Helmsley, a quiet market town tucked away in the rolling hills of North Yorkshire, provided arguably the most bizarre game of football I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Little did the 20 or so in attendance know that this match – being staged in the 14th level of English football – would lead to interest by the BBC, TalkSport and even a couple of Italian football publications amongst countless others after my tweets about the afternoon’s shenanigans went viral. Here is the match which very nearly got abandoned in the first half due to a tree.
Our second helping of lockdown, which returned with as much excitement and anticipation as a new series of Mrs Brown’s Boys, once again brought a halt to the levels of football that we were permitted to attend. With that, many people’s coping mechanism, their weekly release, football had been snatched away – once again. 38 long, dark and cold winter days had passed since my nostrils were last overwhelmed by the smells emanating from fresh grass being churned up by a multitude of boots and crunching tackles.
Hours before the new restrictions were implemented, Atherton Collieries hosted City of Liverpool. The evening had a strange and disconcerting atmosphere, feeling more like we were at a wake as opposed to an FA Trophy tie. Despite a crowd of 294 being in attendance, it was eerily quiet from the first high pitch blow of the referee’s whistle to the last.
Everybody there knew that it would be our last glimmer of ‘freedom’ for a while. Simply, we didn’t know when we’d be back pitchside. It was the last chance for mates to see each other in person and as such, outside a bolted and locked up clubhouse, drinking went on for a good hour or so after the match had ended. Players and officials from both sides were fully prepared and had brought their own crates of beer along. We felt like school boys, pushing our luck by playing out for another five minutes after the street lights had started display their red hue.
Away from football, quite a lot had happened in my life during the latest lockdown, meaning my opportunities to catch a game would have been fairly limited had we been allowed into matches anyway. I had secured myself a new job, moving from my current school in Salford to one in York on a free transfer ahead of the January transfer window. With that sealed, a permanent move back to the city famed for its Minster and overflowing rivers was required and last weekend after a couple of weeks of house hunting, Chloe and I moved into our first place together.
It has been tricky, juggling still being at work in Salford and now living in York. It has meant my poor little car is having to endure a lot of miles travelling up and down the M62. This, however, come the Saturday didn’t put me off winding up and down through the Howardian Hills, which sit to the north of York, in search of a return to watching the sport which we hate to love. Paul, who was having a weekend off from watching Yarm & Eaglescliffe FC, suggested we could head to Helmsley to take in the game between Duncombe Park and Copmanthorpe.
My undulating drive northwards led me through prime Escape to the Country territory, with quaint villages such as Sheriff Hutton, Hovingham and Stonegrave offering an increasingly more romantic backdrop with every passing mile travelled. Arriving into Helmsley around an hour before kick off, it was busier than I expected with a mix of families and young couples making the most of a large collection of independent shops (all decorated for Christmas) while hikers, who were thoroughly wrapped up from the elements, travelled through the area as they trudged along part of the Cleveland Way.
Straddling the southern border of the North York Moors National Park, Helmsley sits 14 miles east of Thirsk and even further away from York which is located 24 miles to the south. Like many pretty and affluent village towns, Helmsley has its own tourism website, which is packed full of useful information, the odd questionable claim and of course lots of outlandish and unsubstantiated statements.
Included in a section called, ‘Why Helmsley?’ it explains that the place is, ‘A picture perfect Yorkshire market town: an idyllic place to have a business, visit or stay for a day, weekend or the rest of your life.’ Still unsure whether I wanted to visit for a day, set up a new business or buy a house I decided to conduct further research ahead of my trip.
Another part of the website which made me smile is a page which I assume is designed to entice those elusive foreign visitors. ‘Helmsley is an inspiration to international visitors and has easy road links from Hull ferry terminal and is just over an hour from Leeds Bradford airport.’ Even with the current pandemic restricting overseas travel, I really can’t see hordes of tourists cramming on to the overnight ferry to Hull from Rotterdam, with their final destination being Helmsley.
Even so, if you were one of those who planned to travel to Helmsley from Europe and do as the first quote suggests, ended up staying forever, either through choice or against your will, just what would you be able to do to keep yourself occupied?
As mentioned, there are plenty of shops, with the majority of these being local and independent which is the town’s biggest selling point. While it is undoubtedly great to see a rare example of a community sticking two fingers up to large corporations and conglomerates, insular beliefs such as, ‘Helmsley is a High Street like no other. Independent shops, galleries and boutiques, selling everything you could possibly need,’ are clearly an exaggeration.
