After last weekend’s ‘below par’ pub crawl around Newcastle and subsequent disappointing trip to Hebburn Town, it was time to mix things up a little bit and head south into Yorkshire for my next adventure. While Newcastle is one of my favourite cities, Sheffield ranks just as highly. I even applied for a University place here a few years ago, but binned Sheffield Hallam off before my interview had even finished. York wasn’t a bad alternative, in the end.
It was FA Vase weekend and when the draw for this opening round was released a few weeks ago, I eagerly searched for North West clubs who were travelling somewhere I hadn’t yet been. Somewhere exotic perhaps? Cheadle Heath Nomads playing away at Goole was a possibility as was St Helens Town at North Ferriby. Ashton Town though were to be my team to follow for the day, as they headed to the Rotherham area to take on Swallownest, a village apparently named after a pub. More towns should be named after pubs.
Although I had made my decision – and intended to stick by it – the initial excitement of the draw was shrouded in a large amount of uncertainty as to whether fans would actually be allowed into matches. Being proactive (and cheeky) I messaged Ashton’s chairman Mark Hayes, asking if on the off chance we still weren’t allowed in, would I be able to borrow a club tracksuit for the day and of course, he was confident he’d be able to sort me out.
Mark is one of football’s good guys, always willing to go the extra mile for others. When I met up with him outside the ground, he was still on cloud nine as he revelled in the success of signing Wigan Athletic’s FA Cup winning captain Emmerson Boyce, who had made his debut for the club midweek.
In the days leading up to the match, Swallownest had informed us that their clubhouse was only allowed to be accessed by members and that no alcohol was going to be sold in the ground. This kind of news doesn’t tend to sit well with me but worse things have happened this year and at least we had some prior warning.
Not one to let things like this get in the way of a good time, I soon trawled through Google and Facebook, finding out how I could enlist myself as a member of the Swallownest Miners Welfare Club. Efforts were dropped almost as quickly as they started when it became clear, as you’ll see with the rules below, that it was probably going to be easier to become a citizen of North Korea.
“No new memberships will be taken on the day. Anyone wishing to become a member must fill in an application form and return it to the club via post or by hand delivery to our mail box.
You will be informed if and when your application has been successful.”
My favourite part of those rules is the use of the word ‘if’. Under what circumstances would the owners of Swallownest Miners Welfare Social Club feel the need to revoke an application form? Anyway, there was no way I was going to head to a match and not enjoy a few drinks, so I made sure I packed a few essentials into my bag, which included a litre of Jagermeister and a few cans of Red Bull.
As last weekend, I rocked up at York train station, with Chloe being woken up early and convinced to drop me off. Still half asleep, a cup of tea purchased from the unusually quiet foyer area and it acted as a form of disguise, helping to divert attention away from the collection of glasses and cans that were clinking away in my bag, singling me out as a potential alcoholic with every heavy jolt.
The 09:16 Northern service down to Sheffield cost me just £3.50 in advance, with takings probably failing to cover the guard and drivers wages, with just five other masked passengers in my carriage. We were a mixed bunch, with one bloke – who kept talking to himself in an irate manner – travelling with a red bucket and a large mop pole. Perhaps he was displaying such outbursts of annoyance as he realised that his mop pole had no actual mop on the top of it. He smashed it with force off a number of seats, creating that horrible cloud of dust you can form if you hit furnishings on public transport hard enough. He eventually left the carriage at Sherburn, much to the relief of the remaining four. Who would leave next?
Nobody. We gained no new members. More importantly, I could now relax, knowing I wouldn’t be attacked by a mop-pole-wielding-maniac. As we travelled past Ferrybridge, which now resembled a scene from Chernobyl, as it continues to be demolished, my attentions turned back to finding my Sheffield playlist on Spotify, which includes the likes of Milburn, Little Man Tate, Reverend and the Makers and new boys Reytons (although I’m yet to be convinced) alongside the more obvious appearances of Arctic Monkeys and Pulp.
‘Bassline’ by Reverend and the Makers was the song which accompanied my final approach into Sheffield, after picking up a number of passengers at Rotherham and Meadowhall. George, who I hadn’t seen for a while, was joining me for this one and I met him outside the train station where the sunshine was beating down on Steel City.
With it being only 10:30, no city centre pubs were open other than the many Wetherspoons offerings, so we headed through the interchange and past the Sheffield Academy, which still holds hopes of hosting gigs again some day soon. I’d only been to one gig at the venue, with indie-punk duo Slaves warming us up on a freezing cold November night back in 2016.
