The Best Pitch In Non-League?
Loughborough Dynamo 1-2 Worksop Town (FA Trophy Third Qualifying Round)
I’m back at an old stomping ground of mine today. During the 2015/16 season I spent three or four months coaching at Loughborough Dynamo, joining a team in a relegation dogfight, leaving the club, still, in a relegation dogfight. It all ended slightly sour.
Thankfully the club survived that year and have ever-since, held their own at step 4 of the non-league system. But it’s a while since I’ve been back… Duty calls for a scouting mission that involves Worksop Town and the FA Trophy Third Qualifying Round… Winner reaches round one and gets another step closer to the lure of Wembley.
I’m excited to see Worksop, having heard good things about them under their Manager Craig Parry. It’s a side who’ve always had the fundamentals to be a really strong step two, even top tier non-league outfit, but they have failed to push on in recent years, despite always promising to deliver, they’re in the Northern Premier League East Division, sitting sixth, having played just six games, whilst Loughborough are third in the Northern Premier League Midlands Division, the same level on the pyramid structure, funnily enough though, I have Worksop as favourites, especially having won nine straight league and cup games. Their team on paper suggests, to me, it’ll be an away win.
Having had a nice relaxing morning which included a dog walk down the green line before a bacon sandwich with the wife who herself opted for a Saturday am stint at the gym, I set off little before 1:30pm heading down the A60 from Nottingham, I’m dressed in my thickest hoody, gillet on top, am wearing a Green Bay Packers woolly hat and even have a hand warmer in my pocket, expecting it to get cold later, the sun is blazing, it’s hot outside, I’m driving through the villages of Bunny and Hoton with the sun-viser of my new Mercedes down, squinting at the distant view of the rolling Leicestershire hills.
Passing the huge Brush factory I enter the north end of Loughborough, rows of terraced housing that these days pack students in them, before navigating the awkward cut throughs of the town centre and on to Forest Road where the property prices look like they take a hike.
Turning left at a sign which says ‘Nanpantan Sports Ground’ the venue for today’s match is these days sponsored by an Estate Agent. I arrive at the now named Newton Fallowell Stadium shortly before 2pm.
The car park is huge and having been here before on a few occasions, I learn from old mistakes. The ball often gets kicked into it when shots are blazed off target, so I park as far away from the goal as possible. The Worksop Town team coach is already here, and as I pull in the supporter’s bus is next to arrive. I give it a few minutes for the queue to calm down before switching off radio five live and jumping out the car to make entrance.
Set on the edge of Loughborough, the ground is idyllic, leafy, a stream running down one side it backs on to a number of open pitches with hills in the back ground, there’s a bowls club, a cricket club, even a lawn tennis club. I wander up towards the turnstile down a single-track lane which runs the length of the pitch, low hedges hide the ground from the eye, until arriving at a corner gate, where it says £8 entrance (for adults), where you can now pay by cash, or by card.
Walking through the gates brought back some fond memories, firstly the stand to the right, behind the goal, which houses the clubhouse and changing rooms, is a covered seating area, to the left, the pitch, and what a pitch. Loughborough Dynamo have always had one of the best pitches at the level, a superb carpet well looked after, flat as a pancake, the groundsman and club used to win annual awards nationally for its consistently fabulous condition, and on today’s viewing, I won’t be surprised if that doesn’t continue this season.
The rest of the ground, well to be honest, it’s a little underwhelming. Not much change since I was last here six years ago. A small, covered area running up to the halfway line on the far side, other than that, open to the elements, opposite that small stand are the dugouts, but for a few run-down portacabins and a strange looking circular tin building behind one of the goals, it’s pretty much ‘stand’ where you can.
I sit down on some concrete slabs to write down the teams in my notepad as Worksop warm up in front of me. ‘Last pair to mount’ shouts one of the coaches as the players then look for someone to jump on.
I notice Terry Hawkridge, who I’ve played with, and against, in the past. He’s had football league experience and lists Lincoln City and Notts County amongst his clubs. A proper player, who I completely forgot, had signed for the Tigers in the summer.
A familiar face takes the warmup for Loughborough too, as former Nottingham Forest midfielder Lewis McGugan, now assistant Manager to Bradley Munn, is kicking balls up to his back four.
The Worksop fans, pint in hands, head out of the clubhouse in numbers as the two teams make their entrance from behind the goal to U2's Beautiful Day, how appropriate, I’m on the halfway line opposite the dugout, phone in hand, sun in my eyes, I’m absolutely boiling in my winter gear, as the game gets under way.
Within a minute Worksop have a chance to take the lead, as Luke Hall blazes over from inside the six-yard box as it looks harder to miss than score, the Tigers immediately punished at the other end, as James Tague runs through on goal to poke the ball in ahead of Malkowski for an opener.
Loughborough start well, whilst Worksop aren’t at it. But the quality shows even though you feel the away side are playing at a canter. Hawkridge who I remember as a speedy right winger in his younger days, now aged 32, playing in the centre of the park, spraying balls to the right and left like he’s played there all his life.
