We had finally reached the fun part of the season; the stage where midweek fixtures were beginning to be played with increasing regularity. Longer days allowed those clubs without the luxury of floodlights to complete their fixtures during the week, cramming in the final moments of their matches before the sun started to set. Enthusiasts around York were spoilt with not one, but three matches to choose from on this warm Wednesday evening. Sitting just to the west of Selby, Thorpe Willoughby was our chosen location and it took me just over half an hour to reach the village by car.
My route was a rather scenic one, as it tends to be when taking in matches in these divisions. Winding southwards, I passed through pleasant settings such as Naburn, Stillingfleet and Cawood where I was able to cross over the River Ouse, along Cawood Bridge. With a bus coming towards me, I wondered if this was the most structurally dubious bridge I had ever driven across. Miraculously, still in one piece, my journey continued and having then overtaken a couple of tractors, I arrived at Thorpe Gates.
Thorpe Gates sounds like the name given to a new development of countryside housing, or possibly, even a voluptuous adult entertainer. I was highly disappointed to discover it was neither and is simply the name given to a level crossing. Even more disappointingly, the gates were being lowered as I approached. It left me stationary for quite a while as we waited for a train to trundle past on its way into Selby.
Having lost valuable drinking time, I arrived in Thorpe Willoughby 45 minutes before kick-off and pulled up into the car park of the only pub that serves the area, The Fox. I was quite excited at the prospect of a drink after work but would leave the establishment bitterly disappointed. Not only did it take a staggering 22 minutes for a pint to arrive at my table but it followed an excruciatingly painful conversation with the waiter in which he listed Heineken, Amstel, Fosters and Birra Moretti as the selection of ‘cask beers’.
Perhaps he was a new member of staff and didn’t quite know what ‘cask’ actually meant. Afterall, I’ve been in that position myself when I first started working at Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium on a matchday. On my first shift, guests in Jonathan Walters’ box asked me for, “Tequila slammers. The works,” and I was suitably perplexed having not been trained in such intricate orders. I swiftly passed the ticket on to a colleague.
As I waited for my pint of Moretti to arrive (I don’t even like Moretti), I was left with nothing to do but to relax in the sunshine and listen in on the conversation occuring on the table to my right hand side. I couldn’t quite work out the dynamics of the relationship on the table. The two men appeared to resemble a father and son while at the same time, appearing to speak to each other more like a couple. “Everybody is really excited about football being back but I’m not,” the older bloke started to explain.
My ears, of course, pricked up at the mention of football, hoping to learn something about the local team. I wasn’t in luck, as things soon took a sinister turn. “I can’t wait to be back rushing around in fields shooting people,” he continued. As a drunken bloke stumbled out of a portaloo behind me, I was unsure whether to inform the local constabulary. My pint still hadn’t arrived. I was growing both impatient and uncomfortable.
Kick-off was now less than 20 minutes away and I was eventually brought my order with an accompanying spillage of froth across the table. “Just £4.90 for that Moretti please,” was the comment while he dangled the payment machine in front of me. Did I mention that I don’t even like Moretti? I know that pubs have had it extremely tough this year but this attitude where paying customers are taken for granted, needs to dissipate sooner rather than later. The days of the much loved ‘swift pint’ before a match, I fear, may be numbered. At least I was now free to head down to the game – with my bank balance five pounds lighter and having not yet been shot.
Thorpe Willoughby has a population of just over 2,700. It’s Wikipedia page offers little to no information about the place, with the only two photographs in the article being that of the pub I had just visited and Thorpe Gates. A large number of the village’s inhabitants appeared to be making the most of the local sports facilities, which sit just a couple of minutes drive from the pub. A handful of teams were training on the all weather pitches which had been funded by the Football Foundation and the West Selby Miners Welfare Scheme, which sounds a bit like a title that JK Rowling scrapped for her final Harry Potter novel.
