Notes From A Small Island 5 – Isle of Wight

Football came relatively early to the Isle of Wight and, undoubtedly, Cowes were one of the first organised clubs on the island, being formed in 1881. However, the club failed to complete the 1899/1900 Southern League season, disbanding after a home League game against Tottenham Hotspur, which Cowes lost 6-1. The club was resurrected as the existing Cowes White Star club took over the Cowes name in 1903 and bought football back to the Brooklyn Ground in Park Road which boasted a stand to house 700 people. The pitch had a notorious slope but this had been levelled in 1898. Sadly, by 1912 the landlord wanted to build houses at Brooklyn so the club had to look for a new site in the Northwood Park area of the town. The resulting move to their current ground at Westwood Park in 1912 proved hugely beneficial and Cowes saw crowds regularly surpass four figures for Hampshire County Division matches. In 1917 Westwood hosted a match between Cowes and a Portsmouth ladies team, it was agreed the men’s team would play the match with their hands clasped behind their backs!

The current stand at Westwood Park was built in the mid 1920’s, apparently by local shipbuilders who who had been given 24 hours notice to erect it ahead of a match against Newport. Prior to then, a small stand with bench seating had been erected on the opposite side. It is recorded that the 1926 Good Friday match at Westwood against Ryde, attracted 3,400 people. In a smart move Cowes purchased the freehold of Westwood Park in 1945 for £665. In the 1980’s Cowes merged with Whites Sports to become Cowes Sports.

Cowes Sports

Newport were relatively late to the burgeoning growth of football on the island. The first mention of the club comes in January 1888 when they lost a game against Lugley House School. Newport moved to Church Litten, then called Well’s Field, around 1898 and erected a grandstand in 1920. The club bought the ground from Winchester College for £3,000 in 1924. Football was proving so popular the stand had to be extended further in 1928. The ground was big enough to allow 6,000 people to gather for the visit of Watford in the FA Cup in 1956. The pitch was eventually turned around ninety degrees meaning the main stand was behind the goal. By 1988 the club had accepted £2.5 million for the land which became a Morrisons supermarket, and a purpose built ground at St George’s Park. In a remarkable parallel to their Church Litten departure, the St George’s Park ground had only just had it’s 30th birthday, when the club were ousted from it at the end of the 2018/2019 campaign.

St.George’s Park, former home of Newport

The club were promised a new ground by the developers and entered into a temporary groundshare at East Cowes Victoria Athletic. Newport’s new ground, to be called WhiteFibre Park, is to be built near the Racecourse Roundabout between Newport and Wootton Bridge but the start has been delayed due to the global pandemic. The St.George’s Park Stadium lies derelict, a new Asda Superstore has been built next door and McDonald’s and Wickes have stated their intention to open units on the site of the old ground.

East Cowes Victoria Athletic were formed in 1885, and originally played at the Recreation Ground in York Avenue and then at the field near Norris Castle. Similar to Cowes they lost the use of their ground in 1912 and after considering a return to York Avenue they nearly moved to the Tower Road Recreation Ground but objections were raised by the neighbouring hospital. They then secured land at Beatrice Avenue and built a wooden grandstand which was replaced until the current stand in the mid 1990’s.

Newport playing a home game at East Cowes Victoria Athletic’s Beatrice Avenue ground

For clubs that don’t play in mainland leagues, the Isle of Wight league was formed in September 1898 with East Cowes Victoria Athletic being crowned inaugural champions. At that time Cowes, Ryde and Sandown Bay were competing on the mainland as members were of the Southern League. There had been organised football on the island before this with ad hoc leagues operating in both Cowes and Ryde featuring long lost teams such as Osborne Corinthians, Cowes St Mary’s Guild, Newport Excelsiors and St Helen’s Blue Star. It is perhaps also worth noting, as it was reported in the County Press newspaper, that at Christmas 1892 a match had taken place at Appuldurcombe between the Total Abstainers and the Moderate Drinkers!

The Isle of Wight league started with seventeen teams, of which founding members Brading Town, Bembridge and Ventnor still compete in the competition while fellow founders, East Cowes Victoria Athletic and Newport have competed in mainland leagues for many years.

One of the enduring memories of the Isle of Wight League came from Professor Barnes Wallis, inventor of the “Dambuster” bouncing bomb which had such a pivotal impact on World War II. As a young man in the 1920’s he worked for the aircraft manufacturer Saunders-Roe and latter in life he recalled a game involving the works team being played in torrential rain, possibly at Wroxall (his recall wasn’t clear and alas there was no record of whether he played in the game or was a spectator, although island folklore says he definitely played island football in his younger days). During the game the already heavy leather ball had become waterlogged and the pitch so awash with water a hefty clearance saw the ball bounce continuously across the surface of the water. He said the memory stayed with him and recalled how a heavy spherical object had its path controlled by repeatedly striking water was the inspiration for his bouncing bomb.

