The season is now beginning to draw to an end. I have the Isthmian promotion playoffs scheduled in for next week, so I was looking at a some of the other league options for this week’s game. I noticed that Bishop’s Stortford were at home. It’s quite an easy journey up the M11, and for some reason they currently play in the Southern League. So for the second Tuesday in a row I headed up the motorway towards Stansted Airport for my midweek football fix.
I don’t know a huge amount about the club other than that they were reportedly a target for Glenn Tamplin before he turned his attention to Dagenham & Redbridge and then Billericay. The club has seen a bit of unrest in recent seasons with staff changes and a relegation, but they have safely secured their status at step three for now.
Competition: Southern League Premier Division
Refreshments: £2.70 (two teas and a Mars bar)
Star man: Darren Foxley
Who are ya, Bishop’s Stortford?
The Blues, as they are known, were created in 1874 and were founding members of the Hertfordshire County Football Association in 1885. They played in local leagues until 1929 when they were admitted to the Spartan League. The Blues won the league in 1932, but by the early 1950s they left to help found the Delphian League. The Delphian title was also won in 1955 and Bishop’s Stortford moved on to the Athenian League after the Delphian disbanded in the 1960s.
The Blues joined the Isthmian League in 1971, and have spent the majority of their time in the league in the Premier Division. They won the FA Amateur Cup in 1974 and the FA Trophy in 1981. Their highest finishing position in the Isthmian Premier League was seventh, but in 2004 they joined the newly formed Conference South. They finished fifth in 2007 and qualified for the promotion playoff before losing to Salisbury.
The Blues were mysteriously moved to the Conference North Division in 2011 after Rushden & Diamonds expulsion from the Football Conference. They played in the North Division for two seasons before returning South. Recent history has been tough for the club as there has been takeover talk, board resignations and multiple managerial changes. The upheaval resulted in the Blues being relegated from the National League South last season and they now find themselves in the Southern League Premier Division.
- The Blues’ won the last ever edition of the FA Amateur Cup in 1974. They beat Ilford 4-1 in the final played at Wembley.
- Bishop’s Stortford made the Third Round of the FA Cup in 1983. They drew with Second Division Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park before losing the replay 2-1
- The Blues have had plenty of high profiles over the years including Dwight Gayle and FA Cup hero Roy Essandoh
The Blues were in 20th place in the league prior to kick off. It’s been a tough first season back in step three, but they were safely clear of the relegation zone with a couple of games left to play. They’d only won one of their last five games, but this was an impressive 5-0 victory away at Farnborough Town. The previous meeting between the two sides was a 0-0 draw in Wales in September.
Merthyr’s recent form had been more mixed. They’d won once, drawn twice and lost twice in their last five games. Their single victory was a good 4-1 win over Kings Langley. The Welsh club were three places and four points above the Blues prior to kick-off, also with two games left of their season.
The Bishop’s Stortford experience
Train: Bishop’s Stortford Station, served by trains from Liverpool Street, is the closest station and is around a 20 minute walk from the ground. It’s also very close to Stansted Airport for any international groundhoppers out there.
Car: Woodside Park is easily reached by car and there is a good sized car park at the ground, with spaces available for £2. Exit the M11 for Bishop’s Stortford (junction 8). Take the A120, then the first exit for A1250 and the first right into the industrial estate. Follow the road to the ground.
Times have got harder recently for Bishop’s Stortford. After the strange decision to move them into the Conference North, they returned to the South Division and were relegated last season. Board room resignations and several managerial changes have followed, and the Blues now find themselves in the Southern League. It’s another slightly odd decision as fellow Hertfordshire clubs like Ware, Hertford and Potters Bar all play in the, considerably more local, Isthmian League. The increased travel demands were underlined in this fixture as the Blues’ visitors, Merthyr, were one of their most geographically distant league opponents.
Woodside Park, now more frequently referred to as the ProKit (UK) Stadium, is good for step three and bares all the hallmarks of a club that has spent a prolonged period of time at a higher level. It’s a neat and well-organised ground with a good sized main stand and a smaller seated area on the far side. Both are covered and without pillars. There is some covered terracing at either end as well as three step high open terraces around the rest of the ground.
The game suffered a little from ‘end-of-season-itis’ as both clubs, who’ve had their struggles this season, are now safe from any threat of relegation. The Blues dominance provided little opportunity for an atmosphere to develop. The locals behind the goal, however, did produce the occasional furious rebuttal to a refereeing decision as well as roundly roaring at the home side’s goals. The crowd of 177 also contained several Martyrs. That’s Merthyr Town’s nickname although it could also refer to the fans that came all the way from the Valleys to see their young side soundly beaten.
I do sometimes wonder if the grassroots charm will be slightly lost at clubs that have been towards the higher levels of the non-league scene and had, or still have, ambitions of Football League promotion. This wasn’t the case at Woodside Park, despite the stadium name change. I was welcomed with a friendly greeting and the offer to participate in the player of the season vote. I declined as, at this stage on my first visit, it would have been entirely guess work. The cheerful welcome is extended at the tea bar and around the ground. I even witnessed a cheerful gathering of green fingered locals inspecting the groundsman’s shed - an enjoyable first for me.
Blues ease to end of season win
The Blues started on the front foot against a youthful Merthyr side. The Welsh outfit were hit with financial troubles earlier this season and had to release a large portion of their squad - it’s somewhat of a miracle they were here at all. Former Bristol Rovers, and a few others, striker Jamie Cureton helped bring the average age up and provided some clever touches and movement up top for Bishop’s Stortford.
The Blues took the lead after 12 minutes as Alfie Mason picked up the ball on the edge of the box, turned well and squirted an accurate shot into the bottom corner. Merthyr showed some glimpses of attacking threat as Morgan hit some well-judged diagonals towards his pacey attackers and occasionally tried his luck from distance. Darren Foxley soon made it 2-0, however. A clever exchange with Cureton saw the forward through on goal and he finished well.
The second goal just before the break saw a few Merthyr heads drop and the visitors struggled slightly in the second half. The home side relaxed into being the dominant force, and looked to extend their lead. Cureton then got on the scoresheet, as I was WhatsApp-ing a Gas Head friend of mine to check how much of a club legend he was. He got on the end of a Westcott cross to fire home. Foxley added the fourth shortly before time to give the Blues a 4-0 victory.
Bishop’s Stortford felt very much like a step three club even though they have only just returned to that level after a prolonged period in the National League. It was a welcoming, well organised ground that had everything you need to enjoy a decent game of football. It’s easy to get to via road, track or even air, which gives it good groundhopping points in addition to its appeal as a local football venue.
The game was a typical end of season affair, so a casual visit to Woodside Park may be better held in your back pocket for a crunch game or local derby. The latter, however, might be hard to come by if they remain in a slightly unintuitive division. The answer to the Jamie Cureton question? He remains a Rovers legend, but I unfortunately couldn’t stay after the game to try and get an autograph for my friend.