Monday, 22 August 2016

Ground 312: Plumpton Park, Bradford City Women's FC

Football,  wrote Sporting Females author Jennifer Hargreaves, "has historically unified men and marginalised and trivialised women".  It had been that way since the very start.  In 1881,  5,000 Glaswegian men turned out to watch what the Nottinghamshire Guardian hoped would be "the first and last exhibition of a female football match in Glasgow",  rushing on to the pitch after 55 minutes and forcing the players to "prematurely take refuge in the omnibus which had conveyed them to the ground".  Games were played more successfully in Bradford and Blackburn, but the Manchester Guardian deemed the "costumes were neither graceful nor very becoming" and the  Leeds Mercury mused that "public feeling has demonstrated against the unseemly exhibition in such a manner that the authorities are now frowning down the innovation" when a second pitch invasion occured at Manchester's Cheetham FC. 


Things began to change in the years during and immediately after the Great War.  With the Football League suspended in 1915,  women's games were staged instead to raise morale and funds for war charities.  22,000 assembled at Middlesbrough's Ayresome Park for the 1918 Munitionette's Cup Final between Blyth Spartans Ladies and a team from Carlisle; on Boxing Day 1920, there were 53,000 inside Goodison Park and 10,000 or more locked out for a game featuring teams from Preston and St Helen's. But the following year, with the male competitions back up and running,  the FA peremptorily decreed that "the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be discouraged". "It came as a shock and we could only put it down to jealousy," one player recalled. "We were more popular then the men."


Barred from using FA-affiliated pitches until 1971, women spectators were often made to feel just as unwelcome too.  In 1985, there was just a single women's toilet in the whole of Bradford City's Valley Parade, though this was at least one more than there had been during the 1950s.  By 1994, three years after the formation of the first national women's league, female fans still made up as little as seven per cent of the crowd at most men's league games and John Williams, of the Centre for Football Research, reported a prevailing view that  "football is men's space and place; where men go to get away from women".

 
Modern football, for all its many faults, is generally more diverse and welcoming, though the women's game suffers from the same kind of sneers it did in 1881.  "Is it even a sport?" a student asked when I told her I was going to watch Bradford City Women's FC.  Formed in 1988, City's fortunes have closely mirrored those of their male counterparts: two seasons in the top-flight, a near miss in the League Cup and back-to-back relegations dropping them as low as the fourth division, though they now play back in the Premier League North (despite the adjective, the third-tier of the women's game). "The ambition is to reach the Super League," chair Sally Thackray told the Bradford Telegraph and Argus. "But that is a whole new ball game. You have to pay players, you need a much different infrastructure.  We need more volunteers to run the club, but also investment. We need to be able to attract better players. You need £175,000 in the bank to get there.”

The opening day pitted City against Derby County, last season's early pacesetters before they faded disappointingly away to seventh.  The Ewes spent the close season overhauling their starting line-up while the home side were trying to adjust to the departure of Steve Winterburn after a decade in charge.  The new boss, Lee Harrison, is partnered by Charlotte Stuart,  who also captains the team from the centre of defence. "We haven't really set any targets for the season as we are mostly rebuilding,"  Harrison reckons before the game. The team are now based at Eccleshill United's Plumpton Park, a ninth-tier stadium with a car park, one previous visitor tells me, "that's like Passchendaele in winter".  A single turnstile opens into a ground of blue corrugated metal, tarpaulin covers, signs for Napoleon's Casino and Restaurant and a slate grey portakabin doling out coffee and pies. A chequered Derby County flag hangs from the main stand, whose randomly numbered blue tip-up seats house 50 or so spectators and a travelling support of one.  "The pitch slopes a bit, doesn't it?" a bloke says to his daughter, the grass dropping as sharply as Chris Hutchings' dismal West Yorks galacticos did in 2000-01.



"Do what we do," encourages a Bradford player.  "Let's win it back, girls," says one of the Derby centre backs. A bloke complains about the quid cost of a programme and two horses potter about in an adjacent field.  The Ewes start brightly, thudding a pair of shots into corrugated perimeter boards.  "Relax girls," says the City skipper as a clearance clangs against the top of the main stand. The visitors are more composed, Samantha Griffiths expertly curling a free kick over the defensive wall for the opening goal on 15 minutes.  The home side respond with a near miss, a shot trundling back off the post.  "We go again," their keeper shouts, borrowing a familiar standard of the male non-league lexicon. Her opposite number limps off, replaced in goal by defender Lorna Abbey, but while City get the ball forward quickly they fail to seriously trouble the stand in. Despite the increasing frustration, there's a noticeable lack of shouting aimed at linesmen and only tame admonishment for the referee.  "Every time," moans the City right back when a Derby player pulls her back on halfway. 


