Darwen 2 Runcorn Town 2 (12th November 2017)
Football fans can be an absurdly nostalgic and sentimental bunch. Little more so than regarding the early years of football, where fans have a strange attachment to the early pioneers of the game, especially those now departed from the limelight. There’s just something evocative about those old names.
It explains the joy many had when Accrington Stanley returned to the Football League, boosted by the mistaken belief held by many that Accrington Stanley were founder members of the Football League (that was Accrington FC – Stanley were a completely separate club who formed while Accrington were still in the league). It was also the reason why a trip to Darwen, League members from 1891 to 1899, was a decent option on a weekend that admittedly wasn’t overflowing with alternatives. Even their painfully predictable decision to follow modern phoenix club convention and add AFC to the start of their name, after reforming after folding in 2006, didn’t detract much from the idea of travelling four hours to see a match in the 9th level of the English league system.
OK, this isn’t the same ground at which Darwen played league football all those years ago, but it’s not far off. Darwen moved from their old Barley Bank ground, apparently taking their old main stand with them, to their current Anchor Ground in 1899, presumably for the first season out of the Football League.
I’ve no idea how long the old main stand lasted, but it’s clearly not at the Anchor Ground now. Instead one side looks more like a terracing to seats conversion, with seats built up on stacks of bricks, and often made into little enclosures. Part of this covered side is still terracing, as if they ran out of bricks, or just the will to carry on adding more seats.
Next to this stand is the club bar – small but very smart – with a balcony at the front providing a popular elevated viewing spot. The rest of the ground is just a few steps of open terrace on three sides, with the steps high enough to offer the hint of a view. Shipping containers served as changing room for the players and officials, tucked away in one corner. The remnant of what looks like on old toilet block behind one terrace is fenced off, and full of junk.
What makes a trip to grounds in this part of the world a pleasure though is the views of the hills all around. Looming over the ground, and the Town of Darwen in general, is Darwen Hill, 372m high, and topped off with the Darwen Tower. Opened in 1898 for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, it would have offered tourists with very good eyesight a free view of Darwen’s last League season. Given that Darwen’s 1898/99 season set a professional league record of 18 consecutive defeats, this probably wasn’t as good a deal as it might have seemed. Paying to get in that year, even less so. Darwin’s season average crowd of 1225 was the league’s worst by some distance, and exactly half of the average of the next lowest club.
While nowhere near as bad, Darwen’s current NW Counties League season wasn’t going too well, with them currently in the relegation zone. Not that you’d have known it from the league table printed in the matchday programme, which had magicked a third win of the season out of thin air, and chalked off a defeat, to push them up to 17th place.
Runcorn Town, on the other hand, were top of the table, correctly, and came to the Anchor Ground, with a fair-sized travelling contingent, having won fourteen of their fifteen games so far. They’d also signed a new goalkeeper, although his Runcorn Town career didn’t get off to the best start. Five minutes in, and Darwen hit a shot from the edge of the area. It was going for the top of the net, but should still have been a routine save. The keeper got both hands to it, but only pushed it upwards rather than away. He then turned in horror to see it dropping into the net to give Darwen an unexpected lead.
A pitch inspection earlier in the day had passed the pitch playable after overnight rain, but had a prefix of “just about” been added, it would have been fair. It wasn’t waterlogged, but its softness did in parts resemble a peat bog enough to make you suspect that a sliding tackle might unearth the preserved remains of an iron-age Lancastrian. Whether such a pitch is a “great leveller”, as the cliché insists, is open to debate, but what is sure is that Darwen looked the better side for much of the match. Runcorn Town barely threatened in the first half, and Darwen should probably have gone in at half time more than a goal ahead.
If there was any sense of regretting those missed opportunities, they were dispelled a bit by Darwen yet again getting an early goal in the 2nd half, hitting a shot though a crowd of players to give the home side a very unexpected 2-0 lead. A female Runcorn Town fan had been overheard saying that Runcorn are notoriously slow starters, and often give teams a lead before coming back to win, but this would be a test today, based on what they’d shown so far.
Luckily for them, a needless challenge of the edge of the area gave them a lifeline just five minutes later, with the spot-kick given the Darwen keeper little chance.
This sparked a period of understandable pressure from the away side, and it wasn’t much of a shock that they levelled just ten minutes later. A cross from the right was put in, high across the keeper and into the far corner, to level things up a 2-2.
The formbook would surely have dictated that Runcorn Town would now push on to claim all three points, but it didn’t happen. In fact the rest of the game was pretty even, even if the away side did perhaps have the better chances to win the game. Perhaps the best was another shot from distance, but this one, with the diving keeper beaten, went safely the wrong side of the post.
One thing that did happen was that it got more than a tad nippy, as well as pretty dark. Getting dark at this time of year isn’t unusual, but the Darwen floodlight’s were probably not the league’s best, and produced some of the worst dark patches during a game I’ve seen since I was a kid, and tried “floodlighting” my Subbuteo pitch with a couple of torches.
As the gloom deepened, so did the mood of some of the Runcorn Town travelling support, none too happy that an expected three points would not be taking the trip home with them to Cheshire, with a few of the women making some of the more choice comments up by the balcony. The final whistle blew, handshakes all round, and various “well done, lads” types comments from fans towards the players as they made their way to their packing crate changing rooms.
In contrast a female with a Scouse accent loudly added her opinion of “load of shite!” into the night air, on the way out. It’s probably safe to say I enjoyed it rather more than she did.