Playing on the break

An international break: ‘The weekend yawns vacantly in front of you. What are you going to do on Saturday afternoon? How can you get out of going shopping?’

Towns of Two Halves might have been written with international breaks in mind. You watch England on the box on Friday night, and then the weekend yawns vacantly in front of you. What are you going to do on Saturday afternoon? How can you get out of going shopping?

The answer lies in Football Tourism. It even sounds respectable. All it means is “going somewhere you wouldn’t normally go, to have a look round and watch a match”. It’s up to you how much gawping you do, and where, but you’re sure to find something unusual and you might actually look forward to the next international break.

Mancunians have Doncaster Rovers at Rochdale, a town that offers a heritage divi; a little further away, Crewe Alex against Bury should appeal to rail enthusiasts. In Northeast Lancs, ‎Accrington Stanley host Bradford and the Haworth Gallery hosts Europe’s largest collection of Tiffany glass.

For Londoners the options are very limited. You probably won’t get into Kingstonians’ snug ground where AFC Wimbledon play Portsmouth, but an afternoon in Kingston is never a bad idea. Go to see where Saxon kings were crowned; admire some wacky street art; enjoy the river.

Newport County fly the flag in South Wales, with Stevenage the visitors; allow plenty of time for the Roman camp at Caerleon, the Chartist memorials, the ceramics and the Transporter Bridge.

Fans living in East Anglia have a choice. Cambridge United are at home to MK Dons, and the city has more weird and wonderful diversions than you could shake a stick at; Colchester, home to a zoo, Roman history and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, will also welcome Crawley Town on Saturday.

From the East Riding head south to Scunthorpe for the Peterborough clash and a zoo, a Pink Pig Farm and other attractions. In the fictional South Riding, Barnsley are at home to Luton (noon kick-off); take the kids to Cannon Hall Farm or, in the town centre, Experience Barnsley.

In the East Midlands, Burton Albion play Bristol Rovers and you might sniff out the National Brewery Centre. Mansfield’s kick-off against Grimsby is at 1pm, so you will hardly have time for Lord Byron’s gaff, a pit and country park, and a fine local museum. Forest Green are the visitors to Northampton, which has a treat for admirers of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Notts County are at home to Oldham, and Nottingham itself has a variety of alternative attractions, from heritage to video games.

In the West Midlands, Coventry City play Wycombe Wanderers; the Cathedral is breathtaking, there’s always something on at the Herbert (a TS Eliot-related exhibition at the moment) and specialist museums cater for musicians and transport enthusiasts. Port Vale, where you can throw in all the Potteries have to offer, play Lincoln.

For more details on these and all other football towns, order Towns of Two Halves from info@townsof2halves.co.uk, £8.

Autumn colour

New England in the Fall isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. If you go a week early – and honestly, how can you know two months ahead of time what the right week will be? – it’s not that much different from Olde England in many respects, of which the colour of the foliage is one. No, the best you can do is to organise an itinerary with variations in latitude and altitude, to give those leaves every chance, book your flights and hotels and hope for the best.

Northern Maine at the end of September 2018: pretty enough, but not notably autumnal

If, then, Vermont’s Green Mountains remain doggedly green (as, for that matter, do the White Mountains of New Hampshire) there’s not much you can do about it. Enjoy the scenery, treat yourself to a long detour to Quebec City, take photographs of covered bridges, waterfalls and lighthouses… and come home with added resolve. Because here too is a way in which travelling to a football match can be a rewarding form of tourism.

The obvious ways to enjoy autumn colour in this context are:

Woodland Some clubs are surrounded by or adjacent to wooded hills – Forest Green Rovers and the Cotswolds, Wycombe Wanderers in the Chilterns, and several of the northern clubs especially on the eastern side of the Pennines. Nottingham Forest is a significant disappointment in this sense.

Derby Arboretum: the UK’s first landscaped public park

Arboretums A posh word for ‘park’ really, but the Latin for ‘tree’ should promise some colour at this time of year. Derby, Lincoln, Nottingham and Walsall have arboretums (arboreta?). Luton is close to the Chilterns where you’ll find Whipsnade Tree Cathedral just a few miles away. Forest Green, again, is not far from the extraordinary Westonbirt Arboretum.