Bradford put a penalty over the crossbar and against the roof a stand before County score a second at the third attempt, Nicole Dale tapping in after the keeper saves twice.  "Big push," Harrison urges his team but the best they can manage are a few corner kicks, the game increasingly niggly as Derby close out the win. "Good game," a bloke claps. "In the first half some very good football was played," County's Facebook page says, "and then the second was a battle."

Admission: £3
Date: Sunday August 21st 2016

There's an excellent overview of the early years of women's football here.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Ground 311: Mill Lane, Wigginton Grasshoppers

And so at last we're off again. Five divisions,  57 teams and over 100 seasons since it was first contested, less than a decade after the founding of the Football League itself, the York and District League gets yet another opening night.   The first round of fixtures pits Huntington Rovers - managed by ex-Huddersfield winger and FA Cup semi-finalist Iain Dunn - against Osbaldwick, has F1 Racing motoring to 2014-15 title winners Riccall United and gifts defending champions Old Malton St Mary's a free evening while their Ryedale neighbours, Brooklyn and Malton and Norton FC, go head to head on an old bacon factory recreation ground.  Back towards York, Wigginton Grasshoppers,  pipped at the last by Old Malton in April, kick off the new seasons against Copmanthorpe.  "I'll be disappointed if we're not challenging again," manager, fixture secretary, match reporter and occasional first-team player Graham Ireton told The York Press.


Ireton moved to Mill Lane as player-coach in 2008, 26 years after John Jeffery established the club.  "Simply an extraordinary man who has made a real difference to the lives of so many around him,"  Ireton says of a man who still combines the roles of president, groundsman and chief kit washer. Among those Jeffery has helped along the way are West Ham's Sam Byram, a Wigginton youth player before he was picked up by Leeds United, and Alfie Beestin, who recently penned a one-year contract with Doncaster Rovers.  "He's a good player and he's got great potential," Rovers boss Darren Ferguson reckons. "I'm really pleased to get him onboard."

"Success through Endeavour" the club's badge says.  Last season, the Grasshhoppers fielded 20 teams, all funded by donations and match subs. The senior side, who won 21 of their 26 league games and averaged over four goals a game, now chip in £30 a season each plus £4 a start and a quid if they come off the bench.   Twice champions of the York League's second tier and York FA Cup winners in 2004, the green and whites play their home fixtures on a pitch behind the village's squash and sports club. "FA Charter Standard Community Club" announces a sign at the entrance. "Welcome to Wigginton Grasshoppers FC". The pitch is straight ahead, roped off on three sides with a hedge and six advertising hoardings marking out the other.  Aside from the breezeblock dugouts, the only cover comes from a couple of open-fronted corrugated sheds with bench seating for six.  "Winners!" yells a Copmanthorpe defender plaintively as an early goalkick drops out of the sky.  "Let's have a gamble," a midfielder urges.  "Don't have a go at the ref," the Wigginton goalkeeper loudly reminds his team.  "New rules, remember?"


Copmanthorpe clank the bar with a header, the rebound unceremoniously booted out of play for a corner.  The ball comes back into the box, the keeper can only flip it upwards and when it drops back down an away player heads it over the line. "Shit," says the keeper. "Sorry, lads."  A few latecomers turn up with fish and chips, Wigginton boot three shots into the hedge and then turn the game on its head with two goals in a single minute.  "Better two-one than nil-nil," a bloke says knowledgeably, turning to his mate.


There's a five-minute turnaround, the players sitting out on the grass until the officials are beckoned back out of a portakabin.  A cockerel crows in a neighbouring field and a game of crown green bowls starts back by the main road. "Second phase," Copmanthorpe's keeper says to his teammates.  "Turn and face," a defender implores. "On my shout we go." A player goes down claiming he's been elbowed in the face, there's a dive in the penalty area and a Wigginton player gets yellow carded for screaming "How's that not a fucking foul?" a few metres from the referee's face.  An assessor scribbles furiously, propping his clipboard up on the rope.  Copmanthorpe's keeper stops taking goalkicks but saves two shots with his knees.  "Let's keep it going lads, eh?" he shouts to his team.  They do, but the Wigginton - third and second in the last two seasons - score again late on. One game, three points.  Is this the season the Grasshoppers finally break their title duck?

