Tuesday, 24 December 2019

fairytale of the shay

It’s thirty years since my first visit to The Shay. Back then it was to take in Halifax Town vs Mansfield Town - a Super Sunday just waiting to happen, I know - and was the first proper game of football that I’d been to. 

That “gift” was from my Uncle, and given how it was that match that started this football thing, I consider giving him a bell to see if he’ll nip over and stump up the twenty quid admission I hand over on the turnstile. Love a traditional turnstile though, to be fair.

The heady aroma of pie and liberally-minted peas fills the air on my return visit, where it’s 7th v 12th in the National League as FC Halifax Town host a Notts County side whose plans of a return to League Two, pronto, perhaps haven’t gone as smoothly as the sizeable travelling contingent would have liked. Similarly, the home side, quickest out of the blocks over the summer, will probably be keen to put a stuttering Autumn behind them. 

Over the PA, Shane McGowan’s blethering on about it being Christmas Eve in the drunk tank when we’re invited to join in with a minute’s applause for the recently departed Jim “Bald Eagle” Smith. He played here for a while, and ‘Ol Jim, so the story goes, used to enjoy a pre-match beer in the local boozer before gracing the field.

During a sedate first half I ponder how a galvanising swifty or two may not be a bad idea for some current players of the game as a means to get the blood pumping and add a bit of spark. There are a couple of highlights, though. The first, when County’s Connell Rawlinson is given the Terry Butcher head bandage treatment. We all like a bit of that. And then, towards the end of the first 45, when Halifax go a goal up after Duckworth cuts in and his shot deflects off McCoulsky, wrong-footing the keeper. 

Cue: half-time and more of that Shane McGowan fella. 

Words, I reckon, have been had during the break, as both sides come back out and go at it with a bit of intent. We see three goals in 12 minutes - a Christmas miracle - with County levelling but Town soon regaining their lead with a cool finish from Allen, the nippy number 7.

Three minutes later a booming volley from County’s Mitch Rose makes it 2 apiece and has to be the pick of the day’s goals. Sweet finish, good player. Brother of Danny, apparently. 

Just as I’m thinking how much I like Town’s Josh Staunton - eager to get on the ball and spray it about - he gives away a penalty to make me look daft. Rose tucks in with ten minutes to go.

There’s no sulking from Halifax who chuck it all forward in a full-blooded effort to salvage a point, but the inevitable gaps at the back allow Notts County to grab a fourth with almost the last kick of the game. 

One more time, Shane McGowan.

FC Halifax Town 2

Notts County 4

I like it down here at The Shay. It’s a ground that may have been spruced up since that first visit three decades ago, but where there’s still an appealing bit of old-school about the place, too. I won’t leave it another 30 years.

Entry: £20

Pie notes: I arrive armed with a homemade mince pie. Frugal and seasonal.

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Thursday, 12 December 2019

unbeaten steeton

“This is big boy’s football” explains the Steeton keeper to an Atherton forward who’s just been on the receiving end of an enthusiastic “welcome to Keighley” challenge from a home defender. And the keeper’s not wrong. There might not be much in the way of the silky or of the slick to take the sting out of a starkly cold December afternoon at Cougar Park, but this is still, in its own way, an entertaining slog. 

After all, Steeton, who are starting the day propping up the North West Counties Division One North* table on 12 points and a sizeable minus 27 goal difference, need some points on the board, sharpish, if they want to continue at this level next season.

(*Administrative bodies for the lower leagues, I’ve learnt, much prefer geographical accuracy over brevity when naming their divisions.)

They’ll need a new spot to play at, too, having been served notice on their groundshare arrangement with the Keighley Cougars rugby league team. It's a shame, that. This old-school ground, with its wooden bench seating and well-populated, well-stocked and festively-decked bar, seems like a good match for a local football club trying to push on.

Look up “scrappy” in a future edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and the first half of Steeton AFC v Atherton Laburnum Rovers FC may well be referenced; beyond the floodlights hesitantly warming up there’s not much of note to report. Steeton certainly don’t look like the relegation fodder the table reflects, though, and are having as good a go as their Lancashire opposition. Aside from a flurry of home team corners and a couple of long-range free-kicks from right-back Tyler Marsh, sponsored by the illustrious Gail’s Ironing, goalmouth action is rare.

