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Sunday 19th September 2021 ko 11:00

Witney & District League Division Four

SHERBORNE HARRIERS 3 (Cullen 19 82 Goodwin 26)

HATHEROP RESERVES 2 (Head 42p Hathaway 75)

Saunders penalty saved 12

Att 136

Entry by programme £4

There were so many leaps of faith to make this happen. The first and most important was from the Witney & District League who agreed for us to schedule the two Sunday games I asked for and agreed that Sherborne Harriers would be one of the host clubs. But dear reader, I can hear you ask the obvious question- why Sherborne Harriers?

The answer lies all the way back to the first time I pitched the idea of a hop to the Witney League AGM 3 years ago. As if by chance Robyn and I were sat next to Harriers’ Josh Betteridge and before the meeting started I explained what I wanted to do. I’ll never forget his response,

“We’d love to be involved, but noone takes any notice of us…. well apart from someone a few years ago who came to see us and wrote a blog”

Of course the someone was me, and here’s Sherborne Harriers as I found them. I took the view that to know them is to love them, and therefore they’d be wonderful as a hop club; but would my thoughts be proved right? There was one potential issue and that was who were they were going to play? By and large organised groundhops and reserve sides don’t mix, even if the line does tend to be blurred a lot, does anyone remember Thrapston Town playing St Neots Saints for example? The issue here is that Harriers play in the Witney League’s lowest division and that division has only one other non reserve team in it!

So when the only club willing to play Sherborne on a Sunday morning was Hatherop’s reserves what was I to do? On one level I’m pleased I know Hatherop FC reasonably well, courtesy of a visit there back in 2016. But could a game be sold to the groundhoppers on the basis that the visitors would be a reserve team? I can’t say GroundhopUK owner Chris Berezai was happy about it either; he’d normally swerve a game on precisely that basis too. I’d also been approached by another hopper the previous evening at Long Hanborough.  He made it crystal clear he wouldn’t be going for that reason as well. Was I wrong, and was about to promote a deeply unpopular event?

I’m glad I trusted my gut instinct, and and in the final analysis no organiser can afford to think only in terms of their own needs. Our preferences have to come second to the needs of the event. If Covid has proved anything it’s that we don’t live in a perfect world, and while in an ideal world I’d have liked to have seen this game being between two first XI’s what we got was both acceptable, and more relevantly it was the best outcome possible. In any case I was not about to let Sherborne Harriers’ superb plans go to waste.

I knew what was coming was going to be special; apart from anything else I knew they were already making money, the advertising in their programme had more than paid for its production. Again I was pleased I hadn’t taken its production away from them. Another little nugget Josh’s research for the programme turned up was that a  contracted Liverpool player once turned out for Sherborne in the 1940’s (he was based nearby during World War II)!

The modern club was created by Lynn Simpson in 2004 as a breakaway from Northleach FC, and have since played variously in the Cheltenham League, Cirencester League and these days the Witney League mainly due to there being a 5th division, allowing them competitive football. You see, they’re never been massively successful, playing for the sheer enjoyment of doing so. I remember Lynn’s two nephews acting as ball boys and automatically standing behind whichever goal Sherborne were defending. At the time I compared the club to the now defunct Appleton Stars; charming but ultimately unsuccessful. But this time round I saw something Stars never had- momentum.

For one thing they’ve now got a long-term lease on the ground. To get to the pitch from the A40 you drive through the entrance to Sherborne House’s Lodge and Estate, built by John “Crump” Dutton in the 17th century to indulge his liking for hunting, banqueting and gambling. These days the house is privately owned, the rest by the National Trust, and its fair to say they both would have been quite happy for the football team to go away. So much so that Lynn and her team used to joke that they’d only get a lease when “Pigs might fly” so when they did get that lease, Lynn found a triptych of flying pigs for the clubhouse wall, itself a relic of the 1940’s and once sporting a thatched roof!

Sadly due to ill health Lynn left the club in 2018 but the club continues to thrive, and the hop was used as a reason to redesign the club badge, the L.S. initials are a wonderful tribute to everything she did for this wonderful little club. It was wonderful that she was able to be at the game, and no doubt she had a few tips for those now in charge of the club she built. It was lovely to be able to speak to her again and after meeting her I thought back to anyone who didn’t go because they worried about the opposition being a reserve side. With all due respect, you missed the point completely.

Because as I drove through those gates I watched a steady stream of hoppers walking back to take photos- each with a facsimile of the silly grin I was wearing. That grin grew wider when I saw just how good the staging was. Noone could have failed to have met the Harrierettes; those ladies were everywhere, and were the reason no club raised more money on this hop than Sherborne Harriers.

The breakfast rolls will remain the stuff of legend, and I think just about everyone bought a tea and a cake. I even caught Chris Berezai buying a Sherborne shirt late on. But to give you an idea of how deeply Josh and his team had thought about their staging he emailed me around 2 weeks earlier to tell me that with regret that Sherborne wouldn’t be able to take card payments on the day. That’s a club in a stately home’s back garden between Burford and Cheltenham, with little more than a wooden changing room block and set of posts. How can you not love a club like this? 

In the midst of all this was an friend to all friends of grassroots football. Phil Annets is Mr “FA Cup Factfile” but I first met him when I ran the series of North Berkshire League groundhops. He was the NBFL’s press officer back then, and our experiences at the likes of Berinsfield and behind the security check at RAF Benson are the blueprint for the Witney Hop. I made sure I bought a copy of his new book FA Cup 150 – it really is an excellent reference book.

This was a morning where wonderful things happened. I’d fallen into the trap of treating Sherborne as another Appleton Stars, but as Josh had been correct to point point out at the programme pick-up that they’d won their first game of the season the previous Saturday. I remember thinking that maybe we’d see something more competitive than when we’d first planned the game. What I didn’t expect was the classic we got. 

It was one of those wonderfully topsy-turvy games I love to watch, but mean so much more we you know the teams. When Corey Cullen gave Sherborne the lead I heard something I rarely hear, I heard groundhoppers cheer, and again when Ian Hepworth saved Chris Saunders’ penalty. We were, of course witnessing something far more than just a game of football 13 promotions from the EFL. I can’t find the words to describe it accurately, perhaps a group of people were enjoying being given some support and took full advantage.

Kev Goodwill doubled Sherborne’s lead, but perhaps it all began to dawn on Sherborne. Hatherop began to turn the screw and James Head made no mistake with his penalty, could the Harriers hold on? I must admit I’d settled for a point when Mason Hathaway equalised for Hatherop particularly as Sherborne were visibly tiring. I remember calling out to Josh to offer encouragement, but my words weren’t needed. The team found one last shot of energy, the ball was pumped forward and as Corey Cullen’s lob fell into the net the smiles were just about everywhere. 

I hope my friends at Hatherop won’t mind me saying this, but I think anyone wanting an away win here was in a tiny minority- it really was Sherborne Harriers’ morning. I made sure I congratulated Josh and his team on an amazing hosting, and as I went back through that ceremonial arch I knew what had been achieved was something special.

I’ve been doing this for a while. Sometimes I fail and a club does badly, sometimes I do well and club reaps a large reward. Most of the time I do the same job as I always do and the club deems it all worth its while. But only very occasionally a club does something so amazing it changes my perception of what an organised groundhop can do. I drove to our last game at Kingham knowing I’d witnessed something in that most elite of categories. Josh, Ian and everyone at Sherborne, thankyou- you rewrote the book in my eyes, and yes pigs can fly!