Newark FC – Lowfields

The two mile walk to the Lowfields ground from Newark Northgate station turned out to be a rather uninspiring one. Far duller than the bright orange shirts that The Highwaymen would be pulling on later on in the afternoon, it took forever. But what Newark FC lacked in terms of an accessible location, they certainly made up for with a good atmosphere generated by a passionate and ever growing fan base.

Cultural highlights of our stroll down to the ground, which will be a route travelled by taxi should I ever return, included visiting the grave of a former Polish Prime Minister. As exciting as that was, it couldn’t appease Chloe who had been dragged along for the day. She chose to spend most of the afternoon reminiscing about her last visit to the town which consisted of – but wasn’t limited to – her lying down in a bus shelter.

I must stress, she claims she was tired having gallivanted her way around Lost Village, an annual music festival which takes place in a nearby field. She was a regular, having actually attended two years on the trot. Leading a less exciting life, I don’t claim to be as knowledgeable as her when it came to this far corner of Nottinghamshire, having only one previous visit to the market town to my name.

My debut didn’t last long. Back in 2016, I had been in neighbouring Lincoln, watching the Imps before they sprung into life and back into the Football League. On my way home, I spent less than half an hour in Newark while changing trains. I wasn’t the first and I certainly won’t be the last football fan who will find themselves running from one of the town’s train stations to the other in an attempt to catch their connection.

It was perhaps a bit daft – and definitely not one of my more sensible decisions – when I tried to squeeze a pub stop into my 26 minute connection slot, which needed to include the 19 minute walk up to Northgate. Stress levels were rising as I ordered a bottle of Corona in the now extinct Pound Pub, which sat on the roundabout close to Newark Castle.

Being in such a historically rich part of the town was wasted on me. There would be no time for sightseeing. Having said that, I would strongly argue against anybody who says a trip into the Pound Pub wasn’t as exciting as a stroll around the castle. For those who are unfamiliar with the Pound Pub chain, there were only a handful of them in the country and after a couple of years they sadly ceased to exist.

Branded with the same garish orange tones of EasyJet and Pound Bakery, their business model relied on purchasing kegs of beer and bottles which were about to go past their use by date. Purchasing the booze cheap, allowed them to flog it cheap. Why am I so knowledgeable about Pound Pub, that I could have it as my specialist subject on Mastermind? Well, the first branch was actually opened in my hometown of Atherton… although come to think of it, ours never was *quite the same* after a bloke got stabbed in the genitals one midweek morning.

Anyway, back to my previous trip to Newark. Relaxing in the comfort of the Pound Pub, surrounded by beer soaked tables and sticky floorboards, I knew I was in trouble. My lips hadn’t even touched the rim of my £1 bottle of Corona, with the bar maid messing around with a wedge of lime to cut into my connection time further. Inhaler at the ready, I downed my fizzy Mexican lager in one and sprinted through the quiet streets of the town to make my train just in time.

While I never lost any sleep over it, honestly, I didn’t, I knew I hadn’t seen the best bits of Newark that evening. Keen to head back to see the place properly, I swiftly wrote both Newark teams down on my list of clubs to watch and then over the summer, I connected with a couple named Max and Emma. Living in the town, the two of them had started to watch their local side Newark FC and had even created their own blog, detailing their days out using their own rating system. Who better to give me a tour of a town which boasts a pub on a barge?

***

Early October and we were on our way to watch Newark FC as they welcomed AFC Wulfrunians in the league. Chloe came along to provide some welcome company, knowing the day would provide exercise, fresh air and lots of drinking.

Waking up early, she led me through a maze of unfamiliar roads around York until we arrived at the rear of the railway station. Despite having lived there for a few years, on and off, I was surprised to find myself walking through a car park which felt like it was the size of a small nation. Honestly, by area it must be larger than at least the Vatican City, if not also Tuvalu. By the time we reached the platform, I was knackered. We waited for our service and I passed the time, checking the UN’s list of recognised nations just to double check that NCP York wasn’t its own independent state.

By 10:00 we were on the train, arriving into Newark just under an hour later. Max and Emma were waiting for us in the car park, next to the bus shelter that Chloe remembered so fondly. With a long day of walking ahead of us, it was nice that they’d decided to take further time out of their day to collect us from the station. Despite never meeting before, conversation between the four of us flowed naturally as we made our way over to the first pub, Castle Barge.

