Kirkby Road Sports Ground
When you travel around the country going to small towns and villages to watch various non-league games, then the question you invariably get asked over and over again is… where?
Barwell in Leicestershire seemed to draw it more than most after opting to visit there, but in 1965 the village was the subject of national attention following the ‘Barwell Meteorite Incident’ when on Christmas Eve, debris came down through the atmosphere to cause widespread, if thankfully relatively minor damage. It resulted in a slightly amusing tale that when one man tried to claim insurance for his car being destroyed only to be refused on the basis that it was ‘an act of god’, he then ended up suing the church instead! Perhaps he needed a better lawyer, because his case was ultimately unsuccessful, but when space debris isn’t wrecking them, petrolheads might also know the village as the home of Noble, the sports car manufacturer, and if we’re doing a connections game then of course the most famous Noble is Brian, former manager of Wigan Warriors who share a ground with Wigan Athletic, who Chris Kirkland currently plays for, having grown up in… Barwell, Leicestershire.
Whilst only a couple of miles down the road from Hinckley, and even closer since United moved to their new ground on the edge of town, Barwell FC have always been a well supported club for their level. They were founder members of the Midland Alliance in 1994, and have been there ever since, along with Stratford and Boldmere, the only teams to have been continuous members since its formation. It was the Midland Alliance that I’d seen my first competitive non-league game in (Oldbury vs Leamington), and for some time I’ve wanted to complete it almost as much as the 92, but since Willenhall looked like they’d be heading there next season then that had been on hold, in favour of visiting the remaining grounds with them (should they even be around next season, given the troubles at the club).
With that in mind, I actually hadn’t seen any MFA games this year, but in my absence, Barwell had been having an awesome season. 33 league matches played, 30 of them won, no defeats and only 12 goals conceded, and sitting top of the table, then it looked a safe bet to assume that they and Willenhall would be swapping places in the summer, so with nowhere else to go, then I decided on heading over to Leicestershire, avoiding a longer trip after a hectic Easter weekend which had ranged from watching games in Lancashire, then Devon, back to the Midlands before down to London.
Setting off mid-morning, after arriving in New Street, the trains seemed to be having a nightmare day with delays and cancellations, but thankfully I avoided that and the journey to Hinckley went fine. Barwell itself has never had a railway station, and remembering that the walk to Hinckley United had almost killed me last time, with the village another mile or so beyond that, I’d planned on getting a bus, but after arriving it was such a beautiful, early summers day and with time on my hands then I decided to go for it, spotting a right of way after a while that provided a shortcut over the fields into the village, making the 3 mile trip pass more pleasantly than sitting on a dirty old bus, being forced to listen to the local chavs who have yet to figure out the concept of earphones (the joys of public transport!).
Barwell itself is an ancient village, dating back well beyond the Doomsday Book. Its name translates as “Stream of the Boar”, a water hole for the wild pigs that were once native to this land prior to their extinction during medieval times. There are a number of old buildings there, and after being guided in by the oldest of them all, St Mary’s Church, built in 1220, then I soon found refuge in the second oldest… The Queen’s Head (circa 17th century). Sitting on the main road, it’s a fantastic old building, although after settling down for a pint, spotting the subtle CCTV camera lodged in the corner and the techno someone had put on the jukebox then the olde world feel was quickly gone, ditto myself after drinking up and making my way up to the ground.
Part of a sports complex, with bowls and cricket also catered for, Kirkby Road isn’t far from the village centre, and features a weather vane atop the cricket pavilion with a fox on top to remind you of which county you’re in. The football ground itself is separated from the other sports, with a big wall, the back of the stand and turnstiles making it feel a little cold in comparison. The clubhouse sits at the entrance to the site, meaning once in there’s little to do other than wait for the game to start, only the programme attempting to offer a distraction with what was probably the longest match report I’ve ever seen, their recent game against Malvern filling up a whole five pages (without pictures even!).
The Main Stand sits just off centre on the near side. Opened in 2001 by Chris Kirkland it’s a great structure for this level, 256 seats offering a fantastic view thanks to the steep steps and cantilevered roof. Adjacent to it is a large cover that fills up the rest of the side to its left down to the corner flag, although with no terracing underneath then views from here aren’t great. The other three sides are hard standing with not much to shout about, the only notable thing being the amount of netting that surrounds the pitch, with nets draped from the floodlight pylons along most of the far side as well as the two behind each of the goals. It still wouldn’t stop balls being launched out of the ground during the game though!
As well as their fantastic league form, only a week before Barwell had nearly booked themselves a place at Wembley, going down 3-2 to Whitley Bay in the FA Vase Semi-Final after conceding a heart-breaking goal in injury time which had put the North-East side through. If, however, there was any suggestion of a hangover from that game, then the players had had other ideas, winning two midweek matches in between, with this being their fourth game in eight days as they played catch-up with league fixtures following a busy cup schedule which had also seen them reach the Westerby Cup Final (Loughborough Dynamo the opponents for the Walkers Stadium tie in May).
The visitors from Birmingham, Highgate United, on the other hand were still adjusting to life at a higher level after winning promotion from the Midland Combination the season before last, and had spent the season teetering around the relegation zone, so when the game got underway it was no surprise to see the hosts take the initiative early on, bossing the game, with Highgate barely making any impression.
‘The Kikby Roaders’ as they’re nicknamed (explanations not needed I don’t think!) went ahead in the 27th minute, with a goal that would grace any level of the game, when a deep cross over the box came to Kevin Charley at the back post, who pulled it back past two defenders before looping the ball majestically from the edge of the area into the top corner beyond the reach of the keeper. It only took them another two minutes before the lead was doubled, courtesy of Jamie Towers, who chased a long ball forward, finding himself in space and chipping it over the oncoming goalkeeper into an empty net to make it 2-0.
After the break, Highgate looked to have got one back when Barwell’s goalie was injured in a scramble, going down with play continuing where try as they might, they couldn’t take advantage, seeing the ball rebound off the bar before being put out of play by the home defence, and their chance was soon gone when Towers wrapped up the game on the hour mark stabbing home to make it 3-0 with his second of the afternoon. Substitute Robbie Beard made it 4-0 just a few minutes after coming on, following some nice work to find himself played into the box, and the only blemish on an otherwise well worked win for the home side came in the 88th minute when their goalkeeper dropped a cross at the feet of James Welnitschuk, who tapped it home to grab a consolation for the visitors, who had had to play the last 30 minutes with 10 men after taking two players off injured at the same time, only having one on the bench due to an injury crisis which had seen them name only 12 players on the team sheet, or at least I’m pretty sure that was the case, as with the risk of sounding like Chris Kamara, I didn’t see a red card issued!
Despite the last goal, the result had seemed inevitable from the outset, and when the final whistle went, then I left the ground and made my way back home, walking over the fields to Hinckley again to catch the train, avoiding the problems at New Street which were still causing misery to other travellers.
Overall it had been a good trip, with Barwell a good side to watch. The ground ticks all the boxes for stepping up a league, although looks far better if viewed from the far side than the stand itself. The only real downside of the afternoon was off the pitch where a number of local youths decided to make the visiting goalkeepers time a misery, abusing him throughout, which soured the atmosphere a little, and not something you really expect or like to see at this level, but with their sides ability (and from speaking to a Highgate player, their alleged budget as well), then it wasn’t really a factor in the final outcome as the Leicestershire side look to leave only Stratford and Boldmere behind them as the Midland Alliance’s longest serving members.
All material copyright © T.S. Rigby, 2010