Wednesday, 29 August 2007


Winsford United vs St Helens Town

The boy had hit the sack early and instantly; a last-minute dash up two junctions of the M6 to Winsford saw me arrive at the stadium five minutes late. As usual I'd noted that the stadium was somewhere near the main road and breezily assumed it would be easy to find. It was, kind of, but only once I'd sped five off miles in the wrong direction. Such was Winsford's hold on my imagination that Sam's Animal Jungle compilation was still jingle-jangling cheerily in the CD player. Doubling back, the floodlights were helpfully aglow, sitting high above a roundabout - Bethlehem, boys! - so I swung into the car park, guzzled the last of my jelly beans (don't let me buy petrol, ever), and relinquished my four quid. The guy on the turnstile seemed startled that I looked so eager.

Thank heaven for proper floodlights, anyhow. It's not the first time that they've saved me from my own incompetence. For this reason I firmly believe that the traditional stadium skyline is nothing less than a Public Good, whose characteristics should be enshrined in law as a mandatory requirement.

I stroke the chin and reflect a little, but not for long, on the links between Winsford's salt industry and my adopted city. Then I stop faffing and head for the terrace. I don't know much about the Cheshire salt industry, but I'm told that the John Rylands Library used to store rare books in the town's salt mines - I wonder if there's a copy of Give My Regards to Queen Street down there, crammed in amongst the first editions of the German Ideology? It's a scheister to find. It does seem like much of the local interest is underground; and as usual I can never quite understand the alleged wonders of the County Palatine, pleasant though it is.

The Barton Stadium, renamed after the war, used to be called The Great Western Playing Field. I like that. The best way I can describe it is as endearingly crap, but I don't mean that pejoratively. The floodlight electrics are protected by mangled chicken wire. The main stand is missing a huge chunk of roof and the pitch is surrounded by various blackened relics - a mud soaked fire hose, still anchored to its hydrant, several old tyres, and a couple of rusty mowing devices long since reclaimed by nature. There's even one of those adjustable hospital beds on wheels that line the corridors in A&E. The refreshments counter is a full-on transport caff, and the tea is a baked-bean shade of lukewarm permatan - superb; I had another.

Surrounding the entire pitch is a dog track, with concrete lighting in front of the stands lining each straight. To allow for the curvature of the track, there's a semi-circular grassy void behind each goal, manned by yellow-vested youngsters who brighten their gloomy station by spending most of the game throwing themselves into knobbly-kneed pile-ons. The 'keepers keep having to ask for their ball back, please.

For whatever reason I can't remember the Winsford goal at all - I was probably hassling the nice lady for a brew in the caff - but St. Helens' two strikes were excellent, the first a cushion-and-volley from twenty yards low into the bottom corner, the second the product of an excellent build-up, finished assertively from close range.

The visitors looked better and better as the match wore on, and while their "poncey" (or sensible, if you are) stretching routine provoked mirth amongst the home supporters ("are you actually going to play second half, lads?") they were clearly the fitter side. It showed.

At half time, the Winsford manager threatened rather dryly to have me arrested after I encroached on the players' gangway between the dugouts and the dressing room. I thought they'd all run out by then but there you go; people don't make it in football for being prone to politeness and timidity, even or perhaps especially at this level. That's one reason among many why I was spending an evening skulking around an old dog track.

Anyway, there are no pictures (yet) - I managed to offload £400 worth of camera / wedding present on some concrete while retrieving a ball, immediately prior to getting threatened with the Cheshire Constabulary. Hard surfaces aren't good for cameras, y'know, and I have had some explaining to do in the morning.

At the final toots of the whistle, the club officials forgot to open the gates, thus preventing an early or even timely home time for everyone. It was fun to see the fairweathers denied their exit - they seemed kind of embarrassed to ask someone, while mutting about health and safety - but if you've ever had that ffs, what am I doing here? moment at a match, then this was the reaffirmation.

"Crapball would be ok if it just lasted for 10 minutes," reflected Mrs. TUTD sympathetically as she spooned some more porridge into a little mouth at breakfast. She was ok about the camera.

"BALL!" cried the fourteen-month old enthusiastically, ignoring his tasty slop for a second, thrusting his arms skywards and grinning toothily.

I'm not sure whether to be heartened or mortified by that.

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