In early October we had travelled to see MUFC Ltd play at Cinderford Town in the FA Cup. As detailed in my subsequent Away Day Diary we found ourselves struggling, big time, to make it back to Gloucester for our return train, only to be saved by the generosity of long-standing home fan Ray and his wife Beryl. As the former played taxi driver, and very kindly dropped us off after a mad dash through the country lanes, we said that we would attend another Cinderford Town game, before the season was out, as a 'thank you'. A promise is a promise.
Having checked the Foresters' fixtures, a train away day to see them play at Paulton Rovers in March was initially pencilled in. It was a case of 'back to the drawing board' just before Christmas, however, when the Goldie Lookin Chain gig in Camden that we were scheduled to attend was postponed, due to the snow, and re-arranged for the very same Saturday that Cinderford are in North Somerset (as it is, we're now planning on heading to the gig in London, wearing full Chain regalia of course, via Ascot United vs Pegasus Juniors).
After consulting the recently collated GMOSC 2011 fixtures spreadsheet (which looks like it might've been prepared by an Accountant at NASA, who has a compulsion to colour code and trades Futures Contracts in his spare time), it became apparent that there was only one Cinderford game - North Leigh away on 29th January - that wasn't going to clash with prior commitments. Research (i.e. Wikipedia) indicated that North Leigh is an Oxfordshire village on the main road between Witney and Long Hanborough. Crucially, the latter had a train station nearby (called Hanborough, rather than Long Hanborough, as it happens) - served by the Oxford-Worcester line - and Stagecoach ran a bus service between Long Hanborough and Witney, with the No 242 stopping in North Leigh. Game on. Or so we thought ...
Macleod (C) was skiing in Switzerland, Steve H entertaining (hosting the father of an ex-Maidenhead United full-back and the former manager of the Anguilla national football team, among others, with no word as to whether kebabs were on the menu ... ) while Willie was at Swindon Town vs Exeter City (no doubt he'd have been working ... or attending his wife's sister's best friend's neighbour's goldfish's christening ... or something/ anything) and so, in the immortal words of Bill Withers, 'just the two of us' were on the 11:25 train from Maidenhead.
I'd dragged myself from my sick bed to be there, having missed Ibiza Caledonian Thistle FC's 6-a-side Championship title-winning night out in town the previous evening, after falling ill at the last minute (and thereby foregoing the opportunity to talk with an Edinburgh girl who was studying in Bournemouth to become a pilot, while working one night a week in the Honeypot - yes, she did know Roy the Boy - while Tel prepared for impending fatherhood by devouring enough tequila to make Terrorvision wince). As such, I gave my now customary pint of milk at Reading station a wide berth and there was no carry out on train, which was shortened at Oxford meaning that we had to shift to the front three carriages. Ironically, it was only after a couple of pints that I started to feel significantly better ...
Although quite a few passengers left the train at Hanborough, the station was pretty small (it would later be pointed out to us, by two teenage girls, that there was only one platform and one line, being used for both up and down trains) with an A-road, a deserted bus stop (note I didn't write bus shelter), and one row of decent-sized houses outside. The majority of cars seemed to be of the 4x4/ off-road variety and many were mud-spattered, which seemed to tie-in with the expanse of fields that were also in view.
Macleod (M) had done his homework and was aware of which direction we were to head in order to reach the village, the first of three pubs (all of which, he informed me, were relatively highly-rated on Beer In The Evening) and the relevant bus stop. After a stroll of less-than-five minutes, past a few larger properties (at least one of which was a B&B with 'Farm' as part of the name), we arrived at the rather smart looking George & Dragon. An expensive pint of Kirin followed - not sure of the last pub I was in that had Japanese lager on tap - in a saloon bar complete with twig lamps, sturdy wooden furniture and thick, intricately-patterned cushions ('rustic charm', I suppose you could say). We weren't the first, or indeed the last, customers to enter the bar, while the adjourning restaurant (which clearly accounted for most of the establishment's trade) was already busy. While rather pricey, the place felt more homely than other recently-refurbished pubs - I presume this one has been done up in the not-too-distant past - and I can imagine it being very popular in the summer.