The city of Sheffield, I feel, is often overlooked when it comes to live music, with the likes of Manchester, Liverpool and even Leeds usually grabbing the headlines and best slots. For me, nothing can – or ever will – beat Manchester when it comes to watching gigs but Sheffield comes a close second, with places such as The Leadmill being the scene of some brilliant nights. Who could forget the riotous evening I had watching Billy Ocean with my mum at City Hall last year? For the record, it was my idea, not hers.
After hiking up to Castlegate, we entered the Bankers Draft, which as the name suggests, is a former bank (built in 1904). Heaving, as always, with locals all trying to get their morning alcohol and breakfast fix. George revealed to me some shocking news, explaining that he now has a self-imposed rule of not drinking until 11:00, so opted to wait ten minutes to order, while I opted to jump straight into the swing of things and went for a No. 7 by Stancill Brewery, Barnsley.
Shutters were still down on all the ‘decent’ places to drink, so we headed back down the hill, opting to catch the bus over to Swallownest. If we played it correctly, we’d arrive there in time for first orders at the pubs down there and would embark on a carefully planned pub crawl, which was to take in four of the villages drinking hot spots.
We’d just missed the next bus and with 20 minutes to go, we made a quick dash over to Sheffield Tap. There was no point waiting in the Interchange for that amount of time, with the nearest bar being just over a minute walk around the corner. The Tap is a beautiful place, full of beautiful beer and is strategically positioned on the train station platform, making it the ideal place to finish the day, as opposed to a quick fix in the middle but we didn’t mind. I quickly downed a Captain Planet by Beatnikz Republic (one of my favourite breweries from back in Manchester) and we raced back over the road just in time to jump on the next service.
The X5 bus route travels through Handsworth (who were moving back to their newly renovated home ground this week) and Swallownest before finishing in Dinnington, the scene of one of my first Atherton Collieries away days back in 2012. When I saw the name of the town written on the front of the bus, it brought back memories of one of the most bizarre places I’d ever visited, with just one pub open and half-time hospitality taking place in a Primary School library. The Squirrel, which lives long in the memory of the Colls fans who travelled over, was a pub that were very keen to inform us we had been their first customers to visit since it reopened after an asbestos problem.
Thankfully, Swallownest and the neighbouring area of Aughton provided enough pubs to keep us occupied and we started at the Roland Arms, with the bus conveniently dropping us off right outside. Four old blokes were sat outside in the car park, all enjoying their first pints of the day, making the most of some late September sunshine. Above them, on the exterior of the building, the name of the pub had been disfigured with letters falling off. The ones that remained had been blown around a full 180 degrees. This was either clever marketing, making the place seem cool and trendy, or it was a sign of how breezy it could get up here in the hills that straddle the border between Sheffield and Rotherham.
The selection at the bar didn’t particularly excite me, with it consisting of the usual Carling and Strongbow candidates. Birra Moretti, which is now becoming far too common to be considered a premium beer, was the best of a bad bunch and I soldiered my way through half a pint of the chemical laced gaseous rubbish. This would be the tale of our pub crawl really… but what was I expecting from Swallownest? I was never going to find a pint of craft, unfiltered beer, lovingly crafted from pitaya and other luxurious fruits which I wouldn’t recognise in person.
Next on our pub crawl route was The Rosegarth, which was a 15 minute walk up hill and then down a tight, narrow ginnel into a housing estate. Travelling down the road, we saw a bloke sunbathing topless in his garden, while at the same time a group of youths strolled past us wrapped up in their black tracksuits and hoods up. Either way, none of them were dressed for the weather.
Tucked away in between a row of shops and some houses, The Rosegarth was a lot more modern and spacious than the Roland Arms. In one room, a couple of blokes were playing pool, being watched intensely by large and imposing canvas images of Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O’Sullivan. George and I discussed whether they had played here once; they definitely hadn’t. We sat down by the bar, watching the Everton v West Bromwich Albion match which was live on Sky Sports. Five locals were close by, enjoying pints of Stones Bitter, watching the game with great interest despite not supporting either club.
Again, the drinks choices were poor, with nothing appealing to me. Stones it was for me too, a drink which was originally brewed to cater for the huge number of steelworkers in the local area. The brewery has since been bought out, sold off and the product is probably nothing like it used to taste ‘back in the day’. We quickly finished and prepared to leave, before one bloke questioned why we weren’t staying. “We’re off to the next pub. Then we’re watching the football at Swallownest,” I replied, knowing the conversation could go one of two ways, as it always does. Either the locals would say they were also going to the game, before joining us for a pint… or they would slag off their local club and look at us like we were the strangest people to ever visit the town.
