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Exploring local football in Somerset

PUBLISHED: 12:10 14 November 2016 | UPDATED: 12:10 14 November 2016

Cheddar:

Cheddar: "Here was somewhere I could ponder the infinite while gazing at the Mendips"

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Stephen Roberts developed a fondness for local football on a trip to our fair county

Ilminster: Ilminster: "I wouldn't have cared to be anywhere else in those few moments"

I was in Cheddar for a weekend, a romantic break with ‘Mrs Author’ no less. The whispering of tender declarations was interrupted, however, when I spotted football being played in the village. Cheddar FC was at home to some outfit from Wiltshire. Having been granted time off for good behaviour, I set off for Bowden’s Park on the settlement’s outskirts.

You can keep Old Trafford and the rest. Here was somewhere I could ponder the infinite, whilst gazing at the Mendips, which loomed menacingly above the trim hedge down one side of the ground. I used that adverb ‘menacingly’ quite deliberately, for the skies on top of said hills threatened rain.

Cheddar’s match day programme told me the club dated to 1892, when it played at the cricket ground near the onetime railway station and 60 years later it moved to the scene I now breathed in. Unsurprisingly the club is nicknamed ‘The Cheesemen’, the players trot out in bright yellow shirts and paint of the same colour - is liberally applied.

A gent with a tannoy tried to whip the crowd of 69 into a frenzy, offering a free pint of beer for the noisiest fan. I might have been tempted had I not been a teetotaller. I liked it. Everything about the place was friendly. Cheddar won and that rain never came. Perfect.

Some football fans might consider Somerset a ‘backwater’. It has only ever had one Football League side, Yeovil Town, more famous perhaps for a lost, but not forgotten, sloping pitch, and frequent upsetting forays in the FA Cup (upsetting for others that is).

There is more to football though than all-seater stadia, corporate hospitality, TV rights and coloured boots. So, I went on a little tour of Somerset to find out more.

I always thought Wells was a nice place, England’s smallest city, a west-front to die for, Bishop’s Palace, Vicars Close and all that jazz. Here was a club though, which has even more distant antecedents than Cheddar, dating to 1890. The Athletic Ground didn’t disappoint either. A tidy enclosure, with a nice ‘main’ stand full of bench-seats, and a view over surrounding housing. The word ‘traditional’ came to mind. So did ‘homely’.

How many people pair Glastonbury and football in the same sentence? Other things come more readily to mind. I found the home ground of ‘The Dollies’ nowhere near its abbey or festival site. Here was another club dating to 1890. As for ‘The Dollies’, well, my sources tell me this is a reference to festival-hit Dolly Parton, who was incongruously flattered to have a dog named after her, after the poor mutt was abandoned in a ‘Glastonbury’ tent. Truth is stranger than fiction. Just to add to local legends the footie club was originally styled ‘Glastonbury Avalon Rovers’. Of course it was. My circumnavigation of Glastonbury’s delightful Abbey Moor Stadium was made complete when I found an eclectic agglomeration of dugouts, floodlight pylons, advertising hoardings and allotments on the open side. The sun was shining and I felt like helping out with a spade.

Chard: Chard: "The ground has one of the most extreme end-to-end slopes I've ever seen"

Football club nicknames are often easier to work out. Take Street FC, ‘The Cobblers’; what with Quakers, retail outlets, boots and shoes, you’d be living your life in a bubble if you couldn’t work out that particular one. Here was another ground to drool over; the main stand proclaiming ‘Lancelot Windows & Conservatories Ltd’ (yes, King Arthur was big around here once). Someone had been busy with a green paint-pot. The badge on the shed opposite the stand told me we had a club dating to 1880. Where was it all going to end?

At Ilminster I was greeted by late-afternoon sunshine of the ‘good to be alive’ mentality. Shadows lengthened across a picturesque recreation ground, bereft of floodlights, a tell-tale clue that I had descended from local ground to something even more unheralded. A collection of buildings (stand, shed, changing rooms) and an advert for the local ‘Spar’ told me this was keen, lived-in and partaken of. Looking out across the ‘rec’ from the approach road, with birds circling and white clouds puffing, I wouldn’t have cared to be anywhere else for those few moments.

My aspirations to climb mountains receded when I realised I didn’t get on with heights. Visiting Chard Town FC was an interesting experience for the ground (The Dening Sports Field) has one of the most extreme end-to-end slopes I’ve seen. In this friendly environment I sat content in the main stand, feet firmly planted on ‘terra firma’ as I watched players grappling with the physical conundrum of how to ascend to the pitch’s upper quarters, without the aid of climbing ropes, harnesses, carabiners and crampons. Some things are easier to work out though; a team playing in red shirts should be called ‘The Robins’.

Relative newcomers, having been formed in 1920, Chard has one further surprise up its red sleeve. Its match day programme reveals that amongst its life members is a certain ‘G Lineker OBE’.

My excursions around the county took me to other attractive enclosures that I can only make passing reference to. My eldest grandson accompanied me on ‘the Frome trip’, which involved partaking of a ‘Little Chef’, then watching local rivals Frome and Paulton lock horns. Later I went to Paulton, in the heart of what used to be Somerset coal country, and saw the home team entangled with Frome. What goes around comes around. As a neutral, I liked both.

Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. I loved Bitton, well, that was when I worked out how to get inside. It was entirely my fault, but I was stood at the wrong gate for an eternity waiting for it to open. Nobody at the club was even remotely culpable and the pasty I was served at the tea bar was suitably hot and tasty; one of the best (perhaps the best) that I ever had.

When I went to Twerton Park, the home of Bath City, someone budged into me and sent my tea jettisoning all over my treasured match day programme, which transformed itself into an unrecognisable ‘mulch’. It was a potential calamity, which another friendly Somerset club rectified for me; my glob of once and past magazine replaced by not one, but two, pristine substitutes. As I said earlier, Old Trafford you can keep.

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