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Saturday 3rd August 2019

12.00 Central Midlands League Invitational Cup Final


RENISHAW RANGERS 3 (Manlove 4 75 Purcell 72)

Att 189

15.00 Central Midlands League Chairman’s Cup Final

PINXTON 5 (Smith 20 Green 32 33 87 Riley 57)


Att 269

Both games at Peel Croft, (Burton RUFC), Burton-on-Trent

Entry £5

Programme £2

Just occasionally the hopper fraternity gets an opportunity so good, you drop everything and go. Normally it takes the form of a one-off game at an iconic stadium that isn’t often used to football such as Llanelli playing at Stradey Park, the re-staging of the 1872 FA Cup Final at the Oval or Hull City playing a friendly at Hull Kingston Rovers’ Craven Park. Those were all mid-week fixures, and 2 were at rugby grounds, but this game was at a rugby ground, on a Saturday making it so much easier for people to get to, but Peel Croft’s history made this a must-visit.

These days when you think of Burton-on-Trent and football you tend to think of League 1 outfit Burton Albion and yes, some of the seats at Peel Croft do originate from Albion’s former home, Eton Park. But association football at Peel Croft dates all the way back to 1890.

The ground was built in 1872 as a home for Burton Rugby Union Club, but was bought by Burton Swifts in 1890 as the newly formed club entered The Combination, followed by The Alliance a year later. When The Alliance was subsumed into the Football League in 1892 Swifts became founder members of the Second Division. They found membership a struggle, never finishing better than sixth, and after finishing bottom in 1900-01 they opted to merge with Midland League neighbours Burton Wanderers to form Burton United, the new club playing at Peel Croft. Incidentally while Swifts were re-elected that year along with second-bottom Stockport County, third-bottom Walsall were voted out, not to return until 1921. They were replaced by Bristol City.

Burton United didn’t fare much better than their antecedents in Division Two. United never finished above 10th place or made it past the first round of the FA Cup in the 6 seasons as Football League members.  In the 1904–05 and 1905–06 seasons the club finished second-bottom, and in 1906–07 finished bottom. Unsurprisingly United failed to win re-election, losing their Football League place to Fulham. Burslem Port Vale resigned prior to the start of the 1907-08 season, United applied to take their place but the Football League gave their place to Oldham Athletic instead. It probably didn’t help that the main stand at Peel Croft had burned down during that last Football League season, the replacement you see now dates from 1908.

Burton United struggled on in the Birmingham & District League then briefly the Southern League before folding in 1910 ending football at Peel Croft, whose ownership reverted to the rugby club who still own the ground today.  A new club, Burton All Saints were formed in the 1920’s, who became Burton Town before folding in 1940 with their assets being used to form Burton Albion 10 years’ later.

So once Burton United had folded that was it for association rules football at Peel Croft save for one Bass Charity Vase final here in 1989 when Notts County beat Wolverhampton Wanderers 3-2.

And I’m sure Peel Croft would have gently carried on as a middle-ranking rugby venue had Burton Rugby Club had not required far more than just the one pitch. They are in the process of relocating to a new facility in Tatenhill; just the first XV remain at Peel Croft. They’ll move, probably at the end of the season, with the sale of Peel Croft financing the new clubhouse, with the site destined to be another retail park.

Now I’m sure Peel Croft would have staged it’s last game of football in 1989 but for two things. The first is the traditional raiser for the Central Midlands League is the President’s Charity Cup Final, competed for by that league’s two cup winners so see it as the CMFL’s version of the Community Shield. That game is usually played at Alfreton Town but there seemed little enthusiasm on either side’s part to host the game.

The second factor is that GroundhopUK owner Chris Berezai is fixture secretary for the CMFL, so when the question was posed “If not Alfreton, then where?” he saw the opportunity! In the end hiring Peel Croft was reasonably straightforward, and the Football Association were very kind in both lending and delivering a set of goalposts from nearby St George’s Park, but with the ground hired for a day, why not stage two games?

