The previous weekends exploits in the quaint market towns of Nantwich and Whitchurch had more than whet my appetite for another weekend on our nation’s fantastic rail network. Matt, Rob and I had scrapped off our respective teams and were looking forward to whatever life could throw at us this time around.
Technically, the country was our oyster and we could go wherever we wanted to. Deciding to keep it relatively local there were only a handful of grounds that none of us had ever been to. One of these was Nantwich, dare we try again? No. When people ask me if I like football, I say yes, but Nantwich can piss off. Stubborn and wanting to get back to normality we carried on scrolling through the fixtures.
“Newcastle Town are playing local rivals Market Drayton Town and their ground doubles as a velodrome.” seemed like a good enough explanation as any to spend the day in Staffordshire.
Despite having a relatively quiet and civilised Friday night by my standards I still managed to oversleep and come close to missing my train. I had gone to watch Dad’s Army at the cinema in York with Ben and Corker, before we went on to watch Wigan Warriors beat Huddersfield Giants in the White Horse pub close to Bootham Crescent.
I thought the film was great, the beer was alright and my physical state was poor having jogged through the streets of York in an attempt to reach my 08:40 train to Manchester. I wasn’t one to give in and with the help of my inhaler I made it. I had to point out to other passengers that the beautiful sights of Batley and Dewsbury had not taken my breathe away and that I am in fact a registered asthmatic.
Meeting at our usual rendezvous spot in Piccadilly, Matt and Rob appeared calm and laid back knowing that we didn’t have to battle against the weather and soft referees to see a match this weekend. We had around 40 minutes to wait for the next train to Stoke and when it was finally time to board, I began to get a bit giddy. I hadn’t been on a train to London for the best part of two years, but it didn’t take long to realise why this had been allowed to happen.
Walking down the train, it was full of the usual stuck up commuters who were keen to escape from the north. Maybe my low opinion of my fellow passengers was exacerbated when we trundled through First Class hoping to find another carriage on the other side. In the end we had to stand in the vestibule, while a complete crank of a conductor managed to read through his rules and regulations all the way to Stockport.
Our favourite announcement that he made was the one where he stated, “Passengers who wish to place small personal belongings on the seat next to them will be made to pay £82.50. This is the full fare.” Now, one question was on all of our lips, would it be more expensive to place personal belongings on a seat in First Class? And more importantly, would there be an extra charge if the small personal items were deemed to be too large to be small? I think it was fair to say we were pretty bored and could not wait to arrive into Stoke.
Of course, the last part of that paragraph may shock many people. Thankfully, we didn’t have to venture into Stoke itself as we caught a bus from outside the train station directly to the neighbouring town of Newcastle-under-Lyme. For those interested, and for future reference, you want the 25 bus and it costs £4 for a Potteries Day Saver. Technically, Stoke and the surrounding area was now our oyster and we could go wherever we wanted, but Newcastle was our destination and we weren’t messing around.
Newcastle-under-Lyme is found around four miles west of Stoke-on-Trent city centre. The town has a generous amount of pubs and the local market was a hive of activity as we turned around the corner from the bus station. Miraculously the place even had a Revolution bar, which confused me at first as it didn’t really seem like the place, but as we later found out (when we got on the wrong end of the circular bus route) Keele University is only a short bus ride away.
Shortly after 12:30 we were in the local Wetherspoons; The Arnold Machin. This former post office bears the name of the Staffordshire-born sculptor who designed the portrait of the queen which has appeared on postage stamps since 1967, along with the image of the queen’s head for the first decimal coins. There’s even a lovely collection of stamps on the wall as you walk up the stairs towards the toilets.
Punk IPA had been downed, and Matt was encouraging us to make a move. I was reluctant as I wanted to ask the waitress for her number, as we definitely made eye contact a few times when she delivered a fish and chips to table 35. Unfortunately, my alcoholic Welsh friend needed his next hit and we were on the move again. It looked like I would be spending another Valentines Day weekend alone. Next stop was the Lymestone Vaults.
This appeared to be the hipster bar of the town, as there were plenty of locally brewed ales served by a bloke with a beard. Peculiarly, on the wall a Pub Stops of Manchester poster could be viewed along with a large collection of photographs of dogs who had visited the pub. If you got bored of looking at the dogs, you could always read CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide, circa 1983. Matt and I both enjoyed a pint of Stone Cutter, brewed in the nearby town of Stone. It tasted like grass.
We had an hour until kick off; instead of cramming another pub in we decided it would be better to head down to the ground. The Lyme Valley Stadium is situated around 1.5 miles south of the town centre so we opted to jump in a taxi, costing £3 between us. As usual, the taxi driver couldn’t understand why we were off to watch the local football club but he wished us a good day nonetheless.
