I was back home for Easter and with Collieries not in action I thought I would step up a couple of divisions to see a crucial battle at the top of the Evo-Stik Division One North. It was Northwich Victoria v Darlington and it was at a venue, which if popular opinion is to be believed, won’t be around for much longer. It came as no surprise that the venues future was unclear with the current tenants known for revealing very little, if anything.
Northwich Victoria were established in 1874 and named in honour of the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria. They are one of the oldest football clubs in the world, and are founder members of the Football League Second Division.
They played at The Drill Field; which at the time was believed to be the oldest ground, still in use, in the world. However, in 2006 the club moved to play at the impressive Victoria Stadium in Wincham. The stadium was opened by Sir Alex Ferguson. Despite having huge success playing here, the club never owned their ground and this is where their downfall started. Chemical manufacturer Thor Specialities Ltd, who neighbour the ground bought the premises and subsequently evicted the football club.
The Victoria Stadium has since been demolished and sold off to various community schemes and clubs. FC United’s ground which opens imminently have one of the stands, while 1874 Northwich – the breakaway club – have a number of items in storage for when they build their own ground.
After a season of ground sharing with Stafford Rangers, Victoria moved to the vacant ground at Valley Road in Flixton where this match took place. From next season, the nomadic Vics will return to Northwich but will be playing at Witton Albion’s ground, with Valley Road apparently earmarked for demolition, although nothing official has been found to support this.
I had visited Valley Road twice before, watching Northwich Victoria’s sister club Northwich Flixton Villa. They are commonly known as NFV and compete in the same division as Atherton Collieries, and while being a mysterious team that nobody knows much about they have done very well this season, inflicting one of our two league defeats. I had seen us win 5-1 there at the beginning of last season, before going along to a grudge match between themselves and 1874 Northwich in what was the football equivalent of the Jeremy Kyle show.
This evening was far more significant though as fourth placed Northwich welcomed second placed Darlington to town. It was tight at the top of the table. The Quakers were six points behind league leaders Salford City, with two games in hand. Vics were level on points with third placed Spennymoor and three behind Darlington.
I had convinced Aaron to come along to the match with me, so he picked me up at 18:30 and we made the short journey to Flixton where it had been raining all day. All other matches in the area had been called off but this one survived. As we approached Valley Road, I noticed that a team were warming up in Davyhulme, so I mentioned to Aaron that we could go and watch that if all went wrong. Yes they didn’t have a stand or even railings around the pitch, but a match is a match. An unimpressed glare came my way, and I realised that what I had just said was completely bonkers… but typical of me.
Even more typical of me was turning up at the ground realising I hadn’t got any money on me. In fairness, Aaron had forgotten his money too. So off we went, driving around Flixton looking for a cash machine. It was still raining heavily when we found one, and with lots of hairspray in I didn’t fancy getting out of the car, so I told Aaron my pin code and sent him over the road to get me some money. He returned, informing me that I should now change my pin code and off we went back to the ground.
Valley Road football ground is found in amongst a large residential area. The locals are not as rough and rugged as the roads in the area, but they certainly keep their distance when it comes to football. Sat watching their televisions, they glare at football fans as they park up on the council maintained grass areas dotted around the estate. On the other side of the ground is the Manchester Ship Canal, with Irlam FC found just half a mile over the other side as the crow flies.
Green and white concrete fence panels guide visitors around the corner to the turnstile. A smashed up Northwich Victoria sign lay on the wet floor, balancing on a cone in amongst an unkempt surrounding of weeds and other rubbish. If only the Evo-Stik sides could find a sponsor who could provide them with some adhesives.
“This ground depresses me more and more every single time I step foot in it.” exclaimed Aaron as we passed through the turnstile. It was a fantastic way to win the handful of Northwich fans over. The club house – which has all the ingredients to be amongst the best in non-league – was full of away fans who had made the long journey down from Darlington. It really is a peculiar building, with a downstairs bar area and stage, with a vast upstairs area which always appears vacant whenever I have walked through it.
In fact, last time I ventured upstairs I ended up on the balcony which overlooks the pitch. We stood in front of the occupants window and were asked to move. Yes, that is right. Somebody lives at Valley Road in the clubhouse. I suppose it is nice and quiet and you can watch football from your bedroom, but I don’t agree with taking over the area behind the stand as your back garden.
Club photographer Tim was enjoying a pint in the bar, hiding away in the far corner on a leather couch. It’s always the sign of a good photographer, a pint before a match steadies your hands and makes the long, arduous and lonely time spent on the touchline bearable.
I went for a walk around the ground and bumped into one of my favourite bloggers, Football Spoon. I had threatened to bring my own kitchen condiment along to this match but unfortunately I left my fish slice and whisk at home meaning I will have to save these for another adventure. His account of the evening can be read here.
