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Non League Jaunt: Of Mechanics and Men

THE GROUNDHOPPER RETURNS!!! An adventure to the Lancashire coast brings Liam Pennington to the North West Counties League game between

North West Counties League: Premier Division
AFC Blackpool 0 – 5 Colne FC
Attendance: 42

There can’t be many groundhoppers who have to follow the perimeter fence of an international airport on the walk from the local railway station to the ground. Well, to be truthful from the start, this is Blackpool’s international airport, which disconcertingly frames its car-park with a number of steel warehouses owned by plane and helicopter training companies, placing the uneasy flyer in the awkward position of assuming their flight delay is caused by the neighbouring businesses keeping back pilots to fill in their NVQ files.  Both Squires Gate FC, whose game I covered for BornOffside over a year ago, and AFC Blackpool are based in what counts for suburbia around here, the former tucked away amongst comfortable bungalows and a new build school while the latter within the grey industry of the airport’s furthest reaches looked over by rows of Brookside Close style houses.

Both clubs are in the lowly mid-section of the non-league pyramid, settled in the mid-section of the North West Counties League. This is four levels beneath League Two, and even within a brisk stroll to the leafy affluence of St Annes-on-the-Sea and the Open Golf Course at Ansdell, the clubs have a tumble-down atmosphere buoyed by an immensely prevalent community support. The history of AFC Blackpool follows that of a club which nurtures its local players and  a new training ground extension shows this most clearly. Formerly known as Blackpool Metal Mechanics, the current club is a product of mergers and expansion plans, their new name a product of a friendly agreement with the bigger neighbours closer to the coast. As a result the (much) smaller Blackpool play in bright tangerine, their colour distinct against the grey warehouses and fences and perhaps makes them the only football club in non-league whose kit clashes with the Jet2 planes landing half a mile from the turnstiles.

In the attitudes of Premier League football, this game was not flashing up as anything remarkable. Both Blackpool and Colne were fairly settled in the mid-table positions, giving nothing away and not promising much either. The ground was in good nick, the weather overhead the typically coastal mix of stern breeze and warm sky, the chain-smoking groundsman on the turnstile talkative. Perhaps typically the mid-table pairing turned out more than it suggested, mostly off the pitch and occasionally on it. It’s fair enough that the suits at Anfield want to make a pretty penny with “Being:Liverpool”, it’s just when the genuine characters of non-league go virtually unreported it seems unfair that there’s nobody around to report what’s happened.

To this end, it’s worth noting that I’ve seen plenty of things in my ground-hopping with a physio squaring up to an opposition manager in a flurry of swear-words and chest beating being one of those yet to be ticked off the list. The flare-up happened early on in the second half when an innocuous looking head-clash caused a cut on the upper cheek of a Blackpool player, to whose repair job came the Colne physio in the absence of anybody else to help. With my attention on the game I missed the trigger, but I won’t forget the spectacle of a man of a certain age being dragged away in mid-flow of swearing and violent threats. Who knew so much passion flowed through the Vaseline and magic sponges?

The game developed into three uneven sections of attack, violent tackles, and more attack. This was not Blackpool showcasing themselves very well whichever section I focused on,  not least because Colne would have enjoyed a twenty-point lead had they been played rugby league. At least Blackpool in the first twenty minutes could confidently assume nobody up front for their spiky opponents could shoot. At the other end during the first half, there was a lot of repetition amongst the home team which looked like the only set piece they were confident to replicate in the game. Run down the left flank opening up a gap in the middle, drum it across with a half-volley and then pile in like British Bulldog back in the day. And repeat. And again. Nothing would come of it, and Colne became quickly wise to it, but at least Blackpool came across well-drilled.

Colne realigned their shooting in the second half, and did so almost entirely from the foot of Jason Hart. In the great non-league style, he had a position which was a bit liquid and unfocused, though when pushing forward his was the only name shouted at by both manager and midfield team-mates. He did appear much more confident in front of goal than anyone else in the distinctive Man City blue of their kits, scoring with a close-up dink early on and sending the keeper the wrong way at least twice. There was even chance for a penalty, taken hard and low, but coming from a somewhat dubious trip in the area.

Blackpool can point to a weak referee all they like – and Lord knows they pointed, shouted and insulted all the officials at every opportunity – but ultimately their heads dropped and tempers raised from the second goal against them. I was fond of the Blackpool manager’s jibe early on – “Are you going to give us anything now you’ve decided the game for them, ref?” – though the prize for zinger of the day has to be the linesman who responded to constant digs against him from the home players with the comeback “My performance?! You’re the ones losing 4-0.”

With few people around me, an increasing number of tasty tackles in front of me, the atmosphere was somewhere up from park football but very different from the standard I’m used to at the next level up in the Northern League. It was a thumping victory, though still a very middling game overall. The results of the day elsewhere left both Blackpool and Colne where they started the day, and that seems appropriate enough.

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