Travel back 25 years in time and from what I can gather, the opening few days of October 1995 were an interesting time. In the charts, Oasis had claimed top-spot with (What’s The Story?) Morning Glory while the news was dominated by OJ Simpson and his trial. Back on these shores, in Farnworth, Bolton, I arrived on the scene two weeks prematurely. Arguably, the only time I’ve been early for anything in my life.
Perhaps it was the unmistakable, dulcet tones of the Gallagher brothers that led to me being born early, or maybe, it was all destined to happen that way so I could enjoy a Saturday football match on my 25th birthday. Rather fittingly, it would be Vauxhall Motors FC that would the scene for this ‘party’, a homage of sorts to the car which my parents brought me home in from the hospital, a white Vauxhall Nova.
In an ideal world though, this wouldn’t have been the birthday adventure that I would have picked. The big match of the day was taking place in Yorkshire, where Atherton Collieries were playing away at Guiseley in the FA Cup. During my time following the Colls, we had never really had an exciting trip to a ‘bigger’ side in the competition, so this should have been a great day out.
As one of my birthday presents, Chloe had kindly offered to give me a lift to ‘a match of my choice’ so I could sit back, relax and have a few pints along the way. So, with no limits or conditions included in the offer – and the whole of Europe only a drive away – I started scouring various foreign fixture lists before deciding it would perhaps be a little unfair to ask her to drive to Armenia in her Fiat 500, especially with the relentless shelling of the country from the Azerbaijan military in recent days.
Unable to watch Colls, after Guiseley gave us a rather insulting allocation of 12 spaces for club officials and media staff, my ideal fixture was to be Barnoldswick Town v Ashton Athletic. Visiting the Silentnight Stadium, which is a pain to get to on public transport, would have finally seen me ‘complete’ a league but as usual, my luck was down and the match was postponed after the home side were struck down with coronavirus. Plan C, was to get tickets for Rylands v York City but that had sold out. So, we were now down to Plan D which was a toss up between Cheadle Heath Nomads and Vauxhall.
Despite really appreciating the offer of being driven to a match of my choice and being able to drink, with the weather forecast looking suitably horrendous, I began to realise it could turn out to be an incredibly miserable day out for Chloe if we didn’t do something she might enjoy too, which is when I decided to book us into Chester Zoo. So, there we had it. Ahead of us we had a chance to see some dirty animals roll around in the mud, preceded by a trip to one of the UK’s largest zoo’s.
Saturday morning arrived. With our tickets to the zoo being valid from 10 am, it was an early start. Acting as soundtrack to our rain soaked drive over to Cheshire, I put on that Oasis album which was celebrating it’s birthday with me. Rather apt it was, that as we approached Chester, ‘Hello’ was blasting out of the speakers with the words, “Nobody ever mentions the weather. Can make or break your day,” feeling more poignant now than ever before. We were going to get drenched but, channeling my inner Liam Gallagher, we weren’t going to let it break our day.
Looking back, I hadn’t been to Chester Zoo since I was around seven years old. Vivid memories are of a family member that moaned about scousers all the way around and a giraffe participating in the loudest urination performance I’d ever witnessed. Naturally, this proved to be very amusing for the seven year old version of myself and I knew that if I saw the same thing again all these years later, it would probably prove to be just as mesmerising.
My last visit to a ‘zoo’ was a few years ago now, when I was teaching in York and we took a Y2 class on a school trip to Flamingo Land in North Yorkshire. Just as I had been captivated by the behaviour of the animals on show when I was that age, so were this class, giggling uncontrollably when two monkeys started ‘performing’ on the ledge in front of us.
There would be no such misdemeanors as Chloe and I wandered around, with many of the animals asleep when we arrived, demonstrating that they are more closely linked to humans than we care to admit. After a long week at work, they too were enjoying a weekend lie-in. Kangaroos, lemurs, zebras and a chimpanzee named Boris kept us occupied for a while before I became aware that the zoo contained a pub. “Come on, let’s have a swift pint and then find the tigers!” I begged, realising that alcohol and dangerous animals tend not to mix. It was probably for the best that the pub were only taking online bookings and they had no spaces available all weekend, somehow.