Botanical Gardens Kew is next door to Brentford. In other places, the botanical gardens are a little further away from the football grounds – Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Leicester, Oxford and Shefffield. Norwich’s Plantation Garden is a special place, worth a mention and worth a visit.

Parks Many football teams play at Parks. The most promising name here must be Blackburn Rovers’ Ewood Park, but it might as well be called EByGum Park for all the wood involved. Some clubs, however, play in or adjacent to functioning parks: Aston Villa, Bournemouth, Fulham, and Plymouth for example.

Delapré Abbey, just outside Northampton’s town centre

Parkland This is subtly different. Parkland belongs to country houses. So Barnsley has Cannon Hall, Mansfield has Newstead Abbey and Northampton has Delapré (as well as the excellent Abington Park, which belongs in the previous category).

This is compiled from information recorded and indexed in Towns of Two Halves. Order your copy for from info@townsof2halves.co.uk £8 to enhance your enjoyment of away games in ways you might never have thought about.

Egypt around every corner

Bolton is the place to be for Egyptologists this autumn. On 22 September the Egyptology gallery of Bolton Museum will re-open with a full-size reproduction of the burial chamber of Thutmose III.
The first away fans to be able to treat themselves to this reconstruction of a site in the Valley of the Kings will be Derby County’s on 29 September. Blackburn Rovers are there on 6 October, followed by Nottingham Forest on 24 October and Hull City on 27 October.
But Bolton isn’t the only destination on the football league itinerary for Egyptian collections:
Brighton Museum & Art Gallery has two Egyptian galleries through the city’s association with noted Egyptologist Francis Llewellyn Griffith.
Derby Museum has two mummies (one partially unwrapped) and a number of grave objects.
Leicester New Walk Museum has a two refurbished Egyptian galleries re-opening on 20 October, when there will be family activities and three times as many artefacts as previously displayed.
Liverpool had an Egyptian Museum as long ago as 1852. Now its World Museum claims to have the “largest Ancient Egypt gallery outside the British Museum”.
Macclesfield’s West Park Museum houses the collection of Victorian thrill-seeker Marianne Brocklehurst, a voracious shopper as well as a skilled artist and engaging diary-keeper.
Manchester Museum’s collection includes objects that found their way up to Lancashire through the funding of Sir Flinders Petrie’s expeditions by industrialist Jesse Haworth
Norwich Castle has an Egyptian gallery stocked with artefacts donated by local mustard magnate Jeremiah Colman and author Henry Rider Haggard.
The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has about 50,000 objects from Egypt and Sudan.
Rochdale’s Touchstones has a Heritage Gallery with plenty of Egyptian interest, much of it supplied indirectly by Sir Flinders Petrie, a pioneer of archaeology and Egyptology.
Swansea’s Egypt Centre celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
The Museum of Wigan Life has an Egyptian section in which pride of place goes to a mask 3,500 years old.

All this information and more is in Towns of Two Halves. Order your copy from info@townsof2halves.co.uk

Berkhamsted Living

A lovely review in the author’s local magazine:
David Guest has just released his second book, Towns of Two Halves. Described as ‘a tourist’s guide to football towns’ it is just that, plus much more.
The premise of the book is that David, over a period of many years, has visited all 92 football stadiums in England [including three in Wales] and, while doing so, has learned more about each town. So while he does tell us much about each town – who knew that Brentford had a water museum, for example? – he also intersperses it with his own personal story at the time, as well as the fate of his beloved Oldham Athletic, the team he’s spent most of his life (blindly) following.
The result is a charming, funny and heartwarming story about football (a bit), but mostly about England, its people and all its quirks and foibles. It’s perfect for football fans, non-football fans, readers and non-readers – and you can devour it in one sitting or dip in and out as you please.
I urge you to give it a go – you won’t be disappointed!

Carlisle News & Star

This is the text of a feature written by Roger Lytollis for the Carlisle News & Star. Thank you, Roger…

By the time you read this, it’s likely that the hundreds of Carlisle United fans travelling to their team’s first match of the season will have arrived in Devon.

