wire manufacturer and MP in Warrington in the second-half of the 19th century.

Rylands Recreation Club were formed as a works team in 1911 and after a history in the Warrington, Liverpool County Combination and Mid-Cheshire Leagues took the step up to the North West Counties League for this season. That decision is, I’m sure in no small part to the takeover over the club and Gorsey Lane facility by Warrington-born football super-agent Paul Stretford. He is probably best known for negotiating Wayne Rooney’s transfer from Everton to Manchester United in 2004. Stretford played for Rylands in his youth.

Stretford’s wealth has certainly created a ground fit for the NWCFL even if getting permission for the floodlights, and getting them installed did prove to be something of an adventure! The sheltered accomodation behind the goal apparently weren’t, and aren’t happy! And while I’m sure his investment will, I’m sure be extended to the rugby, cricket and social club side of things the social club is a classic example of a works sports and social club, just on a larger scale than just about anywhere else I’ve been to. At times it all reminded me of the facilities at Kirklands, home to Cammell Laird.

The club was a darned good place for most of us to shelter before the game, but then my mobile went off. It was Chris Berezai so I side-stepped the gateman sweeping the water from the tarmac in front of the turnstiles and made for the ground. The issue was simple; he’d received a text from Irlam our final game to say the pitch there was waterlogged and so the game was off. We phoned Irlam, checked, and unfortunately the club deemed play to be impossible.

Now I’ll leave the mechanics of how the game was postponed to the league and the playability (or otherwise) of the pitch to people who actually saw the pitch- I did not but to all those who offered their opinions I’d find it hard to believe that any club would call a game off knowing a crowd of 300 was heading their way.

I’m bound to say though that if we had to lose a game, then the final one was the least worst option for us. I gathered the coach party together and Chris passed on the bad news. At that point we did have Northwich Victoria as a potential Plan B, but once that fell just before the final whistle here it was a simple enough task to have everyone heading for home a couple of hours earlier. When it was all over it was straightforward for Chris to refund the ticket holders, or give a credit, handy with the Scottish hop in  3 weeks.

But meanwhile Rylands were very quietly being excellent hosts. It’s not easy serving food in a gale, but somehow the club’s volunteers managed it, and they were rewarded with the rain/snow/sleet relenting just long enough to get the game played. The game will no doubt be seen as the biggest surprise of the weekend, I’ve little doubt that Rylands are going places, but Cheadle Heath adapted their game far better to the difficult conditions.

It was an excellent game to watch, and will fit neatly into the category of hop games such as Pencader and St Dennis that were excellent to watch despite being in dreadful conditions.

Once it was known that this game was to be the hop’s finale it seemed to me that everyone adapted quickly to the reality of the situation. It was lovely to finally be able to spend some time with Gary and Ian from the league and talk football. The Irlam postponement excepted, this was a highly successful hop; any league or organiser would be happy with an average attendance of 364!

I travelled back to Ellesmere with the coach, completing the final drop offs at Crewe station on the way. Eventually I found myself driving along the M54, unusually for me with no music or news on; it was time for reflection.

The North West Counties League has come round to the idea of an organised hop comparatively late, to the east the Northern League’s Mike Amos invented the concept back in 1992. Perhaps that’s been an advantage, they’ve been able to learn from all that’s gone before, but the build up to this hop was as difficult as any I’ve been involved in.

It was important that those of us who are behind this hop spoke at this game and afterwards too. So I’m pleased to have had to completely rewrite the end of this article. The league’s management committee met last week, and the upshot of it all that next March will see the third GroundhopUK North West Counties League Groundhop. I’ve already updated the GroundhopUK website with provisional details.

On so many levels I’m so pleased. I’d clicked through the turnstiles at Barnton imaging that and the following game as a coda to our involvement. But as Chris and I worked our way through the weekend we were lifted by every single volunteer at every single club we visited. Perhaps the doubters on the league’s committee felt the same way, I hope they did. Or putting it another way, how could we let this all slip away?

Because if this group of 6 games proved one thing it was that this is a league that does community very very well and GroundhopUK love helping host clubs redouble their community involvement, and from our perspective a well-established 3 division Step 5/6 league is manna from heaven for us. And boy am I looking forward to doing it all again next March!