Noose Lane
Sporting Khalsa

Ground No. 68 (return visit)
Visited -
 Tuesday 18th February 2014
Result - Sporting Khalsa 5-2 Willenhall Town
Competition - West Midlands (Regional) League, Premier Division
Attendance - 62 (h/c)

It’s been nearly nine years since I first started watching Willenhall Town and in that time the club has been on something of a rollercoaster ride that makes even Wolves’ self-determined demise of the last few years look mild in comparison. It had resulted in them having to sell their home of 60 years so that they could survive, although unlike many, they were fortunate enough to find another club to take it off their hands, which meant instead of hitting the road whilst a Tesco or housing estate popped up in its place, they were able to continue playing there, albeit in the form of tenants as Sporting Khalsa moved in and took over the freehold.

It had been a welcome relief to myself especially, as Noose Lane is the venue which in many ways I consider to be the site of my first real experience of non-league, so it holds a special place in my heart, along with Willenhall themselves, but after a few seasons of co-habitation, in the summer of 2013 it was announced that the Lockmen would be leaving and instead heading north to Essington and the much used Long Lane Park, former home of Wyrley Rangers, amongst many others.

The club had of course released positive statements regarding the switch, of it being a new start and a way forward, but the reality is that with it being a difficult ground to get to and a lot less developed, then it was an unwelcome move for many, even if the last few years at Noose Lane had become a depressing experience.

Not only had the paintwork been changed from Willenhall’s red to Khalsa’s blue, but the clubhouse had been separated from the ground, turned into a new bar named ‘The 442 Lounge’, along with the club shop and refreshment hut being boarded up, all on top of dwindling crowds, down to the last few dozen hardy souls watching routine hammerings week in, week out, but even taking all that into account, Noose Lane had still been the one constant, so moving had seemed like the final hammer blow to the club, whichever way it was badged up as a fresh start.

The two sides had of course met previously with Willenhall as the ‘away’ team, but this was the first time that the club had been back after leaving, so it was an occasion not to miss, and I’d been looking forward to heading ‘home’ since the start of the season, but the weather had other ideas, and the initial date of January 4th was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch, with the game being rearranged for 6 weeks later instead.

Even for the new date, there was still a doubt about whether it would go ahead with the weather not having got a great deal better since the start of the year, rain and wind having lashed the country for a prolonged period, but surprisingly, a pitch inspection at 5pm gave the go ahead, and so it was a quick dash home from work before back across the Black Country and onto a familiar route and a trip down memory lane.

I was genuinely looking forward to visiting the ground again, it felt like going home, seeing Willenhall back where they belong. Technically it would be a new tick, not having seen Khalsa as the home side here, but that was never going to be the real reason for the visit, simply wanting to relive the matchday experience since passed with the Lockmen’s move away.

On walking up Noose Lane itself, the first indication that something wasn’t quite right came when seeing the floodlights and not quite being able to work out what was different. Previously you always used to have a semi-decent view into the ground with the road being higher, but the fence for the car park had been taken down and buildings put up in its place. OK, not too much different I thought, even having spotted another addition, with a new turnstile in the near corner as well, so I carried onwards to the former clubhouse, which in fairness, had been vastly improved since being re-branded as the 442 Lounge and turned into a smart bar come restaurant. This was when it dawned that there really had been some big changes that had taken place since the summer. The main gates and turnstiles were gone, in their place decking and outdoor seating had been installed, leaving nothing remaining of the former entrance to the ground. It was a bit odd I thought, but still no big issue, a small change of entrance from one side of the car park to the other… That was until having finished a quick pint I headed back over to the new turnstile block, only to go through, and be left gobsmacked!

If you’d have blindfolded me and dropped me inside the ground without saying where it was I’d genuinely have struggled to figure it out that it was a venue I’d visited dozens of times before, over the best part of a decade. The change was startling. Whilst I’d always considered Noose Lane a second home as such, if truth be told, it was never a ground I’d really liked that much. It was a very wide open space, with large gaps between the touchlines and barriers, and always looking very windswept and uncoordinated with banking around the far side and end, and the near side a bit messy with unpainted fences and rough ground behind the hard standing. The whole ground had looked, if not uncared for, a little run down, yet now it couldn’t be more different. Whilst the pitch is in the same place (more or less from what I could tell), the surrounds make it into a tight, compact ground, looking extremely neat and tidy. Along what was the far side, now the near, sits the old Main Stand in the middle, having been totally refurbished, with the seats replaced from fading red, half of which had been broken/burned by vandals in latter years to a bright blue/yellow mix, the exterior repainted black and even the hole in the roof repaired! Where it had sat on a grass bank before, the pitchside barriers had been moved a couple of yards forward, closing the gap between the stand and touchline, and the old barrier had been filled in with a fence, to make the side feel enclosed. It was the same continuing behind the far goal, the barriers having moved closer to the pitch and the old hard standing disappeared behind fences, whilst there was new smart looking block paving running around all four sides. Over on the far side, the old terrace was still there, but looking quite isolated a good 10 yards away from the barriers, whereas before they had run right in front of it. At the near end sat the new facilities, the dressing rooms directly behind the goal, the old clubhouse/dressing rooms  barely visible, cut off behind more fencing, the few small steps of terracing that had been at this end, now somewhere beneath the car park. Probably helped by the night, the black colour scheme gave a feel of intimacy and it was fair to say I wasn’t the only one wandering around before the game started, shocked by just how much it had changed.