For most of them the trek to Exeter – a 693-mile round trip from Carlisle – will have ended in late morning or early afternoon.

The traditional away match experience involves finding a pub for a meal and a drink then walking to the ground.

Watch the game, return to the car or train, and go home.

Carlisle’s season ends at Yeovil next May. Before then there will be many more hours on motorways and trains for 90 minutes of football which may not always seem worth the effort.

David Guest believes there is another way. His new book, Towns of Two Halves, urges football fans to make more of their away days.

Arrive earlier. Leave later. Consider making a weekend of it by visiting local attractions.

“Accidental tourism,” David calls it.

“The idea of the book is quite recent – the last couple of years,” he says. “The idea of treating away days as a tourist goes back to the early years of this century. It began to bother me that I was wasting a lot of my life watching Oldham Athletic in far-flung places.”

A similar concern may possibly have crossed the minds of Carlisle supporters.

David, a journalist for more than 35 years, has visited all 92 clubs in the Football League and Premier League. Most of his visits are recent enough to provide a useful guide to these towns for football fans.

A few are as far back as the 1960s. These chapters are more of a memoir, with up-to-date information about the towns’ attractions available on his book’s website.

David moved from Oldham when he was a child and now lives in Hertfordshire. He came to Carlisle in April 2014 to see Oldham take on United, and was pleasantly surprised by the Border City.

In fact he says Carlisle – along with Exeter – is the place he enjoyed most. He is particularly enthusiastic about Tullie House, the cathedral and Rickerby Park.

“I’d like to blow Carlisle’s trumpet a bit more,” he says. “The variety on offer. The historic buildings. The green spaces. I like places where there’s always something happening. I remember walking back down to the railway station on Sunday morning and seeing people abseiling off the Civic Centre.”

Other largely unsung places which David liked include Burton, Hull, Newport and Grimsby. The latter pair are in League Two along with Carlisle.

“Grimsby surprised me. It was more interesting than I had expected. The same with Newport. I visited some Roman remains there in case there was nothing else to write about. But in the end it was a long chapter.”

Morecambe is among the other towns in Carlisle’s division which David enjoyed. This season United play there on New Year’s Day: perhaps not the best time to stroll along its seafront.

David acknowledges that any away-match tourist’s schedule is likely to be dictated by the time of year the fixture is played.

“A lot of the book might come across as a bit highbrow with visits to museums etc. But it’s a largely winter-based season. You’re going to want to be indoors more often than not. I hope there’s enough variety.

“One of the points I’m trying to make in the book is that anywhere can be a tourist destination. That said, I suppose I’d have to admit that Exeter has a bit more to offer than, say, Nailsworth [home of Forest Green Rovers] or Oldham.

“To spend a full weekend in Oldham you’d be struggling. There are country parks, a good museum at Saddleworth. And Manchester’s on your doorstep.”

David advises anyone attending a match at Milton Keynes Dons to visit nearby Bletchley Park: once the home of World War Two code-breakers.

Some away days include experiences which cannot be planned. A trip to Ipswich in 1991 comes to David’s mind.

He visited the town with his now ex-wife under the guise of a walking holiday. Oh, and Oldham just happened to be playing there. They watched the match and, next day, did the walking part of their weekend. This took them into a field where their path was blocked by a drainage ditch which ‘looked jumpable’.

David writes: ‘I went first and cleared the hazard with feet to spare. L followed; but her approach lacked confidence. Her jump was more vertical than horizontal and she came down in middle of the ditch. I hauled her out to the accompaniment of some plain language. Her feet were soaked, as were her shorts to mid-thigh level, and frantic splashing left its mark elsewhere.’

Perhaps there are football fans whose tribal mentality means they see the homes of all opposing teams as the enemy: merely places for smash and grab raids with three points the booty.

For the sake of his book, and supporters’ wellbeing, David hopes they will set aside rivalries long enough to appreciate more than a pub and a football ground.

“Give yourself an extra few hours,” he says.

It may be harder for Carlisle fans to do this, considering how much time they already invest in following their team to distant towns.

Then again, maybe that means they should try to squeeze more than the match from those epic journeys.

