Saddleworth Independent Sports editor Tony Bugby joined non-league football diehards for part of The Easter Groundhop in which many watched a remarkable 13 games in the North West Counties League and Northern Counties East League over the holiday weekend.
Having been privileged to report on more than 3,000 football matches over a period spanning almost 40 years, I could have been forgiven for thinking I had been there, done it all and had the T shirt to prove it.
I had been fortunate to report on football on five continents, cover major championships, Premier League, Champions League and umpteen finals of the FA Cup.
Yet on my own doorstep I was able to do something completely different over the Easter weekend by taking part in The Easter Groundhop.
There had been occasions when I had covered two matches in one day, but never three as I did on Easter Monday.
It was one of GroundhopUK’s regular events that enables non-league football fans to watch a concentration of matches in a short space of time.
This was the first time the body, formed in 2002, had used the North West Counties League for a groundhog,also doubling up with the Northern Counties East.
Kicking off on Thursday night at Bradford-based Campion, there were three games on Good Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday – a total of 13 games in just over four days.
“We have six or seven events each year, but this was the biggest one we have ever staged,” explained Groundhopper UK founder Chris Berezai.
It had been 18 months in the planning to co-ordinate kick off times with clubs to enable fans to take in three games each day.
Easter Monday’s groundhop schedule took in Ashton Collieries v Darwen at 11am, West Didsbury and Chorlton v Congleton Town at 2.45pm and Maine Road v Abbey Hey at 5.45pm.
While watching three games in a day appeared a notable achievement for myself, I soon became aware it was nothing out of the ordinary.
Previous groundhops, I discovered, had even taken in four and five games in one day, a staggering feat of organising.
And as the coach transported some of the seasoned football fans around Lancashire and Yorkshire, it soon became apparent these were the hardy souls.
They were on an organised trip based in Wakefield with the cost of four nights accommodation, travel, admission and programmes costing between £310 and £365.
“About 90% of the bookings were for the whole trip which we had labelled the divorce maker. I never envisaged so many people taking in all 13 games,” Chris explained.
He also revealed a meticulous eye for detail in the planning saying: “We even co-ordinated catering because by club number five fans would be fed up with pies.
“We encouraged them to do something different, and we had curry, chilli, pasta on the menu and Lancashire hotpot at Maine Road for our last game.”
Chris added that attendances at groundhops games are often double, treble and even quadruple the average. And since they started, he says they have injected £750,000 in extra revenue to clubs.
Chris also argued it is a “green way” of watching football as it enabled fans to visit many grounds over the weekend and prevented them making multiple trips.
Fans came from far and wide – groups from Germany and Denmark and Anders Johannson from Norway – as non-league football in those countries in not on the same scale as here.
The first three fans I interviewed within the first 10 minutes of arriving at Atherton Collieries were Ian Bailey, from Burgess Hill, West Sussex; Donald Radsma, Cardiff, and Shaun Smith, Gateshead.
Ian and Donald were doing the full monty while Shaun had caught the 7am train from Newcastle to be at Atherton for 11am as he was doing the three games on Monday.
Donald had visited around 1,030 grounds, but only 21 league clubs, preferring the picturesque backdrops such as the castle overlooking Llandovery. As a Welshman, he had done all the clubs in the Carmarthenshire League and Ceridigion League.
Robert Smith, from Stevenage, added that non league is more affordable explaining admission to the 13 games was £65.
“My friend went to watch Arsenal play Bayern Munich in the Champions League and paid £125 and you pay £80 to watch one of their Premier League game,” he said.
Shaun Niven, operations manager at the Falkirk Wheel, drove down from Glasgow at 6.30am to take in Monday’s three matches.
So what are my memories of the football.
11am: Atherton Collieries v Darwen
Collieries, who look set to become Hallmark Security League, premier division champions, overpowered fourth-bottom Darwen.
Jordan Cove scored a hat-trick, including two penalties in a 5-1 victory, that could easily have been 10-2 as it was a one-sided contest played in front of a season’s best gate of 478.
2.45pm: West Didsbury and Chorlton v Congleton Town
The days’s most exciting game as Congleton came from behind and looked set to earn a deserved point thanks to a late equaliser from substitute Callam Gardner’s spectacular effort.
Disaster struck for the Bears as the home side scored twice in stoppage time to win 3-1 as they left the Recreation ground empty handed with the 295 fans witnessing a gripping finish.
5.45pm: Maine Road v Abbey Hey
Another comeback in this Manchester derby that ended 2-2 at Brantingham Road, former home of the Manchester County FA, in front of 259 spectators.
When Maine Road established a 2-0 lead early in the second half, it looked as though they would emerge the victors.
Abbey Hey scored twice in the last quarter of the game to earn a point and they looked the likeliest to snatch victory late on as the game had tilted in their favour.