Adventures in Football #48: Keys Park (Hednesford Town FC)
March 29, 2022
HEDNESFORD TOWN FC vs. STOURBRIDGE FC (Southern League Premier Central Division)
Hello and first of all thanks for the massive support on the last AIF when we visited Sheffield Wednesday. Absolutely incredible support from the Owls on the Twitter Machine. Once again, I hope you get promoted. That said I’m sad I didn’t visit Hednesford on Saturday because they were giving away a free beer! Non-League Day is truly the greatest day of the season.
Hednesford Town, formed in 1880, were a very regional club, playing in Birmingham District Leagues until the 1970s. In 1984 the club moved into the Southern League and was promoted into the Premier Division in 1992. Three seasons later they were champions and were promoted to the GM Vauxhall Conference, as it was then known. This happily coincided with the completion of Keys Park, which opened in July 1995.
The club had its best days in the early years at Keys Park. Reaching the fourth round of the FA Cup in 1997 knocking out Blackpool before losing to Middlesbrough, who were then in the Premier League and even then only 3-2 at the Riverside. After six years in the Conference they found themselves relegated and they’ve not been back since. League restructuring has seen them move around a bit but a stint in the National League North ended in 2016 and since then they’ve been at this level. They have got a shiny new ground to show for their successes though and they won the FA Trophy in 2004.
Keys Park holds 6,039 but average attendance this season has been a paltry 528. Normally I worry a bit about not having a ticket to get into a game, but I think we’ll be ok here. Part of the joy of non-league is just rocking up and they’re happy to have you.
At start of play Hednesford are P10 and Stourbridge P9. It’s a real mid-table six pointer. I saw the reverse of this fixture earlier in the season when Hednesford won at Stourbridge and it felt like Hednesford could go up. That’s clearly not been reflected over the course of the season. I’ve not seen Coalville, Banbury, Rushall or Peterborough Sports play this season so I don’t know what their level is like. For those interested this is tier 7 and the top team plays in either the Vanarama National League North or South depending on who else gets promoted.
Maria is at work so I’m on the train today. I’m not going solo though as I’m meeting Tannoy Tom at the ground. As you can see from the photo above, Birmingham New Street wasn’t in the best of conditions. Electrical lines were down on the Wolverhampton line, which had caused some pretty major delays. I got off my train there at 4.45pm and this isn’t ideal. My train to Rugeley Trent Valley (platform 6A) was “delayed”. I’ve been on enough trains to know “delayed” with no ETA means it’s fucked. I go to 6A but quickly abandon the idea of catching this particular train and decide to go to the pub. As I hit the concourse there’s an announcement that the train is now going to run from 10A and holy shit, I’m right next to the entrance for platform 10. How serendipitous. My “fuck it, let’s go to the pub” approach wins again.
I’m still not sold on this intel from the Trainline app though, so I start to interrogate locals. I talk to a young lady in football gear who is going to Cambridge. Respectfully leaving a mask on as to not breathe on her. I don’t have Covid but I’ve been eating garlic. Not that you can smell anything in New Street station thanks to it being more polluted than Chernobyl. Cambridge has no idea what’s happening and I think I help her more than she helps me. I wish her the best in her journey as my train has miraculously arrived. It’s not even that full either…until Walsall when the entire world boards. Considering I was “delayed” I end up arriving in Hednesford only 10 minutes late and have time for a pint. I probably had time for two but Tom is meeting me at the ground.
Hednesford Town FC is 1.2 miles walk from the station, which is 25 minutes on Google maps. There was a viral tweet asking if 23-minute walk was considered too far to walk and it isn’t for me. This isn’t even the longest I’ve walked to a ground from a station this season and we’ve driven to most games. Plus I get to see a nice looking church and, a little further down the road, the Cross Keys hotel. Hednesford’s old ground used to be behind this place.
I’m also clearly going in the right direction for Keys Park. I love it when football grounds have their own road sign in orange. There’s also a sticker attached to this sign that says “…. slaps”. I’m not sure what slaps but it’s not Hednesford. Hednesford does not slap. After walking through a brand new housing estate the road simply goes into the football ground.