I also met up with Northwich striker Gary Burnett who was on the bench for this match. He was Atherton Collieries’ star striker when I first started following the club and I have many fond memories of him playing in black and white. His goal away at Dinnington Town to take us through to the next round of the FA Cup, and his man of the match performance which helped us win the Bolton Hospital Cup in 2012. We had a decent talk about how his season had gone but he was soon called back over to carry on his warm up. Also featuring for Northwich was Iain Howard, who had played a couple of matches for Colls the month beforehand before rightly moving back up the pyramid.
As the two teams emerged on to the pitch, Football Spoon suggested that we should go into the long covered shed. This was the wrong decision, as not only was the wind and rain blowing into our faces but I also came close to telling Nathan Cartman that he had finished third in the Evo-Stik Supporters Player of the Year awards, but the presentation wasn’t for another month and I would have the rule book thrown at me by the organisers if I leaked it.
Darlington had the first opportunity of the match in the early stages when David Dowson set off down the wing after receiving the ball from Terry Galbraith. It was always going to be difficult finding the back of the net from such a tight angle, but the effort was close and it flashed just across the face of goal.
The Quakers remained on top and took the lead after 15 minutes when top scorer Graeme Armstrong turned in a Terry Galbraith corner for his 20th league goal of the season.
Their lead was nearly doubled a few minutes later when Leon Scott set up Ian Watson, whose low shot was well saved by Northwich keeper Tim Deasy.
The former Gateshead keeper pulled off another good save on the half hour mark, when he got down well to stop a Graeme Armstrong header from an Adam Mitchell cross.
Northwich, who had opted to field their most physical players were struggling to get cause Darlington problems at the back. The home sides only real opportunity of note came when Josh Amis was fed through on goal, but Darlington goalkeeper Peter Jameson rushed out and blocked the strikers shot.
The Quakers deserved their half time lead and the interval allowed us time to get warm in the clubhouse. It turned out the warmest part of the ground was outside next the clubhouse, and we all grouped together underneath a vent to regain feeling in our extremities. I felt like I was a competitor on Bear Grylls: The Island.
The five Northwich fans went and set themselves up behind the far goal as the two sides came back out on to the pitch. The rain now was horrific, with monsoon conditions drenching everybody in attendance. We all looked up at the balcony, envious of the Salford City committee members and management staff who were being filmed for their upcoming BBC documentary. I was wearing a Colls jacket and a furry hooded coat underneath, so look out for me in the coming months; I’ll be the fashionable one next to Tim.
Jim Gannon brought Gary Burnett on in the second half as he played three up top. This didn’t have the desired effect and Darlington went on to see the game out. There was a brief scare when Iain Howard turned well in the area but was unfortunate to see his well struck effort fly slightly over the bar.
Darlington responded but Graeme Armstrong’s shot came off the post before Leon Scott’s effort was blocked on the line.
In the final ten minutes, Northwich threw everything at Darlington and Gary Burnett went close to equalising. A few minutes later Stuart Cook fired at goal from the edge of the area, but Jameson saved well to claim the visitors all three points.
We would have made a swift exit from the ground if it wasn’t for Tim. As the final whistle went he sprinted across the pitch after the Darlington players. We weren’t sure whether this was part of his latest fitness regime or whether he was trying to take photographs of them. It turned out it was the latter and he had left us with the rest of his equipment, meaning we had to look after it. We had the last laugh though, as within 30 seconds of starting to take his celebratory photographs one miserable sod from Northwich turned the floodlights out and that was that.
Drenched, cold and wondering why on earth we had wasted two hours of our lives in Flixton we waddled back to the car. Not much was said during the journey home as we were both too tired to open our mouths. It had been a strange evening, which was only made bearable by the company of Tim, the infamous Football Spoon and of course Aaron.
Whether Valley Road is still around come next season is yet to be clarified. The bulldozers could move in tomorrow as far as we’re concerned. Victoria are moving to Witton Albion and as of yet, Villa are homeless. They have explored moving to the Regional Arena at Manchester City which has been used for reserve matches up until last season, having originally been used for the Commonwealth Games. Villa have renamed themselves Manchester Northwich Villa in recent days, suggesting that a move to Manchester is on the cards.
Meanwhile, back in Flixton there are rumours that Trafford could ditch their Shawe View ground and move to Valley Road to make use of the far superior facilities. My suggestion is that everybody should start being transparent. That is my motto ahead of the impending General Election.
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 14 miles
- ADMISSION: £5 as a student
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £2
Photographs from Northwich Flixton Villa v Atherton Collieries – 07/08/2013