I had a few different options to choose from this weekend. With Bolton Wanderers playing away at Middlesbrough, I could tick off The Riverside. I could go to Irlam v Atherton Collieries, and tick off another NWCFL ground. I could go down to London with my mum, and choose from a whole host of matches. However, after much deliberation I saw it as an ideal time to watch my first ever Conference match. I had been looking at visiting Haig Avenue for a couple of years as it is fairly local. It had recently been renamed the Merseyrail Community Stadium, but I refuse to refer to it as that, so that’s the last you’ll hear of it.
I met Grandad at Atherton train station at 12:00, and we caught the 12:09 from Atherton to Southport. It was a direct train and it would have been a laid back journey if it weren’t for a couple of inconsiderate passengers. Now, I am all for family bonding, but I think getting drunk with your granddaughter at Atherton train station, whilst bopping out to MC is a bit far-fetched. They continued blasting their music out on the train, and the West Ham fans who were en route to Wigan really must have been wondering what kind of place they had travelled to.
Luckily the carriage emptied at Wigan, and it allowed us to enjoy the scenery out of the window. Arriving in a very cold Southport at 13:10, we went to catch the bus from the town centre. The wait wasn’t too long, and we soon boarded a double decker bus which was going to Wigan. I was worried that if we fell asleep on the bus, we may be woken up at Wigan bus station by the sounds of a pensioner MC’ing with his granddaughter, but luckily people were on hand to tell us where to get off.
We got off the bus on the corner of Haig Avenue and strolled up to the ground. It was a residential area, and reminded me of Whaddon Road in Cheltenham. After taking a few photos outside and buying a programme from the club shop, we went into the social club found underneath the Grandstand. It was a nice, clean little place where home and away fans enjoyed a drink together before the match. On the various TV’s was Aston Villa v Norwich, so we watched that whilst having a pint.
Turnstiles opened at 14:00, so we finished off our drinks and walked up to the entrance. We went for the seated option, and it cost me just £5 to get in as a student. Walking into the ground, we were greeted by the smell of a BBQ which was situated close to the pitch. The smell made me hungry straight away, and I opted for a cheeseburger straight off the grill. It was lovely.
Southport have played at Haig Avenue since 1905, when it was called Ash Lane. It was renamed after Earl Haig 1921. The Grandstand at Haig Avenue holds 1,660 spectators and it offers a great view of the pitch. It was built in 1968 to replace the old wooden Grandstand which was burnt down after a game against Wrexham. To the right was The Jack Carr Stand, which holds the more vocal home fans. The rest of the ground comprises of uncovered terracing, and the away end is found behind the goal.
The Grandstand was basking in sunshine, which meant we were soon warmed up. It was that sunny, the female tannoy announcer – who obviously loved herself – even had her designer sunglasses on. She went through various lists of pointless information before the teams eventually arrived on the pitch, ready for kick off.
After being relegated from League 2 last season, Hereford had a new look squad. This meant that all hopes I had of remembering the squad from last time out had vanished. One player who the Southport fans seemed familiar with was Kyle Perry. I think it was safe to say they hated him… for one reason or another.
The first half was brilliant. Both teams were evenly matched, and the fact that neither team could defend always adds to the excitement. However, for both teams defensive lapses, they did make up for it in their attacking style of play. Shaun Whalley ran the match for the home side, and Stefan Stam led his Hereford team superbly.
Hereford opened the scoring after just 6 minutes. A swift counter attack saw Phil Marsh weight a ball through perfectly to Sam Clucas. He looked up, rounded the keeper and slotted the ball into an empty net. The defence was nowhere to be seen, and you sensed it was going to be a long afternoon for the home side after a poor start to the match.
Southport immediately went in search of an equaliser, but just minutes later found themselves further behind. Another counter attack resulted in James McQuilkin having an effort on goal. Sandgrounders defender Simon Grand blocked the shot well, but he caught McQuilkin on his follow through on a greasy surface. The officials somehow concluded that it was a penalty? There was no way in a million years it was a penalty, and the home fans abused the linesman on the near side for the remainder of the match.
The penalty was converted. However, I didn’t see it, as the pitch was covered in smoke after the burgers had set fire on the BBQ.