We’re treated to some early second half action though, when Atherton’s goalkeeper cleans up an advancing forward and Steeton are awarded a penalty. Ben Clarkson, not dissimilar in stature to that lad who went from working in the Co-op down the road to a couple of trips to Wembley, sweeps in the spot-kick.

It’s a 1-0 lead that Steeton valiantly defend for much of the remaining half, and despite Atherton turning the screws it looks like this could be Steeton’s day – and 3 points – when the away team miss what looks from my seat in the Danny Jones stand like an open goal.

Afraid not. Atherton heads refuse to drop, and their huff and puff pays off when Nathan Strong – a lively threat all afternoon – gets space in the box and grabs a late equaliser. Steeton might see this as two points dropped but, for a more positive spin, it’s also the third match on the bounce from which they’ve taken points. And - yes, let’s bung a clichĂ© in here - there’s still a lot of football to be played.

Steeton AFC 1

Atherton Laburnum Rovers FC 1

Admission: £4

Pie notes: 2 quid yer steak pie. Rich of beef and golden of pastry. Thoroughly foiled. Good work.

Here’s why I’m having a year watching non-league football.

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Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Hertha Berlin Stadium Tour

The night before our tour of the Olympiastadion in Berlin, Hertha narrowly beat Dynamo Dresden 5-4 on penalties in the DFB Cup, with the away side - a division beneath Hertha - packing their end with over 30 thousand voluble fans. At the same time, at a nice restaurant somewhere near the Gendarmenmarkt back in town, I was going at a plate of over-priced schnitzel and necking over-priced Pilsner. 

Twelve hours later, as we arrived via the prompt and reasonably priced S-Bahn, the clean-up operation is still in full flow. In the Olympiastadion's case, this "clean-up operation" means removing any indication that a football match had even taken place. 

Hertha Berlin may have classed this as their home ground for over 50 years but during that time they've merely been tenants, and, as such, when they're not playing, down comes the bunting. The running track, in "Hertha blue", is the only clue towards this being their current backyard.

Possibly fed up of all this tidying up malarkey, Hertha Berlin will be doing one in the next few years, once they've made that important decision of where they'd actually like to relocate to.

The stadium tour, then, is less about Hertha and more about the arena's history, with a bit of "dodge the forklift truck" thrown in today. 

The old place has seen some sights. There was, of course, the infamous 1936 Olympics, for which the stadium was rapidly built, and more latterly musical behemoths such as BeyoncĂ©, the Rolling Stones, and, erm, Genesis have rocked up at some time or another. 

Influenced by Rome's Colosseum, our tour guide ruminates about that particular Empire and how "nobody got the hint" about what was to follow here. Fair point. It's a grandly formiddable place.

These are known as "The Leader's Steps", and lead from an underground entrance up to the posh seats that, depending on who's playing, can go for a few grand per arse. If it gets a bit nippy - and I imagine even on a warm day there'll be a chilly breeze here - that lot get tucked in with warm blankets.

This is the section where, during the '36 Olympics, Hitler would meet and greet the medal winners. Unless it was Jesse Owens, in which case he suddenly remembered an appointment he had elsewhere and had to nip off. 

Down in the depths, beyond the "biggest party bar" IN ANY STADIUM IN THE WORLD (my photo's rubbish: imagine the glitz of the Ridings shopping centre in Wakefield, circa 1989) is the press room. They're still very proud of hosting the 2015 Champions League Final, when Barcelona beat Juventus and probably had a knockabout in this warm-up area. 

There's a shortened sprint track in here, too, where Usain Bolt, I imagine, did a few lunges before popping upstairs to break the 100m record in 2009.

The tour lasts for an hour and our guide's excellent, chipping in with the pertinent stuff but also fine about folk having a bit of a wander. Indeed, at the end she more or less suggests we find our own way out. 

It works out at 8 euros for each of us. A bit of sleuthing shows that Wembley's about 20 quid a pop, and if the price hike wasn't enough, it's in Wembley.

I'm having a season watching non-league football. Here's why.

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Friday, 8 November 2019

a derby of sorts

And then there was pie.

Considering that I named this website in the belief that I'd be sampling some of non-league's finest pastry-based produce while at the same time reigniting my flaccid footballing mojo, the rough-puff's been in regrettably scant supply. And while today’s sustenance wasn’t purchased at the ground itself, I’m allowing myself this small victory partly because the subject of pie makes good copy but primarily because it’s less faff then renaming the blog. 

