Sunday, 17 May 2015

Ground 262: Mitsubishi Yowakai Sugamo Ground, Tokyo

A week after my day out with the bear-headed, megaphone-wielding wildlings at Tochigi Uva FC I'm back in the more familiar environs of the Japanese capital city, strolling about a shaded, 18th century pleasure garden named after the six classifications of ancient Waka poetry.  By sheer coincidence, there's a discount booze shop on the corner by the entrance and a free of charge Tokyo Soccer League Division One game taking place one stop away on the train.  What were the chances, eh?

Armed with a bottle of Spitfire and two cans of Okinawa's finest brew, I get to the ground as a game is finishing up, a forward in an England 2002 World Cup top shanking horribly wide of the goal.  Watching from behind a wire fence are the starting eleven for Criacao, a team formed by workers at the Shinjuku Sports Promotion Council whose lofty ambitions culminate in J1 membership by 2020 and winning the Club World Cup in 2025.  For the moment, however, they're stuck in the seventh-tier and play home games wherever they can find a pitch.  "I spent all my time on Google Maps trying to find a ground in Tokyo we could use permanently," club official Kazuhiro Maruyama told Tokyo Issue last year, "but right now we have to train in Saitama Prefecture and play at different grounds most weeks."  Today they've borrowed an artificial pitch from Mitsubishi Yowa, a company-funded club nationally famous for producing players such as ex-Yokohama Marinos and Laos manager Kokichi Kimura and Junya Tanaka, latterly of Kashiwa Reysol, Sporting Lisbon and the Japan national team.  After narrowly missing promotion to the second division of the regional Kanto League - finishing first in the championship but third in the post-season knock-out tournament in which only the two finalists go up - Criacao have added two former J.League players of their own, including Tatsuya Okamoto, who scored five times for J3's Gainare Tottori in 2014. "We were too rigid tactically last year," explained footballing director Kenta Kato. "We need to press harder, get the ball back faster and then go straight for the goal."

As Kato barks out last-minute instructions, I find a seat on a metal bench alongside two women in straw hats, a bored-looking toddler and a couple munching their way through a whole carrier bag's worth of sandwiches.  Criacao take to the field in Fiorentina colours, their opponents, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, in all-white.   The police are on the back foot almost from the off, hacking one shot clear before sweeping another off the line, but 40 minutes and two drink breaks in their number 5 arrives unannounced in the Criacao penalty area and nods over the stunned goalkeeper for the game's opening goal. A minute later, the visitors catch the Criacao defence flat-footed again, a forward pass finding number 7 in enough space to gather, look up and slot in at the opposite post.  "Wow!" says sandwich man, spluttering crumbs. "Amazing!"  Stung, Criacao drill the ball back upfield, scoring once and twice almost levelling the scores. By now, even the toddler is engrossed in what's going on.

The break, inevitably, comes at the very worst time, Criacao's momentum so badly disrupted I begin to suspect their half-time instructions were issued by a combination of John Carver and Stuart Pearce.  They eventually forge a pair of half-chances, missing the target with both, before pulling level with a shot that clanks in off the post. The straw hats scream, two kids in matching Messi tops race along the touchline, and a Yokohama Marinos youth team momentarily break off from their warm-up to see what the fuss is about.  But the thin white line holds, the Met almost taking the points with a shot that clips the top of the crossbar as time ticks away and the fourth-placed title favourites can only draw for the second weekend in a row.  "Beyond Tokyo.  Winning or nothing" reads a banner tied to the fence.  The world's elite club sides can rest easy for a while to come yet.

