It’s a cold and wet January afternoon in Nottingham. We arrive at Lenton Lane for Dunkirk FC vs. Ellistown & Ibstock United in the East Midlands Counties Premier Division. Attendance: 46. As well as being your average Saturday non-league fixture – like the many thousands of others happening across the country – it’s ground number 673 for Dave Cooper, Tamworth fan and avid groundhopper.
“It started as a natural extension to doing away trips with Tamworth.” said the 52-year-old. “I had always been to a few new grounds anyway. I just use it as an excuse to visit new places and new pubs as well.”
How long have you been groundhopping?
“It started around 1982 and it’s been on and off since then. I started to take it a lot more seriously after 1997 when I left the army.”
It’s 2-1 to Dunkirk in the game we’re watching here, a slightly off result considering Ellistown & Ibstock have lost all but 2 of their games so far this season – conceding over 100 in the process. Either way, it’s time to dodge the rain and head inside for a half-time pint.
How many grounds have you actually been to?
“This is ground 673, give or take a few. I don’t keep a database like a lot of serious ‘hoppers. I do carry a man bag for programmes and harbour a need to count attendances, though. 46 here today.”
We’re back out for the second half at Dunkirk, the rain has gotten worse and we’re ducking in a stand made out of scaffolding. This is proper non-league.
What’s your favourite ground then?
“Apart from The Lamb?” (Tamworth FC’s home ground) “A few. There’s some lovely old school terracing at Gornal Athletic, a stand roof shaped like a barrel at Lye Town. Oh, Stalybridge Celtic, there are 23 pubs between the train station and the ground.”
Floodgates are well and truly starting to open between Dunkirk and Ellistown & Ibstock, the away side have had a man sent off and it’s 5-1 at present. Looking like another bad day at the office for the team rooted to the bottom of the league.
Nearly 700 grounds ticked off now, surely you must’ve had some weird experiences?
“There’s been a few. About 1500 Tamworth fans descended on Tividale for a League Cup final and we were buzzed by a police helicopter. They were only expecting around 300 of us! A runaway tractor stopped a game at Armitage once because it took out one of the goals. Oh, and I once experienced a sheep invasion from a nearby field at Eastwood Hanley.”
“Yes. I’d like to give a special mention to the two times I’ve been the only spectator at a game, reaching true groundhopping nirvana. Castlecroft Rangers and St. Matthews Walsall.”
Full time at Dunkirk, 8-1. Another crushing defeat for Ellistown & Ibstock, another ground ticked off for Dave and another programme for the collection. Onto the next one.