There was a rumble of dissent when I posted this picture on Twitter, suggesting that my Victoria Tearoom swag is more canape than pie. All I can I say is that this is Saltaire: they do things quaintly here.

I’m not sure if there is any history between Salts FC and Ilkley Town AFC, but given that Saltaire - a UNESCO World Heritage Site - probably sees itself as a bit fancy, and Ilkley, up the road, definitely does, I’m classing today’s West Riding Challenge Cup fixture as a local-ish derby even if nobody else is. 

In dreich conditions it’s Ilkley, a tier above Salts in the West Yorkshire League, who set the pace; a thwack of a free-kick from the left-back putting them a goal up after ten minutes. Soon after, their Number 10, who if I was writing for a tabloid in the 1980s I might refer to as ‘leggy’, shimmies through the Salts rear-guard and dinks in to make it 0-2. 

This second galvanises Salts who nick one back, and although we’re not quite into the realms of Rocky versus Dolph, they dig in rather than roll over, and the next hour makes for an entertaining joust in the rain between a well-drilled Ilkley side and a dogged Salts unit. 

Half-time conversation turns to how Ilkley might get those shirts whiter than white again after this deluge of wet and muck. A handful of brave supporters scuttle round the pitch to the tea-bar. Most remain, wisely, huddles in the compact stand under the roof’s protection.

After the break, a keeper’s firm hand denies Ilkley’s ever-prowling Number 9, and there are similar scenes at the opposite end when the snappy Salts Number 9 is foiled by another display of determined ‘keeping.

Fightback very much still on, Salts make it 2-2 with a drilled finish from a committed Number 8 who’s in and amongst it all. “You’re killing yerself”, warns a team-mate, as he chases down another ball.

Legs get heavy. Rain gets heavier. Not too far away, trains trudge along the Airedale line but there’s little action on the canal running alongside the ground. Like I said: quaint.

The leggy one picks it up on the halfway line and lollops towards goal, shrugging off Salts attempts to nick it back, but pokes wide. Another Ilkley effort ends up closer to the Mill than the goal. But then that languid Number 9, who’s been well-managed up to now by a rugged Salts defence, is set up by two lively subs and finishes – I knew he could finish – to bag the winner and put his side into the next round of the Cup.

Salts FC 2

Ilkley Town AFC 3

Football in the rain, under a tin roof.

Admission: free.

Pie notes: good things come in small packages.

Here’s why I’m having a year watching non-league football.

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Thursday, 24 October 2019

there will be goals

There’s nothing wrong with a hard-fought, backs-to-the-wall, 1-0 win, of course; and I’ve seen many a knife-edge nil-nil job that’s kept me engaged and entertained for the duration. Football - proper football - is about more than just goals. Isn’t it? 

That said, I’m sure that we’ll all take a 5-5 end to end goal-fest once in a while, and here it was, on the back pitch of a rugby club just off the main road to Halifax.

The game I’m meant to be at, over at Eccleshill United, has been rained off, but a quick scour of the local fixtures reveals that “the Rammers”, aka Northowram AFC, are at home to Sowerby “Bridge” Bridge in the Halifax and District League. And, like an actual football fan, as I may once have been but recently have not, I cast an eye over the table before venturing down. (Side note: the FA’s website for local football is rubbish.) 

Northowram: Played 4, Lost 4
Sowerby Bridge: Played 4, Won 4

There’s only one way this game can go.

Except that here isn’t, is there, because as per the mantra anything can happen in football, today it does. 

I might be geekily flasked up - the weather’s turning, lads - but a handful of Halifax stalwarts who are made of sterner stuff make steady progress through a crate of Budweiser and pint cans of Kronenbourg. And why not.

I doubt that anybody reading this other than, potentially, the scorers themselves, would appreciate a forensic rundown of each of the ten goals that the sizeable gathering witnesses (one of the more depressing aspects to Big Football being, of course, the endless be-suited drone of the how and the why); and besides, I miss at least one due to being on coffee-pouring duty.

