The Wrong 3 O'clock
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
It’s 3 o’clock on Saturday. The first league game of the season. The first league game since March, in fact. In non-league football, where social distancing isn’t generally a problem for spectators, fans have been allowed back inside grounds. Saturday, 3 o’clock. After the last few months this is the stuff of dreams for football fans, isn’t it?
Well, it could be, but this happens to be the wrong 3 o’clock. In the eerie small hours of Saturday I’m standing outside Ingfield, home of Northern Premier League Division One club, Ossett United. Fellow members of the supporters’ club are readying themselves for the first away game. Recent tradition has seen the hardy Ossett lads and lasses walk to the first opponents' ground for charity. Our opponents are Mossley, some 30 miles away over hill and dale on the other side of the Pennines. As we brace ourselves for the hike we thank our lucky stars. After all, it could have been worse. The fixture generator could have thrown Workington at us, in which case we would have needed to set off a week ago!
This year’s walk is in support of two causes, with 50% of proceeds going to Andy’s Man Club, a mental health charity providing spaces across the country for men to talk about their problems, the lack of which is said to be a contributing factor to high suicide rates amongst young men in the UK. The other half of the proceeds would help fund away travel for the club.
If you would like to contribute, please follow this link: https://www.gofundme.com/f/ousc-annual-away-game-charity-walk
Fundraising is nothing new in non-league and certainly not alien to Ossett. There are eight of us setting off from Ingfield in the darkness. Luke and Chris are the walk organisers, both Ossett Albion prior to that club’s merger with local rivals Ossett Town in 2018, now passionately involved in the resulting United and its Supporters’ Club. “We used to run the bar at Albion,” Luke tells me, “and often we’d give the bar takings straight to the manager after the game, trying to scrape together enough money to pay the players.” Chris adds, “The financial challenges we’ve overcome at Ossett United would have sent many clubs two or three levels higher than us out of business. The fans have pulled us through. I’m not sure how we’d cope though without constant financial peril!”
In 2018 the directors of Ossett’s two clubs came together in the belief that the town would always struggle with two clubs in Step Four, proposing to build one unified, well-supported and competitive community football club without a wealthy benefactor. It is safe to say that the two years since then have been a rollercoaster in this part of West Yorkshire. A colourful first season at Ingfield, formerly home to Town in the centre of Ossett, featured crowds sometimes in excess of 600 (far greater than the previous clubs could manage), crisp and attractive branding, the promotion play-offs, an unforgettable West Riding County Cup Final victory against Guiseley at Ingfield in front of 1,100 fans, followed by resignations at board level and the legacy of considerable debt for the new board. The new incumbents cut their cloth accordingly during last season’s second campaign and, although United struggled on the playing side, things were approaching an even keel before the next bombshell. A now much-publicised court case found the club liable to the tune of £20,000 in damages and a further £135,000 in legal costs for the broken ankle suffered by Reece Welsh when playing for Radcliffe Borough against Ossett Town in 2015 prior to the merger. Recovering from this setback, coupled with the impact of the Coronavirus, has only been possible thanks to colossal support from fans and the surrounding community.
As we head through the darkness towards Dewsbury along the Greenway, a former railway line converted for walkers and cyclists, I quiz the only couple walking, Jon and Becky, about their motives for supporting United. Jon, one of the club’s photographers, to whom I’m grateful for the accompanying images, had been to one Town game, then decided to follow the merged club from the beginning. “I don’t even like football!”, Becky tells me. She came along to a game, then became hooked. In non-league the closeness of the players, management and directors with the fans forms a bond and a passion that, once triggered, is pretty hard to shift.
Along with Chris and Luke the other pacesetter in the party is Liam, a half-marathon running machine. Then there’s Rich, who won the Supporters’ Club quiz last night. Instead of going home Richard kipped for a couple of hours on a sofa in the ‘Can Bar’ until the start of the walk. We might be called United but this isn’t Old Trafford! Mark is a seasoned walker with a similar story to me in that he came along to watch his new local team. That team happened to be United, not Town or Albion. Joining us at Marsden for the toughest terrain over the Pennines will be Dave, for whom again it was really the merged club that excited the imagination. A football club can help galvanise a community, even more so in tough times like the one we are living through right now.
“Get on the f***ing kerb,” screams an angry early morning cyclist at Luke as we approach Mirfield on an otherwise empty road. Poor Luke would be accosted again before long, but for now the chatter stops. Hopton Lane, a never-ending climb up into the countryside, is a shock to the system. With daylight breaking as we descend to the next town, a man aimlessly wandering the streets asks what we are doing. “Walking for charity,” is Luke’s response. “You’re not walking for charity! You’re walking because you’re a fat bastard!” came the uncharitable reply. Welcome to Huddersfield.