Parking, as you can just about make out, is £3. Which is reasonable. Most places are a fiver. The crudely hand drawn nature of the sign suggests this is a recent price hike. The car park is quite big, considering the size of the club and suitable for National League level, which is where they were at when they built it so that makes sense.
I stroll confidently into the car park with the gait of what I assume a Hednesford fan would have and I’m immediately told where the away entrance is. Shit, do I look like a Stourbridge fan? I insist that I’m here for my beloved Pitmen and walk further along and I’m once again told that the away turnstiles are behind me. Good lord, I’ve been 100% rumbled. I’ve blended in as a home fan in Dundee and with the Wales national team but apparently Hednesford is a step too far.
Into the ground then and it’s a tenner to enter. I slap down a twenty and get the bizarre change of two fivers. In we go and I’m starving so I go to order a burger and Tom is literally stood behind me. He just pulled into the car park and walked through the turnstile about thirty seconds behind me. Great timing. Getting to food early is key (haha, see what I did there? Key, Keys Park? No? Well, fine, make your puns from here on out) and I nosh down on a burger with cheese and onions. It’s the plastic cheese but the onions are nice. It’s a solid entry. Having been fed we take a look at the ground. Tom has been here before to watch Hereford play in 2000.
We go exploring along the front of the stand and I see a sign saying “outdoor bar”. That’s where we’re standing. Only it’s behind a gate so we open it and stroll through into the segregated Stourbridge area and get funny looks. Yet another club rep asks if I’m a Stourbridge supporter as otherwise I’m not allowed in that bit. Yes, I too anticipate crowd trouble here. It’s my fault for assuming each corner had a gate that could be opened when it actuality you walk around the back on the other side. So, we get told off by someone and I feel like a child. Seriously though, why is this segregated? Stourbridge haven’t exactly brought an army with them.
I take a picture of the entrance to the pitch and the guy is still staring at me. It’s a photograph, sir, it’s not going to steal your soul. I’m guessing they don’t get many neutrals at these games. I loudly complain about being confused with a Stourbridge fan, citing the only time I went to Stourbridge was to watch Hednesford, which is technically not a lie. The guy seems satisfied with this and shuffles off to watch his gate again.
Anyway, fuck this, let’s go and get a beer. That’s the reason I went through your precious gate in the first place, your majesty. Up to the Chase Suite, which sounds posh and it’s a nice little function room if you live near Hednesford and need a reception venue for your wedding or bar mitzvah. I have a pint of Banks’ Amber to let people know I support Wolves first, and Hednesford second. This gets me a pass but sadly Tom doesn’t get away with wearing a blazer at the football and suspicious glances follow him around the room.
We walk past a map on the way to the terraces and I point out it’s clearly marked as “outside bar area”. That’s why I went through your gate! I wanted an outdoor bar area. It seems midweek fixtures don’t make full use of the ground. A shame really as there are 500 thirsty people in the ground and I’m sure an outdoor bar would have done bits. There’s another massive lie on the map as it claims a “food van” is in each corner of the ground. There isn’t. There are two either side of the main stand. One for home fans, one for away fans.
We head across to opposite the main stand so I can view the main stand as God intended. Luckily there’s also a massive gang of kids behind the goal in the Heath Hayes Stand. Over on Wimblebury Terrace I have a fine view of them all jumping around and singing. It’s proper lively over there but I fear I’m too old to go and stand with them so we stand with all the old geezers instead. The kids keep doing the “aaaaaaaaahhhhh you’re shit aaaaahhhhhh” on goal kicks, which I respect. They also chant “you fat bastard” at half the Stourbridge players. I feel bad for them because body positivity is hard enough to achieve without someone singing about your gut.