The league membership has fluctuated greatly over the years with in excess of 500 teams having participated in the competition. Sides like Long Common,Totland Bay, Ryde St John’s, Shanklin Rangers, Royal Ulster Rifles, Saro Sports, Cowes Denmark Road Old Boys and works teams like Plessey (electronics), J.Arthur Dixon (greetings cards), Ratseys (sailmakers) and the British Hovercraft Corporation have come and gone.

Currently the Isle of Wight League consists of two divisions of 23 clubs plus the reserves of Cowes Sports and the “A” team of Newport. Then there are two further Combination Leagues for the reserve and “A” teams of Isle of Wight League teams. Whilst many member clubs play on public parks with spartan facilities in this article I will highlight some of the more interesting grounds from the Isle of Wight League.

Brading Town have played at Vicarage Lane since their formation in 1871 although in the early days they also used a pitch at Beech Grove. Life at Vicarage Lane wasn’t always easy, for season 1938/39 the club had decided to charge admission for the first time, to which the Archdeacon would only give his consent if the club erected a canvas screen to block visibility of the pitch from the graveyard. The club now boast one of the best facilities in the island league mainly due to their lengthy stint in Hampshire/Wessex Leagues between 1973 and 2012. The clubhouse was built in the 1980’s and around the same time the floodlights were acquired from Erith & Belvedere. In more recent years the ramshackle old wooden cover has been replaced with modern modular units on either side of the pitch. In 2008 Vicarage Lane was renamed The Peter Henry Ground following the passing of a club stalwart who had given 62 unbroken years of service to the club.

Brading Town

Ryde Saints are the current incumbents of the Smallbrook Stadium in Ryde, primarily a speedway venue used by the Wight Warriors team. The traditional Ryde team, Ryde Sports, were formed in 1888 and enjoyed lengthy spells in the Hampshire League and a single season, 1898/99, in the Southern League. The club’s demise was precipitated by a move from their traditional home at Partlands which was sold to developers in 1990. The Smallbrook Stadium is somewhat out of town and despite arranging high profile friendlies against the likes of Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday and Southampton, the club struggled financially and failed to complete the 1997/98 season. They were briefly replaced by Ryde ‘98 but they too fell by the wayside. The stadium has one very long shallow stand more suited to watching speedway than football. Ryde Saints also struggle to attract support which must be a concern for of the island’s traditional footballing hotbeds.

Ryde Saints

Whitecroft & Barton Sports play at the Whitecroft Sports Ground and have won the last five completed Division One titles. Their ground, opened in 1904, is situated off Sandy Lane and boasts a sizeable clubhouse with a shallow seated stand attached to it. The ground has fine views of the listed clocktower of the former Whitecroft asylum.

Whitecroft & Barton Sports

Moving to the south of the island and the town of Ventnor provides stunning vistas of the English Channel. Ventnor FC play at the Watcombe Bottom Sports Centre which also provides facilities for Ventnor Rugby Club and Rew Valley Youth Football Club. Although Ventnor was used as a venue in the 1993 Island Games it wasn’t used during the 2011 Games, despite the football pitch having decent cover on the sizeable banking.

Ventnor

The best of the grounds to the east of the island is to be found in Seaview. The club are one of the oldest on the island with a history dating back to 1890 when they played on a field off Seagrove Manor Road before moving to Holgate Farm in 1935. The old wooden pavilion at the current ground, Seaview Park, was destroyed by fire in December 1974 and the current Seagrove Pavilion was opened the following year with the help of a fund-raising match against Portsmouth. It is a quite magnificent and well maintained structure, and the ground is augmented further by a large covered stand which replaced a smaller wooden stand. As if this venue couldn’t be any more perfect the far end provides stunning views of the English Channel.

Seaview

The western town of Freshwater has been represented by a number of clubs in the Isle of Wight League including Royal Garrison Artillery Freshwater and Freshwater Royal Artillery who were champions in 1906/07. However, the best known town team is West Wight who started life at Freshwater Comrades. In 1922 the club were asked by the Freshwater British Legion to drop the Comrades suffix as the Comrades of the Great War Society from where they had taken their name, had amalgamated with other associations to become the Royal British Legion. The club elected to change the name to West Wight Athletic. The Camp Road ground was railed off with a decent stand, largely due to a stint in the Hampshire League from the mid 1980’s. The old stand has since been replaced with a more modest structure, but one that will still keep spectators dry when needed.

