Cross Border Double – Saturday 4 August 2018. Kerry FC 0 v 1 Abermule followed by Ellesmere Rangers 1 v 5 Rylands.

The opportunity for a double game Saturday occasionally presents itself and especially when it is a good run mileage wise and there is a chance to capture two new grounds in an afternoon, it always seems too good an opportunity to miss.

So on Saturday, the Sat Nav pointed us firstly to mid Wales and Dolforgan Park , the picturesque ground of Kerry FC, from the Mid Wales League. I visited many of the grounds in this league at a number of organised groundhops a few years back but i missed a few, of which Kerry was one and it is always a fabulous part of the world to visit for football.

After a surprisingly trouble free journey via the M1, M6 and M54 , we stopped off to refuel at an old favourite the ex Little Chef at Shrewsbury, which Eurogarages decided to run into the ground since they bought the chain (but not the name) a couple of years ago and have now rebranded the few remaining restaurants they can’t franchise out to another chain into their self named EG Diners. Still the same friendly staff at this one from the old days and an Olympic Breakfast (re-branded as The Mighty One by the marketing geniuses at Eurogarages!) set us up for the day.

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Then it was a case of getting off the A5 and driving through some lovely countryside until we arrived at Kerry about 11.45am for the advertised 12 noon kick off. Unfortunately for some reason, they tweeted whilst the players were warming up to say they were now kicking off at 12.30pm, which was going to make getting to our planned second game very tight indeed. Not sure why, perhaps the late arrival of the referee or something was all we could surmise…

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Anyway proceedings did get underway about 12.25pm, as Kerry entertained local rivals Abermule FC, a neighbouring village 4 miles or so away. The first half was quite even, with few chances of note but the visitors took the game to their opponents early on in the second half and were rewarded by the only goal of the game after about an hour.

The setting of the ground is very pleasant, tree lined and a small amount of cover available on one side with the pitch fully railed and a huge sweeping tree lined hill behind the far goal. The tea-bar wasn’t open unfortunately on Saturday, so i am unable to give a lowdown but i am sure the standard fare is available at league games.

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One surprise was to hear a voice i recognised from television,  well at least for anyone who has watched the fabulous BBC One Wales series’ on Snowdonia and Brecon Beacons in recent years, that of naturalist and presenter Iolo Williams, who lives locally and i am guessing must have been watching a family member in the game.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09qq181  for anyone interested!

The referee brought the game to a halt at 2.05pm and this left just under an hour to do the 60 minute journey to our second planned game. Arriving a minute or so after kick off after spending much of the route stuck behind a Sunday driver (obviously making a weekend of it!).

Our destination was back across the border (well a couple of miles or so) at Ellesmere Rangers, who play in the market town of Ellesmere in Shropshire, again a very pleasant part of the world.

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After spending many seasons in the West Midlands Regional League, Ellesmere were one of the victims (or beneficiaries depending on your point of view), of the recent movement of teams at various levels of the non-league game, so were kicking off the new season, with a home league game in the North West Counties League Division 1 South, with their visitors also newcomers, Rylands FC, hailing from Warrington and playing their first ever season at Step 6.

After spending much of my childhood playing junior football in Warrington Leagues, Rylands was a name i had heard before since playing against one of their junior sides many moons ago but it seems the club has progressed hugely in recent years with some recent outside investment from the football agent Paul Stretford ( an ex Rylands player and Wayne Rooney’s agent).

After a fairly even start, once Rylands had gone ahead after the home defence were unable to clear a corner, the visitors took over. They added 2 further goals before the break, with the home side continuing to fail to deal with set pieces and in the second half could have scored plenty more, in the end they had to make to with just a couple, to push them 5-0 ahead before the home side grabbed a late penalty as a reward for their efforts.

Rylands look a very well drilled side for this level and it will be interesting to see how they progress, the home side looked a little short (though it is always hard to judge at this stage of the season) and they may find the switch to the always competitive NWCL a tough one.

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Ellesmere are one of those clubs you wish every success though, a friendly welcome, a lovely new clubhouse and well stocked tea bar (thumbs up for the home made flapjack!) and volunteers smartly turned out in club polo shirts who were very helpful, even tracking down a programme for us after they had initially sold out on the gate.

All in all, another enjoyable day in the sunshine and two new grounds to add to the list.

A Three Game Day – Wolverhampton Sporting, Shepshed Dynamo & Sleaford Town – Sat 28 July 2018.

