This is the first in an infrequent series of articles called Groundhopper Girl. So-called because I love football (allegiances: Chelsea and Tonbridge Angels) and visiting new grounds, and I also have tits and ovaries and periods and stuff that the media is reluctant to admit could ever belong to someone who likes football. Enjoy!
I’ve always liked football. As a youth, this meant watching Chelsea games on the box with my dad long before we were snapped up by any Russian oligarchs, reading the names of teams on the vidiprinter on a Saturday afternoon and developing preconceptions about people who would support teams as exotic as Crystal Palace and Kidderminster Harriers or as blubbery-sounding as Huddersfield and Grimsby, or bonding with Kelly, the football-mad girl in my class at primary school and an oasis of Chelsea support in a desert of gloryhunting United fans. My heroes were, and still are, Gianfranco Zola and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.
And then, in my teens, I went to see a Tonbridge Angels game out of curiosity with my dad and brother, who’d been twice without me. Down to 10 men and losing 2-0 to Ramsgate on a day so abominably rainy the game was abandoned after 70 minutes, it was awful and I loved it. Since then I’ve supported them through thick (a promotion) and thin (a relegation), and gone to a number of non-league grounds.
This is, as promised in the title, a short list. Considering I’ve been to so many Tonbridge games, my measly non-league groundcount of 7 is pretty lousy, and – despite barely missing a home game between my first match and October 2010 – I didn’t make it to a Tonbridge away game until May 2011. In any case, here it is, with a massive dearth of pictures!
In my defence, it’s pretty hard to get a good picture of football stadiums.
1. The Longmead Stadium, Tonbridge Angels (Ryman Premier)
I’ll do a much more detailed blog about it in due course [HERE], but the short version: this place is my home, the crowd my family, even though I’ve spoken to a handful of fellow Angels. I’ve been here in pissing rain, freezing cold, burning sun. I’ve seen near death experiences (Lee Browning in our bad-tempered game v Dover in April 2009), blackouts (v Hayes and Yeading last season), pitch invasions (after our successful play-off final in 2011), on-pitch brawls, off-pitch brawls, official injuries – you name it. The burgers are outstanding, the bar is far too small but homely. It’s light years away from being an impressive stadium, but it’s definitely one of the nicest I’ve been to.
2. The Homelands, Ashford United (Southern Counties East)/formerly groundshared by Maidstone United (Ryman Premier)
Considering the home team here are Step 9 of the overall football league pyramid (two steps below Tonbridge), this is actually a pretty nice stadium. Certainly it looks more like a stadium than Tonbridge’s, Horsham’s or Maidenhead’s, with a large seated stand attached to the bar building. We went on a boring, Angels-away-game Saturday afternoon out of curiosity when Maidstone were groundsharing, and watched them get walloped 3-0 against Canvey Island. We wanted both of them to lose, but we like a Maidstone loss more. The burgers weren’t great and the home support was dire. I guess it was just an off day for the 1,700 extra fans who’ve turned up at their new ground to see them get promoted and win a First Round Proper FA Cup game to league Stevenage… #gloryhunters
3. Treyew Road, Truro City (Southern Premier)
Treyew Road is quite a nice ground too. It has two vibrant green seated stands, one on the far end behind the goal and one on the right-hand side of the pitch, and the bar is decent, i.e. the cider wasn’t too expensive and I could kill an hour watching the early kick-off on Sky Sports. I went on four occasions – once with the guy I had a fling with in first year to see Truro beat Bishops Cleeve 1-0 in the FA Trophy, once with my dad and brother to watch them annihilate Farnborough 8-2 on a Tuesday night in October, and twice to watch Tonbridge’s away league games against them in the Conference South.
The first of these, where we lost 2-0, was one of the best away games I’ve seen; 50 Angels made the 600-mile round trip in mid-November and were making an absolute party of the occasion. Even when the second killer goal went in late on, we were jumping up and down on the far stand and making it wobble dangerously while chanting our clarion call of “We love you/We love you/We love you/And everywhere we follow/We follow/ We follow/Cos we support the Angels/The Angels/The Angels/And that’s the way we like it/We like it/We like it/OHWOAOAOOOOOHHHHHHH/OHWOAOAOHHHHHH” (etc). The second occasion, in a season where we were nearly relegated and they were relegated after severe financial mismanagement, was a far more sober and sparsely attended game, and it was bitterly cold. We lost 2-0 again, this time dispassionately.
4. Gorings Mead, Horsham YMCA (Sussex County League Division 1)/Groundsharing with Horsham (Ryman South)
Win our game v Horsham on the last day of the normal league season 2011, and we’d be guaranteed 2nd place and a home tie in the play-offs. Gorings Mead, perhaps understandably given it’s intended for a team several leagues below the Ryman, is an absolute shambles of a ground. The pitch itself was more like a sandpit than a grass football pitch, there are enormous nets behind the goals (perhaps not a bad idea from a fan safety perspective, but feels very amateur), and I don’t remember there being a clubhouse. However I have happy memories of the place, because we won 2-0 amid scenes of fan jubilation, and went on to scrape through the play-off semi-final 3-2 at home to Harrow, and sneak the final 4-3 at home to Lowestoft.
5. York Road, Maidenhead (Conference South)
I was amazed on looking up Maidenhead’s respective league that they’re still scrapping it out in the Conference South, because they’re constantly locked in a relegation dogfight. Offered a lift by Angels fan royalty Dan, Gazza and Dave (the club photographer) to see Tonbridge’s first ever Conference South game, I naturally accepted, and can as such report that Maidenhead is one of the most soulless places on the planet. The only bit of character I could see from the car window was a strip club tastefully called The Honey Pot, located just a few yards from the ground. The ground itself may be “the oldest continuously used football ground in the world”, but I wasn’t too impressed by it, probably because having been in use for 143 years at the time it looked old, outdated, battered. The pints were ok (cheers Gaz) but the burger unimpressive. Yet again, however, the day was not a waste as we destroyed the home team 4-0 and had the last laugh over the local teenage pricks who kept harassing us for the crime of watching our team play their team.
6. Hayes Lane, Bromley (Conference South)
But the heartwarming stories of Angels victories and triumph end here, because we always underperform at Hayes Lane. Or at least we have on the three occasions I’ve been. One of these was on Boxing Day 2011, a welcome respite to being cooped up in my grandparents’ house all day; to our relief we snatched a point with a Mikel Suarez goal in the 87th minute, but the performance had been underwhelming. Again we were lacklustre as we failed to put the game to bed on the August Bank Holiday weekend next season and drew again 1-1. But the nadir of our Hayes Lane visits was last season, when we were royally humiliated 5-1 (albeit scoring a corking if accidental consolation goal). Not a place of happy memories.
7. The Gallagher Stadium (Maidstone United)
Boo! Hiss! Moneybags United had a £3 million stadium built for them after 20 years of groundshares, with the genius business idea of having a plastic pitch to make it all-weather, reducing the chance of a fixture backlog and making it suitable to rent to other teams during the week. [Read about why it’s maybe not such a flawless idea here.] It’s a decent ground, although surprisingly small given how much it cost. We went to see a pre-season friendly of them v us before the relegation season, before we looked completely useless, and knobbed them 3-0. Not bad considering they rarely lose at home given the pitch surface disparity. It may have been a non-competitive match, but any win over the Scum’s an enjoyable one. I’ll be back on December 27th; expect a more in-depth summary then!