For those wanting a drink, which I was, the town has a couple of pubs and its own brewery, Helmsley Brewery Co, which sits on the corner of Bridge Street and Castlegate. As we approached, a temporary sign instructed us to head around the back to ‘the garage’ if we wanted to purchase beer to take away. It felt as close to an experience with an illicit trade that we would find in Helmsley. Up a shingle covered driveway we walked, until we encountered a bloke who was busy brewing away.
“Can I buy some beer please?” I asked, as per instruction on the door. We were in the wrong place and after being made to feel like we hadn’t followed the directions on the door properly, we were duly redirected back past the sign we had read and inside. Once in the tap room, we found one bloke sat by the window supping a pint of real ale which had been poured a couple of metres from where he was perched. With not much time and only wanting to grab some beer to enjoy at the match, I buckled under pressure and opted to buy a three bottle gift set, which seemed a little overindulgent but it was nearly Christmas after all.
“I’ll just have to have these when I get home I think,” I moaned at Paul as I realised a bottle opener would be needed to drink my latest purchases. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those superhumans (or maniacs) who can open bottles with their teeth and on top of that, I’m sure my dental registration has lapsed. I must get that checked.
Anyway, even Helmsley’s high street, you remember the one? The one which claims to sell everything you could possibly need? It didn’t have any shops which stocked bottle openers. Thankfully, and somehow, Paul, my teetotal mate was the proud owner of a Yarm & Eaglescliffe FC bottle opener and I duly became the first person to make use of it. It’s only now struck me that I never did ask him why he carries a bottle opener around with him; we’ll just have to assume it’s incase he ever needs to open a J20.
I must stress at this point that the fun of Helmsley isn’t solely reserved for those who like pubs and breweries; Paul being an example. While I was hunting for beer, he could have easily left me to it and found something interesting. I was surprised that he didn’t head over to the Helmsley Arts Centre where they were holding a ‘Paper Cutting Convention’ with an artist who had travelled ‘all the way’ from Scarborough. In honesty, there aren’t many events held at the Arts Centre which would entice me through their doors but a few years ago, local band One Night Only staged a gig there in a nostalgic and much anticipated return to their hometown.
Formed in Helmsley in 2003, One Night Only are best known for their singles ‘Just For Tonight’ and ‘Say You Don’t Want It’ which reached 9th and 23rd in the UK charts respectively between 2008 and 2010. To me, they are proper Now That’s What I Call Music album fillers, which I still sing along to. They have continued to make music but without as much success since, which I think is a shame as I enjoyed listening to them on my drive up to Helmsley.
Having covered the hospitality sector and the arts, I know you’re dying to know what else Helmsley has to offer. Well, how about visiting the National Centre for Birds of Prey, which I’ve heard is a right hoot. The tourism website sells it better than me by explaining that the place has, ‘The largest collection of birds in the north of England,’ which is yet another bold claim. I say this as I’m pretty sure I’ve seen an unquantifiably larger number of the scantily dressed variety of bird knocking about in Wigan on a night out.
Further up the road and a sharp turn around the corner stand the remains of Helmsley Castle, which is a site now maintained by English Heritage. Having stood since 1385, the structure was once sketched by JMW Turner who was passing through the area. He was drawn to the area having heard that a ‘Paper Cutting Convention’ was taking place. The pieces which Turner produced are held by the Tate in their archives.
If life had been a bit more normal on my visit to the town, there was only one place that I would have chosen to spend my time before the match and by chance, it was right next to the football ground which itself was just a few minutes walk from the town centre. Helmsley has an open air swimming pool. Five lanes wide and deep enough to perform a bomb, the photographs of the place could easily be slotted into the Caribbean section of a Virgin Holidays brochure. Unfortunately, the pool hasn’t been open for most of the year as it isn’t financially viable at the moment but they do promise to be back in 2021; I’ll undoubtedly be back with my trunks ahead of a warm pre-season friendly.
As Paul and I made our way into the ground, a vehicle pulled up next to us and a young lad, who appeared to be in a bit of a rush jumped out of his car. “Excuse me lads. Is this the Helmsley Sports & Recreation Ground?” he asked. I particularly liked how he opted to use the grounds full title to avoid confusion, as if there’s a plethora of sporting facilities in this village.
