#2 One April afternoon in Royston

Royston Town v Hednesford Town – 24th April 2023 – Garden Walk

Royston Town’s Garden Walk ground is a far cry from the neat and tidy stands of Hednesford’s Keys Park. Somewhat penned in by housing on 3 sides of the ground and a cemetery on the other. What small stands do exist here have a dishevelled feel to them, one of those is a wooden pavillion type structure that looks like it has been lifted from the local park. It is old school here, most of the ground is simply open standing in front of the required standard non-league pole. It feels kind of rural, we’re out in the sticks, this is proper non-league football.

All going to plan today for The Pitmen, visiting such ramshackle grounds will become less frequent if promotion is gained to the Vanarama National North. All Hednesford require to make sure of the title is 1 point. A defeat would probably be good enough in honesty unless Stourbridge pull off a miracle of a large victory that addresses Hednesford’s superior goal difference of 13 goals.

Southern League Premier Central table 23rd April 2023

It’s taken a monumental effort from Steve Burr’s Hednesford to propel themselves into this position. The doom and gloomsters at Hednesford, of which there are many after recent years, feared for maintaining their early season form following the transfer of their star striker to Finn Harps in Ireland in January. Stanley Anaebonam hit a remarkable 31 goals before he departed to the Airtricity Irish Premier League for nothing, yes absolutely no financial gain for Hednesford, on 6th January 2023. At the time of Stan’s departure, Stourbridge were setting the pace in the Southern League Premier Central and held at 7 point lead at the top.

Replacing Stanley was meant to be a challenge and when De’marlio Brown-Sterling, 21 (below), was announced, not many supporters got too excited. This was a lad who was plying his trade for Irlam FC in the North West Counties League, 2 levels below Hednesford, could he make the step up?

Fears of who was going actually going to put the ball in a net on a regular basis aside, trusty stop-gap keeper Tiernan Brooks’ loan ended at the end of December too. His parent club, Notts County, wished for the young goalie to develop at a higher level, so hopes an extension were dashed when he was shipped out to Chelsmford City. Neighbours AFC Telford kindly loaned Hednesford 18 year old Maison Campbell for the rest of the season, he could wear goalie gloves and looked good in pink, he would do.

It took De’marlio a couple of games to find his feet, shooting blanks against Leiston Town and then Stratford Town in the Southern League Cup, he scored his 1st goal at Bromsgrove Sporting on 21st January 2023, heading home from Kyle Bennett’s cross.

A brace followed in the 3-1 win over Nuneaton Borough as well as a late equaliser at Redditch and suddenly it looked like a decent move for both parties.

By the beginning of March 2023, a fine partnership with Leroy Lita looked to be bubbling away nicely at the right time. With 7 points to catch up on, Hednesford’s home game with Stourbridge on 11th March was a pivotal fixture. 1st v 2nd, it was tight game until Stourbridge’s Lee Vaughan saw red for a 2-footed challenge from behind on De’marlio Brown-Sterling in the 67th minute. The ever dependable winger Kyle Bennett won the game for The Pitmen with a roaring effort from outside the box in the 72nd minute.

The gap now down to 4 points, Stourbridge dropped points the following week against Mickleover Sports who held them to a draw. It was all about who was going to hold their nerve in the final run-in.

In the final month of the season, the partnership of Leroy Lita and De’marlio Sterling Brown blossomed, both of them scoring in every game in April as Hednesford took maximum points. Stourbridge on the other hand stuttered, allowing Hednesford to leapfrog them into top spot and 3 points clear going into the final game with a way superior goal difference to boot.

The atmosphere in Garden Walk is fairly quiet, the home fans have nothing to cheer and are not noted for their vocal support in any case. The 30 or so Hednesford fans enter the ground at around 2.40pm and immediately liven up proceedings. They are sufficiently lubricated following a couple of hours at the Manor House Wetherspoons nearby to the ground, they have a near certain league title to celebrate later barring a catastrophe. The turnout of just 30 is disappointing for such a pivotal game in the club’s history of course.

