When plucky Atherton Collieries gained a more than unlikely promotion into the Northern Premier League top division, we were left in a collective state of puzzlement, intrigue and excitement at the prospect over visiting new and foreign lands to follow our team. Grantham, Gainsborough and Basford were all places we never envisaged we’d see the infamous black and white stripes play at competitively, but here we were, in our second campaign of doing so and loving – nearly – every minute of it. Last season’s away trip to the South Kesteven Stadium didn’t happen in the end, making this Colls first ever journey to the southern end of Lincolnshire.
Out of all the grounds in this division, Grantham has a well-founded reputation for being one of the more soulless and boring venues to watch a game at. For that reason, I had saved my trip here until Colls were in town as I really couldn’t think of anything worse than watching a random game in an athletics stadium, freezing to death while trying to keep tabs on a counter-attack that was unfolding on the wrong side of a shot put net. Add to that, the half an hour walk uphill from the town centre to the industrial estate where the ground is and gradually, it has the ingredients to be one of ‘those’ tedious non-league experiences.
Despite knowing what lay ahead, I was certain I was going to make the most of the day, confident that I could turn even a visit to Grantham Town into something enjoyable. If not, I did have a cunning a backup plan. Whenever somebody mentions Grantham Town’s stadium, I instantly think back to a recording of the NPL Podcast that we held in the cellar of the Heaton Hops, in the outskirts of Stockport. Burkey, well known for his stint on BBC Radio Manchester, was adamant that if you stand by the running track and study the grass closely enough, you can in fact see magic mushrooms sprouting up along the touchline. I hasten to add, that this is just a rumour, but if it did transpire to be true, then even the most disastrous of away days could surely be salvaged.
For the third weekend in a row, I was up in York after another gruelling week at the ‘chalkface’ in Salford. This turned out to be a great move, with the train from North Yorkshire down to Grantham taking just over an hour and my return ticket costing just £14 in advance. Meanwhile, my mates travelling over from Atherton could find themselves forking out close to £70 for an off-peak return, with the journey time somehow verging on four hours. So much for regionalised leagues and the ‘northern powerhouse’, eh?
Chloe dropped me off at York railway station ahead of catching the 10:04 LNER service which was heading down to London. As I trudged over the bridge through the station, I rather embarrassingly found myself quite excited upon discovering I’d be travelling on one of those fancy new Azuma trains which now run on the East Coast line. At risk of sounding like a train enthusiast, which I’m certainly not, having suffered with poor train facilities for so many years, it was nice to be able to board something that you actually believed would get you somewhere on time and in one piece.
As I settled down on my table seat, with my morning newspaper and piping hot cup of tea, I was given a fright when the train conductor burst through the automatic doors and proceeded to shout with a loud booming voice, “Please be aware that I’m now going to carry out a full ticket inspection!” The first three words of that announcement made me momentarily fear that there was a security scare of a risk of imminent derailment. I also then wondered whether this outlandish and needless performance was how he reveals himself to his wife, as he enters the bedroom.
Making the educated guess that he’d be a jobsworth, just by the tone of his voice, I laid out all of my relevant tickets and cards in a more dramatic fashion than if I had just entered the closing stage of a poker match. In hindsight, an unneeded appearance of my rarely used Tesco clubcard may have been a step too far. Thankfully, he left me unharmed, with just a solitary brush of his biro rendering my orange travel documents as expired. Pen in hand and body camera recording every move, he eventually pounced on his chosen victims a few seats further down.
The unlucky couple, who had boarded on the wrong train (there were two departures to London within minutes of each other) were subsequently charged £140 and shown up in front of the rest of us nosey passengers. All this from a grown man who thought it was cool to patrol his service wearing a face covering which comically – and rather tragically – gave him the mouth features of a dalmation. I wondered if he wore that for his wife too?
With his commission secured for the day, we were soon arriving in Doncaster (one of the best drinking destinations in this nation) and then on through Retford, with Retford FC’s ground sitting just below the railway banking to the right. It looked to be a nice, tidy ground and one which I will certainly be looking to visit at some point in the future.
