SPORT TALK: Welcome back to derby; Sunday League’s troubled times

At arm's length: Tulips' Robert Hughes gets to grips with Tigers midfielder Paul Goodhand.
At arm's length: Tulips' Robert Hughes gets to grips with Tigers midfielder Paul Goodhand.
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IT was great to have the Spalding United and Holbeach United derby back on the football calendar this week.

It wasn’t the thriller and goalfest many had hoped for (fortunately it didn’t carry some of the ugly traits of a full-blooded derby either) but it was just good to see the rivals go head to head again.

It’s been eight years since the last fixture and during the whole time which the Tulips were in a higher division they resisted the chance to say they would welcome playing the likes of the Tigers again in a lower league to improve their gates.

On Tuesday, 301 turned out in miserable weather – almost four times the Tulips’ normal home attendance.

A downpour in Spalding from about 6pm onwards surely put paid to many more curious neutrals going along too. As Ray Tucker, the Tulips’ press officer and our former sports editor, said to me: “It just goes to show that people will turn out in the rain for the right occasion.”

The conditions put a dampener on the atmosphere – it wasn’t even as good as the Tigers’ FA Cup replay at home to Hucknall Town – and they were from 60 miles away.

But those huddled into the main stand at the Sir Halley Stewart Playing Field on Tuesday were in pretty good heart.

The young Tulips fans even came up with a cheeky “Spalding’s going up” chant. Perhaps a little premature. Time will tell.

PS The line-ups from that last fixture in October 2003 (2-0 to Tulips; scorers – Paul Watts and Andy Stanhope; attendance 701): Tulips – Cross, Vince, P Barnes, Thompson, N Keeble, Hudson, Stanhope, Appleby, Nuttall (Gosling), Sowerby (Taylor), Watts (Bailey). Tigers – Lakin, M Cundy (Neaverson), Warfield, Hussey, Elston (Hepburn), Langford, S Barnes, Speechley (Kent), S Keeble, Shooter, Childs.

• I had my first Spalding Sunday League match for the best part of 18 months last weekend.

Jubilee were short and I was only too happy to come out of retirement, self-imposed after 22 seasons. However, they probably thought better of calling me up after I was at the heart of a defence which shipped five goals.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed being back in amongst the camaraderie and dressing-room banter. And the exercise was overdue, according to my increasing waist size.

Anyway, I was really disappointed to hear that long-time league club Aintree have had to pull out of Division One due to a lack of players.

That leaves just six teams in the top flight and eight in Division Two. Put the two together and it’s a similar size to just one of the four divisions the league enjoyed in its heyday.

The league will be 50 years in 2015 – if it makes it that far.

The major reason thought to be responsible for the demise in player numbers is changing work patterns meaning Sundays are less of a free day than they used to be.

Even so, I can’t believe there still aren’t enough men wanting all the positives of Sunday morning football – and there are many positives.

The archetypal image of 22 overweight, hungover, talentless lumps plodding around just does not apply. It’s perhaps just one on each side now.

But seriously, it’s important that our Sunday league not just survives but strengthens. If you can do anything about it, please do before it’s too late.