Penzance vs. St. Dennis

For many Cornwall is arguably more closely associated with Rugby Union than Football, and it’s true that the Cornwall Rugby Football Union pre-dates the Cornwall County FA by nine years. However, England’s most south-westerly county also boasts a rich football heritage. In addition to the South West Peninsula League, formed in 2007 from the amalgamation of the South Western and Devon County Leagues, there are four more Saturday Leagues: the Cornwall Combination, East Cornwall, Duchy, and Trelawny. With around four hundred clubs currently affiliated with the Cornwall FA, Football in Cornwall is certainly not a minority sport, and no-one has captured it better than photographer Darren Luke, whose work deserves to be viewed by a much wider audience. His images certainly evoke those of the great Hans van der Meer, and if they don’t encourage to you venture West then nothing will.

Distance has arguably been the biggest obstacle to the progression of Cornish clubs up the Football Pyramid, with Truro City currently of the National League South Division the best it has achieved to date, albeit not without considerable financial backing, followed by near bankruptcy. Truro famously won the first FA Vase final to be staged at the new Wembley Stadium, and more recently AFC St. Austell had a great run, reaching the semi-final stage before succumbing to Glossop North End over two legs. Falmouth Town, Bodmin Town, and Porthleven have also enjoyed good runs in the past, belying the official Step 6 status of the SW Peninsula League, and South Western League before it.

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I’m sure I am not alone in being intrigued by Football Clubs at extreme points of the compass. Lowestoft Town has the distinction of being England’s most easterly club; whilst Berwick Rangers is presumably the most northerly, albeit playing in Scotland. Cornwall however, can certainly claim that Lizard Argyle of the Trelawny League is the most southerly club; and that St. Just (Cornwall Combination) is the most westerly. That is of course if one discounts the Isles of Scilly, home to the world’s smallest Football League in which two clubs – Woolpack Wanderers and the Garrison Gunners – play each other repeatedly each weekend during the course of a season, on the only ground on St. Mary’s.

Penzance AFC cannot quite claim the most westerly prize, but it comes pretty close, being only seven miles east of St. Just. It is certainly one of the oldest clubs in Cornwall; and also happens to play at a ground once described as ‘The finest football stadium in the West’. Indeed, on the opening of the club’s Penlee Park home in 1952 one national newspaper wrote ‘Roll up your sleeves. If you love sport and want British boys and girls to lead the world follow the example of the ‘Penzance Pioneers’ who built a football stadium for their town’.

It was no understatement. The previous year had marked the Festival of Britain, and Penlee Park was the contribution of the town’s Football Club in creating a permanent ground of its own after spells at Trereife Farm, Sona Merg Park, and St. Clare, now the home of Penzance Cricket Club. It was no small achievement either. Somewhere in the region of 20,000 tons of earth and other material was shifted and levelled; and two miles of drains laid entirely by a volunteer workforce between early 1951 and the summer of 1952, often in a sea of mud caused by weeks of heavy rain. The ground was officially opened on 25 August 1952 by Sir Stanley Rous, Secretary of the Football League, and the occasion marked by the visit of Luton Town, then a Division Two side, who won 10-0.

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An unusual feature on the concrete posts that make up the perimeter rail are strange ‘lips’ near the base. In the early days of the ground, and before the impressive stand was built (apparently from two cow sheds joined together) a wooden bench ran all around the ground inside the perimeter, providing seated accommodation for spectators. Today all that is left are remnants of the supports on which the benches once rested. Another interesting fact is that the current clubhouse located just outside the ground in Alexandra Place, was once the town Fire Station until being converted during the mid-1970s.untitled4

Penzance Association Football Club was formed in March 1888, the same year as The Football League. The following year, the club became a founder member of the Cornwall FA and its first opponents were drawn from the employees of the Eastern Telegraph Company, Porthcurno, and Truro. In 1892-93 Penzance became the first winners of the Cornwall Senior Cup, defeating Launceston 5-0 at Liskeard. They went on to lift the trophy a further three times before the end of the 19th century and ten times in total, although the most recent win was back in 1981. They have also been runners-up on ten occasions, including in 1948-49 to St. Austell in front of an estimated 15,000 spectators.