Admission: Free
Date: Sunday May 17th

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Ground 261: Tochigi City Sports Park Stadium

I arrived in Tochigi in the autumn of 2004, swapping a university city an hour away from Prague for a railway halt on the very northernmost edge of the Greater Tokyo Area.  I lived in a shoebox-sized flat with no internet connection, a phone restricted to incoming calls only, and a single window with a view of two rice paddies, a convenience store and the road out of town.  It was a ninety-minute train ride to anything that didn't resemble a Wednesday night out in Sunderland; the surrounding prefecture couldn't even muster as much as a  J.League team to support.  The closest options, I very quickly discovered, were Kashima Antlers, Urawa Reds - respectively the country's most successful and biggest teams - and Omiya Ardija,  an insignificant second division outfit which had never before played in the Japanese top-flight.  For a Newcastle United supporter, there was only one choice. My contract done, I beat a fast retreat to the brighter lights of Northern Bohemia; the next time I saw Ardija play, they were losing in J1 and I was living twenty minutes west of Shinjuku, the busiest railway station in the world.

Eleven years on, I'm back in provincial Japan to see the prefecture's second team, Tochigi Uva FC.  Founded soon after WWII by workers at a local Hitachi plant, the club altered its name in 2002, was promoted to the country's highest amateur division eight years later, and is now next to last in the JFL table with a single win and nine defeats, including a 4-0 spanking its last time out.  The only side keeping Uva off the bottom is, unpromisingly enough, today's opponents, Fagiano Okayama Reserves, who have acquired just one point and a measly four goals from their opening ten matches."The quality might not be up to much," says Mike Innes, Ardija fan and long-time watcher of Japan's lower leagues, when we meet on the platform at Shin-Tochigi.  Along with Steve Barme, fellow expat Omiya supporter and our designated interpreter for the day, we navigate from station to stadium by iPad screenshot, passing a swimming pool, a petting zoo which has a pair of goats on a blue tarpaulin and a ferret in a pink cage, and a man who says "No money" as he presses three tickets into our hands.

The free entry is part of Uva's off-the-field push for the J.League, resulting in a bigger than expected crowd of almost 1,300.  The ground comes in standard single-stand-with-mini-roof-and-grass-banking design, with a fountain on one side and forested hills on the other.  The seats are three-quarters full, the grass is more sparsely populated.  The Uva ultras are behind one goal, waving flags and setting up drums which they bang on incessantly.   The Fagiano four stand by a corner flag, partially hidden by a set of stairs.  "God almighty!" Mike exclaims when the first chants of "Fagiano!" blow faintly across the running track. "I thought that was an echo." "The standard's pretty terrible," says Steve - who clearly hasn't yet experienced the lower reaches of the Tokyo Soccer League -  as the ball arcs lazily overhead and the referee's whistle blows for yet another offside.  The closest we get to goalmouth action is a corner which is blown by the wind first towards and then about ten metres past the far post, missing every single player on the way.  We're busy speculating on the likelihood of a miskicked set-piece eventually breaking the deadlock when a Fagiano backpass is poked against a post and bounces tamely into the net.  "One of the shittest goals you'll ever see," says Mike, whose years of supporting Altrincham and Ardija make him something of an expert in the field.

Half-time brings a queue at a vending machine, where I'm joined by an Uva fan with a megaphone, flag and Polar bear's head.  Intrigued, we follow him into back to the rest of the ultras, who break off from a group huddle to say "Hi", "Konnichi-wa" and "Welcome to Tochigi."  "The only thing that could improve this welcome," thinks Mike, "is if they give us free beer."  Instead, we make do with a rip-roaring start to the second half, the home side having a goalbound effort headed off the line before Toshihiko Uchiyama smashes in a second after his first attempt bounces back from a teammate's chest.  The Uva support keeps up a clamour of drumming, which crescendoes with the polar bear spreadeagled on the grass while screaming incoherently through his megaphone.  Another fan waves a towel scarf.  A third, in blue curly wig, shakes everybody by the hand.  "Come again next game," says one of the ultras, while a woman holds aloft a photo of her favourite player and screeches at the pitch.   A strange afternoon, but by far the most fun I've ever had in Tochigi.  "Fancy coming again?" asks Steve as we polish off mini-steaks in a restaurant which mysteriously empties almost as soon as we walk through the door.  It takes me three hours and four trains to get back to Yokohama, sunburnt, tired and ready for more.

