Today’s trip saw me travelling up North from London to a game in the Conference North. So, I drove the 25 or so miles from Ilford to Bishop Stortford. The FA in their wisdom, sorry short sighted stupidity have set up the national pyramid so the boundary for the North/South split moves south every year.
The reason for this is that below the Conference North/ South, there are 3 feeder leagues, the Northern Premier League, The Southern Premier League and the Rymans League (Isthmian League). Each league promotes 2 teams into the regional conference divisions and 3 are relegated from each of Conference North & South. However, the Southern & Isthmian Leagues are both Southern based Leagues, so it means 4 Southern teams get promoted each year and only 3 southern teams are relegated.
Pretty obvious when you think about it, but that is the FA for you.
Anyway, back to today’s game. After perusing the Non League Papers for fixtures on Saturday, I saw that Bishop Stortford were at home and are only 25 or so miles from my home. I like Bishop Stortford as when I was a kid, they were a member of the Isthmian League which like the Northern League (and the Western League) were sponsored by Rothmans. They were traditional amateur leagues full of clubs with lots of Amateur cup tradition like Enfield, Ilford, Wycombe, Dagenham and others. Indeed, Bishop Stortford were the last winners of the FA Amateur Cup in 1974 when they beat Ilford in the Final at Wembley. Bishop Stortford went on to become the first club to win both the FA Amateur Cup and the FA Trophy when they won in 1981.
Since then, they have experienced mixed fortunes, including moving to a new ground in 1999.
I have experienced some issues about taking pictures at some grounds, so I decided to email Bishop Stortford on Friday to see if they would agree to my taking pictures. I got a very nice response from the club Website & PR Manager, confirming I’d be most welcome and that if I introduced myself at the club shop he would give me a pin badge. Such a welcoming approach made my mind up that Bishop Stortford was to be today’s game.
It was also 39 years ago today that Bishop Stortford won the FA Amateur Cup
The ground itself is just off the M11 at the end of an industrial estate. The only parking nearby is at the ground for which the club charge £1. A nominal fee for a well maintained and relatively secure car park.
The ground is entered by turnstile at either side of the main stand, which also houses the function suite / club house. Admission price of £12 is about average for this level of football. Once in the ground, I sought out the PR officer, Tim Lamb who welcomed me to the ground as did a couple of other fans. Tim handed me a badge and enquired about my ground hopping. The initial impression of the club was very favourable.
A look at the ground made me realise how simple and effective it was. Each end of the ground has a terraced covered stand (about 9 steps of terracing. The stands run about half the width of the ground with 3-4 steps of uncovered terracing at either side
The main stand houses the dressing rooms and the club bar (which I did not visit- honest!). The main stand straddles the halfway line and is simple yet very impressive. At the side of the main stand is tarmac/concrete hard standing and catering outlets which serve the usual football fare at very reasonable prices.
Opposite the main stand is a much smaller seated stand with terracing to either side of it. All in all the ground is very simple but very effective and one of the best non league grounds I have been to. The pitch seemed to be in excellent condition.
Enough of the ground, what about the football? Well it started of slowly and for the first 20 or so minutes it had the feel of a meaningless end of season game, despite being one that mattered to both sides. Bradford with a slim chance of the play offs and Bishop Stortford needing a win for safety. The game improved as it went on, with Bishop Stortford equalising on the stroke of half time.
The second half was a better contest with bishop Stortford scoring a second goal and deservedly winning 2-1. This despite the referee who seemed to dislike Bishop Stortford and could not be called a “homer”.
The support from the Bishop Stortford fans behind the goal was impressive given how few there were. They sang for most of the 90 minutes. The songs would have earned low marks from the Northern League’s happy shopper but were in the best traditions of football and the non league scene in particular. There were songs about there hatred of Harrow Borough – presumably an Isthmian in league rivalry. There were songs suggesting the rather portly Bradford keeper was “paid in Pukka Pies”, songs about Bishop Stortford never having lost at Wembley and a very politically incorrect chant suggesting the linesman from Hampshire/Dorset was a “mermaid buggerer”. That was a new chant to me.
The fact that Bishop Stortford bizarrely have to play in the Blue Square Bet North division clearly is not popular with a chant of “This is the worst league, we’ve ever been in. We want to go home” to the Sloop John B tune.
Overall, I had a great afternoon at a club that has made the transition from a successful transition from a leading amateur club to a professional club going places. Other clubs have done this, but I’m not sure any have done it without losing that great friendly spirit of the old amateur days. The other pleasing thing was to see the number of children at the ground. A sure sign of a positive future for the club.
This is a club that is well worth a visit and one I will definitely return to, the football, the people and the terrace banter made it a good day. That and the fact I was halfway back to London by the time Sports Report started on Radio 5 Live. Indeed by 17:30 I was in the Gym in Ilford trying to exercise off the calories in the Jumbo Hotdog and other delicious food in the ground.