On 28th April 1953 Penlee Park staged a match between Swansea Town and West Ham United. The popular story is that it was a Football League Division Two ‘home’ match for Swansea, with the Swans being forced to play at Penzance due freezing weather that had affected the Vetch Field pitch. It was a 6.30 kick-off and more than 7,000 turned out to watch the game. However, other evidence indicates that the League fixture between the two clubs that season was actually played on 4th April at the Vetch, with Swansea winning 4-1 and that, bizarre as it seems, the match at Penlee Park twenty-four days later was an end-of-season friendly, with West Ham winning 3-2. The following day the Hammers played St. Austell.

Penzance were founder members of the South Western League in 1951, and won it in consecutive seasons: 1955–56 and 1956–57. During the 50s and 60s four figure crowds regularly watched the Magpies in the new South Western League and Cornwall Senior Cup at Penlee Park. A supporters’ club then boasted a 300-strong membership and regularly raised money for the club, mostly through Bingo. A third title was won in 1974-75. For much of the eighties and nineties however, Penzance struggled more often than not, finishing bottom three times, and next to bottom twice, amid recurring financial problems. However, they were not relegated and maintained their SW League status until it merged with the Devon County League and they were placed in Division One West of the new SW Peninsula League. Promotion was won to the Premier Division as champions after two seasons, but relegation followed at the end of 2012-13.

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Over the years the club has entertained many top flight clubs, including before moving to Penlee Park, but in its centenary season had the distinction of hosting both the English and Scottish League champions – Liverpool and Celtic – as part of the celebrations. Both games were won 6-0 by the visitors in front of 5,000 and 2,000 gates respectively. Interestingly Penzance also played Liverpool at Penlee Park in August 1989 as part of a three club pre-season tournament (the SWEB Trophy) that also included Plymouth Argyle. Then in August 1992, the two clubs met for a third time in pre-season as part of the Studio 10 Challenge Trophy, also involving sides from Sheffield Wednesday and Spurs.
John also finds time to be the Grounds Officer for the Peninsula League. Looking at the grass bank opposite us as we sit on one of the benches in the stand, I comment that one of the beauties of Cornish grounds is they tend to be the ‘grounds that grading forgot’, being so low down the Non League Pyramid and not being faced with the sometimes ludicrous FA grading regulations. He laughs and nods in agreement: “Indeed, for the thousands of people that don’t come. The other thing is that the grounds of most of the senior clubs in Cornwall developed on their own without any input from the FA. Therefore there were no regulations to abide with in any of the Leagues we played in, until the Peninsula League came along. Some clubs could enter the FA Cup and FA Vase, as Penzance did years ago, when all you required was floodlights”.
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Ironically perhaps given his role as Grounds Officer, Penzance have been excluded from the FA Cup since 2007 due to the absence of toilet facilities in the Referee’s changing room; and also haven’t played in the Vase since 2011-12. He doesn’t seem to particularly miss either competition. With Penzance so much out on a limb and having to share the travel costs of any visitors, both the FA Cup and FA Vase can end up costing the club money it can ill-afford, particularly in the Vase where prize-money is considerably lower and the expenses the same. “You’ve got to win to make it worthwhile” he says.

“Even in this League we should have a separate toilet for the Referee. We’ve put off spending the money because our plan is to have a new clubhouse with changing rooms underneath in that area there [he points to the right of the goal at the clubhouse end]. It would be difficult to put a toilet into where it would have to go now – it would require a tremendous amount of movement of other services”.untitled11

Upkeep of the facilities is a perennial problem, just as it is for many other non-League clubs. During the 1980s and 90s Penlee Park fell into state of some disrepair, not helped by the unwanted attention of local vandals. Today though, it’s looking in fine shape. It’s not been easy however and as John explains, at its current level, the club finds itself in a sort of ‘no-man’s land’ when it comes to applying for valuable grants:

