Midland Football Alliance, 31st January 2009

This article first appeared in Issue 1 of If I Hadn’t Seen Such Riches. You can order your copy here.

Straight off the bat, let’s get one thing straight. I’m not a groundhopper, nor have I ever been (sadly, we all know what’s going to end up happening eventually). But going to university in Leicester did present the opportunity to *ahem* visit a few new grounds.

I spent most of my time in LE2 watching Oadby Town in the Midland Alliance. My presence clearly brought them good fortune, as in my three seasons there, they finished 19th, 14th and 22nd. In the three years after I moved back down south, they finished 3rd, 4th and eventually 1st, losing one game all season and scoring 159 goals.

But on the 31st of January 2009, Oadby were without a game – probably rained off. A quick look at the fixtures revealed a few survivors, one of which was Coalville Town v Market Drayton, a mere half hour drive away. My mind was made up: up the A6 we’d go (I’d managed to convince a housemate this would be a good idea too). Then our hangovers kicked in. It was freezing out, we’d only had a few hours sleep and the idea of setting off on a polar expedition to some far flung northern mining town was seemed god awful.
But set off we did, and we were handsomely rewarded.

I didn’t have great expectations from a town called ‘Coalville’. But growing up listening to dance music shows on Radio 1, there was almost always a mention for club nights at The Emporium in Coalville. In my head, The Emporium was the home of trance. Its main club night, PaSSion (not sure why the ‘SS’ was capitalised), was famous the world over, and every week, people would travel across continents to visit this mecca of lights and lasers.

Never meet your heroes kids. In all honesty, I’d forgotten all about PaSSion and The Emporium, until our drive into the town reached a roundabout. It had a Whetherspoons on one corner, a Domino’s pizza on another, and on the third corner, in all its glory… what can only be described a big house with its windows covered in concrete. This couldn’t be it, surely? I was now old enough and had been to enough clubs to know that most are a far cry from the superclubs you see on TV. But this was the world famous Emporium! Housemate didn’t share my disappointment, so rather than ask strangers in town what had happened, it was on to Owen Street for a top of the table clash.

I know us southerners are considered ‘soft’ (and probably rightly so), but this was one of the most eye-opening and memorable games I’ve ever been to.

Typical occupations for southern non-league footballers: personal trainer, PE teacher, suit. Typical occupations for northern non-league footballers: lumberjack, welder, miner.

I’d never seen such a collection of burley, barrel chested men. And that was just the crowd. On the pitch, there was no fancy coloured boots, no gloves and no skin-tight Nike base layers. Both teams looked like they’d been playing in the same Prostar kits since 1992. This was no place for a hungover student from London. We positioned ourselves between the two dugouts. With one blow of the referee’s whistle, the mayhem began.

We’ve all seen aggro at games. Handbags with 22 men shouting “hold me back” and “come on then, what you gonna do?” but this was a whole different affair.

With more mud than grass on the pitch, the slide tackles were flying in from the off. Chances were few and far between in the first half, but there’d been a handful of bookings with just 20 minutes played. It looked like we’d just about get to half time with a full complement of players, when something kicked off miles from the ball, and both benches emptied, following every player into a huge scuffle. One bloke ran in windmilling. Properly windmilling. Like a kung-fu cartoon.

Market Drayton were reduced to 10, but only a booking for Coalville. Clearly they were used to riots like these. Nothing to see here, get on with it lads.

I don’t remember much of the actual football played, but if we thought the first half was dirty, the second half was something else. We had a prime view of the slagging match between the two benches that was relentless for the full 90 minutes. One of the Market Drayton management kept shouting “do you want a polo mate?” to one of his opposite number, and to this day, I’ve no idea what that insult was supposed to mean. It must be a northern thing. In any case, it’s not really something I’ve wanted to google.

Market Drayton were soon down to 9 men after their centre forward put a reducer in on a Coalville player, meaning both players had to leave the pitch. The former only given a second yellow rather than a straight red, and the latter carried off on a stretcher.

Coalville made the most of their numerical advantage, taking the lead midway through the half. More yellow cards followed, but the remaining 20 players managed to stay on the field. And the 9 men of Market Drayton were almost rewarded in the last minute, when they hit the bar and two good chances saved. But Coalville went straight up the other end and made it 2-0, sparking some of the most euphoric celebrations I’ve ever seen. There was only 100-odd there, but it felt like 1,000. It just about wiped my hangover away. Driving back, we knew what we’d just seen was something special.

Market Drayton went onto win the league by eight points. Coalville finished third, a further nine points behind. I went back to Coalville to watch them play Oadby in the FA Vase a few years later. Oadby lost, and it was altogether a far more civilised affair than when Market Drayton came to town.

PaSSion, I’m delighted to discover, is still running monthly club nights. I’ve still not been.