Admission:  "No money"
Date:  Sunday May 10th 2015

In case you're wondering, the Uva in Tochigi comes from the Italian word for grapes, though Mike's father-in-law assures him that Tochigi's grapes are actually "shit, too sweet and with no depth of flavour."  The polar bear head, disappointingly, is tied in to a sponsorship deal with an air conditioning company (with thanks on that one to Steve's superior Japanese language skills).  

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Ground 260: Komazawa Football Field, Tamagawa

If you've ever wondered what British football terraces were like, try riding a Tokyo train between the hours of 7.30 and 9am.  I start my journey to work on the outskirts of Yokohama, a city of three million people, and end in Shibuya, a station used by roughly the same number of passengers every single weekday.  TV screens loop adverts for Nikon cameras, bank products and non-alcoholic beer.  There's the melodic roar of station announcements ("Mamonaku san-ban-sen ni Shibuya-yuki ga mairimas"), the thrill of finding yourself in an empty inch of space, the black-suited crowd swaying into each other between stops and surging forward the moment the doors ping open.

Jiyugaoka Station is the worst of them all, a place where no-one alights and rank after rank of salarymen push and drag themselves aboard.  Last week I watched with wry amusement a bloke in a Chelsea scarf shove his way through the doors, an office worker simultaneously getting his legs in a tangle and falling to the platform, grimacing silently before stoically hobbling away.  Today it's where I get off, hurrying down a pair of escalators, hurtling across a bridge and bounding through a tunnel in my haste to make a change of trains for the riverside playing fields of Komazawa University, alma mater of several J-League players and the coach of Vietnam's national team.  A week since experiencing the semi-rarefied heights of the Japanese third tier, I'm back among the obscurer corners of the capital city's football scene, taking in the second division of the amateur Tokyo Soccer League, a competition where kick off times range right across the weekend from 9am on Saturday mornings to after dark on Sunday nights, admission charges are unheard of and the handful of spectators are usually relatives, substitutes or people hanging around to use the pitch.

Nominally, the home side are Tokyo Bay FC, celebrating a tenth birthday with 300 players and a renewed focus "on synergy creation", their blue and grey kits carefully chosen to reflect "water, downtown buildings and the transportation network" of a city centre base in Shinagawa.  Their opponents are GIOCO Setagaya,  ambitious suburban cognoscenti who've subtitled their sparse website 'The J-League Team' five promotions too soon.  I arrive just after kick off, having squandered the time saved in the station by getting lost in a newly opened shopping plaza.  "Excuse me, do you speak English?" I politely ask a pair of old ladies, who shake heads and wave hands in vigorous unison before realising I'm still talking in a form of Japanese.  I'm bowed through the gates by a uniformed guard as Setagaya get the game underway; the team staff recline on park benches, the spectators make do with a kerb along the touchline and the rectangle of grass inside a shot put net.

Ten minutes in, the away side literally stroll into a lead when the Tokyo Bay goalkeeper mistimes a rush off his line, a forward passing the ball through his legs before a second taps in to the unguarded net.  "Woooah," the spectators purr appreciatively as the scorer jogs back to halfway.  It's soon apparent that Bay are hopelessly outclassed, their midfielders scurrying about to regain possession before wastefully punting the ball forward like mortar shells into no man's land.  Setagaya help out by playing everything down the left, the home defence clinging to the centre with all the grim desperation of a New Labour MP.  When half-time comes, they retreat exhausted to the shade under a classroom block, the coach's instructions echoing in angry bursts across the pitch.  Setagaya stand by the touchline, their trainer gently remonstrating while spectators stretch, lace up boots or slink off to the adjoining rugby pitch for a kickaround.

The second half is disappointingly flat, Bay making an almighty hash of two free kicks before Setagaya score again from a corner and the crowd start pedalling home.  Pass completion and urgency slump to a level somewhere between an end-of-season England friendly and Newcastle United from late-January to May; GIOCO smash the rusting crossbar, score a third and then stroke the ball around the centre circle while the tiring Bay players toil in the heat of an April afternoon.  Their coach stands up, leaves his tactics board by a corner flag and stares across the river.  "We fought well," the match report concludes, "but hope for better luck next weekend."

