Inspiring. That is the word I would use to describe Atherton Collieries hard working secretary Emil Anderson. When I travel around the north, visiting different football clubs, I always find it odd just how many people have heard of, or even visited Colls. The one thing they usually mention is Emil. Most people know him in his current secretarial guise, but they probably won’t be aware that he once played in the famous black and white stripes.
He didn’t have an illustrious career, and he’ll be the first to admit that he didn’t set the NWCFL alight with his talents, but he did play for the club that is close to his heart. It was having heard Emil talk about his five minute cameo appearance at Kidsgrove that made me curious about the place; along with the fact I had seemingly visited Staffordshire quite a bit recently and wanted to go again. Matt and I headed down to Kidsgrove on our own, having planned the trip a couple of weeks in advance. It wasn’t just thrown together on the morning of the match which was probably the first time that had happened since before Christmas.
I had recently been rocked by the news that my groundhopping companion would be moving abroad to Slovakia in time for next season. Since Matt’s decision, he has stated that he wants to tick off as much of the north-west that he hasn’t already done before he departs. He probably went to bed on the Saturday night wondering why we had opted to waste a day of our lives in this dull, grotty and ultimately uninspiring town in the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent when we could have done much better.
We met at Manchester Piccadilly just before 10:00 in our usual rendezvous. After trying, and failing to steal an extra croissant at the self service checkout in Sainsbury’s, we boarded the 10:40 service down to Kidsgrove. It was nice to see the Northern Rail logos had all been eradicated from our train in preparation for the impending change of franchise. Unfortunately for us, the barking dogs and already pissed Grimsby Town fans who were in our carriage couldn’t suffer the same fate.
The weather looked as rough as I was feeling having spent all Easter weekend drinking my way across York and Harrogate. The latest storm – that somebody in an office had decided to name after a person – was battering parts of the country, meaning our match at Kidsgrove was in doubt. The groundsman and chairman had both been hard at work, and even tweeted that between them they had walked eight miles rolling the water off the pitch. Our back up plans would be Congleton and Hanley if their efforts proved to be futile.
By 11:30 we had arrived in Kidsgrove and were greeted by the sight of the Trent and Mersey Canal which ran alongside the station. The station ticket office was filled with sofas and other pieces of furniture which made it feel like you were cutting through somebodies living room. Walking towards the town centre, we crossed the canal which curved around the station car park, before disappearing into the Harecastle Tunnel which is said to be haunted by the ghost of a headless woman. It was all very exciting and nice so far, but things soon went downhill.
A rusting cadillac occupied the baron wasteland on the left hand side, while an old hag of a woman shuffled into the sheltered accommodation on the other side of the road. The clock tower of the Town Hall loomed over a local church which boasted a plethora of statues, each with more character than the few people we initially met in the town. A home brewing shop offered a brief glint of excitement as we headed towards the main shopping area.
A crescent shaped row of shops and other services seemed to be the hub of Kidsgrove. It looked naff but no doubt won some sort of architectural accolade in the 1950’s. We stood on the street corner wondering where to go next. Glancing worryingly to one an other we really did not know what to do; this had never happened in our friendship of four seasons. Eventually deciding to head up the road to the right we found a pub called The Queen’s Head. That too, looked naff, and thankfully it wasn’t yet open so I wasn’t subjected to having a pint. Of course, it could have been beautiful inside, but somehow I really, really doubt it.
Another highlight of Kidsgrove came in the form of a tanning shop, which was ingeniously named Tan’z’Inere’. If we couldn’t find a pub, we would have done just spent the afternoon in there as the price for half an hour on the sunbeds was very reasonable. Carrying on through a Labour Club car park, we traipsed up a cycle path and emerged on to the main road. A bus was waiting at the traffic lights, with the destinations on the front listed as Burslem and Hanley. At last, we could escape from Kidsgrove! But no, I wanted to explore more of the town where Mark Bright attended school.
Up the hill we could see a white building that looked like a pub. Were we on to a winner? No, of course we weren’t. It didn’t appear to open on a Monday, and soon we were heading in completely the wrong direction just trying to find somewhere to have a bloody drink. It was as we walked past ALDI we agreed that if the next pub we tried wasn’t open, we would nip into the supermarket and then sit on the bench outside drinking cheap Belgian lager until it was time to head down to the ground. No, seriously.
Thankfully, our efforts eventually paid off. The Crown and Thistle looked promising from the outside and it didn’t let us down when we got in there. An array of real ales were on offer, and I bonded with the barmaid, Carly, as one regular tried to wind us both up about student loans. Matt and I spent a good couple of hours in there before his work colleague James turned up to bolster our party. He is from Kidsgrove originally but now lives in Manchester, and saw this as an ideal opportunity to nip back to his hometown to feed his tortoise that resides at his parents house.
Tortoise fed, beer finished, it was time to head down to the ground. Once again, we were told it wasn’t really within walking distance, and James had his car so we managed to reach the ground within about five minutes. For me, the area surrounding the ground was reminiscent to that of the now defunct Norton United. Slap bang in the middle of a Staffordshire council estate and a bit of a pain to find.
As I entered the ground, I saw a bloke in a Hanley Town jacket chatting to the Kidsgrove chairman. As previously mentioned, Hanley was one of our back up fixtures for the day, so I enquired as to whether their match had been called off. I should have known better than to start conversation with this bloke, as he began lecturing me on how Colls should spend more on their pitch. Just to reiterate, this is from a bloke who was at Kidsgrove as his own match had been called off… and ours was on! Perhaps he just doesn’t like Colls as we always manage to batter them?