But there are long-range goals and keeper-getting-megged goals, and there’s a double sin-bin and have two spectators been sent away? And there’s touchline controversy and there’s a rogue dog on the pitch. And how yellow is that kit? And there’s no pies but there are ten goals.

Sowerby Bridge, well-drilled and efficient, may see this as a point dropped. Northowram, spirited, a point they perhaps weren’t expecting.

Me, gripped, engrossed - might just be getting back into this.

Northowram 5
Sowerby Bridge 5

Here's why I'm having a season watching non-league football

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Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Campion for Champions?

The bar takes some finding. 

As directed by the friendly fella on the gate, we follow the path behind the goals, cut past the carpark and then turn back round on ourselves to a door that doesn’t want to open but eventually, through thirsty perseverance, gives. 

Up the stairs next to the changing rooms - the hum of wintergreen, the tinny echo of tunez - and here we are, in a room overlooking the pitch. At £2.80 for a pint of Saltaire Brewery’s session-able “Topaz”, the mission to the bar is one worth making. Over packets of prawn cocktail we catch the last twenty minutes of England’s women loss to Brazil.

Campion are on a good run in Division One of the Northern Counties East League, winning 4 on the bounce, including a 1-2 away win in the last meeting between these two sides just three weeks ago. There’s been a deluge of rain in these parts, but the pitch passes the inspection. Hardcore, this lower league malarkey.

The home side are slowest out of the traps. “Who are we marking? What are we doing?” asks a frustrated/existential Campion bench in an opening twenty minutes dominated by Armthorpe Welfare, who could already be a couple of goals up. “Smash him next time”, recommends a vocal Campion supporter regarding Welfare’s lively number 8. 

And then, on half an hour, come the Campion goals. The first, a deflected shot from the right-back who’s amongst all of Campion’s best play, and who goes on to bag a second soon after. Goal-scoring full-back: Fantasy Football gold.     A third follows, but The Welfare - rueing those missed chances from earlier - pull one back before half-time. Remonstrations that the ball was nicked from the keeper follow, but the ref - I haven’t seen a bad one all season - is having none of it.

Hopes of a Welfare comeback diminish soon after the restart when a contested corner results in a booming header from Campion’s Foley. There’s no rolling over from Armthorpe Welfare though, with plenty of back-and-forth, but neither side nicks another. 

In the stand, over steaming cups of Maxwell House, talk turns to Strictly as the minutes tick down.

Campion 4
Armthorpe Welfare 1

My Proper Team, with their big stadium and warm, overpriced lager - the team who, through inertia, I haven’t been to see for a couple of years - are playing down the road today. “I’ve seen more in 90 seconds than I’d have seen in 90 minutes down there”, observes the brother-in-law.

It's Non-League Day next weekend, and the big team are away at the seaside, a jaunt that for a few years was an annual boozy beano for me. It’s a sell-out, and supporters unable to get tickets might want to note that up Scotchman Road Campion’s game against Retford on October 12th will be free entry.

You’ll be entertained. Just remember how to find the bar.

Admission: £5

Pie notes: there’s nowt pastry-based to be had, but the niece and brother-in-law show generosity with their chips.

More football waffle on Twitter here.

Monday, 30 September 2019

cider with Wibsey

(Read some lovely context about why I'm writing about non-league football here.)

It’s not been a great start for Wibsey, and, for them, the Yorkshire Amateur League Premier Division table makes for grim reading this morning. Two games and two defeats, with 14 goals conceded in the process and only 2 in the “for” column. Perhaps today’s game against Stanningley Old Boys, being Wibsey’s first home fixture of the season, will bring with it some good fortune. I find a surprise 20 quid screwed up in the depths of my wallet, which I think bodes well. For someone.

I’ve learnt that ‘home’ is a moveable feast in non-league football. Bankfoot Cricket Club – today’s ‘home’ ground - sits just beyond the Wibsey boundary and requires, for me, a negotiation of the Odsal Top subways. Arriving early, I have a quick recce of a Bulls-less and melancholic Odsal Stadium next-door. There used to be a good chippy round here.

Wibsey bag the first goal of the match and their 3rd of the season within 10 minutes of the ref getting things started. It’s a good ‘un, too; a peach of a free-kick given a proper thwack that renders the Stan ‘keeper - who’s obviously been to the barber and asked for “the full De Gea, please” - static. Had an acrobatic bicycle kick connected with ball instead of defender’s face it could be 2-0 soon after. Looked impressive though. 