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday April 26th 2015

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Ground 259: Sagamihara Gion Stadium

The last time I found myself in Sagamihara was by mistake.  An afternoon's hike turned into an eight-hour misadventure, only ending when, dusk and spirits falling, I finally caught sight of the ramshackle Sagamiko Station, the two pages I'd cunningly photocopied from a dog-eared guidebook having proved of surprisingly little use along the way. I didn't know it at the time, but the city's football team had just been established by a far less accidental tourist.  Shigeyoshi Mochizuki,  retired from a playing career that encompassed 15 international appearances and the winning goal in the 2000 Asian Cup, was visiting friends when he called into a shop near Sagamihara Station.  The conversation turned to football. "I'd like to be a coach one day," the ex-Nagoya midfielder admitted. "Why not here?" asked the shopowner.

When I passed through the city in 2008, Mochizuki's  newborn club was only nine months old but speedily ascending the Japanese football pyramid.  By 2011 SC Sagamihara had shot through the Kanagawa Prefectural Leagues with three successive promotions and had already been granted associate membership of the J.League; three years later they lined up with 11 other clubs as founder members of J3. "A very proud day," Mochizuki said.

The Tama Derby pitched third against fourth, promotion favourites against play-off hopefuls, Machida Zelvia, formerly coached by Osvaldo Ardiles, travelling to play a team captained by the veteran Naohiro Takahara, once of Boca Juniors and the Bundesliga.  Only a month into the season, it was already being branded "a decisive battle".  Both sides had won three, drawn one and disappointed in a limp defeat at home.  "Sagamihara are better than when we beat them three times last season," warned Machida's Koji Suzuki. "We know they'll be up for the game."

The nearest station to the Gion Stadium is Harataima, two narrow platforms with a mountain view and an honesty box for your tickets upstairs.  I pass two shrivelled rivers, a convenience store and then disappear among the ginko and greening cherry blossom of Sagamihara Municipal Park, the sickly smell of odure from a hundred allotment plots intermingling with the muffled din of stadium announcements and fat drops of rain.   Skirting the longer queues for taco rice, octopus balls and pita hamburgers, I pay just over £3 for roast chicken with paella and just under twice as much for a ticket in the Sagamihara end, which turns out to be a grass bank behind a goal, three rows of advertising hoardings and a running track.  To my right, the home crowd start with Human League, switching to Pigbag as a Machida attack is snuffed out, the ball travels down the pitch and is flighted into the net by Taira Inoue, one of the club's cornucopia of close-season signings from J2 strugglers FC Gifu. There's a moment of utter silence, then thundersticks (doled out for free along a four-page programme) bang, green and white shirts bob on the grass and the theme from Popeye strikes up as  the tannoy belatedly comes to life.  Machida start over, families sit on picnic mats slurping their way through cup noodles and crunching on food they brought in from outside.  Sagamihara's ultras stand behind Gate 12 flags, chanting towards a larger mass of blue at the opposite end of the pitch. 'Pasion Azul' reads a Zelvia banner, the home side responding with 'Forza SC Sagamihara' and 'All Try Our Best'.

Machida bustle and start bossing midfield; the greens sit and wait, Mobi Fehr, a US youth international once of Portland Timbers and FC Basel U21s, patiently mopping up and Takahara heading clear when Zelvia get closer to goal. Umbrellas go up then back down, children roll across the banking, the ultras twirl their scarves and bounce out No Limit.  A Machida player bangs a shot off an advertising board, the resulting thud his side's most memorable contribution to the opening half hour.  Six minutes before the break Takahara twists and slots a second into the net over the goalkeeper's hand.  There's a scream, Gate 12 pogo for a whole 30 seconds and when they stop the Machida supporters pick up with their chants all the way to the referee's whistle to close the half.

