Bilston Town have played at Queen Street since 1919. It features what I would say is an iconic orange cage-style fence around about a third of the ground, presumably to prevent stray balls landing in the middle of the adjacent, busy Black Country Route. This is the reason I use the word iconic. Anyone who has driven between Dudley and the M6 will have seen the structure, you can't miss it. I'm pretty certain it is a unique feature of a football ground. (Maybe the power of the internet will prove me wrong?). The ground is situated to the East of Bilston town centre in the Lunt district. Access into the ground is through a double gate which allows both pedestrian and vehicle access. Cars can be parked inside the ground but there is also plenty of parking on the surrounding streets. In fact, you can park immediately outside the ground on a match day. The main stand, which straddles the halfway line on the Queen Street side of the ground, is pretty large by Step 6 standards, a throwback to when the club played a little higher up the pyramid and, of course, to days of bigger crowds. The ground attendance record is a colossal 8,000 for a friendly against Wolves in 1953. Alongside the main stand is the clubhouse which also houses has a tea/snack bar. The players and officials changing facilities are part of the main stand accessed via a rarity at this level, a tunnel. At either end of the ground, behind both goals, there are also small covered spectator areas. The one at the town end is labelled Turners End (named after a supporter perhaps?). Opposite the main stand, on the Black Country Route side, there is no cover but plenty of hard standing in front of the parking area which is directly under the orange fencing. What I really like about this ground is the character. yes, it's a bit rickety in places and the main stand has, I'm sur, seen better days, but it's not one of these new style grounds that all look identical. It has seen football for over a century. It has history and I love it. If you haven't been, you should take a visit. It's well worth it.
Both Bilston and Cradley are in the first season in Midland League Division One after coming over from the West Midlands (Regional) premier during the Summer reorganisation. However, they have shared a division now for almost a decade. During that time neither have really threatened the league leaders and, in most cases, they have finished in mid-table. Cradley have probably had slightly the better record overall but there's not a great deal in it. This season, however, it has been a different case. Coming into the game Bilston were sitting in 7th spot with 33 points from their 22 games, whereas Cradley were only just above the drop zone with 20 points from 21 games. Recent form for Bilston had been a bit up and down. they had collected 7 points from their last 6 outings which had included a 6-0 win and a 6-1 defeat. Cradley, meanwhile, were coming into the game on a really poor run of form having lost their last five league outings. This included two potentially damaging defeats, 3-1 at home to Khalsa FF and 5-0 at AFC Bridgnorth, both sides just below them in the league table. Earlier in the season the sides had met at The Beeches with A Casey Collins strike not being enough for Cradley as goals from Adam Garmson and Jake Healy gave The Steelmen a 2-1 victory. So, although history was just about on the side of The Hammers, recent form seemed to suggest we would not be hearing the phrase "'ommer 'um Cradley" this evening. Of course, football has a strange habit of throwing up unexpected results.
After a slightly later than scheduled kick-off, we finally got under way with Bilston, in their home kit of all orange, defending the goal at Turners End. However after a fairly even first 15 minutes, it was Cradley in their change kit of blue shirts with a black chevron and black shorts, who hit the front. Following a corner that was cleared, Cradley won the ball back. Following some good work down the right flank a low cross was played in where captain Darren Whitley, who had stayed up following the corner, was on hand to finish off the move with a simple tap-in. 0-1.
The goal prompted action from the home side and they only took five minutes to get back to parity. Again it was an attack that was partially cleared by the defending team. The time, however, the ball ended at the feet of Adam Garmson who fired a low effort into the near post where it evaded bot goalkeeper Ethan Hawkes and a covering defender. 1-1
The action was now coming so thick and fats that I was still tweeting about the equaliser when Cradley went straight up the other end and won a penalty. I must admit I didn't see the incident but there weren't any complaints from the home side. It was taken by Jordan Bladen, but he saw home keeper Matt Ballard throw himself to his left and make a very good save. Still 1-1 with 24 minutes gone.
Five minutes later and the visitors were really rueing the penalty miss as The Steelmen went in front with a superb piece of individual skill. The ball was pinged, at a fair rate of knots, into Garmson around waist height. His control was instant, pulling the ball out of the air before juggling a couple of times and smashing a dipping volley over Hakes from all of 25 yards. 2-1. There were some claims of offside from the Cradley defence but, I have to say, Garmson looked on from my vantage point. What a strike too. The best goal I have seen so far this season.
The Bilston joy did not last long at all though. On 32 minutes Casey Collins, who's pace and willingness to run had caused huge problems to the home defence, set off in pursuit of what looked like another lost cause. he managed to chase down a through ball, pressuring the defender into a mistake before using his pace to just about get to the loose ball before Ballard and then slide it into the net. 2-2. Not as spectacular as Garmson's effort but a great goal in its own right made completely by the tenacity, pace and determination of Collins.
That ended the scoring in the first half as both teams needed to take stock and steady themselves after 16 minutes of non-stop incident.
HT Bilston Town 2 Cradley Town 2. On overall play all-square at the break was the right score line in what was a very even but well contested game of football.
Cradley did not try to sit back and defend their lead, quite the opposite, they continued to keep up their higher tempo. The big question was, could they keep it up. The game became increasingly spread and was pretty much end to end for a period in the middle of the half. As time ran on Cradley definitely started to wilt a little, the pressing and pace starting to get to them, despite making a couple of substitutions. Bilston pressed and pressed. As we approached the end of the game the ball definitely spent more time in the Cradley half but still the home side could not find an equaliser. The referee found quite a lot of added time but it wasn't enough for Bilston.
FT Bilston Town 2 Cradley Town 3. A really top game of football as far as a neutral was concerned. I've been very fortunate lately, seeing some really good games and this was up there with them all. Both sides clearly wanted to win the game. Great credit to Cradley for their second half display. The way they took the game to Bilson at the start of the second half changed the game and the hosts struggled to contain them for a while. I honestly didn't think they were going to be able to hang on but that is exactly what they did despite Bilston desperately trying to find a way back into the game.
If you want to catch either of these teams, they are both back in action away from home on Saturday. Bilston face a tricky looking trip North to take on second placed Stapenhill, victors by 3-1 at Queen Street in October, whilst Cradley have a trip to the Pingles Stadium where they face 8th placed Nuneaton Griff who won 4-0 at The beeches in late August.
Best of luck to both sides for the remainder of the season.
Bilston Town: Ballard, Sappleton-Williams, Short, Weston(c), Harper-Bailey, Davies, Barnett, Pierpoint, Montague, Garmson, Dunkley. Subs: Babs, Skeldon, Mohammed, Ogugua
Cradley Town: Hawkes, Bibb, Umoh, Whitley(c), Gould, Bladen, Dimmock, Calmis, Bladen, Collins, Crackett. Subs: Buchanan, Tomlinson, Bewick, Hangero-Cham, Craddock
Ground Number: 300
In the process of writing this blog I remembered another connection to the town of Bilston Some 30 years ago, at the same time that I worked at local newspaper the Express & Star, I played in a band that recorded a 4 track cassette (who remembers cassettes?) at a studio in Bilston. We knew it as Blind Mart's (yes, it was owned by a blind guy called Mart) but it may well have had an official name that I have forgotten over time. The fact that I still work in IT and write non-league football blogs probably tells you all you need to know about the quality of the recording. Does anyone remember the studio? The entrance was down an alleyway I think but I can't remember whereabout it was in the town.