David has been asked if there’s a market for a book treating football fans as tourists. He says: “There’s a trend in football towards gentrification which means the game is making itself more welcoming to families. Families need more to do than go to the pub. I’m hoping the book might be riding the beginning of a small wave.”

Then there’s the consolation, if your team loses, of having enjoyed a different kind of cultural experience.

Has football ever been the worst part of David’s away days?

“I still come away from a place feeling good if they’ve won,” he says. “And depressed if they’ve not.”

*Some of David Guest’s thoughts about Carlisle:

‘Carlisle shares its charms with you hesitantly, like a winsome spinster unsure of the effect she’s having. Perhaps the novelty of trying to attract visitors is too recent; Carlisle will have spent most of its history trying to fend them off.’

‘On the other side of the bridge that carries the A7 to Scotland there are more green spaces at Carlisle Cricket Club. A game was in progress and I stopped to have a drink and to enjoy the overlap in the seasons. On a warm, sunny evening, after the last football match of a successful campaign – relegation narrowly avoided once again – it was another fine advertisement for Carlisle.’

 

Carlisle United lost 3-1 at Exeter.

Screen Test

The BBC’s TV programme schedules for Saturday 4 August were depressing for what they omitted. On the first day of the new football season, there was neither Final Score nor Match of the Day. With what by common consent was the conclusion of the most dramatic Test Match since the last most dramatic Test Match, there was of course no cricket at all.
The absence of any football coverage is presumably explained by the fact that the Premier League doesn’t start until next weekend. So that’s a single upright finger from the British Broadcasting Corporation to all fans of English clubs outside the Premier League and of other British clubs outside Wales.
There was one forlorn hope. An inexplicable break in the published BBC1 schedule at 4.45pm separated European Championships 2018 from European Championships 2018. The witching hour for football supporters begins at 4.45pm. In the event, nothing happened at 4.45pm apart from Chris Hoy talking engagingly about his early career. While the football results could have been screened, the BBC showed the Women’s 800 metre Breaststroke Final, 16 lengths, with no British interest, for eight minutes plus. How long does it take to read the football results? Five minutes? Meanwhile on BBC2, Flog It! began on time.
Where cricket is concerned, the BBC threw in the towel a long time ago. It talks a good game. The fetish object that is Test Match Special sits smugly on the pedestal sustained by the rest of the corporation. On Radio 5 Live, the pretence that people might actually prefer their sport without moving pictures is repeated daily, many times, as if that might eventually make it true.
The results are dispiriting. The BBC becomes a cheerleader for events that other broadcasters will screen. In a hole and continuing to dig, it surely drums up interest in subscriptions to BT and Sky. Carried away by its own enthusiasm, it loses a sense of perspective: how can a Test Match be a ‘classic’ when only two of the four possible outcomes are available by tea on the third day? And perversely, in its news bulletins, it subsequently broadcasts spoilers.
Online, by contrast, its sports service is comprehensive. Football scores are automatically refreshed, details of individual games are available and ‘virtual’ league tables are updated to reflect, pointlessly, fluctuating fortunes. (This service may not be entirely reliable: the Oldham v Milton Keynes fixture had apparently not kicked off by 3.11pm. Meanwhile, MK Dons had gone up 0-1 from a penalty.) In the red-ball game, cricket scores are updated ball-by-ball.
Perhaps this is how sport will be ‘consumed’ from now on: live, on television, only for those able to afford the appropriate subscription (or canny enough to find a streaming portal); or verbal/textual, regularly updated and free. If the latter, it’s almost a return to the early days of ‘live’ Ashes Test Match commentaries. In the 1930s, audiences in Australia listened through the night to ‘live’ wireless broadcasts put together ball-by-ball from cables. It’s Teletext all over again. It doesn’t feel like progress. It feels as if supporters of second-class clubs are second-class citizens.

Wrexham

The Arc, a fine piece of public art by David Annand in bronze and stainless steel. The two figures are a miner and a steelworker and the Arc represents the Wrexham area’s industrial heritage.

Towards the end of the 2017/18 season, I planned to have Towns of Two Halves ready for the start of the following season. That timetable presented one significant difficulty: the precise composition of League 2. Although Macclesfield Town looked a good bet to be promoted as champions from the National League, any one of half a dozen other clubs might emerge from the play-offs to join them in League 2. By the time the identity of that successful club was known, the season would be over and there would be no home game for me to attend.

