I had only been watching non-league football for a matter of months when I was on my way to Atherton Collieries v Formby. It was a warm August evening when I bumped into Colls fan Sean, walking down Bolton Old Road on the way to the match. He had recently been to one of his favourite grounds; Larkhall Athletic. “You catch a bus from Bath and from then on you wind through many roads until you reach the ground in a magical abyss. You have to visit one day Gibbo!” beamed Sean as he spoke enthusiastically about the place. Matt was also with us as we walked down the Valley and we agreed in principle that we would visit one day.
Matt nearly went to Plain Ham last season but opted to go elsewhere so that we could tick it off together. Even Aaron wanted to come to our proposed trip to Larkhall which had been spoken about for three years without much luck. One day, we would visit together, we were sure.
Unfortunately, I broke the promise and ended up at Plain Ham without either of them. Instead, I ended up there with my mum after she booked a weekend away in Bristol and Bath. I know, not my usual rock and roll weekend away watching football but the fixture list hadn’t been kind to us. Having booked the hotel months before the fixture list was even released we didn’t have a clue who would be in action, but I said to my mum that we would go to either Bath City or Larkhall Athletic depending on who was at home.
What would I have to do in return for dragging her to a non-league match in a place she had never heard of? I just had to go for a tourist day around Bath the following day. This sounded like a very good deal, and as if by magic, the fixture list presented Larkhall as the only option.
The weather was far better down south than it was in deepest darkest Wigan. Goes without saying really. We had stayed in Bristol the previous evening and as we set off to Larkhall on the morning of the match I kept quiet on Twitter about my hidden adventure. I didn’t want a backlash from Matt and Aaron back home, but word soon leaked out and their responses signalled to me that they were far from impressed. Not to worry though as I was soon having a pint of Sagres (Portuguese beer) in the Larkhall Inn which appeared to be the only pub open at midday.
As my mum wandered off to the local shop to purchase a newspaper I saw what appeared to be a small gnome in a cage. This gnome appeared to look like former Neuchâtel Xamax manager Roy Hodgson (he apparently manages the England National team now but I’m not that bothered). Upon closer inspection, this mysterious figure wasn’t a gnome but an owl that couldn’t fly. I had never had a pint with a flightless owl before, but as my friends say, I need to get out more. I am reliably informed that my local in Atherton, The Rope & Anchor, once used to have a number of budgies next to the bar.
The Larkhall Inn beer garden was a pleasant place for a pre-match drink but I was itching to go and see the ground after three years of waiting. There appears to be two ways to reach Plain Ham. The first way which we went when we were doing a recce saw us do a u-turn in a housing estate before performing a sharp left turn and heading up an incredibly steep and narrow road. If anything was coming in the opposite direction we were knackered. Alternatively, there is an equally narrow and steep route on the other side of the town which is a bit more straight forward.
It was difficult to believe that there was a football ground up here but there was. There really was. This was the definition of a footballing outpost. Yet they were still expecting a large crowd as the parking attendants began to shout orders at my poor flustered mum who had just driven up a proper hill for the first time in years. She wasn’t best pleased as she was simply taking her time.
We had a warm welcome from club secretary Tracey who runs the club Twitter account. We had been in contact with her for a few years via social media, so it was nice to finally put a face to the name. As she ran around completing her pre-match duties my mum and I went into the clubhouse for a pre-match drink. I ordered a pint of Blackthorn when Tracey shouted “No. Have a pint of Stowford Press!”, so I duly obliged. Who was I to argue? I don’t do cider back home. The bloke behind the bar wasn’t happy as he had already filled a pint glass with at least 10ml of liquid apple before he glared at me. I apologised to him for changing my mind, and everything went a bit awkward from then on as he stood staring at me, grumbling that I had wasted “the profit”.
Fortunately the two volunteers who run the turnstile had a smile on their face and soon reminded me why I had made the long pilgrimage to Plain Ham. Colls fan Sean was insistent that everybody at the club was very welcoming, and this soon began to shine through. The bloke noticed I had my Colls jacket on (as it was quite windy, not because I wanted to create a talking point) and became very inquisitive as to why I was down watching Larkhall. I told him the whole ridiculous story as to how I came to be there before buying a programme and heading back to the clubhouse.
By the time I was back a large group of Swindon Supermarine fans had perched down next to my mum. Their away following wasn’t like a typical NWCFL one. They weren’t all pissed; they weren’t all arriving to the ground late having had one too many in the local pub. They weren’t even singing obscenities. A nice chat around a table while one fan knitted home and away kits for her two teddy bears. This has inspired me to take up knitting, and I hope it goes a lot better than when I took up the guitar and broke a string after five minutes and ultimately gave up.
If the polite behaviour and non-drunken state of all of the fans suggested that I wasn’t back home, the peculiar looking pitches that are home to the City of Bath Petanque Club confirmed this. I highly doubt I will ever see the French form of boules at Prescot Cables or Bacup Borough anytime soon.
