From Alphington to Willand via the Duckspond

Over Easter more than 300 football fans travelled to Devon from all over Britain and beyond to watch seven lowly non-League matches. Rupert Metcalf joined them with one question in mind: Why?
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If your football watching does not extend beyond enduring some Premiership hard-sell on satellite television or maybe the occasional expensive trip to Old Trafford or Wembley, the chances are you will not have heard of groundhoppers.

They are supporters who, rather than follow one team, spend each season touring the country "collecting" new grounds. Which side wins is rarely relevant, it is the "tick" (and the programme) that matters. Many completed all the Football League grounds years ago, so non-League football is their usual territory - although they often spend their holidays doing the same thing all over Europe.

For the last five years the high point of the groundhoppers' calendar has been the Easter "Northern Hop", which featured four days of morning, afternoon and evening kick-offs around the North-east of England. The hoppers have run out of new grounds in that part of the world, though, so this year they headed west for the first of three "Devon Delights Annual Hops" staged by the Westward Developments Devon League.

The schedule was compact but punishing: four games on Good Friday and three the following day. Two coaches carried the hoppers around the county. The first event - a football quiz in Topsham Town's bar - had taken place on Thursday evening, but the real action began the following morning...

Friday, 11am kick-off

ALPHINGTON 2 TOPSHAM TOWN 1

Alphington, on the outskirts of Exeter, have an average gate of about 30. Today they set a new Devon League record attendance of 537, beating the crowd of 503 for the league's very first game, between Willand and Newton Abbot, in 1992.

Phil Hiscox, the league's secretary, who has organised the whole event, is relieved that the action is under way at last. "It's been pretty hectic for the last two months," he says. "We've sold 270 advance tickets for all seven games and we've had lots of late applications and enquiries from the media."

Hiscox expects up to 100 hoppers to pay on the gate for all or some of the seven games to swell the coffers further. "The host clubs will make money. The league won't make much, but that's not the point."

Gerry Shepherd, a hopper from Wimbledon, produces (without prompting) a photograph of himself and his friends Steve Reaney and John Stancombe, taken on a foggy Sunday morning at Horden Colliery Welfare during the "Northern Hop" three years ago. "I support football," Shepherd says. "I just go round all the grounds and see the games. The beauty of these places is that you can walk right round the ground and have a drink here afterwards. At those Premiership places you're segregated, you can't do this, you can't do that. Sometimes you daren't shout out anything for fear of retribution."

As the Portakabin toilet block quivers under the weight of two camera crews, Alphington take a 2-0 half-time lead against their local rivals, whose second-half pressure yields only one goal. Even though this is the first game, some of the hoppers are finding it hard to concentrate on the action. A group of five gathered near the exit for a quick getaway are discussing which Portuguese Second Division grounds they have been to.

Friday, 2pm

TEIGNMOUTH 0 NEWTON ST CYRES 4

Newton St Cyres are not a good side, but they easily overcome the home team. Teignmouth are in a bit of a state: they were deducted six points early in the season for fielding unregistered players and had a minus points tally for the first few weeks of the campaign. They eventually won three games but were docked three more points for the same offence so, having lost the rest of their matches, they are at the bottom of the table with no points.

The picturesque Coombe Valley ground, in a steep valley high above the sea front, suffers from subsidence. One side of the pitch is sliding slowly down the hillside, and today threatens to take several hoppers with it.

Bizarrely, Teignmouth field one of the most skilful players seen all weekend: Colin Anderson, once of West Bromwich, Torquay and Hereford. All his efforts go to waste, though, as Teignmouth's goals-against column reaches 149.

Friday, 4.30pm

NEWTON ABBOT SPURS 3 NEWTON ABBOT 0

A delayed kick-off as tractors on the road from Teignmouth have slowed the convoy of hoppers.

For the second time today, a new league attendance record is set as the hoppers plus plenty of locals swell the crowd to 612 for this derby. Spurs are convincing winners of a competitive game not without skill.

One of the more dedicated hoppers is Peter Wallis, from Burgess Hill: "I've been to about 1,300 grounds. I used to support Crystal Palace home and away. I finished the Football League in 1979, but watching League football became too much hassle. You're always herded around."

Hoppers have come from all over England, Scotland and Wales, while two - Henk van der Sluis and Johannes de Boer - have come from the Netherlands. "People might think that we are slightly eccentric but we've made lots of friends over the years doing something we both enjoy. We've become pen-friends with many other hoppers."

Friday, 7.30pm

BUCKFASTLEIGH RANGERS 5

IVYBRIDGE TOWN 2

On a perfect floodlit pitch at the Duckspond ground, which has neither wildfowl nor water, a hat-trick from Glen Palmer is the highlight of the weekend's most entertaining match.

Rob Hornby, the club shop manager from Arnold Town in Nottinghamshire, is doing a steady trade in his book, Let's Get Hopping in the Northern Counties East League. He says: "This event is about meeting old friends - and it's a break away from the kids and the wife! But all groundhoppers are like a little family, really."

Saturday, 12 noon

BUDLEIGH SALTERTON 2 OTTERY ST MARY 0

The Greenway Lane ground is well named, as it is overlooked by rolling, wooded hills. The pitch is not much flatter, which makes good football difficult, but the home side eventually gain control.

A film crew from a Lytham St Annes-based company, commissioned by Channel 4, is taping the weekend's events. "They've interviewed me twice," complains Kerry Miller, the author of the acclaimed book The History of Non-League Football Grounds, "and each time they've mentioned trainspotting. We're not all like that, we're just football fans."

The hoppers are sensitive about sentences containing the words "trainspotting" and "anoraks". These may be unfair stereotypes but, viewing the favoured mode of clothing even on a warm afternoon, it is easy to forgive literal use of the latter label.

Saturday, 3pm

NEWTON ST CYRES 1

ELBURTON VILLA 2

A splendid, rural location for a match in which the visiting team from Plymouth take a 2-0 lead before Mark Tasker converts his third penalty of the weekend to give the home side a consolation goal.

One of the Dutchmen is by now refusing interviews, and is attempting to confuse inquisitive reporters by sporting a Scotland supporters' hat. He rather gives the game away, though, by wearing clogs.

A small train speeds through Newton St Cyres station, next to the ground, on its way from Exeter to Barnstaple. Hardly any hoppers turn round to look, proving that they really are not trainspotters. After the game Peter Wallis and about 30 other hoppers run over a railway bridge to sample the ales at The Beer Engine, one of Devon's most famous home-brew pubs, before the coaches depart.

Saturday, 6.30pm

WILLAND ROVERS 0 TEIGNMOUTH 1

Colin Anderson has disappeared but Teignmouth have borrowed several players from clubs in higher leagues and shock the Devon League leaders with a third-minute goal from Richard Jones. They hang on for a totally unexpected win which puts their points tally back into the black again. Some locals mutter about checking the registration forms of all the "borrowed" mercenaries.

Sir Bert Millichip, the former chairman of the Football Association, is here, along with Exeter City's former England international, Mark Chamberlain, to present certificates to the hoppers who have watched all seven games.

"I've got a holiday home in Beer [a nearby seaside town]," says Sir Bert, to explain why he is at Willand rather than Wembley to watch England play Mexico. "I always thought a hop was a dance," adds Sir Bert, helpfully.

Phil Hiscox is walking round the pitch, assessing one last crowd figure, which is 528. "Counting," he bellows at anyone who dares to interrupt him. Afterwards he says: "I'm going to sleep for at least 20 hours - and then we'll start work on next year."

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