It was the latter on this occasion, as it usually is. “You do know it’s just a football pitch don’t you?” came one response, as if we had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for, while another said we shouldn’t bother and should continue watching the football on the TV. “Watching Swallownest will be more interesting than watching this,” I joked, pointing at the TV, to which the drinkers of the Rosegarth disagreed in unison.
In the end, they were right. By the time a pint next passed my lips, Everton were 5-2 up, with West Brom having had a man sent off for a punch before their manager Slaven Bilic was also shown a red card by celebrity referee, Mike Dean.
The Robin Hood Inn was next on our itinerary and another 15 minutes of walking passed by, with a collection of wind turbines dotted on the horizon in the fields in front of us. George pointed out that these could well be the inspiration for the strange, abstract design that makes up Swallownest FC club crest. Surely not? Or at least I hoped not. We never did ask anybody at the ground.
We were now well out of the housing estate and emerged into a rural area, with a large tractor following us down the road. My flailing arm accidentally came into contact with a large nettle bush, with my fingers tingling for the duration of the next pint. Sat on the corner of the main road, the Robin Hood was the nicest pub of the afternoon, with a nice and clean interior as well as a range of decent beers. Courage Directors by Eagle Brewery in Bedford was my next choice, while a woman who was waiting in line to order food was very keen to compliment me on my hair and beard. I didn’t really know what to say back. The go to response of, “Cheers, you too!” wouldn’t have worked in this situation and would have resulted in a slap across my previously complemented face.
Pint in hand, I wandered off and said goodbye to my latest fan. I’d never see her again and wouldn’t remember her if I passed her in the street but she’ll always live long in my mind, as the woman who tried to pull me as I went to watch Swallownest FC. As much as it would have been entertaining to take a cougar to the football, I really don’t think she could have hacked the next pub on the walk down to the ground which was the Black Bull. It’s cavernous bar area, where even a whisper would echo and reverberate, with it’s flickering coverage of the racing was enough to give anybody a headache.
This was the kind of place where 50 year old men turned up in the brand new Leeds United shirts, with their favourite player printed on the back. The shirts on show this afternoon were still pristinely white, with no pints of Carling or late night kebabs yet spilt down them. A rogue member of the group, who were sat in the centre of the room, had a Sheffield Wednesday t-shirt on, with the owl covering the majority of his chest. A photo of Jessica Ennis-Hill added some glamour to a pub which was cash only. Moments before we walked in, I’d already declared that if I had to make a choice between Carling and Fosters again on this pub crawl, I would give up and have a Coca-Cola. George subsequently paid for my pint of soft drink and we moved on, with 20 minutes to go until kick-off. Next stop the football ground.
Swallownest FC have only played at the Miners Welfare Ground since 2008, when they moved from the Leonard Kyte Ground which is found just a couple of minutes further to the north. Its entrance was concealed, with overgrown bushes and a dirt track providing a tricky venture towards the turnstile. The social club, which we had been warned about, had a sign proudly taped on to the front door which said ‘Members only’ and as a result, they appeared to be doing very little in the way of business. Our mates back at The Rosegarth had been less than polite about those who run the Social Club, saying “They’ve gone bloody daft down there they have!”
While I quickly flicked through my phone to my find e-ticket which had cost me £5, Ashton’s chairman Mark emerged out of the ground with a raffle ticket in his hand. He had managed to sign up one of the Ashton fans as a member of the social club and as a result had already paid for a shipping order of pints, which were priced at £2.80 each. We would later join in, making the most out of the £4 membership fee.
“Welcome to the ground Joseph!” said the volunteer at the entrance, who was loving life scanning people’s QR codes. The turnstile clicked as it made another rotation and almost simultaneously the referee blew his whistle to signal the start of the match. Swallownest were in their home colours of dark blue, which closely matched the hue of the cleaning fluid which dripped down the bowls of the two portaloos that were available in the ground.
Emmerson Boyce wasn’t in the Ashton Town lineup today, with the former Wigan Athletic and Crystal Palace defender only verbally signed up for home games. George and I had earlier joked than Boyce may have received a phone call on the morning of the match, asking him to play. “Swallow-what? Swallownest? Yeah, why not! Count me in!” but that wasn’t to be the case, with Town fielding quite a young squad following a summer of changes.
