Simon Wright took in the delights of the Forest of Dean...
“Fancy going to Coventry v WBA on Saturday?” asked a chum.
“No, not really...”
“But you’re going to an obscure Gloucestershire village on a Thursday night?”
Travelling to a friendly at Lydbrook midweek, especially from the Black Country doesn’t make any sense. But yet in other ways it makes perfect sense. An evening at “Reeds” was an essential investment to sustain me through the aftermath of a 1-0 home defeat to Barnet in mid-winter or some such.
How can you not be intrigued by ground directions that include the line “the ground is opposite the red phone box”? It is just a ground, bunker-like new changing rooms apart. No cover, no seats other than a few benches under three gazebos for the substitutes and the United board. The pitch has a rail on one side of the ground, a couple of portaloos and improvised but excellent refreshment facilities. The hot dog onions were first class. And that’s literally fine in July for a little village club which seems to have its own weather system. Dark clouds circled overhead all evening but no rain fell upon our heads - unlike in neighbouring areas.
The location – oh wow. Accepting it was just over the border in Gloucestershire, the scenery was spectacular. Tall verdant trees, towering hills with the Wye and an ancient lonely church nearby – the sort of establishment which would keep author Phil Rickman in royalties for another year. Two other sides of the pitch had been roped to keep spectators at a safe distance. For me, there were shades of a village fete about Lydbrook. For no sensible reason, I was reminded of the Kinks classic album “Village Green Preservation Society”. Readers under 50 are best advised to move on rapidly...
Overlooking the ground was a derelict former paper mill. This was a huge, vaguely sinister site which reeked of untold tales. Once it had hundreds of people working there which sustained the local community. Where did they all go? Until the opening of their new changing facilities “despite not receiving a penny from the FA” (as the programme tartly noted), Athletic and their opponents used an upstairs section of the factory to don their football kits.
I’m not familiar with the Gloucestershire Northern Senior League but it’s logical to assume Lydbrook are a couple of rungs lower than the hardly-large-themselves Ledbury Town. Hosting 700 spectators was no easy task in these litigious times and Athletic deserve praise for their smooth operation run by enthusiastic friendly people.
The admission tickets were among the smartest most impressive I’ve ever seen for a game. There’s nothing to match them in the Premier League for sure. United collectors would be well advised to get hold of one.
The result was predictable enough and the details are already recorded elsewhere. The full Bulls first team needed 30 minutes and a goalkeeping error to get into gear, after which the traffic became one way. The weary villagers basically played the whole of the second half in their own half.
I’m grateful for Nigel Preece for correcting a classic exiles mistake before it came too embarrassing. He gently pointed out to me that the smartly be-suited mature gentleman to my left wasn’t our club owner but rather Richard Prime of the Hereford Times. “Keyte’s over there in the red jumper drinking from a can of Strongbow.” Not a criticism more an observation of an unusual sighting on an unusual evening.
We slipped away a couple of minutes before the meandering end for another brief treat. Supping a pint of Butty Bach at the Saracens Head in Symonds Yat which combines my favourite beer with one of my favourite Shire locations. Beat that. Come the winter I will look back fondly on this night with its gentle victory and all optimism intact.