Having gone to our first match together in 2012, Joe, Aaron and I have always tended to have spontaneous trips to non-league grounds across the North West. Unfortunately, we are all growing up a bit now and these adventures are becoming less frequent. Granted, it’s mainly the other two who are growing up as I still hold no regard for my own energy levels and workload as I swan off to matches in the arse end of Yorkshire and Lancashire at the drop of a hat. The pressures of office jobs, teaching and University had all taken their toll on my companions recently and the message “I’m in a real f*** it mood. Lets go to some football!” set the tone for the week.
The Thursday night saw Aaron and I head to AFC Fylde v Fleetwood Town. Friday night football is always a winner and with the weather being kind Joe decided he’d join Aaron and I at Congleton the following night. Congleton acted as the filling in our football sandwich as I was going to Coppull United on the Saturday, while Aaron was off to Conwy Borough.
I finished work early and caught the 15:20 train from Atherton to Manchester. I knew there was a five minute changeover time when I got to Victoria so time would be a little tight but more than manageable. Arriving into Victoria we were all ushered off the train and I went in search of where to catch the next service to Ashton-under-Lyne from. A few minutes of running around in the building site trying to find which platform I had to be on saw me nearly miss my connection. To cut a long story short, Northern Rail could have allowed me to stay on the train I had just got off.
Right, now that my weekly rant about Northern Rail is out of the way we can carry on with heading down to Congleton. I arrived in Ashton-under-Lyne just after 16:00 and the heat was becoming unbearable as I stood outside the station waiting for Joe to pick me up. It would have been more bearable if in the ten minutes I spent waiting, five individuals didn’t approach me asking for a cigarette.
In all fairness to the final woman who asked me for one, she did try to create small talk. “It’s boiling innit mate!” stated a Jeremy Kyle type whilst pointing at me. Out of politeness I replied by saying, “It is. I wish I hadn’t have worn black!”. I then received a brief explanation about how wearing black absorbs heat, whereas white reflects it before she then asked me for a cigarette. And there was me thinking I was about to have an intellectual discussion about energy.
Thankfully Joe rocked up in his car and rescued me. We then realised we didn’t really know where Congleton was, so a brief look at the GPS and we discovered we had to head towards Cheadle and then follow signs south to Congleton. It all looked pretty straight forward, and it was as we arrived in the town at around 17:00.
Found in Cheshire, Congleton is situated nine miles south of Macclesfield. The town centre is quite pleasant with traditional buildings dotted around, decorated with an abundance of flowers and memorials. There are a number of independant shops with a couple of them primarily selling teddy bears. I wondered whether the teddy bear had been created in Congleton, but then I remembered they were named after American president Theodore Roosevelt. Instead, this town has a more interesting connection with bears.
During the 1620’s Congleton became renowned for it’s bear-baiting and cockfighting. After a boom period where bear-baiting was watched by a large number of spectators, the town’s bear became less vicious and as such crowds dropped. The town didn’t have the money to bring in a more aggressive bear so money had to come from elsewhere. It is said that the town used money it had saved to purchase a bible to bring in a new bear, and then replenished the kitty with income it made from staging more baiting. This legend earned Congleton the name ‘beartown’.
A number of pubs in the town centre try to show that Congleton has a long history, but ultimately fail to impress visitors such as me and Joe who laughed at blue plaques we passed on our way into the centre. Perhaps we were being snobby having both been at University in York, where every pub seems to have a real connection to the past, as opposed to plaques which basically say “Something may have happened here once”.
These days, the town can boast being home to former Burnley goalkeeper Brian Jensen, while Daniel Sturridge attended Congleton High School when his family relocated to allow him to play for Manchester City’s academy. Ian Brightwell, who played for City for 12 years was also brought up in the town.
The most spectacular landmark in Congleton, of course, is Wetherspoons. Isn’t it the same in every town? The Cider Festival had just kicked off and the Counting House was full of intermittent tennis fans watching Andy Murray crash out of Wimbledon to eventual runner up Roger Federer. More importantly though it was Fish Friday once again and we had a couple of hours to spare before kick off.
“You’re not going home already are you?” one upset male customer asked a blonde barmaid. “Yeah. Of course I am. I’ve been working since 11!”. I didn’t think anything of it, I thought it was good that a teenage girl was working during the summer months, while Joe said “Bloody hell. Somebody get her a Pride of Britain award. Fancy working a seven hour shift!”. This comes from a bloke who had just completed his first week in full time employment following the recent completion of his degree.
Having finished our tea we headed back into the town centre to pick one of the old pubs to have a drink at. We picked the Olde King’s Arms which was run by Staffordshire based Titanic Brewery. I started a deep conversation with the lad behind the bar about which real ale to try, as I am slowly turning into a real ale connoisseur. In the end, I didn’t trust his judgement and settled for a half of a random one which I took outside and enjoyed on a small table next to the road.
With an hour to go until kick off we decided to head off in search of the ground. Booth Street is found in the middle of a tempestuous housing estate, with the football ground nestled behind the cricket ground down a cul-de-sac named Ivy Gardens. The bright yellow cones dotted along the kerbside guided spectators in the right direction.
