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Friday 18th September 2015 ko 19.45

North Berkshire League Division One

WALLINGFORD TOWN 0

ABINGDON TOWN 1 (Pitson 59)

Att 125

Entry & Programme £4

There are so many tales I could tell of the North Berkshire League. The most important one for me personally is that they invited me on to their/our management committee a few weeks ago. It’s a massive honour, and validation for what Media Officer Phil Annets, GroundhopUK’s Chris Berezai and I have done together for the last 4 years’ worth of hops. What it did do too was imply more pressure on this year’s event, and true to form we ended up having to work far harder for our success than in previous years.

The first decision was the host clubs. First on my list was Grove Rangers, as a reward for having to play last up, last year and go through the security check at D.A. Shrivenham, then I knew Ardington & Lockinge wanted a game, as did East Hendred after their thumping win at Marcham. For the last game, Hagbourne United agreed to use Didcot Town’s floodlit training pitch, which they’d spent a season at whilst their new pavilion was being built.

I remember arriving back home from the UCL/PDFL hop to the news that Ardington had folded due to lack of players. That meant a long look at a map with Hanney being the obvious replacement. Phil phoned Steve Weeks at Hanney and within 24 hours there he was sitting with the other clubs for our planning meeting!

Worse was to follow when we had to pull the Hagbourne game the Wednesday before the hop due to the floodlights not working properly. I was not prepared to risk a late postponement potentially with people in the ground, and with no suitable alternative venue available (this part of the world isn’t exactly blessed with floodlights!) it was the only sensible option and all ticket holders were given the choice of either a refund or a credit for a future GroundhopUK event. It gave people the chance to alter their travel plans too.

My thoughts then turned to whether we should once again have a precursor game. Last year Abingdon Town hosted, and the crowd was encouraging, but could that success be replicated? Wallingford chairman Richard Prunier was enthusiastic, but with AFC Wallingford having having hosted back in 2011 I needed to convince myself the game would make money for the club. I took one look at the Wallingford double-decker bus bar behind the goal and realised that the right game, presented the right way would be worthwhile for all concerned.

Then there was the Eastern Counties League to ponder. Last year they opted to schedule their “Groundhoppers day” against the NBFL Hop arguing firstly that it wasn’t aimed at groundhoppers (!), merely for fans of the ECL, and then refused to keep the lines of communication open. That’s their right of course, I certainly don’t want to run their events, but the clash hurt them badly, they averaged only 150 people per game on their September event, and overall their attendances seem to be on a slow decline. But I rapidly concluded that as bizarre as I may find their attitude, I cannot influence it, but I can influence what happens at our event. I had no idea of their plans, so I concentrated on our event, and when they finally made their decision to once again clash, I gave the NBFL the option to cancel or reschedule, which they quickly rejected.

Sat here as I am after both events that looks to be a good decision. We averaged 176 (165 if you include the Wallingford game) whislt the ECL saw their average drop again, to 136. That ECL figure I look at with sadness, they should be doing far better than that, and the figure of 108 at Cornard shocked me. Will the league change tack? Will they co-operate with us, and the likes of Rob Hornby, Craig Dabbs and Phil Hiscox in the future as a means of boosting their numbers? I have no idea, but as has always been the case the lines of communication are open should Peter Hutchings or any of his committee wish to speak to any of us.

So you can imagine how pleased I was to see the friendly faces at Hithercroft as we walked in. The bus is every inch as quirky as you’d expect, but that isn’t the only change to the place since our last visit. The ground has been tidied up and a club room built, taking up a part of what used to be the stand. It allows the club to be entirely separate from the rugby club next door. It also gives the club a revenue stream from food and drink sales that previously all headed to the rugby club, and whilst the attendance wasn’t as large as for a hop game, we’d sold tickets guaranteeing a programme and a badge so at least the club had an idea of numbers. I advised the club to print 100 programmes which worked out nicely.

It was good to see the League support its own. The committee was out en masse and it was lovely to see a sizable contigent from Berinsfield no doubt planning how they think they can beat two of their rivals for their championship.

It was a most convivial evening even if the game was one that connoisseurs of defending would have loved. Special mention should go to goalkeepers Garry Clark and Gareth Walker, both deserved clean sheets, but the tie was decided when Steve Pitson swept home a well-timed through ball.

Soon enough it was all over, but the measure of the evening was that as we left, Richard and his club were still smiling. When we’d visited AFC Wallingford they’d looked like a club in real trouble. Whilst they lost this game they’d made the most of their evening but it was clear to all there that they are on the way back to regaining lost glories. Who knows where the Wally bus will reach?

 

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