Parking opposite the entrance, on a grass verge, I walked through the car park of the Thorpe Willoughby Sports Association, immediately struck by how impressive the facilities are for this level of football. It was clear to see that the various clubs and associations who are involved here had worked hard to make their club a true community facility.
Thorpe United had only returned to playing at Field Lane in July 2019, having been forced to play their home matches nine miles further north at Riccall while ground improvements took place. These included remedial work to the main playing surface as well as alterations to the changing rooms to help them meet ground grading for the Premier Division.
At the far end of the sports ground, over a roped off cricket field, Thorpe were hosting one of the Premier Division’s big names, Wigginton Grasshoppers in a York League Senior Cup tie. On paper, this should have been an evenly matched encounter between two sides who were only separated by three points in the league table. However, a 6-3 victory for the Grasshoppers in the first leg meant that United were up against it and things didn’t get much better for them.
Grasshoppers opened the scoring on 11 minutes when the ball was squared across the face of goal. Paul, who had once again joined me for the evening, suggested that the goal signalled the end of this tie as a competition. I agreed. Wigginton had already hit the crossbar and were knocking the ball around superbly before they had opened the scoring.
Surrounded by fields on the far side, the ball bounced over the perimeter fencing on a few occasions. We winced as we watched a Thorpe substitute, in his shorts, hop over a low barbed wire fence, half expecting him to slip and do himself a terrible injury. Surely there was a better way to retrieve club equipment, like installing a small gate, rather than risking your testicles for a flat mitre ball?
On the other hand, there would have been no such worries if a shot flew past the goal at the near side. Efforts would have just gone sailing into neighbouring gardens, where most of the male residents could be seen lounging on their deckchairs enjoying the game. One bloke was clearly very impressed with his extension, as he kept pottering around his new build tinkering with things. They would never called into action though, as everything Wigginton hit in the first half found the back of the net.
On 24 minutes, a free kick smashed in off the underside of the crossbar, with a raised arm from the set piece taker clearing up that it had in fact gone over the line. A minutes later and they were 3-0 up when the ‘Hoppers broke through again and the right back, who had bombed up the pitch, was able to delicately chip the ball over the oncoming goalkeeper.
Behind the lovingly painted solitary dugout at Field Lane, which features a carefully illustrated club crest, the away side had left their kit bags and jackets. Plonked in the middle of the pile was the distinctive yellow and blue hue of a Tadcaster Albion crest, with an inquest from a couple of spectators being conducted as to whether the Grasshoppers had included a couple of ringers in their lineup.
By now it was turning into a rout. A free-kick was hammered into the bottom left hand corner to make it 4-0 and a disastrous first half was capped off when the Thorpe goalkeeper brought down a Wigginton striker in the area. The penalty was expertly slotted away and the sides went into the half time interval with the score at 5-0 and more importantly, 11-3 on aggregate.
Paul and I decided to head around to the other end of the pitch during the break, confidently predicting that the majority of the action would be at the end Wigginton were attacking. We discussed how it was a shame that Grasshoppers fan, Steve, who we had tried to push out of a ditch at a match in Crayke a few months ago wasn’t present. Not only would he have been delighted with this outstanding performance from his side but he still owed me a pint for my exertions.
Wigginton would add a further two goals to their ever-increasing tally in the second half but it could have been far more if the Thorpe goalkeeper hadn’t thrown himself at every shot in a superb display of damage limitation. At one point, he did mess up slightly, but he was enjoying himself. “Sorry lads, my fringe got in the way,” quipped the bald goalkeeper as a thunderbolt of an effort found the bottom right hand corner from the edge of the area.
It finished 7-0 to the Grasshoppers; 13-3 on aggregate. Quite a spectacular scoreline between two sides who were separated by just three points in the league. I would have guessed that Thorpe won’t be too bothered though; they were just happy to be playing football again.
Wigginton were rewarded with their victory with a trip to Old Malton St Mary’s in the next round. In the meantime, they had a North Riding County Cup run and a York League Cup Final to concentrate on.