1984 - Present : Leamington Era : Regards to Queen St
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Taken from "Give my regards to Queen Street" - A Journey Through Midlands Football by Steve Field
available from Grey Cat Books, PO Box 160, Lytham St Annes, FY8 3WW

Monday 6 May 2002

Leamington v Polesworth North Warwick

Midland Combination, Division One

Nine months and twenty-nine matches after the opener at Boldmere we were out and about early. We followed the well-trodden path through Wall Heath to Kidderminster, up the winding Bromsgrove road and along the Highway to Redditch. In Warwick the first horseboxes were parking up ready for the Bank Holiday meeting. We left them behind and made for Bishop's Tachbrook, past the leafy fringes of Leamington Spa and into the quiet countryside beyond. After a while we caught sight of a windmill through the mist and then a gap in the verge and a yellow-painted sign. It was the entrance to a football ground in the middle of open farmland.

For reasons best known to themselves the Comb had decreed their First Division games would start at eleven-thirty this cold morning. That was why we found ourselves out here so soon after breakfast, in a large car-park surrounded by wire netting and policed by the first stewards this level of football had seen in many a long year. There were fifteen minutes to kick-off and plenty of people about. The car next to us had a Sunderland sticker in its rear windscreen but unloaded a father and two young sons wearing yellow and black Leamington scarves. More spectators shuffled towards an entrance gate in one corner of a basic ground. We could see those already inside through a chain-link fence, and the scene looked for all the world like one of the car-boot sales we'd passed on the way across from Wolverhampton. But the attraction here wasn't a quick bargain. It was the last act in the title race between Leamington and Rugby Town. 

We paid at a table inside a simple wooden fence where two gatemen dealt with a flow of fans armed only with a metal cashbox, a roll of tickets and a box of free programmes. Another table held raffle prizes and next to it was a garden shed doing duty as a club shop. It sold replica shirts, scarves, hats, badges and away travel. One of the people by the raffle table was Leamington secretary Brian Knibb. He was a small man in a suit and a black woollen coat. He greeted us warmly and hustled us round the corner and into a compound where the dressing rooms were screened off behind more wooden fencing. Refreshments had been laid on for visiting officials in a tiny cabin shared with the PA announcer.  A couple of old friends sat in two of the chairs lining one wall. It was Roger and Lyn Wright, who we’d last seen on that cold February evening in Polesworth's clubhouse.

Knibb apologised for the cramped conditions and left us to have a cup of tea, promising to show us round when he came back. Jean chatted to Lyn and Roger and I read yellowing newspaper cuttings pasted to the wooden walls. They told the story of AP Leamington's final days. Still reeling from the stolen promotion of 1983 AP discovered that Automotive Products, major backers and owners of the Windmill Ground, intended to sell the site for housing. This was the tense backdrop to their successful 1983-4 season. After Graham Allner’s departure the team made it to the First Round of the Cup and lost 1-0 to Gillingham in a close game at the Windmill. Allner was replaced by Jim Watson and the Brakes went on to win the Southern League Cup and reach the quarter-finals of the Trophy. Kim Casey and Cliff Campbell banged in the goals that term but it proved a last flicker of the candle. AP ended up bottom of the league the following May. They won only twice and conceded one hundred and twelve times.

The name of Automotive Products had been connected with the club since 1973. The area was the heart of the clutch and brake industry and a sign there used to boast "There's a part of Leamington in every car". But now the motor trade was in decline and a rebranded Leamington FC finished second bottom of the Midland Division in 1986 and 1987 and turned amateur shortly afterwards. Leamington spent a solitary year in the Comb and staged the last game at the Windmill against Walsall Wood in April 1988. After that they ceased playing altogether. A century of football history had been ended by a combination of injustice and national recession. Houses were built on the site of the ground and it looked as though football had died in the town. But three men - Don Hartwell, Dave Hucker and Mick Brady - kept the club's registration going. They met regularly at Hucker's house and organised a fundraising dinner once a year. Leamington survived as a name and an annual party.

As we walked round the ground with Knibb it was clear things had changed. A grey steel roof rose above hard standing behind one goal and the first wall of a new social club and dressing-room block had been built. Black-painted floodlight pylons (formerly at The Grove, Halesowen) lay on the grass ready for fitting. Leamington had also acquired a block of yellow plastic tip-up seats from Oxford United's Manor Ground and put up a small uncovered stand in the centre of the touchline. Knibb stopped here and there to introduce me to different people - brothers Keith and Kevin Hancock of the Friends of Leamington, vice-chairman Vic Shepherd, club historian Terry Willoughby. Willoughby had been following the Brakes since their reformation after the War, when they were called Lockheed Leamington and played in the Birmingham Combination. He wore a small metal badge showing the new club's emblem, a football rising sun-like behind a stylised windmill.

