Friday, 17 November 2017

Old School

Atherstone Town  6  Darlaston Town 1874  1

J W Hunt Cup – Second Round

One of the things that fascinated me when I started to take non-league football seriously was the Warwickshire / Staffordshire ‘Quadrangle’ of clubs that seemed to dominate in Midlands area.

We are talking the late Eighties through to the latter part of the Nineties, and at the time the likes of Tamworth, Nuneaton Borough, Gresley Rovers and Atherstone United were powerful, well supported and successful outfits to varying degrees.

Tamworth for example, I can recall seeing play Wealdstone in an FA Cup 4th Qualifying tie at the Lamb when they were a West Midlands Regional League club, and Wealdstone were a high profile Alliance Premier outfit. Tamworth won with ease, the ground was packed, it was akin to a non-league version of Galatasary, I’d never seen anything like it before as fans fought and barriers were uprooted. Tamworth of course also won the FA Vase in this era. as they catapulted up the leagues.

Gresley Rovers were also a club on the up, packing the crowds in at the Moat Ground, moving from the aforementioned West Midlands League, right through to eventually wining the Southern League and playing in an FA Vase Final. Nuneaton Borough conversely were probably always the big fish, and from a timing perspective they had fallen from grace a little during the period and that was good in a way because they were in amongst it with the others. I recall seeing them away at Tamworth and they bought a huge following with them.

An Atmospheric Sheepy Road
Atherstone United on the other hand were also a successful club, gaining promotion from the West Midlands League in 1987, it was around that time I saw them play Gresley in a League Cup Final at Tamworth’s ground, and my memory is of a cracking game of football and a superb atmosphere.
The Adders went on to gain promotion again two seasons later and they found themselves in the Southern League Premier Division, which over the course of the next few seasons would see the likes of Tamworth, Gresley and Nuneaton enter it, but by now you could also add Burton Albion into the mix, who to be fair had been at this level for a number of years beforehand anyway.

These were heady times for this particular part of the Midlands, derby games between the sides were great affairs, Burton v Gresley and Tamworth v Nuneaton were always the big ones. Atherstone were perhaps not quite as big support wise, but again, they were very much in the thick of it.

They spent over ten years at that level of football, with fourth being their best ever finish, however Gresley, Tamworth and Nuneaton did manage the feat of winning the league at varying points. Interestingly though, Burton were the other club who never won it, but I'm sure that's worrying them right now?

The Sheepy Road Side
They dropped back to the Midland Division of the Southern League before sadly going belly up in the 2003-04 season, only to be re-formed as Atherstone Town, the name they had been known by up until 1979.

Atherstone Town fought their way back up from the First Division of the Midland Combination, all the way back to the level they disappeared from previously, in the lower division of the Southern League, but disaster befell them and they have fallen back again, now competing at Step 6.

So, if we chart the clubs mentioned, what does life look like now? Burton Albion in the Championship, an absolute footballing miracle by anyone’s imagination. Tamworth and Nuneaton compete in the National League North, albeit Nuneaton have gone, come back, yo-yo’d and been fraught with controversy on a seemingly constant basis.

Gresley also went pop, re-formed, started at Step 6 and are now at Step 4, although that status looks precarious, but it is fair to say that they aren’t the club they once were. Support is still good though, and the Moat Ground is still the glorious mish-mash of a ground it always was.

It was an era where we had a boom in the Trent Valley, but things have changed massively, however, 
some things still remain, and in the cases of Gresley, Tamworth and indeed Atherstone, that constant is that they still have the classic old non-league grounds that they used to pack to the rafters in the glory days.

Old School Terracing
Atherstone’s ground is on Sheepy Road, the main road into the centre of the town from the North, and as you approach for an evening game, the lights shine like a beacon as you move from the rural to the urban.

Sheepy Road is old school, a proper non-league ground. It’s ramshackle in places, unkempt in areas, overgrown, needing a lick of paint or three, showing its age and creaking at the seams, but, it’s absolutely wonderful, and I love it!

Parking on the Gypsy Lane side of the ground, an old fashioned turnstile awaits and in you walk to find a plethora of structures sat behind and adjacent to the main ‘Andy Rammell’ stand. The stand starts at the Southern end of the ground as some covered standing, but then morphs into two sections of seats split by the players tunnel that leads to the dressing rooms at the back. Beyond the seats is another smaller section of covered standing that looks to have been added at a later stage.

Behind both goals are terracing areas of three to four steps, covered in moss and leaf litter, with a metal post and railing behind them to block access to the grassy areas that are presumably out of bounds.

Opposite the main stand is another covered terrace with a fence to one side that was clearly used to segregate at big games, while adjacent to this is the club house that has a very Eighties feel about it.

More Terracing With The Clubhouse In The Distance
Around the ground are dotted various buildings, I have no idea what they are used for, probably back in the day they were press areas, club shops, offices etc, whereas now they are probably just used for storage.

Yes, it’s football ground porn, but it’s also evocative of the era when this part of the Country was all conquering, when football was King and lesser mortals wilted in the hostile atmosphere that was created by the crowds packed to the edge of the pitch. This is the Adders Den, the Vipers Pit, a place that the feint hearted Tamworth or Nuneaton fan would go to with trepidation. How many of us would long to have that era again?

Big days for Atherstone Town are few and far between these days, however they did hit the headlines for all of the wrong reasons in 2015 when 21 fans were jailed after serious violence at the high-profile FA Cup tie against Barrow. Examples were clearly made of these people, a total of forty years were handed down.

There were no such problems on the night Darlaston came to town for the JW Hunt Cup tie, in fact, the whole evening was completely unproblematic for Atherstone both on and off the pitch.

The Adders were simply too good for the visitors, Ryan Quinn opened the scoring inside the first five minute before Ky Green added a second with a header. Darlaston then pulled a goal back in bizarre circumstances through a goal that could easily have made ‘what happened next’ on Question of Sport.

Action In Front Of The Andy Rammell Stand
The Adders goalkeeper attempted a clearance but only managed to sky the ball directly up in the air, so this caused him to adjust his position and attempt a second clearance, only this time he did the same again. However, this time the ball descended just in front of the goal on the edge of the six yard box where Scott Broadway was on hand to nod home.

Luke Shorthouse restored the two goal advantage as a rampant home side created chance after chance, and it came as no surprise when Alex Naughton made it four. Naughton then netted a fifth from the penalty spot before debutant Ellis Whitelaw notched a sixth. It was no more than the Adders deserved on the night after completely outclassing a plucky Darlaston outfit who operate a league below in the pyramid structure.

On a chilly evening the crowd filed out of Sheepy Road and made their way back to the homes and public houses of Atherstone. No doubt those of a certain age could recall some of the great games from the past, and that’s kind of the point, history only counts for so much, because the younger breed of supporter won’t remember that, they just know about the now.

The now is probably quite critical for the Adders, paper talk as recently as this week suggests the Sheepy Road ground is under threat from development. That would be a shame, but at the same time, a new ground didn’t do Burton Albion any harm did it?

You Have To Love It

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