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Viva Diego

Buxton 1-0 Southport (National League North)

A quick pub quiz question for you... So, what's the highest football ground in England? Hands up if you said the Hawthorns? Home of West Bromwich Albion? At a mere 551 feet above sea level, it's certainly the highest football league ground in England, but of those outside the 92, there's quite a few who can trump that, the best of all, to my knowledge (and I'm sure I read something obscure recently that a parks pitch in Cornwall was even higher), at 1,000 feet or more, the highest of all English Stadia at least with a turnstile on entrance, belongs to Silverlands, the home of Buxton FC.

Buxton is an hour or so from my house. A couple of weeks back, I even went for a ramble in the area at nearby Bakewell up to Monsal Head with its impressive looking viaduct and tunnel carved into the hills. Today I'm driving through the Peak District up and down the valleys into the busy town of Wirksworth, through Middleton where the skies suddenly turn as they do so often in these parts.

It's dark grey over green fields as the rain suddenly pours down before brightening up, to my left misery and sleet, to my right, blue skies as I cross high peak with a panoramic and stunning view of middle England.

I'm into Buxton as Arsenal are down against Aston Villa at half time in their Premier League game, skipping in and out of frequency on my car radio. The fiveways junction of this beautiful spa town brings a touch of Soho to North Derbyshire. The London Road pub looks hip and trendy opposite a Japanese sushi bar, there's even a couple of charity shops to go full W1 which was most unexpected on arrival in this part of presumed rural country.

Route guidance directs me up Darwin Avenue before turning right onto Silverlands where I park, a residential street where house sizes are large, leafy as I make my walk up to the turnstile where I'm let in by the stewards who are most friendly, showing me through the gate and pointing me the right way.

The Venue

It's been ten years since I've been here last, a new carpet laid is all I see different. Gone is the grass for a cash churning 3g surface. It's probably needed in these parts where it can snow in September.

The ground backs on to terraced houses in stone. A low roofed standing terrace in front of a handful of back gardens stretches the length of the pitch, to the right a small stand with roof, behind the opposite goal is nothing more than a walkway In front of a high concrete wall. The near side housing a large-seated stand on halfway.

I'm debating whether to have a cuppa or not, but don't have any loose cash so head straight up to the press box where the Southport media guy is already setting up. It's a good view, back of the main stand and central as a few seats around house the odd home fan already perched long ahead of kick off, I get a lovely look out of the distant hills but can't see my left hand goal due to a huge grey floodlight in the way. The chairs quite far away from the table attached to the back wall, I’m already on the edge of my seat and the game hasn’t even yet kicked off.

I'm chatting to the Southport guy who points out a couple of players to watch from the visitors. He says "Jordan Archer is as good as anyone in the league, on his day" whilst mentioning substitute, "Josh Miles is one for the future", noting "a few teams have been looking" at the teenage winger, stating "we should get good money for him".

He's surprised Miles isn't in the team today. I've seen Southport in recent weeks and weren't impressed in their outing at Peterborough Sports in early January. I'm hoping for better against Buxton, both sides in lower mid table, my first viewing of the Bucks this season. They can play a bit I've been told, something their pitch probably allows them to do, long gone the slope from wing to wing, now a flat, wide synthetic, much inviting surface to have no excuses when 'trying' to knock it around on.

The Game

Southport are managed by Liam Watson who's the club's longest serving boss ever with over 600 games in charge of the Sandgrounders.

Watson prefers 'non league' basics when it comes to tactics and even sets up his side's opening kick off in Rugby Union formation, ready to launch the ball straight into touch from the off, they clear their lines and whack it as far from their goal as possible a little too often in the first half, as Buxton themselves try to play on occasion, looking particularly dangerous down the sides.

The Bucks Manager is Craig Elliott who was previously at Boston and Matlock and prior to that, the marvellously named all be it now dissolved Shaw Lane Aquafource, he certainly looks to be more positive in his own tactical philosophy, having confidence in allowing his team to play from the back. Left back Max Conway is happy to dribble out of defence and push forward, he links up with winger Jordan Barnett well whilst Connor Kirby keeps it ticking neatly in midfield.

The home side press as Southport clear, quickly humping the ball back to restart a next opposition attack, the best chance of the first half is created on 23 when Jackson gets to the by-line down the right and dinks to the back post where Barnett is full stretch heading over from a couple of yards out. It looks harder to miss.

The Score

"Southport should be happy that" I say at the break, the home team have dominated but the visitors defence hasn't been breached. Jordan Archer and Connor Wood isolated up top, neither have hardly had a touch. I still think the longer they're still in it, the better chance they have, the game, which looks like a clash of two mid-table sides, will most certainly be decided by only one goal.

