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Friday 1st October 2021 ko 19.45

Lowland League

BO’NESS UNITED 3 (Flynn 31 Jacobs 42 Locke 68)

CIVIL SERVICE STROLLERS 1 (Cole 43)

Att 507

Entry £7

Programme £1

Pie – Scotch or Macaroni

It is a historical point that the first hop to be cancelled due to the pandemic was the Scottish Hop and the first one back could so easily have been this one, delayed for 18 months!  While I loved what we did and will do in the Witney & District League this is altogether a different animal. But you would have thought that simply taking the same event, with the same host clubs (albeit with the Friday and Sunday games transposed) and restaging it after the break would be easy enough to do wouldn’t you? And you’d be wrong!

It is all too easy to imagine the pandemic as over just because many of the restrictions we’ve lived with have now been lifted. The difficulty wasn’t the clubs or league, they were and are straightforward to deal with, the issue was that the market for coach travel and hotels has changed massively. We had a nightmare trying to find a coach company able to take on the work, and eventually used the firm we normally use for the Welsh Hop creating the oddity of Welsh Drivers, picking up (predominantly) English hoppers for a football tour in Scotland.

The next issue was accommodation; with foreign travel difficult, the market for domestic hotel rooms saw prices for Saturday night triple, and there didn’t seem to be any sense of providers agreeing taking a lower rate for repeat custom either. In the end two Premier Inns were booked in Falkirk which was handy, it meant the restaurants weren’t swamped at breakfast!

There was one person missing, Robyn my wife couldn’t get the day off , so she dashed to Gatwick after work to fly to Edinburgh; I made a sharp exit at the end of this one to meet her. That meant just Craig Dabbs and I made up the advance party driving up from Oxford ahead of the coach leaving Hillingdon to make up the prebooked packs, meeting the league’s Kenny McLean who’d collected the clubs’ programmes for us, at Bo’ness around 3 hours before kick-off.

On one level it left us one short, so thanks to Kenny, and Don at the club for their help, on another Robyn wasn’t missing out on a new ground, we visited Newtown Park just over 5 years ago. Quite a lot has changed, and not just that Bo’ness have moved from the Juniors over to the Seniors. The ground has become a community sporting hub, so United are now just tenants, but the pitch is now high quality 3G, the terrace behind one goal has been rebuilt, and floodlights were installed three years ago. One thing that hasn’t changed is the views of Grangemouth oil refinery, and I do wonder whether its presence meant that in a time of fuel shortages in south-east England meant I was able to fill up easily?

There was only one issue, well make it two. Firstly the coach got caught in traffic in the roadworks on the M74 near Hamilton, so we asked the kick-off to be pushed to 8pm as insurance. Neither Bo’ness or Civil Service Strollers had any objection but the referee declined the opportunity to make everyone’s lives a little easier. And since so many asked on the day, I don’t know if its the same chap who postponed the Preston game 5 years ago!! The other issue was the weather, it was chucking it down with rain and there was no shelter by the gate Bo’ness had earmarked for our ticket holders.

Now I know how much the coach party would want their programme packs dry, so I opted to stand at the gate, with Craig distributing the packs from the hospitality room. It was a case of me stood out in the rain waving through ticket holders, and when the coach arrived roughly 10 minutes before kick-off got everyone into the ground before kick-off (thanks ref).

One thing did make me smile as I got soaked and that was the reaction of some of the hoppers. So you’ve arrived at the game what’s important, to pick up the programme packs, or not miss kick-off? Well it was handy to get rid of those packs quickly! I may have been wet, but the game was well worth the rain to watch. 

Its all too easy to forget this is the top tier of non-league in Scotland, these days there’s no argument as to where the Highland and Lowland Leagues sit in terms of quality. The impact since GroundhopUK’s first foray north of the border to East Kilbride 6 years ago has been manifest. The absorption of most of the East Region Juniors has seen the quality of football on offer rocket, and we’ve seen the likes of Preston Athletic pay a heavy price for it.

From GroundhopUK’s perspective it’s kept the hop going, but we’ve had to understand us adding 150-200 hoppers on to some clubs’ attendances will have far less impact than say a club in the Hellenic League would. That in turn, leads to us having to manage our expectations too, the clubs we are visiting now in an English context would fit into the likes of the Northern Premier League, a level (or two) above the highest level at which we organise hops at down south. 

The Strollers have nothing to do with the Civil Service these days, and did provide us with a handy back-up when the Preston game was controversially postponed back in the day. Here a young looking side gave Bo’ness a good work out but in the end the hosts won well to give the hop a great start.

It did seem strange squelching through a virtually deserted Edinburgh Airport afterwards and I must have looked like a drowned rat! As I met Robyn at arrivals it was eerily quiet- sterile even which was in direct contrast with all that had gone before, and for that matter all that was to follow.