The crowd was a bit embarrassing really. They struck me as an affluent group of middle-aged blokes who shouted posh abuse at players and linesmen in order to gain respect off their fellow fans. Shouts such as “Come on ref! He milks his cows quicker than this!” went down a treat at Haig Avenue. I’m glad I don’t have to watch a match with those lot every week.
Shaun Whalley then came close for the home side when he picked the ball up in his own area. He dribbled through a number of oncoming challenges, before trying his luck from around 25 yards out. Unfortunately his shot went sailing into the travelling fans behind the net. It would have been a truly magnificent goal.
Again it was the home side who came close to scoring. Steven Tames should have scored when he headed just wide after a great cross. Pressure continued, and Southport got their reward on 33 minutes when Karl Ledsham’s corner kick curled straight into the top corner. That goal means I have FINALLY seen a live goal straight from a corner kick.
Just 6 minutes later, the game was turned on its head. Steven Tames was running towards goal, when Chris Todd clipped his heels. The whistle happy referee then correctly pointed for a penalty, much to the joy of many home fans who had given up hope of receiving anything off the referee. Chris Lever stepped up, and fired the ball into the right hand corner of the net.
The relentless first half continued, and only a minute later Hereford came close to regaining the lead. Southport failed to clear, and Sam Clucas volleyed the ball against the face of the crossbar. It was a tough shot to pull off, and he thoroughly deserved to see the ball end up in the back of the net.
Half time arrived, and after being choked by the smoke from the burger van for the majority of the first half, I thought it was only right to go and purchase another burger. I have been all over the country in my Bolton shirt, and for some reason, I felt very out of place in Southport with it on. I was receiving curious looks from everybody. I noticed the bloke stood only a few feet from me in his Blackburn Rovers scarf was getting exactly the same treatment. Perhaps it’s because we weren’t wearing Liverpool gear like many of the locals were?
After queuing in line at the BBQ/Smoke fest, I eventually bought “the last pie” and another Cheeseburger. Grandad was on pie duty this week, and from what he said, I don’t think he was too impressed with the tepid temperature of the pie, or the taste. So if you want decent food at Haig Avenue, you’ll have to resort to a Cheeseburger.
The sun was still shining. The woman still had her sunglasses on. The smoke was still filling the ground. The teams emerged for the second half.
Now in order to be as exciting as the first half, the players would have had to put a lot of effort in. In reality, it was a lot to ask of the players, and they produced a less than desirable second half display.
Shaun Whalley had numerous opportunities for Southport, but came agonisingly close with each of them. He really did deserve a goal. Hereford’s Ryan Bowman came within inches of seizing upon a poor back pass, after yet more suicidal Southport defending.
Hereford kept pushing, and Harry Pell smashed a ferocious shot into the side netting. The travelling fans were celebrating, as they thought it had gone in. The closing stages of the match were frantic as both teams rallied to collect a much needed three points.
5 minutes added time was signalled, and Hereford began to defend deeply. Steven Tames headed just over when he looked set on securing the win, and just seconds later Darren Stephenson smashed the ball against the crossbar. It would have been cruel on Hereford, but Southport would have deserved the three points on reflection.
The ground emptied, and we strolled across the road to catch the bus back into Southport Town Centre. We didn’t have to wait too long, and we soon boarded the warm bus. It didn’t take too long to get back into the town, and we soon arrived at the train station. We didn’t have to wait too long for the train home, and with the train being direct to Atherton, we could simply relax.
Overall it had been a nice day out. My first taste of Conference football had opened my eyes to what I am missing back at home; with Leigh RMI no longer in existence. I would probably be at Hilton Park every single week if it still existed. Southport have a nice little non-league ground, with a compact pitch which made for a fast tempo of play. The people at the club were all friendly and harmless enough, even if they were a bit embarrassing to listen to at times! The club doesn’t strike me as the type to one day reach the Football League, but I would love them to prove me wrong.
Hopefully the next time I’ll be back at Haig Avenue will be when Atherton Collieries draw them away in the Lancashire Cup!
I’d just like to say a big thank-you to my Grandad for taking me to a match again! Much appreciated… and thanks for you company!
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 27.6 miles
- ADMISSION: £5 as a 12-18 year old
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £2.50
- PIE: £2.00