“You can do alright if you’re what the FA terms ‘grassroots level’ but at Step 7 you’re part of the National League System and the biggest grant we can get is £20,000 towards any projects that we’d like to do. They’ll give you up to 60% of the costs towards a project but only up to that maximum figure. If we were to be promoted to Step 6 we could then apply for grandstands and floodlights, which we’ve already got. Unfortunately our lights have been up for fourteen years now and we need a few replacement parts, which we are finding it very difficult to find anywhere because they don’t make this model any more. However we can’t get any financial help for it because we don’t need floodlights to play at Step 7. You can see clubs in the Combination League down below us that have applied for a grant of hundreds and thousands for new changing rooms and whatever, but we can’t. It’s frustrating. The clubhouse is falling down really. It was never intended to last as long as it has. It’s got an asbestos roof which doesn’t help; it’s freezing in the winter and roasting in the summer”.

untitled7If ever there was an incentive to win promotion back to the Premier Division that would be it, although it might be negated to some degree by additional travelling costs. Nevertheless, even in Division One West the club still finds itself having to travel to Plymouth, almost a 160 mile round trip. With this in mind, I wonder whether the club welcomed the amalgamation with the Devon League?

“The feeling was that it went back to how the South Western League used to be, which had covered quite a few Devon clubs over the years; and it’s nice to have fresh faces, and different clubs to go to so we welcomed it as a breath of fresh air for us. Our ambition was to play in the Premier Division – we did get there for three seasons but then we were relegated. You’ve got to compete financially to get a good enough side to play at that level. We used to find years ago, that a lot of the best players from Plymouth used to play for Cornish clubs because there was no senior football really in Plymouth, and Cornish clubs would always offer to pay their travelling expenses and whatever. Now it’s nice to see that there are clubs in Plymouth, and the local people in Plymouth now tend to stick within their own area. It’s probably lowered the standard in Cornwall, but it’s also more financially viable as far as clubs like us are concerned. If we had the best fifteen footballers that live in Penzance playing for us, we’d be in a stronger position than we are now”.

I’ve been trying to catch up with Terry Burgess, the current Chairman, ever since I arrived but he’s been busy putting the programmes together and helping Secretary Charley Farley set up the tea hut, amongst other things. Later on Charlie will be at the gate selling raffle tickets. Many spectators arriving just before kick-off simply have no idea of the work that goes on behind the scenes simply to get a match on. Also helping out is Jimmy Hocking, a sprightly 93 years young, and one of the volunteers that originally built the ground. Described as the ‘oldest ball boy in Football’, he is busy putting out the flags.

Terry has been the Chairman for three years, but managed the club before that; and also St. Just and Trelawny League side St. Buryan. I finally manage to corner him for five minutes shortly before kick-off, and we talk about the challenges of keeping a club like Penzance afloat. He reinforces what John Mead has said earlier: “It’s about taking care of what you have: the ground and expense of its upkeep; so it’s quite a financial challenge, it really is. We’re very blessed that we’ve got good sponsors on board, and what money we get from them we plough back into the structure of the club to make sure that it’s a welcoming venue. That’s the fundamental part about it”.

The ambition is to try and build a more locally-based side in the future, and to try to retain players – difficult in a League where there are other similar clubs around them such as near neighbours Mousehole, and also Illogan and St. Just. Players tend to move around the clubs and as Terry explains, it can be quite parochial and “buddy-buddy football”.

I wonder whether part of the difficulty is that some players really don’t want the time and hassle of having to travel into Devon to play their football? He agrees: “They’re happy just to play at this level. Our youth section though is marvellous, absolutely marvellous and I’m looking forward to a lot of the youth coming through. If you’ve got a team of fifteen, and we can get five or six good players able to step up to the mark we’d be blessed; but again it’s 16-17 and if their mates want to go and play somewhere else then they just go. It’s about ambition, but it’s the traveling. A 24-25 year old might have family; some of them are just married in that age group, and they don’t want it. If you got to go to Plymouth, it’s hard going. It’s a big commitment. At the moment we’ve got a bus company for going away which has given us a reasonable costing but it’s not easy, it really isn’t. It can add up to £6,000 just in this Division”.

