And then we came to the end. Almost a year to the day since relocating to York from Yokohama, eight months after my spectatorial debut in the Northern Counties East League and nearly two dozen other Yorkshire non-league grounds later, I'm departing once more, this time to help sell academic textbooks in Kyiv and eastern Ukraine. "It'll be different, anyway," as someone recently observed.
My final weekend trip was to National League Guiseley, who've been around the area a good bit longer than me. Formed in 1909 and based at Nethermoor Park ever since, the 1913 Wharfedale League champions made the 1990 FA Vase semi-final with Frank Worthington in their side, won it in a replay the following season and lost a second Wembley final, 5-3 to Wimborne, two years later. Having gone out in the Conference North play-offs four times in a row, the Lions finally made the fifth-tier in 2015 but only barely survived their first term in the National League - in the end just a single point splitting them and relegated Halifax - and started this campaign with six defeats and one sacked manager. "We have to take responsibility for what's happening," temporary boss Adam Lockwood told his former teammates before a goalless draw with Braintree delivered the much needed fillip of a first point of the season. The visit of Woking - three points and two places better off but without a single clean sheet in 2016 - raised the prospect of an opening win, Lockwood snapping up Simon Walton, a 28-year-old veteran of 13 professional clubs, to add experience to a team which also includes Alex Purver and Reece Webb-Foster, recently borrowed from neighbours Leeds and Bradford City. "It looked like we'd strengthened in the summer and many people were expecting a more comfortable season this time out," says one concerned Nethermoor regular, "but we seem to have got progressively worse with each game so far. It wasn't entirely surprising that we lost our first three matches, but North Ferriby beating us was a real watershed. A
lot of people thought the club were right to sack Mark Bower but
personally I was in two minds. He'd taken us into a play-off final, got
us promoted and then kept us up last season. For me, we need an
experienced Conference manager as soon as possible. It's only September
and we're already odds on to go down."
A few minutes' walk from the train station, on the same street as the most famous fish and chip shop in the world, Nethermoor's entrance is shared with a cricket club, the few steps of open terracing behind each goal a reminder of days further down the pyramid. An assortment of covered stands - the impressive main one built in the club's centenary year to replace a rickety structure burnt out by arsonists - some portakabins, a burger van and a pebbledashed toilet block complete the ensemble. "I'll be going mad if we score today," a young Guiseley fan promises. "1-0 to you," predicts a Woking supporter. "Not a chance," a home regular responds.
"We could win this," the same bloke reckons half an hour in as Woking's Michael Poke flips a shot around the post. The keeper saves from Purver; "Guiseley well on top" tweets the home club's account. Two minutes into the second period, Nicky Clee feeds Adam Boyd, who leathers a shot past Poke from twenty yards. "Told you," the Woking fan says. "He gets the ball and scores a goal," celebrate the home support, prematurely following up with the theme from the Great Escape. Poke denies Jordan Preston before Woking slowly edge their way back into the match. "There's another goal in this," a home fan predicts pessimistically as the visitors move forward down the right. Fabio Saraiva misdirects a header, the ball hits Dennon Lewis' shoulder and leaves Jonny Maxted clawing at thin air. "Still bottom," someone mournfully reflects as the travelling support leap around in front of a breezeblock wall at the other end of the ground. "Two games unbeaten," Lockwood says at full-time, grasping one of the few positives of the day. "It'll be a mountain to stay up from here," a home fan reckons. "We're nine games in and haven't won yet. You don't make that up when you're a part-time
team in a league where most of the competition are full-time or part-timers in name only." The Woking supporter is equally doleful about his side's prospects for the rest of the year. "We used to be the best part-time team in the country," he rues, "but even teams with 5,000 crowds don't automatically get out of this division nowadays. It's going to be a struggle."
Back in Leeds, there are more glum faces after Huddersfield's win at Elland Road leaves the three-time English champions just two places off the bottom of the Championship. The immediate future looks every bit as bleak for the county's National League clubs, North Ferriby United a point outside the relegation places and York City only four places better off. For Guiseley a midweek trip to fellow strugglers Chester provides another opportunity for an overdue first win. "We fought so hard to get into this division," a Lions fan reckons. "If we go down, I can't see us getting back anytime soon."
Date: Saturday September 10th