AFC Wulfrunians
Castlecroft Stadium

Ground No. 192
Visited - Tuesday 1st September 2009
Result - AFC Wulfrunians 2-2 Chasetown AET (AFC Wulfrunians win 5-4 on pens)
Competition - FA Cup Preliminary Round (replay)
Attendance - 427

When AFC Wulfrunians won the West Midlands (Regional) League Premier last season, they were looking forward to a third promotion in just five years of football, but events over the summer conspired against them to mean that they would be competing at the same level again for 2009/10. The club, founded as the Wolverhampton Grammar School Old Boys Football Club in 1923 (after initial meetings the year previously) had played much of their history in local amateur leagues, dominating the Birmingham AFA with three league and cup double successes in a row, before a senior side, AFC Wulfrunians, was established in 2005 to give the players the chance at a higher level. Starting in the WMRL Div 2, they had gone up as champions at the first time of asking, and once more the year after, albeit as runners-up. After a sixth place finish in their first year in the Prem, they swept all aside in the second year, and with a little bit of luck/forward planning, could have been playing in the Midland Alliance this season, but for ground grading rules.

Having started life in Penn, they moved to Tettenhall before in 1949 establishing a base at the War Memorial Ground in Castlecroft. It was a time that the area was rapidly expanding, with a large new housing estate being built, as well as Wolverhampton RUFC moving into their own ground next door in 1950, and more significantly, Wolves, who built a second stadium and training ground there a few years later. This was the clubs home for 55 years, but on promotion to senior football, it was deemed unsuitable, so they ended up ground sharing with Wolverhampton Casuals at Brinsford Lane. The arrangement seemed to work well, and with the ground reputedly Step 5 standard (I’m not so sure of that myself), then they should have been fine to step up to the Midland Alliance, but the desire to return home was strong, and they announced the decision to return to Castlecroft for the 2009/10 season, albeit not the original pitch they’d played on. The RFU, now owners of the stadium that Wolves had built had decided to sell up, so AFC snapped up the lease, but with one problem… it didn’t meet ground grading requirements. Work was quickly done, but the club just missed the deadline and in what was felt to be a harsh decision there was no exception made, thus they found themselves in the strange situation of having what is arguably the best Step 5 standard ground in the country, yet not being allowed to play at that level.

Whilst AFC might not have built up much history there yet, Castlecroft Stadium itself has a long history which has seen many of the games top names appear there. Wolves opened the ground in 1956 with a visit from Sir Stanley Rous, yet unlike the common belief, it wasn’t originally built as a training ground, as an excerpt from Stan Cullis’ ‘All for the Wolves’ book states

“At all times, I strive to make the youngster realise that he is as important to the club as one of the senior players.

It was partly to further this cause, that my directors agreed, some five years ago, that the club should build a secondary ground at Castlecrofts, a suburb of Wolverhampton about two miles from the main headquarters at Molineux. We set out to make this ground a model one, for we wanted our young players to know that we value them sufficiently to provide them with their own stadium where they can both play and train.

The dressing-rooms and washing facilities at Castlecrofts are the equal of most that can be found in the Football League while the gymnasium, both in equipment and design, is better than the one we have at Molineux. The provision of a stand and a floodlighting installation – which is used both for training and the playing of matches – has brought the cost of Castlecrofts to a figure something in excess of £20,000 – a lot of money for any club to spend on an installation for junior players.”

Wolves’ youth facilities are now elsewhere in the city (on the same site as Aldersley Stadium), as is the first team training ground, which it had later become before being sold off in the 1980s after the club fell into financial difficulties. The RFU bought it in 1990, basing the England youth set-up there, but they finally made way in 2007, with talk of the site being sold off for houses, but the developers loss was AFC’s gain as they sought it for themselves.

It’s just about the closest senior ground to myself, and for years I’d been thinking of it as a perfect non-league venue, so hearing that it was to be utilised for football again came as good news. I’d actually been here once before some time back in the mid 90s when free tickets for an England youth international had been given away to schools by the RFU. The venue had struck on me then, so I was determined to revisit and when AFC took famous giant-killers Chasetown to an FA Cup replay, then it seemed the perfect game to go to, and somewhat ironic considering my planned trip to Chasetown 24 hours previously had been postponed because of the replay!