Anyway, surely things would get better when I got to the turnstile? Nope, no student prices. At least I’d be able to get a decent pint in the clubhouse? Nope, no real ale. Just a choice of generic, crap lagers. It did cheer me up though when it was pointed out to me that the clubhouse is named The Phoenix Club. Unfortunately, Brian Potter was not behind the bar filling up a vase full of whiskey, nor was Jerry The Berry being rolled around the car park by a group of local children.
Football was played in Kidsgrove until the outbreak of World War II. Following it’s conclusion, Kidsgrove United were formed but it is said that they brought their players in from other towns – how dare they! The young men of the town were unimpressed with this and set up their own club named Kidsgrove Athletic. I have visions of men in pubs during the 1940’s moaning, saying “Look at these men, coming all the way from Alsager and Knypersley, taking our places in the local football team!”
Anyway, with the club formed in 1952, Athletic joined the Burslem and Tunstall League. They competed up until 1961 when they opted to take a year out while they relocated to their current ground on Hollinwood Road.
They gained promotion into the North West Counties Football League in 1990 and were then promoted into the Premier Division after just a year due to ground grading. Since then, they have gone on to win the NWCFL on two occasions with the most recent title coming in 2001, leaving them in the Evo-Stik Division One South where they currently find themselves.
Coming into the match Kidsgrove found themselves in 16th place, which I am told was a massive underachievement given the squad they have at Hollinwood Road. Their visitors for the afternoon were Market Drayton Town who had become a regular fixture in my matches as of late having also seen them play at Newcastle Town and Shaw Lane Aquaforce. Town were doing well in ninth place, six points behind Lincoln United who occupied the final play off place.
As the match kicked off I found Market Drayton fan Stu who has been great company whenever I had watched matches with him. In fact, that can be said for all the travelling fans. They don’t travel in numbers but they are all lovely people who from what I have seen all enjoy their day out regardless of the result.
With the home side in their traditional blue they attacked the far end in the first half. Joe Woolley was involved in their best move of the first half on five minutes when he won the ball and fired it just wide of Ash Rawlins post. The young winger then turned provider when his weaving run led to a deft cross which striker Nick Wellecomme couldn’t turn towards goal.
In a first half of few chances, the visitors only real opening was when Tom O’Neil sent a free kick a couple of yards past Harry Pickering’s post.
Just before the whistle went for the interval I headed to the pie hut that was tucked away just in front of the Phoenix Club. No, they didn’t have two Japanese immigrants cooking chips in a wok and they didn’t have Max & Paddy on the door making sure everybody formed a nice orderly queue. What they did have though was a wide selection of pies and other things being cooked by an army of volunteers. I ordered a steak pie, chips, peas and gravy and headed back outside where conversation soon turned to the quite frankly rubbish club crest that Kidsgrove possess.
“Why are there three unicorns dancing in amongst two trees that look like those statues you find on Easter Island?” As far as I was aware I hadn’t seen any unicorns and I was becoming increasingly annoyed. It took a good ten minutes until an explanation was offered up by one of the fans. Apparently the unicorns are in fact goats. Baby goats are kids. The trees form a grove. Put them together to make Kids-Grove and there you have the tackiest badge in non-league… unless you’re a fan of catchphrase. Personally, I think they should put the women who work at Tanz’in’ere in charge of a rebrand.
Back on the pitch, Kidsgrove started the second half quickly with Tom Maddison striking the ball straight at Rawlins after good work down the left. Moments later, Ant Malbon’s tidy run and cross on the left found Ross Davidson who fired over at the back post.
On 56 minutes, the moment arrived. I finally saw Market Drayton Town score. A long ball down field saw Tyrell McFarland outpace the Grove backline before he went wide and fired under Harry Pickering into the bottom left hand corner.
Rather deservedly, Kidsgrove equalised just eight minutes later when Jack Sherratt opened up and found the net from the edge of the box.
In the last quarter of the game, the home side had chances to win it, Nick Wellecomme blazed over after a knock down in the box, before doing the same when Pickering’s free-kick fell for him late on.
The biggest chance of the match fell to full back Tom Morris who continued to get forward. Ross Davidson’s cross found the former Stafford Rangers player but his header from point blank range was superbly kept out by Ash Rawlins who had put in yet another fantastic performance.
That signalled the end of the game and we headed straight back to the car where we were then chauffeured to another pub in Kidsgrove. The Clough Hall was probably the biggest dive I’ve been in for a good while. There was nobody in there other than a couple of screaming children who were being supervised for the afternoon. At least the pool table was free, so as we supped on a pint that I found took ages to go down we saw out our time in the town by playing Matt’s favourite sport. I’m being sarcastic by the way; he’s horrendous at pool. Unfortunately I was paired with him and we lost 3-0 to James and Jacquesy.
Victorious they headed off in the car back to Manchester as we stayed in the pub for a while longer with Shaun. The plan was for Shaun to drop us back off at the train station where we would then travel back home… and all was going well until I realised my bag was missing. I’d left it in James’ car, meaning my bag was now en route to Burnage, a suburb of Manchester. Fortunately Shaun lives with James meaning all hope was not lost. In short, we got a lift all the way back to Burnage (home of the Gallagher Brothers) to retrieve my man bag. It was all rather embarrassing.
I got home eventually, safe in the knowledge that I never have to visit Kidsgrove again in my life. I think it’s best for both parties as I probably won’t be welcome back now after my glowing review of the place. Despite my comments, I do think the ground and facilities at Kidsgrove are great and it’s fantastic to see a four sided ground at this level. As always, these views are my own.
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 40 miles
- ADMISSION: £7
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £2