Phil Tanner recalls a football match like no other he'd ever seen before
You probably know one. That non-League ground the train whistles past on the way to the game. I used to wonder what that place is slinking behind the gas holders between Slough and Paddington, glimpsed across a car lot with zillions of gleaming imports. Or maybe exports. Then one day, with favourable pollution readouts and the sun at the right angle, I glimpsed the logo on the stand roof. “Yeading AFC”. Now the only mystery is how to pronounce it...
For Newport County supporters based in the southeast off to Somerton Park, the ground in question was Didcot Town. You’d wonder what grade of football was played there as you hurtled off to watch Aldridge, Tynan and Lowndes. The years passed and before long the aim of the trip was to see Eugene Martinez and Tarki Micallef, and the joke was on us. We didn’t realize it, but the writing was on the wall. Fate was bringing Newport supporters and Didcot Town closer together, just like the iceberg and that liner. What was it called?
Newport County eventually went the way of that other great disaster of 1912, Captain Scott’s expedition. “We’re just off to the Conference and, er, we might be some time”. There was supposed to be enough money deposited for the season – perhaps it’s still out there somewhere – but it couldn’t be tracked down and the brave lads perished mid-season. I only went the once and I got so cheesed off with football I volunteered to work Saturdays. I still wake up nights sweating at the folly of it. This meant that when a new club, Newport AFC, was formed for 1989-90, I couldn’t get to the first games.
(They had to play the first season in Gloucestershire for reasons of Welsh football politics which are such a mixture of the medieval and the ridiculous, and the baddies so grotesque, that it would make a plot for Brother Cadfael.) The upshot was that the first game the new club played that I could get to wasn’t until mid-September at – you’ve guessed, it could only be Didcot Town.
This wasn’t my first non-league game – apart from the one County effort, I recall Guildford City v. Hitchin Town in the FA Cup in 1973. So far back I can’t remember if men were still wearing bowler hats. But it was the first time watching a club in the nether reaches of the non-league pyramid that I fervently wanted to see climb up it. Just seeing the team run out was a joy and a relief.
The game wasn’t much to shout about. We won 2-1 thanks to two penalties and I have a vague recollection that they missed one. In many respects it set a pattern for half the 200-odd AFC games I have seen since. Fairly primitive conditions, you could stand where you liked, we had four-fifths of the crowd, our players better than theirs, but not quite to the extent they or the fans expected.
We went up that season and have been up, down, sideways and around the houses since, with another episode of Cadfael thrown in along the way. The railway is privatized. Now I nearly always drive to the game, and no doubt the car once did some time in Yeading. The last time I passed, Didcot seemed to have lost their Robinson Crusoe standing cover, but now have floodlights. It’s still a football ground, but we now play in an athletics stadium. And damn me if this season’s FA Cup preliminaries didn’t almost take us back there. All it needed was them to beat Taunton Town, we beat Maidenhead United, and My First Game would have been repeated. Needless to say, Taunton kicked their arses, and then kicked ours for good measure. Maybe next year.
In the meantime, all you Doncaster Rovers supporters glancing anxiously at other minor grounds in the shadow of cooling towers and huge heaps of coal, it’s absolutely nothing to worry about. You might just find when you wind up there that the bid to climb back is a sight more enjoyable than bumping along the bottom where you are.
From WSC 133 March 1998. What was happening this month