the real fa cup

Groundhop

A sunny Friday evening in mid-September, and the rugby World Cup is getting underway at Twickenham with the match between host nation England and Fiji. However, not all of us drawn to Wallingford Sports Park, on the outskirts of the south Oxfordshire market town, have been lured by a patriotic desire to watch egg-chasing on an oversize screen in the company of no-necked, collar-up Neanderthals belching their way beerily through ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. On the contrary, a sizeable contingent (myself included) are here as fans of the beautiful game in all its various incarnations – in this instance, the meeting of Wallingford Town and Abingdon Town in the North Berks Football League.

Less than 24 hours later, Man City will field the most expensive starting XI in English football history, assembled at the cost of an eyewatering £308 million. Such exorbitant levels of expenditure look even more obscene in the present surroundings: Hithercroft, the modest home of a club that has fallen on relatively hard times, where the most exotic import on display is the beef chilli liberally dolloped over jacket potatoes at the snack stall.

Tucking into one such spud as kick-off approaches is Phil Annets, the NBFL’s Media Relations Officer and the man behind the @FACupFactfile Twitter and blog. Also in close attendance is Laurence Reade, an evangelical groundhopper who chronicles his extensive travels online.

Writing in his recent book ‘Up There‘, the Guardian’s north-east football correspondent Michael Walker claims that the first official groundhop took place in the Northern League in 1992. He describes that division’s Easter event – which sees hardcore groundhoppers attending eleven matches spread across the Easter weekend – as ‘a test of endurance that most people, including many football fans, would find incomprehensible’. Groundhoppers are easily (if cheaply and cruelly) stereotyped and caricatured as anorak-wearing, ‘almost exclusively male’ trainspottery types ‘who look as if they like to tick off lists’ and for whom programmes are collectors’ items. Some have been known to travel to groundhop games, discover that there’s no programme or teamsheet on offer and immediately turn on their heels on point of principle.

A few days after the match, I ask Laurence if he can pinpoint groundhopping’s enduring (if, to many people, elusive) appeal. ‘It varies. For some, it’s purely football. For others, it’s a form of collecting. For me, it’s being inquisitive – I want to find out what’s around every corner.’

Laurence isn’t merely an enthusiastic participant in groundhops, though; for the last eight years, as right-hand man to Chris Berezai at GroundhopUK, he’s also played an instrumental role in organising them. The pair, Laurence says, ‘share a common aim, that is to do it to the very best of our ability. We want to do what’s right by the clubs, the fans and the league.’

From the perspective of the NBFL, Phil admits, ‘it was an eye-opener to realise that there would be a group of people who don’t normally attend our matches wishing to do so’. A trial run fixture staged the evening before a Hellenic League groundhop generated sufficient interest to justify the effort – not to mention the risk – of organising a fully fledged NBFL event, which is now in its fifth year.

Tonight’s game – an appetiser ahead of the following day’s feast, which sees Hanney Utd take on Marcham at 10.30am, Grove Rangers host Benson Lions at 1.30pm and Long Wittenham Athletic travel to East Hendred at 4.30pm – is the fruit of considerable labour on the part of both Laurence and Phil. The latter outlines what’s involved: ‘In my role, I do most of my work for the Groundhop Day in the early stages, identifying potential host clubs, persuading clubs to host, identifying away teams and getting their agreement to play at a weird time, liaising with the fixture secretary and the County FA to ensure no clashes with County Cup competitions or issues with the ground availability, and then working with GroundhopUK  to help make the organisation process from the clubs’ perspective as easy as possible. As we near the Groundhop Day itself, I keep a close link to all host clubs, and create as much publicity via radio, press and online as I can.’ Indeed, he and Laurence are set to appear on Radio Oxford at the ungodly hour of 7.40am the next morning – hence Phil’s rueful abstinence from ale.

How, I ask him after the event, are the host clubs selected? After all, presumably there’s a clamour for the privilege, given that any concerns about unfamiliar kick-off times are outweighed by the likely boost to attendance figures. ‘We made a promise to all clubs that we would visit every single first-team ground over the next few years (and some special grounds as per last season at RAF camp in Shrivenham). We’re about half-way.’ Phil continues: ‘We encouraged clubs to be the away side for two reasons: first, to give them an idea of what hosting a groundhop match entails on the day, and second, to get them enthused about hosting one in the near future (we try to give committed away sides a home game as soon as possible to thank them for their support).’

Sometimes, though, decisions have to be made on a pragmatic basis. Wallingford chairman Richard Prunier concedes: ‘The fact we hosted it some time ago means it is very unusual to be asked for a second time. Floodlights may have something to do with it!’ He’s not wrong: clubs whose grounds don’t have them are, of course, automatically incapable of staging an evening game.

This is something of a sore point for Laurence, who has been forced to cancel the Hagbourne Utd v Kennington Athletic match that should have been the fourth and final Saturday fixture of this year’s groundhop because the scheduled venue, Didcot Town’s training pitch, currently only has one bank of lights fully operational and no suitable alternative could be found at short notice.

Such are the trials and tribulations of football administration at this level. According to Phil, the NBFL, which celebrated its centenary in 2009, faces two key challenges: players and funding. As regards playing staff, ‘the issue is twofold. First, there are only a finite number of players available in the area, so this can cause problems if some move en masse from one club to another. Ardington & Lockinge folding is a good example of this. Second, there is not as much interest in playing men’s Saturday football as there used to be, so the lack of new players coming through from youth teams is quite limiting.’