Admission: Free
Date: Tuesday August 16th 2016

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Ground 310: MDC Community Stadium, Hemsworth Miners Welfare

"So you'll stay away from Fitzwilliam, then?"  -  David Peace  '1974'.

Fitzwilliam doesn't get the greatest of press.  It's portrayed in David Peace's Red Riding quartet as a "dirty brown mining town", benighted, cheerless and sinister.  "The crap town of crap towns," reads one unflattering description, "announced by nuclear cooling towers and the last layer of West Yorkshire hell."  Geoffrey Boycott, that epitome of the dour, obdurate Yorkshireman, grew up there in a Coal Board terraced house, as did Larry Lamb, a newspaper editor, The Guardian wrote, "of half-suppressed anger...and defiant character".  Defiance was stamped right through the village's part in one of the more notorious nights of the miners' strike, a mob-handed police raid on a local pub ending with the station in neighbouring Hemsworth under siege and the officers inside run out of town. “The police came over the bridge, swinging truncheons and chanting,” a witness remembered. “They knocked one lad down and kept hitting him. His uncle told them they'd given him enough, then they knocked him down and gave him the same. Then the people all came out of their houses. The whole village just erupted. Whatever they could do to get back, they did it".


The pits went soon after, the town's football club had gone just before.  Hemsworth Colliery was the first team of Cyril Knowles, who started as a 15-year-old miner and blossomed into one of the most accomplished full backs of his generation, with more than 500 professional appearances, four England caps and a song in his honour at number 14 in the charts.  His brother, Peter, went to Wolverhampton Wanderers, played for England U23's and quit, aged 24, to become a Jehovah's Witness.  "Bill Shankly wanted to sign him for Liverpool but he turned them down. Of course we all understood why a few weeks later," a teammate recalled. "It's a crying shame. They were saying he might go to Mexico for the World Cup the following summer, but he just gave it all away."


Founded in 1981, the year before Wolves finally ripped up Knowles' registration and accepted he was never coming back, Hemsworth Miners Welfare have progressed from the Doncaster and District Senior League Division Three to the step five Northern Counties East.  Having cantered to  last season's NCEL Division One title by a 12-point margin, the Wells announced themselves to the top-flight with two goals in the first eight minutes of an opening night win at Parkgate, capping a week in which the club got its first contracted player and put Runcorn Linnets out of the FA Cup. "We expect to do well," boss Wayne Benn said before the tie. "The club have never had it as good. We are playing at the highest standard we have ever played at. Attendances are up and there is a massive feel good factor about the place".


Optimism was in short supply when the collieries first closed, an ornamental pit wheel in front of the station ramp and a metal sign for the Fitzwilliam Country Park the only visible reminders of an industry that once gave work to thousands of men. Railway Terrace, where police and miners battled in July '84, runs behind the tracks towards the MDC Community Stadium, reached by a circuitous route at the back of a show home and the cricket club.  A Carlsberg England flag flutters above the entrance. "Want a programme, mate?" floats a voice through a portakabin hatch.  A set of plywood stocks lean incongruously against the clubhouse wall, inside which a framed print of Cyril Knowles in a Spurs shirt faces the bar and kitchen.  I take my food to a deckchair outside, the two teams warming up in opposite corners while a pair of fans tie flags to a fence.  "POEY IS INNOCENT" proclaims one in reference, apparently, to a Leeds fan convicted of chucking a coin at a game against Leicester; the other, more prosaically, states "Hemsworth Miners Welfare FC".   The club's name is also painted across the top of the dugout block, beside a covered stand with three blocks of green seats and one of navy blue.  "Fast start, boys," cajoles a Hemsworth defender.  "From minute one," Garforth echo. The home team hone in on goal from the off, a shot gets deflected and when the corner's played in Nash Connolly leaps unopposed to head his third goal of the season.  "Good start," Benn says laconically.  "Hellfire," groans a Garforth fan. "There are still 89 minutes left."  Seven later, just seconds after the visitors lump a shot on to the cricket outfield, Connolly turns provider, crossing for Del Pollock to fire in a second goal from close range.  "Awful Garforth," the fan shakes his head forlornly.  "Just awful."


