Jane Stuart – Writer

Writing about real life Up North: football, ale, food and mental health – with a good dash of humour.

Colne v Pontefract Collieries: Cold Hands, Warm Hearts

It was (don’t) touch and go this week whether we were allowed to go to a midweek match, with new lockdown measures announced on Monday. Happily, nothing was announced to stop us, so we hastily made plans to visit Colne.

I have been to Colne twice previously – once Hotpotting and once with Chase – and fell in love with the place. It is the most beautiful part of the country – and the locals are so friendly. I really wanted to share this secret corner of Lancashire with Lee.

Alas the weather was not kind to us today. I received word that it was raining in Colne, so we made sure we packed the disco brolly. I asked Alexa for the weather forecast and she said temperatures would drop to 6C. Hmm. I knew Colne’s ground was exposed and at the top of a hill, so we made sure we were well wrapped up.

Dear reader, as we turned off the motorway into rural East Lancashire, we found ourselves in Autumn. The leaves on the trees were such beautiful colours and many of them were already fluttering down onto the ground. I was sure it hadn’t been Autumn back home. It truly was a different climate here.

We drove out to Wycoller because I wanted to show Lee just how beautiful it was. Sadly, the views were restricted by clouds and heavy rain. Nor did we fancy parking up at the deserted (closed) Wycoller Country Park car park and walking down bepuddled country lanes in a downpour in search of fairy doors. We really must return on a sunny day for the full effect of the beauty of East Lancashire.

As we drove back into Colne, I pointed out the hills I’d crawled up and almost died, the Trawden B&B I stayed in on my first visit, the magnificent chippy, various pubs and the Muni, where I’d been to see the Hotpots. We soon found ourselves driving uphill to Holt House, home of Colne FC.

We had made a point of getting here before sunset; alas the views here were also tempered by the weather. Undeterred, we headed into the ground and focussed our attention on the match at hand.

After being held hostage by the gatekeeper for several minutes while he waited for Martin to arrive and vouch for our presence, I left Lee to his filming, while I took my customary stroll around the ground.

Holt House is a wonderfully-quirky little ground. Behind one goal is a large terrace covered by a low roof. In the far corner there are two little huts. The first one hadn’t been there on my last visit, so I stopped by for questioning. My investigations revealed that this was a pop up bar. The clubhouse was only small, so social distancing would have rendered it impractical. Instead, supporters can safely purchase drinks outdoors from this little hut (formerly a storeroom).

The second little hut was the refreshment kiosk, from which the most wonderful aroma was emanating.

‘Mmm that smells amazing. What is it that smells so good?’

‘Food.’

No shit! I had been kind of hoping for a ‘Oh that’s our prize-winning burgers – they’re really popular here and got voted the best in the Northern Premier League last season. Would you like one? With cheese? Jack Daniels onions?’

I turned my attention to the extensive menu.

‘Ooh chips and gravy please!’

The man walked off to the other end of the spacious kiosk. Left alone for a few minutes while my food cooked, I looked around for sweets and was delighted to see a choice of three types of Haribo. Result! I had time to calculate how much my food came to and counted out the correct change. Top tip: Never go to a non league football ground without cash because you never know if they are going to accept cards or not. Indeed I wasn’t sure the signal would be conducive to card readers all the way up here at the top of a hill in the rain.

‘Salt and vinegar?’

‘Yes please. Can I have a bag of Haribo as well please?’

‘Help yourself.’

‘Oh! Er…’

‘Now let’s see. That comes to…’

I handed him £3.50 and returned to the shelter of the terrace. Here, I sat down and tucked into my chips and gravy.

They were more fries than chips and the gravy tasted vinegary. The vinegar had been applied after the gravy and that had been a mistake. I should have said no to the vinegar. Lesson learned.

Next stop was the ladies for the customary loo review.

The battle with the paper towel dispenser was real. A hand drier would have been wonderful to counter the cold water. On the positive side, Colne do have plans to move to a new 5,000-seater stadium on the adjacent land, so I expect we will see a marked improvement in facilities in the not-too-distant-future.