West Wight

Other Isle of Wight League venues worthy of mention despite their lack of spectator accommodation are Shanklin’s County Ground, a substantial railed off venue which recently saw upgrading work being carried out to the clubhouse. Oakfield’s Recreation Ground is also a railed off pitch but has the added bonus of a dramatic backdrop of hillside houses. Sandown & Lake now use the Fairway Sports Complex having lost their traditional ground at Fairway Park which boasted a sizeable wooden grandstand.

Oakfield
Shanklin’s County Ground

While most other clubs play in public parks, the Clatterford Recreation Ground, home to Carisbrooke United, is no ordinary public park. While it is bereft of any football furniture of note it affords quite stunning views of the neighbouring castle parts of which date back to the twelfth century.

Carisbrooke United

A version of this article first appeared in the December 2020 issue of Groundtastic Magazine (Issue No.103)

Far Away In Time (Ekco Sports FC)

The story of Ekco Sports starts with the story of Eric Kirkham Cole, a genial engineer born in Rochford in 1901. He began manufacturing radios in the early 1920’s in a garden shed at his house in Beedell Avenue, but was taken by a newspaper article by William Verrells that espoused the potential benefits of mains powered rather than battery powered radios. Cole set about developing a battery eliminator radio and showed his invention to Verrells. He was so impressed the pair went into business in 1926 as E.K. Cole Ltd, initially based in Leigh-on-Sea. Within four years the firm moved to a much bigger site built on a former cabbage field at Priory Crescent in Southend.

The company boomed and while they diversified into many areas such as domestic appliances, car radios, heaters, Geiger counters, tape recorders, televisions, radar, aircraft and tank radios, they were most famous for the production of domestic radios housed in striking bakerlite cases. Initially Ekco imported the bakelite casings from AEG in Germany but prohibitive import duties saw Cole set up his own moulding plant next to his factory. He employed some well-known designers like the modernist designer Wells Coates (perhaps best remembered for the Isokon Buildings in Belsize Park) and it was Coates that designed the casing for Ekco’s iconic product, the AD-65 radio. Cole also similarly engaged the Russian born designer Serge Chermayeff who is best known for co-designing the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill.

The iconic Ekco AD-65

At its peak, Ekco employed 8,000 people and E.K. Cole even did a lot of secret government work on the Enigma code breaking machine during World War II. The company merged with Pye in 1960 and the plant diversified to electrical lighting before closing in the 1970’s, with the factory being sold to the credit card company Access. Cole himself met an unfortunate end, drowning in the Bahamas in 1966.

Cole was undoubtedly a caring employer, a real leader on providing apprenticeships, workplace pensions and paid holidays. He also provided excellent social and welfare facilities for his workers. Football and cricket (from 1935) for the men and netball for the factory’s numerous female employees. The works football team first started with friendlies in 1929 before entering competitive football for the 1930/31 season, fielding two teams in the Southend Borough Combination. The first team won Division Two in 1931/32 seeing off the challenge of runners up, Leigh Wesley. The team played in amber and green colours, the livery of works vans and of the flag flown above the factory. Initially games were played at Bournes Green Park and then at Rochford Corner before a sports field and pavilion was established at the factory site.

During the war Ekco’s sports teams had to adopt the name “Nomads” for security reasons, as the firm was involved in the production of components to aid the war effort. The footballers won the prestigious Southend Charity Cup under the Nomads moniker in 1944/45. Many of the companies’ workers either enlisted or were evacuated to Ekco’s other sites in safer areas. The two Ekco cricket teams, the Monarchs and Trojans, struggled to field sides and drafted in the help of professional footballers from Southend United, like Stan Montgomery (who had played first class cricket for Glamorgan), Frank Dudley, Jack French and Frank Walton.

In January 1946, Ekco travelled to Layer Road to take on the first team of Colchester United, then of the Southern League, in a friendly. A crowd of 2,000 watched the works team achieve a very creditable 3-3 draw. It was clear Ekco were ready for a higher level of football and they joined the London League for the 1946/47 season.

To coincide with their elevated status the club erected a stand at the ground. Many years later the stand was re-erected at the Victory Sports Ground in Eastern Avenue. Sadly, it didn’t last very long and with the area being an open public park it was soon badly vandalised and demolished for safety reasons. Unfortunately, to date, searches for a photo of the Ekco stand have proved elusive.