The turnstile resembled Checkpoint Charlie with it’s white exterior and pedestrians and cars queuing to be sent in the right direction. I was greeted by a bloke asking if I was with the press as I took photographs of the ground, I told him I was groundhopping and doing a spot of scouting for Atherton Collieries ahead of the upcoming season as we are now in their division again. He had never heard of us.
It was £3 admission, and a free pre-season programme was available although the turnstile operator was keen to play down the quality of it. Squeezing through the cramped entrance a number of steps rise up to the left which take you into the ground.
Dotted around Booth Street are a concoction of portacabins, stands and small buildings. All of which give the ground a confusing but intriguing feeling. The bizarreness of the place is added to when looking towards the bungalows which stand on the embankment behind the far net, where neighbours have clubbed together to build decking which allows them to stand at the bottom of their gardens watching the matches. Community spirit at it’s finest.
Aaron joined us around half an hour before kick off and while we got a pint in for the evening, we decided that we’d perch ourselves on the embankment behind the net – just next to the Christmas trees that were growing in the far corner. No, I don’t know why they were there either.
As I mentioned before, Congleton are in Atherton Collieries division next season so I was keen to see the standard of teams we’d be up against. I had only seen The Bears once before, and this was in an FA Cup tie at Alder House when we beat them 2-1. We fell a goal behind with the strangest own goal I’m ever likely to see before a Paul Prescott penalty and a late screamer from Phil Williams took us through to the next round. Our higher division opponents weren’t best pleased, as they left the ground moaning about our pitch, changing rooms and anything else they could blame. I’ve never been too fond of Congleton since that afternoon, but I was open to seeing the best in a self labelled community football club.
The football club was founded in 1901 and began life competing in the Crewe and District League. They were successful, winning the league three times in their first three attempts. Like Collieries, The Bears were founding members of the NWCFL in 1982 before they then made the step up into the newly founded Northern Premier League in 1987.
In 1989, Congleton reached the FA Cup First Round Proper after beating Witton Albion in the fourth qualifying round. Their reward was a trip to Football League side Crewe Alexandra where they eventually lost 2-0. The two clubs are in close geographical proximity making this pre-season fixture a regular one.
It was Crewe’s first match of pre-season and they played some nice football against their lower league opponents. Alex controlled much of the possession with new midfield signings Billy Bingham and Adam King eager to get on the ball.
Ryan Colclough also started for Crewe Alexandra in a front three alongside Lauri Dalla Valle and George Cooper. Colclough had an early effort that cleared the Congleton crossbar before James Jones, at full stretch, just failed to reach a far post cross from wide man Colclough.
Congleton looked dangerous going forward with their physical style of play which will make them a hard side to break down in the NWCFL in the upcoming season. Their first chance fell to Brian Matthews who curled an early effort wide.
Colclough curled a shot into the gloves of former Atherton Laburnum Rovers goalkeeper Andrew Farrimond before Dalla Valle broke the deadlock on the half an hour mark with a tidy finish.
Oliver Turton, captaining the Alex in the absence of former Curzon Ashton loannee Harry Davis, did superbly to reach the by-line and after Cooper applied a decisive touch, Dalla Valle adjusted his body splendidly to back heal a low shot past Farrimond.
At half time we carefully made our way down the large slope and headed around to the clubhouse. There was a large bear in the corner of the room, which appeared to be impersonating a zombie as it stood there with it’s arms out stretched. It is a decent clubhouse at Congleton and the beer is reasonably priced, meaning it will be a good ground to come back to in the following season.
For the second half we headed down the other end, opting to stand in the covered area behind the goal. Congleton were attacking this end, and once again they gave a good account of themselves.
Crewe changed their side completely in the second half as they introduced ten new outfield players. Brad Inman showed early signs of his pace with a forceful run down the left wing. His cross found Saunders at the far post but he could only direct his overhead kick into the hand of Andrew Farrimond. It would have been a fantastic goal.
The Bears drew level on 66 minutes. Smith was left unmarked no more from six yards out and his downward header gave the trialist goalkeeper in the Crewe goal no chance.
Crewe continued to press looking to find more goals and they duly came in the final five minutes. An early goal of the season contender (for my blog) came when Souleymane Couliably – who was on loan at Italian club Pistoiese last season – did his chances of impressing on trial no harm at all when he spun 25 yards from goal before dispatching a powerful shot into the bottom corner. It was a fantastic finish from the Ivory Coast youth International and his acrobatic celebration wasn’t too bad either!
Saunders rounded off the scoring with a decent finish in the 89th minute. The young Welshman took a quick throw in confidently in his stride before firing low into the bottom corner.
We made a quick getaway at the end of the match, managing to defeat the one way system in operation on Booth Street. We did wonder why there was such a dangerous blind corner going on to a main road. In the end, we made it back to Atherton in once piece listening to the delightful sounds of Now 68. I had no idea I could still rap to Kanye West.
In all, a nice evening at Congleton Town. A nice non-league ground found in a nice town with a range of pubs. I might be back again this season with Colls, but it depends what mood I’m in and whether I’m stranded in York or not.
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 37 miles
- ADMISSION: £3
- PROGRAMME PRICE: Free