Friday, 10 August 2018

Bucket List

Tiverton Town  4  Street  2


“Tiverton Town”

That was my reply when a couple of months ago Mrs Hatt asked me which football ground in England I wanted to visit the most.

It took me a matter of seconds to answer, and it probably took her a little by surprise that it wasn’t something a little more glamorous for example, or maybe a little more obscure.

No, my mind was made up, and to be fair, it has been for many years now, but for the causal observer, the question will inevitably be ‘Why?’, and for some it may also be ‘So why have you not been before now?’

Ok, I will try and explain. Firstly, just why Tiverton Town.

It started in the mid-Nineties, the 1994-95 season to be precise. I had just left University and after a number of years of obsessing with all things Derby County, I had made the conscious decision to go back to my non-league roots, and in particular re-engage with the club our family has been entrenched with since the late Seventies, Belper Town.

I had a brief flirtation with Belper the season before, for the one and only game when I saw them lose to Taunton Town in the FA Vase, but the year after which coincided with my renewed interest, the club made it all the way to the Semi-Final of the Vase, only to lose to Oxford City.

One of the favourites for the Vase in 1994-95 was Tiverton Town, and the reason for that was they had reached the Quarter Final the year previously, and in the year prior to that they had made the Final only to lose to Bridlington Town. But another reason they were heavily fancied was the fact that in the previous seven seasons in the Western League they had finished 3rd / 2nd / 4th / 4th / 3rd / 2nd and 1st. They had quite a pedigree.

When it came to the Fourth Round and we were demolishing South Shields, Tiverton were drawn away to another heavily fancied and indeed bankrolled club from Hastings known as Stamco. The game was played on a Sunday on an absolute pudding of a pitch and the final score was 4-3 to the hosts, and people who I know who were present at the game say it was one of the greatest footballing spectacles they have ever seen. In fact, a video of the highlights are on YouTube.

After that, Tiverton continued to be a huge force. They won the Vase in 1997-98 and again in 1998-99, and on the way to winning the second time they won a huge Semi-Final tie against deadly rivals Taunton Town 5-1 on aggregate. In the league in the following seasons they came 1st / 2nd / 1st / 1st and 2nd before finally making the move up to the Southern League.

They were certainly glory years at Ladysmead, crowds were big and legendary Manager Martyn Rogers could do no wrong. He’d built a simply awesome football team, with great players like the unstoppable striker Phil Everett who was named non-league footballer of the year at one stage, and one of the best footballers I’ve ever seen in the non-league game, high scoring midfielder Kevin Nancekivell.

Their promotion to the Southern League Western Division happened to coincide with a period in my life whereby I was working voluntarily for a website called Non-League On The Net. It was of its time and its shelf life was always going to be limited, but at the time it became THE place to go for all things non-league football. I was the Southern League lower division correspondent so I got to cover Tiverton Town, albeit remotely.

I did get to a couple of the games, but being Midlands based it was away games, Moor Green and Redditch United to be precise. They drew one and won one but I was blown away by the quality of their football. Tiverton missed out on promotion during their debut season largely due to a dip in form at a crucial stage, but the following season they finished runners-up and were promoted.

In their first two seasons of Southern League Premier football they finished sixth and fourth, before finding what seemed to be a natural position in mid-table for a number of years. Rogers moved on, relegation came, but then at the end of the 2016-17 season they won promotion again via the Play-Off’s, and then last season came a very creditable sixth in the Premier Division.

This is the thing though, Rogers is back in charge, but whereas crowds average around the 700-800 mark during the heady days of the late Nineties, they are now hovering around just over the 200 mark, and that must be a huge source of frustration for this great football club, in a town that is not small in terms of population.

So, it’s quite a long story, but I was fortunate to be following non-league football at a time when Tiverton Town were indeed the ‘mutts nuts’, and also, they were tipped for hige things. I can remember listening to BBC Radio Derby once around the time and Sports Editor Colin Gibson declared that Tiverton were going to be the next Rushden & Diamonds after they’d demolished one of our local sides Gresley Rovers in a Southern League game.

So why didn’t I ever go? Simple, it was too far. It’s only been the last few years that I’ve spread my wings in terms of the distances I’ll travel, and even then, a three hour drive each way was perhaps pushing it. What I was really waiting for was an opportunity to present itself, and after various holidays to Devon whereby it simply never fell right, this time it did!

The one game of the six game holiday marathon that I was looking forward to the most was Tiverton Town v Street, at Ladysmead on 4th August 2018, it was to be the tick at the top of my wish list, the culmination of 25 years of distant admiration, and also, just a 30 minute drive from Cofton!

Ladysmead is a truly superb non-league football ground. Located on the North side of the town centre, it’s tucked in amongst various retail and commercial units, just behind the rugby ground. The car park is quite small, but the clubhouse which is right in front of you is a large building, comprising of two function rooms and a tea bar area. What struck me on arrival was both the friendly welcome, and indeed the number of people decked in club colours performing duties. It had a very professional feel about it, I sensed Tiverton Town had very high standards off the pitch, probably stemming from a time when they had very high standards on it.

Once through the turnstiles, what you see before you is a relatively modern, but at the same time, classic non-league football ground. The Main Stand sits opposite and it’s decked with yellow and black seats in the club colours, while next to it in the bottom corner are the dressing rooms.

Opposite on the clubhouse side is some covered terracing which extends for around two thirds of the length of the pitch, albeit the terracing itself stretches the full length.

Behind both goals are large covered terraces, and it’s the fact that the ground is covered on all sides, which makes it feel like a ‘proper’ football ground. No disrespect to the Southern League, but this is a National League set up all day long, and is perhaps indicative of the ambitions the club may have had when they were on the rise.

A crowd of 160 assembled on a lovely day to watch Tivvy take on Western League Champions Street who were about to embark on a debut Southern League season themselves. For an hour Tivvy were the better team, and after leading 2-0 at half time they went on to make it 3-0, only for Street to find something extra in the tank and for the remainder of the game really take it to hosts. They scored twice with two well taken goals and at that stage you quite fancied them to snatch a draw, but in the closing seconds it was Tivvy who broke away to score a fourth and secure the victory.

So, I’d done it, I’d finally got to Tiverton, I’d finally got really close to a very special football club, with a history that very few at a similar level could even come close to emulating. I have to say at this stage, the man behind much of this success is Martyn Rogers, and when he does finally end his time at Ladysmead, I do hope he is truly recognised for what he has achieved.

I’ll be following Tivvy’s fortunes even more closely this season now, but as for the next club on my bucket list, well you know what, there isn’t anyone, and that perhaps says it all.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Neil. You are welcome to Tivvy any time. Thank you Jay. Press Officer & Joint programme editor. MC on the day. 👍