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An afternoon with legendary groundhopper John Stancombe

A Groundhopper (for those that don’t know) is a person who collects football grounds, as well as supporting their own team.  Doing it properly entails a lot of planning, travelling, time and money.

John Stancombe is no ordinary groundhopper, he is a man who takes it seriously with over 10,522 miles travelled.  In January this year John got in touch with the club wishing to make Buckley Town’s ground his 1,705th non-league ground visited.

What makes John’s story even more remarkable is that he is totally blind, travels by himself and lives in Lowestoft.  John is not content with just visiting the ground he wants to be able to learn about the layout and the structures within, plus be able to follow and enjoy a game of football.

This is where he relies on volunteers at the club to help him enjoy the day and at Buckley Town, he found a club with the community at its heart, with volunteers who welcomed him with open arms. 

John organised to come to the club to watch Buckley Town’s game against Holyhead Hotspur a day after watching Rhyl’s game against Holywell Town.  Rhyl won 1-0 so the indications were that he might bring some luck with his visit (not that the Buckley Team needed it of late after a decent run of results).

David Carlisle (Rhyl’s Media Officer) kindly dropped him off on the day and on meeting him in person, John clearly sets out what he wants to get from the day.  Like any serious groundhopper he has an agenda and time was not to be wasted.

The day started with a tour around the ground, where I was called upon to describe every little detail such as the shape of the buildings, materials used, to how many seats and rows were in each stand.  Everything was recorded on his Dictaphone so that he could refer to it when he returned home.

His mental arithmetic put me to shame and he also put me to test on my use of adjectives. What would have normally taken 15 mins took just around an hour to complete.  On completion of the tour I was going hoarse and was getting a little concerned about my next task; commentary of the game.

For this, I had to run around to find the team sheet to help me with the challenge.  Feeling a little guilty I left John in the bar, however, this was unnecessary as on my return I found him holding court testing everyone on their knowledge of Buckley Town.  Not only listening intently to see what new things he could learn but also correcting people from what can only be described as photographic memory of the Welsh lower leagues.

As kick off drew near we decided to sit ourselves in the centre of the main stand at the back to give me the best advantage of the game to ensure that he didn’t miss out on any of the game action.  I was relatively apprehensive about this part as putting names to faces was going to be a difficult task and the thought of talking non-stop for 45 mins was challenging. 

One of the great things about Buckley Town Football Club is their football fans.  Not wanting to see one of their own struggling they chipped in with their take on the events which must have gave John relief from my voice!

John’s presence had the desired affect on the Buckley side with the team winning 2-0 and, in his view, it was a better game than the Rhyl match (Sorry David Carlisle).  Once the match was over there was one last bit of generosity on Buckley Town’s part as Events and Fundraising Officer Kevin Williams presented him a Buckley Town hat. From there I whisked him off to Chester Station so he could get his train back to Lowestoft which would get him in at past midnight.

It was an absolute pleasure to meet John, his enthusiasm and dedication to groundhopping shone through and he was also very knowledgeable about the game.  He had a great personality and lots of character which will stand him in good stead as he completes his challenge.  Whilst it was an honour to help him on his way to achieving his goal, I am hoping that he left Buckley Town thinking that we were not just another statistic but a proper club at the heart and soul of the community.       

Duncan Macaskill