The London League had become an interesting competition with reserve teams of the likes of Chelmsford City, Guildford City and Bedford Town, as well as first teams of established clubs like Tilbury, Eton Manor, Woodford Town and Epsom. Other works teams such as Crittall Athletic and London Telecoms also rubbed shoulders with the likes of Leavesden Mental Hospital, Woolwich Polytechnic and Royal Naval Depot. Playing in a higher level meant entering the FA Cup for the first time. Ekco reached the second qualifying round in 1947/48, succumbing to Grays Athletic.

An Ekco programme from their London League days

Ekco spent three seasons in the London League before a bottom place finish in 1948/49 saw them elect to return to the Southend Borough Combination. Ekco won the title in their first season back in the competition relegating defending champions Gaslight (Southend) into the runners up spot. Ekco remained in the Borough Combination for many years, winning further titles in 1956/57 and 1965/66, and competed long after the company closed down. In 1981/82, and now called Ekco Social & Sports, the club moved up to the Essex Olympian League. A further name change occurred in 1996 to Ekco First Data, reflecting the change of site ownership to Access. The club left the now Essex Intermediate League at the end of the 1999/2000 season.

The club rejoined the Southend Borough Combination and merged with Thames Park. Ekco/Thames Park won the Premier Division in 2004/5 two points clear of Old Southendian, retaining the title the following season. The Ekco name disappeared from local adult football at the end of the 2008/09 season and Thames Park carried on under their own name. In the same year Ekco’s two cricket sides merged with Southend-on-Sea Cricket Club. The Ekco name does continue at youth level with the long established Ekco Whitecaps club. Whitecaps have also been fielding an adult team in the Borough Combination from 2015. While the team may have gone the sports ground and social club remain as actively used facilities to this day.

The whole site of the former factory was demolished to make way for a housing development and for a new site for Fair Haven’s hospice. In 2020, the long and fascinating history of Ekco and Eric Kirkham Cole has been marked with a superb statue, by sculptor Anne Schwegmann-Fielding, of Cole made out of 182 ceramic mosaic tiles of photos of the factory and its workers, standing atop of that iconic radio.

With grateful thanks to Vince Taylor of Groundtastic Magazine

And The Circus Leaves Town

So the third and final year of the Welsh Alliance League Groundhop proved to be a fitting finale to what has been a fantastic series of weekends in some of the most scenic locations in Britain.

Friday August 28th 2015

6.30pm – Division Two

Mochdre Sports (0) 1 (Owen 63)

Prestatyn Sports (0) 0

Att: 313 (at Swan Road)

The weekend opened with a tight encounter between two of leagues newest incumbents. The football ground shares with a mightily impressive cricket ground and adjacent hills provide an attractive backdrop, which is somewhat unexpected having reached the ground walking through an industrial estate. Mochdre have done very well from nearly having to fold in the summer of 2012 to gaining promotion to the Welsh Alliance for the 2014/15 season and they win this encounter with a fine free kick from the left boot of Niall Owen.

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Saturday August 29th 2015

10.45am– Division Two

Amlwch Town (1) 1 (Griffiths 45)

Nantlle Vale (2) 2 (A.Hughes 2, S.Williams 40)

Att: 318 (at Lôn Bach)

A reverse fixture from last season’s groundhop sees the visitors win the points in another close game. Prior to kick off a frankly moving speech sees the unveiling of the new stand at Lon Bach, shoehorned into the only available space at the ground, with the widow of former club stalwart John Thomas cutting the ribbon. The club had played in the second tier Cymru Alliance in 2002/03 but after a disastrous campaign they regrouped in the Anglesey League.

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13.30pm– Division Two

Llanerch-y-medd (2) 3 (J.Jones 5, M.Jones 29,47)

Blaenau Ffestiniog Amateurs (2) 2 (Bradley 35,45)

Att: 317 (at Cae Tan Parc)

A steep climb up into the hills and a real surprise to find a super ground at Tan Parc complete with a seated stand on the far side of this exposed venue. A cracking end-to-end match culminated with just about the right result.

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16.45pm– Division One

Trearddur Bay United (3) 4 (Murphy 6, Thomas 17,28, C.Williams 46)

St.Asaph City (0) 3 (J.Jones 48,86, Johns 74)

Att: 304 (at Lôn Issalt)

A real seaside location on Holy Island sees Trearddur Bay’s narrow Lon Issalt packed for this encounter. The boundary wall does makeshift service as a grandstand and many take the hike up the adjacent hill to really appreciate the natural beauty of this fine venue. The home side look hugely impressive in the first half before seemingly running out of puff as the visitors almost clawed back a huge deficit.