Location #2 on the mini-crawl was the Bell. Another 'new' pub which (understandably, bearing in mind the location) would also seem to rely on clients paying for food, more so than ones paying for drink. It was surprisingly big, rather draughty, and seemingly popular with groups of late twenty/ early thirty-something parents with loud, infant children called Alfie or Alexa or suchlike. The choice of lagers was rather mundane and the Kronenbourg we had - it was that or Carling Extra Cold - seemed dull and unexciting after the Kirin. I wouldn't want to give the impression that this was a horrible boozer - in no way did we hurry our drinks, for example (far from it, in fact) - rather it paled somewhat compared to the previous one. Indeed, it soon became clear that we were smack bang in the middle of the 'three ages of pub' (think of the famous 'An Understanding of Class' sketch - starring Cleese, Barker and Corbett - on the Frost Report in the 1960s)
After exiting the Bell we continued up the main road, passing a delightful row of thatched cottages and a tiny, funny-looking Cycle Shop & General Store (that sold, among other bizarre things, the tin foil trays in which takeaway curries are contained ... in packs of five!). The spectacular views over the Cotswolds, a passing tractor, and a dead field mouse on the pavement, reminded us that we were in the countryside. Then, very suddenly, the housing alongside the road went rather 'Shameless', with Russian-branded satellite dishes protruding from pebble-dash walls. Our third pub - the Three Horseshoes - was located nearby, on a roundabout. Some people might describe this pub as 'rough and ready'; perhaps accurately so. That said, it had a large TV screen (showing the closing stages of the Everton vs Chelsea FA Cup tie), one of those modern, touch screen-operated jukeboxes with thousands of songs (including precisely six each by Goldie Lookin Chain, Hope Of The States, Little Man Tate, and Stiff Little Fingers) and Becks Vier on tap. A thumbs up from me, then! Returning to my 'three ages of pub' analogy from earlier, it knew it's place ...
We finished our third pint of the day (as Murdo pointed out, we were definitely on a 'go slow'; Callum is obviously the KSG drink pace-setter!) in good time to catch the 14:28 bus from the stop opposite the pub (unlike previous buses this season - to Cinderford and Herne Bay - this wasn't a double decker). After checking with the driver - an absolute spit (geddit?!) of legendary German striker Rudi Voller (greatest moustache/ mullet combo ever?) - that we were on the right one, we joined the only other passenger: an elderly women wearing a knitted beret. After a less-than-five minute drive along the main road, towards Witney, 'Rudi' - who was aware we were going to the football ground - made an impromptu stop for us. Much appreciated. A small roadside sign indicated that the track before us, leading into woodland, was the entrance to Eynsham Hall Park Sports Ground; home of North Leigh FC.
My camera phone - which has so many images saved on it now that it feels like it is going to spontaneously combust each and every time it is used - got a thorough work out, over the next ten minutes or so, as we were presented with various idiosyncratic sights (including what looked like a dilapidated cricket pavilion, Stig of the Dump's living room, a ready-made/ about-to-be-lit bonfire, a goal-post with several tyres hanging from it, a muddy football pitch with scorched sidelines, and fields of sheep in the distance). The turnstiles to the ground - which put those at York Road to shame and reminded me somewhat of Plymouth Parkway's Bolitho Park - were unmanned and, as the £7 entry fees were returned to our pockets, we stumbled upon what appeared to be two teams warming up (which, of course, is what you might expect at 14:50 or so).
The first thing that we noticed about the ground was the significant slope on the pitch; also the uneven stand on the far side. Soon after, though, we questioned why one of the teams was wearing red (North Leigh play in yellow; Cinderford Town in black and white stripes), why one of the players looked older than Macleod (M), why another had a flag and seemed to be preparing to run the line, and why the nearest goalkeeper to us looked as if he weighed close to twenty stones. When a referee appeared, as tubby as the aforementioned goalkeeper, and with a dyed-red mohawk - and we clocked onto the fact that there were hardly any supporters in the ground, aside from us - it became clear that something was not quite as it should be.
Subsequent conversations with the two elderly gentlemen to our right, and then the rotund keeper, shed light on the fact that the Zamaretto League fixture had been postponed, due to a frozen pitch, at around 10AM (I'd checked both club websites just before this time but, seeing no mention of a proposed pitch inspection, had thought nothing more of it). It transpired that we had instead turned up during the half time break of North Leigh B (their fourth team, basically) vs Freeland A (their third team) in the Witney & District League Division Three; a match that had originally been scheduled to take place on the pitch outside, that we had just walked across!