As the smell of Bovril hits my nose from the Referee Assessors cup below my seat, the two teams are underway for the second period and it's Southport, slightly tweaking their formation with Wood now proving menace down the right wing, who have the chances to take the lead, Archer the best of them, heading over, unmarked, inside the six-yard box.

A bit of fisticuffs behind the floodlight results in a couple of cautions, the Referees Assessor is leaning over me to get a good viewing as I've got my binoculars out to see who's at fault, it's all calm before the culprits are quickly substituted. A good decision I feel by Southport, who take Carberry off for Wood, he's more direct and runs at defenders down the left wing, but it's at the other end where the action decides the fate of this game.

A handball shout on half way has the Southport players stop arms raised. Play carries on and Diego De Girolamo is set through, he still has a lot of work to do, running at the back four from just inside the opposition area, he jinks in field onto the edge of the box and hits low, left footed, a quality winner which oozes class.

I've known about Diego a long while now, a Chesterfield lad of Italian heritage, it was former Alfreton Town midfielder John Knapper who told me about him when he was on the books of Sheffield United back in 2014, Knapper stating "he's a good player. He'll do well in the game".

The former Italy youth international has been relatively quiet up to the point of goal, a bit of neat footwork and the odd moment of flamboyance aside, you hardly notice he's there, then, he does that! A goal where you simply have to nod, appreciate, and admit, 'that's class'.

Buxton with Tom Elliott and Warren Clarke now on the pitch look confident and most likely to score again, they keep the ball well in the closing stages and even look more like adding, than conceding a leveller, before the Referee calls time on the day to the cheers of the 700 plus inside the Tarmac sponsored arena.

The Stars

Whilst the Neopolitan number nine will take the plaudits for Buxton due to his goalscoring exploits, I’m most impressed with their left side attacking threat where Max Conway and Jordan Barnett combine well to make it a miserable tough day for another lad who I like the look of, Southport’s Keenan Quansah who’s right back, thick set but not the sharpest turning circle, he looks like he has the talent to play in midfield but I’m told a right sided defender in a back three is where he looks most comfortable. Think Joe Gomez, talented and neat on the ball, but unsure where he’s quite at his best.

It's another no frills viewing of Southport but centre half and captain Adam Anson is reliable and efficient in his 'get rid' policy, as is midfielder Charlie Munro who scraps around in the centre of the park, the odd time trying to get it down and play. Jordan Archer who I’m told is the agent of his brother Cameron, on loan from Aston Villa at Middlesbrough and firing on all cylinders right now, well he looks lost, perhaps his team don’t play enough to his strengths?

That can’t be said about Connor Kirby in midfield who makes the home side tick, he’s exceptional with good movement and inventive passing, he’s joined late on by Tom Elliott and Warren Clarke as further attacking options of good quality, Buxton are relatively small in comparison to Southport, but have neat footballers who are not afraid to take on opponents, a very dangerous threat in the final third, in particular on the counter attack, and especially from wide positions.

The Verdict

Both Buxton and Southport I'm sure will be alright this season, although that’s twice now I’ve seen the Sandgrounders play and I've failed to have been impressed on each occasion, they’re organised and dogged, just lacking that bit of something extra, that bit of something which most of the sides above them, seem to have.

Perhaps it's not in personnel, but tactics where they need to mix it? Most sides at the level can play, and fight, but those in the top half of the table know when it’s right to get rid, when to get a foothold, Southport don’t enjoy enough possession and can be very predictable, long throw-ins and set plays can only get you so far.

As for Buxton, still not out of the woods themselves, but they can certainly play, and look to have a bit of togetherness, they'll be hoping to avoid getting dragged into the relegation scrap, but should have enough quality in attack, to steer well clear.

The ground the highest is England, is one that is well worth a visit, if at the least for the magnificent drive over the Peaks to reach it, Buxton and Southport hadn’t played each other for 30 years before this season, but I’ll be confident to say that the fixture will return next campaign, for another National League North encounter.

The Teams

Buxton: Theo Richardson, Connor Brown, Max Conway, Josh Granite, Jordan Barnett (Tom Elliott 68), Connor Kirby, Diego De Girolamo, Jake Hull, Jak McCourt, Brad Jackson (Shaun Brisley 85), Joe Ackroyd (Warren Clarke 68).

Southport: Tony McMillan, Charlie Oliver, Chris Doyle, Adam Anson, Connor Woods (Josh Miles 85), Charlie Munro, Jordan Archer, Tyler Walton (Connor Heath 85), Keenan Quansah, Jack Bainbridge, Michael Carberry (Niall Watson 67).

3:00pm Kick Off. Saturday 18th February 2023, Silverlands, Buxton (att 719).

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