I don’t come to Winchester often. That’s why half an hour before kick off I’m frantically power-walking back down the road I’ve just walked up. It was my sheer arrogance to think that some hazy memories of the area from years back coupled with the most cursory of glances at a map the night before would be enough to help me locate the Denplan City ground, home of Winchester City. In short I’ve come badly unstuck and am starting to think that my whole coming here was a mistake. If I can’t find the ground the day will be a write-off; I tell myself that I should have gone to see Totton and Eling instead…
And whatsmore I did have a big feeling of unease about today. There is something ghoulish about going to see a club in what very may well be its death throes, but in my defence I’ve been meaning to see Winchester City for a while, and well, there might not be much longer. I think about asking for directions, but wonder what the chances are of anyone knowing that Winchester even had a football team, let alone where the ground is. See, that’s Winchester City’s problem, Winchester is just not a football place..
I know this as I’ve just been in the library. With some time to kill, or so I then thought, I wondered if there’s any books in the local history section about the club. There isn’t. There are books on Southampton FC and there is also a history of the local rugby club, but such is the impact of the local football team – founded in 1884 – on the City that the only trace of it on the library shelves is a passing of mention within the pages of a History of the Hampshire league.
Winchester have in fact spent most of their history in the Hampshire league with the occasional brief sojurn into the Southern League. These have never lasted long and don’t seem to end too well. Last time in 2008/09 the club finished 20th in the Southern League South and West table, but were deducted three points for fielding an ineligible player. This meant the club then finished bottom and after a failed appeal were duly relegated.
This time round though things seem even worse. Bottom of the table the club are safe from relegation due to Sholing’s withdrawal from the league, but relegation is right now the least of Winchester City’s worries. Only six players turned up to a recent training session, the electric company has pulled the plug and I heard mentioned, though I can’t confirm this, that there’s no running water in the toilets.
When I eventually reach the ground a generator is spluttering away doing it’s best to provide power to the dressing rooms and another is powering the kitchen where a woman is preparing the post-match buffet. The club house bar is open, but it’s rather dark and the TVs fixed to the wall are blank. On the walls I spot a picture of Andy Forbes holding the FA Vase with another player. In the picture the sun is shining and both players have wide grins. Elsewhere is a picture of the 1991-92 Hampshire League Div 2 winning squad and another wall houses a framed certificate celebrating the clubs centenary in 1984.
Outside the clubhouse the scene is more like a post-apocalyptic wasteland than a football ground. The tea-hut/snack-bar is closed, with some sorry looking plastic chairs sat forlornly outside, while the club shop, a battered old caravan which puts me in mind of a John Salt painting, is shackled shut. A few people mill about and one peers through the window of the closed club shop. I see James Taylor, Winchester player-manager, looking serious whilst leaving the pitch carrying some warm-up cones and wonder what his thoughts are on the state of things at the club.
Soon enough Taylor is back out with the rest of his team and the sun is also making an appearance for the kick-off, but the temptation to see this as any kind of omen is cast aside by Cirencester Town who arrive in this Mad-max style town like a biker-gang intent on making life difficult for the inhabitants; all revving engines, testosterone and cold, hard stares. Crushing Winchester underfoot like an empty can of lager they ride out again with four goals and three points in what is the most one-sided encounter I’ve seen this season. Winchester’s only highlight is a saved penalty in the second half which sees the Cirencester number nine seething in frustration – The ill-feeling spilling over as soon play restarts with brawl involving the majority of both teams and one player from each side receiving a red card.
During the game Winchester rarely look like a team and one player loudly criticises the others calling out “so lazy, every time, so lazy” in frustration at his colleagues after conceding the third goal. Rarely, if ever, does the side display any sense of being anything approaching a functioning unit – hardly surprising in the circumstances. Somewhat strangely nestling in my satchel is a book I picked up in a second hand book shop earlier in the day. Called ‘Flight to Arras’ it was written by a French airman, Saint-Exupery and is about a hazardous, but ultimately pointless reconnaissance mission over occupied France during the early stages of WWII. In it he says:
Bustle and rush are the signs of victory, not of defeat. Victory is a thing of action. It is the house in the act of being built. Every participant in victory sweats and puffs, carrying the stones for the building of the house. But defeat is a thing of weariness, of incoherence, of boredom, and above all of futility.
Winchester, sadly, are right now a defeated club. Hopefully they can resolve their issues and get their electricity supply back by the 16th April when they have a mid-week match against Tiverton Town otherwise the future indeed looks bleak.