Now it was time for further investigation of the bar kiosk. This was run by a very friendly couple who were perfectly happy to entertain my idiosyncrasies. I think one of the reasons I love non league football so much is because of the quirkiness of its people (amongst numerous other quirks). I fit in here. These are my people. There are no pretensions.

I was delighted to be presented with my drink in a Colne FC beaker.

‘It’s £2 for the beaker but, if you bring it back, we’ll give you your £2 back.’

‘Ooh I feel like I’m at the German market!’

‘You don’t have to bring it back. A lot of people like to keep them.’

‘Oh I’ll definitely be keeping this. It’s ace! Are they dishwasher safe, do you know?’

‘Er…we’ve never been asked that before. Er…maybe it says on the bottom? Will you be coming back?’

‘Well we’re sort of groundhopping, so I’m not sure when…’

‘I was going to say, try it in the dishwasher and, if it melts into a strange shape, we’ll replace it with another one.’

Dear reader, I’m delighted to report that it survived the dishwasher! I went onto the manufacturer’s website – Green Goblet – which confirmed their products are indeed dishwasher-safe. Result!

There was a small wooden stand at the side of the pitch, just before the dugouts. I loved this stand so much! The wood was much more comfortable to stand on than concrete; there were spider’s webs in the corners, glistening with raindrops; the roof was askew. It was so non league and so wonderful.

As I walked behind the goal at the far end, the fence grew higher and higher and I found myself unable to see the pitch. What was going on here? Was this shrinking potion I was drinking? Dear reader, there is quite a slope on the pitch at Holt House, owing to the ground being atop a hill. I guess this corner must be slightly downhill…

On the other side of the ground was the clubhouse, closed to the general public tonight for social-distancing reasons. I was happy to remain outdoors. I was sufficiently wrapped up and warm inside from my chips and gravy. Plus I do feel safer outdoors these days.

Completing my circuit of the ground, I stopped to say hello to the resident Non League Dog.

I caught up with Lee just before kick-off. I gave him my fingerless gloves as his hands were freezing, exposed as they were to the cold air as he was filming all evening. I hadn’t thought I would be needing gloves but hadn’t accounted for Colne being in Autumn (feels like Winter).

The match was a corker! Colls took the lead straight away – but Colne fought back relentlessly – and were 4-1 up by half time. This was great stuff!

As is the norm at half time, I paid another visit to the ladies. I do this whether I need to or not, to ensure I am comfortable during the second half. However, tonight, this had the opposite effect. My hands were now freezing. I reached into my handbag for my hand sanitiser and applied it in the hope that the motion would warm up my hands. It didn’t. I began to wonder if heated hand sanitiser was a thing. If it’s not, it should be. A quick Amazon search revealed nothing of the sort.

The atmosphere in the covered stand behind the goal (at the top of the hill) was brilliant. The Colne fans sang their hearts out and had some cracking catchy chants, which you can implant in your ear by watching Lee’s video of the night:

The game finished 6-2 to Colne. What a refreshing change from watching Blackpool! I love these midweek non league interludes so much and hope to continue them even when we are allowed back to Bloomfield Road. This is real football with real people. People like me.

At non league I can interview dogs without being told ‘don’t touch the dog’ (I’ll never forgive you for that, Rotherham).

At non league I can stand on a terrace and drink beer while I watch the match. I’m not rushed into drinking at a particular time, then told where I must sit.

At non league I have access to all areas of the ground and am not penned in to a designated area, surrounded by stewards and police ensuring I don’t cross the boundary.

At non league Lee is welcomed in with his camera and clubs are delighted with the free publicity that his videos provide, with chairmen and managers alike (even Chris Kirkland tonight!) happy to be interviewed. He is not simply tolerated or asked to stop filming and threatened with a banning order from officious stewards.

At non league every ground is different and has such character; they are not soulless stadiums.

At non league if you want refreshments or need the loo, you don’t need to queue for the entirety of half time.

At non league, the players are there because they want to be there and the manager wants them there. Few are contracted – and few earn more than a peppercorn fee for playing. They play because they want to play football. And there is something refreshing about that.

Dear reader, if you haven’t been to watch your local non league team yet – what on earth are you waiting for? They need you more than ever right now. Right. Now. Please give them a chance. You might just end up falling in love…

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