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Friday 6th March 2020 ko 19.45

North West Counties League- Division One South

SANDBACH UNITED 3 (Saxon 30 Schoesboe 69 Bartle 89)

Bartle missed penalty 89

ALSAGER TOWN 1 (Jones 20p)

Att 455

Entry £5

Programme £2

Sat hear as I am with all football in the UK cancelled due to Covid-19 it seems like a lifetime ago that we were all more concerned with the state of 7 football pitches in and around Cheshire. All the best to everyone affected by the crisis and let’s hope normality returns soon.

Last year’s North West Counties League Hop had a troubled inception but by the time we reached Rylands the problems had been smoothed over and save for the postponement at Irlam the feedback meeting talked of the future, and on a highly successful event. That was reinforced when the league sent us their choice of line-up for this year’s hop and that ended up being the line-up we went with with one enforced change to the running order.

We picked Crewe as hop base, with our hotel being a short walk from the station and so while we sold every single coach seat and hotel room available the car park at the Holiday Inn remained virtually empty! The week before had been spent keeping a close eye on the weather, and the clubs pulled out all the stops to get their pitches fit for play. That said, I’m certainly that the dry week before the hop saved the event.

One notable change from previous North West Counties Hops was that Chris Berezai managed to hold a meeting with all of our host clubs. It always helps in both the planning and the on-the-day execution of those plans. It proved to be a convivial affair too.

So the event started at Sandbach, the Cheshire town suffering with the likes of Charnock Richard, Tibshelf and Tebay as being far more famous for the motorway service stations bearing there name than the anything within the towns themselves! But like the Sandbach Services it is straightforward to visit the town’s football ground without actually visiting the town itself!

The Sandbach Community Centre lies off of the south-western edge of the town, you actually cross over the remnants of the “Salt” railway line that ran from Sandbach to Middlewich, via the Salt mine; the suffix “Wich” is old English for salt after all.

On arrival we set up the stall to distribute programme packs for the advance ticket holders, and even an hour or so before kick off it was lovely to observe all the usual rituals of the start of a hop. That should always include Terry and Tav holding court at their badge stall, its got to a point that I can’t imagine an event without those two.

We’d expected a crowd of 250-300 so the 455 that turned up was a massive boost. Thanks therefore to all at Alsager Town, you playing at an odd time helped Sandbach, and in due course we’ll look forward to visiting you. It did mean that the club was stretched, but somehow still found enough hot pot to feed the masses, and cope with both wit and style. The programmes sold out early, and that is a source of regret, I hate seeing a club lose out on revenue, and I’d like to see the local supporters get everything they need; the unusual kick-off times, and different pricing does inconvenience them.

In the end I know a hopper won’t return, we’re a one-off financial injection, but I’d like to think a local might. But if you are a hopper and you want a programme then that is why we sell advance tickets, even for individual games. So if you’re a hopper the message hasn’t changed, if you want to guarantee a programme buy an advanced ticket! Is that really too much to ask?

We were royally entertained even though the pitch had fairly obviously been in the wars. Both sides set out to play football and unlike many opening games of hops folk actually watched the game and didn’t use the time simply as an excuse to catch up! That was the case from kick-off right through to Daniel Bartle following up his missed penalty to knock in the winner.

On arrival back at the hotel I’d expected to feel relieved, the rain of the previous weeks had meant simply getting the game played was a win of sorts. But as I enjoyed a hideously overpriced Punk IPA I and others reflected on what a fantastic job Sandbach had done. A week or two later I’m both thankful and proud of them in equal measure; they were superb hosts.