Floating on the River Trent, which calmly flowed through the centre of the town, The Barge, proudly labelled itself as ‘Newark’s Favourite Pub’. It isn’t every day that you get to have pre-match drinks on a barge, unless you live on a barge, so I was quite excited. If you do live on a barge, I apologise for boring you at this point. Skipping down the creaking wooden steps down into the bar area, I ordered a pint of Hood by Lincoln Green Brewing Co, from Nottingham.

Max had a long list of places he thought we would like to drink at, so we finished our first pints of the day and pressed on. A minute over the road stands the impressive remains of Newark Castle. Originally built out of timber in the mid 12th Century, this was where King John died in 1216, apparently having been served a pint that was, “too out of date,” at the Pound Pub over the road.

Families were wandering around the remains of the castle on this cold Autumnal morning, with free trips out in open air the most entertaining thing to do. Large trees which had invaded and been allowed to take up residence inside the castle walls were trying their best to hold on to their green leaves which had served them so well over a warm summer.

A strong, overpowering smell of sugar hung over the town. Locals were used to it but it was alien to my nostrils, having never smelt anything like it in my life. We were in prime harvest time for sugar beet crops. Farmers from Nottinghamshire and further afield were busy sending their produce over to the large processing plant in Newark. There are quite a few social media campaigns, which are gaining traction, where consumers are being urged to purchase British produced sugar, which comes from sugar beet. Essentially, if you want to support British farmers, you have to purchase Silver Spoon and not Tate and Lyle.

With that political lecture over, it was time for another pint. Max explained that in normal times we could have had a wander around the National Civil War Centre but again, it was closed. Newark was a key location in the civil war, as the Royalists held the town despite being besieged for six months by Parliamentarian forces. A third of the town’s population died through a mixture of starvation, typhus and plague.

A main figure of the English Civil War, was Prince Rupert and it was after him that our next pub was named. Tucked away on Stodman Street, between the castle and the Market Square, The Prince Rupert was originally built in 1452. Choosing to sit in the fresh, covid-free air of the beer garden, I quickly drank my way through a pint of Decadence by Abbeydale Brewery from Sheffield.

Inside, the pub was carefully decorated with a large collection of retro metal signs from industries such as brewing and confectionary. One that caught my eye was from Stotherts, who were a huge manufacturer of medicines and beverages based in Atherton. By the 1970’s, the company was absorbed by AG Barrs of Glasgow and my hometown went on to became a main bottling plant, with Irn-Bru and Tizer made there.

Growing up, school discos were a blur. Some of the other parents worked in the Barr’s factory and as a result, Atherton was awash with cheap bottles of Tizer. The primary school I went to was only a few streets away and as a result, I reckon we were brought up on a lethal dose of e-numbers, supplied to us through the sticky red liquid which we threw into our systems without a second thought. The Barr’s factory in Atherton is no more, demolished in 2006 but Stothert’s are still remembered fondly.

Continuing with our route to the match, we headed through to the Royal Market which was being held in the Market Place. Red and white striped canopies covered a large collection of stalls, with fruit and vegetables proving to be the most popular purchases. One stall was flogging large pumpkins in preparation for Halloween, which was fast approaching. Some locals were already in their costumes, or at least I thought they were, as we entered Wetherspoons for a quick and cheap pint. The Sir John Arderne sits tucked away, neighboured by other pubs which I will have to visit next time I find myself here.

From there it was a 1.7 mile walk south to the ground, which sits over the border in the neighbouring village of Balderton. Newark FC are an example of a club who don’t actually play in their hometown, not that it bothers me. We took a route through the cemetery which had an eerie, yet attractive tree lined walkway straight through the heart of it. On the left hand side, a whole section is dedicated to 397 Polish soldiers who served at RAF bases around the town.

Władysław Sikorski, the former Polish Prime Minister, who led his country in exile during World War 2, was buried here in 1943. He died in Gibraltar, after the plane he was travelling on crashed into the sea just seconds after taking off. His body was flown back to the UK and his funeral took place in Nottingham, where Winston Churchill delivered a eulogy. From there, he was brought to Newark and remained there until the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1993, he was exhumed and transferred to the Hall of Kings in Wawel Cathedral, Krakow.