Meanwhile, the parallel challenge of maintaining the financial viability and stability of individual clubs and the league as a whole has been made significantly more difficult by a contentious decision taken over the heads of the NBFL’s administrators. Phil explains: ‘The League lost their Step 7 status three years ago (unfairly in my view, given that other leagues retained it) and along with that lost a considerable amount of funding from the FA. We are on a path to try to regain our Step 7 status, which requires the league to have 14 first teams in its top division and a whole host of facilities and best practices. It’s a challenge, but we will get there (just in time for the FA to move the goalposts, I’m sure).’

This is where the Groundhop Day comes in. Among other things, it’s an opportunity to raise valuable extra income. Phil talks of a ‘win-win-win element’: ‘Groundhoppers get to tick off four new grounds in one day, players get to play in front of a type of crowd they would only ordinarily experience in a Cup Final (which many would never experience), and clubs can make a tidy profit from entrance fees, programme sales, raffles, food and memorabilia – typically in excess of four figures, an amount that would take several fundraising events to realise.’

Richard agrees that ‘the event is a boost to the coffers’, a vital source of revenue for Wally (as they’re affectionately known), given that ‘the club costs many thousands of pounds a year to keep afloat’. One reason for this, he notes – ‘no complaint, just fact’ – is that ‘our facilities cost considerably more than those of a lot of clubs playing at our level’. There’s a certain irony in the fact that the floodlights allow the club to host an evening game as part of a groundhop but also necessitate the staging of such events to help to raise funds to cover installation, operational and maintenance costs.

Indeed, ground-related issues figure prominently in the tale of Wallingford’s recent woes. Despite winning the Combined Counties League in 2001/2 and finishing as runners-up the following two seasons (most notably to the then newly formed AFC Wimbledon in 2003/4), they were denied promotion to the Isthmian League because Hithercroft did not meet the appropriate standards. Sod’s law dictated that, by the time a hefty sum had been invested to make the requisite ground improvements, the squad had haemorrhaged its best players to local rivals and as a consequence the club was caught in a downward spiral, swiftly exiting the division in the wrong direction. A two-year spell in the Hellenic League also ended in relegation, and they’ve called the NBFL home since 2008.

The fortunes of this evening’s opponents have followed a very similar trajectory, though arguably with higher highs and now lower lows. Formed as Abingdon FC in 1870, Abingdon Town experienced the heady heights of seven seasons in the top flight of the Isthmian League in the 1990s. However, after successive relegations and six campaigns in the third tier, the Abbots opted for a voluntary demotion to the Hellenic League in 2005. More recently, catastrophic flooding at their 2,000-capacity ground on Culham Road, situated scenically though somewhat foolishly on the River Thames’ floodplain, resulted in a series of postponed games, which in turn temporarily cut off matchday revenue streams and caused a crippling fixture pile-up. The ignominy of a second voluntary relegation followed, and now the only club ever to compete in the FA Cup while members of the NBFL (in 1938/9) find themselves back at that level.

Given the similarities in their recent histories, then, you’d think there might be a degree of empathy between the two sides. Not so, it seems. On the contrary, Laurence alludes to a simmering animosity manifested in Abingdon Town’s alleged refusal to share their teamsheet beforehand. Nevertheless, the feisty encounter he promises fails to materialise, Wallingford’s distinctive double-decker bus bar (which, says Richard, ‘works as a social space as well as a very good viewing platform of wet and windy match days’) seeing significantly more action over the course of the game than the referee’s notebook.

The match itself is far from a classic, though with enough intrigue to hold the attention. Both goalkeepers distinguish themselves with some superb saves, and Abingdon Town’s stocky, square-jawed and yet deceptively skilful striker also catches the eye. It’s his partner Steve Pitson who scores the game’s only goal, though, darting onto a through-ball and finishing clinically. As an Abingdon resident who supports Newcastle (and therefore has a pathological aversion to red and white stripes), I can’t help but be pleased at Wally’s defeat and a win that maintains the Abbots’ excellent start to the new season.

A few days later, and the loss appears not to have diminished or tempered Richard’s optimism for his club’s prospects one jot: ‘The firsts have strengthened, the reserves are unbeaten so far and our very young A team seem to be settling into men’s football well. Our vets are top of their division, so we can’t ask much more.’ Most important for him, though, is ‘the great atmosphere and camaraderie around the place’.

Similarly, Phil appears convinced that, despite the various pressures, the NBFL as a whole is also in rude good health, ‘highly regarded in the local area’ and ‘considered to be an extremely well run and very competitive league’. He stresses, though, that that good health is dependent upon the continued ‘commitment of an army of volunteers both on the League Committee and within all the local clubs’ – a sentiment implicitly echoed by Richard in his programme notes thanking ‘all those who have helped behind the scenes’.

This unswerving commitment to the cause extends to the organisers of the Groundhop Day, for whom – as Laurence reveals – there’s no resting on laurels: ‘Once one event finishes Phil, Chris and I review what happened, think how we can improve, then start planning for next year. It ramps up two months before the hop but the work never really stops.’ Reflecting on this year’s event, Laurence cites as his personal highlights ‘the games at Hanney and Grove where tiny clubs with minimal facilities coped with 150-plus crowds, and at East Hendred where we had an owl display, ate sweet and sour chicken and saw the largest crowd of the day.’

In addition to dedicated volunteers like Phil and Laurence, though, money is also critical. It might not be able to buy guaranteed success – as that £308 million Man City XI’s home defeat by a West Ham side put together for a fraction of the cost underlines – but it can at least ensure short-term survival and long-term sustainability.

Thanks to Phil, Laurence and Richard for their time.

Words: Ben Woolhead. You can find Ben on Twitter @blackwhiterao

Pictures: Laurence Reade. See more of Laurence’s trips, games and writing on his blog https://laurencereade.wordpress.com/

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