“I’ve been driving all the way up there trying to find it!” he continued, pointing towards a road which rumbled on through a myriad of sheep fields before disappearing into the haze over the horizon. Kindly, we confirmed he was in the right place which was the signal for him to lace up his boots and join his Copmanthorpe team mates for the few minutes that remained of the warm up.
It had been threatening to rain all morning and as soon as kick off was nearly upon us, the water began teeming down on what was already a soggy pitch. After a quick risk assessment, I joined the Copmanthorpe player and also changed into my boots. My cut price black Adidas efforts were making their first appearance in a long while and admittedly looked ‘a little bit daft’ when paired with my turned up jeans.
The pitch at Helmsley, which seemed to be pretty long in size and leaned from one end to the other, is shared with the town’s cricket club, who also take their name from the large stately home down the road, Duncombe Park. I would imagine in the height of summer, the playing surface is in great condition but on this occasion it was a little treacherous underfoot which set up a gruelling encounter for those involved.
Coming into the match, Duncombe Park were in fifth place while Copmanthorpe, who had travelled from the southern outskirts of York were a place lower and just a point behind. Park were still adjusting to life in the fourth tier of the York League following their move across from Division 2 of the Beckett League ahead of the 2019/20 campaign.
Formed in 1894, Duncombe Park are one of, if not the oldest clubs to be playing in the York League. It is perhaps these historic origins which have put club officials off ‘rebranding’ to include the more familiar and geographically representative name of ‘Helmsley’ in their title. As an outsider, I think it would certainly help attract a few more people to watch matches and I’m sure the local tourism board would soon be claiming on their website that, ‘Helmsley is home to the most skilful football team in Yorkshire,’ in an attempt to attract travellers who are arriving into Hull ferry port.
Shivering away and with mud already splattered up my jeans, my bottle of Yorkshire Legend, from the brewery down the road did little to help warm me up. The referee, who was officiating on his own with no linesman (as is often the case at this level) slowly made his way out of his changing room. He gingerly wandered over to the far goal, where he had noticed that the netting had drifted away at the top. While not ideal, this would be the least of his problems on this particular goal line.
Duncombe Park, dressed in their full red strip kicked us off. In their yellow shirts and blue shorts, Copmanthorpe found themselves subjected to a lot of pressure in the opening moments of the match, conceding after just two minutes from a corner.
Moments later, it should really have been two. A Duncombe striker found himself free in front of an empty goal and rather comically blasted the ball well over towards Bransdale View, a nursing home behind the goal. Just when we thought the pensioners living in there couldn’t be subjected to further hardship after not being able to see their families all year, they had to witness an effort like that balloon miles over the bar before hurtling towards their bedroom window.
In fact, this particular miss was so spectacularly bad, even the blokes team mates who weren’t included in today’s match burst out into fits of laughter, with one of them slamming down his beer before running off around the corner shouting, “I’m done! I can’t watch this any more!”
The scoreline became 2-0 when the Park number nine was afforded two attempts at goal, resisting the opportunity of squaring it to his team mate who had blazed over minutes beforehand. Unanimously it was agreed that this was a wise decision.
With his confidence now at an all time low, the striker – who was still looking for a clump of grass to blame for his earlier miss- was kindly entrusted with taking a spot kick on 39 minutes. Despite scoring to make it 3-0, nobody will ever remember the goal itself and will instead always talk about the match nearly being abandoned in the aftermath.
The bizarre chain of events that took place in these ten minutes in the village of Helmsley bounced around the globe in the days that followed. It led to me being contacted by the BBC, who wished to feature the match on their social media channels. Italian football magazines were sharing my photographs of what occured while a Greek football site shared it all on Facebook which led to a lot of interest in my blogs by fans in the Mediterranean.
So, if we rewind just a minute or so, it all began when a Copmanthorpe defender scythed down the Duncombe Park right winger, from behind with a brash two footed lunge. He was nowhere near the ball and as a result, the clearest penalty you’ll ever see awarded was given by a referee who would soon be wishing he’d have stayed at home with his feet up by the fire.
Successfully converted, the scoreline became 3-0 and the Copmanthorpe players trudged back to the centre spot for their next kick-off. Meanwhile, their goalkeeper remained on the floor clearly in quite a bit of pain. He was a solidly built bloke too, not the type who would feign an injury or look for any sympathy.
