Leading up to my last groundhop at Aldershot Town, I managed to convince myself that an eight-hour round trip down south would have some worth… and it did, to be fair.
Despite losing in the last-minute, I had a great day out travelling the country and managed to write a good few paragraphs on Wrexham’s terrible start to the season. But, heading into Wrexham’s next Saturday away encounter at Woking, I really couldn’t justify another eight-hour journey down south again.
Bryan Hughes lost his job and a new manager was not yet in place. Our captain, leader and talisman, Shaun Pearson, was also suspended for the game and research indicated that there was even less to see in Woking than in Aldershot. All signs pointed to a doomed day.
So, alternative plans were arranged to visit Church Stretton, residence of the girlfriend’s dad and Church Stretton Town FC, who were playing at home for the first time since August. We made the short trip to the Shropshire Hills for a family lunch before seeing the locals take on Walsall Town Swifts in the West Midlands (Regional) League Division Two.
We finished our lunch just before kick-off and walked for five minutes down three streets to get to Russells Meadow. This was our first foray into grassroots football and we were skeptical about the entertainment value. With there being no stadium or recognisable players, I thought I’d struggle to write anything about the game. But, I’m pleased to say, I was wrong.
The game was thrilling. Stretton took an early lead through Owen Holdsworth but the visitors immediately equalised when Shane Holmes finished well from a cross. Holdsworth then assisted Dean Richards mid-way through the half to regain the lead and also make Richards and Holdsworth the joint-top scorers in the division on seven goals apiece.
Walsall became visually, and vocally, frustrated – which just added to the spectacle. Manager Adam Pearce called his team ‘fucking useless’ when they conceded their second goal and when his striker, Dante Taylor, missed a header from close range, Pearce yelled down the field that he should be hitting the target. Taylor’s response was: ‘I tried’.
At half-time, we headed to a sweet shop around the corner for some shortbread and heard Pearce telling his team the game was theirs for the taking… and straight after the re-start, they should have been level.
Stretton goalkeeper, Joe Bartl, denied a one-on-one opportunity before his team broke down the other side of the pitch and made it 3-1 through James Hill. The previous encounter between the sides had seen Stretton come back from two goals down to draw 2-2 and Walsall needed to produce a similar comeback.
Walsall’s grumpy gaffer made all three of his substitutions at once and each one brought their boss’s fury on to the pitch with them – particularly Grant Winwood, who resembled former Tranmere Rovers captain Steve McNulty in frame and style.
The visitors pushed hard to get back in the game but Bartl kept his side’s two-goal cushion with a number of smart saves. Hill missed a good chance to extend Stretton’s lead before a long-range strike from Holmes brought up his brace and cut the deficit to 3-2.
Winwood went up front during the dying minutes and won many flick-ons in search of an equaliser. But Bartl produced heroics at the death when he saved his team from close-range and the final whistle blew immediately after. His teammates mobbed him and his first game as captain of the side proved to be a hugely successful one.
As much as I enjoyed the graphic insight into Walsall’s dressing room dialogue, there appeared to be an unhelpful negativity around the side. While Church Stretton were communicating and helping each other with decisions and tactics (captain Bartl, in particular) there was a visible lack of camaraderie in the Walsall team.
At one point, someone scathingly told his teammate to ‘fuck off’ when he tried to get further up the pitch, while many of the players hounded the referee. As a result Walsall had a player sent to the sin bin – something I didn’t realise happens in lower-league football when dissent is shown towards officials.
They definitely needed calming down somehow. Even one of their supporters started having a go at the referee before a nearby linesmen calmly explained that they didn’t deserve that kind of disrespect.
Everyone shook hands after the game and there clearly wasn’t any malice intended from the away team. However, they could learn a lot from their hosts, who went up to second in the table following their victory.
Although the venue was, essentially, a converted playing field, the Shropshire Hills overlooking either side of the pitch made Russells Meadow a class place to watch football. If I were a resident of the town, I would definitely take advantage of the free entry and attend regularly. Conditions did worsen in the second half, though, so I can imagine you’d need a few layers during the winter months.
The experience definitely made me more open to scoping out grassroots football, for sure. Seeing the players taking down their own goalposts at full-time was heart-warming. Meanwhile, all the gyrating and eyebrow-raising sights on the touchline – like a coach giving his goalkeeper some instructions before taking a whizz under a tree, for example – were wildly entertaining.
As Wrexham’s full-time score against Woking came through as 1-1, I felt pleased that we took in the Magpies of Church Stretton instead and looked forward to more groundhopping alternatives in the future.
Church Stretton Town 3
Walsall Town Swifts 2
West Midlands (Regional) League
Ground rating: 6/10