With rain having now seeped through the three layers that I was wearing, we headed back to the refuge of the car and headed towards Overpool, a village in the outskirts of Ellesmere Port on the Wirral peninsula where Vauxhall Motors’ ground, Rivacre Park, is found. The nearest decent looking pub in the area appeared to be The Wheatsheaf, a Wetherspoons which rather strangely for one of their venues was found on the main road through a residential area and not on a bustling high street.
When the pub was built in the 1950’s, it served the growing population which gradually moved into the area following the conclusion of the second world war. Farmland turned into council and private housing and then the Vauxhall factory opened in 1962, changing the area forever.
On entering the pub, Chloe and I found a table at the back of pub, annoyingly next to a couple of blokes who had the loudest voices in the building. They were busy trying to plan their next trip to Aintree, while I was occupied trying to order a pint without being able to see what was actually on offer at the bar. In all honesty, the weather induced one of those moods where you’d drink anything, maybe even a pint of purple beer line cleaner.
After two fairly unextraordinary drinks, with a pint of Old Dog by local brewery Weetwood Ales and a Forty Niner by Ringwood it was fast approaching kick-off time, so we jumped back in the car and set the map for Rivacre Park, or the Syncreon Arena, as it is currently known for sponsorship reasons.
Driving past Overpool railway station, which sits on the Wirral Line operated by Merseyrail, it soon became apparent why I had never attempted to visit Vauxhall Motors before, with the ground a half an hour walk into the wilderness, along roads that have no footpaths. Further into a dip you disappear, before emerging back into vague civilisation as the M53 runs alongside you.
Turning into Rivacre View, we parked up and as we were heading towards the turnstiles I recognised Tom Mitchell’s dad, who was pulling his hood up ahead of a gruelling afternoon on the sidelines. There was ample cover but he’s the kind of bloke who doesn’t mind the elements one bit, which I’ve always respected. Many years ago, Tom had played for Colls, before moving on to play for his hometown club of Widnes. I hadn’t realised he was now at Vauxhall Motors, where he was captaining the side this afternoon, which was pleasing to see.
We were using the entrance closest to the clubhouse on this occasion, with the entrance on the other side of the changing rooms not needed for this match. Paying closer attention to the information board on the other side, it appeared these gates hadn’t been used for a good few months but not only that, it stated their next home match was against ‘Prestwick Heys’ who I can only assume are a Scottish Junior side that could possibly have links to Prestwich Heys.
It cost £5 each to enter the fortress that is the Syncreon Arena and a programme, which I knew would be turned into a water sodden pulp within minutes was also acquired for £1. Even in the relative solace of Chloe’s handbag, it didn’t stand much chance of surviving. The clipboard which was available for track and trace seemed almost redundant, with any attempts to write your details on the paper resulting in the pen piercing through the page and ripping it in two. We couldn’t wait to head into the club house.
This impressive, sparkling new facility was opened at the ground in 2018, along with two artificial pitches behind the existing stands. As a ground, it was already of a high quality following the club’s time spent in the Conference North but these new additions make it arguably the highest quality venue in the NWCFL. Unfortunately, with such glitz and glamour also tend to come ridiculous prices and as I headed over to the ‘snack bar’ to ask for a pint of San Miguel, I was staggered to find myself forking out £4.05 for it. Bars in the centre of Liverpool, which sits a few miles further north over the River Mersey would probably charge less.
On paper, this match promised to be an entertaining one. Vauxhall were top of the NWCFL First Division South table when last season was curtailed, leading second placed FC Oswestry Town by 16 points. A promotion was nailed on but it was cruelly snatched away from them. Visitors this afternoon, Stone Old Alleynians (whose name I still struggle to pronounce) had finished in third place and with Oswestry since withdrawing from the league, this was a clash between the two highest ranked sides in the division.
It was a shame that Motors were denied a further promotion last campaign, as it would have been yet another stepping stone completed in their quest to climb back up the pyramid to where they once were. Having said that though, they do have a track record of climbing up and then voluntarily dropping all the way back down, almost as if to say they get bored of staying in the same league for too long.
Vauxhall Motors FC was founded in 1963, shortly after the opening of the new Vauxhall car plant in Ellesmere Port. Starting off in the Ellesmere Port League and the Wirral Combination, they soon grew too strong and had achieved several promotions. By 1970, the club played on the company-owned Hooton Park. By 1987 however, it had opened its own ground, Rivacre Park, where the club plays today.
