Before last Saturday, I think the furthest afield I’d ever ventured in Leamington was to the massive Morrisons superstore on Old Warwick Road (about a quarter of an hour’s drive from the Parade), just before the World Cup kicked off, when they were selling crates of Stella for eight quid. Most Warwick students live in Leamington during their second and third years, but it seems that the vast majority of us stick pretty close to the U1 bus route, without really exploring much of the town.
This seems a shame, because there’s a fair bit going on in the local area which would be of interest to most students. If you’ve bothered to plough your way through the entire paper to arrive at the Sport section, I’m willing to bet you’d enjoy a trip to The New Windmill Ground, which is where Leamington FC play their home games in the Vanarama Conference North, the sixth tier of English football.
[pullquote]The entertainment served up the two managers, Paul Holleran for Leam and Alan Lord for Stockport, was honestly just as engaging as what was happening on the pitch[/pullquote]
On September 18, I travelled to the ground with a friend to see Leamington, nicknamed ‘the Brakes’ (no, me neither), take on the slightly better team, Stockport County. Unsurprisingly the standard of football served up on the day wasn’t quite your tiki-taka beautiful game sort of stuff, not unless your idea of beauty is long balls over the top and some dubiously heavy tackles, but as a day’s entertainment, it’s difficult to find a single aspect to criticise.
A student ticket to the game will only set you back a fiver, costing slightly less than a trip to the cinema, and only slightly more than one of those suspiciously soggy CostCutter baguettes for which you can expect a fifteen minutes queue. But, just in case that price is putting you off- you cautious student budgeter, you- the club also provides two free park and ride bus services from Leamington train station. Incredibly, there were only two other people on the bus we caught taking advantage of this offer, which is a massive shame considering the value for money
that’s on offer. Arriving at the ground re- minds you that you’re a long way from your beloved Old Trafford or Emirates Stadium but, although The New Windmill Ground didn’t exactly blow me away, it possesses a distinctive charm all of its own. Fans aren’t segregated, and you can pick where you want to stand and watch the game.
After we accidentally stood with a group of Stockport fans for the first minute or so, we eventually elected to watch the game stood in-between the two manager’s dugouts, which ended up being an inspired decision. Honestly, the entertainment served up by the Leamington gaffer, Paul Holleran, and his Stockport counterpart, Alan Lord, was just as engaging as what was happening on the pitch. Lord, who looked a bit like Steptoe from Steptoe and Son if any of you were forced to watch that when you were a kid, sat silently for most of the game, barking orders only sporadically and randomly. Holleran on the other hand never stood still, and became particularly well ac- quainted with the linesman by the end of the game.
Holleran’s agitation was mostly because Leamington really didn’t offer up a vintage performance, despite possessing the ball for aimlessly long swathes of the game. It was Stockport who seized the initiative though, taking the lead when Scott Spencer headed in from a corner, after a frantic opening ten minutes in which both sides seemed content to just lump the ball down the other end of the pitch as hard and as frequently as possible.
Leamington were finished a few minutes later when the young midfielder Chris Churchman added a second, in slightly farcical circumstances. After a decent move for Stockport appeared to break down, Churchman attempted a lofted through ball which he appeared to mishit, skewing it straight in the direction of the Leamington goalkeeper. Neil Collett misjudged the flight of the ball however, and could only watch helplessly as it sailed over his head and into the back of the net.
Unsurprisingly, these goals didn’t really do much for the mood of Holleran, and just before half- time he lobbed a football in frustration at an advertising hoarding, which entertainingly deflected off and very nearly hit a watching man in the face. “It’s not going our way today is it?” he spat at me and my friend at one point. We thought it probably best not to answer.
Leamington were sadly unable to find a way back into the game, and Stockport looked good for their three points, defending deep and yet still offering a threat on the counter-attack. Whilst it was disappointing to see the Brakes lose, credit has to be paid to the home fans who remained upbeat throughout, with one particular pocket of fans singing loudly though the duration of the second-half, managing to quieten the Stockport support who had started the afternoon in good voice.
This aspect of the afternoon was in fact one of the most enjoyable. Call it ignorance, but before the game I had wondered just how passionate the support would be, and whether the game would have a slightly semi-professional ‘sports day’ vibe to it. There’s definitely a family feel to the club, but there’s also a loud and knowledgeable fan base who make evident their passion for the club. The club isn’t simply a local dilution of a higher level team you might be used to watching on telly; rather it has a unique character of its own and if you visit, you’ll find it impossible not to be drawn in to wanting your adopted hometown do well.
If you visit, you’ll find it impossible not to be drawn in to wanting your adopted hometown to do well
This distinctive character was something Alan, a middle-aged fan who’s been watching Leamington for the last ten years, told me after the game as we queued to make our way out of the ground. “It’s not Premier League football, granted” he said, “but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The part of supporting Leamington that I enjoy the most is how close you feel to the club. You develop a connection with the other fans and the actual team and management that I just don’t think you get at bigger clubs”.
This definitely struck a chord with me; as a Spurs fan I’ve attended White Hart Lane many a time, but never have I heard an Andre Villas-Boas or a Mauricio Pochettino yell, “WHERE THE FUCK IS MY DEFENCE?” quite with the immediate intensity that I experienced when standing a few feet away from Paul Holleran . Slightly surreal at first, it was the aspect of the day that I ended up en- joying the most, and it’s certainly what will draw me back to The New Wind- mill Ground when Leamington take on Worcester City on the November 1.
Hopefully, it’s a game that you might consider attending, too. I scanned the crowd of 855 regularly, and yet didn’t recognise any other students in the crowd. Of course, that may be something to do with my lack of friends, but it also might be to do with the fact that many sports fans on campus, with one eye constantly trained on the Premier League, simply don’t realise the live football available on their doorstep.
For just five pounds, you really owe it to yourself to get down to the ground and experience the engaging football of the lower leagues.