Visited: Monday 5 April 2010
One of my favourite things about watching grassroots football is the way it helps me forget the cynicism and bitterness that increasingly mar the professional game, and the relentless failure of my own club. One of my other favourite things is the typical proximity of the football ground and the pub. Indeed, many amateur and semi-professional clubs have a licensed clubhouse within the ground. At Stocksbridge Park Steels FC, a few miles up the road from here, you can even keep your pint in your hand and watch the game through the window of the clubhouse if you choose. It’s not quite as luxurious as that here at Sheffield FC, but you can see off your last pre-match pint at 2:59pm and still take up your place on the terraces in time for kick-off.
The Coach and Horses is attached to Sheffield FC in more ways than one. The most obvious is architectural. Some pubs have beer gardens just behind them; the Coach and Horses has the home stadium of the oldest football club in the world. The pub literally backs on to the east stand, allowing fans to pass the half time interval with pints in their hands and not miss a minute of the match. The attachment is also legal and economic: the football club owns the pub, and the money taken over the bar presumably helps to finance the club.
Thirdly, there’s a bit of an emotional attachment as well. Though the football club has been established for more than 150 years, much of that time has been a struggle to find a place to call its own. In 2001 the chance arose to relocate to the Coach and Horses. It’s a decent pub and a decent-ish ground. It’s not in Sheffield: it’s about five miles away, over the border in Derbyshire. But the locals have adopted the club with some relish, and attendances have grown. There are 350 or so here today; now and again there’ll be double that.
Cara and I arrive not long after 2 o’clock on Easter Monday. The crowd at the bar, unexpectedly, is thin compared to the two- or three-deep throng I’ve seen here before. Like the Sheffield Tap and the University Arms, the Coach and Horses brims with tasty beer from Derbyshire’s increasingly renowned Thornbridge Brewery. Today I go for Martius, a nut-brown premium bitter. It’s served a bit too cold, and with a bit less head than is seemly. But its deep flavours come through, earthy, caramel, buttery. It’d be a nice pint for the autumn.
Looking back over some earlier posts on Get to the pub.com, I wonder sometimes whether I’m a bit obsessed with social class and wealth, as I do seem to ponder rather often the affluence of the people surrounding me in pubs. The Coach and Horses is an interesting one in this regard, though. At about half past two there’s an appearance from Richard Tims, who apparently gave up a lucrative career in printing to become the chairman of the football club. He’s one of those people whose aspect quickly suggests money acquired rather than born into. Dronfield itself is a well-off little commuter town, and the Coach and Horses offers an extensive and expensive range of posh pub food. Since they did it up the other year, it also has a thicker carpet than any pub I’ve visited in my life.
But the supporters are a mixed bunch. On match days at least the pub is populated by as many working joes as fat-pensioned Audi polishers. The atmosphere’s as friendly as the accents are thick (at this latitude traces of Derby start to penetrate the South Yorkshire). And after a game ends, the players emerge into the pub. There’s no ambiguity about these lads’ origins. Some will be the sons of one-time coal miners from the former pit villages their teams represent ‒ today’s opponents, Glapwell, a living example from just down the road.
Today we cross the threshold three times. The compulsory pre-match and half-time pints are supplemented by another, after the game, to pass half an hour before the bus back to Sheffield. A front corner of the room is laden with vast plates of fat, clingfilmed bread rolls stuffed with meat and cheese. This is the players’ post-match snack. They begin to emerge into the pub, gleaming, exhilarated and a bit knackered, ready for the spread and a pint or two. It’s a shame to have to leave, because I wonder how long these festivities go on. One day maybe I’ll stay in the Coach and Horses and see how an evening unfolds here after the football.
Before the bus comes tonight, I get talking to a man at the bar who seems something of a groundhopper. The game ended without a goal, and we reflect that this will represent mission accomplished for Glapwell, who mostly played a defensive, counterattacking game. I admit that it’s my first visit here this season, as Sheffield aren’t my first club. His interest quickens; he asks who is. Now it’s common knowledge among supporters at large that my team is odds-on to be relegated into non-League football for the first time in a century. So as I declare my allegiance I expect to be met with expressions of empathy at our plight, certainly a little tact and sensitivity, and perhaps a consoling hand on the shoulder and a reminder that we might still string some wins together and escape the big drop.
“Oh, Grimsby!” he beams. “Me and me mate’ve been meaning to go there. We’ll have to do it quick now before you drop out o’ t’ league!”