Saturday, 10 September 2011

Handsworth FC - Little acorns.....

Last Saturday was the second annual Non League Day. A brilliant event I referred to here. An opportunity for football fans to support grassroots football in their area, you will find links to the Non League Day website here. It was a great success withy many clubs offering deals to fans with Premier League or Football League season tickets, other events occurring around matchday and an increase in attendance for a huge number of clubs. Increases in attendances and vital increases in income at a level where every penny and every pound counts.

The decline in fortune for my team, meant that we were playing at home in one of 12 League One fixtures on Non League Day and I am glad I went. After an awful last 24 months watching the Blades, a 4-0 victory is a rare event and one to be enjoyed. So, knowing I was missing out on Non League Day, I decided to show my support earlier that week and on the Wednesday night I went to watch a club relatively new to the Non League pyramid. A club that can be classed a true community club, from the suburb of Sheffield I grew up in, Handsworth FC.

Handsworth is a sizeable suburb, around 5 miles outside of Sheffield city centre, and is best described as an average part of town. By no means as well regarded as certain areas to the South West of Sheffield, but not a place to avoid like certain other areas at the other end of the social spectrum. Once with a main road of thriving shops, now with an Asda Wal-Mart Hyperstore changing the business dynamic.

It has some green space, a large park (although that has gradually been taken over by a municipal golf course) and a recreation ground (the Rec') which has a number of football pitches. Many a time have I played on there as the crowd admired Rands' skilful avoidance of a dog turd, whilst perfectly timing a sliding tackle.
Back in 1986, two local men were concerned about the lack of opportunities for local children to take part in organised sport in the area and so Bob Hill and Mick Wragg set up an under 10's boys football team "Handsworth Boys" and entered the Sheffield & District Junior Sunday League. Two years later there were teams for under 10's, under 11's and under 12's and since then the club has grown, now providing mini-soccer for under 7's and representation at all boys age groups up to under 18's, with girls' teams in 4 age groups.

12 of the Handsworth intake have gone on to join academies and Schools of Excellence at professional clubs. Will any follow in the footsteps of Handsworth lad and a former school friend of mine Paul Hurst? With no Handsworth FC established at the time he started his junior career, he crossed the city and played for Middlewood Rovers (then a top local junior side) and Sheffield Schoolboys, before spending his entire playing career as a one club man at Rotherham United. He is now Joint Manager of Grimsby Town with Rob Scott, where the going is proving a little tough after early managerial success at Boston United.

Alongside the healthy development of the teams, the club's evolution included setting up a senior side in the local County Senior League, before taking the step up into the Northern Counties East League Division One last season. Vital to the move into the non league pyramid was a decision in 1998 to take over the former Brown Bailey's sports pitches in association with Sheffield City Council. Bordered by High Hazels Park, Tinsley Golf Course and the Sheffield Parkway, there were  several pitches all part of the former steel firm's social club and staff facilities .One of the pitches had the remnants of a small covered terrace of a few steps. A reminder of when local works sides could attract healthy crowds in local amateur leagues.    
What they have done with the site is tremendous; several 11-a-side pitches, a 5-a-side Astroturf pitch and a large clubhouse with changing facilities cover the site, named after the road and hill it sits atop. Oliver's Mount is where I find myself with just over 100 others on a mild Wednesday night for a match between Handsworth FC and North Lincolnshire side Bottesford Town in the Northern Counties East League Division 1 - step 10 of the football pyramid.

Upcoming at Oliver's Mount
Turnstile & Club Shop

Having parked in the car park, opposite the junior pitches and clubhouse, I walked down the hill to where a portakabin forms turnstile and club shop. Having paid my £3 entry and bought a programme and badge, I walked out of the other door of the cabin at the near right corner of the pitch. I was stood behind the goal at the Railway End. In case I didn't know that, a flag is hanging down from the pitchside fence telling me that they are the Railway End on Tour and a large area of netting masks the trees behind the goal, preventing the 19:55 from Sheffield having to deflect a stray shot.
To my right the hum of cars passing on the Sheffield Parkway ferrying people to and from Junction 33 of the M1 to Sheffield. To my left hard standing with, a bit further towards the half way line, that old covered terrace, now seated but empty tonight. No need to shelter, given the weather. Opposite was the golf course at what has been termed the Tree End. Memories of my youth came flooding back; slamming a 3 iron up, what is now the pitch, as I sneaked across "Brown Baileys"  for a few holes of golf. The overgrown pitch and disuses "stand" fascinated me as I heaved my clubs up the banking surrounding it.
View from the corner flag at the Railway End

