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Saturday 1st October 2016

10.45 Bedfordshire County League – Division One

HENLOW 3 (Hills 11 Knight 45 Walker 50)

ICKLEFORD 3 (Miceli 48 Bussle 72 G Follano 83) G Follano sent off 87 (2nd booking)

Att 126

13.45 Bedfordshire County League – Division Two

KEMPSTON HAMMMERS SPORTS 2 (Grandidge 16 67)

WIXAMS 0

Att 93

16.30 Bedfordshire County League – Division Three

WOOTTON VILLAGE 2 (A Flynn 49 Churchill-Hall 80)

WHITE EAGLES 2 (Cygan 55 Ptak 87)

Att 131

Entry for all games was free with programmes available for £2, and badges for £3

It’s a point of some regret that the only organised hop on the calendar this season that I’m not involved in is this one. I like to attend other people’s hops, firstly because I’m under no pressure, and secondly because there’s always an opportunity to learn something. Here the organiser is Craig Dabbs and the beauty of his offering is that there’s a direct comparison possible with at least one GroundhopUK offering, and his his philosophy of offering the maximum opportunity for clubs, hoppers and league is the same as ours.

The Bedfordshire Hop is very similar in it’s format and level as my North Berkshire Hop in the sense that it operates below Step 6 , and often at clubs with the minimum of facilities. As organiser you have to teach clubs to firstly how to cope with any crowd, then how to profit from it. Unlike a Step 5/6 hop there simply isn’t the possibility of letting a club do what it does normally, just more of it.

Prior to the event I’d heard a few whine that this hop wasn’t visiting any Premier Division clubs. I’m not sure why, facilities aren’t likely to be any different in one division or another, and from Craig’s perspective any host club was going to be as much of a blank canvas as another.

As it happens Henlow proved to be an excellent start to our day. It is the classic village sports field shared between football and cricket, but the village is notable for being home to the CAMRA Good Beer Guide recommended Engineers Arms, so when Craig advised them to have some of their wares on sale he pulled a masterstroke, even this early in the morning, in the rain! The game was a cracker too, but Henlow will wonder how on earth they managed to fail to beat an Ickleford team that played with ten men and 2 goals down twice!

Kempston Hammers Sports & Social Club is the classic works sports ground, albeit one that obviously favours rugby union over everything else. The unusual name comes from the Cutler Hammer Electrical Company whose works ground this was. The firm invented the electrical starter motor, and also designed the control systems for the Panama Canal! I’ll remember them though for being, on the day the ground that on other folks’ hops I learned the most from.

On one hand you could easily look at an attendance of 93 on an unroped pitch and see that as a disappointment. On the other, the club have few volunteers, and no followers so the crowd represents all the hoppers attracted to the day, and I do think there’d have been 100-plus it there’d hadn’t have been rain at Henlow.

What was missing was rope. Sounds minor doesn’t it? I remember a game on the very first North Berks Hop at Sutton Courtenay. I advised the club to rope off the pitch, they did but only one side, and have a look at my second-last photo from the day. The trouble with unroped pitches is that the crowd shuffles forward and tends to get in the way of the players. You end up with what happened here, a hopper’s bag leaning up against the corner flag!

The other impact was due to the one difference in strategy between what Craig does here, and I do. At this level many clubs are told by local authorities they can’t charge for admission. My answer is to do entry by programme, Craig’s is to have free entry and charge a premium for the programme. There’s no correct answer to the conundrum, there has to be enough in it for the club to host, and one look at attendances at the Beds and North Berks hops will prove that groundhoppers aren’t anywhere near as price sensitive as some would claim.

The impact here was that with no imperative to take a gate which would have necessitated securing the area, the whole edifice felt very open as people could come and go as they pleased, although few did. Of course there was nothing wrong was that and the game saw a real turn-up for the books with Hammers inflicting Wixams’ first defeat of the season on them. I hope they felt the hop game was worth their while.

The final game was something of a historical piece. We passed Wootton Blue Cross FC on on our way to the pitch behind the village hall, and this is their former home. They played their first few seasons in the United Counties League here before moving a few hundred yards to Weston Park. With the club having dropped back down to the Beds League it would have been an obvious move to play a fourth game under the lights there, but such is the parlous state of the club the league felt that wasn’t advisable.

But back at the village hall, the club had certainly pulled out the stops. The chilli and curry was both cheap and excellent which was no bad thing as the temperature rapidly dropped as the sun set. With Weston Park’s floodlights clearly visible in the background, the Wootton and the ethnically Polish White Eagles played out an entertaining draw to finish off the day.

As ever Craig and the Beds League deserve everyone’s plaudits and thanks. Organising at this level of the game isn’t easy, and squaring the circle of the needs of league, club and hopper is often a thankless task. I hope that Craig and the Beds League continue these hops and that they get the support they deserve, this was a great event to attend.

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