First published in Rugby League World, Issue 384 (April 2013)
Ground: Pennine Way, Hemel Hempstead
Game: Pre-Season Friendly v London Broncos
Date: Sunday 27 January 2013
With three clubs entering Championship One this month, Secret Speccie is off on his travels again to make early season visits to the league’s newcomers. He hopes this will give you a feel of the place but considered it unfair to apply the usual grading system as it is very early days for all three.
Perhaps unlike Oxford and Cheltenham, Hemel Hempstead is more suited to Rugby League: industrial, working class and down to earth. Its population of over 80,000 has grown up with the Stags so they are not starting from scratch. However, this is not an affluent town like neighbouring Harpenden or culturally relevant and commercially vibrant like St Albans down the road. Supporting a club that pays its players will be a major challenge for Hemel. But after nearly five months without a senior game, Rugby League finally returns to London and the South.
With junction 7/8 of the M1 just five minutes drive away, Hemel Stags is easily accessed by car from the north and the south, and to the east via the A414 dual-carriageway. The M25 is only ten minutes further away while the M40, which links Hemel to their new Championship One rivals Oxford and Gloucester, is close too. Most fans will come off the M1 and take the A414, follow the Redbourn signs and zig-zag through Maylands business park. Pennine Way is tucked away on your left between a Peugeot garage and, incongruously, a timber-framed farmhouse, opposite a derelict MFI. There is a bus stop at the end of the road with bus routes to Luton, Harpenden, St Albans and Hatfield train stations. However, the only service on Sundays (matchdays) are numbers 4 and 5 into town or the hourly No 2 from round the corner which takes 25 minutes to Hemel Hempstead train station, from where trains go into Euston and up to Birmingham. The station is as far away from the ground as possible, past historic old Hemel and cow-dotted riverside meadows.
The humble club car park, which desperately needs resurfacing, is usually full an hour before kick-off and the few spaces along Pennine Way not long after. There is plenty of free street parking along Grovehill Street and St Agnells Lane – just head straight across the roundabout past the ground, park outside the houses and walk back via the underpass.
There is a chirpy young steward on the car park ushering in Tony Rea’s four-wheeled behemoth to his reserved spot by the recycling dumpers. The chap taking the admission money is also friendly. Inside, the bar is bustling and busy with folks well wrapped up and comparing muddied feet. The air is thick with the smell of fried food and beer. Smashing. A TV shows rugby union in the main bar, football in the back bar. A sporting (or socio-cultural?) demarcation is evident.
There is no PA system and everyone has to tip-toe through ankle-deep mud to get to the pitch – the vision of spectating local Kieran Dixon trying to dodge the clay swamp in his plimsoles was entertaining. The paths from the new turnstiles and the clubhouse to the pitch are a work in progress. It is a surprise anyone has agreed to let the game to go ahead here.
The newly-erected stand seats 400 in ten steep rows of bucket seats and will be under cover once the season starts. The snow, rapid thaw and subsequent waterlog prevented the foundations being laid. The roof posts will unfortunately interrupt what is otherwise an excellent view, high and yet close to the action. The only problem is both the wind and the low winter sun are right in the faces of supporters on that side, making the stand the worst place from which to watch the first half. Fortunately that will be less of an issue in summer.
The rest of the ground is long grass standing around the smart white perspex barrier, all within a tall wire perimeter fence (in a sympathetic green). Much of this is simply mud today. The dressing rooms have received their badly-needed renovation but the spectator facilities are currently on a par with local non-league football or rugby union clubs and many BARLA grounds. It will suffice for Championship One, but it is hard to picture Pennine Way hosting a big club in a cup tie.
However, the good news is many of these issues should be rectified in the seven weeks before Hemel’s Big Day.
The recent addition of three floodlit pylons down each touchline gives the club some flexibility with fixtures and a floodlit 3G MUGA (multi-use games area) can be used on winter training nights. The backdrop to it all is a gigantic bottle green warehouse, aptly home of Iron Mountain.
Uniquely, with the snow gone, the pitch markings change from yellow to red as they pass through the muddy centre of a pitch that is in surprisingly good nick given recent weather. Stags’ huge investment on drainage and levelling a few seasons ago has paid off.
Among the 200 spectators here are Broncos boss Rea and his little lads who spend the afternoon running up and down through the mud and jumping into the puddles while Dad tries to watch his emerging talent. Trees behind each end separate the ground from the housing estates and the landscape is windswept and bleak today. In mid-summer it should be green and pleasant enough.
The second team pitch, a few feet below the far touchline, is clearly a public right of way: locals walk their dogs showing little interest in the Broncos youth team. I’m not surprised. Once the few familiar Broncos players depart after the first of three 30 minute games – local lad Dan Sarginson hobbles off before that has even finished - only the players’ parents and girlfriends (none are old enough to have wives watching) seem to know who is playing.
You may assume Hemel have little heritage. Au contraire! Framed shirts from former Stags such as Sheffield Eagles’ Simon Tillyer and Jack Howieson line the walls of the clubhouse entrance, with further remnants of the club’s 32 year history inside. The place has a worn, slightly tatty feel that suggests it has seen some interesting times. There is even RL heritage in the concrete beneath our feet: chairman Bob Brown – low-profile and suitably dressed in wellies and a woolly hat – tells me the clubhouse foundations were laid by the firm owned by a player from the original St Albans ARLFC (see overleaf) and the loan used to build it was negotiated with an ex-Watford RL player who worked for Benskins Brewery! It is just like any BARLA clubhouse, replete with obligatory Phoenix Club mini-stage and glittery curtain. You could be in Cumberland, West Riding or Hull.
At this level, some things don’t quite live up to their billing. Available in the bar is the Stags’ ‘Commercial Brochure’, a four page card promoting matchday sponsorship at a whopping £500 plus VAT – including a photo with Sammy The Stag (presumably still hibernating today) or Matchday Hospitality for £30 plus VAT for a meal and a seat. Commercial manager Tom Williams has done a decent job of selling pitchside adverts at £250 or £500 a pop (plus VAT of course). The far side is lined with an impressive array. Perhaps a deal will be done with the Holiday Inn or Travelodge, both a minute from the M1 and five from Pennine Way, where I expect visiting teams will stay.
VALUE FOR MONEY
Admission for this friendly was £6 (a quid for concessions), half what a league game will be (£6 concessions). Season tickets are available for a £85 for ten games. Inside the clubhouse, burgers were £2.50, sausage in a roll £1.80 and chips £1. Tea or coffee was served behind the busy bar for £1, with IPA available at a remarkably cheap £2 a pint (this in a county where you could pay almost double that in some pubs). For this ‘pop-up game’, makeshift programmes were printed off in the office and handed out to those wanting one.
Despite fielding a different and increasingly-younger team in each third, the games are well-contested and it finishes 16-all. As I walk back to the car, Tony Rea is getting exasperated trying to remove the mud-splattered Broncos jerseys from his boys and get them into his 4×4 without wrecking the upholstery. It’s that kind of place: earthy yet family-centred.
If you can resist the charms of Hemel itself – several miles of post-war housing estates with a ‘magic roundabout’, shopping centre and leisure complex – head to and from Pennine Way via upmarket Harpenden or Redbourn village. A posh Sunday lunch can be had at The White Horse but I recommend the Carpenters Arms, a tiny real ale emporium in Southdown – all just a 10 minutes drive from the ground and M1.
Driving home a magnificent rainbow appears fleetingly to the east. Within seconds it has gone. It has been that sort of day: glimpses of what might yet be something colourful and joyful but for now is rather wintry.