One of my pastimes in life, is visiting what would be to some far too many football grounds or to others ‘groundhopping’. I have being watching football at all levels since my first visit to Anfield back in 1979 and then at non-league grounds around the Merseyside area shortly afterwards.

I never tried to become a groundhopper, i suppose it just happened over the years and definitely in the last 10 – 12 years i have enjoyed actively seeking out new grounds to visit and planning trips, rather than it just happening to me through going to watch the various non-league and one particularly league team i support play at new grounds.

Over the last 10 years, the number of grounds i have visited, i have recently worked out has now grown to over 1000 and hopefully will continue to grow further as there are always new places to visit and add to the list.

Part of the enjoyment of visiting new grounds for me, is i suppose the act of visiting new places, going to places off the beaten track and beyond the usual tourist traps and if you can fit more than one into a day, so much the better (although yes i have many friends who think it madness but who then love hearing about where my travels have recently taken me).

So yesterday was one of those rare days, a 3 game day, which occasionally you get the opportunity to do, thanks to the vagaries of the fixture planners..

An early start from London , saw us arrive into Cannock about 10.30am for the now customary Morrisons breakfast (oh for the days of the recently finally demised Little Chef’s again, i am sure there is an article in me about them at some stage!) and then a short trip over to Pride Park, the home of Wolverhampton Sporting Community FC who were kicking off early today in a home pre-season friendly against higher level opponents in the form of Rushall Olympic. The game kicked off in the first slightly dubious weather we have seen for weeks (and the yellow-in-patches pitch showed what groundsmen have been up against this summer)… Rushall notched an early goal and despite having more of the play in the first half Sporting couldn’t find an equaliser. The second half probably didn’t flow as well due to the number of substitutions but Rushall gradually made their status tell and grabbed two further goals to give them a comfortable 3-0 result in the end. The ground was one of those i love, a little rough around the edges but with plenty of character and two great little stands behind one goal, which allowed the crowd to find shelter during a brief shower. None of those characterless kit stands so many clubs drop in these days off straight from manufacturers (although they were to come later in the day). It’s always fabulous to discover another ground with a little soul and with ongoing building work going on, on the side of the ground with a small grass bank maybe the club are adding to their facilities. All in all a great visit with the early kick off presumably due to a wedding reception later in the afternoon for which the sizeable club house was prepared. The club house did provide one of the days interesting questions and answers though, when the guy in front of me asked why his can of Tango was £1.50!! , quick as flash the reply came from the barmaid ‘ it’s the sugar tax darling’… or not as the case may be!

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After Wolverhampton, it was a cross country run to the town of Shepshed in Leicestershire, home of Shepshed Dynamo who play their football in the Step 5 Midland Football League. I have visited the Dovecote before to see AFC Halifax Town visit in an FA Trophy game a decade or so ago but my travelling companion was enjoying a first visit. And an enjoyable game #upthebutthole it was (look up the location of Shepshed’s ground for the truth behind that one)!. The visitors were Stamford AFC from the Northern Premier League Evo-Stik East, who brought a decent number of fans with them. Both teams cancelled each other out without creating too much in the first half but in the second Stamford always had the edge and finally notched a couple of goals as the game entered it’s latter stages to secure a 2-0 win, although Shepshed looked a decent side on the day and will on this evidence be amongst the front runners in their division this season.

The ground was again was one of those lovely non-league grounds with real character, 3 stands of differing designs on 3 sides of the pitch and some low-ceiling covered terracing which provided some much needed cover from the passing rain again. A tidy club house and a well stocked tea bar at decent prices, all added to a pleasant afternoon. Hopefully the weekend’s rain will also have brought a smile to the face of the Shepshed groundsman, who is currently battling with what is quite possibly the driest pitch i have ever seen!

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Then it was a quick run across country, weaving in and out of Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, to finally arrive in Lincolnshire and our final destination of the day,  Eslaforde Park, the home of United Counties League side Sleaford Town.

The game against local rivals Deeping Rangers was actually a league game, with a few games brought forward to allow the league to be part of the organised Groundhop UK groundhop which took in various recreation fields and grounds in the United Counties League and Peterborough and District Football League. The more serious nature of the game added to the intensity and Deeping finally won out 1-0 winners, thanks to an early goal, in a game that held the attention throughout, without ever fully sparking into life.