As the Azuma rattled into Grantham, the bloke behind me embarked upon on of the more bizarre phone calls I’d overheard on this cold Saturday morning, beginning his conversation with the immortal words, “Good morning WHSmith. Do you have any punchers that do four?” No, it wasn’t a dirty phone call. He was indeed ringing the company up as if he was speaking to his local corner shop. Safe in the knowledge they had them in stock at Kings Cross, I gathered my belongings and jumped down on to the platform at Grantham, which was eerily quiet.
The train station, like the football ground, was in a sparsely populated and subsequently lifeless part of the town. A couple of cars rolled past me, with the passengers inside both vehicles, probably also wondering what they had done in life to deserve finding themselves here at this time. Around the corner, a busy main road blindly guided me into the town centre where a Wetherspoons, named The Tollemache Inn, was the first pub that I stumbled across. Six locals were stood outside, smoking, while they waited for their pint to arrive at their table. Service was slow as the pub adapted to the latest raft of regulations which had come into force at midnight, meaning it was now table service only and a mask had to be worn to move around.
I ended up sat at the back of the pub, next to a lively couple who both had London accents. While we waited for our pints to arrive, we naturally got chatting. Hoping that they would be able to provide me with some advice on where to head next, they informed me that they too had never stepped foot in this town before. They had met up in Grantham for a “dirty weekend” having met online a few weeks earlier. Where better to kick things off and let romance blossom? A few too many drinks the night before saw the bloke trap his fingers in a car door and as such, he was struggling to hold his drink as he coped with bandaged hands. The woman, very unsympathetic over last night’s events, was a West Ham supporter, while the bloke was Millwall. Based on that fact alone, I concluded that it will never work out.
My pint of Newton’s Drop by Zest Brewery went down well and I was soon on the move again as midday approached. Further along St Peter’s Hill, a large imposing statue of Sir Isaac Newton – who went to school in Grantham – stood overlooking the town’s shopping centre, which is distastefully named after him. I had a quick walk around it and found it was disappointing to discover that despite Newton’s outstanding work in helping us to understand gravity, they hadn’t yet bothered to open an Apple store here.
Tucked away behind the statue, next to the impressive Guildhall Arts Centre, you can find the less glamorous looking local library and museum which was open and admission was free. An older gentleman stood outside and appeared to be very excited when I walked towards the door and confirmed I’d like to take a look around. Exhibitions, in order of appearance, were the history of Grantham Town FC, Margaret Thatcher who was born and raised in the town, Isaac Newton, Edith Smith – who was the UK’s first female police officer and then finally a section about the ‘bouncing bomb’ with a large part of one sitting in the corner of the room.
In the first section, I looked at the beautiful and interesting range of football memorabilia that was on show before then taking in highlights of some of the club’s best moments from the FA Cup. It was then with trepidation and disgust that I headed into the Thatcher section. Having been brought up in a coal mining town, I’ve seen glimpses of what that woman did to large parts of our nation. I tried to put all that aside, as I aimed to read about a woman who achieved an awful lot, regardless of your political outlook. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that there was a ‘Do you think you know Margaret Thatcher?’ quiz but I decided to give it a miss after my incredibly poor efforts at completing the questions at the Pencil Museum in Keswick just a few weeks ago.
Thankfully, the spontaneous detour into the museum didn’t eat too much into my available pre-match drinking time and I was now heading around the corner to The Beehive Inn on Castlegate. One of the oldest pubs in Grantham, the Beehive dates back to the 16th century and is famed for the living beehive sitting in the tree outside, which has remained there since 1830.
I signed into the track and trace book in the Beehive and noticed that the bloke who had checked in before me was called Isaac. At first, I wondered whether every bloke in Grantham was named after Isaac Newton but then I realised that they weren’t, as that would be ridiculous and also the name written before that was Dave. Before we move on, I do have to say that if you live in Grantham and you are named Isaac then your parents are either incredibly lazy or – and I hate to break it to you – you were most likely conceived in an alleyway behind the local shopping centre.
My pint of Bear Island Extra by Newby Wyke Brewery was almost finished, so attentions turned to where I would get my next pint. The bloke next to me, who was watching the horse racing with great concentration and stealth, took interest in the rough itinerary that I had hastily thrown together, critiquing each step I had planned on making. “Don’t go in The Priory! You’ll get given cocaine as soon as you step in!” was his only real piece of advice, which I predicted would be untrue – or at least an exaggeration – as surely you’d have to sanitise and sign the entry book first?