Before three minutes are gone in the second period we've had a save at either end and a Zelvia goal, Satoshi Kukino turning in a rebound off the keeper.  And then, for 40 or so minutes, everything settles back down, bored children racing about while their parents polish off picnics or sit reading books.  The attendance is counted at 4,762, the Gate 12 fans dance to Go West and Sagamihara, harassed, pushed back and reliant on the wiles of Takahara to keep possession upfield, cling to their advantage as the scoreboard shows first four then five minutes of time added on.  The final whistle, when it eventually comes, is met with a roar, the caw, caw, cawing of the crows overhead an early season mockery of Machida's promotion campaign.  Sagamihara go second, a Zelvia fan in a West Ham United t-shirt shaking his head with incomprehension as he starts back out on the way to Harataima.

Admission: 1,000 yen (about £6)
Date:  Sunday 19th April 2015

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Ground 258: Oifuto Central Seaside Park

Three and a bit months later, it feels as if I've never been away. A day after landing at Narita and two hours since waking up jetlagged in my Yokohama flat, I'm at Oifuto Central Seaside Park, north of Haneda Airport, east of Shinagawa's aquarium - "Oishi!" ("Delicious!") visitors were exclaiming, pointing upwards at the sealife from the walk-through glass tunnel - and Ohi Racecourse, where nightly, illuminated 'Twinkle Races' and Sunday morning flea markets take place.   An artificial pitch, towering floodlight pylons, around 200 spectators and the final morning of the 2015 Tokyo Society Soccer Championship, played out over 11 days by 60 teams on eight pitches all around the Japanese capital city.

Repeat finalists and current trophy holders Tokyo 23FC are, to quote one afficionado of the Japanese non-league game, "an ambitious, J.League-focused regional league club." Powerhouses of the fifth-tier Kanto Soccer League Division One, where they face off against the likes of VONDS Ichihara, Hitachi Building Systems and Joyful Honda Tsukuba FC, the team is named after the number of municipalities in Tokyo City, have 'Tokyo Pride' as their motto and play their home fixtures a rainbow away from Tokyo Disneyland at the 7,000-capacity Edogawa Stadium, Tokyo Bay.  Their opponents, LB-BRB Tokyo, are not, as you might assume, an inelegant piece of text speak but rather a recent amalgamation of two university football sides that have Kentaro Hayashi, the twice-capped veteran of over 300 appearances for Tokyo Verdy, Kobe and Kofu as sports director and head coach.  While Tokyo 23FC were besting Waseda United in one semi-final, Hayashi's team - who start at the seventh-tier but are shooting for the skies of full J.League membership within the next five years - were putting the finishing touches to a 6-5 penalty shoot-out giantkilling of Kanto Leaguers FC Korea.

Although capital city bragging rights, silverware and a place in the Tokyo qualifiers of the Emperor's Cup are simultaneously up for grabs, the game progresses at somnambulistic speed, park baseball fixtures and cherry blossom parties in the background as the players stroll about the artificial turf, which is confusingly marked out for hockey, lacrosse and American football too. The single stand is just under half full,  eight Tokyo 23FC ultras and a drum providing the bulk of the noise. I sip my Kirin beer ('Brewed for good times' promises the side of the can) while seven of the ultras chant "Give us goal" and the other greedily demolishes a supermarket bento box with a pair of disposable chopsticks.  A cameraman leaves the video running unattended as he scrolls through messages on his phone, looking up just in time to see a 23FC forward punt a dipping volley off the trunk of a tree.  The most entertaining moment of the half comes when a home run clears the walls of two stadiums, rolls off the roof and drops on an empty seat halfway down the stand. "Amazing!" says a spectator, looking at the sky.  Behind him an LBB player does two stepovers and then runs the ball out for a throw.