Leroy Lita kicks off the game for Hednesford who today play in their change colours of blue.

Hednesford make a positive start 11 minutes in, a James McQuilkin corner is met by the forehead of centre-back Lewis Ison 6 yards out. The thwack of leather against forehead is followed by the thud of ball against crossbar, his effort bounces over and out.

James McQuilkin settles into the game better than anyone else on the pitch and begins to dictate proceedings. 9 minutes later he is involved again, he plays a deftly chipped ball over the top for Sterling-Brown to chase onto. Sterling marauds into the penatly box with the ball at his feet. If recent form is to go by, this is a goal, but no, he hits it weakly at the Royston keeper Dimitrios Kyriatzis.

It’s a corner to Hednesford on the right hand side of the ground. McQuilkin is there to take it. He ruffles his hair, puts his hands in the air and delivers a corner that is going to drop by the near post. Hednesford’s Todd Parker meets the cross and flicks the ball over to the far post. Kyle Bennet is at full stretch but he can’t reach it, Parker’s flick somehow goes all the way through to the far post and bounces out. Amongst the desperation, Leroy Lita looks certain to get there surely a tap-in awaits, but he is hauled to the floor by Royston’s Fernando Bell-Toxtle. The referee blows for a penalty. The Royston bench are convinced it is a harsh decision. Lita steps up for the penalty, he hits low to his left with his right peg. The Royston keeper Kyriatzis has guessed the right direction, but Lita’s penalty is too good and into the side of the net it goes.

At half-time all is calm. A quick check on Twitter shows Stourbridge are losing 1-0 to Leiston, the league title is 99.99999% Hednesford’s now.

Royston get the second half underway and attempt to put Hednesford under pressure straight away but Pitmen right-back Oscar Rutherford defends well, blocking a shot just inside the Hednesford box and quickly launches a long high ball towards the half-way line. Leroy Lita is there to flick the ball forwards off his forehead. Brown-Sterling anticipates, he really has struck up a telepathic relationship with Lita over the last month. Picking the ball up midway through the Royston half he has a lot to do. Veteran Royston defender Adam Murray, 35, can’t and won’t reach him. Sterling-Brown descends on the keeper and calmy sidefoots the ball through the keepers legs and the ball rolls into the net. It’s 2-0, the goal that surely confirms promotion.

The game feels like an exhibition fixture in the following minutes. Hednesford are in cruise control, tension and drama no longer an issue in this match. The supporters are contemplating the next 2 summer months without football and wondering what they are going to do on Saturday afternoons and Wednesday evenings. From out of nowhere, Royston’s Jackson-Davis scores perhaps the best goal of the afternoon, a volley from a deep cross that bounces in off the crossbar spectacularly and forcefully, it was worth the entrance fee alone. But what does it really mean or matter now?

The full-time whistle blows. Stourbridge pulled a goal back against Leiston in the end but could only draw, meaningless in the event of a Pitmen win. It’s confirmed, Hednesford Town have won their first league title in 28 years! The first title in a generation. Steve Burr congratulates his players one by one with a quick hug. Burry actually played in Hednesford’s last title day decider against Leek Town back in 1995 and scored in the win that won promotion to the Vauxhall Conference, he’s done it again, the freedom of Hednesford surely awaits.

To be fair, the celebrations are fairly muted out on the pitch. There was no last day drama involved, the hard work had been done and the damage to Stourbridge’s title efforts had been inflicted in the previous weeks. With only 30 fans to celebrate with, there’s only so much jumping up and down tubthumping you can do. But The Pitmen are back in the Vanarama North for the first time in 9 years. The lads partied hard on the coach home and return to Keys Park. It’s been a long season and a good advert for the mantra of ‘we fight to the end’.

Bring on the Vanarama North!

FULL-TIME: Royston Town 1-2 Hednesford Town. Attendance: 236

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