The yellows rally, a shot seemingly deflected over the fence but, to much chagrin, a goal kick awarded instead.  "Every fucking time," a defender complains from fifty yards away.  "No point in you coming, linesman," the fan grumbles softly.  "Waste of space, waste of space."  Almost straight from the restart Hemsworth net a third, Brice Tiani lifting a pass over the Garforth defence and Connolly running on to score. "Twenty minute," the fan chuckles, turning to look at the rest of the stand.  "They're a good team. Hemsworth, but you can't be defending like that."


The away side are more resilient thereafter, but the hosts are always that bit sharper and more precise in possession, only some profligate finishing and the Garforth keeper's palms preventing Pollock and Sam Jones from extending the lead.  "Could've been closer but a fair result," Garforth tweet at full-time. "They'll be up there," reckons a travelling fan.  "But it looks like a long season for us."

Admission: £5
Date: Saturday August 13th 2016

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Ground 309: Welfare Ground, AFC Emley

"I hope you've brought a fleece or something," the driver greets me as we pull away from the bus station in Leeds.  "It gets cold up there on Emley Moor."  It's the first weekend in August, the opening, extra-preliminary round of the FA Cup and games are already being shifted from 3 o'clock on Saturday to the following afternoon.  "I wish it was for the telly," someone tells me, "but the cricket season hasn't finished yet and they have first dibs on the pitch."


It's not the biggest problem the village side have ever had with their three-sided home. In 2000, twelve years after reaching Wembley in the FA Vase and just two since losing by the odd goal in three at West Ham United in the FA Cup third round, new ground regulations left the 97-year-old club with little choice but to relocate to Wakefield's Belle Vue rugby league stadium.  "We'd been losing money at the Welfare and we'd have been chucked out of the Northern Premier League unless we spent a fortune on the ground," a fan remembers.  "The first season it was great.  Chris Waddle came with Worksop and we beat them 5-3,  we got an international player from Lebanon, the crowds doubled to almost 600 a game and we had over 1,700 in when we played Yeovil in the FA Trophy. But then things started going downhill."  The club changed its name to Wakefield & Emley and the reserve team - still based at the old village pitch - was disbanded in 2005, leading to a split in which AFC Emley, formed by disgruntled fans and ex-committee members, entered the West Yorkshire League Division One.  While Wakefield foundered, folding in 2014 after finishing bottom of the NPL North, Emley are prospering once more in the second-tier of the Northern Counties East.  "The team everyone is talking about," opened Non League Yorkshire's preview of their 2016-17 campaign.  "With the players they've got this season, they should walk their division," one spectator confidently predicts.


They weren't ever likely to walk their opening game of the FA Cup, Athersley Recreation making the short trip from Barnsley a division higher after a mini-flurry of late-season victories sent Pontefract Collieries down instead.  While they were staying up, Emley twice lost out to Bottesford Town, a 3-2 home defeat denting their chances of automatic promotion and the second, on penalties in a play-off, consigning the villagers to an 11th season in the NCEL Division One.  "The way the season ended is why neutrals love football," manager Darren Hepworth told the first issue of The Bootiful Game magazine.  "We were just seconds away from going up.  Now we have to move forward going into the new campaign...I can't speak highly enough of the people at the club.  Off the field we are making big strides."


Emley's home - newly christened the Fantastic Media Welfare Ground in a naming rights deal with a marketing agency - is spick and span and freshly painted.  There's a hoarding for 'Supporters Club Scotland', a bloke selling tickets to win a breakfast meat tray and a groundsman of the year award on display in the smartened up clubhouse.  "They used to have loads of stuff about the West Ham game in here," someone tells me as we stand on a club-crested carpet waiting to get served at the bar.   The tea hatch is already running low on steak pie and peas,  hoppers roam the main stand in search of spare programmes while a bloke at the front flicks through a paperback as he finishes off his pint. "About 300 here today, do you think?" the driver asks as the teams run out to the closing bars of The Final Countdown.


Athersley are easily the better side in the opening half of the game. "Hint of pre-season here from Emley," says the fan in the next seat. "The movement's been too good for them," someone else opines.   "They're just hanging on." The visitors miss a penalty, Ryan Smith fluffing his initial kick and then heading the rebound straight back at Gary Stevens in the Emley goal.  With the stand beginning to empty in anticipation of the break, Kai Hancock wriggles through two challenges, chases in after his own shot and leathers in the opening goal after the luckless Stevens saves once again.  "No more than they've deserved," an Emley fan says.  "We've done nowt here."