The towpath of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is a delight for walkers and cyclists, with natural life in abundance, beautiful houses with manicured lawns stretching down to the water. Struggling with my 50 year old hips around Slawit (otherwise known as Slaithwaite to BBC local news reporters) I decide to leave the group after 20 miles at Marsden, completing my journey with a 7 minute rail ride through Standedge Tunnel to Mossley rather than a 10 mile slog over Marsden Moor. Then a second wind miraculously blows and I decide, “What the hell. It’s a good cause. In for a penny, in for a pound!”
Old Mount Road, climbing out of Marsden into the Pennine wilderness, would be the most relentless, unforgiving incline of the day. The amazing views of Butterley Reservoir to the left are scant comfort. Leaving the road for the heather, we saunter past Redbrook Reservoir towards Lancashire and the place Luke had described as nothing less than the promised land, a place after which everything would be okay. A place called Diggle. Our vital support at several stages along the route, Ossett Town Juniors Secretary Debbie, is waiting at Luke’s promised land, car packed with refreshments, bandages and pizzas to send us on our merry way down the canal towpath to Mossley.
“Why is the last mile the hardest mile? My throat was dry with the sun in my eye,” crooned that moody Manc Morrissey once. Having abandoned his punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate, I imagine mardy old Mozzer also experienced the unending, torturous uphill drag from the canalside at Greenfield to Mossley. After 30 miles my feet are now scraping the pavement, every step onto a kerb a herculean effort. Finally, finally, is that a mirage or is it the Commercial Hotel in the distance? It’s thankfully the latter, the end of the walk. My feet tap dance to the bar, where a pint or three of Hopmeister begin to soothe the aches.
Onto the game. Yes, there is a game taking place today, a further mile up a steep hill at Mossley’s lovely Seel Park. Whilst the other walkers manage it, that hill would have been the end of me. Thankfully a car comes to an abrupt halt next to the pub and out jumps Aiden “Chippy” Chippendale, scorer of Ossett United’s second goal in that West Riding Cup Final and fan favourite to the extent that there used to be a beer in the clubhouse named after him. Chippy’s new club, Colne, didn’t have a game, so he had decided to come and watch the club he still clearly remembers fondly. “Jump in. I’ll take you up to the ground,” generously offers the skilful ex-Ossett winger. On the short journey uphill Chippy explains that he can barely watch the Premiership, loving non-league instead for its close community spirit. And giving a lift to a knackered stranger because of a mutual love encapsulates everything that is very great about non-league. Thanks mate.
Seel Park is one of my favourite grounds, even if it isn’t a happy hunting ground for Ossett. It’s a place oozing with old school non-league charm, with a couple of lovely old stands framed by the Pennine hills. United’s first visit two seasons ago ended with an FA Cup replay defeat by penalty shoot-out. Last season’s league game saw Ossett heading for a rare away win before clutching defeat from the jaws of victory. When the right 3 o’clock finally arrives, this season’s fixture sees Mossley dominate, applying pressure with and without the ball, harrying and generally not allowing United to play the football that they had shown pre-season. The Mossley pressure pays off and in truth, as I crawl behind the goal to plonk my aching bones on the terraces for the second half, it’s a relief to be just one goal behind. The second half is more open, but soon Mossley score again. Although Ossett gradually come back into the game as it progresses, we just don’t quite reproduce any of that recent fluent football and chances are scarce. The game passes by in a bit of a blur. I’m not sure whether it is fatigue or the Hopmeister. Maybe it’s a mixture of the two. I don’t know. What I do know is that we are made very welcome by the Mossley fans, some of whom approach us to donate to the charity.
Outside the ground we walkers gather to collect our gear and make our way to the station for the journey home when Ossett manager Wayne Benn emerges into the car park. Honest and forthright as always, Benno tells it like it is. “You should have heard it in there after the game. I told them there are people out there who’ve walked 30 miles to be here today. And this is how you repay them!” That closeness, the community. What we love about non-league football again encapsulated in a scene on a late summer’s day in the Pennine hills. Forget your prawn sandwiches. Win, lose or draw, this is the beautiful game.
“Are you not walking back?” shouts one Mossley fan in jest, “You’ve only done half the job!”
Thanks to Jon Hunt Photography for the great images and to Keith Wood for getting up at silly o’clock to take the day's first photograph outside Ingfield. Thanks to Debbie for the support vehicle and catering. Thanks also to Sandra’s Cabbage Patch and Best Kebab Ossett for the food that kept us moving.
If you would like to contribute to our charity walk fund, please follow this link