Shivering in a blizzard next to the artificial pitch at York Sport Village wasn’t the kind of experience I had in mind when I noticed my 1000th football match was on the horizon. A landmark such as that, should be celebrated. Romantically, I had visions of a day drinking fine wine and eating local tapas dishes on the streets of Barcelona before finally seeing Lionel Messi in the flesh at the Camp Neu. Other episodes of daydreaming occured, with the most recent seeing me arrive at Venezia’s waterside home, the Pier Luigi Penzo Stadium, by gondola. I’d even paid extra to get the gondola driver (gondolier to give him his true job title) to set off flares as he ferried me around.
My adventures in football over the years have taken me to some magnificent and wonderful places; the kind of places you could only dream of visiting when you were younger. Real Betis, Hammarby and Borussia Mönchengladbach are just three clubs that came to mind when thinking of great stadiums I’ve watched a game at. It’s also, of course taken me to some awful places, such as mine and Matt’s least favourite town, Kidsgrove.
On the whole though, every single place I have been to has provided, entertainment and fun – even Kidsgrove. 999 matches had taken me to 374 grounds, scattered across 16 countries. Between them, the 545 teams I had watched had produced 3,231 goals, with the home sides scoring 60 goals more than the away.
Match 1,000 was here and it was beginning to feel like an anti-climax, with my options limited to York area. Despite this, I was still absurdly excited about hitting the milestone.
Saturday morning arrived. I woke up, flung the duvet off myself and tore the bedroom curtains open, observing the scene which greeted me with bated breath. Forecasted snow hadn’t yet fallen but studying the clouds above, it was obvious that the situation was precarious. My hopes of hitting 1,000 matches (as well as a York League double header) were in jeopardy. Our chosen match between Elvington Harriers and Marton Abbey was kicking off at the unusually early time of 11:30, allowing us to hopefully squeeze in another game at the usual 14:00 slot.
Even as I set off to the game, half an hour before kick-off, the optimist in me was refusing to get carried away. Travelling eastwards away from the city centre, I arrived at the Sport Village ten minutes later. Opened in 2012, the £9 million development forms part of the University of York. Weaving in and out of the university buildings seemed to take an age, with the vast site at Heslington now sprawling further out to the boundary of the A64. On the horizon, the modern student accommodation of Constantine College was made to resemble large Soviet housing blocks, thanks to the swathes of frozen fields which it stood amongst.
Over the crest of the hill, I was relieved to see the two sides warming up on the pitch; we were in luck. A few minutes before kick-off, Paul and Kizzy bravely emerged from their cars and joined me pitchside. The sparse crowd would eventually swell to 14 and every single one of us were treated to a strange game which thanks to the weather, we would never forget.
It never became clear why this York League match between the Harriers and Marton Abbey was played at the University, with the Harriers having their own ground just six miles down the road in Elvington. Perhaps they had preempted that the weather would be poor and opted to hire the facility for the morning, saving their own pitch for later on in the season.
The man who stole the show this cold winters morning was the referee, due in part to his sense of humour and jovial manner. He also had the desire and willingness to let the game take place, which he didn’t have to do at all. As he wandered through the gate from the car park he shouted, “What’s this?” looking up with dread at the sky above. Heavy snow had just started to flutter down on to the green carpet. Through the blizzard which quickly swept in through the moments before kick-off, the referee instructed all players to play sensibly and to keep it safe, which they all did.
Within a couple of minutes of the match starting, the assortment of multicoloured pitch markings had disappeared. The two blokes who had been roped into being the linesmen were tasked with an impossible duty, made even worse by the fact one of them was wearing jeans.
This was an interesting match up between two of the York League’s newest clubs, with Elvington being readmitted in the summer following a seven year hiatus. They had previously played in Division 3, before dropping out and disbanding their senior side. Marton Abbey meanwhile were only founded in June and were just seven matches into their life as a football club. Marton Abbey itself is just a couple of farm houses, so small in fact that the place doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, so they play in the nearby village of Stillington. I wonder if they’re the smallest place in the country to have a football team?
Despite this game being down in Division 4 – the lowest of the five York League divisions – the quality on show was far better than I had seen in higher division matches. It wasn’t surprising though. As Paul explained, it is quite often the case in these leagues, where newly formed sides such as Elvington and Marton Abbey possess decent players who in time will help carry clubs into higher divisions.
Conditions, it goes without saying were tricky, so clear cut chances were few and far between. The yellow and blue stripes of Elvington were barely visible through the snow when they managed to take the lead on 42 minutes. After initially losing control of possession, the striker slid towards the loose ball and poked it past the oncoming goalkeeper.
Half-time approached. I carefully hiked back up the ice covered hill and made it back to my car, passing an off-piste skier on my way. Behind the goal, my car offered a prime view of the action. Radio on and the heater warming me up, I grabbed a brew from my flask and spent the next few minutes defrosting as the half-time team talks took place. The view out of the window really did now resemble a scene from the Russian lower leagues, with the only thing missing being a group of topless away fans drinking copious amounts of straight vodka.
The referee’s decision to start the match paid off as the snow halted in time for the start of the second half. With conditions improving, the players started to get stuck in and the game became more physical as a result. A Marton Abbey midfielder was clattered by a late challenge. Lots of fuss was made by the jeans wearing linesman and during the next break in play, the referee apologised to the injured player. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see it. I turned away to keep my eyes on the ball,” was an explanation the referee didn’t need to give but it was well received. What a lovely man.
He continued his masterclass in man management when booking the Elvington number 8 on the hour mark. “You were doing so, so well! So well!” he shouted at the midfielder as he brandished a yellow card following another late tackle. It produced a laugh from the lad, who has obviously been cautioned by him numerous times in the past. “One year you’ll be off my Christmas cards list,” he muttered as he wrote his details in his book and got play back underway.
Just as it looked like Elvington would be claiming all three points, Marton Abbey popped up with an equaliser on 87 minutes; and they deserved it. The aptly named Scott Snowdon went on a mazy run to set up Adam Galloway. His shot hit the inside of the post and substitute Danny Huggins was on hand to finish.
As the game drew to its conclusion, Paul, Kizzy and I were focused on making a quick escape. We were taking our chances, heading half an hour north to the village of Crayke, where they were due to host York St John University in one of only two matches which had survived the morning’s weather.
York Sport Village certainly isn’t somewhere I’ll be rushing back to, if at all, despite it being minutes from my new school. But, I’ll always be grateful to the place for providing a memorable 1,000th match. I’d never been fortunate enough to watch a game in the snow. To finally witness one really was a treat and thanks must go to the referee; what a bloke.