Sunday, 20 August 2017

A Sort Of Homecoming

St Helens Town  0  Abbey Hulton United  0 (abandoned 95 minutes)

North West Counties League – First Division

I really don’t know where to start with this one?

Probably right at the end, because that was when without doubt the most bizarre episode I have ever seen at a football game took place.

Picture the scene (no pun intended for those that already know the story). It’s the 95th minute of a game that was 0-0, neither side could hit a cows arse with banjo, good chances came and went but no one seemed capable of putting the ball in the net. Suddenly the referee awards a penalty to the visitors, for what is largely irrelevant. No one really argues, and the ball is on the spot.

The tension around Ruskin Drive is palpable, it had been one of those nights, not least for one particular gentleman in the crowd who refuses to acknowledge a 0-0 draw, and deems it necessary to revisit the venue at a later stage.

The Abbey Hulton United centre forward walks backwards to commence his run up and just as he turns, we have darkness, the floodlights are out, and they are definitely not coming back on again.

The referee wanders over to some St Helens officials, it seems the lights are on a timer that turns them off automatically at 10pm, and it can’t be overridden. The game is abandoned, or is it?

A Plethora Of Goals
Clearly the away side are fuming, and our gentleman who refuses to accept a 0-0 draw is far from happy either. Of course we than have some of the other travellers who refuse to acknowledge an abandoned game, irrespective of what point in the proceedings it happens. That of course is another story, but clearly immense dissatisfaction all around.

Let’s also not forget that St Helens Town are less than pleased either, their first game back in the town was going to end up talked about for all of the wrong reasons.

You are perhaps now wondering what we were doing playing football at 10pm. This then takes us back to the beginning of a very odd evening.

As I was travelling along the Woodhead Pass I made a call to my mate Dave who was also going to the game. He had found out that the M6 Northbound had been closed at Thelwall, and as a result it was traffic mayhem in South Cheshire. Abbey Hulton would ordinarily be travelling this very route, so at that stage we did begin to wonder whether the game would actually take place because the road was not scheduled to re-open until at least 10pm. Had they set off early enough, and did they have an alternative route?

The Far Side - Out Of Bounds
They did have an alternative route, and they arrived just after 7.30pm, and given the fact that we have a 10pm lights curfew, the referee decided in his wisdom to allow the game to kick off at 8.10pm. Not only that, he kept them waiting in the tunnel for a good five minutes before entering the pitch, they then took a full 15 minutes half time, and he chose to add on at least five minutes at the end! So I guess he really didn’t help matters in that sense.

I arrived at the eagerly awaited Ruskin Drive Sports Ground around 6.30pm. When I say eagerly awaited, they have waited seven years as a club to get back into the town. When I first saw them play they shared the huge Knowsley Road stadium that belonged to St Helens Rugby League, and without getting into too much detail about the politics, they were based their because they had sold the Hoghton Road ground that they played at and the plan was to share the new Langtree Park that the rugby club were having built. This did not materialise, some would say they were shafted?

It was also eagerly awaited because many thought it would be open for business at the start of last season, but it wasn’t deemed suitable for Step 6 football because the dressing rooms were too far from the pitch. This has now been addressed and tonight was to be the first game.

It wasn’t without drama though, they only got the grading to play the previous Saturday and even then it was a temporary grading to allow just the one game to take place. Further work is required before future games can happen.

So what’s it like? Big car park, really nice bar that’s shared with the cricket club, and all part of a very big complex that looks to combine three sports (Rugby League being the third). The pitch used by Town is a typical 3G cage. You can see easily from outside, so arguably it isn’t enclosed, and you can only view from three sides once inside the cage. A small stand sits on the half way line but it is quite a low viewing position.

I didn’t think it was quite ready yet, staff were moving building material from inside the cage before the game started, while it appeared the council had failed to move the small sized goals from the pitch. The toilets were located a good walk away in the clubhouse, while no hot food was available. 
The hospitality area was effectively a wooden summer house, and while the wooden clad dressing room building looked smart, I couldn’t comment on the interior.

More Goals
Excellent programme though, and the club officials all very friendly, but you did wonder just how satisfied the club were at the outcome of the seven year long saga? Is this really the venue that they wanted and indeed saw as the future of the club? I’m not so sure, and to be honest I have sympathy with the club because much of what I’ve talked about this evening is not actually the fault of St Helens Town Football Club.

The crowd was given out as 178, which probably would have been more had it not been for the M6 issues, and they probably would have hoped for a significantly better spectacle on the field, but that was not to be.

Many questions will indeed be asked about tonight, not least the burning question about the game itself. Was it actually abandoned or did the referee blow for full time and the result stands? I find it inconceivable that the result will stand, surely under the circumstances the game must be replayed, but, had the ball gone out for a thrown in and the lights went out in the 95th minute, you could argue that could be approached in a slightly different way?

What a night though, you couldn’t have written the script, a homecoming and a half, one that will be talked about for a very long time.   

From Out Of The Light Came Darkness

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