Unfortunately this entry is more akin to a wake than a celebration of the game which we love. A situation which I hope not to witness again in the near future. Just a month after reaching the FA Cup 1st Round and playing in front of a home crowd of 1,762, Norton United’s future looks uncertain.
I was back home from York for Christmas and raring to get some football matches in to make up for the lack of action up in the land of the Minster. Originally, I was going to do some “scouting” at Colne v 1874 Northwich in the NWCFL League Cup as we face the winners in the next round. I use the word scouting in the loosest of terms, as my reports to the management team usually consist of me reviewing the footwear of the centre half and discussing how good the linesman held his flag.
Our other two options were Chester v Barnsley or Wrexham v Southport, with Chester being the preferred option as it was an FA Cup match under the lights. Whilst we were arguing over where to go, all hell broke loose down the M6 in Staffordshire. Non-league Norton announced that their chairman and other members of the club were leaving with immediate effect and that the club were looking at leaving their Community Drive home.
Norton United are only a relatively new football club, having been set up in 1989 at Norton Cricket Club. The team entered the Staffordshire Senior League and by 2001 they had gained promotion to the North West Counties. Ground improvements followed before Norton climbed into the NWCFL Premier Division in 2012; gaining another promotion to reach the Evo-Stik Northern Division One South.
This season, the club have found themselves in strong play-off contention. Not only this, arguably the greatest moment in the club’s history came just weeks ago when they reached the First Round Proper of the FA Cup. On a cold Tuesday night in Shildon I watched Norton see off their Northern League opponents to set up a home tie with Conference side Gateshead at Community Drive. The BBC cameras were down and a strong crowd turned out to see Scott Dundas’ side bow out to higher division opposition; a proud day for a club who were seemingly on the up with no sign of stopping.
However, all that changed the day before this match when Steve Beaumont resigned as chairman alongside three fellow club directors. Beaumont played for the club when it was originally set up and has served as a coach and manager before becoming chairman 15 years ago.
The reason for the resignation has been cited as a dispute with recently appointed members of the trust which owns the ground.
The Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation (CISWO) own the facilities at Community Drive and in recent weeks a catalogue of issues has led to the football club leaving Smallthorne. CISWO have apparently stopped the Norton United youth teams from using the ground while there have been reports of banning orders issued to club officials.
United announced that the match against Mickleover would probably be the last at Community Drive, meaning we were given less than 24 hours notice to tick this ground off. Even on the morning of the match there were more developments as the cricket club which has played at the facility for over 150 years also announced that they would be joining the football club in leaving.
Norton United’s junior have been banned from using the facilities by CISWO and the cricket club allowed them to use their outfield for matches. This created further disputes. Ultimately, neither the senior football team or the cricket team had been kicked out of the ground, but had been pushed out by a trust that didn’t want junior teams playing there.
It is expected that the football club will groundshare with Newcastle Town for a couple of matches before moving to neighbours Port Vale until the end of the season. The cricket club are seeking a partnership with other local clubs whilst also exploring the possibility of finding their own stand alone venue.
With all of this in mind I managed to convince Aaron, Stew and Lee that Norton would be our most sensible option for a road trip for the evening. I’m still annoyed that I missed out on Formby’s ground last year, so there was no way that I wasn’t going to tick off a former NWCFL ground if the worst did happen. The logistics were a bit of a nightmare, with the deluge of rain across the North West making travelling through rush hour more hectic than it should have been.
We all met in Knutsford at 18:15 and piled into one car before paddling down the motorway to Staffordshire. I had brought my advent calendar along to bring some festive delight to the car, but I was accused of acting like a five year old. Norton play in an area of Stoke-on-Trent called Smallthorne which is close to Burslem where Port Vale are found. There wasn’t much to report on around the ground when we got there. We knew the bar at the ground wouldn’t be open after the staff in there had also left the day before, so we headed down to the main road in the search of alcohol. Entering one pub, there was a bloke spread on all fours sanding a floor so we made a brisk exit back to the main road.
Stew said he had seen a shop near the ground, so we walked back up the slight hill and found a corner shop where we stocked up on sausage rolls and cheap Polish lager. As we pressed on back to the ground – drinking our choice of beer – there were two local chavs exploring each others bodies. The weather was that cold, the pair had seemingly turned into statues and were now stood still at the bottom of a ginnel making passionate love to one another. We had hit new lows in our quest to watch football.
