I am sure many of us have made impulsive lockdown purchases. My own arrived this week and is already easily one of the best things I have ever bought.
Having seen the Groundstastic ‘The Cemetery End’ book advertised and commended on Twitter it was an immediate must-have. 226 colour pages featuring grounds and stands that are no longer with us, from Premier League in England to Junior football in Scotland via English Non-League from top to bottom.
And there, on page 48, was featured one of Berkshire’s most sadly missed grounds – Finchampstead Road, Wokingham. The place where I learned to love Non-League football.
My first ever game of ‘Non-League’ football was played there in May 1991. The Reading Evening Post Senior Cup final, between Peppard and Mill End. The ambitious South Oxon side were one of the strongest local teams around. My Dad and his mate who took 11 year old me along – one of Michael’s mates was playing for either side, cannot recall which – told me that Peppard were firm favourites. Ever the contrarian I wanted Mill End to win. They didn’t. Peppard’s ambition was stymied by lack of facilities and finally died when their adopted home at Palmer Park in Reading was decreed inadequate for Isthmian League soccer due to the playing pitch being too small.
Listen to Wokingham & Emmbrook President Mark Ashwell talk about Town’s departure from Finchampstead Road below, or on your favourite podcast app here.
Fast forward to 1995. Fascinated enough in the meantime in those pre-internet by the strange-named leagues and unfamiliar towns who made up the flotsam and jetsam at the bottom end of the Football Pools coupon and therefore onto Grandstand, I began to research Non-League soccer through the media of local newspapers, Team Talk magazine and Playfair football annuals. Finally I had enough disposable income through a back-breaking paper round to enter this strange and unfamiliar world for myself. A pleasant stroll from home over the Bulmershe playing fields now occupied by Woodley United’s development and Ladies teams and along Kingfisher Drive over the bridge to Earley station to my most local Isthmian venue.
All aboard the band-wagon, three stops to recently-relegated Isthmian League Division One outfit Wokingham Town who had a top-of-the-table clash against Heybridge Swifts. A rather low-quality 1-0 home win was hugely enlivened by four sendings off – one for the Town, whilst three Heybridge men made a Swift exit. Visiting manager Garry Hill wouldn’t have been happy, but future success at the likes of Dagenham & Redbridge and Woking would no doubt erase this turbulent afternoon from his mind. Besides, the Swifts were promoted at the end of the season whereas Town faded to eleventh place in the final analysis.
Naturally I bought a £1 programme that day. When is the next home match? Two weeks’ time versus Whyteleafe? See you there! And it was a case of ‘See you there’ for most of the rest of that season, and the two that followed for that matter. Not that for the most part there was a ‘you’ to see; friends were occasionally convinced to join me but very rarely did they come to a second game. Mostly the only people I spoke to were the gate man and the non-smiling monosyllabic and presumably-married couple who ran the shop having mastered the Non-League programme store experience of making the customer feel as uncomfortable and as unwelcome as possible.
Gates started off around the 300 mark when I first started going, soon falling to more than one hundred fewer and there was a resigned sense of glory days – FA Trophy semi-final and a second place Isthmian Premier finish – recently gone by from the rather apathetic home support who themselves rarely mustered even polite applause when the teams emerged at 2:58pm to the strains of the theme from ITV’s ‘The Match’. But I loved the place. The freedom to stand and sit wherever I chose. Two open ends, the ‘Programme Shop’ end had a curved wall perhaps put in place to stop supporters throwing missiles at the goalkeeper after Cardiff City supporters had rearranged the ground during-and-after a 1982 FA Cup tie. There was a small ‘grandstand’ on the turnstile side adjacent to a covered ‘chicken run’ and along the opposite touchline – my preferred side – a functional mixture of covered terracing and seating.
The games were largely unmemorable of course but stand out memories after that dramatic debut match include seeing former England International and Berkshire Boy Neil Webb strut his portly stuff for Aldershot Town, a coupon-busting 0-5 defeat to struggling Bognor Regis, an entertaining mob of well-oiled and tuneful Maidenhead fans bedecked in cardboard crowns from the local Burger King and an emotional middle-aged Walton & Hersham supporter admonishing some young local Wokingham hoodlums for berating their own team. The highlight of that first season?
A Berks and Bucks Senior Cup semi-final at Elm Park, Reading. As an Elm Park regular too, this was a couldn’t-lose tie and I was genuinely rather pleased that Town comfortably saw off a youthful Royals outfit by a couple of goals to nil. I can recall lanky Dave Prior scoring one of the goals, one of my Town favourites who had developed a fruitful big-man-quick-little-man partnership with 40-goal Steve Darlington who himself went on to bigger-and-better things with (as I recall) Farnborough. Another favourite was composed young right back Giles Marchant whilst the Town ‘keeper was Third Division medal-winning Reading man Gary Westwood. I convinced a couple of ultimately disinterested mates to come along to Elm Park that Monday night and they were fuming at school the next day as I had persuaded them to miss a certain Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle thriller on Sky Sport that same evening as the wheels began to come off for Kevin Keegan’s exciting team. Whoops.
1998 was an A-Level year for me. I also got my first ‘proper’ job and more disposable income to visit other grounds…..and pubs. That season Wokingham Town had finally degenerated from ‘mediocre’ to ‘poor’ and were relegated to Isthmian Division 2 with my own interest in the team waning as miserably as their form. Dear old Finchampstead Road was sold off the following year and five years later homeless Town merged with Emmbrook Sports and took a place at Step 6 at the floodlit-free zone that was Lowther Road, where I have made the odd trip since. I greatly admire the job that the likes of Mark Ashwell have done since to steady the ship and give the Borough of Wokingham a senior club to be proud of and I dearly hope that we see them ply their trade at Step 4 sooner rather than later.