So, moving up to Step 6 would represent a big leap? “Oh yes, you can put some more money on top of that. We try to be able to shoulder this finance solely because it’s about the players being together. A lot of them don’t want to drive all that distance, and travelling together helps team bonding and prevents them arriving at a game in dribs and drabs. Bless them, they went to Elburton Villa [Plymouth] last week on the train and lost three-nil, but we saved about a hundred quid. We’ve still got to organise it though, so on match days it can be quite a challenge. Even today it’s been a bit hectic”.

This afternoon’s visitors are St. Dennis, another old Cornish club founded in 1901 in the heart of the traditional China Clay industry, approximately eight miles north-west of St. Austell. The two clubs have already met on the opening day of the season and drew 2-2. Having lost their previous matches three-nil both sides will be keen to make amends and it is Penzance who start the stronger of the two, deservedly taking an early lead courtesy of an Ashley Ellis header after a period of sustained pressure. Unfortunately that’s about as good as it gets for the Magpies and immediately from the restart St. Dennis are level through Lee Rickard; with twin brother Carl giving the Saints the lead soon afterwards for his first goal of the season. With the Penzance defence evaporating, it’s 3-1 to the visitors by half-time as player-manager Paul Robinson gets his name on the scoresheet.

 Lee Rickard takes advantage of the interval to buy a can of Fanta from the tea hut, clearly preferring the fizzy orange option to the more traditional form withpeel. In the meantime I return to the stand for a quick chat with Jimmy Hocking and another stalwart Jim Dann, who comes from a long line of former players. Both are Life Members of the club, and Dann is a former Club President. The latter, now in his eighties and resplendent in a black and white woolly hat and with a beard that is even whiter than the Magpies’ shirts, recalls how Hocking used to tell him off for throwing stones whilst he was working on the Penlee Park pitch back in 1951. “I didn’t like to argue with him because he had a big shovel” he laughs.

Any optimism that the second half might be a springboard for a Penzance comeback looks severely misplaced when Lee Rickard lobs keeper Dominic Angrove to put the Saints 4-1 up. The home side certainly isn’t helping itself by sitting far too deeply and allowing St. Dennis plenty of time on the ball, and they are more than willing to have a go. It’s also one of those days when any pot shot looks destined to hit the back of the Magpies’ net, as Ollie Deadman demonstrates by scoring the goal of the match from distance to make it five.

From then on it’s mostly one way traffic as Lee Rickard completes his hat-trick and Carl scores his second of the match to make it 7-1. To their credit Penzance keep plugging away and Callum George pulls one back. It’s only a temporary reprieve though, with Lee Rickard demonstrating the rejuvenating powers of fizzy sugary drink by netting his fourth, closely followed by twin Carl matching his brother’s hat-trick. As he picks yet another ball out of the net Angrove despairingly asks a spectator behind the goal: “How much longer have we got of this shit?”. With the score now at 9-2 the visiting bench is not happy: “Nine isn’t a good number, make it ten”. However, it’s Penzance who score the final goal of an astonishing game, with Ellis making it 9-3 although it’s hardly a consolation. With twelve goals to savour – seven of them scored by the Rickard brothers – spectators have certainly had value for their four pounds admission: 33.33 pence a goal to be precise.

 Despite the result Terry Burgess is philosophical as I bid my farewell, and as I leave the clubhouse Charlie Farley says he is going to drown his sorrows. Penzance won’t have to wait long for an opportunity to exact revenge however – they are due to meet St. Dennis for a third time next weekend, this time in the League Cup. I have a suspicion that the Saints might be looking forward to it slightly more but whatever the result the two sides are likely to be sick of each another by the end of September.

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With special thanks to all at Penzance AFC, Darren Luke, and my companion for the day Jon Bauckham – an enjoyable father and son road trip.