Winning the West Cheshire League in 1986, they successfully applied to join the NWCFL in time for the start of the 1987-88 season, winning the lower division in their second campaign at that level. By 1990, they had finished fourth in the top division and had won the League Cup, before voluntarily dropping back into the West Cheshire.
By 1995, they were accepted back into the NWCFL, and yet again they easily won the league at their first time of trying. As the turn of the century approached, they had yet another League Cup under their belts, had reached the Fifth Round of the FA Vase and more importantly won the NWCFL title, seeing them gain promotion into the Northern Premier League for the first time in their history.
Unbelievably, they gained promotion into the Premier Division at the first time of asking and then went on to finish second at that level the season later. FA Cup success soon started to follow and in 2002, they pulled off a giant-killing when they defeated Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road. This earned the club a live televised clash against Macclesfield Town in the next round but it proved to be a test too far, losing 7-0 at Moss Rose.
Back in the league, Motors gained promotion into the newly formed Conference North in 2004 where they remained for ten years until the end of the 2013/14 campaign, where they once again decided to step down and dropped back to the West Cheshire League, taking the position held by their reserve side. The reason cited for this was ‘rising running costs’ and they planned to stabilise further down the pyramid, before looking to climb back once more.
Four seasons in the 12th division of English football followed before Vauxhall stepped back up into the NWCFL in time for the start of the 2018/19 season. It had been a mixed bag of finishes for them in the West Cheshire League, twice finishing fourth before an unexpected dip saw them finish in eighth place. With ambitions – and an application – in place to gain promotion, Motors finished their final season at this level strongly, securing a second placed finish behind South Liverpool.
Despite becoming see through thanks to the horrendous conditions this match was played in, Vauxhall Motors’ kit looked pretty smart, paying homage to their historical roots, taking its colours from the company crest. White shirts featured a red and dark blue trim; it’s amazing what you can find in a Macron teamwear catalogue.
Also available would be the Stone Old Alleynians shirt, complete with their sponsor, Joules Brewery, who have 41 pubs spread out across Staffordshire, Shropshire and the occasional anomaly in random places such as Wrexham and Newport. It was nice to see ‘bigger companies’ putting money into NWCFL sides, especially given the current economic climate. However, the constant flash of the Joules logo, every time an attack mounted down the wing in front of us, simply served as a reminder of cheap pubs with decent pints; a far cry away from the £4.05 for a pint here.
This was the opening league match of the season, a strange thing to be saying about the first weekend of October, but the NWCFL had taken the decision to hold back longer than some of their counterparts in other areas of the country. Vauxhall continued where they had finished the previous season, putting four past Stone who walked off at the end having not really being given a sniff by a side who will be hoping to win the league this time around.
Motors’ raced into an early lead, grabbing two goals in the opening six minutes. Michael Burkey capitalised on a defensive error to put the Motormen in front before Ben Holmes found the net, knocking the ball over a helpless Sam Amedu. Both sides had chances that bounced off the woodwork before half-time arrived.
It had been a physical battle in the opening 45 minutes, something which didn’t go down well with a member of the Alleynians coaching team who subjected the referee to a barrage of abusive language as they made the long walk off the pitch. An elderly lady, who was wrapped up in her thick coat and Vauxhall Motors bobble hat stood was caught up in the middle of it, with her jaw dropping further with each expletive that poured out with his staunch Staffordshire accent.
We were in no rush to re-emerge from the warmth of the clubhouse as the second half kicked off, with our seats offering a decent enough view of the action through the large windows. Vauxhall were awarded two penalties in quick succession, the first for a blatant handball. Amedu kept out a Ben Holmes spot kick but was well beaten by the second penalty scored by Glenn Rule.
With 13 minutes remaining, Stone pulled a goal back through Liam Hickson. The match was already dead and buried though and things were confirmed when substitute Noah Robson popped up with the ball in his own half and set off on a superb run, finishing calmly to bring the score to 4-1, which is how it ended.
It was difficult leaving the ground, from the relative comfort of the large covered terrace which has served supporters since the Conference North days. All exit routes had turned into large ponds, with socks which had bravely lasted the day, finally succumbing to the damp.
Vauxhall continued their good form, winning their next four matches to leave them sitting top of the table. Days after out trip to Ellesmere Port, it was announced that Saturday 3rd October 2020 was the wettest day ever, since rainfall records began in 1891. I hope for a dryer birthday next time around.