“He’s even counting works teams now!” were the mocking and disparaging words of my mate Pete when he saw I’d gone out of my way to watch a friendly between LNER Builders and Wheldrake. At least I wasn’t attending matches inside prisons, like one well-known sports commentator who is employed by TalkSport and has blocked me on Twitter. Besides, what else was there to do on a warm Tuesday evening during the Easter holidays? If I had it my way, I’d have been somewhere like Estonia lapping up tenth division football and copious amounts of continental beer.
In my bizarre and embarrassing mission to watch a game at all 57 York League teams – a feat up there with reaching the peak of Mount Everest without using any oxygen tanks – this was another one ticked off the extensive list. To spruce things up a little and to manufacture rivalry and intrigue where this is none, one of my original plans was to watch a game I had creatively labelled the ‘railway derby’ between LNER Builders and York Railway Institute. If I wanted to go all out, I could have even watched the reverse fixture if I so wanted. Disappointingly, with the league being curtailed once again, my plans were left in disarray. Or to use a railway analogy, there were leaves on the tracks.
It was a mild Spring evening and this was our second match back since restrictions had been lifted the previous day. Starting with a more of a ‘pop’ than a ‘bang’, we had been at Poppleton United where they had comfortably dispatched Wheldrake 8-1 in a friendly. Keen to get more minutes in ahead of the start of the cup campaign on Saturday, Wheldrake had arranged their third friendly in just two days, this time leading us out of the city centre on winding roads and into rural Yorkshire. As I committed to attending, I wondered how long it would be before I was asked if I had become a Wheldrake supporter.
LNER Builders, as a football club, were founded in 1948 when the railways were nationalised. They started out life as LNER Loco FC and immediately joined the York League, where they competed against other railway works teams in York Loco FC and Railway Institute FC. Healthy competition was also provided in the shape of the cities famous chocolate works with Rowntrees FC joined by Terry’s FC. I’m not sure how there was ever time for football, in amongst all of the train building and chocolate making that was going on in the city.
After a lengthy spell playing their home matches on the Knavesmire ( in the centre of York Racecourse) and then further up the road at Hob Moor, LNER moved to play at the British Sugar Site on Boroughbridge Road in 2000. The ‘Sugar Factory Ground’ as it was affectionately known fittingly lay just a misplaced goal kick away from the East Coast Mainline where the roots of the club were forged. However, seven years later the club were having to look for a new home once again when the sugar factory was closed and subsequently demolished. At the time of writing this, 20 years later, the land to the north of Acomb is still a disused brownfield site.
Well before the turn of the new century, links between the football club and the railway heritage of the city had all but disappeared, with the club’s name the only indication of it’s foundation. With no income other than players subs, no pitch to play their matches on and on the verge of folding, they were awarded a lifeline when Askham Bryan College offered the club use of their new facilities. However, by 2016, they were on the move again and pulling into their next station call as they headed back towards suburbia and began playing their matches at the Recreation Ground in Rawcliffe. They lasted there for just one season before their most peculiar move of their nomadic existence yet.
LNER Builders moved away from the city completely in 2017 and now play nine miles from the streets where their workers formed the club decades ago. The quiet village of Newton-on-Ouse might be nearly ten miles from the club’s spiritual home and it’s population of 599 may not offer a large and talented pool of players to pick from but crucially, what it does have, is a football pitch. From what I can find on the internet, I assume it was formerly the home of Newton-on-Ouse FC until 1983 when they disappeared from the York League, never to be heard from again.
Newton-on-Ouse is as quaint and peaceful as it sounds, with its landscape being dominated by the structure of All Saints’ Church whose 900 year old tower leaps out above the 200 or so houses and two pubs that the village is comprised of. Both the Blacksmiths Arms and Dawnay Arms were unfortunately closed on my visit, with the lockdown regulations depriving me – yet again – of a couple of decent pre-match pints.
Leaving the city centre with half an hour to go until kick-off, the drive over was reminiscent of the opening credits of Antiques Roadshow with me driving through rolling countryside, following a classic car which seemed to have a collection of delicate antiquities poking out above the seats. My route seemed to take me on what felt like the long way round but suddenly a sharp left turn took me on to Tollerton Lane, where the Newton-on-Ouse Playing Field is found. Stretching for a couple of miles, as soon as discarded farming machinery turned into parked up cars, I knew that I had found my destination.