Further on, at the end of the cemetery, I could see something far more exciting and upbeat; some floodlights! I wouldn’t be excited for long, as Max told it was Newark Town’s ground and we were only halfway there.

Having seen their ground, it got us discussing how Newark, as a town, are underachievers when it comes to semi-professional football. With a population of 35,000 (taking into account the outskirts of the town), the place is certainly large enough to financially support a club playing higher up the pyramid than they are. What will make this story an interesting one to follow in the coming years is that the town’s two clubs both share similar ambitions of playing higher than they currently are but who will get there first?

Newark FC are the frontrunners and favourites. This comes as a result of their meteoric rise which started in 2017-18 when they won the Premier Divison of the Nottinghamshire Senior League, which is the 11th level of the English football league system. This moved them up into Step 6 of the pyramid system and into the East Midlands Counties League, where they then finished in second place at the first time of asking.

Fortunately for Newark, finishing as runners up to Selston proved enough to see them record a second straight promotion, starting the 2019-20 campaign in the Midland League Premier Division, the ninth level of English football.

Their momentum was dealt a blow when the next season was abandoned due to the pandemic. At the time, Newark were sitting in fourth place behind Romulus, Sporting Khalsa and leaders Coventry United. In truth, it would have taken complete capitulation from the sides above them for The Highwaymen to clinch a third promotion in as many seasons.

***

We arrived at Lowfields with the 2020-21 season in it’s primitive stages, having only started a month earlier at the beginning of September. Some things had changed over the summer, with the football club forced to begrudgingly drop the ‘Flowserve’ suffix from their name. It was similar to the battle the now defunct Shaw Lane Aquaforce FC faced, when the FA told them to drop the infamous ‘Aquaforce’ ending to their name, although, on that occasion it was the correct decision.

Without doubt, the FA are completely right to stipulate that English football shouldn’t turn the same way as other countries, where leagues are awash with clubs that are sponsored and subsequently bankrolled by a business. Imagine a world where the claret and blue of Burnley is no more, as they are allowed to rebrand to become Red Bull Burnley FC. Or not too further down the road, former Premier League champions Blackburn could well be allowed to rename themselves as Venky’s Rovers FC. Common sense should be exercised and in the case of Newark Flowserve, none was applied.

The football club were originally founded in 1901 as Worthington Simpsons FC, a works team from the neighbouring factory where water pumps were and still are manufactured. In 1998, there was a brief spell where they became known as IDP Newark, before in 2001, they took on the name of Newark Flowserve FC, following the sale of Worthington Simpson to American multinational corporation, Flowserve.

With the sale of the business and factory, the sports ground that the team continue to play on and the social club which both the club and the workers use was also renamed, to incorporate the Flowserve title. It draws parallels to Vauxhall Motors, who are based in the Ellesmere Port area. They too were founded as a works side and while squads at both clubs are no longer made of those that work next door, neither club directly receive any form of financial backing, which makes the FA’s argument in this instance totally non-existent. Despite this, they got their way.

Their famous title may have been taken away from them but as we turned right off Hawton Lane, we walked past a large red sign which signalled that we had approached the Flowserve complex. The right hand side of the road leading up to the ground had very recently been barricaded with large mounds of rubble, with the relationship between the football club and the landlords quite literally becoming rocky in the couple of weeks before this match. Flowserve’s links with their tenants, the football club, had been strained by the FA and this move to prevent matchday parking on land which the company wanted to turn into housing only appeared to be exacerbating things.

Attendance had been capped at 300 for this league match against AFC Wulfrunians, who had made the 95 mile journey north east. Newark had been adamant in the run-up to kick off, that once capacity was reached, the large metal gates which were being manned by two club volunteers would be ceremoniously locked. With that in mind, Max, Emma, Chloe and I were relieved to make it into the ground, helped by us competitively overtaking other matchgoers on the road up to the gates.

With a programme purchased from the next volunteer we encountered, I then made my way through the one turnstile that was in situ at Lowfields, handing over a £5 note. Part of me was slightly envious, as the turnstile operator kept themselves warm in their small office, drinking from a large thermos flask. I have subsequently purchased myself one, perfect for those cold afternoons in the York League. This, quite possibly, is my most adult purchase to date.

