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Saturday 10th April 2021 ko 15.00

North Bucks & District League – Premier

TOWCESTER TOWN 5 ( Parker 9p Dixon 70 72 Kirby 82 85)

CITY COLTS 2 (16 37)

Att c25 at Islington Road, Towcester

Free Entry

I’m not sure why, but Lockdown Mark 3 seemed to have more of an impact on me than the other two. There was the salve of the UK’s successful vaccination programme which at least gave us some light at the end of the tunnel and it was gratifying to see news of so many of the hopping fraternity receiving their first jabs. Nevertheless I was saddened to hear of the death of Hull-based hopper Phil Grayson from Covid-19 during this period of lockdown- it showed that while we are heading in the right direction, we are still a long way from having this accursed virus beaten.

As I type we are beginning to open up society and a return to both playing and watching football is a small part of that. But in England how football has returned has been bizarre to put it mildly. 

My understanding of the procedure is that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) produce guidelines and the Football Association (FA) interpret them for use by their member clubs. I don’t expect DCMS to have any great knowledge of grassroots-level football; their remit is huge, everything from the BBC, to ballet to Berinsfield FC. I do though expect better than a week’s notice as to what the next move will be.

The FA I do expect to be able to come up  with something better than saying all games should be behind closed doors, then have to backtrack 5 days later when they finally realised that simply isn’t possible in public places! We’re now in the ridiculous position where a spectators has to check whether a game is on a public park and not on private land. It is I assume a tacit admission that DCMS had advised that all games should take place behind closed doors until May 17th , and the FA somehow “Forgot” about public parks! 

What puzzles me is how the FA seem so divorced from the realities of the grassroots game. I come with some background here. I’ve had plenty of dealings with the Berks & Bucks FA as part of my work with the North Berkshire League, and I served as on an advisory committee for the Oxfordshire FA. If Wembley had picked up the phone to the likes of Liz Verrall at the Berks & Bucks or Alan Spence at the OFA I’m sure a better compromise could have been reached than this.  The level of knowledge of the grassroots game at local FA level is both both extensive and sympathetic, so why wasn’t it made use of? The only fig leaf of respectability in all this is that these restrictions are hopefully only for another month. 

But there is personal responsibility in all this. We are coming out of a dreadful winter for Covid deaths, and while the vaccination programme has been a success the fact is the vast majority of the country have had one jab, so have not got complete protection, and due to age the vast majority of players will have had no vaccine at all. Therefore on the previous Saturday I looked at the antics of some hoppers who travelled long distances because a club happened to issue a programme and winced. I’m sure there are some in authority who would happily seen football banned until May 17th- let’s not give them an excuse. My plans had rather made themselves, I was offered the chance to have a first contact visit with Dad in his care home for the first time in over a year. That put things in perspective; I’ve waited since December 19th to see a game, I could easily wait a little longer. 

I decided for this game that I’d adopt 2 rules.  The first was to heed government guidelines to reduce travel, and given what was going on I’d only attend a game if the club were happy enough for me to be there. The last thing I’d want is to unwittingly to get a club into trouble.

For the record, the town of Towcester’s name has nothing to do with cooking bread, it references the River Tove, a tributary of the Great Ouse that runs through the town and by the football ground. The town is reckoned to being one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the country being Lactodorum in Roman Times, and the modern A5 here is on roughly the same route as the Roman Watling Street. 

I’d had my eye on Towcester Town for while, not least due to me routinely driving along the A5 and passing their derelict former home opposite the gates to Towcester Racecourse. The ground, even in its distressed state looked like what it was, a home that had staged South Midlands League football from 1967-77 and United Counties League football from then until 1993. These days you’ll have to take my word there was a ground there, as an estate of houses is in the process of being built on the site. But there is a legacy of the club’s past, the supporters club in Islington Road is still there and the club now plays North Bucks & District football at the recreation ground virtually opposite.

It’s not seen as long term home for the club, they’ll never play pyramid football here, for exactly the reason I was able to come and watch! The idea currently is to mirror the likes of Ascot United who built their ground in the middle of a racecourse, and in Towcester’s case the racecourse already has a floodlit dog track in situ. As many clubs have discovered, having existing floodlights in place does tend to mean permissions can be obtained- eventually!

Opponents City Colts came with their own history, they’re all that’s left of the old Milton Keynes City club that resigned from the Spartan South Midlands League in 2003 due to the old Wimbledon FC moving to Milton Keynes and starting to build StadiumMK .  They were the second club called Milton Keynes City and had started started life as Mercedes Benz in 1998 and originally played at the works ground at Downs Barn, that’s currently being used by Clean Slate FC. City Colts’ badge still has the Mercedes logo in one corner as a nod back to their past. 

Those two clubs and their histories pointed to a truism sometimes missed by us groundhoppers. We tend to look as the ground rather than the club, the architecture rather than the people. The game may have been on a park pitch but the story of two clubs trying to regain at least part of what they’d lost was, and is compelling. 

So was the game, and yes it was obvious that lockdown had meant that neither side could have trained as much as they’d have liked. The result was one of those lurching topsy-turvy games that neutrals love and team managers hate! It was cold, it threatened to rain and DCMS fairly obviously didn’t want me there but it was good to be back!

Dedicated to Phil Grayson, R.I.P.