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19.45pm– Division One

Llangefni Town (0) 4 (Evans 58, Hughes 65, I.Jones 74, S.Jones 79)

Llanfairpwll (0) 0

Att: 409 (at Cae Bob Parry)

The best appointed ground of the weekend as you would expect given the club’s former tenure in the Welsh Premier League. Cover on all four sides and plastic seating with no little provenance having been acquired from both Gay Meadow and Maine Road. A close first half is followed by the complete opposite in the first half as the hosts threatened to run riot.

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Sunday August 30th 2015

11.30am– Division One

Llanberis (0) 1 (R.Parry 68)

Pwllheli (0) 1 (M.Jones 76)

Att: 333 (at Fforde Padarn)

In the shadow of mighty Snowdon you would expect a scenic ground and Fforde Padern certainly didn’t disappoint. Mountains prevail all around and Llyn Padarn glistens in the early morning sun. A tight encounter is frequently punctuated by the whistles and expelling of steam from the nearby mountain railway. Glorious.

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14.30pm– Division One

Llanrug United (0) 2 (Palmer 63, D.Williams 86)

Llanrwst United (0) 1 (Jenkins 79)

Att:324 (at Eithin Duon)

A short drive out of Llanberis finds a lovely little football ground which is dwarfed by a pylon in the adjacent field. The club have played here since 1968 when the village team was re-established after a nine year hiatus caused by numerous problems trying to find a suitable home ground. Prior to that the club had also been in trouble with the North Wales Coast Football Association, for staging several illegal matches outside of the official football season! The two sides really slug this one out and the hosts secure the points with a goal from David Williams.

18.00pm– Division Two

Mynydd Llandegai (1) 3 (Hughes 6, pen 70, Whitmore 74)

Meliden (1) 2 (Szabo 21, Buckley 76)

Att: 305 (at Cae Peldroed)

Wow. Just wow. A steep ascent into the mountains again to some 850 feet above sea level.  This tiny village’s playing field is probably the only relatively flat piece of land for miles. The scenery is breathtaking, from heather covered mountains to a derelict stone built dwelling, from a stone monument to a planted garden it’s a very attractive place to watch a football match. It’s a very decent encounter too, just shaded by the hosts.

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Sunday August 31st 2015

11.30am– Division Two

Pentreath (4) 10 (McGonigle 1,19, 55, 56, R.Roberts 14, Monument 37, 53, C.Jones 57, 89, D.Owen 73)

Gaerwen (2) 2 (McGuiness 21, Leuthwaite 27)

Att: 376 (at Bryniau Field)

Back onto Anglesey for this match at a typical small village playing field. Minor consternation occurs when one of the coaches reverses perilously close to the local war memorial. The ground also features a set of medieval stocks, punishment for a bad performance maybe? A very one sided game saw the hosts score at will in the second half. It will certainly be a long season for poor old Gaerwen.

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14.45pm- League Cup 1st Round

Llanllyfni (1) 4 (A.Owen 3,90, C.Parry 49, Daniels 57)

Trearddur Bay United (1) 1 (Moore 42)

Att: 307 (at Cae Brenin Sior V)

The game that nearly wasn’t following the pull outs of both Bethesda Athletic and Halkyn United. Fortunately Trearddur Bay came to the rescue and sent a side to contest this League Cup tie. So late was the re-arranged game you can certainly forgive five of their players turning up late for the game. The home side, new to the league following their triumph in the Gwynedd League, look very impressive and the result was never in any doubt.

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18.15pm– Division Two

Penmaenmawr Phoenix (2) 3 (A.Caldecott 21, Davies 44, T.Paddock 90)

Greenfield (1) 4 (Pritchard 39, Shaun Beck 56, G.Henley 59,80)

Att: 431 (at Cae Sling)

A packed Cae Sling provides the perfect coda to this wonderful weekend of football and the two combatants produce a goal feast as well with Greenfield just doing enough to win the points. You almost get blasé about the scenery of these grounds but Cae Sling is a really stunning place to see a game.

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Tastes and Smells of the Weekend

Lobscows (Llanerch-y-medd)

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Chicken, leek and potato stew – Trearddur Bay United

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Fish Finger baps – Llanrug United

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Corned Beef hash – Penmaenmawr Phoenix

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I for one felt a little sad at the end of this fabulous weekend of football as the league is now completed and the Groundhop circus will roll up elsewhere next August bank holiday.