Saturday 18th September 2021 ko 11.00
Witney & District League Division Two
CASSINGTON RANGERS 0
It was probably no bad thing that the first post-lockdown hop was this one. It is all too easy to think that Covid is over, but the daily statistics tell a very different story. From a groundhopper’s perspective we are able to watch pretty much any domestic game without let or hindrance, but an organised groundhop involves breaking every (former) social distancing rule you can think of! In the end the United Counties League decided to postpone for a year, and Wales simply hadn’t opened up enough at August Bank Holiday to consider trying there. But the great advantage of Witney was that the grounds would be open and we’d be unlikely to be seeing crowds of over 200. That would make organising it easier I thought….
My initial thought was that in contrast to the 2019 hop that we should have Sunday games. My reasoning is that Sunday games almost always do well, due to lack of competition for the hopper £ and the possibility of attracting fans that watch their own clubs on the Saturday. The problem was that in the days of the North Berkshire Hop, Sunday football in the guise of the Upper Thames Valley League would make the idea unworkable. But my visit in May to Tackley revealed that there was no overlap between the two leagues so the Witney League’s management took the view that if the clubs were happy to play then so were they.
I pitched the hop at the league’s AGM, and from that we got Aston, Hanborough, Freeland and Kingham. I’d spoken to Josh at Sherborne 2 years earlier, and he’d asked to be involved. The league wondered whether that was a good idea due the club’s lowly status, but I backed them thinking that the hoppers would love the ground. We had an excellent host clubs meeting, but Aston weren’t there, and pulled out a day or two later. I have every sympathy with them; it was a case of village politics with the Parish Council claiming that they didn’t want to see a crowd at the football ground. Let’s think about that for a moment…. yeah I know.
That left a massive gap at the top of the order, and we weren’t able to simply reverse the fixture either. John Smyth at the league was having enough trouble getting teams to play as visiting clubs without adding another problem. The away clubs were found eventually, but the issue of the opening host club was a tougher nut to crack. We ended up approaching Cassington mainly because League Fixture Secretary Shaun Rowbotham is involved there. They were, understandably hesitant, worrying that they wouldn’t have any where near the level of volunteers to make a success of it all.
I will never, ever attach any fault to Cassington’s viewpoint. They couldn’t have known that in effect they held the key to the whole event. We couldn’t move any of the other games so with around 3 weeks to go the whole event ended up resting on whether Cassington would be able to take the early game. If that game couldn’t be made to happen I couldn’t sell a two game Saturday so the whole event would have to be cancelled. I was more than aware I had 4 clubs with excellent plans waiting on their decision.
We found a compromise; Cassington would do the game, supply information to GroundhopUK to allow a programme to be produced and I’d find 3 volunteers to help them take a gate. Given I sent them GroundhopUK owner Chris Berezai, Bedfordshire Hop organiser Craig Dabbs and Robyn my wife we certainly had no lack of experience there! My bottom line was that Cassington would run the game and we’d do everything else. My thanks to Newhall United’s Dan Bishop for his help with the programme.
Then there was the issue of who exactly they were to play; again there were few volunteers but John did have the advantage of his club Ducklington being in the league’s third tier too and having hosted last time round. At this level the manager holds the final decision as to whether that was going to happen, so I’m relieved he remembered how his club had benefited in the past and agreed to John’s request. The upshot that we had something like 10 days to sell the prebooked tickets; that wasn’t ideal but then this was a hop all about compromise. I may have come extremely close to cancelling the event, but in the end the compromises worked.
We’d just about got the situation sorted out when I got a message via Facebook from a groundhopper. He asked as follows,
“What is the standard of the weekend’s programmes?” then,
“Just wondered what the programmes were like…glossy…paper….had both at hops in the past…photo cover…badge etc…I am into design and have produced programmes myself hence the interest…”
Now, bless him there was no way he could have known that type of paper being used was the last thing on my mind. I was tempted to reply that each issue was a future Pulitzer prize winner, but desisted. I’m more than aware that groundhopping involves a level of OCD; the only question is how much is in evidence!
I accepted that that while Cassington couldn’t run the perfect hop game, having the basics covered there at allowed everything else that followed them to happen. That said, I did the pickups at Oxford Parkway station nervous about the whole thing. Even then we had to rejig the pickups slightly due to rail engineering work, but by then I’d accepted what was going on as just another problem to work through or around.
The Cassington Rangers we saw are a 2018 breakaway from the former East Oxford FC club who simply moved to Elms Road and the Witney League as a means of establishing their own identity. They picked up a handy sponsor, the Red Lion in Cassington who did their catering here for them, and the best comment I can make about their staging is to comment that I don’t think anyone who didn’t know what happened in the preceding weeks would have known.
The bus squeezed along Elms Road and into the car park and in seconds I knew we’d be okay. As organiser you know the faces you’ll see, and some you associate with crowds of a certain level. I knew we’d get roughly 120 well before I did the head count. I regret the programmes sold out, but Robyn reckoned we were only around 10-15 short so the view to take is that if a programme is important to you, buy a ticket for the games you will be attending. We even had a disappointed hopper comment that he didn’t know that we do a split ticket when we’ve done it for many years. In fact have a guess when the first game we did that allowed you to buy the game in advance, individually? Answer after the photos!
But for all the issues we had in getting to a kick off in Cassington, what I’ll remember about the morning was how wonderful it was to see everyone. It had been 18 months since the last hop in the North West Counties League at Winsford United so seeing people catching up after so long was lovely to see. I’d add to that seeing John Smyth, Dave Woodcock, and Paul Bircher and others from the League all there, and all insisting on paying to get in. Those are leaders you can believe in.
The game was described perfectly by one hopper as “The most one-sided nil-nil” you’ll ever see. Cassington will describe is as a dogged rearguard action and Ducklington will wonder how they didn’t find a way of scoring at least once. I enjoyed the game, albeit with my slightly sadistic enjoyment of knowing there’s a subset of the hobby that hates nil-nil draws.
So much so in fact that as I trooped back to the coach, one of those very quietly asked me whether there was going to be a game there on Sunday morning so he could watch another game, hopefully see a goal scored, and so (in his eyes) count the ground. Despite my many faults, I do know when to keep my own counsel, I merely winked at a passing cat!
The answer is Steventon on the very first North Berkshire Hop on 24th September 2011. We introduced the idea as we knew a lot of hoppers would have ticked AFC Wallingford that evening. Yes, almost a decade ago!