Sunday 19th February 2017, Staffordshire Ladies Challenge Cup Semi-Final
I'd been convinced by Daz to stay on in Stoke for an extra day and catch the FA Vase quarter-final game between Bromsgrove Sporting and Buckland Athletic on my way back down to Bristol. This was of particular interest as Bromsgrove were the side that knocked my beloved Bristol Manor Farm out of the competition and Buckland are a fellow Western League side. We were just about to leave to the house when I noticed on Twitter that the game was an all-ticket affair and Bromsgrove had sold-out all 3000 tickets, unheard of for an FA Vase clash! Under pressure to find an alternative for the afternoon we turned to the local fixture pages and one in particular jumped out at us because, let's face it, it's not everyday you get to see a team play it's own reserves in a competitive fixture.
Stoke and their reserves had both entered the competition in it's second round, with the ressies beating Brereton Town 4-0 and Goldenhill Wanderers 5-1 while the firsts overcame Florence Ladies 11 (eleven)-0 followed by seeing off Sporting Khalsa 6-0. A cruel twist of fate allowed the ressies to be drawn against the firsts in this the semi-final, which I'm sure must be one of the biggest possible psychological disadvantages possible for a team. Just imagine it: 'Who are we playing in the next round?' 'That team none of us were good enough to get into.' 'Oh, right...' *tugs collar*. However entered into with the right frame of mind there wouldn't be many better opportunities for the ressie girls to stake a claim for first team inclusion. Stoke play in the Women's Premier League, which weirdly is the third level of English women's football.
A big draw for going to this game was the fact that Stoke play at the ground of former Smallthorne-based Northern Premier League club Norton United. Despite being quite a big player in the local non-league scene Norton went bust in 2015 leaving Community Drive, owned by Norton Cricket Club & Miners Welfare Institute, without a club. This allowed Stoke to move on from their previous arrangement where they were sharing with Stone Dominoes and set up shop at a place of their own.
Community Drive is quite a hodge-podge collection of structures that I'll try and briefly describe to the best of my ability. When approaching the ground you'll need to ignore the cricket club entrance and walk down a narrow path between the clubhouse and some walled mini football pitches. There you will find the turnstiles, next to the other much older looking, rusted, fenced-off turnstiles. There are a few instances like this that remind you this is a ground in transition, from a ramshackle disused refreshments hut behind the floodlight nearest the entrance to the Norton United insignia that can still be spotted in various places.
Once you're in the ground there's a raised path that stretches along much of one side of the pitch. It has railing so is clearly meant to be a vantage point but some of the view is obscured by the stand below. Next to this is a large dark red prefab-looking building which I assume serves as the changing rooms as it has a fenced-off set of stairs from it to the pitch. Along from this again sitting quite aloof from the rest of the ground on it's own little part of the grass verge is what looks like the executive
Underneath this verge is a covered stand with a couple of rows of seats and some standing. I've never seen so many pillars on a small corrugated shed before but safety first I guess. Behind the goal is just plain old concrete hard standing but there is another covered standing area opposite the entrance side. The club didn't seem to want people going round the perimeter any further than this as the path stops abruptly at the end of this sheltered area and the fence around the steps to the changing room prohibits going any further on the other side. The ground is in need of sprucing up here and there but with four strong-looking floodlights, decent hospitality features and a good amount of space for punters Community Drive ought to allow Stoke to push on as far as their ability permits.
The game kicked-off and we made the assumption that Stoke were playing in their famous red and white stripes while the reserves were playing in the sky blue away kit. For a long time Daz and I were confused by the fact that the team in red and white looked somewhat hesitant and timid off the ball until a kindly woman standing next to us leaned over and told us that in fact the reserves were playing in the home kit and vice-versa, leaving us to feel a bit silly.
With my only previous taste of women's club football being WSL 2 side Yeovil Town Ladies, I wasn't sure what the standard was going to be like today. That quandary was put to bed early on as Summer Holmes chested a wayward ball forward down mid run and played a through ball for Kate Asher, who hopped over a sliding tackle before slotting it into the bottom corner. Evidently it was going to be decent.
Holmes was at it again just before the half-hour mark, netting one of her own on her debut for the club and Harriet Wellings added another bit of quality as she collected the ball on the edge of the box, dribbled past a defender and lobbed the ball over the keeper and into the net. 3-0 to the firsts at half-time.
In search of a piss and some hair of the dog, I wandered off back towards the entrance. Community Drive has the smallest toilets I've ever seen at a public venue. I opened the door, took one step in and was immediately in the personal space of a gentleman making use of the one urinal. I decided to wait until he'd finished before attempting to get past him in the limited space between him and the back wall and risk a costly mid-stream jostle. Instead I had to shuffle past awkwardly while he washed his hands. I decided to go into the pitch-black cubicle to avoid facing this problem again and nearly hit Daz in the face with the door on the way out. There you go folks, an entire paragraph about me going for a piss. Please remember to subscribe.
I went into the club house and ordered two pints of Worthington's in plastic cups only to find Daz doesn't like Worthington's because he's a shit northerner. It was fine though as the cheery gal behind the bar assured us it wouldn't go to waste as she was partial to a good cream flow on duty. We chatted to her for a while and she provided a much-needed dose of that familiar Stoke-on-Trent joviality after yesterday's fracas. In the clubhouse we noticed there was another women's team playing a game on the cricket pitch but I didn't think I'd get away with claiming another tick off of this.
Back out for the second half and we'd barely returned to our spots by the time Ashley Hayes had smashed in the first team's fourth goal from distance in the 49th minute. Willowy left winger Anne-Marie Atherton set Hayes up for her second in the 58th, receiving the ball in space and beating a defender mid-run before floating the ball into the 6-yard box for Hayes to chip in for the first team's fifth goal of the afternoon. The firsts completed their rout 8 minutes away from full time as Hayes dinked the ball over the heads of three defenders for Asher to latch onto in the box and slot home for six.
If Stoke City Ladies go on to lift the trophy again this season it will be the ninth consecutive year that they have done, so I don't think their reserves should be too gutted about today by any means. They'll face either Norton Athletic Firsts or Sporting Khalsa Development in the final on the 14th of March, so go along if you're in the area for what should be a decent clash. For me though it was time to say my goodbyes to Daz and head back to the west country.