On the pitch Hednesford are lively, as they were at Stourbridge earlier in the season. Leroy Lita torments the poor bastards and intercepts a woeful back pass before rounding the keeper for 1-0. I’m reminded by the tannoy man that Leroy Lita is making his debut. Something that’s already come up twice. The 37 year old former Bristol City, Reading, Charlton, Norwich, Middlesbrough, Swansea, Birmingham City, Sheffield Wednesday, Brighton, Barnsley, Notts Co, AO Chania (Greece), Yeovil, Sisaket (Thailand), Margate, Salisbury, Chelmsford, Nuneaton and Stratford striker has just signed this week. Would you perhaps call Leroy a “journeyman”? Regardless of his experience he looks spritely and ready to exploit the Stourbridge defence.
Off the pitch a small faction of the kids behind the goal have broken away to attempt to circumnavigate the ground. The girl, who appears to be the gang leader, asks a fan “James” behind us to join them for a walk. “You’re not allowed all the way around” he shouts back. “Watch me. WOOP. WOOP….oh” she replies on seeing there’s a barricade in her way. She meekly returns to the Heath Hayes end defeated in her exploration of Keys Park. A crushing defeat for freedom of movement. I blame Brexit.
Back on the pitch Hednesford get a dangerous free kick and the taker decides to absolutely leather it. The wall is beaten, the keeper gets a hand to it and Leroy Lita pounces on the loose ball for 2-0. We’re seeing a special player here lads. Enjoy this moment. Half time arrives and some blokes head for the bar and one them has a hard hat on, with HT sprayed on the side. That’s a fresh look, sir. I’m sure those kids won’t chant abuse at you as you walk past. At half time Hednesford play the Grandstand music, which is really weirdly out of place sounding but I dig it.
In the second half Leroy completes a hattrick by springing the offside trap and slotting the ball past the advancing keeper on his weak foot. Clinical finishing. Leroy Lita has been worth the trip. He’s going in my ‘notable players seen’ spreadsheet with Ruben Neves, Will Grigg, Tammi George, Ade Akinfenwa, N’Golo Kante and Shannon Stamps*. The kids start to get a bit feisty and the underlying theme of this rivalry becomes crystal clear as they chant “fuck the Albion”. That’s why we’re segregated today. Just in case a Wolves-WBA fight breaks out. Seeing as Stourbridge only brought 20 people that’s unlikely. It is true that everyone at Stourbridge also supports Albion. That’s all they were talking about when I was at their ground.
*This is all actually true.
A goalmouth scramble results in Stourbridge pulling one back through Kieran Cook but that’s only because Hednesford switched off at 3-0. It’s over, Leroy Lita sinks Stourbridge on his own. We hop into Tom’s car and he drops me off at Sutton Coldfield station after a guided tour of his manor. We’ve seen the Pitmen triumph, I’ve been mistaken repeatedly for someone from Stourbridge, I’ve got a guided tour of Sutton Coldfield and a girl has learned an important lesson about the right to roam.
FINAL SCORE: Hednesford 3 Stourbridge 1
Time to rate this footballing experience on an arbitrary scale of my own creation that allows me to compare Hednesford to Premier League clubs without taking the piss.
Surprisingly strong for a Tuesday night. The kids were out in force and they were making themselves heard. I was expecting low level grumbling but I got some noise instead. It’s true they were going through the “Best Football Chants” off YouTube (you know the video) but they seemed genuinely committed to their local club. Respect. ***½
It was a tenner. I also paid about £13 to get there on the train. Still pretty cheap. ***½
It was a decent game. It got a bit ragged at times. Especially in the last 15-20 minutes. But we got four goals and Leroy Lita smashed in a hattrick. One star for each of his delightful finishes ***
EASE OF ACCESS:
I thought they’d be boned here as it’s 1.2 miles on the hoof from the station, but the car park was solid, and we drove off it easily despite it being full. ***½
I had a burger. It was edible. The segregation felt a bit extreme, but I guess it can get heated between local rivals even at this level. I thought the bar was alright and facilities in general were good for the level. ***
The atmosphere is the biggest surprise. Everything else at this level I’ve seen has been tepid, especially in mid-week. Everything else was decent, no complaints. No high points but everything being consistently decent gets Hednesford into P18 in my table. They’re level on points with Fulham and Bath City, which are two grounds I thought ruled so hey, I guess Hednesford ruled. Well played, boys, well played.