Leamington were already assured of playing in the Comb's top division next year. But a second successive title depended on Rugby Town - another famous club recently reborn - losing their remaining matches. Brakes had won eleven on the trot while Polesworth had been enjoying a decent run under the inimitable McKenzie, whose young players laughed and joked as they trotted out in their green and black strip. We stood behind perspex dugouts where the pitch-side rail was packed with fans and talked to Dave Hucker. For a man who'd played such an important role in rescuing the club he was a diffident character and at pains to understate his personal dedication. He told us that £30,000 had been invested in the six-acre site in 1990, twice its value as agricultural land but good value at today's prices. The club marked out a pitch in 1993 and six years later ex-Racing Club manager Dave Draper began assembling a team to play on it.

Getting the ground ready, Hucker remarked, was like Challenge Anneka. Fans offered their skills - carpentry, plumbing, wiring, building or just hard work - free of charge and slowly transformed the open fields. A grass bank at one end of the pitch made a natural vantage point and the car park was flattened and laid out at the other. The work took two years and included the massive task of bringing electricity two miles from the town itself. On 18 August 2000, more than twelve years after AP folded, the new team entertained Enville Athletic in the Comb's Division Two and won 3-1. The original intention had been to count the gate from the number of programmes given out but the programmes had all gone and still fans poured into the ground. A crowd of more than seven hundred was estimated from takings. Leamington went on to win the league at their first attempt and a year ago today had attracted a record gate of 1200 against Rugby Town. Already this season over 11000 people had watched football at the New Windmill.

Leamington dominated the game. They'd worked out that Polesworth were vulnerable to crosses and proceeded to test them from the wings. They forced a string of corners and Nick Mort sent across a wicked ball converted by Darren Timms for the opening goal after half an hour. Unfortunately I missed it. I was queuing up at the mobile caterers outside the gates behind the back of the Harbury End, reasoning that the chances of a goal had to be weighed against the passage of time since my last proper meal. By the time I got back with a bacon sandwich Mort had been stretchered off with a pulled muscle and Hucker was telling Jean about the litter patrols organised to keep the area tidy. Brakes' Simon Walker was also struggling for fitness, and Polesworth began to create a few chances of their own as the first period drew to a close and the sun finally came out.

When the second half started we were standing by the rails at the covered end, chatting to Keith Lycett and Roger and Lyn Wright. I asked Roger if he was looking forward to some time off over the summer. "Well, yes", he said, "but I've a few jobs to do. The vandals have been busy again so I've to fix the posts around the pitch, do some work on the grass, maybe a bit of painting. It never ends, really." Keith's wife was with him. We talked about her brother, Martin Taylor the Wycombe goalkeeper, and her family's long association with Mile Oak Rovers. On the field Polesworth took up where they had left off. They deservedly equalised on the hour when Andy Charles finished coolly from inside the box past Umbi Sidhu in the Leamington goal. The tiny contingent from Tamworth celebrated but the Leamington fans were subdued. Rugby's game against Handsaker in Erdington was still goalless and they knew a win would keep their team in with a chance of the title. That looked unlikely now but as we strolled along the touchline to where Vic Shepherd stood the game suddenly sprang to life.

While Shepherd was telling us about plans to put up the new floodlights on the coming Friday, Brakes' captain Steve Thompson lofted a cross into the box that Paul Eden dived to head against the bar. Three minutes later the same player ran right through the Polesworth defence, took the ball around the 'keeper and calmly stroked it into the net for 2-1. The hundred or so fans on the open, grassy North Bank went happily berserk in the sunshine, leaping up and down and waving their Leamington flags. The goal proved a turning point and the end of Polesworth's brave resistance. Shepherd had moved onto the subject of finance. He said that Friends of Leamington raised thousands for the club and sponsorship was healthy. News arrived that Rugby were ahead against Handsaker as Eden scored his second goal, a virtual carbon-copy of the first. With the seconds ticking away he followed up with another to complete a twenty-minute hat-trick and shortly afterwards referee Roy Crook blew the whistle that ended our season.

Many fans waited patiently as the team warmed down and then applauded the players back into the dressing rooms. The men in the burger-bar packed up their generators while supporters locked the garden-shed shop, loaded boxes into cars and shouted goodbyes. There was a general unwillingness to leave and we shared it. The road to the New Windmill had been a long one and now the journey was finished. But there was an invitation to accept before we went home. We drove back towards the town and past the main gates of the AP works, to the Windmill Inn next to the site of the Brakes’ old ground. Leamington were using the pub for hospitality until their new clubhouse was ready. It was where players and officials had their post-match meal and today this was to be a barbecue.   

We ate our food in the beer garden after queuing at a roaring griddle where a bearded and aproned landlord doled out piled platefuls to hungry players and overcoated committeemen. Both teams lined benches and long tables under an awning as Keith Lycett (making sure of his paperwork before the squad disbanded for the summer) prowled among the Polesworth contingent with a sheaf of signing-on forms. Roger and Lyn Wright were here, and Iain McKenzie; Dave Hucker talked quietly, Brian Knibb circulated sociably, young players and their wives and girlfriends sat in happy clusters. After an hour the party showed no sign of coming to an end and we reluctantly said goodbye to Knibb, to the Polesworth party, to Hucker, to McKenzie and to the season itself. I thought of Terry Willoughby as I put the car into gear. Contemplating the New Windmill much as we were looking at this carefree gathering, his face lit up and his eyes sparkled. "What's happened here is a miracle", he said.

© Steve Field 2003