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Saturday 30th November 2019 ko 13.30

North Berkshire League Division 2


LONG WITTENHAM ATHLETIC RESERVES 6 (Crowley 4 27 Bishop 9 24 Hunt 13 Barton 28)

Att 4 at Dalton Barracks, Shippon, near Abingdon

Free Entry

The North Berkshire Hops may be over for now, and despite me being from Oxford I’ll always be a North Berkshire man. It’s a league that put their trust in me to organise a hop when many wouldn’t, and those who really know me knew that back in 2011 I was at a pretty low ebb. I remain on the league’s management committee and will probably do so while they feel I can be of some use to them. Being right at grass roots does give you an insight as to what life really is like at the bottom of the pile.

Groundhoppers tend to worry about spectator facilities (“Does it have a stand?”) or status (I’m not watching below Step 6″ or “I don’t watch reserves”). Step out of that bubble and you soon find that once you are below Step 7 the issues tend to be around player availability and players’ facilities.

One of the best hop games the North Berks ever staged was at Compton who did a wonderful job, but ended up folding last year due in no small part to the local council failing to maintain the changing rooms to anywhere near an acceptable standard.

Then there’s player availability. It’s become an all-too regular occurrence for a club to ask to fold a team citing being unable to raise a side on a Saturday. You look at their list of registered players, and there’s 40-plus there. These days signing a player up and getting him to play are two different things.

Related to that is the link between youth and adult football. Boys football is still thriving but once those lads reach 16 they tend to discover girls, beer and non-footballing activities. If only we could convince more of those lads to make the step up.

You saw all those push and pull factors in evidence here. Kingston Colts are from Kingston Bagpuize on the A420 out towards Swindon, and are best known for their comprehensive range of age-based teams. They’ve managed to buck the trend of youth football hitting a brick wall at age 16 and entered an adult team in the North Berks for this season.

Their problem is the changing rooms at Edward Strauss Park need rebuilding so pending their completion the North Berks side opted to play at Dalton Barracks for this season, just over 6 miles away. As ever the decision to play there was based as much on facilities as it was geography. So much so in fact that the first XI have just announced they’re now seeing out the season at Sutton Courtenay– another 5 miles further on.

You saw the status factor with Long Wittenham’s reserves. Their manager is North Berks League chairman Steve Bolton, and club stalwart and North Berks Grounds officer Derek Meadham was there too. I asked how much the two of them had seen of the first XI? The answer was telling, very little it transpired. Groundhoppers do tend to dislike watching reserve teams but often those reserves often act fairly independently of the firsts with little or no player movement between the two.

But lack of players was the Colts’ problem. They started this game with 10 men, one more arrived after 10 minutes and another soon after that. It was clearly a struggle, and the eventual scoreline reflected that.

The ground though is interesting, if rather run down. Dalton Barracks is now run by the Army despite it being RAF Abingdon for most of its existence. The MOD is set to close the facility altogether by 2029 so its hardly surprising the sports ground has seen so little maintenance.

Part of me wonders why we didn’t hold a hop game there, unlike Benson Lions where the was a security check, here the pitch is outside the gate after all. I suspect I didn’t want to ask Jon Radcliffe at the Lions again, and perhaps again it didn’t cross my mind. I’m not sure whether any football of any note will be played at Dalton Barracks in the next 9 years, part of me doubts it, but then again I’d hate to have been at one of the last games there.

It was a pleasure spending time with Steve, Derek and Long Wittenham, but then it always is. As for the Colts I hope they’re enjoying adult football and I look forward to seeing them back in the village next season.