Atherton Collieries 4 AFC Darwen 3 HT: 1-1 Att: 80 Entrance £5 Programme £1
from Alder Street
The first workday after the clocks had gone back and a trip to see my first ever Collieries-suffixed team. The first day of the newly foreshortened sunsets, where the evening seems eerily black and seemingly extra cold; the curtain has finally closed on any hope of Indian summers – the winter football season is here, with its endless postponements, cut up pitches and loss of feeling in the feet.
Atherton Collieries were formed from workers of the six working pits in the area of Atherton, Greater Manchester, in 1916. Its Alder Street ground is as old as the club and on a blustery cold autumn evening, in late October, it looked every bit the weatherworn but welcoming nonagenarian.
As if barometers of the ground’s age, three fully mature trees stand sentinel behind the goal, as you come in through the turnstiles, paying the £5 entrance and £1 programme money. The trees had shed a prodigious amount of leaves on a boggy pitch, that undulated spectacularly in several directions. The linesmen’s runs were muddy troughs. Welcome to non league football in darkest Autumn.
Next to the entrance is their big stand; old and made from railway sleepers, but with new seats. Four rows, in blocks of 28 and 20 seats, gave it a capacity of 192, minus the missing or wounded. Crumbling (literally) next door was a six or seven step terrace spanning the two dugouts; the top step, looking like the victim of an earthquake, almost trapped my foot.
As I continued round the bottom end I thought this was my type of ground; old, lived in, with just enough renovation to keep it ticking along, but not betraying its age and character lines. The autumnal range of brown and red leaves adorning the muddy pitch added to the shabby-chic ambience…admittedly more shabby than chic
Down the bottom of the other side was a smaller stand complete with covered terrace extension, two blocks of seats, 24 and 42, giving it a capacity of 66, total for the ground 258 – not bad for step six.
An inviting clubhouse sits up from the small stand next to a small tea hut, and behind the goal, sitting under the protection of the huge trees is the rather grandly titled portakabin – the Jimmy Fielding Suite. The changing rooms led on to a concertina, euro-style players tunnel, that looked slightly odd in the context of the rest of the ground.
The game was an exemplary advert for this level of football, providing the best value for money game I’d seen this season. Both teams, going well in the Vodkat One, went at it hammer and tongs from the start, on a soggy, heavily contoured pitch. It was end to end, with both teams trying their hardest to play some good football. It was during the first half that I pondered how long it’d been since I’d been so entertained by a game that I wasn’t bothered how many goals were scored. It was only 1-1 at half time, but as if to reward my new found attitude, the fates provided a ding dong five goal thriller in the second to reward me with goals as well as a brilliant game.
The Colls, or Miners, opened the scoring when a run down the left produced a ball into the box, that evaded Darwen’s defence, falling to Cooke, who controlled it before placing in the corner. The quality of free kicks throughout was tremendous, and after a previous 20 yard effort by Darwen had hit the bar, an almost identical second bounced down kindly for Turner, to cleverly smack in for the equaliser.
The second half could have gone either way, as both teams went for it again, but the Colls regained their lead, thanks to a long through ball, that beat Darwen’s ineffective offside trap, that fell to Precott to place under the keeper. Nine minutes later and following heavy pressure, Lonsdale for Darwen swept the ball into the box but it beat everybody to fall into the corner of the net. 2-2
Darwen’s offside trap was beaten once again for Colls’ third (again by Prescott) and then after some near misses and great saves by the Colls’ keeper, Darwen finally got their chance to equalise again from the spot for a foul. Parker made no mistake. Both teams pressed for a winner, but it was the aptly named Paul Atherton (of Atherton Road, Atherton) who ran onto a delicious through ball to hammer the ball past the Darwen keeper for an injury time winner.
Superb entertainment and the first game I’ve ever seen where a team took a lead for a fourth time. Both teams were very angry with the refereeing staff, which on occasion was understandable. The stand out decision for me was in the second half, when a Darwen player crossed the ball into the Atherton box, where a defender, in his own space, made full contact, changing the trajectory of the ball by around 90 degrees, to go off for a corner – there were no players near its flight path – goal kick?! Myself, 79 others, and all playing staff looked on in bemusement.