Fans, possibly needing to replenish their energy supplies after the walk from the town centre, were already queuing for food at the ‘Snack Cabin’ which was hiding just around the corner from the bar area. In there it was being ran like a military operation, with somebody greeting us at the door and showing us to our table. With the government’s latest guidelines stipulating that you have to be seated while drinking, Newark’s clubhouse felt more like a restaurant. I found the choice of beers rather uninspiring, so went for the best of a bad bunch and headed outside.

Capacity was soon reached and the two sides were ready to enter the field. The referee picked the match ball up off a large orange plinth, as he led the teams out. All completely over the top but Max was keen to defend his club’s decision to pretend they were playing in the Football League.

Having said that, there were players on show who had familiarised themselves with the higher echelons of English football during their playing careers. Craig Westcarr, the former Nottingham Forest, Notts County and Lincoln City striker had joined Newark in the summer. They’d also brought in Liam King, who had won the FA Trophy with North Ferriby United before moving on to Halifax Town. At the back, Danny Meadows proved to be solid, with the former Forest trainee counting Alfreton, Boston United and Grantham Town amongst his former employers.

It seemed to be a juggling act for the Newark management team, who had brought in proven non-league experience, while also still wanting to include those players who had got the club into the position they found themselves. Elliott King, on the bench for this fixture, was a fan favourite, returning to the club from a spell at West Bridgford. This was his fifth season at the club where he had scored 53 goals in 38 appearances during their Nottinghamshire Senior League winning campaign in 2017-18. Joining him on the bench was winger Kevin Bastos, who would change the game when he was introduced at half time.

AFC Wulfrunians broke the deadlock on the hour mark to momentarily silence the vociferous and partizan home crowd who shouted and appealed for every decision throughout the course of the match. Jack Rowley threw the ball down the touch line to Gratias Katega, who crossed and picked out the towering figure of Jack Till. With his back to goal, he improvised with an overhead kick and found the back of the net. He ran off celebrating, with two large buds of cotton wool shoved up his nostrils. Perhaps like me, he found the smell of sugar too offputting?

Newark really sprung to life when Westcarr was replaced by Elliott King on 62 minutes and they were given a lifeline ten minutes from time. A ball was flashed across the Wulfrunians goal which Jack Rowley appeared to have dealt with but he was adjudged to have handled it and the referee awarded a penalty.

Meadows confidently dispatched the penalty to bring the home side level and set up an interesting last ten minutes. Newark, led by the energetic Bastos down the right hand side looked more likely to snatch a deserved winner but it was AFC who almost stole the points in injury time when a right wing cross from Katega came back off the face of the crossbar and Till fired the rebound over from close range. 

For Newark, it was seen as two points dropped whereas for AFC Wulfrunians, they made it six matches unbeaten and crept up to eighth in the league table.

Despite being so far away, it was still easier to walk back into the town centre rather than wait around for a taxi. When we got back, there was time for one more pint before catching the train back to York, with Max and Emma taking us to The Flying Circus which was probably my favourite bar of the day. Inside was full, so we opted to find a spot in the large beer garden which stretches down the side of the building before opening up underneath it. Drinking a pint of Citra by Oakham Ales, Peterborough, we could hear a heavy metal band practicing a set in the room directly above us. The Flying Circus is a live music venue and on a normal occasion, we could have stood inside watching a band late into the night.

With our pints finished, it was time for our train back. We said our goodbyes to Max and Emma who had been brilliant hosts and tour guides. Hopefully they will be on hand again when I choose to visit the town’s other football club, Newark Town FC, who themselves are hoping to make moves up the pyramid. Importantly, they have the backing of the YMCA, their landlords. Moving into their new facility at the start of last season, there are now plans in place to build stands and further infrastructure should Town need it.

While it looks rosy up the road, a few weeks after our visit to Lowfields, Newark FC were plunged into deep and worrying uncertainty. Newark Flowserve Sports and Social Club were served an eviction notice, asking them to vacate all football pitches and social buildings by May 15th 2021. There are plans in place to build 322 houses on the land and despite protests, it looks to be a very precarious position for the football club.

Their best hope, of course is that all of their hard work at Lowfields, which has included building two brand new stands and incorporating floodlights isn’t all time and money wasted and they are allowed to stay. Worst case scenario, is they are forced to leave and find a ground share agreement with another club, with the most suitable ground at the moment being Grantham Town. I really hope for the fans who got behind their side so passionately that it doesn’t come to that.

To give Max and Emma’s blog a read, click here!

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