When the home team do start playing, they find it difficult to break down a stubborn, well-drilled Athersley defence.  "Stop messing around," a dad warns his son."It was you who asked to come." "I didn't know I'd be bored," the kid complains. "Can't we go home?"  He's barely finished the question when Ruben Jerome dribbles past three players and blatters the ball diagonally past the keeper.  "Will that be on YouTube?" the kid excitedly asks.  "What a belter!" shouts a gleeful fan. "Only one winner now."  Ashley Fynn, scorer of 73 goals last season plus another seven that were expunged from the records when Lincoln Moorlands Railway resigned their place in the league, has a shot that spirals wide off a defender's boot.  "It's coming now, at any time," an Emley fan urges his team on. We're almost played out when Flynn takes a pass in his stride and slips a shot past the onrushing keeper with the outside of his boot.  Athersley's dejected players drop to the floor, the goalkeeper mutters insensibly and then hoofs the post on his way off the field.  Whether at Wembley in May or Emley in August, it hurts to lose in the FA Cup.


Admission:  £6
Date: Sunday August 7th 2016

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Ground 308: Station View, Harrogate Railway

When workers from Starbeck's LNER loco shed formed a side to play in the 1935-6 Harrogate & District League, they probably never envisaged twice being the televised picks in the world's most famous domestic cup competition.   One-time British Railways National Cup winners, the club was hard hit when the sheds closed down and the workers moved elsewhere. "Dr Beeching nearly killed us,"  Mick Gray, a Station View fixture now for over 40 years, told The Guardian before Bristol City's visit in 2002. "There were 1,000 railway employees in Starbeck during the war and they had a penny a week docked from their wages. All that went in the 50s. But we've picked up since."


Eight games and six victories had brought Railway to the second round proper, Sky forking out £100,000 for live coverage and the ground - built with a £1,500 LNER loan that was taken back from the workers' pay - adorned with portaloos and three temporary stands.  "I can't stop smiling," said manager Paul Marshall, who'd very nearly been ousted when the team won just two of his first ten games and were hammered by a combined score of 16-0 in back-to-back matches with Liversedge. "We've just had heaters put in the changing rooms but we'll probably take them back out. We want to make things as uncomfortable as we can."  A crowd of 3,500 fans packed the place, there was a Cup Fever beer, inflatable sheep in the goalmouth and a small scale pitch invasion when Steve Davey scored in the midst  of a 3-1 defeat to a side that played just the five divisions and 128 places higher up the pyramid. "A team of superstars," hailed the manager post-game. "We can't top this."


Perhaps not, but five years later they did manage to equal it, beating neighbours Harrogate Town in the final round of qualifying before exiting 3-2 to Mansfield Town in a game that went out live on the BBC.  Chairman Rob Northfield, an ex-Orient youth player who'd made his cash giving motivational speeches to businesses, did the pre-match teamtalk.  "The manager said it was Churchillian, but I would call it simple common sense," he told the local press. Substitute Danny Davidson scored twice and Scott Ryan hit the bar. "Mansfield nervously booked their place in the third round," thought the BBC.  "For the final minutes the professionals were hanging on,"  The Guardian wrote.  


In between their two cup runs, Railway had also gone up to the Northern Premier League, reaching a high of eighth place in 2014-15 before plummeting back into the Northern Counties East. Only a wretched New Mills side - 42 games, three wins and a goal difference of -130 - kept Harrogate off the foot of the division, Lee Ashforth's team shipping 115 goals and finishing 12 points adrift of third bottom Scarborough Athletic.  "It hurt.  Everyone felt it," one club official admitted.  More positively, the summer break saw the return of Northfield - "Great people, great values and we are going to have some fun along the way," he explained - and, while some of last season's team have opted to stay in the NPL, there are five new signings including Jordan Hendrie, who moved from FA Cup opponents and fellow NCEL Premier side Albion Sports. “I’d like to think that this year won’t be another relegation fight and that we’ll be in the top half of the table," Ashforth told Non League Yorkshire pre-game. "I think we have to set our expectations high and take it from there."