I looked at the National League table and considered journeys to Sutton, Aldershot, Dover and several others. It began to look like a lot of trouble just to preserve the integrity of the project. On the other hand, integrity is not a negligible quality. I made a start. Macclesfield had a home game against Barrow, and on the following day Wrexham played at home to Chester.

In the event luck was with me. Macclesfield duly won the league and Tranmere Rovers drew the winning ticket in the awful post-season lottery – Tranmere was the only ground I’d been to of the six teams involved in the play-offs. The book was duly printed with 92 authentic entries.

“I’d overlooked the possibility that the Wrexham v Chester local derby might require special security measures, among them a ban on ticket sales on the day’

Where Wrexham was concerned my luck was out – as was theirs. Wrexham didn’t even reach the play-offs. I’d also overlooked the possibility that the Wrexham v Chester local derby might require special security measures, among them a ban on ticket sales on the day. At other grounds I’d found ways round that sort of obstacle. For Wrexham against Chester I couldn’t be bothered. I had a look round the town and then went to pay a surprise second visit to the old friend whose hospitality I had enjoyed the previous night.

 

It being Sunday, Wrexham south of the railway station was fairly quiet (north of the station a steady stream headed for the football ground, closely watched by the constabulary). The Wrexham County Borough Museum was closed. If recent testimonials on TripAdvisor are any guide, that was a pity: it seems the museum is small but nicely-formed, and with very acceptable catering. Its collections centre has recently added Welsh football to its specialities.

It being Sunday, St Giles Church was very much open and welcoming. A service was finishing as I arrived and the congregation gathered for coffee and chat at the back of the church. I was mistaken for a parishioner. I was aware from another age that “the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous”, but the congregation was too generous and warm-hearted to let that stand in their way and I was shown round a church of which everyone was clearly proud.

St Giles dominates the landscape and is the largest medieval parish church in Wales. Size tends to draw the eye upward, and the angels in the roof of the nave may be the first remarkable feature you’ll notice. There are 16 of them, deployed like a mobile or some sort of dream-catcher, playing instruments or, so it is said, singing.

Above the chancel arch at the eastern end of the nave is another St Giles Special – an early 16th century wall-painting of the Day of Judgement, with souls rising from their coffins to present themselves to Christ, attended by the Virgin Mary and St John. This is called the Doom Painting.

Its position makes it difficult to see clearly. Closer to ground level, its subject is reproduced in another startling piece of art – the Myddleton Memorial, by Louis-François Roubiliac. Roubiliac worked in England and is variously known as a late Baroque or rococo sculptor. His memorial to Mary Myddleton, daughter of the lord of Chirk Castle, dates from the 18th century – Mary died in 1742. Elements of the piece are strictly classical: Mary, struggling to free herself from a shroud, is summoned from her coffin by a cherub with a trumpet. But the coffin is austerely geometric – it looks like a black skip. The device to the right might be an explosion of flames or a member of the lily family; similarly, the angelic brass-player may rest on clouds or smoke. Behind, fractured masonry resolves itself into a squat form of obelisk, providing an unsettling backdrop. You would have to imagine that the grieving father thought it was wonderful; it is, after all, still there.

St Giles has many other points of distinction: stained glass, a pre-Reformation lectern, a chapel for the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. It is acknowledged to be among Wales’ finest where ecclesiastical architecture is concerned.

And it sounds one more unexpected historical echo. Outside the church, below the tower, is the grave of Elihu Yale. This Yale, though born in Boston in the North American colonies in 1649, was brought up in London and made his fortune (apparently through profiteering) with the East India Company. He returned to Britain in 1699 and retired to a mansion near Wrexham, in the land of his maternal forebears.

One of the things he spent his money on was a college in Connecticut, where money was needed for a new building. The building – and, later, the whole college – became known as Yale.