Further up the road, I wandered into the Blue Pig which stands on the corner of Vine Street and Swinegate. It’s timber frame exterior and quiet surroundings made me feel like I could be back in York. The Blue Pig name has staunch political roots, with the Manners family who owned it being members of the Whigs, a political party that would eventually be absorbed by the Conservatives. The family owned numerous pubs in the town at the time, with a pub crawl in the early 1800’s consisting – and not limited to – drinks at the Blue Lion, Blue Horse, Blue Dog, Blue Bull, Blue Cow, Blue Ram, Blue Sheep, Blue Lamb and even, to mix things up a little bit, the Blue Man. What could you drink inside these establishments? Blue beer, of course.
Sitting on my own in the front room, the surroundings were a little cold, with an uncomfortable bench to sit on and a stone floor not conducive to retaining heat. There wasn’t much choice of beer in this place, from what I could guess, so I made do with a pint of Tribute by St Austell Brewery before continuing my route up the road to what would turn out to be my favourite pub of the afternoon.
Before I entered the enticing doors of the Nobody Inn – in which there were actually a lot of people – I ventured directly over the road to have a quick look at the birthplace of Thatcher. On North Parade, she was brought up above her father’s grocery and tobacco store which is now a chiropodist. A small commemorative plaque, which sits just outside the window, is the only public acknowledgement to a divisive figure who many people still hate with as much passion now, as they did when she was in power.
Back down the high street, where the Isaac Newton statue stands, an empty plinth lay wrapped up in tarpaulin and was fenced off. It is here that the local council propose to unveil a 3.2 metre high statue of Margaret Thatcher but every time they move closer to doing so, there is concern that it will cause protest and vandalism. Currently in storage in a secret location, the statue has already been rejected by Westminster Council.
Back at the Nobody Inn, Matt and Nick had now joined me having driven across from Leigh. It meant I was no longer on my own and I could also now catch a lift up to the ground, which was a bonus. Newby Wyke Brewery, as in the Beehive Inn, offered the most intriguing ales to choose from but they didn’t go down too well. The pint of Yamato, which was a lemon and pineapple ale was an ambitious attempt, which I admired but couldn’t finish. This was followed by a Kingston Topaz which had a funky smell and again, was a struggle. It didn’t matter though, we’d put some more funds into the local economy, which is of course, the primary reason for why we all drink, isn’t it?
With kick-off fast approaching, we hot-footed it back to the car and fought through unnecessary amounts of traffic across to the South Kesteven Sports Stadium. Where was everybody going? They certainly weren’t heading to the match, with people I had spoken to in the town so far showing practically no interest whatsoever in their local club, while as usual, thinking I was some kind of freak for even bothering.
Able to hold 7,500, this is the largest stadium in the Northern Premier League and it was opened in 1991 having been built on a collection of pitches that were called The Meres, hence why it is affectionately known by that name by the supporters of Grantham. They had previously played in the town centre at London Road, before the land was sold off to developers and now Sainsbury’s supermarket occupies the site.
The old London Road ground was the setting of many historical moments for the club including a highlight in 1974 when they hosted Middlesbrough in an FA Cup Third Round tie, playing in front of a bumper crowd of 6,573. It was also the place where Martin O’Neill, who had won two European Cups with Nottingham Forest as a player, went straight into management after retiring and took up his first coaching role in 1987. He would stay with Grantham for two seasons and from there it would take him just seven years to reach the Premier League, guiding Leicester City to the top division in his first campaign in charge.
Those halcyon days for The Gingerbreads, nicknamed after the town’s once much sought after delicacies, were now a thing of the past. Even so, 231 were in attendance for this afternoon’s clash between two sides who were both struggling at the wrong end of the table last season. Grantham were spared a probable relegation when the season was curtailed, while Colls had a number of games in hand and were in good form, suggesting they would have survived quite happily in the end. Still, this was one for the purist.
Through the turnstiles we went, having our contact details ticked off with a highlighter. It was almost like we were heading into a nightclub and had put our names on the guest list prior to leaving the student flat. Admission had cost £10 in advance, having purchased the ticket online a week earlier.