With the clubhouse and changing facilities away from pitchside, the teams and officials have a little walk to the pitch, emerging between 5-a-side pitch and trees, down some steps to enter the playing surface. The teams lined up (no Baris NCEL anthem here), exchanged handshakes and an entertaining evening ensued. Mark Storey, a supporter and Railway Ender provided what I think is a very fair summary here for the Handsworth website.

It is to both sides credit that they both tried to play passing football, building from the back. Something I have seen little of in the last couple of seasons of league football at Bramall Lane. Handsworth fielded a young side, peppered with experienced players. A testament to their burgeoning under 19's side which has won the North Midlands League three times in a row. The belief that if you bring good players through and retain them, they are the team and the future of the club.

Visitors Bottesford Town (from just outside Scunthorpe), on looks alone, appeared older and more experienced. Yet they, like Handsworth, are also an FA Charter Standard Community Club, with a long term view taken on player and club development. The visitors will be kicking themselves that they didn't take any of the several good chances they created. Several times second half they saw balls flashing across the face of goal, past keeper and post. They also suffered frustration as two goals were chalked off thanks to offside decisions from young lineswoman Brittany Smith.

Lineswoman - Brittany Smith

Credit to her for decisively making two tight decisions and for how she dismissed the derisive cries from the more vocal contingent in a decent away support. My friend Dick calling over to them when they called her "a stupid tart". It is good to see female officials getting opportunities at the grassroots level. Having watched the Birtley Town v Ryton friendly game officiated very well by Linzi Robinson pre-season at Northern Leagues United, they and their young male counterparts deserve great credit for taking the least easy option and taking on officiating for a pittance. Without them we wouldn't have a game to watch. The Ball is Round interviewed Linzi about her refereeing career here.

You can see the small seated stand, set back into the trees

So at the end of 90 minutes we had seen a Handsworth victory by three goals to nil, some decent football, some contentious decisions, a bit of argy bargy and had the great difficulty of distinguishing players as a team in amber and black stripes played a team in amber and blue stripes. Hull City v Shrewsbury Town if you like. The one thing we hadn't managed was a beer. Making the fair leg from pitchside to clubhouse, I entered the bar area to see towels over the pumps. We made do with a coffee, whilst Bottesford committee members tucked into pork pies and sandwiches and Handsworth regulars clamoured for great looking trays of pie, peas and gravy.

It wasn't until I read this on the club website a few days later that I realised why beer was not served. If you read it you will no doubt agree that it is a sad state of affairs when a local newsdesk, desperate for controversy, mischief make a story out of nothing and create  bad publicity for a club like Handsworth. The clubhouse bar is an important source of income for a club in the non-league pyramid. Everything the club has done over the last 25 years has been for the good of the community, why would they undo it all now by upsetting the community they are an integral part of? Hopefully this can be resolved soon.

View from the steps that lead to the to the Clubhouse

I used a night out at Handsworth to catch up with a mate. We chewed the fat, watched the match and even if we had managed a couple of beers there we would still have had decent change from a tenner. Non League Day is great, it is a much needed profile raiser, reminding those of us who have known nothing but league football that there is an alternative. But as I proved last week, Non League Day can be any day you like. There are plenty of clubs with the ethos and feel of Handsworth that deserve some local support, just go do it. I am pretty sure you will enjoy it.
Back to Handsworth, 25 years ago there was one under 10 team. Now, there are nearly 200 children playing under the Handsworth Junior Sporting Club banner. In their debut season in the Northern Counties East League Division 1, Handsworth FC finished joint 3rd and had the second highest average attendance. As I write they are top of the league, albeit still early days in the new season. Nearly 300 people saw their opening day derby against Hallam FC.
From little acorns, big oak trees grow and I will be popping back to offer support and watch this sapling develop. From what I saw that night, I am sure it will have a healthy and successful future.
A view from the Railway End

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