Worksop’s tactics are more often than not, to get it up to their powerful handful of a striker in Liam Hughes, whilst Loughborough try and play, left winger Kevin Bastos a former Forest academy starlet is ungainly, technically good and awkward to handle, but he’s in for some rough treatment, Worksop have a nasty bite about them and like to have a moan, in the end it takes some moaning, and some unfavourable refereeing decisions, to really get them going and fired up.
Hughes pipes up to one of the fans, the away team have been circling the Referee on a number of occasions, in truth the official is far from strong enough to handle these chirpy northerners who contest his every decision, a Loughborough supporter pipes up “You need to concentrate on your own game ten, you’ve not won a header yet”… Hughes replies “Who’s rattled your cage?”
A Loughborough player is down on the ground, but the game continues. I always seem to feel this can go against the defending team and it’s in the players interest to get back on his feet, but he stays down, play goes on, and Worksop inevitably score a leveller. tall leggy number nine Liam Hardy it is, volleying in from close range after good work by Hughes who sets him up with just over half an hour gone.
That goal is the lift the away side needs and from there it’s one way traffic. Six minutes before half time, full back Josh Wilde lets fly with a belter that nestles in the top corner from just inside the area.
Town might have had a penalty too, cries for handball go un-noticed, it looks clear to everyone in sight, bar the officials who wave play on.
At half time I chat to a couple of old boys who look much posher than your average football fan. They like to do the rounds in Leicestershire, watching the local clubs, one of them really knows his stuff, they also visit Barwell, Coalville and Shepshed quite often, although ones favourite venue is Loughborough University, whose facilities are at a world class level with a modern arena and Premier League quality pitch. I wonder to myself, if he lectures there?
They expect Loughborough to come out and have a go but I tell them ‘Worksop will be too strong from here’, I expect the away side to run away with it, but despite a lot of possession in the second half, they can’t convert their chances, and with ten minutes remaining, Loughborough are still in the game.
This is where Kevin Bastos returns from nowhere.. After a promising first ten minutes, I completely forgotten he was still on the pitch, Worksop probably having at least 70% of the possession since the early stages, but Dynamo are not completely out of this, Bastos re-energised becomes more involved, the home side push with late resurgence as Princewill Ogunmekan drives forward, but his touch is too heavy to get a shot at goal, Worksop regroup, and during the closing stages it looks more like they’ll add, then they’ll concede.
By now the away support is in fine voice and well liquored. Some old classics like ‘Who ate all the pies’ sung to the home team goalkeeper Lewis King, and ‘Poland’s number one’ voiced everytime their own shot stopper, Seb Malkwoski, catches the ball, before ‘we're on the way to Wembley’ as the Referee blows for full time.
Whilst Hawkridge pulls strings for Worksop, his Latvian born midfield partner Aleks Starcenko also impresses me, Vaughan Redford and Liam Hardy show glimpses of skill, the odd body swerve with swagger on occasion although sporadic, full back Regan Hutchinson in particular linking up well in the final third down the right, getting forward as often as he can and always on the look for a one-two, Liam Hughes is one of those horrible strikers at the level that constantly comes to blows with either his markers or the officials, his hold up play important to how Worksop like to operate.
For Loughborough, but for a promising start, they’re largely dominated, but work hard defensively and off the ball, Brandon Webster at right back is a decent size and competent in and out of possession, Bastos in spells looks like he can produce moments of magic, Captain Rob Norris who seems to have been here for ever, still running his socks off in midfield.
The carpet like playing surface at Loughborough Dynamo offers clubs at this level a real opportunity to come play at a ground where players can be genuinely excited by the pitch.
For an FA Trophy game however, a crowd of just 242, where the majority of fans were from Worksop, well it feels a little like Loughborough are punching, and they have been, at this level, for a while now, which is testament to how the club is ran, and how the current Management team have got them playing. If only the town could get behind them a little more than they do?
Worksop should be at least a league higher than they already are. They have a really good side with experience, they can play good football (as well as mixing it with a nasty side) and still in both FA Trophy and FA Cup, have a real good chance to make a few quid this season… My only worry, the side distraction of these cup runs may hamper their league dream, a team who should be challenging for promotion, may have a little too much to do, they already have four games in hand on some of those above them, and we’ve only just entered October.
Loughborough Dynamo: Lewis King, Robbie McNicholas (Callum Cooks 60), Brandon Webster, Princewill Ogunmekan, Nathan Whitehead, Luke McGinnell, Kevin Bastos, Josh Waldram, James Tague, Kory Burke (Isaac Stones 46), Rob Norris.
Worksop Town: Sebastian Malkowski, Regan Hutchinson, Josh Wilde, Terry Hawkridge, Sam Wedgbury, Deegan Atherton, Vaughan Redford, Aleksandr Starcenko (Paul Green 77), Liam Hardy (Jay Rollins 77), Liam Hughes, Luke Hall.
3:00pm Kick Off. Saturday 8th October 2022, Nanpantan Sports Ground, Loughborough (att 242).