The verse Elihu Yale prepared for his memorial in Wrexham refers to “much good, some ill, he did”. The “ill” probably refers to an eastern branch of the slave trade in which, according to Wikipedia, Yale was active; then there was his association with Cotton Mather, bane of ‘witches’ in Salem but also a fundraiser for the aforementioned college. The verse goes on to hope that “all’s even, and that his soul thro’ mercy’s gone to Heaven”. Indeed.

In the church you’ll find a Wrexham Town Heritage Trail, which gives a brief history of the town and takes you around its points of interest. It is particularly well done, drawing attention to architectural and historical features. The Wynnstay Arms Hotel, for example, was by turns the home of a Jacobite secret society, a venue for bear-baiting and the birthplace of the Football Association of Wales.

The Heritage Trail includes the outlying Acton Park, former home of the infamous Judge Jeffreys and now a public park with a modern stone circle.

A minute’s walk from the south-western margin of the Heritage Trail’s map is Bellevue Park. This Edwardian park, refurbished for the millennium, is also well worth a look. The statue of Queen Victoria replaced an earlier memorial – a WWI tank – that was sold for scrap.

I did watch one sporting event while I was in Wrexham. The Wrexham Running Festival took place that day, and Martin Green won the marathon in just under 2hrs 39mins. The first woman home was Lindy-Lee Folscher in 3hrs 12mins.

Wrexham 2 Chester 0
Racecourse Ground, 11 March 2018

Chesterfield

‘Someone in a distant marketing department thought Chesterfield was the epitome of glamour’
‘Its careful drawing of riverside minarets and domes suggested yashmaks, houris and the dripping head of John the Baptist. It stopped just short of camels’

Chesterfield museum and art gallery www.chesterfield.gov.uk/museum

Chesterfield Parish Church crookedspire.org

Holmbrooke Valley Park www.holmebrookvalleypark.org.uk

Queens Park www.chesterfield.gov.uk

Sutton Scarsdale Hall www.english-heritage.org.uk

I have a soft spot for Chesterfield. During my many years as a smoker Chesterfield was my cancer-stick of choice.
It may have been the endorsements by Sugar Ray Robinson, Willie Mays, Bob Hope, Tyrone Power, Ronald Reagan, Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra and many more. It may have been the enticing promises of ‘No unpleasant after-taste’, ‘Cooler smoking’, ‘Man-size satisfaction’ and the astonishing assurance from the American medical fraternity – or, at least, that section of it represented by someone looking discouragingly like cub reporter Jimmy Olsen – that ‘Chesterfield is best for you’.
Or it may simply have been delight at the idea that someone in a distant marketing department thought Chesterfield was the epitome of glamour. Of all the brands competing for my addict’s mite, from the glittering yet cheap Embassy Gold to the vaguely patriotic Winston, this was the name that caught my eye and held my loyalty.
I don’t know whether Liggett & Myers still produce Chesterfields in packs of 20 (or, as I discovered in Australia, 30, where my daily consumption, attuned to a pack a day, effortlessly adjusted itself to a 50% increase in supply). If they do, the glamour of the modest Derbyshire town’s name will be offset today by a blank package embellished only by menacing warnings and pictures either of diseased body parts or a psychologically broken man trying to come to terms with erectile dysfunction. These anti-marketing devices would probably have increased my consumption as well. Anxiety is a powerful trigger where the committed smoker is concerned.
Besides, the packaging of the Chesterfields I smoked was risible. Its careful drawing of riverside minarets and domes suggested yashmaks, houris and the dripping head of John the Baptist. It stopped just short of camels. The general explanation for the name of the brand is that it has nothing to do with Derbyshire but derives from Chesterfield County, Virginia. Chesterfield County must have taken its name from somewhere not a million miles from the A61. It may have arrived in Virginia via an English milord (Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield actually), but he would have traced the title back to Derbyshire.
When I couldn’t find Chesterfields – as happened occasionally, since Chesterfields were a lower-league, minority-interest cigarette – I fell back on Winstons, but only Camels in an emergency. In a Sheffield newsagent’s once I drew blanks with both Chesterfield and Winston and, with a sigh, asked for a box of matches and a copy of the Guardian. “Aye,” said the shopkeeper, “tha’ll get a good smoke off that.”
The other reason for Chesterfield’s continuing appeal to my sense of nostalgia is that the Recreation Ground, Chesterfield, was where I became an Oldham Athletic supporter. This was the form teenage rebellion took in me with the 60s still a recent memory. Having supported my dad’s club, West Bromwich Albion, I decided it was time I found one of my own.
A home-town club was a slightly complicated option: I was born in the north Manchester mill town of Middleton, close to Oldham but not far from Rochdale or Bury either, and one branch of the family came from the Bolton area. A couple of weeks short of my 20th birthday and after a process akin to holding auditions, I made the short journey from Sheffield to Chesterfield and watched a rather dreary 1-0 win for the home side.
It was the worst football match I had watched in some time and the Oldham team looked inept. But the crowd was great fun and the famously dry northern sense of humour was in evidence. Most important, perhaps, that Oldham team contained one or two obvious and authentic characters, especially a tricky winger called Alan Groves.
Groves was the kind of player who was never content merely to beat a full-back if he could humiliate him as well. Passing to the full-back and then taking the ball off him, stopping as if to tie his bootlaces, explaining to the crowd what he was about to do, all these were part of Groves’ stock in trade.
Around Oldham he apparently became a familiar sight in a flashy car, sporting an afro and working his way through 80 cigarettes a day. Beyond football, he had the distinction – rare in any footballer, much less a Third Division one – of having featured in the Observer’s Quotes of the Week. Groves had married a 16-year-old girl who promptly left school to become his homemaker. The local education authority insisted she should still have been at school. Groves apparently replied to the effect that he didn’t care if she knew the date of the Battle of Hastings as long as she had his dinner on the table when he got home. Her father (her father! It was another era, just 45 years ago) was eventually fined £5.
Groves’ own story ended sadly: a very fit player, he died of heart failure at the age of 29.
What to do in Chesterfield, then? Gawp at the crooked spire, of course, and look round the museum and gallery. There are lovely parks and, in Sutton Scarsdale Hall, a fine old country seat to admire. But beware: a visit to Chesterfield might change your life.

