Walking through Piccadilly Gardens listening to The Smiths, the music suddenly stopped and my phone buzzed. I had received a text message which read “Are you off to Stone Dominoes v Wythenshawe Town? It’s been cancelled.” It came from West Didsbury & Chorlton secretary Rob McKay. Initially I thought he was joking, but then my phone began to ring. This time it was my groundhopping companion Matt, who had just received the same text message.
I upped my pace and met up with Matt in the concourse at Piccadilly where he dragged me off to his favourite coffee shop for his morning livener. As he queued up I scrolled through various club twitter accounts and messaged people until it was confirmed that our planned match was off. It was a lucky escape for Matt who just about to purchase his train tickets to Stoke when the tip off came through. This was every groundhoppers worst nightmare. Not for us though, this was a chance to cause havoc and visit somewhere a bit wild and daft.
Back to the drawing board. I brought up the NWCFL pre-season friendly fixtures, guessing that these fixtures would be more up our street. We came up with all sorts of stupid travel plans and ideas for days out as I read out what matches were on. “Fulwood Amateurs versus Squires Gate?” I said in an inquisitive manner, not really knowing where this place was. “Yes! Let’s go there! They have a driving range behind the goal!” shouted Matt.
With that settled, we strolled upstairs to Platform 14, which is now referred to as the “dickhead platform” as neither of us like it. We didn’t have to wait long before we squeezed on to a TransPennine Service, which was a Northern Rail peasant waggon with a TransPennine sign on the side. Let’s have it right. The train was off to Blackpool North via Wigan and Preston, which meant everybody on there was off to the seaside; everybody except us.
The train was like a party bus. Everybody was drinking, and one set of passengers brought along a stereo system with dance music which made it feel like we were going on an 18 to 30 holiday in Magaluf as opposed to a driving range in Preston.
A large Welcome to Lancashire sign greeted us as we plodded up the heavily guarded exit from Preston train station. It seemed most of the local police were out in full force. Surely they hadn’t all been scrambled to the area after I refused to show my railcard to the Northern Rail staff at Piccadilly? My fears of being arrested for such a minor offence were erased when a group of pissed up Scottish blokes walked past us singing Hearts songs. I had forgotten that Preston North End were hosting the Edinburgh based Jambos. I looked brilliant dressed in my Bolton Wanderers shirt; it was going to be a long afternoon in the pubs of Preston.
Matt and I had both already been to Preston North End, so weren’t that interested in going to the more appetising match at Deepdale. In fact, our main priority as we walked through the streets of one of England’s newest cities was being able to successfully navigate our way around the plethora of holes in the road as the local council upgraded the centre. In one piece we arrived at our first pub of the afternoon; Wetherspoons.
Those Wetherspoons connoisseurs amongst us will of course know that there are two of the chain in Preston and both are brilliant. The Twelve Tellers was built in 1905 and became the Preston Savings Bank, and you can certainly imagine the place being used as a bank as you sit there enjoying a traditional breakfast. The place was awash with Hearts fans who were all enjoying a few pre-match drinks. What made this Wetherspoons all the more exciting was the fact it was only opened in January, which means it doesn’t yet smell of stale beer and piss like many others in the local area.
We went over the road next to Hogarth’s which is a chain of bars which is growing on me very quickly. Having opened their 100th bar in Bolton just before Christmas they quickly moved to bring their infamous Victorian Style Gin Palace to the streets of Preston. Of course, it was not acceptable to wear flat caps indoors during Victorian times so Matt was made to take his off by the bouncer as we walked inside. To add insult to injury he was asked for ID as he ordered.
The Hogarths in Bolton has it’s own microbrewery which means all real ales available there are made just beneath your feet. As I was ordering my pint of Hogarth’s own ale, I wanted to check that it would be the same stuff I was drinking in Bolton prior to ukulele club. The woman behind the bar was a bit thick to say the least and after I was made to ask the question four times we finally ascertained that the beer in Preston is brewed in Bolton. A wonderful ending to an otherwise disastrous and quite frankly embarrassing conversation with one of Preston’s finest.
As we left Hogarth’s a number of police vans had made their way to the area of the city. A number of Hearts fans looked like they were talking their way into missing the match, sensibly we walked away and made our way further into the city centre. As we were walking across the Market Square we bumped into a familiar face from the world of NWCFL football. It was Paul Settle, father of West Didsbury & Chorlton manager Steve Settle. Matt had awarded Steve his goal of the season award last year, so a few jokes were said about that before we went in our separate ways. Paul was of course off to watch Preston North End… in his Bolton Wanderers hat!
