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Sunday 8th March 2020 ko 14.45

North West Counties League Premier Division

WINSFORD UNITED 0

1874 NORTHWICH 2 (Woolley 25 Knight 31)

Att 627

Entry £6

Programme £2

Delaying the kick-off 15 minutes looked like a good idea as the Groundhop coach inched it’s way into an already-full car park at the Barton Stadium. It took all of a second to work out that the club had thought long and hard about how they were going to cope with a huge crowd. Those who’d bought advance tickets were directed to a separate entrance, that took well over 100 away from the cash turnstiles speeding up the process of getting over 600 people in.

With all due respect to the Saturday clubs this was always going to be of a far greater magnitude. Winsford are ex-Northern Premier League and the opposition was a virtual guarantee of a big crowd.

1874 Northwich are the 2012 breakaway from Northwich Victoria, as a protest at how the club were being run. These days the club groundshare at Barnton but shared here at Winsford until last season, making this game 1874’s first game back, of a fashion! They came into this game 12 points clear at the top of the league.

Barton stadium was a dog track until 1998, a non-Greyhound Racing Association venue, or “Flapping track” and that history is still there. Compare the main stand here to that at another former dog track at Loomer Road, near Stoke and you’ll see what I mean. It gives Winsford a generous bar area and full catering facilities and I’m sure they were glad of them on a busy day!

It was one of those occasions when you dreaded doing the head count, there seemed to be people everywhere! We got to 612, the club got 627 and I was happy the two figures were so close. With attendances like these I never feel comfortable with any claim that it’s all due to the “Hop Factor.”  GroundhopUK’s presence added roughly 250 on to the attendance, the rest was down to the two clubs’ fans. And of course the beauty of it all is that those non-hop fans are likely to return!

1874 won the game with 2 stunning goals, a thunderbolt from Matthew Woolley and a mazey dribble from Lee Knight beating defenders at will. It served to solidify their position as likely champions…. but now we know what happened next. Let’s pull together some threads.

Firstly the GroundhopUK perspective. For us this was an event that exceeded any expectation we had. To average an attendance of 469 is exceptional, a mixture of good clubs, good planning an attractive set of host clubs and the frustrations of so many people at so many postponed games in the weeks leading up to March. In fact I remember Robyn and I driving up to Crewe and agreeing that if we got all 7 games on, we’d be happy.

It was wonderful to have fostered an excellent working relationship with the league. We held a useful clubs meeting, a first for this hop and with one sadly notable exception all of the clubs made the most of the opportunity they were given. There is still plenty to learn though. This hop was notable for a general lack of programmes for sale on the day. Now I will never understand why some groundhoppers will swerve buying advance tickets (guaranteeing a programme)  then moan that they can’t get a copy.

But they do exist and that’s why we always advise (note advise, not tell) our host clubs to print over above advance sales, on top of their normal print. I suspect some clubs reduced their print runs, worrying about possible postponements. Many pitches on this hop were either very soft or showed signs of extensive sanding so if clubs were reticent about spending money who can blame them? The problem is that I saw some hoppers getting to clubs quickly and hoovering up the programmes denying the regulars. That can’t be right and will be looked at, but having to deal with shortages caused by big crowds is a wonderful problem to have, isn’t it?

But in the wider scheme of things none of this will be of record. In the light of the Coronavirus crisis the league was suspended a week later, and the FA have now decreed that the in line with all leagues below National League level, all results will be expunged and the season treated as null and void. While there are no straightforward answers to what are unprecedented times I know the NWCL aren’t happy about the situation and have written to the FA accordingly.

I have a lot of sympathy for their view. How can a season this far progressed be treated as if it never happened. How can it be right that Vauxhall Motors be denied promotion when they’ve mathematically achieved it? As imperfect a solution as Points Per Game is, surely that would be a better solution than expunging?

As for GroundhopUK what’s next for us? Who knows? In the week after this hop the Scottish Hop was postponed after the SFA shut down all football as part of general efforts to limit the spread of Coronavirus. That was rapidly followed by the rest of the country and so that will be it for us for this season, and I hope we can start afresh next season.

But that will need the virus to have retreated sufficiently for public gatherings to be allowed, and we are a long way from that. The planning can only start when we know what the future looks like, so the odd person that’s asked what we’re doing next March will get an unfulfilling, but honest answer and that is that we simply don’t know.

The important thing in the here and now is to stay safe, and stay at home. There are far more important things than going to football right now.