That became an even more persuasive idea when Dan Bishop was roped into help with the programme. Dan is one of the great characters of the East Midlands non-league football scene. He’s seen time on local newspapers when his by-line “Jones’ cross-cum-shot into the mouth of the box” was completely missed by the sub-editor until people started to phone the office to complain. He maintains his aim of completing the 92 Football League and Premier League clubs- by rejection letter; he applies for the team manager’s job whenever one becomes available.

These days he’s assistant manager and programme editor at Netherseal St Peters, who have moved from Sunday football into the Midland Regional Alliance for this season. His programme for this event was superb, and Dan being Dan he added his own touch. He commented, ” I know how much groundhoppers hate writing on their programmes so I decided to have a wordsearch” And what did he decide to make his wordsearch on? 20th century despots with the typeface in Comic Sans- I’ve annotated the photos in honour of Dan!

So with Netherseal on board and the league happy to supply a trophy the next part of the jigsaw was to find someone for them to play. Any groundhopper will remember Maesteg-based Sunday side Garth Vader and with GroundhopUK now sponsoring them is was an obvious move for them to come to England and play. The tie was set, but then new South Wales Alliance side Maesteg Park decided to play a friendly on this day. Sufficient Vader players also turn out for Maesteg so they had to pull out of the tie but a quick tweet saw them quickly replaced by Renishaw Rangers who like Netherseal are new to Saturday football for this season but have entered the CMFL.

Now on one level it was a shame we couldn’t have seen Rich and all at Vader, but I suspect that for many Netherseal vs Renishaw was a more attractive fixture. But with two fixtures and a venue in place it was a wonderful time to observe the phenomenon that is the groundhopper, and conduct a little experiment.

The experiment was over concessions. Remember this was not a GroundhopUK event, it was a charity day run by the CMFL. The league decided that the entry prices should be £5, with over-65’s at £3, and accompanied children free. GroundhopUK events haven’t offered a discount for OAP’s for many years, in our experience if the discount kicks in at over 65 then all of a sudden the older hoppers will suddenly become 65…

Now a few people have mentioned us reintroducing that concession; it certainly wouldn’t affect GroundhopUK’s profitability but it would affect any host club when people pay across the turnstile. So leaving aside the type of hopper who puts £50 of petrol in his car to travel to a game to complain about not getting a £2 discount I stood at the gate and within 5 minutes there was a hopper claiming to be 65. He got his discount and after the event I checked his Facebook page, he’s 63. He wasn’t the only one by a long shot, so the concessions issue was answered succinctly, and at a charity event too!

On a more general level one or two missed the point of it all completely. Here’s one comment,

“Is this going to be played within the laws of association football, or is a just a pointless meaningless friendly? Part of me would like to do the ground, but I could never bring myself to tick a ground for multi substitute joke of a game.”

In the end this chap opted not to come, but he and what for want of a better term, I’ll call the miserablists worried too much about the intricacies and failed to see the big picture- the final ever association rules games at a wonderful ground steeped in history. For the record both games were played with a maximum of 3 substitutions for each team. I inwardly grinned and explored the ground; there are some advantages to a spot of volunteering!

One unwilling benefit of having two games was that it allowed hoppers to complete several doubles that day. That was mainly if you headed off after the Netherseal game, but plenty managed to do a friendly in the Midland League and make the Pinxton game aferwards. Hopefully the extra game encouraged more people to attend in total.

The first game saw Renishaw take their time to get going but once they did, were worthy winners over Dan’s Netherseal team. At the end Dan’s message to his players was telling. “Lads we may have lost but at least now people know who we are.” Spot on Dan and I must come to Netherseal for a game. If nothing else in know the programme will be entertaining.

We grabbed a bite to eat between games, as a singer entertained the changing crowd. I’d been told Pinxton were hot favourites for the Chairman’s Final and I turned out to be well informed. While the quality of play unquestionably was higher in this game, it was far more one-sided and sadly for Bakewell the 5-1 scoreline was a fair reflection on the game.

When it was all over we were invited into the lounge bar for a buffet, it was good to chat with the Central Midlands folk, they are like so many committeemen at grassroots level wonderfully grounded people and it was a real shame when it was time to head for home.

I strolled round the deserted ground one final time and took a few final photos as the rain threatened. Peel Croft is a fantastic place, and it was wonderful to visit for the final ever association rules games here.