A small food festival was taking place in the square and while some wazzock entertained a group of daytrippers by showing them how to make soup, we headed off to another pub. Following google maps we made our way down through the bustling streets until we found a second Wetherspoons, with this one looking more like an old bingo hall than a pub. This of course was part of our plan all the way along, as local and West Lancashire League expert Richard had informed us we could catch the bus from outside Wetherspoons up to Fulwood.
The 23 bus runs throughout the day and cost us £5 for a duo day ticket. It was all a relatively calm experience. As we stood at the bus stop in our flat caps and sunglasses another man turned up, sporting the same look. Also in attendance was a lad in a bucket hat and sunglasses who obviously felt a bit left out.
Now, I’m not saying that most young lads who wear bucket hats are moronic idiots, but this one certainly was. The bus turned up and nobody made a move, which invited Matt to step on to the bus. “Oi mate! I was first!” screeched the acne ridden chav as he clenched his can of Dr. Pepper. Matt apologised. “I’ll smack you!” continued the upset youth who wanted to show his authority in front of an elderly audience on the bottom deck of the bus. Who would have known that bus etiquette was such a key and thriving aspect to life in Preston? “If he carries on lads let me know.” said the driver as we sat down feeling pretty bemused.
The journey to Fulwood took around ten minutes and we got off the bus at the Black Bull as instructed by Richard who was keeping close tabs on our progress over Facebook. I don’t think he trusted either of us to get to the ground in one piece as Matt and I are slowly building a reputation of being careless and stupid on our travels. I have no idea why.
With 45 minutes to go until kick off and no idea of which way to walk to the ground we nipped into the pub to find our bearings over another pint of real ale. This time it was a pint of Pendle Witches Brew, which is the flagship pint in the Pendle Witch in Atherton; it would have been wrong not to capitalise on finding this delicacy so far away from home.
The lad behind the bar was very helpful in providing us with directions to the football ground, informing us that we needed to head towards Preston Grasshoppers Rugby Union Club. This of course came after the standard response of “Are you not going to Deepdale?”. He told us how we had missed a group of drunk Hearts fans by minutes as they piled out of their minibus and proceeded to try and have a piss in the cellar. That would have been amusing to watch, but we were too busy being abused by people on buses.
It was now 25 minutes until kick off and with what looked like a long walk ahead of us we pressed down the main road towards the motorway, where we were told to turn down “the last normal looking road on the left, which begins with an L”. This proved easy enough to do, and we arrived at Preston Grasshoppers just as the match was kicking off.
Admittedly, we missed the first couple of minutes of the match due to inadequate signposts in the car park of the large sports complex. Rugby, golf, archery, shooting and football all take place at Lightfoot Road which made finding the football pitch harder work than it should have been. We walked around the perimeter of the rugby pitch and asked a couple of female archers how to get into the football ground. “There is no football ground love” said one of them as she sat in the back of her boot. “I’m pretty sure there is. I can hear them playing behind the trees.” I replied.
Getting nowhere with the locals who had never heard of football being played at the complex we headed over to the trees where we were greeted by a large metal fence which prevented us from entering the ground. There was only one thing for it, we would have to either climb or crawl to get to the football. As I turned the corner Matt was already on the floor wriggling underneath a fence. I joined him and we were now in the ground.
Fortunately the other 36 who were in attendance didn’t see our exploits as they were too engrossed watching not one, but two matches. Fulwood Town v Squires Gate on the pitch nearest the entrance, while Fulwood Amateurs Reserves were taking on Croston Sports Club at the other end.
The ground at Fulwood was every bit as wacky as expected when we set off from Piccadilly in the morning. The football facilities are found in a small covered area which acts as changing rooms and a refreshments area. This was opened by local hero Sir Tom Finney in 1981. Behind the near goal stands the tees for the driving range, meaning that the covering also acts as a stand for football spectators. I highly doubt there are any other grounds where the two sports share the same facilities.
The two football pitches were marked out on the driving range which also acted as a families back garden. I got speaking to the bloke who lives in the farm cottage that backs on to the pitch and he explained to us how the land came to be what it is now. He said that around 40 years ago the land was a farm, and was eventually sold off to the rugby club. Half of the land was then sold to the football club, who then turned the pitches into a driving range in 1999. He was basically the Michael Eavis of Lancashire.
The local resident let me take a couple of photographs from his back garden, and even invited Matt and I in for a look around but we declined his kind offer. He set about doing some jobs in his garage next to the corner flag while we sat with Richard and Ruth who were sat on the top of a sand bunker with their two dogs. Not just any old dogs though, these two dogs are the stars of Non-League Dogs, a group which is run by Ruth. I had met Richard at AFC Fylde a couple of weeks ago, so it was nice to meet Ruth too having been a fan of her canine themed non-league work over the past few seasons.