The second half starts unpromisingly and without a hint of a threat on goal until 23FC's Ryota Shingai apologetically places a much delayed free kick straight through the goalkeeper's hands.  A teammate studs wide with no defender in sight and the LBB keeper despairing on his knees, then Singai dinks a shot off a concrete wall with Keita Tsuchiya, once of Bohemians Prague and 1.FC Reimsbach, already off the bench in expectation of a goal.  His keeper has little to do, spectacularly one-handing a header away as LBB finally mount an attack of note.  The holders settle the game with a second goal just before full-time, Daiki Suzuki racing clear as the opposition push desperately upfield.  "Tokyo, Tokyo, Tokyo," the victorious supporters rumble as club officials trade business cards and jet planes dip through the thickening cloud.  The winners collect their trophy,  a defiant LBB fan waving a picnic bag with 'Hug', 'Me' and 'Kiss' written garishly in three hearts as the losing eleven line-up to applaud.  Her shoes have two-inch platforms, 'Cup of tea my doll' printed out in luminous gold on each side.  The last bits of sun disappear, cherry blossom picnickers fold up their mats and head off towards the monorail home.  "Let's go Tokyo," shout the ultras, holding their scarves aloft through the first drops of rain.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday March 29th 2015

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Ground 257: Oakford Park, Wallington FC

It's blustery, dank and there's a hint of drizzle as we plough through fish and chips by the beach huts and gun batteries of Blyth's South Beach.  Dog walkers in waterproof jackets and tightly-drawn hoods struggle up the coast from Seaton Sluice, where Ray Kennedy transferred from the production line of a sweet factory to six league titles and five European trophies in 14 years at Highbury and Anfield Road.  Driving inland, we pass by the field where Blyth Town play their home games, the Northern League aspirants currently battling again residents' objections and promotion deadlines as they plan out a ground with floodlight poles and 300 seats.  On through the local non-league aristocracy of Bedlington and Morpeth, then ten miles along a B-road to Scots Gap, an old Border Reiver crossing point of 125 people snuggled deep in the Northumberland countryside.

We pull up by the only signpost to get our bearings to the ground.  There's a small cluster of houses, a National Trust office, village shop and garage, a bus shelter listing two services in the afternoon, and a red-brick Methodist chapel.  "Don't think they'll get much of a crowd here, do you?" the driver asks.  We track down Oakford Park at the far end of a cul-de-sac, through a cut between wooden garages with a hut on one side and players' cars parked up along the touchline.  There are signs asking spectators to keep their dogs off the playing surface, the dugouts are marked out with motor registration plates, one of the goalnets is tied down to two traffic cones and a handful of  sheep are lazily grazing between the back of the pitch and the road north to Rothbury.  "Should've played this yesterday," says a spectator, stamping his feet on the grass, "when it was warm."

The teams trot out, ducking under a railing to get onto the pitch.  A substitute jumps from the back of a car while the Shankhouse manager bites chunks off a bar of chocolate. Although it's hard to imagine now, his club were once among the pre-eminent football teams in the north.  One of 17 sides in a pit village of just 1,000 people, the colliers were established by members of a Primitive Methodist bible class in 1883, played Aston Villa in an FA Cup fourth round tie, moved to a purpose-built stadium and won six of the first 11 Northumberland Senior Cups before, hauled back from the brink of extinction by a public fundraising drive, they dropped into the Blyth and District League in 1906.

The home side are even older than their opponents, formed in 1877 by workers on the nearby Wallington Hall estate who changed before games in a disused henhouse and travelled away in a horse and cart.  The club won its first trophy at the Longwitton Flower Show, ditched their blue kits for green-and-white in homage to Hibernian's Famous Five,  and clinched their only Northern Alliance championship on the final afternoon of their centenary year.  Current holders of the Clayton and Bay Plastics Cups, the "fiercely amateur side is enjoying probably its most successful period ever," reads an announcement tacked to the village noticeboard alongside signs for dog fouling and an Easter fayre. "We have the finance, we have the facilities, we certainly have the players. All we need is a little extra help off the field."   What they lack this afternoon is a crowd, the dozen or so spectators made up of club officials, substitutes and a middle-aged bloke in overalls who stays for twenty minutes of the first half. "We  used to get a few locals along to watch," Wallington's captain told a Newcastle paper, "but it's a bit like one man and his dog nowadays."