Chesterfield 1 Oldham Athletic 0
Recreation Ground, 16 March 1974

Humble origins

The main aim of Towns of Two Halves is to encourage you to go and take a look at places that you might never have considered. All those towns have something to offer.

But the football is the common denominator and it needn’t be the lowest. As England’s success in the World Cup demonstrates, a trip to somewhere obscure might give you a glimpse of the football stars of tomorrow.

The goalkeepers in the squad are the most exotic examples. Over the past five years you could have gone to Darlington, Alfreton, Burton Albion, Carlisle, Bradford City or Preston North End and seen Jordan Pickford between the sticks. His back-up Nick Pope was even more widely travelled: Bury Town, Welling, Cambridge United, Aldershot, York City and Bury. Jack Butland confined himself largely to the Midlands and Yorkshire; he played for Birmingham, Cheltenham, Stoke, Barnsley, Leeds and Derby before moving to Stoke.

Of the outfield starting XI, Dele Alli’s origins are probably the humblest at Milton Keynes Dons. But five years ago you might have seen Harry Kane turning out on loan with Millwall and Norwich; John Stones was still at Barnsley, Harry Maguire was at Sheffield United in League 1 and Jesse Lingard had a spell on loan with Birmingham City.

How will you know you’re watching a star of the future? You probably need to talk to the home fans. Dele Alli was among the scorers when MK Dons put seven past Oldham in 2014. I had no idea I was watching a World Cup warrior of the future. Besides, Geoffrey Boycott’s grandmother batting with a stick of rhubarb could have scored against Oldham that day. But Tottenham signed him just three months later, so somebody clearly knew.

It’s a little like watching bands on the way up. You see people you’ve never heard of playing in the back room of a pub. Sometimes you only know they’re special with hindsight, and with the perspective that comes from kissing a large number of frogs. But it does mean that there’s always a good reason to go, just in case…

Port Vale update (1)

According to the Stoke Sentinel via StokeonTrent Live, the floodlight issue I put down to my light-sensitive glasses in the Port Vale chapter was actually a source of frustration to Vale fans. “However,” it says, “owner Norman Smurthwaite has subsequently addressed that by installing new lights.”