Minutes passed by while the goalkeeper continued to lie on his back behind, spread out along the ground behind the goal, with quite a lot of blood gushing from his right knee. He had managed to land on a protruding tree root which had conveniently poked through the turf close to the goal line.
“Yeah, but you wouldn’t have hurt yourself if you’d had dived the right way, would you?” came an encouraging shout from one of the lads who was sheltered underneath the changing rooms on the halfway line. He did have a valid point but perhaps now wasn’t the best time to voice it.
The poor old referee didn’t know what to do. He was swarmed upon by players from both sides, as the goalkeeper remained on his back in agony metres away. His match fee definitely didn’t pay him enough to be dealing with all this. “There’s four minutes of the half left. We’ll cover it up and sort it out properly at half time,” was a rather sensible argument put forward by one of the Duncombe Park players. Copmanthorpe weren’t happy though, with a number of their players wanting the game abandoned… and I’m sure the fact they were losing 3-0 had absolutely nothing to do with it!
“If it gets abandoned we’ll have to travel all the way up here again lads!” argued another visiting player. This seemed to do the trick.
As the debate continued as to what should happen next, a couple of players ran off to their work vans in the car park. A couple of minutes passed and the player who was acting as linesman returned with an offcut of kitchen flooring in his grasp; a lino with lino if you like. With an abstract pattern, it was plonked down face first in the muddy puddle which contained the now infamous tree root.
Concerned that this piece of rogue flooring would probably contravene FA and FIFA protocols, the now mud splattered piece was ceremoniously flung off the pitch and somebody else ran off to fetch a bucket of sand. “That’s right then isn’t it lads, it’s disappeared now because somebody has put sand on it. Tree surgeons will be out of the job on Monday, everyone will be running around throwing sand at trees!” came another argument from a Copmanthorpe midfielder.
While debate rumbled on, the away side decided to have a bit of a team talk which invited four of their players to have an impromptu smoke, including the goalkeeper who was now on his feet but hobbling around and clearly struggling to walk. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to catch such a moment and took a candid photograph of one of the lads ‘lighting up’. This prompted one German user on Twitter to comment that this was ‘probably the level of football on which they were betting on every Saturday afternoon,’ to paraphrase him.
It was at this point the referee politely asked me not to film any of what was going on, probably fearing that if something went wrong he could be in hot water. He had my total sympathy and I of course didn’t want to get him in any bother, so I waited to see whether the match finished first and then stuck to putting a few photos on Twitter the following day.
The remaining minutes of the half were played and a substantial amount of added time was also added on. All well and good but soon concerns were no longer about tree roots and the goalkeepers bloodied leg but on whether the match would be abandoned due to there not being enough daylight left.
Having enjoyed another well deserved fag break, the Copmanthorpe players took the game to their hosts in the second half and pulled a goal back on 72 minutes.
In a strange turn of events, their goal came from the same penalty spot which had caused all the hassle previously. Holding his breath, hoping that there would be no further injuries, the referee must have been relieved when the spot kick was converted with no harm to the goalkeeper who chose to throw himself directly on top of the mount of sand which was now covering the tree trunk. “Bloody hell. I didn’t know we were playing in Scarborough!” came the latest shout from the sidelines.
Despite still hobbling about and shouting things such as, “Shut your mouth you bitch!” at opposition strikers, the Copmanthorpe goalkeeper still had time to pull off a wonder save, back peddling and pushing the ball on to the post before he then treated us to a final throw of entertainment in the closing stages. 3-1 down with a minute to go and unable to walk, he found the energy to sprint the length of the pitch for a corner and got nowhere near it. Even if he had scored, they would still have been losing, which surely defeated the whole purpose of sending a goalkeeper up in the last minute. Nothing surprised us any more.
The final whistle sounded as the sun began to set. We laughed, scratched our heads and made our way back to the car park wondering if anybody would ever believe us when we told them about our day. Football was back and we had certainly missed it.
My tweets about the match gained over 2 million impressions. Thankfully Duncombe Park FC saw the funny side and they didn’t get into much bother. The referee reported the issue himself and the club were told they weren’t allowed to stage any matches at home until the tree root was removed, with work starting in the days that followed.