The gentleman is my maternal grandfather and the little boy is me. We often wandered around Brierley Hill and it's environs at this time. One of the places we would frequently walk past was the Marsh & Baxter slaughterhouse.
Marsh & Baxter was a Black Country institution, providing meat, pies and sausages the locals for the best part of a 100 years. The slaughterhouse, just off Marsh Lane and was a place that, as 5 year old, I had a love-hate relationship with. I found it fascinating but also disturbing because I knew what happened there. To this day I can still remember the smell of the place as you walked past.
Now, Marsh & Baxter no longer exists. It closed down in the early 80's. My grandfather has also, sadly, left us.
However, the Marsh & Baxter works football team still plays, under the banner of Dudley Sports FC in the West Midland Regional League. Their pitch is just a long goal kick from where my grandparents house was, in Silver End.
So, to the point of this meandering tale. Fast forward to today. The little boy in the story is in his fifties and heading towards The Pingles Stadium, Nuneaton for an FA Cup replay between Nuneaton Griff and Dudley Sports.
there is also a large public car park. This is free after 6pm but beware, on a Saturday you will need a ticket even though it is free for 3 hours. The facilities inside the stadium are all on the car park side of the ground. There is a decent sized covered seating stand just to the right as you enter. Just past this stand is the clubhouse, refreshments and toilets. Dugouts are situated on the far side of the ground, opposite the main stand. The playing surface, which looked very flat and in good condition, is surrounded by a running track, so there is a fair distance between supporters and the action. I have to say, I am not a big fan of grounds that have running tracks around them. I like to feel closer to the action and I do think it detracts from the atmosphere somewhat. However, having said that, The Pingles Stadium does have a certain something about it. It's hard to put my finger on what it was but I did feel that it had more character than I was expecting.
It didn't take too long for the game to spark to life. Griff conceded a free-kick, centrally, about 25 yards out. Dominic Strevens drove the ball in and, when home keeper Andy Needham spilled it, Tom Watkins was on hand to stroke the ball home.
As it happened, this was probably the only time that Needham was called into action in the first half. From the fifth minute onwards, the game was dominated by Griff, certainly in terms of possession. However, the Dudley side worked tirelessly to defend their lines. Captain Watkins and Curtis Cocking in midfield were terrier-like in their tackling with Luike Williams and Jamie Parker solid at the back. Jack Colley and Tom Bates were always an attacking threat for Griff and John Russell (who oddly has the same nickname as his opponents today, Pieman) kept the Dudley defence on their toes.
At half-time it was still Nuneaton Griff 0 Dudley Sports 1 but it was clear that this one was by no means over.
The second half started in pretty much the same manner as the first. Just two minutes in and a slip in the Griff defence allowed Strevens to play in his strike partner Mark Gore. He calmly rounded the keeper and finished with some style to put Sports two goals in front. Even at 0-2 though the game was far from decided. As I heard a Sports supporter say, the next goal would be the most important. If Sports nicked another then it would be game over, if Griff were to pull one back it would be an entirely different kettle of fish.
The second half continued to follow the same pattern as the first half. Griff playing some neat football and trying to push the Sports defence backwards. However, the Sports engine room of Cocking and Watkins was having none of it. Gore and Strevens up front were also a constant threat and were willing to chase anything down. It was turning into an intriguing tie in which I don't think I have seen a team work as hard as Sports for a long time. Griff were, in my opinion, the better footballing side but, as I tweeted, they were being out-fought across the entire pitch.
To their credit Griff never gave up trying and as the game wore on it was clear to see that the pressing game that Dudley were playing was beginning to take it's toll on their legs.
The decisive moment came in the 81st minute. A Griff player drove into the Sports penalty area and threw himself to the ground in the pursuit of a penalty. The referee, quite rightly, waved play on but as the ball broke loose a Griff player brought it under control and was pushed in the back by a Sports defender. Penalty given. I must admit I thought it looked harsh at the time but, having seen a video clip from another angle, I think the official did call it correctly.
Russell stepped up and, despite Sidaway getting something on it, pulled a goal back for The Heartlanders.
The goal seemed to sap even more strength from the Dudley legs and Griff started to pile on the pressure, looking for the elusive equaliser. It looked as if they were just going to fall short until the 92nd minute when a right-wing corner was met by Matt Brennan as the near post. The ball flew past Sidaway and into the net. 2-2 and there was barely enough time to restart before the referee blew for the end of the 90 minutes.
Into extra-time and it was now Sports who were hanging in there. Griff, boosted by the late equaliser, had their tails up and were looking to go on and win the tie. Russell smashed a volley against the Sports bar before, with three minutes to go until half-time in extra-time, the ball was hooked back into the Sports box. Brennan ran onto the pass and drilled the ball past Sidaway to give Griff the lead for the first time.
At this point it looked like Sports were finished. They had run themselves into the ground and going behind after being two goals to the good looked like it had finally sunk them.
However, with time running out, Sports earned a free-kick some 20-odd yards out. Up stepped Adam Skeldon who curled an absolute beauty over the wall and into the corner of Needham's net. A superb strike at any level of football. Sports had somehow managed to drag themselves level and it was looking like penalties were going to be required. Sure enough, there was no more scoring and the teams congregated on halfway for the penalty shoot-out.
We were treated to a display of excellent penalty taking with both sides scoring their first 5 spot-kicks. Griff;s sixth penalty, however, clipped the bar and went over leaving Sports the opportunity to win it. The duly took the chance and went through 6-5 on penalties.
As a neutral, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of football. I'll confess to having a soft spot for both of these sides now. Neither gave up. Both had an amazing desire to win the game. It was a shame that there had to be a loser.
At a fiver to get in, this is exactly what non-league football is about. Value for money and two football teams trying their utmost to win a game. What a great advert for the game. If you get a chance get down to The Pingles or Hillcrest Avenue (Dudley's home ground). You won't be disappointed.
Nuneaton Griff - @nuneatongriff
Dudley Sports - @dudleysportsfc