I’ve been spending a little bit of time over the last couple of football seasons visiting a few grounds around the southeast of England. After a conversation with an old schoolmate, Bendz, I realised that it was time to go home.
I’d wanted to watch a cup match of some description for a while and identified the Saturday 10th September as the ideal time to visit Townsend Meadow – the home of Racing Club Warwick of the Midland Football League Division 1 (the 10th tier of English football's pyramid). Their match was agains Coventry United in the First Qualifying Round of the FA Vase, the amateur equivalent of the FA Cup.
After some conversation with my parents, who still live in my hometown Warwick, we established that the last time that I’d been to watch The Racers was back in the early nineties. They had been playing against a team in red, the name of which was long lost to both them and me. In fact, I was likely still attending first school at the time and it was probably the first live football match I had ever watched.
The timing of the match wasn’t great as the new academic had just begun and I had a million things to do for work, but, having planned it weeks in advance, I was actually quite excited to see where The Racers were at these days. I caught a Saturday morning train from Marylebone and arranged to meet Bendz in the early afternoon.
The journey from the endless rooftops of northwest London, through the deep emerald undulations of the Chilterns and Oxfordshire, into relative flat expanses of Warwickshire, was painted with the weather of the coming Autumn. The skies were grey and the train passed through many rain showers en route.
After a quick brunch at my parents’, Bendz and I walked up the path through Priory Park in search of a pre-match drink. Part-way down West Street, on our old route to Aylesford School, we found the gem that is The Old Post Office – possibly the cosiest pub in Warwick with a massive range of drinks on offer and a perfect shelter from the murky weather.
Racing Club Warwick started life in 1919 as Saltisford Rovers. They moved to their current ground in the 1960s and changed their name in 1970 to reflect their proximity to Warwick Racecourse. They joined the Midland Football Combination and were champions in 1988. By far their most famous former player is Ben Foster, the current West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper, who got his first professional contract with stoke in 2001 and has also played for Manchester United and England.
Upon reaching Townsend Meadow, we were uncertain of where the entrance was until we saw a small crowd of people near a new-looking pathway. Sure enough, the path led to a new turnstile shed.
“This is all new!” I exclaimed to the ticket-seller as I paid my £5 for entry and 50p for the programme.
A gentleman in a Racing Club Warwick polo shirt, standing the other side of the turnstile, replied, “well, if you think this is good, wait until you walk around the corner of this building.”
Sure enough, rounding what I think was the old changing room, the ground looked so much smarter and a new stand, complete with yellow and black seats and perplex dugouts, had been constructed in place of a much older stand.
“Well, this has changed!” I said.
“When were you last here?” the gentleman asked.
“My parents tell me about 20 years ago at least,” I replied, wondering whether the gentleman would see me as some sort of deserter for having left it so long. Then I remembered this was a community club where friendliness is key.
He went on to explain how a change in committee and some additional funding was the catalyst for the developments, which also included new changing facilities and a paved netball court near the entrance to the clubhouse.
We had just enough time before the start of the match to get a drink, check the team list displayed on the sandwich board outside the bar and head to the stands for kick-off.
Unfortunately for The Racers it started badly. We’d hardly sat down before Ben Mackey had slotted home a neat shot to make it 1-0 to Coventry United. He then went on to score twice again before half time, despite a few hopeful moments from The Racers.
This was all too much for one old gentleman behind us who proceeded to provide a Midlands-accented commentary of doom and gloom. It was amusing to listen to and even funnier when his stock phrases (“don’t give it to him” and “oh, not him again”) preambled the run up to The Racers being awarded a penalty early in the second half.
Jamie Smith duly slotted the penalty home, but The Racers never looked close to closing the deficit further, even though they had a few more opportunities as time ran on. Coventry United, from the Midland Football League Premier Division (the 9th tier of English football) seemed to be in control over their rivals for most of the second half.
The skies were still darkening and the sizeable travelling support were getting reasonably vocal as few wayward challenges felled their players. Their invectives, though, were nothing compared to the bouts of swearing issued from the mouth of the Coventry United manager. Amusingly, he had most of his protestations shrugged off by the female referee's assistant on the nearside touchline. One wag in the stands reminded him that his team were winning 3-1 after all!
After a chat with the same gentleman from earlier, I found out that Mackey, the player who had seemingly destroyed The Racers singlehandedly, once played for them in the mid-noughties. The voice behind us in the stands could be heard saying, “well, for £300 a week he bloody should be scoring goals.”
The match ended in a 1-3 defeat for Racing Club Warwick and their potential journey to Wembley was derailed before it had even left the sidings.
The tiny stands on either side of the pitch emptied quickly following a round of applause for both teams. The main gate onto Hampton Road was swung open and we wandered back towards the town square.
Far from having a sense of disappointment, we felt like we'd stumbled on a lost gem in heading to Townsend Meadow – although Bendz seemed sad about not being able to buy a Racers scarf.
In an age of arrogant professionals and overpriced football matches, visiting Racing Club Warwick at the start of the 2016/17 season served to remind us what this game is really about: a sense of community spirit, underpinned by real supporters who genuinely love the sport.
The Racers may be a long way off every emulating the likes of the Class of ‘92’s Salford City, but the spirit of the team and their supporters far surpasses many of their professional counterparts.