Luke Hunter heads to The Big Local Stadium, home to Cheltenham Saracens FC
Luke Hunter – @lukehunter8
Cheltenham Saracens FC V Hungerford Town Swifts, 05/09/20
And so it ends, my longest live football sabbatical for 20 years. There was a sense of boyhood fantasy in returning to an actual football pitch to watch actual people kicking an actual football around, a feeling long since dormant amid the hurricane that has been post-February 2020. Gloucestershire boasts a tempting selection of non-league options but short of time and eager to keep it close to home, I headed to the aptly named ‘Big Local Stadium’ or Petersfield Park (as it’s known locally) to watch Cheltenham’s premier non-league outfit, Cheltenham Saracens FC.
To broadly introduce them – and I should probably stress at this point that until yesterday most of this was news to me – ‘Sarries’ are proper non-league, plying their trade at Step Ten in the Hellenic Division One West, five below Torquay. The stadium is a tidy temp-stand affair, nestled between the railway and woodland in the St.Peters area of Cheltenham, the Cotswold escarpment is visible in the distance and it is a friendly place to watch football – Cheltenham Town Ladies FC are also based here.
This was a pre-season fixture against Hungerford Town Swifts, who seem to be some sort of recently reformed B-team umbrella club of National League South’s Hungerford Town – they find themselves in Division Two of the North Berks Football League, which I think puts them at either Step 13 or 14, I’m losing track at this point, Dorchester Town Reserves are also in there which I think is an effective marker of standard.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect regarding social distancing and post-pandemic football but this probably isn’t the place where change will be most visible; I signed myself in at the gate, promptly sanitised my hands at the available amenities and enjoyed the plentiful abundance of room that the ground and a 75-100 crowd offered. A meagre £3 admission fee illuminated my eyes whilst £2 for a cider is not to be sniffed at either.
It was a committed performance from both sides which became progressively tasty as the game wore on, there were flashes of quality, loud personalities and non-league shithouses – just about as traditional as it gets. Hungerford marginally took the possession count in the first half, though Cheltenham had the better chances – nevertheless, 0-0 took us to the break. The second half started in much the same vein before a beautifully guided half-volley from the Saracens centre midfielder dinked in off the right post (that sweet, sweet noise). A second followed soon after when the Swifts goalkeeper capped a difficult day by gifting Saracens possession, he was unable to keep out the resulting lobbed effort – which had seemed optimistic at the time. Hungerford can feel utterly repulsed that they had a goal ruled out late on for no fathomable reason but whether it would have made any difference at that point is debatable.
I walked away itching to be back at Plainmoor but smiling nonetheless. I have missed the matchday experience an indescribable amount, the satisfaction of standing around that big green rectangle watching 22 people run around has been a formality throughout my life, something that is simply not possible to replicate through a screen – it was good to be back and let life succumb to the so-called simplicity of a football game for 90 minutes.
COYY – Luke