Pitmen primed for upward progress

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The Independent Online
Who said football folk were one-dimensional? To visit Keys Park, Hednesford Town's home of 18 months, is to be regaled with tales of foreign travel, endangered wildlife, inflammable gas and odorous Italians.

That's not the half of it. The GM Vauxhall Conference club are both managed and co-owned by a self-confessed bully who is also Steve Bull's accountant. They play in a stadium built on stilts. So when they visit Blackpool on Saturday - their first appearance in the second round of the FA Cup in a 116-year history - we should perhaps expect the unexpected.

Much of Hednesford's distinctive character stems from their larger-than- life manager, John Baldwin, who gives the lie to the old Monty Python put-down: "I'm an accountant and consequently too boring to be of interest."

With hindsight, the 400-mile round trips he made from university on Tyneside to keep goal for his local team were the foreplay to an enduring passion.

That was in the early 1970s, when Hednesford propped up the Midland League and played to 200 people against the likes of Bridlington and Belper. Baldwin remained involved "on and off" until he took over in 1990, by which time they were struggling to stay in the Midland Division of the Beazer Homes (now Dr Martens) League.

Hednesford were approaching the end of the lease on their old ground, Cross Keys. Baldwin's background in finance prompted the chairman, Mike Smith, to invite him to negotiate its sale. He became vice-chairman, put up the money to buy a plot of land to develop a venue which met the Conference criteria, and the rest is history.

Except that it was not quite so simple. "It became evident that the money wouldn't be enough," Baldwin recalled. "So I asked a client of mine, Steve Price, to come in with me as joint owner with a 50 per cent share holding. We make all the decisions together, though I wouldn't say he's never regretted it. We often look at each other and say: `Why did we do this? We must be stark raving bonkers.'"

They do it because they have a vision that is coming into ever sharper focus: Football League status. Fanciful as the dream of derbies against Wolves and West Brom may sound, Hednesford finished third last season with the highest points total ever by a promoted club, and are again respectably placed. They have a base support of 1,200 in the former mining community (hence the "Pitmen" nickname) and plans to upgrade an already impressive complex.

Surely their current level is as high as they can hope for? "If I thought that," said Baldwin, "I'd pack it in now. Unfortunately, people in this town are not as positive or ambitious as me. So many of them told me: `You'll never win the Beazer Premier.' I said `We will.' Then they said: `Even if you do, the ground won't be up to scratch for the Conference.' And I said: `It will.' Then they said: `Anyway, it won't be ready in time.' And I said: `It will.'

"I'm a bit of a bully, and I like to get my way, but all this [we are sitting in a plush bar in the substantial stand] has come about through incredibly hard work and a lot of money. Plus the fact that I've got the most understanding wife in the world. My business takes 40 hours a week, Hednesford takes 50 hours. I don't think I have been home this week."

His unusual dual role means that the emotions are magnified. "When we play poorly here, I go away wondering about how many people we're going to get the next week and whether they'll be enough to pay the players. A normal manager doesn't worry about that.

"On the other hand, there can't be any other owner who gets the same feeling I get when we win... or as depressed as me when we lose."

He believes the Blackpool tie is winnable, despite the fact that Hednesford's only success in knock-out competition came in reaching the Welsh Cup final in 1992. "Don't ask me what a Staffordshire club was doing in that, but we played before 12,000 people at Cardiff Arms Park, which was a catalyst for our success since.

"A Second Division side should beat us nine times out of 10. But I look at Woking winning at Millwall, or the way we nearly lost at Wednesfield in the first qualifying round even though they're four leagues below us. That's the Cup for you. We're certainly not going there for a day out at the seaside."

Hednesford's preferred resort is, in fact, Torremolinos. For the past two years, as "a reward and spirit-building exercise", they have taken a mid-season break in the Spanish sunshine. "When we arrived at the hotel pool the youngest couple there were in their late 70s. Suddenly there were these 20 macho blokes jumping around. We had to play a local team to sober the lads up before we flew back."

Talking of newts, Hednesford must be unique in having to employ someone to catch them. "We were three-quarters of the way through building a dam to help with sewerage on the site when a council official drove up and said: `Stop! You can't do any more building. A ranger has spotted a greater crested newt.'

"When we asked where, he pointed into the distance and said: `There, but you're within half a mile of it.' So we've had to pay for a licensed catcher." Has he found any yet? "No, but it still cost us pounds 1,000."

And the gas? Hednesford's ground is built over an old quarry, into which the National Coal Board used to tip waste materials. In order to avoid a potentially dangerous build-up of methane, the stadium is built on a raised platform so that the air can disperse it.

Yet for all their quirkiness, Hednesford are deadly serious about Saturday. Blackpool will find well-organised opponents with pacy strikers and a useful pedigree; players such as Colin Lambert, who helped Macclesfield and Halifax put out League sides in recent seasons, and the former Aston Villa defender Andy Comyn.

Now 28, Comyn spurned the offer of a contract with West Brom last summer so that he could pursue a career in... accountancy. The physics graduate now works for Baldwin on and off the park, but looks back fondly on a Villa debut marking John Barnes and a place in the team who beat Internazionale at Villa Park in the Uefa Cup in 1990.

The opposition included Klinsmann, Matthaus, Brehme and Zenga, and Comyn was delighted to swap sweat-soaked shirts with Aldo Serena. The only problem, he explained with Baldwinesque zeal, had been persuading his wife not to ruin its authenticity by washing it. Henceforth, let no one call Hednesford boring.