Friday 19th April 2019
12.00 Hellenic League Premier Division
LONGLEVENS 2 (Welch 59 Malshanskij 62)
READING CITY 1 (Darboe 14)
15.30 Hellenic League Premier Division
LYDNEY TOWN 2 (Thompson 59p Halford 83)
19.00 Hellenic League Division One West
NEWENT TOWN 0
CHELTENHAM SARACENS 1 (Barnard 54)
Looking at it selfishly, the Easter Hop moving from the North West Counties League to the Hellenic was a neat way of me swapping a probable 11 new ticks from 13 games to 11 re-visits. The Hellenic hinterland is my stamping ground, and so many of these clubs I know reasonably well, so for this weekend the pleasure was in the catching up rather than the process of accumulation. Look out for the click-throughs for the grounds as they were when I first visited them. In some cases the changes are remarkable.
Robyn and I sat in the conservatory at the Almondsbury Interchange Hotel enjoying both the full English breakfast (free to those booking with GroundhopUK) and the sense of anticipation amongst the coach party. I’ll admit to a couple of concerns I’d had at the time. Some groundhoppers tend not to understand a club’s needs and vice versa, and the whole concept of an organised hop is based around both parties compromising.
The difficulty of this Easter mega-hop was that it was unrealistic of us to schedule more than 3 games in a day, 13 games in total over the weekend was enough- more would have been overkill, but it did leave the middle games on both Saturday and Monday rather exposed to hoppers drifting away to other games. There was nothing I could or wanted to do about it, but to hear one or two hoppers’ bleats about the weekend you’d wonder whether they wanted the schedule set purely for their own needs.
The compromise asks to clubs play at odd times and provide services far above their normal offering in order to attract hoppers so my heart sinks a little when you see some of those hoppers who refuse to compromise and help the host clubs in even the most basic of ways. That includes something as simple such as buying an advance ticket so those clubs at least know roughly how many people they should expect to arrive and so can plan accordingly.
Of course you know who the first people are to complain when the programmes or the food have sold out! The trick when you’re scanning social media in all its various forms is to ask yourself has that complainant done anything to help fulfil their side of that compromise? Of course the adage about empty vessels also holds true here as well as elsewhere!
Still, healthy ticket sales meant those types were thankfully in a small minority, which gave Robyn, Chris and I more work lifting boxes and boxes of programme packs over to the coach. Perhaps that should be the new GroundhopUK advertising strapline, “Want Laurence to lose weight? Buy a ticket and programme pack from GroundhopUK.”
I’d visited Gloucester-based Longlevens in 2013, near the end of their stint in the Gloucestershire County League. Then as now the footprint of Saw Mill End is tiny, just the one corner having room for any more than a footpath and not much else. If you stand at the near end the pitch almost looks like the Ibis hotel’s back garden, which was oddly appropriate, visitors Reading City used to be Highmoor/Ibis and have settled at Scours Lane former home of the now defunct Reading Town, and adjacent to the Ibis Club, the spiritual home of the club.
Here they got caught up in the jam caused by a pile-up on the M4. It was no issue to delay kick-off by 15 minutes and it gave Longlevens the chance to sell more food, although I’m not sure a burger van was the right choice on a blazingly hot day. The merchandise sold well and the visitors book was a lovely touch! The game looked like being a straight shoot-out for Premier Division survival, neither side could have known that the loser would end up being reprieved! That turned out to be Reading who lost a two goal lead in an unsurprisingly tense game.
Our second destination was a revisit, not only for me but oddly for GroundhopUK too. We’d visited Lydney back in August 2008 when the weather was altogether different. We arrived after an overnight deluge and found the pitch underwater! Many hoppers helped swab the sodden turf and League CEO Brian King leaned on the referee to a point where the game did start, but the tidal wave when a player slide tackled and the antics of the visiting Hardwicke manager saw the game abandoned after half an hour. Here’s Peter Leavis’s iconic footage!
The ground has changed massively over the last 11 years. It’s now floodlit, enclosed and stands installed making it easily compliant with Step 5 football. We walked in and it was quite clear that the club had attracted a large local following and that the sausage casserole was delicious!
Visitors Windsor had also brought a following with them and featured Fulham and Bristol Rovers legend Barry Hayles aged 47 but still banging in goals for fun. Except on this occasion he didn’t see enough of the ball to make enough of an impact. For the first half the game seemed bogged down, and the whole thing only really burst into life with Thompson’s penalty. A goalkeeping howler served to double Lydney’s winning margin.
I have to say I enjoyed Lydney’s company, and whilst in no way shape or form was this a new ground from the one we visited previously the improvements made it feel like one. Thinking about it, it felt that way about Newent too.
Given it was my third revisit of the day I was really looking forward to seeing Newent Town again. I’d visited back in 2014 and remembered Wildsmith Meadow as being charming and rather better than what I’d been used to seeing in the Gloucestershire Northern Senior League Division 2. That of course is a long way from being suitable for 3 divisions higher in the Hellenic Division One West! League CEO Brian King put it rather neatly.
“We told them what they needed to do fulfil the grading, and they did it both ahead of time and ahead of standards”
The transformation is remarkable and it did give the club a story to tell. When the workmen turned up to erect the floodlights they tutted at the distance from the cables in the road to the pitch. Newent’s officials had to gently point out the sub-station behind the stand that they hadn’t noticed…..
There was a link back to the days of the North Berkshire Hop in the form of referee Darren Hill. You may remember the “Owl” game at East Hendred where Darren officiated; he’s been promoted since, and will no doubt aim to follow in the footsteps of Graham Scott now refereeing in the Premier League.
At times it felt like Newent were a little swamped by the huge crowd, but then it was no bad thing that just about everything sold out. A GroundhopUK policy is not to have small clubs spend any more than is necessary on staging a one-off game, and that goes double for time-dependant items such as programmes. On the field Darren had an excellent game as Saracens managed to maintain their promotion push with this hard-fought win.
I was a fine finale to a fine day’s groundhopping, and as the coach pulled into the car park back at the Interchange Hotel, I allowed myself a little anticipation- as tomorrow’s games had the potential to be rather memorable. For once I proved to the absolutely correct.