A frustrated Stanningley management make 2 early changes on 35 minutes but struggle to move through the gears. Wibsey, less troubled by the wet conditions, go into the break in front. A section of The Stanningley following heads out for refreshments, returning with crates of Koppaberg and Stella. It’s a second half that promises to be lively regardless of the on-field action.

Wibsey score their second as rapidly as they got their first, and are 2 up - their league tally doubled - early doors. There’s some huffing and puffing but Stanningley don’t trouble the Wibsey keeper and, perhaps roused by those tasty beverages, supporters direct their ire on the opposition, with some of the goading being fruitier than those Koppabergs.

I’m not sure what’s prompted those two hefty early defeats for Wibsey. They look good today, organised and tidy, and hold on for a deserved first win of the season. I knew finding that twenty quid was a good omen.

Wibsey 2
Stanningley Old Boys 0

Entry: free

Pie notes: no pastry action. Should have asked the Stanningley lads to pick me something up on their booze run.

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Sunday, 1 September 2019

to Brighouse

And so my quest to rediscover the beauty in the Beautiful Game, through a season in non-league football, takes me this week to Brighouse Town, where a sign near the ground welcomes me to Calderdale, a fella strolls past bearing a Bradford City backpack, and the souvenir shop flogs back issues of Huddersfield Town programmes. A free-spirited place, then.

This is officially the second game of my “journey” (more of that here), although I did catch some gripping Sunday League action on the Bank Holiday last weekend. The 6-8 score-line combined with a two-session hangover, however, rendered my narrative ability questionable, so I allowed myself to soak up the dubious refereeing, feisty touchline antics and many, many goals without thinking too much about it. Perhaps, really, that’s this game’s - or any game’s - true allure.

There is pie at Brighouse, but there nearly isn’t. From my seat at the far side of the well-maintained clubhouse I see pans and urns and toasters and hotdogs for 2 quid, and I see Droylsden staff huddled up tweaking tactics, but of pastry produce I see none. There’s a massive box of veg which, given a sharp knife and a big pot, could be knocked into a mean minestrone, but it’s only when I’m nearly a pint down that I notice the Pukka Pie heated cabinet, just out of my eyeline. I remedy the situation, sharpish, with a slab of steak pie, which is brown-sauced liberally. 

The beer, incidentally, at 3 quid a pint, comes from Halifax Steam Brewery which is based just around the corner. Bonus points for that. A volunteer doling out the snap also has a pint on the go, something I don’t ever recall seeing at Wembley or other Hollywood Ba stadiums. Another rubs out last week’s winning “Goalden Goal” numbers from the blackboard.

Powder blue skies and green trees swaying in the breeze give Brighouse a touch of the Hawaii’s today. Well, if you squint a bit. Supporters use the opportunity to soak up the last of the summer sun; most of us in the long stand down one side of the pitch, others plonked between the goals and the hospitality shed. Pints are plentiful.

Today’s oppo, Droylsden, are level with Town on 4 points, but their -1 goal difference puts them a place beneath Brighouse who sit 14th in the Northern Premier League North West division. It’s the Lancashire outfit who come out sharpest and who, after 20 minutes, go a goal up through Daniel Wilkins.

An “enthusiastic” challenge and the subsequent air-bound body provokes a passionate debate from both sets of players with calls for a red card, but the ref – a calm authority throughout – resists. Brighouse perhaps have more of the ball, but had Droylsden converted their chances they’d be 3-0 up at half time.

With the second half comes rain and hints of the ensuing autumn. I like Droylsden’s busy number 10 - George West - but don’t have much time to form a judgement on his replacement who manages approximately 60 seconds of gentle meandering before receiving a straight red for I’m-not-sure-what. 

The lively Thomas “Robbo” Robinson comes on for Brighouse, a change that goes down well, and from here on the best football comes through him down the right-hand side. “Get one and we’ll get three,” shouts one optimistic supporter. “Wipe yer glasses”, replies another, and the afternoon proves frustrating for Brighouse, despite being a man up, as a steadfast Droyslden scupper all chances for an equaliser. The ref calls it a day just as another robust tackle goes in, about four yards from where I’m standing.