Organised groundhop games always seem to bring out an additional item or two to the tea bar menu and the Spicy Sausage and Rice at £2 was a tasty bargain and must needed after a long day.

As for the ground, Eslaforde Park is one of those grounds, that divide opinion, a new build on the outskirts of town in 2005, it is what you would call functional, one dropped in stand, one small covered terrace, a large changing room building and not a lot else.. One of those grounds that provides a great base for a well run club to provide facilities for the community and junior teams but for the old fashioned side of me, lacks any real soul…

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All in all though, a great day, 2 new grounds, 1 enjoyable re-visit and 3 decent games. Although apologies to all the home teams, who didn’t manage a  single goal between them, i hope it wasn’t down to our presence.

Mental Health And Me.

It is such a broad topic isn’t it really mental health and thankfully it is beginning to be something that we can be slightly more open about. However the fact i am blogging anonymously i guess means we have a long way to go.

Throughout my life, i guess i have always been shy to an extent and cautious but i have worked to overcome those personality traits and to friends, family and work colleagues i guess i have always been someone who is engaging, likes to have a laugh, has a degree in sarcasm and has always worked to live rather than the other way round.

I built a career from my passion (football) and was lucky enough to work on the commercial side of the industry for many years until recently, building a good reputation in my field for being knowledgeable, hard-working and keen to mentor and help people.

This all came crashing down in 2017/18, with the introduction of several new people into the business i worked at, people i would describe as empire builders, self-interested , unwilling to listen and happy to tread on whoever they needed to, to achieve whatever they wanted.

I don’t want this to sound like a moan, or as some would have it , to suggest i am frightened of change (i had many new bosses and adapted comfortably for years with them) but this time it was different. A new director who was only interested in himself and his ego…who brought a whole new team with him who seemed carbon copies of him.

It changed something inside me and i felt unable to stop it…

The constant criticism of everything that had gone before, the attitude that they were there to save us from ourselves, the inability to listen as to why we did things a certain way (with good reason in many cases!) and the failure to understand why a high achieving team of people had stayed together for many years (because we loved what we did, had a passion for what we did and worked with both the business and supporters in mind).

Everyday there was something wrong , or emails at anti-social hours criticising something that had been done,  my life became second-guessing, being unable to make decisions, trying to avoid any contact with people…

By the end, i was frightened of even turning on my mobile phone, for fear of the next email passively aggressively criticising something i had done or not done… which sitting here now reading these words even sounds ridiculous, how could you fear your own phone!

For me life has always been about compassion, mentoring, helping a colleague in need, giving praise where it is due and helping someone when maybe something isn’t quite right.

It pains me how much these people affected my mental state, how much they have drained my confidence (i still question every new job i am applying for , what if i can’t do it? what if the culture is as bad as the one i left?). But i am determined to overcome this and find a position again in an industry i have a true passion for and which i have both professional and personal skills which are an asset.

No matter which industry you work in, no matter your position, if you work hard, if you are helpful, those around you should be there to help , support and guide you with their knowledge, not criticise everything you do or try and bolster their own ego with every move they make.

I am sure there are others out there who may read this and relate. Maybe, maybe not? But i guess for me i just want to get across how far a word of praise, a helpful smile, a kind word can go at times and how destructive the reverse can be.

HR departments have a long way to go as well, yes, we had the token ‘mental health’ training course we went on but it was a box ticking exercise, something the organisation could say they were providing, rather a genuine desire for the organisation to be aware of its role in creating a positive culture, where staff were happy and the organisation benefited from their productivity and skills as a result.

So, it is a turning point in my life now, i continue to look for jobs, network with old colleagues and find a way back in to what i enjoy. But if it doesn’t happen i guess i will have to adapt and find a new way of making a living, time will tell – the key thing for me is i need to be more protective of my mental health and find a working culture that values it as much as i now do.

Hopefully new initiatives like the Mind partnership with the EFL over the next 2 years will make football at all levels of the game understand how much mental health can affect well-being and performance. Again only time will tell…

Thanks for reading anyway, i just wanted to get across where i am coming from – i promise the blog won’t all be this heavy! I am off to a game or two over the weekend and i am sure i will also listen to a decent tune or two as well…

But remember, if you have a colleague, friend, family member, anyone who you are close to and you think they may be bottling something up or struggling in some way with their mental health, talk to them, show them you care and are there. A simple act of kindness can go such a long way believe me…