He dropped us at the top of the valley in which the ground is located. Immediately, we knew we had arrived at a ground that was like no other we had visited before. It was massive. The large velodrome track surrounding the pitch peaked at either side of the ground while a long winding road lead to the turnstiles at the rear.
The Market Drayton Town team minibus was mounted upon the kerb on the right hand side as we turned the corner, complete with club crests and lettering. It took me back to my time playing in the school football team when we would all pile into a cramped confined area and travel to the arse end of Wigan on a Tuesday night after double mathematics. There was something romantic about the away team turning up in a minibus at this level, and the visiting team grew on me as the afternoon progressed.
A sign stating that Newcastle Town are a “winning team” adorned the turnstile. Was this put on to intimidate the opposition, or to tempt fate? We’ll never know. I entered the ground, paying £5 for admission as a poor tax dodging student. Matchday programmes were available from a table on the left hand side at £1.50 along with other Newcastle Town memorabilia which I didn’t get to have a proper look at as I was more interested in finding the bar.
The clubhouse is hidden inside a wooden blue shed like structure and filled with a plethora of photographs and pennants. I’m pretty sure their collection would give the National Football Museum a close run for their money, but I bet they don’t have an Atherton Collieries pennant in a frame up in Manchester do they? That’s right, my beloved club had made it on to the wall… spookily placed directly next to Matt’s Swansea and Rob’s Blackpool. Surely they hadn’t shuffled them around purely for our arrival?
Behind the bar were not one, not two but three Orlando City scarves. I was curious when I saw these and began asking the regulars what the story was behind them. It turns out current Orlando manager Adrian Heath is originally from Newcastle and they tell me a reserve side travelled to the Lyme Valley Stadium a few years ago, but I can’t find any record of this. I joked that maybe Brazilian World Cup winner Kaka could one day feature in a friendly at a ground with a velodrome, and I was quickly shot down and told the possibility isn’t as difficult to organise as it sounds… watch this space perhaps?
It’s hard to find much information about the history of the club, or teams they have played, but the blokes went on to tell me that George Best once played at the ground, and turned up without his boots. A bit of research, and I found this to be in a match that celebrated floodlights being added to the ground.
In 1999, common sense prevailed in the footballing community and Kevin Keegan brought his aptly named Newcastle United team down to Staffordshire for a pre-season friendly. “Keith Gillespie is in the corner!” exclaimed Matt as he sat at the bar nursing a pint of Buffalo American IPA, that he claimed was beautiful. I got extremely excited as Gillespie became a recognisable figure in my childhood as he was always THAT player who everybody had about 26 swaps of in their sticker collection. Unfortunately, Gillespie wasn’t there as I turned around and Matt was pointing at a photograph on the wall.
With around 15 minutes to go until kick off I headed outside to see if Bradley Wiggins or Chris Hoy were squeezing any training in before the two teams emerged. It was then that Market Drayton fan Stuart introduced himself and gave me some much needed knowledge ahead of the match. This is a division I rarely get to see and featured two sides I had never watched before. Apparently quite a few of the players had featured for both sides over the years which meant today could be quite an interesting affair. My favourite fact of the day however was that two of the Market Drayton defenders were brothers, and this was evident during the match as on a couple of occasions they hugged each other when a challenge was made.
Coming into the match Newcastle were ranked beneath their visitors, sitting in 15th and 11th places respectively. There was an opinion amongst some that the home side should be far further up the table with the team they have, with one even suggesting they should be pushing Stafford Rangers for the title. As it stands, there’s no chance of them being relegated back to the NWCFL which means I won’t have to watch football at a velodrome again anytime soon.
The match never looked like it would produce many goals but Cohen Bramall had an early chance for Market Drayton that was well saved by Dave Parton. The home side responded by having two efforts on goal, but both were pretty poor.
On 14 minutes, Drayton were awarded a corner on the right hand side of the pitch; Mike O’Reilly delivered an excellent in swinging corner and Paul McMullen headed strongly into the net to make it 1-0.
Newcastle had an opportunity to equalise on 23 minutes but goalkeeper Ash Rawlins was forced to make an excellent save with the player through on goal. Rawlins performed well during the match, and aged just 18 having had trials with Premier League leaders Leicester City before Christmas, I doubt it will be the last I see of him on my travels.
Chances came and went for both sides, but it was the visitors who took a slender lead going into the half time interval. I had become very cold by this stage and decided to head to the refreshments hut for a steak pie, chips and peas which cost £3.80. It was quite nice, but of course it was going to be as it was a Wright’s Pie. The Staffordshire bakers products were a favourite of mine when I spent a couple of seasons working in the hospitality areas at Stoke City (their mince pies aren’t that good though).
