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Non-league Incider: St Helens Town 3-0 Atherton Laburnum Rovers

Last game: 8th August: Dulwich Hamlet 2-1 East Thurrock United

The previous day, I was blown away by my first ever football match experience. Dulwich Hamlet impressed me, but what impressed me more was the journey. The travel to the stadium was just as enjoyable as the football itself.

I had caught the groundhopping bug.

There were no games scheduled for the 9th of August. There was one, near Wigan, and all I had booked earlier was a refundable bus ticket from Manchester Airport leaving at quarter past midnight.

I should have refunded it. This was a mistake. This whole day was a mistake.

I was only slightly hungover from the previous night, but that was nothing compared to this feeling of loss - I couldn't handle the fact that there was a game happening. And I wasn't too far away. Just three hours and a bit. They'll fly by, I thought.

I was in autopilot. Something within me made me get up, grab a bag, and get out the door. This wasn't me. I wasn't travelling - I was running. Not just physically, but away from myself.

Two trains later, I was in London Euston. Another two trains later, I was in St. Helens.

Stop, I told myself. You're here. You're probably never coming back. Enjoy it.

It was only 5 - and so I thought I would walk across the town to the stadium, rather than take the bus - which, by the way, run on an hourly basis.

St Helens, as I found out later, is the most Christian town in Britain, something that came as no surprise to me - the number of churches on the walk to the ground was extraordinary to a London eye. Being in a more residential part of the town meant that the streets were more silent than I had perhaps expected.

I was definitely out of London. No big stores belonging to multinational conglomerates. If the term a nation of shopkeepers ever had a proof of concept, this was it. A quiet community, chugging along just fine. At least that's what it looked like.

I reached Ruskin Drive just before six o'clock. I walked past a sign Ruskin Sports Village, and walked along a black colored path. I then entered a cottage-looking building, thinking it was the entrance to the stadium.

Suddenly, I was out the other side, and inside the stadium. Confused, I kept walking straight...

"Can I help you?" a steward asks.

I turned around. "I'm here for the game tonight."

"You need to go through the turnstile."

I looked to the left, and I saw the turnstile. Turns out I had gone through the changing rooms.

"I'm really sorry, I think I went through there," pointing at the deceptive entrance.

"No issues." I walked back towards the turnstiles.

"Oh, no," he said, "you can have a look around and pay later."

Wow, I thought, people here are super nice. After a few minutes, I went to the gate and approached him again.

"Hey, I'm really sorry, I didn't see the turnstile from there."

"Oh, that's fine. As long as you pay before the game starts."

When I asked for pub recommendations, he suggested one outside the Ruskin Sports Village - a 20 minute walk. And what a recommendation it was - perhaps the best pub I've been too. It had sofas and TV screens everywhere and, at £3.40, it was the cheapest cider I'd had in ages.

Gerard Arms - A pub befitting the town

As I sat there with a Strongbow and watched transfer deadline day unroll before my eyes, it struck me how cozy I felt. This was as opposite of London, or really any city, as it got - but the warmth of the people and the quietness of the town were weirdly desirable. I had to do this more, I thought. I tried coming up with a title for an imaginary series where I go outside London - The other side of the M25 was the best I could come up with.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something on the TV. Heybridge. Heybridge Swifts. Heybridge Swifts to Lincoln City, it said, with League Two emblazoned on the top. Who was it that had jumped from the 8th to the 4th tier? Joan Luque, it said. Joan Luque had moved. The player I had written about a year ago was now a professional.

There was this weird feeling of pride - pride that I had found a story before it became what it was.

With that in mind, I went back to the ground, this time making sure to go through the turnstile. With some time to kill, I went through the match program. A thick, glossy booklet filled with sponsors and adverts, including one for a gutter cleaner, a full-page ad for Unite (the union), and no less than three taken out by the Labour Party, more than any other organisation. Labour stronghold indeed, I thought.

15 minutes before kickoff, my phone goes off - it's a tweet. From the club! Frantically, I click the notification - Jordi Amat has come to Rayo. For four seasons. And, according to multiple outlets, for a paltry 1 million euros. I distinctly remember being keenly aware of where I was - the place I was sitting in, the Ruskin Drive complex, had in July 2017 finished a £3.6 million renovation. As if Jordi Amat wasn't enough of a bargain already...

