Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Rite Of Passage

Tamworth  0  Blyth Spartans  3

National League North

My Mum finally relented, after weeks of haranguing her, I was finally allowed to start going to football matches on my own!

I was 14 coming on 15, and my trial run was to be getting to Alfreton and back on a Saturday afternoon via bus. It was against Scarborough in pre-season, and if I could successfully walk to Crich, get to Alfreton on the Maun Bus, walk to the ground, survive for ninety minutes and get home again, then she MIGHT let me go to a few more!

I was going to Belper regularly with my Dad, and also Derby with my Dad’s mate Paul, but venturing out without adult interference was a whole new ball game completely, the doors that were about to open were unimaginable!

It was while at a Belper game I got talking to some of the lads who watched them, they were all a few years older than me, 16 / 17 year olds to be fair, and the conversation got onto a game they were all looking to go to on the train, and, would I like to go with them?

You, see, we were all proper little non-league enthusiasts, and at the time I used to run the Programme Shop at Belper, so these lads always used to congregate around and we’d just talk about what was going on in the local game.

The Lamb Ground
The game in question was on 24th October 1987, it was an FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round tie between Tamworth, of the West Midlands Regional League and Wealdstone of the then Gola League. Wealdstone a couple of years earlier were non-league double winners, the undisputable Kings of semi-professional football, whereas a reborn Tamworth were a club that were making people sit up and look at them.

They were on course to win the West Midlands Regional League, but, at the same time they were getting ridiculous numbers through the gates to watch them, crowds more often than not got into four figures. A juggernaut was gathering pace, and the once mighty Stones were about to feel the force. 

Did I want to go? Of course I bloody did!

The plan was simple, a train to Derby, then get the train to Tamworth, follow the crowd, watch the game, and then come home again, but there was a slight stumbling block, Mum!

I’d got to convince her that I would be safe, be with people who I knew and were reliable, that I knew where I was going, and, that I wouldn’t get into any bother. I’m not quite sure how I swung it, I think my Dad may have helped by knowing the lads in question, but I must admit to being somewhat surprised at the approval, especially as I’d still not got to 15 yet!

All I’ll say is, thank God we didn’t have the internet and social media back then, because if she’d seen what happened that day I don’t think I’d have been setting foot outside of the front door unaccompanied for a very long time.

We disembarked the train in Tamworth, all four of us, to be greeted by a line of Policemen, we were stopped and asked who we were, and where we had come from, only they were expecting bother and needed to be sure we weren’t part of the problem.

Clearly we weren’t part of the problem, we just wanted to go into town and buy some chips, as you do when you are a teenager. The town centre was busy, lots of shoppers and football fans were around, and not knowing where the ground was (we didn’t bother researching in those days), we decided to follow some lads wearing red shirts, and hope they were en route to the Lamb Ground!

Match Action
They were on the way to the ground, and with an hour still until kick off it wasn’t overly busy so we took up a space right at the back of the terracing on the club house side of the ground. With ten minutes to kick off we made the decision to get out of the terracing, because by now we were pressed up against the corrugated sheeting at the back, and more spectators were trying to cram in to find a viewing space. It was getting a bit claustrophobic, it was getting very noisy, surges were starting to take place, and the level of hostility was increasing by the minute.

We made our way behind the goal where it wasn’t anywhere near as populated, and then with five minutes until kick off, a large group of Wealdstone supporters entered the ground at the opposite end. Within seconds it erupted, fights broke out, a lone Policewoman was doing her best but to no avail, before eventually stewards managed to restore order and create some form of segregation.

On the pitch, Tamworth took them to the cleaners, winning 2-0 and having a goal disallowed. They looked a fine football team, and from memory it was a player called Carl Rathbone who did all the damage, Wealdstone simply couldn’t handle him.

When both goals went in we had pitch invasions from three sides of the ground. The terracing we once stood on suffered one surge too many and the barrier at the front finished up bent and buckled under the crush. Not content with that, it was also an opportune moment to let off some firecrackers. Consequently, we had a linesman operating two yards inside the playing area as opposed to down the touchline!