Just as we finished shaking our heads at the absurdity of it all, the passing North Leigh FC Chairman (pictured above, talking with Murdo) invited us for drinks in the newly-refurbished clubhouse. He was still livid at the match referee for calling the game off so early in the day. It transpired that the new facilities had only been opened the night before; the game with Cinderford Town was the be the first for which they were in use. The Chairman - who also doubled up as the barman, and various other things - seemed glad that there were at least two more mouths to help ensure that the post-match spread did not go to waste!
The new clubhouse was very impressive; it certainly sounded like a huge improvement on the club's previous one which, it transpired, was the dilapidated cricket pavilion - actually a listed building - that we'd passed earlier! Nice touches included a segregated boardroom off the bar area, plenty of club-related photos on the walls (countless team photos, newspaper clippings, a memorial to the club stalwart who had seemingly bequeathed at least some of the money that had paid for the new clubhouse etc., etc.), and Guinness being served - from ice-cold cans into glasses - via the use of a vibrating plate (the Chairman/ barman explained that the facility would only be open at the weekends, so no point in having pipes which would require constant cleaning; not rocket science, is it Rasher??). A patio area outside had picnic benches and offered a good view of the pitch, albeit one protected by neatly cut and properly secured wire meshing (preventing people/ pints from being knocked over by stray shots/ passes).
The quality of football, unsurprisingly, left much to be desired and so, after another chat with one of the elderly gentleman from earlier (who filled us in with, amongst other things, the fact that Sholing - not to be confused with Sholing Sports - were top of the Zamaretto League Divison One South & West), we went for a quick scout around the ground. The covered stand behind the goal (which adjourned the new clubhouse facility) reminded me of a smaller version of the one at Halesowen Town. The turnstiles, as aforementioned, were neat and tidy (props to the handyman Chairman?). The pitch surrounds, perimeter fencing, and pathway around the ground were similarly well-kept. Behind the uncovered end was a small wooden fence that backed onto fields, with the spectacular Eynsham Hall visible in the distance. The uneven stand was rather petite but, in keeping with the rest of the ground, perfectly formed; no broken seats, leaky roof, or 'plywood-desk-passing-as-a-Media Area' here, that's for sure.
We arrived back into the clubhouse to learn that North Leigh B had added to their half time lead, running out comfortable 4-2 winners to go top of the table on goal difference (following West Witney Reserves' two-all draw at home to Chipping Norton Town Swifts Reserves; no, I'm not making these names up!). Macleod (M) was able to inform the red-haired Ref - as we munched on a plentiful supply of pizza slices, quiche, and sausage rolls - that, having passed a course and being over 18, he was a Level Seven Match Official. News reached us that MUFC Ltd had lost 4-2 to Boreham Wood, while Bristol Rovers' glorious comeback from 3-0 down away to bottom-of-the-table Walsall had failed to materialise (they'd lost 6-1), so I insisted upon another drink - to ease the pain of the inevitability of League Two football for the Gas next season - before we bid a fond farewell to the Chairman (who encouraged us to return for a first team game next season) and to the Eynsham Hall Park Sports Ground.
As darkness fell we decided to walk back along the main road (don't worry, there was path!) to Long Hanborough, rather than try and find the nearest bus stop. It seemed to take much longer than the earlier five-minute-or-so bus ride had suggested it would. The wind off the Cotswolds, meanwhile, was bitterly cold (not ideal conditions, in hindsight, for us to have embarked upon possibly our remotest away day yet!). Cockles were warmed, though, by a pint of Becks Vier in the Three Horseshoes ... and by Southampton scoring against Man Utd on the TV, much to the disgust of many of the locals (obviously). There was also time for one more in the Bell, if not the George & Dragon (which was a bit of a schoolboy error, thinking about it), before the train home.
I'll certainly be checking next season's fixtures, when they're released in the summer, for North Leigh vs Cinderford Town. If the spreadsheet permits it, then there's a good chance we'll be there. Failing that, there's always the hotly-anticipated re-match of North Leigh B vs Freeland A to bear in mind ...