The home side are sponsored by the parish council, Shankhouse by a label manufacturer.  Wallington kick towards a hedge, winning a corner off a Shankhouse shin with their first attack.  "Touch tight," shouts a visiting coach.  "Goalkeeper's toes," instructs a Wallington centre-half. Shankhouse's keeper springs to his left and palms a shot out.  "With his wrang hand an' all," a spectator nods appreciatively.  A Wallington player goes down injured, the physio jogging over with a plastic bucket. "Just roll 'im ower," somebody suggests.  The referee takes a noticeably lenient approach to fouls, playing on through five in a row as the ball shunts around midfield.  "No, no," he says, bending at the knees and keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the ground.  "Do you reckon he's lost his whistle?" someone asks.  Shankhouse get a free-kick. The taker looks to the dugouts;  "If you fancy it, you fancy it," the coach replies.  His kick dips past the wall and in at the near post, squeaking past the goalkeeper's fall. "I'd text the score if I had any signal," a spectator complains. "If in doubt, give it a welly," someone advises the Wallington defence.

At half-time the teams retreat to the clubhouse and the spectators back to their cars.  "Toon two-nowt down," says a Shankhouse official, pulling a holdall out of his boot.  "Fella on the radio says it could have been five," adds a bloke in a manager's coat, pressing an earphone in with his finger. "They've only been playing half an hour as well."  Wallington start the second period attempting to play patiently through midfield.  A centre-half strolls up the pitch, picks his pass and watches as it bounces back off a knee and dribbles out for a throw.  "I telt them to welly it," comes an all-knowing comment from behind. A Shankhouse corner is scrambled away by the goalkeeper, a defender booting the ball clear before the whistle belatedly sounds.  "I wasn't sure if it was in the D," apologises the linesman from halfway.  "Yer kidding, son!  It's the same size as the centre circle, man," a spectator laughs. "Do you want to come down and check this time?" the referee asks.  "It was on the line," he says to a Shankhouse official.  "You've got the wrang bench, ref.  I'm not fussed if we take it again."

A Shankhouse player drops a shoulder, cuts inside and shoots into the top of a hedge, a home defender racing back with a wooden plank to retrieve it when it falls into the neighbouring field. "Can we pack in with these short corners?" the Wallington keeper says to no-one in particular. "Angles," a player shouts. "Space," yells someone else. Chasing the game, the greens throw all three substitutes on, and a midfielder takes a quick free kick off a retreating Shankhouse player's ankle before falling to the ground.  The visitors bring their manager off the bench - "If your warm-up doesn't end soon, the game will be ower, man," a coach tells him - clatter the crossbar then turn in a second goal with four minutes to play.  "We played better last week than we have today, mind," a Shankhouse spectator says.  "Are Newcastle still getting beat?"

Next week I start a new job in Japan, where I'm living a ten-minute walk from the stadium that hosted the final of the 2002 World Cup. A Saturday afternoon in Wallington is a wonderful way to bow out.  Get there if you can.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday March 21st 2015

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Ground 256: Belle View Stadium, Consett

"If a child of the 1950s had been asked to paint a perfect non-league football ground," wrote the Northern Echo, "it would have looked, externally at least, like the gloriously haphazard Belle Vue." Predominantly volunteer-built and part-funded by Tommy Lumley's transfer to First Division Charlton Athletic, Consett's red-brick stadium was unveiled in August 1950 with 7,000 people there for the North Eastern League visit of Sunderland Reserves. "A dream come true," proclaimed a four-page feature in the following year's FA Book for Boys.