And it’s this closeness to the action that I’m enjoying the most, I think, as I attempt to reignite my footbal spark. Hearing the on-pitch crunches and the frustrations and the frank exchanges makes the game a more tangible first-person experience than being perched up high in a stand or slumped at home on the sofa. Not the prettiest game of football, then, but I’m not here for pretty. Bored of that.

Brighouse Town 0

Droylsden 1

“Right, time to go home and sunbathe”, says the old boy standing behind me.

“We’ll crush you 5-0 at our place”, drones a Droylsden supporter.

Entry: £8

Pie notes: Plentiful chunks of tender steak. Shortcrust pastry. Two quid.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

pie-less in Thackley

It’s not a great start.
For a new non-league football blog whose hastily made-up name promises pastry-based coverage from around the grounds, I must cut a forlorn and dejected figure when, at our first match of the season – Thackley AFC v Goole AFC – I find no pie to be had. Woe is, apparently, me.
This season, you’ll recall, I’m on the hunt to rekindle my footballing mojo, and it’s to Dennyfield where I head first. (More about that here.)

Pie-less, I bed in at the traditional clubhouse whose leathery lounge seats have supported the heft, I reckon, of at least a couple of decades worth of arse-cheek. I like it in here, with yer club ties available behind the bar (£7.50), its framed photos of teams of yore on the walls and its massive bags of cheese and onion for a quid. Next time I’ll come earlier and stay later.

It’d be refreshing to see clubs being a bit more imaginative with the beer offering, mind – it’s Tetley’s or Carlsberg for me, here – but I know this a football-wide thing. 

Sky Sports News, milking what it can from every bit of not-really-news news, flashes its big countdown timer, ticking off the minutes AND SECONDS ‘til the Hollywood Ball kicks off. I sup up. Seduced by the enticing whiff of greasy meat and meaty grease, I take my place by the tea bar where, despite a pie blackout, business is brisk in the burger and chips market. 

Right, a disclaimer. This isn’t going to be the place to find minute-by-minute match reports - does anybody read them - and, besides, one of the joys I hope to take from watching non-league football is the opportunity to get mildly sozzled in the process, which means you cannot count on my reportage to be in any way accurate.

I do know that Goole come fizzing out of the changing rooms though, peppering the Thackley goal in a frenzied – yes, frenzied (I’m putting you in the action, reader) - opening ten minutes. In a classic move of wing-cutback-finish, it’s no surprise to see Goole go 0-1 up.
I think that their Number 7, Archie Brown, plays a part in that goal. He certainly plays a part in many of Goole’s best moves, pinging it about joyfully, and I Google him to see if there’s any history. I don’t think he’s the Emeritus Professor of Politics at Oxford Uni, who the search engine throws back at me first, but is more likely to be the lad who bagged a hat-trick on his league debut a couple of weeks ago. Well played.

It remains 0-1 at half-time, with Goole in control but Thackley having, as we must say, a good go
Thackley come out buzzier in the second half. There are goal-line clearances, cross-bar shuddering strikes and an old-school 50/50 in which I hear the unmistakeable war-cry of “’ave him!”, from not a supporter but a team-mate. Yep, I’m well into this.
It’s a tennis match of a last ten minutes, end-to-end action that sees a Thackley player sin-binned and a Goole penalty miss from the hitherto impressive Devante Morton, who makes it too easy for Thackley’s stand-in keeper. We end 0-1 and with Goole at the top of the NCEL Premier.
Word around the ground – yep, I’m the bloke earwigging – is that a few Thackley players are still away in sunnier climes, and I wonder if at full-strength this might’ve been a different story. But Goole are good for their win, strong throughout, with the dependable Ambo Adama and Ashley Cooper bossing it at the back.
After two games Goole top the table. I’m not too fussed about the score though. I’m here to try and re-engage with a game I once couldn’t get enough of, and, although without pie, I’m absorbed. 

Dennyfield - professional but welcoming - is precisely the type of ground I want to visit, and
this - lively, involving - is precisely the type of game I want to see. more of. I haven’t been condemned to sit in one place for 2 dull hours, I can get a beer if I fancy and some people have bought their dogs.
There might not be pies but there is well-priced competitive entertainment, a warm welcome and massive bags of cheese and onion crisps. This is the stuff.

Thackley 0
Goole 1
Entry: £5
Pie rating: n/a