Their new manager Glynn Hurst, who was a striker during a playing career which saw him play for Stockport County, Ayr United and Notts County to name a few, had been brought in from Marine where he was manager of their reserve side. He had brought a few of the young lads with him from Crosby and they looked to play exciting and adventurous football at times, but found themselves knocked out by a solitary Swallownest strike.
This was only the third occasion that Swallownest had entered the FA Vase, which showed just how recently they had been formed and also how far they had come in a short space of time. First playing as Aston FC in the South Yorkshire Amateur League in 2006, they gained promotion into the Sheffield & Hallamshire County Senior League for 2008, moving to their current home ground at the same time.
Two years later, and having gained a further two successive promotions, they changed their name to Swallownest Miners Welfare FC, taking their name after the social club which sits behind the goal. It’s important to note, that this club have no official links to the club of the same name who played in the Yorkshire League between 1960 and 1971.
With ambitions to step up another level, they applied to join the NCEL in 2015 but ultimately failed due to ground grading. Work was undertaken to improve facilities but the following campaign, the team didn’t finish high enough in the league and as a result, they were left waiting even longer.
After winning the Sheffield & Hallamshire league on two occasions, the club now named simply Swallownest FC, were finally promoted into the NCEL Division One in time for the 2017/18 season, still making them one of the leagues ‘new boys’. Finishing in 11th and then 10th in their first two full campaigns, they settled well before further gradual improvement, seeing them sit in 9th last season before it was abandoned.
97 were in attendance on this warm and clam afternoon, scattering themselves around the ground, which had a seated stand next to the dugouts and another made out of breeze blocks behind the nearby goal. The two portable toilets sufficed although on both occasions I nipped in there, I could hear an attack materialising just metres away on the pitch. The door was opened, and I hoped a stray shot wouldn’t hit me in the face as I re-emerged.
Mark, who runs a pub in St Helens, had brought some plastic jagerbomb cups along with him and handed them over like we were involved in some kind of illicit deal. I stuffed them in my bag and eagerly awaited the first goal, which would signal the first round of shots. Unfortunately after a quiet first half, there were no goals, so the bottle was opened anyway and I dished out bombs (outside the ground, so we weren’t breaking FA rules) to the travelling Ashton contingency.
Kieran, who is a referee, was reluctant at first but I soon convinced him to join in. It was nice to bond with a man who I had shouted many expletives at over the years, with his staggering (yet impressive) record of sending numerous Atherton Collieries players for an early shower. His Dad, Gordon, had recently joined Ashton as vice-chairman and he joined in too, while Kieran, who it transpired was the sole Swallownest Social Club member was sent back out of the ground to pick up the latest round of pints. He was taking one for the team.
As the second half kicked off, I noticed a man in a Swallownest tracksuit watching the match through the fence. It seemed odd that he had chosen not to give funds to his club but then I was informed that he was in fact the first team manager and he had been banned from the ground for urinating somewhere he shouldn’t have done. Sometimes it’s better not to ask any further questions.
The only goal arrived on 64 minutes when a Matt Morton free-kick was parried by Ben Purdham, allowing Joe Pearson to capitalise and hammer it into the back of the net in front of the refreshment hut. I have no idea how many staff were working away in there – my guess, from a quick glance, was one woman – but the sheer number of cooked items being churned out throughout the afternoon was impressive. Profit from all of those food orders, half the gate receipts and the £550 prize money will keep Swallownest going for at least another couple of weeks in this tough climate.
Ashton huffed and puffed, trying to grab an equaliser. Even their new striker, Luke Robinson, who is a bit of a coup for the club, following his move from Thackley, couldn’t find the net despite a couple of very good chances. Robinson had been banging them in for Thackley a division higher but had moved from Yorkshire to Atherton of all places, meaning he was left looking for a new club, hence the move to Ashton. It didn’t happen for him on this occasion but hopefully, in the league, he will take his chances and prove to be a great signing for them.
No sooner had the full-time whistle sounded, the ground emptied and the Swallownest players were jumping in their cars and their vans, off elsewhere for a pint. Perhaps they couldn’t be bothered paying a membership fee either, or even worse, they had had their membership requests declined. George and I headed down the hill, making the short walk into the centre of the village, where a Co-op appeared to be the focal point.
We were ready to catch the next bus back to Sheffield while further up the road a large queue was forming at the Swallownest Fish Bar. This was life in a northern town. What would Grantham have in store for me next weekend?
Mark took the Ashton players back to his pub and woke up early the next day as he had an afternoon booked in with Bruce Grobbelaar.
Swallownest face a trip to NWCFL side Barnton in the next round.