The last time I was in Harrogate it was cold and dank and the queues for the tills at Poundworld matched the bedraggled line of tourists outside Bettys Tearooms.  Today it's sizzling in the beer garden of Hales' Bar, whose gas-lit Victorian interior was, topically enough, used for interior shots in the filming of Chariots of Fire.   One stop back towards York or a 40-minute stomp across the 200-acre grassland of The Stray, Station View is in the terraced streets of urban Starbeck, next to a level crossing, the eponymous station and a branch of Tesco Express. 'Match Today!' promises a board on a grass verge, attempting to lure passing trade away from the Morrisons down the road.  'The dream that won't fade' and 'Railway live FA Cup dream' read the faded clippings on the clubhouse wall, a signed Bristol City shirt hung across the middle. The pitch slopes from the far touchline to the turnstile block side, where a massive colour picture of captain Danny Stimpson is attached to the gate.  There's a corrugated stand with plastic bucket seats, its back painted in the club colours of red and green, placed several metres behind a goal and a smaller, smarter flatpack construction - "Looks nice from here but the views are terrible," a spectator confides as we enter - set back from the dugouts. A few steps of terracing are sheltered by some trees; the Railway Buffet (hotdogs and bottled water already taped off the menu) is in a corner next to a skip, a toilet portakabin and some wrought iron gates that open into a gravel car park. Most of the travelling supporters opt to stand in the sun between the away bench and a TV gantry designed like the base of a scaffold with a hole in its plywood floor. "Beautiful surface," says one  as the players jog out from the two-storey clubhouse, built with cash raised by flogging off land to a care home.


"Come on, boys," claps Kully Sandhu, Albion boss for three decades and several divisions since their days in the Bradford Amateur Sunday League.  His side - weakened by six summer departures with four going to neighbouring Eccleshill United alone - still look lively; Danny Facey, capped twice by Grenada and returning after a season in the Evostik with Brighouse Town, shuffles through tackles but can't beat Jake Lofthouse in the Railway goal.  Midway through the half, the home number 9 collects a short throw on the turn, accelerates into the middle and slips the ball in front of Harry Brown, who wallops it from 30 yards out off the underside of the bar and straight into the corner of the net.  "Corker!" one spectator shouts. "What a belter," claps a  second.  The tannoy has no sooner finished the slightly belated score announcement when Facey taps in a leveller.  "Gotta get tighter," a defender reckons. "Switch on."  Moments later, Facey evades a challenge and is felled by Lofthouse, who gets a yellow card and then turns the penalty away with a dive to his left. "He'll learn from that," says an Albion fan at half-time.  "Aye, learn how to take penalties hopefully," his mate jokes in reply.


"Don't know what that routine is all about," grumbles one of three old blokes from the main stand as the Railway players warm back up by running down the side of the pitch. There's someone reading a paperback in the front row while others finish off their pie and chips or chat about Leeds United's prospects in the Sunday game at QPR.  "Too wide," yells one of the old men as a pass is hit from one side of the slope to the other. "Get it out wide," shouts his mate simultaneously.  Both teams have shots cleared; "A proper cup tie," tweets the Railway account.  Late on, with Albion looking the likelier to score,  a forward is pulled to the ground in the penalty area but the ref waves play on.  "You're a disgrace to your flag, you knobhead," someone shouts at the linesman. "Does it go to extra time or straight to a replay?" says a bloke taking photos.  The whistle blows, the teams congratulate each other and both sets of fans head  back to the clubhouse.  "Is your dad not here today?" an Albion supporter asks Hendrie, shaking hands as he comes off the pitch. "See you on Wednesday, mate."

Admission: £5
Date: Saturday August 6th 2016

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Ground 307: Mallorie Park, Ripon City

When you travel the bowels of the football pyramid, bemusement is a familiar refrain.  "Do Ripon even have a team?" asked an incredulous workmate.  "I lived there for six months and all I ever saw noticed was the racecourse," wondered another.  You could be forgiven for not knowing much about a club that have suffered back-to-back relegations and recently finished rock bottom of a 12th-tier league, but Ripon City have been based at their Mallorie Park ground since the end of the Great War, have a stand that dates back to 1920 and celebrated their one hundredth year in 1998 with a World Cup scorer as their guest of honour.


Demoted from the West Yorkshire League Division One after winning just three of their 30 league games, City also lost half a first team to neighbours Boroughbridge Athletic and three committee members plus chairwoman Sue Dennison - selected as one of 150 grassroots heroes by the FA in 2013 - who'd been involved with local football for 47 years and done everything at the club from washing to kit to refereeing games. "I feel like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I can leave knowing I have done my best and I’ve given everything that I could have given. We wish the new regime well. They have a very hard task in front of them,” she told the Harrogate Advertiser.