The second half was quite open and as it wore on the home side looked the most likely to score. The O’Reilly brothers were still performing well at the back and even bursting forwards when given the opportunity. I was convinced that left back Mike was in an indie band with his floppy hair covering his face for most of the match; Swim Deep or Blossoms perhaps?
With a few minutes remaining, Market Drayton were gifted an opportunity to wrap up the three points but the striker missed what looked to be an open goal, with pressure arriving from a desperate defender. They ultimately paid for this, as with the last kick of the match Newcastle deservedly equalised.
A through ball saw the striker running towards goal, but James O’Reilly pulled him back and conceded a free kick. He had taken one for the team and even (somehow) escaped a second yellow card. His efforts didn’t pay off though as Tim Sanders curled the resulting free kick into the far right hand corner.
The final whistle was also my signal to order the taxi… and another opportunity to pull my hair out with a local company who assume everybody who rings them is also a local. “Can I order a taxi from Newcastle Town Football Club to the town centre please?” was the simple question I asked. Next thing, I was asked a range of questions, from whether I was in Clayton (wherever that may be), to how many freckles I had on my face on the penultimate afternoon of a family holiday to Ibiza in 2002. Of course, the woman also insisted on calling me “duck”, the local term of endearment.
We were on tenterhooks wondering if a taxi would find our location as we sat propping up the bar in the clubhouse. The two lots of players were showered, changed and having a laugh in each others company when our lift did arrive, and our driver is currently in pole position for oddball of the season. I felt nervous perched alongside him in the front as he looked at me and fastened up his leather driving gloves ahead of the mammoth five minute journey back into the town centre.
“What’s been happening here then lads?” came the question from him as he looked towards the open gates of the football ground. “G8 Summit mate!” was my response. Maybe it wasn’t, but I knew we were in for a long journey. “Football?” he replied in a rhetorically manner. “Yeah, local derby between Newcastle Town and Market Drayton Town” came my enthusiastic and passionate explanation. He then lectured me about how it isn’t a local derby and it was miles away, before amazingly going on to say (without any hesitation) that his son had played for the U16’s in the morning… away at Leamington! Bloody Leamington! How far away is Leamington?!
By the end of the journey, I had to explain to him that I did not play for Newcastle Town and had no intentions to do so as well as keeping a straight face when he told us his brother had been stabbed by a bloke from Salford. The latter kept being repeated for some odd reason. There was a collective sigh of relief from Matt, Rob and I when we were released outside Wetherspoons.
Obviously, this was a sign and we headed back in their for another bottle of Punk IPA. Unfortunately, the beautiful waitress had now finished her shift. Interestingly, our drinks from before the match were still on the table that we had left them on, so I concluded that the girl fell weak at the knees for me and was sent home, leading to a staff shortage and a lack of table clearing was the result. Apparently I think highly of myself.
Our next stop was The Old Bulls Head which was tucked away just further up the street from Wetherspoons. It was run by Joules Brewery, much like the clubhouse at the football ground which meant we had the same selection to choose from. I kept it simple by having half a pale ale before we headed off to the bus station attempting to get back to Stoke-on-Trent.
We hadn’t clicked that the 25 bus was a circular route which serves Keele University after it’s stop in Newcastle. Assuming we were now on the road to Stoke, we sat at the front of the top deck and moaned… and moaned… and moaned some more as we seemed to wind through every council estate in the local area. Only an unnecessarily large collection of speed bumps kept us awake. My eyes soon opened a bit more when we arrived at the University campus and I saw the Students Union all lit up.
Matt wouldn’t allow me to get off and sample the atmosphere as he wasn’t sure if I would ever get back if I hopped off. I told him I’d install Tinder and ask around for a bed for the night, but this didn’t convince him and before long we were back where we had started… at Newcastle-under-Lyme bus station. As we pulled in, we did agree that if we ended up going the wrong way again we would spend the night in Keele.
Thankfully for all concerned we eventually made it to Stoke train station and found ourselves on a train back to Manchester within 30 seconds of being there. I would go as far to say this efficient service almost made up for last weekends catastrophe. I eventually made it back to Atherton at 21:00 and opted to stay in and be sensible; for once.
It had been a very long and tiring day, but another decent trip and another ground ticked off. Both sets of fans seemed nice enough, especially the few hardcore ultras from Market Drayton Town who we had befriended. They were that pleasant in fact, I think I may have agreed to go to their away match at Shaw Lane Aquaforce in a couple of weeks time.
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 118 miles from York
- ADMISSION: £5 as a student
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £1.50