In search of the bar, we scaled up behind the stand and guessed our way into a room where there was a frenzy of confusion and excitement as bar staff tried their best to deal with the logistics of forced ‘table service’. With no queueing system, or any way of even knowing who wanted a drink, fans were all sat down on large round tables, waving their arms in the hope of attracting the attention of one of the bar staff. The match had already kicked off; I’d been in Grantham for nearly four hours and still managed to miss the start. Kick-off, as we always say, is overrated anyway.
Thirsty fans were now shouting their orders at the bar and a woman was running in between handling all the cash; it was bizarre but we got there eventually. I suggested that the club could resurrect the traditional ticketing system that used to be popular when queueing at a meat counter. Although, having said that, I can’t remember the last time I saw anybody waiting in a line at a deli wondering when their number would flash up.
Unfortunately, by the time we were served I had noticed that the selection of ales available was pretty poor and severely unimaginative, with all of them being the kind of bottles that you can pick up in ‘gift boxes’ at Aldi or LIDL. Whoever purchases the ale, clearly isn’t an ale drinker. Anyway, I was now the owner of a pint of Spitfire (of which half would be poured away) and we left the bar, following the one way system and were guided out on to a section of open terracing near the corner flag.
Colls were attacking our end in the brand new green away kit and we started very brightly, with the strong gusting wind helping us to get the ball forwards. A poor challenge on Colls winger, Ben Conway, presented a free-kick in a dangerous area minutes before half-time. I declared, without an ounce of hesitation, that Gareth Peet would find the back of the net as he shaped up and he did just that, curling it into the left hand corner. Feeling like some kind of Northern Premier League clairvoyant, I celebrated my first competitive Colls goal since February and didn’t care if I dropped any of my beer which had now been well and truly nursed.
With half-time approaching, and not being in the mood to fight for another mediocre pint, I headed over to the other side of the ground and joined the sizeable queue at the refreshments shed. To give the woman and young girl credit, they rattled through a large number of orders and most of us had been fed by the time to two sides re-emerged for the second half. Being in Lincolnshire, I felt it was only right that I sampled the Lincolnshire Sausage barm, although I was very tempted by the Gingerbread Burger, until I was informed it actually contained no gingerbread whatsoever.
The home side equalised as I was making my way around to the terracing on the other side of the stadium. My view of the action at that moment was obscured by the large shot-put net that lurks behind the goal. All I could see was Colls goalkeeper Danny Taberner on the floor, while the Grantham players and supporters celebrated.
The competition was now evenly poised. Colls deserved to be further ahead but were guilty of not taking their plethora of chances. It now looked like they could leave Lincolnshire empty handed, with Grantham attacking well with the gales getting stronger by the minute.
There was to be some late drama though, with Gareth Peet getting bundled over in the penalty area with minutes left on the clock. Up stepped Kyle Sambor, a summer signing from Witton Albion, who dispatched the penalty calmly and sprinted off towards manager Brad Cooke where the whole squad celebrated collectively. We held on through the closing stages and claimed what could prove to be a huge three points if last season’s table is anything to go by.
With Colls victorious, we turned our attentions to see how our other love in life, Bolton Wanderers had got on. After losing to Forest Green Rovers and Colchester United we were in disbelief to see that we’d lost once again, this time to the footballing titans of Newport County. The result left us languishing at the bottom of the League Two table. As Matt eloquently put it later on that evening, “Probably glad of the 250 mile round trip to watch Colls win in a gale with a last minute penalty than watch Bolton lose on telly again.”
By the time everybody from Colls were back on the M62, I was already back York having fell lucky with my train connections via Newark. Chloe was kind enough to pick me up from the station after a gruelling day of painting her nails but she would be half an hour, so I sat down and enjoyed a pint of Bad Kitty in York Tap as I waited for my lift. If you’ve never sampled this stout before, you’re missing out. It dawned on me, that for the third weekend in a row I was finishing my Saturday evening in one of my favourite pubs and wondered if I’d end up in there again the following weekend. As for Grantham, I was happy to finally get it ticked off. Would I be back? Probably not. But I knew that I’d no doubt be back in Grantham one day to watch the area’s other team, Harrowby United.