With minutes left until kick-off, Newton had been invaded by vast swathes of cars, with parking at a premium. Sharing lifts was out of the question in these difficult times, making the village centre feel like downtown Delhi during rush hour. My car was unceremoniously dumped around the corner on Moor Lane before I traversed over some grass bankings, carefully evaded heaps of daffodils and headed up an access track which leads behind neighbouring houses and into the local playing field.
Refereeing tonight’s match was Dan, whose daughter is in the class that I’m teaching at the moment. He jokingly pointed out that me turning up at one of his matches was as cruel as him messaging me on the school app during the Easter Holidays. It ensured I was on my best behaviour, not that it was likely to kick off at this meaningless friendly which attracted a crowd of five. Only once did I heckle him, when he correctly awarded a blatant penalty.
LNER Builders were ready go get started, lining up in their blue and black strip. Their shirts romantically – and probably accidentally – paid homage to the Mallard steam train, which was built by LNER in 1938. This iconic engine set the world speed record for a steam locomotive and even gained itself an appearance on the cover of Blur’s 1993 album Modern Life is Rubbish. These days, you can see the Mallard at York Railway Museum. I would like to think that LNER’s away kit is green, in a nod to their most famous creation, the Flying Scotsman.
Wheldrake, who had travelled up from the southern outskirts of the city, were in white shirts and black shorts this evening after using their red kit at Poppleton the night before. One thing that remained consistent was the fact they were still sporting a plethora of strange squad numbers, with the joker in the squad grabbing the number 69 shirt and running around in it with an odd sense of pride.
The deadlock was broken after just 27 seconds, with LNER’s first touch of the ball coming when they were already a goal behind. A slick, fast passing move resulted in an unstoppable finish into the roof of the net. From a statisticians point of view, I became unnecessarily excited at the fact tonight’s opening goal arrived 31 seconds before yesterday’s. It was at this point I realised the true impact that lockdown had inflicted on my sanity.
There’s a two division gap between these two sides, with LNER playing in the basement division of the York League. Despite this, they were level on 14 minutes when a close range header nestled into the back of the net. It appeared we had a game on our hands when the Builders then took the lead a few moments before the interval.
A quick teamtalk and a round of drinks was had by both sides at half time, with LNER opting to shelter on the far side where a bus stop shelter had been salvaged and turned into a dugout. Dan, who was having a quiet night with his whistle and cards, clearly wanted to get home and watch Who Wants to Be a Millionaire as he allowed just over three minutes for the break before cracking on. There wasn’t even any time for us spectators to head back to the car to stock up on a half time can of Dark Fruits.
Wheldrake made a raft of changes and introduced some of the lads who had been training behind the near goal during the first half. They pulled level on 63 minutes after a good move down the right hand side, with number 77 grabbing his first of three goals in as many minutes to make the score 4-2 to the visitors. His third goal was the best, leathering the ball into the top right hand corner from outside the area.
As much as Paul enjoyed the goal, he appreciated the comments of a Wheldrake midfielder even more. “That’s the quickest hat-trick in Wheldrake history!” he confidently shouted at number 77 as he jogged over to congratulate him. Having being founded back in 1950, we were impressed by the players knowledge of Wheldrake statistics which far pre-date his arrival on this planet. Hopefully OptaStats or Guinness World Records will be able to clarify such claims.
Despite pulling off a number decent saves, the LNER goalkeeper would have to retrieve the ball from the back of his net a few more times before the full time whistle was sounded. Wheldrake looked a completely different side to the one that lost 8-1 the night before, rampaging their way to a 10-2 victory with the final goal coming with the final kick of the game. I felt sorry for LNER Builders and was kind of happy to see the match brought to its conclusion.
“I bet you’ve never seen a side lose 8-1 one night and win 10-2 the night after,” Paul mused as we walked back down the track and to our cars. Dan waved us goodbye from the other end of the pitch as he took in a couple more laps, keen to get his steps in for the day.
LNER Builders had a torrid week. They would go on to lose their League Cup match against South Milford 16-0 a few days later. Their opponents had Gibraltarian international Adam Priestley in their starting line-up, who had played against Ilkay Gundogan, Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger in a European Championships qualifier just a few years ago. Not wanting to go through that experience again, they withdrew from the second leg and will hope to rebuild for next season‘s league campaign.