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Friday 13th September 2019 ko 19.30

Witney & District League- Division Two

HOOK NORTON 5 (Street 11 Ingham 28 Babbage 34 Hemmings 37 Mair 65)


Att 142

Entry & Programme £4

When the North Berkshire League Hop finished two years ago, I was in no doubt where I wanted to head next. Other than wanting to take the hop to Watlington Town the one remaining North Berks club that hadn’t hosted (but were willing and able to) it had been clear for many years that the North Berks slot was the Witney & District League’s to turn down.

It all started with a chance meeting with the league’s Ralph Davies whilst watching Brize Norton and then John Smyth at Wootton Sports. It was never anything as strong as a promise, but every time I encountered the league I was impressed and hopefully they felt the same way as me. It was a question of when the North Berks Hop reached a natural conclusion then I’d ask the Witney League.

And so it came to pass; the North Berks Hop finished its 7 year run perhaps a year earlier than I wanted, but as one door shuts another opens. Soon enough Robyn and I found ourselves at the West Witney Sports Ground (a former Hellenic League venue) home to the now defunct West Witney FC for a presentation to the league. I’ve done enough of these presentations to be able to predict the vast majority of the questions I’m going to be asked, but being asked when I was going to fit Bourton Rovers (reserves) in was slightly awkward. How was I supposed to tell Diddle Keen at Bourton they were going to be on the Hellenic Hop when we’d only got an outline agreement with Brian King at that stage?

I thought I’d done a thoroughly lousy job, John Smyth thought the exact opposite, and Bourton Rovers ended up giving their league-mates an wonderful steer on how to be great hosts last Easter. History will record the clubs agreed to a hop, and after that it was a question of firstly finding host clubs, then the more difficult task of finding opponents for those clubs. The North Berks Hop had given me a blueprint on what works and doesn’t work on an off-pyramid hop and I used that when we did our host clubs’ meeting, but you could say the theme I preached was home-made cake and real ale. The clubs took that advice and more than ran with it!

On the Thursday before the event I returned to West Witney to collect the programmes from our 4 host clubs for the programme packs. It spoke volumes that I was roughly one minute late but still was last there, and the programmes were exceptional. I walked back to the car knowing I’d got great hosts, but I was worried for Hook Norton.

I’d posed a question to myself very early on in the process and that was whether I wanted a Friday night precursor game. We’d done them during the North Berks hops with attendances around the 100-to 150 mark and since Hook Norton had been incredibly supportive for what I was trying to achieve I wanted them involved. The question was what could be achieved?

From a groundhopper’s perspective The Bourne had been visited on the Hellenic Hop in 2004, and had recent history in the Hellenic until the club abruptly folded a couple of years ago. A new Hook Norton club went into the bottom division of the Witney and District League for last season and promptly gained promotion. But with no end of opportunities for folks to have seen a game under lights here I had to be realistic as to what Hooky should expect. In Wales a steady succession of hoppers very quietly asked me the same question. “Were Hook Norton still on the same pitch?” Knowing that I had to be completely up-front as to what sort of an attendance we were likely to see.

I took the lowest figure for I’d seen for a North Berks precursor game, 99 at Uffington United in 2016 as guide and scaled it back to 70 when ticket sales confirmed my worries. But I’d failed to take any account that the Hook Norton of here and now is a very different entity to the Hook Norton of old.

The first difference is that the new club is very much backed by the local Hook Norton Brewery, allowing the club to plan with far more financial security than in the past. Here it meant there was a barrel of a specially brewed one-off real ale supplied free of charge for the club to sell. It was so unique that the club had even managed to be involved in selecting its ingredients! There was even a consignment of plastic beer glasses with the date and fixture stamped on them. That was enough to keep some of the more enthusiastic beer drinkers to stay close to the cricket scorer’s hut that had been turned into an impromptu beer tent!

The second reason was the new Hook Norton have placed themselves right in the centre of their community. As such when they did precisely what I advised all our host clubs to do and that is turn their hop game into a community event, and the community responded. A groundhop game this was, but there weren’t many groundhoppers, this was an event by and for and attendeed the people of Hook Norton and once I realised what was going on I loved the whole experience. It was also a treat to see league chairman Paul Bircher there, obviously enjoying himself. When you volunteer as grass roots level you get quickly used to people’s indifference to something you’re passionate about. So when you get a time when people do support your passion you learn to savour that moment.

It was a pleasure to have the time to catch up with Steve Bryce and his team refereeing the game. Like much of grassroots football the Witney league has had difficulties with recruitment and retention of referees. It was Ralph who had the clever idea of utilising the fact that the area has no end of RAF bases nearby, RAF Brize Norton being perhaps the most obvious so all three officials for this game were from the RAF!

It was an evening to remember, and my only regret we didn’t see more groundhoppers at the game. That fact will make me think long and hard as to whether further precursor games should happen. As fantastic as Hook Norton were, could that success be replicated as well elsewhere? For while Hooky have fallen a long way, potentially they could be another 6 promotions from regaining their place in Division One of the Hellenic (although they could easily be co-opted into Division 2) they are clearly a club that are rapidly going places.

Not unexpectedly they won, against an Eynsham side who are unlikely to play sides as good or as well backed this season. My thanks to them for agreeing to the unusual kick off time.

Eventually Robyn and I made it home, and flopped into bed. Robyn being Robyn had spotted just how much I wanted success for the clubs and the likes of Paul, John and Ralph. She sensed my relief that things were going well and so we could start to look forward to Saturday’s games. We slept well that night.