In 2008, the UK national daily newspaper, The Telegraph, ran a feature listing ’50 Reasons to Love Britain. Featured in the list were expected entries, including author P.G. Wodehouse, the Brunel Railway Bridge and the Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh; all examples of cultural and engineering icons synonymous to Britain and everything it stands for.
However, look a little closer and you will find, sandwiched between number 15: the ferry from Fowey to Polruan (which has been known to provide travellers with sightings of dolphins), and number 17: The Brontë Parsonage (home to the world famous authors, the Brontë sisters), lies a far much less-known entity: Frickley Athletic Football Club.
Football is thoroughly ingrained in British culture and a related entry in the list is hardly surprising, but for anyone with anything less than a hardened knowledge of the league system in England, Frickley Athletic might generate some puzzled looks and shrugged shoulders. The Telegraph describes the club as, “renowned for having the bleakest football ground in the country. It’s overlooked by a slag-heap which dominates the ground much as Mount Vesuvius does Naples – albeit rather less picturesquely.” Hardly a ringing endorsement.
The newspaper goes on to justify the club’s inclusion in this illustrious list by saying: “In the depths of winter, though, with snow dusting its summit, it’s a remarkable sight. Visiting fans are often found taking more photographs of the slag-heap than of the football.” Case closed, then. Such romantic words would appear to have put paid to any lingering question mark, wouldn’t they?
It’s Saturday 1st March 2014 and Frickley are at home to Barwell in the EvoStik Premier Division, the 7th tier of English football. Both clubs are embroiled in a relegation scrap and, going into the match, Frickley sit 19th out of 24 teams, two places and six points above the relegation zone, but having played more games than all of the teams around them.
Barwell lie just a place below them, two points in arrears but with two games in hand. The match is billed as ‘a 6-pointer’ with the result having a huge bearing on the league table.
Frickley have gained a reputation amongst their fans as being a ‘last day survival’ team over the past few seasons and this season looks to be no different. Having one of the league’s smallest budgets, volunteer pools and with ageing facilities that are in dire need of upgrading, it’s a constant battle to keep the club afloat, and relegation would be hugely detrimental for a club that has overcome huge economic problems in its history.
Situated in South Elmsall on the edge of West Yorkshire, in the metropolitan borough of Wakefield, the club was founded in 1910 as Frickley Colliery Football Club, named after the colliery next to which it was built and operated by. In fact, colliery workers used to pay a part of their salary to the club when the pit was operational.
The club changed to its current name in 1974, 11 years before their best ever performance in the English F.A. Cup, reaching the 3rd round following a second round win away at league club Hartlepool. Frickley have competed in numerous regional and national lower league competitions in their various guises since their foundation and, as well as their best ever cup run, the 1984-85 season saw the club’s best ever league finish, when they were runners-up in the Alliance Premier League, the 5th tier of English football at the time, one league below league football.
The club now plies its trade two leagues lower in the Evo-stik Premier League, and faces a constant battle to stay afloat amidst a healthy choice of league football in the local area and a hangover from local and national developments of the past 30 years.
Frickley Colliery closed in 1993, following its role as one of the key collieries in union radicalism in the 1980’s, and the area was one of the most depressed in the whole of the European Union. Things have improved a little since then and a recent regeneration scheme surrounding, and including, the football club has provided hope. The project’s continuous financial failures and political barriers have hindered progress, but recent developments appear to be pushing the project closer to realisation, with plans to transform the old colliery site into a country park, the building of new housing estates around the football ground and new sporting facilities that would be available for use by the club.
Fundraising efforts by many of the club volunteers are ongoing as Frickley Athletic must contribute a significant amount towards the project, but they are hopeful that they can achieve their goal and that the project will finally get underway in the next two years.
The walk to the stadium takes you through a now-demolished housing estate that was torn down a few years ago when the regeneration project began. It has detached the club from the local community but plans are afoot to redevelop the area as part of the project.
On the pitch, the teams line-up at the Westfield Lane Stadium, a ground reminiscent of years gone by with a brick perimeter wall surrounding the pitch, one crumbling stand with rotting wooden benches and a standing area adjacent to it covered by a ramshackle wooden frame.
There is no pretence here, and it really is a unique experience for those fans making their first visit. The aforementioned slag-heap is now covered in grass and, from the stand, you can see a training pitch built into the side of the hill as a sign of things to come.
Subjectively, it’s hard to see quite why this particular view was sufficient enough to warrant a place in a list of 50 reasons to love Britain, but for football fans, the whole place bleeds football of an almost forgotten era.
The ground boasts a small snack bar, which serves hot food and refreshments at very reasonable prices, a small club shop homed in an old portacabin and a relatively new bar serving alcohol, providing the club with a function room of its own.
