The North York Moors are undoubtedly cricket country. A drive along the road from Thirsk to Scarborough throws up ample opportunities to listen out for the thwack of willow on leather, village greens where the pace is set by the plodding cattle grazing in the adjacent field rather than the snorting bull chafing against the fence. Football, if it happens at all, feels like an afterthought.
Pickering is almost an exception. Pickering Town FC, the Pikes, date back to the 1880s. Perhaps the arrival of the railways along here inspired the spread of football as the town found itself in contact with a wider, less agricultural world. Lokomotiv Pickering? Or maybe not. The team shares its Mill Lane ground with the cricket club, playing on the outfield at the foot of a sharp slope that might aid a pacey winger heading to the scoreboard end. There’s also a bowls club that produced a world champion in the form of Betty Stubbings, part of England’s winning quartet in Toronto in 1981.
The Pikes’ long history can’t compete with that. Craig Short, later of Derby County and Everton, played his youth footie here, but his big break came via Scarborough. Gary Himsworth, stalwart of York City and Darlington in their Football League days, also started out here but would hardly qualify as a household name anywhere further afield. Maybe it’s the time of year, but visiting for a pre-season friendly leaves a sense of coming to a cricket club where a bit of football is played on a spare evening.
For all that, Pickering have high hopes. Last season the team came second in the Northern Counties East League, beaten to the title by FA Vase finalists Cleethorpes Town. With Paul Marshall and former Hartlepool player Denny Ingram at the helm, there are quiet hopes that a long, long spell in the NCEL might come to an end sooner rather than later. With the prospect of two teams promoted from most Step 5 leagues this season, Pickering have something to hope for. Although not on the evidence of this pre-season game.
Friendlies, notoriously hard to read, split opinions. Pickering, unusually, hosted a team from a lower league, and suffered a 4-1 thumping against Knaresborough Town. For some fans, that was just one to shrug off. A trial game, an experimental team, a chance to look at potential new signings … and, given the result, probably write most of them off. Others, though, feared the worst. “At least these aren’t in our league,” one fan reflected. “Imagine how many Spennymoor will score on Saturday,” moaned another, already breaking the sacred sporting rule of taking one game at a time. “It could be double figures!”
That does a disservice to Knaresborough. Playing in the NCEL second tier, they came with a point to prove, and duly did so. With captain Will Lenehan marshalling a strong visiting defence, Pickering were made to look like a newly-formed team in their first exhibition game; it was a surprise to learn they’d had two friendlies – winning both – already. The visitors’ four goals could, should have been more. A penalty saved, the woodwork rattled, blushes limited if not entirely spared. The fourth goal, late on, summed it up. A hopeful hack forward from the home goalie dropped kindly for Ben Cohen, and he wasted no time in snaffling the loose ball and firing home from close to 40 yards out. Pickering, no doubt, will improve: this team was too good last year to be too bad this. Knaresborough, meanwhile, look like candidates for success in the coming promotion race. Such is the notoriously deceptive world of pre-season.
July 12, 2017
Mill Lane, Pickering, England
Pickering Town 1 Knaresborough Town 4
Att: 60 (head count)