Things were finally looking brighter after last season's upheaval, City reinstating their reserve team after a half-season break, earning community club status and sprucing up their ground, the main stand painted white with Ripon City AFC neatly printed in red capital letters across the front.  The club's second warm-up fixture is against  Dringhouses in a game shifted to 11am to avoid a clash with the city's St Wilfred's Day parade.


The bus takes over an hour to travel the 27 miles between the cathedral cities, the journey only enlivened when a bloke with four remaining teeth and a 1993-94 vintage Newcastle United training jacket gets on by the Roman ruins at Boroughbridge.  I do a quick lap of the Cathedral and Spa Gardens, recce a handful of pubs and then walk the 10 minutes from the market place to Mallorie Park. Dringhouses are going through their pre-match teamtalk when I arrive, their manager pointing down the wings.  The pitch is railed off, nets behind each goal kept upright by scaffolding poles and a whitewashed clubhouse by the entrance with a handwritten sign promising hot and cold drinks.  The stand has its back to the rugby club, its corrugated roof sloping upwards over five rows of blistered wooden bench seats.  Ripon's subs perch on the front, a pair of spectators sit alone at either end and there are 12 other onlookers dotted around the far side of  the pitch.


"Let's play the ball when we get the chance," claps a Ripon defender.  "Good lad," the Dringhouses manager says to each of his players in turn.  "Enjoy it, pal." "Pieces," somebody urges.  "Runners," another warns."Switch on early," Ripon's manager keeps on telling his team. "Stay tight, stay tight. PRESS 'EM!"  City ping one of the scaffolding poles, a coach having to scurry up a stepladder to reattach the net. A few minutes later they go even closer, clattering the crossbar from close range.  "I'd have gone low," says the man with the ladder.  With half an hour gone everyone comes off for a drink break.  "We're playing too fast," a home player diagnoses.  "We need to take a few seconds to see what's what."  The Dringhouses boss spends much of the remainder of the half making calls, breaking off once in a while to shout "Good touch"  and "To feet, to feet."  When the whistle blows, he doles out instructions under the trees behind the main stand. "Get in the shade, lads," he orders as a substitute wanders off to refill the water bottles.


Ripon score soon after the restart and then send a spectator jogging across the carpark to retrieve their next effort on goal. "We've stopped playing, haven't we?" a Dringhouses centre back asks rhetorically. "Do some magic," someone shouts and a home player takes a bouncing ball on his chest and hits in at the keeper's near post. Dringhouses pull a goal back, the home side have a 3-1 lead, and then the visitors score twice in a few minutes either side of having a third attempt smack an ankle on the line.  "That Ripon keeper keeps coming out," a fan observes.  "They've just signed him," a hopper says.  "The secretary had to play there last year."  A couple of early floats pass by on the road behind. "They can't really develop this place with the houses over there," the hopper says. "There was talk of them moving to the barracks when it closes next year but I don't think that's imminent."  The players hang back to take down the goalnets as I set off on the four-mile walk to Fountains Abbey.  "Cracking game," someone says.  If you haven't been yet, get there while you can. 

Admission:  Free
Date: Saturday July 30th

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Ground 306: Wheatridge Park, Seaton Delaval Amateurs

Seaton Delaval was never the prettiest place on earth.  "A freezing, ugly, uncomfortable Hell of a Hole," the poet Ivor Gurney, posted to a signalling course there after he was gassed in battle at Passchendaele.  Built on the coal seams of south-east Northumberland, the village boomed from a population of just 240 in 1820 to a place that employed over 3,000 miners during Gurney's dysphoric stay in the winter of 1917.


The miners of Seaton Delaval were famously militant, striking twice in the 1840s and rioting when Welsh colliers were brought in to take their place.  "At Delaval lines of cable were stretched across underground roadways and the tools of the blacklegs were hurled down the shafts," one contemporary report noted.  In 1862, 199 miners at the neighbouring New Hartley pit were buried alive when a fallen beam blocked their only route back to the surface.  After a six-day rescue attempt, it took almost 18 hours to winch their bodies up the 600-foot shaft.  Conditions improved above and below ground, the colliery owners providing better housing and land for leisure pursuits.  The first football pitch in Seaton Delaval was laid out in 1893, the Moor Edge ground described as "splendidly appointed" in a newspaper article of 1906.  Ashington's Portland Park opened in 1908, Blyth Spartans' Croft Park a year later and Wheatridge Park became the home ground of the newly formed Seaton Delaval Amateurs when they joined the Northern Alliance for a season in 1920-21.  Spectators turned out in their thousands to watch clashes against Carlisle United and the reserve sides of Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Sunderland when the Amateurs switched to the North Eastern League in their second year. "Games at Wheatridge Park relieved tedium. Those who lived in Seaton Delaval worked in it too, and football alone occasionally took them elsewhere. Those miners unable to afford the fare or the entrance admission to St James' or Roker Park went to Wheatridge Park instead," Duncan Hamilton wrote in The Footballer Who Could Fly. "Without a match, most people had nothing to do."