Whilst it might not be a new ground, Khalsa themselves are a relatively new club. Formed in 1991 as a Sunday League side, they first entered the West Midlands Regional League in 1996, lasting only one season before returning to local football, until 2004 when they re-entered the WMRL at Division 2 level. They experienced a much better debut season this time around, winning promotion at the first time of asking, and having established themselves at Step 7, the summer of 2010 was to be a big year for the club, with the purchase of Noose Lane seeing them move in with Willenhall, allowing them to progress by achieving their second promotion, this time to the WMRL Premier, where they’ve remained ever since, 2013/14 being their most successful year to date at the time of writing.

Going into the match, they sat third in the table, with Willenhall third bottom in 21st. The Lockmen’s form since the financial troubles started is the stuff of nightmares. Of the last 194 league matches (since the start of 2009/10) they’ve lost 141 (a 77% loss ratio). Even worse, they’ve conceded 592 goals, an average of over three per game, this measured over five seasons. A win wasn’t on the cards, at least not for the visitors, but from the off they gave it a real go, and looked as strong as at any time since they had a decent Southern League/NPL side prior to the crisis. It was unfortunate then when Khalsa did take the lead in the 28th minute thanks to Liam Hughes. The hosts, whilst looking the more dangerous, hadn’t had many golden chances up to then, but Hughes was able to brush past several defenders and lash the ball home inside the post to open the scoring.

Despite this setback, it looked like the one goal would be the only difference as half time approached, with the game still fairly even, but a corner from the near side for Khalsa had been whipped over to the far post, where it was headed down into the path of Robbie Holdcroft who fired home low through a crowded area in the 41st minute to make it 2-0. With this, you could visibly see Willenhall’s confidence slip and the hosts added a third two minutes later when Liam Hughes put over what looked like a cross from the right hand side which looped over everyone’s head to drop nicely into the corner of the net for his second and to make it a harsh scoreline of 3-0 at the break.

After the restart, Khalsa had enough opportunities to more than double their lead with chance after chance going begging, until the 57th minute when Mark Habbershaw made it four, tapping in a shot that had been parried by the ‘keeper straight into his path. It looked like another rout on the cards, perhaps even a repeat of the 8-0 victory when the sides had met earlier in the season, but the visitors seemed to rally at this point and in the 61st minute Tony Clift got one back, albeit with a severely deflected shot from the edge of the area looping up over the goalkeeper and just in under the bar. It was a glint of hope thoughm and six minutes later their luck seemed to be changing when the home side went down to 10 men. On the break, one of Town’s strikers had been pulled back by the last defender, with the ref making no hesitation in showing the red card. It had caused a few arguments on the benches with the incident happening a good 40 yards from goal and another Khalsa defender being close to the action, but it looked a right decision by the ref, and eight minutes later Willenhall reduced the deficit to 4-2 when Joe Noel scrambled the ball in at the far post. At this point, if the visitors could have found a third goal, then it could have turned interesting, but it wasn’t to be, and Khalsa wrapped things up two minutes from time when from a corner, the ball was played to the edge of the box where Liam Hughes stood unmarked and had time to pick his spot to complete his hat-trick and finish the game at 5-2 for a well deserved victory by the home side.

Whilst I’d made the journey partly with the intention of taking a trip down memory lane, and partly wanting to dislike Khalsa as the ground stealers, it’s fair to say that I came away with the completely opposite impression of the hosts, and it having helped close a chapter on Willenhall’s demise that had seemed to be dragging on with their exile from the ground.

Whilst technically it might be the same ground that I first discovered non-league football at, it really isn’t the same ground at all any more in reality. Khalsa haven’t simply taken over and kicked out the home team, they really have improved it massively and made it into their own home. Some might view it as a shame that Willenhall no longer play here, but in reality it has been a break from what seemed a depressing noose (no pun intended) around the neck, a reminder that they were down on their luck and things aren’t what they were. More regular fans than myself might disagree perhaps or have never felt that way in the first place, but what tonight proved to me was that the ground has gone and there’s no point in harping back to what used to be. Khalsa on the other hand have made a real effort and whilst having the money to do it is of course a nice position to be in, what they are doing is a real credit and benefit to non-league football, and with any luck they should continue to progress up the pyramid with a ground that away fans can now look forward to enjoying visiting as opposed having to wrap up and brave the cold of its former windswept open spaces.

Hopefully the pictures below will show a small glimpse of those changes. As regular readers of the site (if there are any left) will no doubt have noticed, then I haven’t updated this site in over 18 months now, partly through a loss of interest. As a result I’d never set out intending to do a review, so these images are only from an iPhone camera, and of course after dark is never a good time to take pictures, so apologies for the lack of quality.

You can see how the ground previously looked here –

Welcome to Noose Lane
(or rather the Aspray 24 Arena)

Bar to the left, where the former turnstiles stood directly in front

Outside the Ground

New Turnstiles

Inside the Turnstiles

Along the Near Side

The Far Side

The Terrace

Rear of the Terrace

On the old pitch side hard standing
Note the distance to the barriers now

The Far End

The Far End
The wall to the left was the original pitch side wall/barriers

The Near Side

 The Near End

The new Dressing Rooms

Ready for Kick Off

Inside the Main Stand

What was once the pitch edge

The Main Stand

The Old Clubhouse and Dressing Rooms

Standing by the old entrance

Noose Lane Panoramic

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