Situated right on the edge of the city in Staffordshire, Castlecroft is a nice area and the entrance to the ground is testament to this. At one time this was the grounds of Castlecroft House, a stately manor house which was turned into a hotel, and more recently, flats. Going down a long drive past numerous other pitches, and a cricket ground, then you finally come into the car park with the back of the stand towering above. A big crowd had been expected for the nights game and stewards were already out controlling parking which was building up on the estate just outside, helping to add to the big-match feel. From the outside, there’s little to see, but inside the first impression is of how smart the ground is. Three sides are hard standing, with the far side out of bounds, whilst the Main Stand sits in the middle of the near side. Raised from the ground it really does look quite tall in comparison to most at this level, and with just under 500 seats, more than meets requirements. The age of the stand itself leads to a bit of confusion, I’d presumed it looked to have been built in the mid-90s, and Colin Peel’s book on West Midlands grounds shows a picture with the former grandstand still in place captioned as being taken in 1990, yet ex-Wolves striker Mel Eves, who was sitting behind me, mentioned that it was in place when he trained here, which would have been the early 80s at least. Whichever date is true as the time neared towards kick-off it started to fill up with a fantastic crowd of 427 who applauded the teams onto the pitch, including an impressive number of away fans that had made the short trip, outnumbering even some of the travelling supports seen at Molineux down the years.

I’d been looking forward to the game and ground quite a bit, yet beneath that was a feeling of resignation. It’s not often I go along to a non-league game with much over-riding support for either team, but AFC had done well just to get a replay, and being a Wolverhampton side, not to mention an ex-Grammar School pupil myself then I was hoping for a home victory, but the reality was that Chasetown, famous for their televised cup runs of recent years would win relatively easily.  

From the start the Scholars went at the home side, but undeterred AFC stuck to their guns and matched their more illustrious opponents, with the game very even as it headed towards half-time with the scores still level. Most of the crowd seemed to be agreeing on how well they’d done, yet with less than a minute to go my mind was sent racing away to the fight that Wolves have to stay in the Premier League when for all their hard work, AFC were undone by one slip. A simple sideways pass some 35-40 yards out was misplaced by one of AFC’s defenders, just about their only mistake of the half, but it proved disastrous after being picked up by the alert Craig Milligan who raced forward, evading a tackle before slamming the ball home from outside the box to make it 1-0. It was classic punishment from a better quality side being pegged back, yet just waiting for their moment.

At half time, that feeling of dejection was coming back, but the players had barely come out onto the pitch for the second half when Wulfs found themselves level again. A corner from the far side had been floated over where Andy Mitchell got on the end to head home and make it 1-1. The rest of the half was much the same as the first, with AFC matching the visitors efforts, striker Ade Bandele in particular troubling the Chasetown defence, but the difference in quality, and notably, fitness, was beginning to tell and the Scholars should have been back in front in the 80th minute. Another isolated mistake nearly ended in disaster when Danny Smith picked up a stray ball 30 yards out, and in almost an exact copy of the opening goal, he moved forward before seeing his long-range shot thud against the bar to keep the hosts in it. If that wasn’t a warning, then it was hearts in the mouth during injury time when Gary Birch had time in the box to turn and shoot, but he flashed his shot across goal when he really ought to have scored. Extra-time it was and Chasetown dominated the opening period, and once more it was back to dejection when they scored in the 18th minute. Birch made up for his earlier miss by heading home a free-kick and the next 10 minutes passed by with the visitors coasting towards the First Qualifying Round and a tie away to Kidsgrove Athletic. I’d already started to head towards the exit to make a quick getaway on the final whistle but with just two minutes left AFC did the impossible and equalised once more. Daniel Cruddington scored the third header of the evening from a corner, and they almost won it at the end, but for Martin Taylor in the Chasetown goal tipping over Bryn Jones’ shot.

So, 120 minutes gone, a dream that would inevitably be ended by the visitors and yet AFC had held their own to make it to penalties. Anything could happen. The hosts went first and converted all five of theirs, with Chasetown converting their first four, bringing it down to the final one and Harry Harris versus Danny Tipton in goal. The fans were biting their nails, partly to keep warm on an increasingly cold evening, but Tipton held his nerve and a big roar broke out when he guessed right, diving low to save Harris’ shot and send the home side into the next round against all expectations. It might not have been the final stages, and the BBC cameras might not have been present, but this was every bit the magic of the cup with the bumper crowd really having got their moneys worth.

After leaving, I made my way home, the distance being short enough and busses irregular enough to walk the few miles back, still buzzing a little from the excitement that such an upset can produce.

The ground is a fantastic standard for this level of football and as with Chasetown, whose own cup runs helped them to progress up the leagues, then you feel that AFC won’t be around Step 6 for very long, especially if they can build the sort of support that a game like this helps establish, but wherever they end up, then it’s a ground worthy of visiting.

Welcome to Castlecroft Stadium

Rear of the Main Stand

The Near End

The Main Stand

The Far End

The Far Side

Ready for Kick Off

The Near End

The Far End

The Main Stand

Castlecroft Stadium Panoramic


1 comment:

  1. It is quite a huge logo that you can miss. I don't know why they aren't quite common on perhead costa rica stadiums.