In keeping with the years of struggle that Frickley has endured, however, a recent break-in at the club saw the club house damaged, with the TV and a large amount of stock stolen. This is one in a line of similar events that has plagued the stadium in recent years and is just one of many obstacles they need to overcome.
Back on the pitch, as the match begins, Frickley make an uninspiring start. Hopeful long balls forward to their target man, a stereotypical tactic of this level, see them concede possession on a number of occasions as the visitors show more signs of making the breakthrough.
Following a Gordon Banks-esque save from the Frickley goalkeeper, it is indeed Barwell who break the deadlock two minutes before half time; a defensive error seeing the ball bundled in at the far post and the familiar gloomy hands of relegation begin to work their way around the club’s neck. In the terraces, fans are not shy in voicing their opinions, with the player’s commitment and their understanding of the club’s plight questioned as they trudge through the wire tunnel towards the changing rooms.
Music crackles from the speaker system in the main stand, giving a handful of fans something to listen to as they make their way towards the snack bar and contemplate the effects of a repeat performance in the second half. The odd late supporter clambers through the metal gates next to the turnstiles, avoiding the £9 entry fee but not the bucket collection that makes its way around the ground.
As the half time 50-50 draw winner is announced, the manager rallies his players underneath the main stand and, fortunately for the Blues, they come out of their shells in the second half. The direct balls of the first half have become more controlled and the Barwell defence starts to creak.
The fans, continuously at the referee’s neck, get behind their side and go apoplectic when talismanic striker Gavin Allott is bundled over on the edge of the box. The referee deems the outcome to be a free kick and a yellow card; the abuse he receives for denying the hosts a penalty and not showing a red card to the opposing defender borders on the disgraceful, but this is nothing out of the ordinary for fans who pay their money and say what they like, in true Yorkshire fashion.
Minutes later, another free kick for Frickley on the left hand side is whipped in to the box and defender Sam Denton leaps highest to head home. The fans are quick to deride the opposition goalkeeper and, as if through sheer habit, the referee, who puts up with the constant abuse admirably.
Heartened by the goal, the game bears on and Frickley continue to threaten. Tensions in the crowd fail to improve, however, and they reach boiling point when a Barwell player dares to go down injured, with the Frickley goalkeeping coach leading the furore by making his way directly to the Barwell technical area to discuss the issue. The referee orders him back into his own area, making him tread a familiar path having built himself a reputation for being on the end of disciplinary action in previous years.
As the injured Barwell defender continues to receive treatment on the field, a saliva-laden cry of “Just spit on it and get on!” rings out from the crowd, perfectly typifying the general feeling in an area well used to hardship, and hard work as a tonic.
As the game enters its final minutes, and the 208-strong crowd prepare to go lynching, Frickley grab a winner through attacker Luke Hinsley, and some of the tension inside the stadium finally lifts. After a toothless first half, Frickley are the deserved winners following their second half revival and marginally ease their relegation fears for another day.
Following a final barrage of abuse thrown at the opposition for their apparent underhand tactics and the referee for seemingly ‘buying’ it, the fans shuffle out of the stadium to their cars, leaving behind a ground just barely fit for purpose. Perversely, for all its wear, tear and lack of modernity, it retains a certain wistful charm and a hugely nostalgic atmosphere. The standing terraces, the rotting wood pillars keeping the place upright, and the creaky metal turnstiles that may never have been replaced since their initial installation, make it one of the last remaining examples of a sport we once knew.
If the club do stay up, anything more than another season fighting for survival at this level would be gladly taken by almost anyone involved with the club, as realism takes precedence over ambition. Finances are tight and resources limited, but if the regeneration scheme goes ahead as planned the club might be able to start dreaming of a more prosperous future.
Getting more fans through the turnstiles is one of the key aims, as is finding new revenue streams to keep the club afloat. The attendance of 208 is relative to the club’s standing, but the planned housing estate will hopefully provide Frickley with a more accessible target market, helping to integrate the club into the community more easily. New pitches and facilities as part of the project will also help to bring in more money for the club as well as making it a more attractive proposition for fans and potential sponsors.
Club youth teams have recently been launched too, and they are performing well in their local leagues as the club seeks to build for the future and explore new ways of interacting.The impending improvements to the local area are absolutely fundamental to the club’s future. Without it, the question of how long they can keep this up will continue to stare over them far more than the ghost of the former colliery does, but everyone involved has been hardened by the lack of progress thus far.
Commendable fundraising efforts have been made in the past 18 months and the club are on their way to reaching their own financial target, but until then they will tread familiar ground and continue to do what they do best: survive. And by surviving, a truly unique throwback to football of a bygone era survives with it.