While the colliers struggled, finishing bottom of the division in 1926 and 1927, the village's footballers were prospering elsewhere.  Clem Stephenson lifted three FA Cups with Aston Villa before transferring to Huddersfield, where he won a single England cap, another FA Cup and three successive championships as Herbert Chapman's "general" on the field.  Ten years his brother's junior, George Stephenson was capped three times for his country, scoring twice on debut against France in 1928.  A third Stephenson, Jimmy, played 195 times for Watford and a spent a season apiece at Sunderland and QPR.  The siblings' hometown team joined the Northern Alliance in 1955, folded thirteen years later and were only resurrected in 1983, at the same Swansea City's Ray Kennedy began showing the first symptoms of Parkinson's disease.  Rejected by Port Vale, Kennedy had worked in a sweet factory before leaving Seaton Delaval for  Arsenal, won a double before he was 20 and then added five titles, three European Cups, a UEFA Cup and an FA Cup during eight seasons at Anfield.  "The player of the '70s," Jimmy Greaves called him.  "One of Liverpool's greatest players and probably the most under-rated," thought Bob Paisley, a man never given to exaggeration. "Things were built around him and we played according to his abilities, which were recognised throughout Europe."


Kennedy never played for Seaton Delaval Amateurs, but the 11th-tier side got another ex-Liverpool midfielder when David Thompson, named in two England squads and once signed by Blackburn for £1.5 million joined up to play in the Northern Alliance Premier Division.  "He's doing this purely to get involved with the club and because of his friendship with our manager Graeme Redpath," said chairman Dave Holmes. "We’re looking at potentially applying for Northern League promotion for the 2017-18 season...Him being associated with us can only be good for the club and its profile".


Thompson made his league bow for Liverpool in front of 38,000 fans at Anfield.  His new club finished last season in fourth place, 16 points behind Whitley Bay Reserves and 20 adrift of champions Blyth Town, and play on a pitch tucked between a garden centre, supermarket and Bellway housing estate.  The entrance sign is half hidden by weeds and a heap of grass cuttings and there's a bathtub and shed between the gate and the touchline.  A net shields parked cars from wayward shots; three steps of decayed, broken-up concrete are held in place with metal poles and roped out-of-bounds. "Nice and tight," says a player when the home team get the game underway.  "Plenty of new faces," one of the small group of onlookers reckons.  "What's that number 2's name?" Boldon CA's centre forward yells across to his bench. "This is my fifth game this week," a bloke tells me. "Mind, I used to be able to watch these from my window until the trees grew too high on the other side of the pitch."


The home side get a corner. "Big on big!" Boldon's manager shouts.  "Tell you what, they're no mugs these," a spectator says admiringly as the visitors spray the ball about. His mates trade gossip about Bedlington Terriers, Blyth Town - "their pitch has come on.  It was just a field last season" - and North Shields before we're all interrupted when a Seaton Delaval player clearly punches the ball out of play.  "Liner! You not see that, like?" asks someone on the visiting bench.  "It's credibility," the official tries to explain.  "I'm too far away. I've told them up there already it's all about credibility," he repeats.  "I can only help if he asks me to." "Keep going son," a spectator says sympathetically. "It's only a pre-season friendly."


Delaval prod in the only goal shortly after the break while I'm still halfway through a bacon sandwich and china mug of tea.  "Squeeze on" and "Get your shape" the Boldon bench implore, but not even the tactical assistance of a bloke in sunglasses and a full Newcastle United tracksuit can help them find an equalising goal.  The second half stutters and a few people decide to watch through their windscreens instead, others moving under the slanted roof of the clubhouse as the sky threatens rain.  "The men hugged the touchline or stood in orderly tiers on the bank," Hamilton wrote of games played during his childhood.  Things are quieter at Wheatridge Park today but it remains a classic of its type and well worth a visit.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday July 23rd 2016