The whole three men and a dog cliché is often banded around by people when discussing non-league football, and I know a disturbingly large number of people who think of me as fit for a straight-jacket, due to my seemingly rare knowledge of a world below the brainwashed, corporate epidemic that is the Premier League. Just to keep my readers posted (likely three men and a dog), I don’t mind watching football in England’s top flight, but I’m very much against its gradual movement away from the rest of the pyramid as some sort of Super League.
There was always going to come a time that I had to fess up, and I suppose it might as well be now, as a direct follow up to the slander in my introduction. Up until very recently, I had no intention of watching football at any level beneath step 6 (Wessex Division One in my local area) For the more hardened football traveler reading, take your time to scribble me an angry email, I get it, I really do. I don’t know why that was the case, for a variety of reasons I suppose, but that’s just the way it was. Having watched Sway of the Bournemouth Premier League last month however, my stance has been entirely altered. I loved it, I really did. If we couple my new life-changing revelations with early step 7 kick off times in the sun, it probably explains how my brain decided a Monday night expedition to AFC Stoneham was a good idea.
The day started excellently. With an 18:30 kick off on what was a pleasant Monday, I missed my train out of New Milton. No matter, the next train would give me half an hour to find the ground. Manageable, or so I believed. I’d put my intentions to visit AFC Stoneham (Hampshire Premier League by the way, step 7 of the English pyramid) out on Twitter a couple days before hand, and received confirmation from Andy and Grayson that they too would be at the game. Monday night football is irresistible after all, it seems to make for popular television most weeks.
The fun began having notified the two lads of my public transport mishap. As it so turned out, the trains coming out of Portsmouth didn’t want to play ball, and so Andy ended up in a similar position to myself, rocking up at Southampton Parkway with half hour to go until kick-off and a 35 minute walk to the ground. Grayson, on the other hand, was doing his own thing, and cooly took the piss via Twitter as he enjoyed a pre-match drink or two in the sun.
I met up with new pal Andy at Southampton Parkway station, and we began our adventure towards the ground without much clue where we were going. Fearing the worst, my counterpart had decided that drink was needed, and so we set off in the direction of the ground, beer in tow.
I’m told the primary reason behind this was because like me, Andy thought the ground might be ‘a field’. That’s in no way knocking AFC Stoneham, it’s just a reference to the fact that once you go below step 6, some grounds do tend to fall under the basic category. There’s nothing wrong with that, I’m beginning to like it that way for sure. Our walk to the ground was an adventure in itself, one that included two phone calls to Grayson (still taking the piss having made the game with plenty of time to spare), a wrong turning down a road with no pavements that nearly got us killed, and an almost eventful altercation with a boxing club who could quite easily have killed us if they wanted to. We reached the ground ten minutes late, expecting the worst, and had already missed the opening goal.
On reaching the ground, we realised we were in for a treat. The walk over had consisted of jokes about fields and doubling attendances, but having walked beyond an FA good conduct sign and what must have been a turnstile, I became hopeful. On entering the ground, it’s immediately noticeable how much more than a field the place this. On the near corner stands a tea hut, complete with team sheet board. The new stand along the near touchline is tidy and will seat a number of people during bitter Saturday afternoons in the winter months. AFC Stoneham are an ambitious club, and the ground tells you everything. They’re looking to move forward.
Having joined up with Grayson, our little clan enjoyed the match unfolding before us, one that visiting side Hamble club went on to win. The game included a contender for ‘Most bizarre goal of the season’ too. Just after half-time, and with hosts AFC Stoneham trailing 2-0, they pulled one back through striker Ollie Forbes. The ball came in from the right-hand side, with Forbes finding himself a bit of time to swivel and fire at goal. The ball cannoned off the outstretched leg of a defender, before striking Forbes in the mid-drift, then flying beyond the hapless Ben Kneller in the Hamble goal via the post. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s certainly got my vote.
In the end, visitors Hamble went on to win the game 3-1, and close the gap to within two points of table-topping Baffins Milton Rovers, with plenty of games in hand. After the game, I joined Andy and Grayson (who apparently isn’t so keen on watching all levels of football all over the place) in the local Cricketers pub, and enjoyed a couple of drinks before heading back out towards Eastleigh station to get home.
If you thought the fun had stopped there though ladies and gents, you are sorely mistaken. Having left the watering hole five minutes later than I would have liked, we left ourselves with an uphill task to reach the station in time to catch the train. With local Eastleigh expert Grayson informing us that we had no chance of making it, we said our goodbyes and ran for the hills (Well, Eastleigh station really). With ten minutes to sprint just under a mile and a half, it was somewhat comforting to make the platform as the train pulled away. For the second time that night, I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. I’d burst my lungs to make the train, missed it, and damaged my right knee somewhere on the run over. It still isn’t back to 100% as I write this a couple days later. All was well though, it just meant an hour on the platform caressing my knee, and texting my girlfriend in hunt of a sympathy vote. It wasn’t forthcoming.
I have to thank Andy and Grayson for joining me for a cracking evening, and of course thank AFC Stoneham for playing their role as the centre piece in proceedings. A few weeks back I never believed I’d be writing this now, but I’m glad I am. It’s opened me up to a new world beneath the corporate, brainwashed epidemic of the Southern League.