The surviving stand was a magnificent, disintegrating wreck when I first saw it half a century later. "The roof's hanging on by a thread, water's pouring through, the terraces are crumbling and the cement's porous," the club's treasurer commented.  "If they ever want to film men queuing for a shower at a prisoner of war camp they could use our dressing rooms," said manager Kenny Lindoe, who steered his team to three second-placed finishes in the space of four years while the ground fell to bits around them. Much loved by casual visitors but increasingly nightmarish to maintain, when Belle Vue hosted its final competitive fixture the toilet lights blew at 11am and a deep fat fryer exploded twenty minutes into the first half.  "It has a wonderful atmosphere, but atmosphere can't give you comfort and it can't keep you dry," chairman and benefactor Frank Bell explained to Northern Ventures Northern Gains.

The new build was a decade and over £2.5 million in the making, has a 3G pitch and supports nearly 40 teams and ten full-time jobs.  When it formally opened with a friendly against a Newcastle United XI almost 3,000 turned up, the kick-off delayed by half an hour while they all got inside.  "A beautiful facility," Bell told reporters. "The main problem at the old ground was that it could only be used once a fortnight," Northern League chairman Mike Amos thought.  "Now the club has something that can be used all the time."  While some bemoan the lack of individuality in the design - goals-on-wheels, two flatpack stands, perspex dugouts and picnic tables set out by the food hatch - the club are more concerned with the extra revenue an all-weather surface, floodlit six-a-side courts and new clubhouse provide.  "This place is always full for Sunday dinner," a fan says in the bar.  "They must make a packet on it." "We're from Consett we used to make steel" states the lettering on the back of one replica shirt.  "We've got two Tescos" reads another. "Three inches of snow here yesterday," a Roofing official tells us. "I hope our lot can cope with the climate."

While Consett made strides off the pitch, their first-team were falling back into the middle reaches of Northern League Division One, Lindoe stepping down after a decade in charge to concentrate on finding players for the club's new reserve and academy sides.  In October the Steelmen were hammered 5-0 at Jarrow Roofing, John Campbell making headlines on Sky Sports News and a move to League Two soon after. "We can't afford let our standards slip," warns visiting manager Richie McLoughlin, who's lost Campbell's replacement and three-time FA Vase winner Paul Chow to a wedding.  "We need to be switched on from the very first minute."

"I'm here to win things," Lindoe's replacement Colin Myers announced when he arrived from Blyth Spartans.  His improving team make the brighter start, Andy Hunter turning over one-handed when Chris Moore dinks an effort on his goal.  Roofing rarely threaten but keep Consett at bay until the 38th minute, when Danny Craggs rolls a free kick over the wall and into the corner.  A minute later and Michael Mackay - 39 goals this season and 244 in two spells bridged by four years with Hartlepool United - strikes against Hunter's post.  "The Mackems are four down, half the crowd's gone home and people are hoying tickets at Gus Poyet's head," a spectator shouts, scrolling gleefully down his phone. "He's lost the plot," says his mate, "and they'll still beat us in the derby."

Half-time gives Roofing respite and the clubs' committee members hot drinks, mini chocolate rolls and sandwiches "with two kinds of meat".  Big screens in the bar show home supporters fleeing the Stadium of Light in their thousands.  "Glad I came here instead," says one bloke.  "Haven't been to Newcastle all season," says another.  "I'm done with it now."  The visitors are still going, Lewie Teasdale rounding the goalkeeper before Dan Madden darts in to clear, but when they make a mess of a throw Craggs strokes in a second and the game is all but done. "Nobody's on it," says McLoughlin, whose afternoon gets worse when striker Malky Morien is red carded after petulantly bumping foreheads with the Consett goalkeeper.  "Yer moved yer heed, bonny lad," a spectator shouts with evident relish. "There's no use crying aboot it now."

Consett score a third, Calvin Smith gathering Hunter's attempted clearance and chipping back over the goalkeeper's head, though Roofing end the game as aggrieved with the referee as themselves after Scott Martindale escapes with a yellow for a two-footed lunge in front of the main stand.  Nobody disputes that Consett are the better side.  "Worst we've played in a while," McLoughlin admits.  "We  were never in it."

Admission: £6
Date: Saturday March 14th 2015