It was a mad day, mad scenes and as a young lad, it was a bit scary at first, but what an adrenaline buzz we got out of it, it was all we talked about for weeks afterwards. Tamworth went on to play away at Colchester United in the First Round, trouble ensued and I recall a Tamworth fan who I subsequently met while at University tell me that some served prison sentences as a result.

I seem to recall getting home without too many problems, and as far as Mum was concerned, all was good in the World and I’d passed my test. There was to be a sting in the tail, but more on that later…

Tamworth Football Club have had a very eventful playing history. A mid-table Southern League First Division club in the seventies, they were moved to the Northern Premier League in 1979 for a four year period that can only really be described as an unmitigated disaster! They finished bottom twice, third bottom once and fourth bottom once, so they moved back to the Southern League, only to finish bottom then as well. Relegation to the West Midlands Regional League was clearly some form of respite.

Not A Place To Stand When It's Sub-Zero
Three local businessman came along with a plan to restore the fortunes of the football club, and in a four year spell in the league they finished 7th, 9th, 5th and finally Champions. Crowds were up massively and the clubs profile had never been higher. The Southern League beckoned, as did Wembley in the Final of the FA Vase, but somewhat surprisingly it took them a further nine seasons to gain another promotion, when many may have expected it an awful lot sooner than that?

The Southern League Premier was finally reached in 1997, but this time round their spell in this particular division didn’t last as long. By 2002 they had finished runners up, and then they were Champions a year later. Add in an FA Trophy Final for good measure, a couple of FA Cup Third Round appearances and finally Tamworth had reached the top table of non-league football and had arguably fulfilled the huge potential they had displayed almost twenty years earlier.

Non-league football was a different game now, and the Conference National was a struggle, a best place finish of 15th was all they could muster in four seasons before relegation to the Conference North followed. Two years later and they were back up again, lasting five seasons this time with a best placing of 16th, but after relegation a second time, they now find themselves sat below half way in the North again.

I love a trip to the Lamb, clearly it evokes fond memories, but what I like most of all is that it’s a proper old non-league ground, and with the terraces so close to the pitch, the atmosphere is always a good one. Yes, it’s still hostile, I remember reading some interviews with Conference Manager’s a few years ago, and almost all of them said the most hostile away ground was Tamworth, with the irate crowd standing behind the dugouts giving them hell.

The Away End
With an unkind weather forecast and an artificial pitch now installed at the Lamb, tonight’s game was a no-brainer. Long serving Andy Morrell had been relieved of his duties at the weekend  following a defeat at Alfreton, and with visiting Blyth in the play-off mix it promised to be a good game.

I was right, the score line of 3-0 to the Spartans doesn’t tell the full story. Robbie Dale scored a hat-trick for the visitors, the first from a header that the goalkeeper let squirm past him, the second from a really well placed free kick and the final goal in injury time when Tamworth were caught with men up field.

Tamworth hit the woodwork on four occasions, and the Blyth defence at times had to get bodies in the way desperately as the Lambs threw everything at them. Yes, Blyth played some excellent and incisive football, but Tamworth played with a tempo and a purpose, and indeed in the first half missed two excellent chances to score. On another day, it could well have been another outcome, but after a period in freefall, with performances like this, it shouldn’t be too long before the tide starts to turn in their favour.

On a very cold night, it had been great entertainment, and I don’t care what anyone says, you rarely see a bad game on an artificial pitch. In fact given the winter we’ve had, surely the penny will drop soon with the powers that be that this is the way forward?

Anyway, that Wealdstone game, the plot thickened.

Towards the end of that season I was at a Belper game with my Dad and the referee was Martin Mountain. We were all having a drink at the end of the game when Martin turned round to my Dad and said…

“Did I ever tell you about that Cup game I had to referee at Tamworth?”

The tale of chaos was suddenly told, and part way through my Dad turned to me and said.

“Didn’t you go to that game?”

I nodded, but the story continued, it appeared the linesman was still receiving counselling….

In the car on the way back home, Dad turned to me.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell Mum.”

Good job really, I was already in the planning stages of asking about Forest v Derby and a trip in the away end with my mates!

The Notorious Popular Side

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