Fulwood Amateurs joined the West Lancashire League in 1993 and last season gained promotion into the Premier Division, beating Turton to the title by four points. Turton, who we visited towards the end of last season, should have been promoted with Fulwood but an awful lot of hypocrisy and lack of common sense from the league and FA has prevented this, with ground improvements ongoing at Thomason Fold.
In preparation for their upcoming campaign in the West Lancashire Premier Division, Fulwood welcomed NWCFL Premier Division side Squires Gate down to Lightfoot Lane. This meant there were two divisions separating the two sides, but it was quite an even contest as both sides played decent football.
This was only the first match of pre-season for Squires Gate having had last weekend’s match against Fleetwood Town cancelled. The Cod Army returned from their tour of Germany with a depleted squad which meant many of the Development Team who were due to take on Gate had to be called up for first team duties.
Squires Gate took a squad of 19 to Fulwood which included eight new faces who were being trialled by manager Dave McCann. The first half lineup saw just one new addition from last season’s side that finished sixth in the NWCFL Premier Division.
Both teams played nice football in the first half with the wingers all causing respective defences a lot of problems. Josh Kay was the standout performer for Squires Gate on the left hand side.
The deadlock was broken by the visitors on 40 minutes when Billy McKenna carried the ball down the right hand side. He crossed into the area where Danny Penswick was on hand to tap the ball in from close range.
Just before half time we wandered around the ground at met up with Squires Gate fan Mark who I had spent the evening with when I visited School Lane a couple of years back. We have kept in contact over Facebook so it was nice to meet up with him again. He seemed to enjoy being given the Lost Boyos treatment by Matt as he joined in the usual double thumbs up photo, which was taken by former Daily Mirror photographer Albert, who now volunteers at his local non-league club.
Matt bought himself a coffee in a mug – which we now come to expect from West Lancashire grounds… not that we are now experts having visited five grounds between us. More importantly, Squires Gate made five changes at half time with all the back four and goalkeeper being swapped.
Minutes after the half had commenced Joel Cummings had the chance to double Gate’s lead. However, he opted to square the ball to Alex McKendrick who dragged his shot wide. He had another chance just moment later but this time he fired well wide of the far post.
Fulwood equalised on 75 minutes from a set piece. A free kick was fired into the near post where the goalkeeper stumbled and dropped the ball. No defenders could react quick enough and a Fulwood striker was on hand to stab the ball into the back of the net.
The Blackpool based visitors would go on to regain the lead just five minutes later with Clarke firing past the goalkeeper at his second attempt. He scored again moments later when a long ball over the top found Joel Cummings. He tapped the ball around the onrushing goalkeeper and Clarke was able to kick into an empty goal to make it 3-1.
As the match ended, Richard and Ruth kindly offered to give Matt and I a lift back into Preston to avoid us being abused again. Having been a great help all day, Richard excelled himself when he dropped us off at The Moorbrook which he reckoned we would be a fan of. He wasn’t wrong as we both had a pint of Peloton Pale which was a special Tour de France one from Northallerton.
I knew my way around the student part of Preston having been to an open day at UCLAN just three weeks earlier with my sister. Our next stop was the Adelphi which is found in the heart of the University campus which stretches out over a number of streets. The bloke behind the bar was happy to see a fellow Bolton fan and was more than happy to talk about the recent match at Atherton Collieries which more than pleased me as we supped a pint of Carling which had a head which resembled the iceberg which sunk the Titanic.
It was soon time to head back home… or was it? Of course it wasn’t. We headed off to Tesco on the way back to the train station and bought some Corona for the journey back to Manchester. I could have got off in Wigan, but the thought of heading to the Piccadilly Tap in Manchester proved too great. We had discovered this quirky bar coming back from Chapel Town at the end of last season.
Of course, I won at table football for the fourth successive time as we enjoyed one of the strange ales which the bar serves. From there, Matt dragged me off to the Corbieres which is now my favourite pub in the whole of Manchester. We ventured down a ginnel and down a flight of stairs into a dungeon where everybody was dancing to local music in a laid back atmosphere. It was incredible.
Twelve hours on from walking through Piccadilly Gardens listening to The Smiths I was now ending the night in a dungeon singing along to Sheila Take a Bow, via a trip to Preston. It had been a great day and it was topped off by being mithered by a large group of girls on the train back who were off to Wigan. They wanted me to join them, but I had to explain to them that I was not going to be seen on a night out in Wigan in my Bolton shirt wearing a pair of shorts.
In all, another fantastic and spontaneous day. Matt and I said that we may even meet at Piccadilly early one morning again, sit down in the coffee shop and look at what fixtures are available. To me, this is far more fun and open for problems than strategically planning for days where you’ll be going and at what time. The North West is our oyster.
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 28 miles
- ADMISSION: Free
- PROGRAMME PRICE: N/A