It was evident that many hours of hard work and a lot of funding have gone into Larkhall’s ground over recent years. Brand new turnstiles, perimeter fencing and toilets are just the tip of the iceberg. As you enter through the turnstile into the ground, the view quite simply is fantastic. In a similar style to The Etihad Stadium, you enter at street level and the pitch is sunken down into the ground in front of you. The players access the pitch down a large wooden staircase which scales down the hill at the near side of the ground. It’s a long way away from 1951 when the club reclaimed the land after it had been turned into allotments for the war effort.
Larkhall Athletic were founded in 1914, and despite recently celebrating their centenary anniversary it is only in recent years that they have enjoyed relative league successes. Having played local football since their formation, they joined the Western League in 1976; gaining promotion into the Premier Division in 2009. In 2011 they won the Premier Division but ground grading saw them remain at that level until 2014 when they again won the league and were able to progress. Now playing in the Southern League Division One South & West (take a breath) they came into the match in sixth place, two points and one place behind their visitors.
There’s only one seated stand at Plain Ham and it runs more or less the length of the pitch, towering over the dugouts that are sunk into the slope beneath it. Behind the far goal is a small covered area that measures around a metre in length and it was under here when I squeezed alongside the Swindon fans for the second half as they fed me cake and made me feel very welcome. They weren’t trying to groom me; I promise.
The much anticipated match was a well contested affair with both sides throwing all they could at each other. Physical challenges and one or two questionable refereeing decisions made for an entertaining fixture in which the Larks held on for a well earned point.
Larkhall started brightly and could have been in front but the Marine goalkeeper Matt Bulman denied both Matt Thorne and Brad Norris in the opening exchanges. A real talking point followed when the home side were awarded an indirect free-kick in the area after a high foot; would another referee of given a penalty? I would have done, but I am not a qualified official. Having later looked on Google, the referee got it right. Well done that man.
The resulting indirect free-kick took a while to be taken, and it wasn’t really worth the wait as the ball was smashed straight into the sea of Marine bodies by Brad Norris. At least I had now seen an indirect free-kick in the penalty area, meaning I can now die a happy man.
After all of that commotion, Swindon took the lead on 18 minutes. Ollie Price fouled Luke Hopper and the resulting free-kick was fired in by Chris Taylor. The ball travelled towards the back post where it was prodded towards goal by a Larkhall defender. Goalkeeper Kyle Phillips was on hand to pull off a reflex one handed save but it was then bundled in by Jacob Davidge to make it 1-0 to the Marine.
The home side looked to draw on level terms when a quickly taken free-kick by Darren Jefferies found Dean Griffiths. The striker saw goalkeeper Matt Bulman off his line and attempted to lob him but his effort sailed marginally over the crossbar.
My attentions then turned to how Atherton Collieries were getting on against 1874 Northwich, and with Mark Truffas apparently scoring a screamer to put us 1-0 in front I was having a wonderful afternoon in the sun. My mood was a jovial one as the referee blew for half time. Admittedly I had ditched my mum during the first half as I wandered around the ground taking photographs. When I went around to check on her she appeared to be having a whale of a time, eating cake given to her from the Swindon Supermarine directors.
Larkhall performed better in the second half and went close to equalising within minutes when a headed effort was tipped just around the post. They grabbed an equaliser on the hour mark when a free flowing attack saw Darren Jefferies lay the ball off to Matt Thorne on the edge of the area. Taking one touch to steady himself he unleashed a shot towards the bottom right hand corner that wrong footed the goalkeeper when it took a deflection.
In truth, Swindon had more than enough opportunities to win the match but they simply didn’t take them. A draw was a nice result for me as I really liked Larkhall as a club, but I loved the Swindon fans after they had given us cake and had enjoyed a good laugh with me in the second half. The behaviour of both sets of fans was impeccable; I don’t think I’ve ever been to a match before when I hadn’t heard a swear word from the spectators, not that foul language ever offends me.
Shortly before the end of the match we were treated to a flyover from the last remaining Vulcan Bomber, which is due to make it’s final ever flight in the coming days. This made a frustrated Aaron even more annoyed that he didn’t come to Larkhall as he loves a good aircraft (he’s a bit sad like that). Looking on Facebook later on in the day it seemed every ground in the south of England had a flyover from the Vulcan.
As we left Plain Ham it began to rain. This didn’t put a dampener on my day in Larkhall though as I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Weirdly, the place was exactly how I had imagined it which doesn’t usually happen. Perhaps we had talked about Plain Ham and the club that much back home that we painted a pretty accurate image of the Larks in our heads.
It goes without saying really, please do make the pilgrimage to this hidden away gem. The surroundings, the flightless owl in the pub and the stunning views make it all worthwhile. For me, it’s back to the grimy underworld of civilisation that is northern football. I’ll be keeping an eye on both Larkhall and Swindon this season and wish them both the best of luck.
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 181 miles
- ADMISSION: £5 as a student
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £1.50