St Helens Town dominated Atherton from the start, with Sean Richards finally giving them the lead in first-half stoppage time. In fact, Town continued in the same vein after the break as goals from captain and defender Liam Dodd, as well as substitute Luke Edwards in the 70th and 79th minutes sealed the points - both impressive headers from dead ball situations. A red card to Atherton's Nathan Randell followed, which killed the game - and kick-started heavy rain.

It wasn't a particularly even game - Atherton weren't stringing passes together and barely registered any shots. In contrast, St Helens were good in the air, and quick to get the ball into the opposition half.

In the biting cold, my last memory was walking past the changing room I had used as an accidental trespass, listening to the players of St Helens Town sing at the top of their lungs: Sweet Caroline! Good times never seemed so good, So Good, SO GOOD!!

Aftermath

There was a plan. The plan was to take a bus to St Helens Central, then another to St Helens Junction (the other train station in the area), take an as-of-yet unbooked train to Manchester Airport, and catch the bus I'd booked already.

As I got out of the heavy rain, tiredly and desperately hunching to protect my phone, I realized something horrible had happened - the buses are running late.

Obviously, I could Uber to St Helens Junction, an Uber that I called, but as I was in the Uber I checked the train schedule and realized something worse - the train was the last train out of St Helens. And having seen what St Helens Central looked like from the inside, there was no way I could guarantee that the ticket office would still be open.

So, in a state of wearisome panic, without realizing I had plenty of time to actually go there and check, I ask the driver to drive me directly to Manchester Airport.

He said that he was at a Starbucks when he picked me up. And had I walked a little further away from St Helens Central I would have seen it. But this wasn't an ordinary Starbucks - it was open 24 hours a day. And it was the only Starbucks in all of St Helens. The only one. In a town of over a 100,000 people.

We talked about football - I remember him saying he was a Barcelona fan. Not a passionate fan, but a fan nevertheless. He remembered the time when Rivaldo propelled the club into Europe as his entry point - a cliché that describes so many Barcelona fans.

As he talked about the many reasons why he would rather watch Manchester United over Manchester City, we entered the city. And the shift in scenery was obvious - this was definitely a city. I remember us reaching Manchester Airport, and us having difficulty locating the bus terminal.

"You know, I've never had to drop someone at the airport to take the bus," he said, sarcastically.

We laughed. But on the inside, I thought about what all I had done to watch 90 minutes of football in the 10th tier of English football. On a Thursday night. In the pouring rain. In the cold - without any appropriate warm clothing.

As I sat there, freezing in the bus terminal of an airport, as I got on the bus at 12:15 am, as I reached Heathrow at 5 in the morning having barely gotten any sleep, as I tried to stay awake on what would be another hour on the Underground, as I dragged myself into bed, I never stopped thinking - what had I done?

I didn't know, but I did know what to do next. I took out my groundhopping calendar, and tore it. I was never doing this again.

I needed to plan my groundhopping future all over again.

Cider Checklist

Football club bar in bold.


Gerard Arms (Dentons Green Lane) - Strongbow - £3.40
Arcoframe Stadium (Ruskin Drive) - Carling* - £2.50

*Beer, I know. The club didn't have cider. Shame.

Club Bulletin

Club: St Helens Town A.F.C.
Play in: North West Counties League Division One North (10th Tier)
Stadium: Arcoframe Stadium, Ruskin Sports Village

Opponents: Atherton Laburnum Rovers Football Club
Date: 9th August, 2018
Time: 19:45

How to get there*:

From London Euston: Take the Virgin Train going to Glasgow Central, get off at Wigan North Western. Then take the Northern train to St. Helens Central. From there, you can either take the 38 bus and get off at Ruskin Drive, or walk the 25 minutes.

*I overheard someone saying that "it's changed", referring to the location of the ground. Please check the team's Twitter account - to their credit, they announce the location of each game: @sthelenstownfc.

Exchange your dinner for a:

Match-day ticket - £5
Club badge - £3
Match-day program - £2

Bacon and sausage barm - £2.95*

*If you want just a bacon barm or a sausage barm, it's £2. And yes, it's barm, not bap. It's a real commute from London to England, isn't it?



Yup, that was my ticket




Other pictures:


I took a picture of the bus and then missed it on purpose. Sue me.



Some pictures I took as a trespasser...



So here's how you get in - go into Ruskin Sports Village, follow the pedestrian entrance (or the parking next to it), follow the black path, and deliberately look for a turnstile. Please.






Game's about to start...
























Some away fans...











Goal!



Half time break...



Second half starts...







At this point, the lighting was terrible, which means all I have are these pictures at full time...






Comments

  1. Super read cracking insight well done very entertaining

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