One turnstile was in operation at Community Drive, with two girls looking after the admission and programmes. I paid £3 to get in as a student and a further £2 for a matchday programme, which may well now be a collectors item. As you walk into the ground, you are greeted by a small all weather pitch opposite what used to be the old changing rooms before new ones were built on the other side of the ground. In fact, rather peculiarly, the old changing rooms were now being used as toilets! “Excuse me, where are the toilets?” one bloke asked, to which he was told “Yeah, go into the home changing room – that’s the gents – and then turn left at the showers. The females can be found in the away changing room.”
The football pitch is found down a large set of steps which once served as the players entrance to the pitch. The largest stand is sunk into the grass banking on the near side and opposite this is a small shed, sitting next to the dugouts. More shelter was found in the corner of the ground, in what looked to be a nice wooden chalet perched on top of the grass banking. It was strictly VIP’s only up there though, us mere peasants could only look up in hope that we would one day be allowed to experience warmth and shelter in Smallthorne.
Rain showed no sign of abating with the two sides taking to the field of play. Norton in red and black stripes, with Mickleover in their change kit of blue. The very good pitch was already showing signs of giving up with the amount of water it had received, but it made for a very physical battle in the latter stages of the second half.
Mickleover went into the match third place in the league table, nine points behind leaders Sutton Coldfield Town with five matches in hand. Norton had played one match more than their visitors and found themselves in seventh place, hoping to make up lost ground following their FA Cup exploits.
Sports looked the most dangerous side throughout the match, but Norton certainly had the opportunities to take what would have been a decent point. The home sides best chance of finding a goal came midway through the second half when they were awarded a penalty. Michael Lennon stepped up and hit a tame effort down the middle making it far too easy for the Sports goalkeeper who nearly disappeared in the mud puddle in the goal mouth.
The only goal of the game came on eight minutes when a corner was cleared to Anthony Griffith (Junior). From 25 yards out, he half volleyed the ball into the top left hand corner off the post. It was a great finish and it meant that we hadn’t travelled all that way for a goalless draw.
In truth, the game could have been over far earlier if it wasn’t for the Norton goalkeeper who pulled off a string of outstanding saves. The star of the show had to be the referee who pontificated over play from the very first whistle. His most outlandish comment to a player came following a poor challenge in one of the puddles which were forming on the pitch. He summoned the offending midfielder over and shouted “If you do that again you’ll get something that you don’t want!”. My original thought was ebola, but everybody else around me took it as an innuendo.
I didn’t want to get any bizarre threats off the officials, so I opted to walk around the ground and stand in the small shed next to the dugouts. There was a cluster of home fans in sombre mood, watching their side losing in dire circumstances. What could they do? They could pull Christmas crackers and tell each other jokes or they could even sing carols and spread festive cheer! Instead, they just smoked marijuana. Five minutes at the back of the stand and I was as high as a kite. The smell was all around us, and it soon began to compromise the decision making ability of the linesman. A clear offside wasn’t given, so we had to explain to the assessor that he was the victim of second hand smoking.
Cold and high, we went off to the refreshments hut and had a browse of the menu. I got really excited when I saw that they were selling Norton Badgers, but then I realised it was the marijuana acting on me and that they were just selling club pin badges… not badgers. We all opted to have a sociable bovril to warm ourselves up, and Aaron had a chicken and mushroom pie, which he described as “perfect” to the woman behind the bar. Since being promoted to working for the Daily Mirror, we really have witnessed a change in Aaron who seems to get excited at the most simple of things when at a non-league match; it’s becoming rather embarrassing.
We still had a further 45 minutes of football to endure, and it was as this stage that we unanimously concluded that we couldn’t do it on a cold, wet Tuesday night in Stoke.
Unfortunately for Norton, they couldn’t find the goal that would have brought some joy to their suffering fans and the whistle went on what looks to be the last action at Community Drive for the foreseeable future. The following morning, club officials turned up at the ground to collect their equipment to find that CISWO had changed the locks on the gates.
From a personal point of view, it seemed strange to think that my team Atherton Collieries had played there just two years ago in the league. Since then, Norton had gained two promotions and reached the FA Cup First Round, playing in front of BBC cameras. All of that hard work looks to have gone and the best the club can do for the moment is hope to survive without a ground of their own.
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 47 miles
- ADMISSION: £3 as a student
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £2