Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Ground 247: Saitama Stadium 2002 Complex

If English football fans remember the Saitama Stadium at all, it's as the place where Danny Mills blundered his way through the second half of the 2002 group stage game against Sweden.  For the Japanese, it's the home of their biggest, reddest and most hated club side, Urawa having deliciously squandered an opportunity to clinch the J.League championship in front of 57,000 fans by losing 2-0 to second-placed Gamba Osaka at the weekend.  Today, the fourth pitch of the Saitama Stadium complex is where the back-to-back semi-finals of the Tokyo Senior League Division Two Cup are being played out, the first a Tama Derby between Toshiba Fuchu and Ome FC attended by precisely 21 spectators, one dog, a suitcase on wheels and a baloon cutlass.

Ome, league champions of a group which included Tokyo Gas, Fuji Xerox, Nomura Research Institute and Sperio Johoku, go into the game as favourites, having already made the final stages of the All-Japan Club Football Championships, though Toshiba, runners up in their own league section to HBO Tokyo, are, like Gamba, no slouches themselves, soundly thrashing the likes of FC Steam, Sumitomo Corporation and Tokyo Bay FC in a campaign which yielded an average of over four goals per game.  Even allowing for the lack of defensive mishaps from Leeds United right-backs, I had this marked down as a high-scoring encounter.

My journey takes 45 minutes, three trains and the same number of prefectures, skirting the route I'd taken to the main stadium nine years earlier and culminating, like then, in a cornucopia of Uwara Reds-branded vending machines, autographed posters, flags on lampposts and a supporters' club banner for every season since 1991, their slogans alternating Eurovision kitsch and the stock phrases of a wedding hall:  Rising Reds, Heart-full Wonderland, Go On Sailing, Sing Out Together Heartily, Forever Always and Take Off Together Now.

With the previous two teams yet to leave the pitch, Toshiba warm-up by playing keep-ball on a tarmacked square while Ome get changed by a flowerbed.  The late arrivals carry the early momentum, their first overlap prompting a chant of  'Ome FC' from the trio of travelling fans occupying a single concrete step, but it's the opposition who break the deadlock, the goal swiftly answered by seven claps, one consonant and two vowel sounds from the visiting support.

 The fourth pitch with the main stadium behind.

Ome waste their first chance to level the scores, the Fuchu backline vainly appealing for offside as a forward  weakly lobs wide in a manner which suggests he's been picking up shooting tips from Mario Balotelli's time on Merseyside. Besides a rebound which is booted clear of the Ome goalline and a Fuchu sidefoot over the bar that has an entire line of substitutes dropping to their knees, the only other action of note in a frankly dull first half is the number of times Toshiba's bench shouts "Hey! Hey! Hey!" when a red-and-black shirt goes tumbling unrewarded in the box.

"Lalalala," urge the visiting trio as second period begins with their team on the attack and me halfway through a second can of Kirin's special winter limited beer. Ome switch the ball with menace, finally equalising when a header bounces on the artificial surface and is hooked into the goal.  Fuchu respond with a free-kick that's pushed away and then gathered under the crossbar, but they're unable to keep possession for any period of time and it's no surprise when Ome score again, a free-kick foreheaded in from close range. "Come on," shout their three supporters, briefly waving a blue and green flag, the moulded studs of the next two sides due on already clattering on concrete.

Admission:  Free
Date: Monday November 24th 2014

Friday, 21 November 2014

Ground 246: National Training Centre, Akabane Forest Park

Just a couple of weeks after the All-Japan Club Football Championships I'm back scurrying through the backstreets of the capital's north-west suburbs to catch the first round of the Tokyo Senior League Division Two Cup, in which Sperio Johoku - "Believe in the Dream! Run to J.League" - are hosting Elyse FCDX, a club whose name sounds a bit too much like a bad night out in a Roppongi nightclub.

Sperio are about to celebrate their tenth anniversary of tilting at the J.League but have been caught five promotions short since 2009, their latest league season ending with 11 wins, two draws, 67 goals, a fully fledged ultras group and nothing a runners-up place behind Ome FC.

I arrive at the same time as the Zorro Azul, who are busily unpacking their banner displays and food bags; blue flags and bento boxes, canned coffee and synchronised chanting.  They cluster together in a corner of the 1,000-capacity stand, which faces out over an artificial pitch, landscaped forest trail and a pair of car parks.  "Sperio Johoku!" roars the leader through a megaphone, drawing four syllables out of the first word and shrinking the second down to two.  The two sets of players meet in the centre circle, shake hands and respectfully bow to the stand. "Ole! Ole!" the blue shirts answer, the din continuing unabated for the first five minutes then stopping abruptly, the megaphone downed and replaced, temporarily, by a suburban silence punctuated by traffic noise and the players' shouts.

The home team are all darting runs and flicked passes in the opposing half, but a bit less sure-footed when possession flows the other way. "Joh, Joh, Johoku," rumbles swiftly down the stand as a player bodyswerves an Elyse defender and backheels the ball away from a second. "Oh Sperio, come on Sperio."  The away side intercept,  advance, spread the play to an overlapping midfielder and smack a shot into the net. "Yaa-hoe," scream the visiting substitutes.  The Zorro Azul clap and stomp on regardless.

Neither the noise nor the home club's efforts to muster a goal let up,  the number 9, Nagasawa, slaloming through the area but stumbling as he shoots into bodies.  A second chance is stalled by the snap of a linesman's flag and a third goes begging when a player politely eases up enabling the keeper to collect a bouncing through ball, screams of "Clatter him" or "Get stuck in, man" conspicuously absent as the fans yell on with their support.

Two peeps signal the close of the eight-minute interval, Sperio first back off the touchline as Elyse huddle in a group.  Johoku's number 10 hits the post with a free kick, the Elyse keeper makes a springing save and Nagasawa lofts another half chance into a wire fence.  At the other end, Elyse almost turn in a second but have to settle for a corner which travels all the way across the six-yard-line, meets Hiroshi Kumagai's forehead and bounces into the goal.  The away side celebrate en masse with some Bebeto-inspired arm swinging by the corner flag; Sperio's fans refuse to acknowledge the blow, pogoing with their flags and scarves at the other end of the stand.

 Johoku keep pressing but Elyse largely keep control, Nagasawa drawing appreciative nods from a scout and a save from the keeper after evading a pair of tackles but the away side otherwise restricting the blue shirts to potshots from range.  Off the pitch, only a double substitution quietens the home fans, the corner hushed while the referee checks off the names.   And then, with just three minutes left, a hopeful forward ball sees a Johoku player drift off his inattentive marker and almost apologetically nod into the net.  Sperio race back with the ball, launch it back into the area, and Nagasawa controls with one touch and hits the bottom corner with the second, the referee checking his watch with the Zorro Blue are in mid-Theme from the Monkees.

We're straight into penalties, Elyse missing their opening kick while Sperio convert their first two.  But then the third Johoku player chips against the goalkeeper's legs, Elyse keep on scoring, and when Nagasawa clears the bar it's finally all over.  The blue shirts clamber up the stairs, line up in front of the stand, apologise for the loss and bow once again to the fans, who respond with a choral burst of "Sperio Johoku", the team joining in the refrain.  Elyse take the spoils on the pitch but Johoku retain the honours off it.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday November 16th 2014

Monday, 17 November 2014

Ground 243 - 245: 21st All-Japan Club Football Championships

A holiday weekend, 16 qualifiers representing ten regional associations, four pitches - three inside the 1964 Olympic Park - two time slots per day, a £3 souvenir programme and free entry to the matches themselves.  There's no Wembley final, two-legged tussles, midwinter postponements or complaints about the dominance of the Northern League, but this is as close as Japanese football comes to the English FA Vase.

My tournament began on finals weekend at a rainy Komazawa Park, three stops from Shibuya and formerly host to a Tokugawa shogun, US Army officers' club, the 3rd Asian Games, the 1964 Summer Olympics and the 2014 Tokyo Ramen Show. Originally picked as the main site for the cancelled 1940 games, the park served as the city's second venue 24 years later and is now a public space with baseball, softball and athletics venues, a memorial museum, bike rental, concrete Jenga tower, cherry trees,  a dog run, outdoor swimming pool and leafy jogging trail, "causing inconvenience to others" and "counter-clockwise runners" prominent among the list of impermissible acts.

The first round pitched local favourites and two-time Japan Youth Cup winners Mitsubishi Yowa against a side of Kagoshima University graduates on the Number 2 Ball Sports Ground.  First used for field hockey in 1964, it has one stand, a scoreboard and trees blocking the view of the neighbouring pitch, where Osaka's Kandai Club 2010 were dismantling a team from Shizuoka.  One photographer and a huddle of 50 or so umbrellas are in attendance, a solitary travelling fan tying a flag above the rain-spattered bench seats as the two sides shelter in gazebos. 

While the players come from opposite ends of the country, the style of football is common to all: played at a zip with brittle defences, little pressure in midfield and lots of neat-and-tidy passing which tends to fizzle out when it comes anywhere near the goal.  Mitsubishi work the game's first opening, eliciting a fisted save and a strangulated cry from a spectator sporting headwear shaped like a birthday cake and a t-shirt which reads, in mellifluous gibberish, 'Too Much Loud Could Says All the Candies All the Time.' He's even less happy when Kagoshima ruffle the net, two lofted corners causing all kinds of consternation in the Mitsubishi defence before an outstretched boot stabs a loose ball past the scrambling keeper and a posse of falling bodies on the line.  The lead lasts all of a minute before a soft free kick trickles into an unguarded corner of the Kyushu side's goal, a hat topped with red-and-white striped candles tossed exultantly into the air.

Both teams come bounding back out from half-time teamtalks in their respective gazebos, some adroit twisting and turning by a corner flag earning Mistubishi a second goal when the subsequent cross is headed through the goalkeeper's hands.  As he hunches Mannone-like hurling insults at his gloves, Kagoshima break quickly upfield and level the scores.  Yowa have a penalty appeal waved away, a shot hacked off the line, an abysmal spot-kick easily saved and then sneak a winning goal in the final minute of extra-time.  The rain thunders down, and only the hardiest of counter-clockwise runners, a few dozen specatators shivering under brollies and the men from Mitsubishi survive.

A couple of hundred metres away, past poncho-clad ramen sellers, military recruitment stands and a teenage girl band pogoing on a covered stage, a sparse crowd is gathered under the roof of Komazawa Athletics Field for the Derby della Diesel Engine, Yanmar Amagasaki of the Hyogo Prefectural League taking on Toyota Motor Hokkaido Soccer Club in a stadium with scant lighting, a blue running track and 20,000 largely empty seats. The stadium hosted seven football matches in 1964, two Emperor's Cup Finals and J-League side Tokyo Verdy, once home to Hulk and Ossie Ardiles; today, on a sodden grass pitch, both non-league teams are zinging the ball around confidently, Amagasaki scoring first when a forward zips through the centre of defence, easing the ball round the keeper as he comes sliding out.  Yanmar dominate, adding a second goal through a deflection before Toyota Motor get a respite from the penalty spot shortly after half-time.  Amagasaki reassert themselves, restoring the two-goal advantage after a defensive error, a drop of the shoulder and a clip off an ankle which sends the ball spiralling into the net. Toyota squeeze a second, a cross fortuitously spinning in between the goalkeeper and a post, and then equalise with five minutes left to play. Back come Yanmar, the ball arriving at the feet of a substitute and his instinctive daisycutter bending into the net.  Game over I think, making my way down the empty orange-and-blue rows to the exit.  But then Toyota get a second penalty and calmly despatch it into the space vacated by the Yanmar goalkeeper's dive.

The first half of extra time is uneventful, the second even more so until two atempts are frantically cleared off the line and a third is headed in.  The Amagasaki scorer celebrates like he's just won the tournament; Toyota don't respond.  Two games, two grounds and fourteen goals isn't a bad return for a rainy Saturday. 

Forty-eight hours later I'm on the other side of Tokyo for the first semi-final at Nishigaoka Stadium.  Built six years after the Tokyo Olympics, the football-only ground is managed by the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences and was previously home to FC Tokyo as well as the venue for some of Tokyo Verdy's peripatetic wanderings around the capital city, though its capacity falls just shy of the 10,000 seats required for permanent J.League membership. Not that anywhere near that number are needed today, a few hundred neutrals, fifty odd Nankatsu SC and a dozen or so Thespa Kusatsu Challengers fans comprising the crowd for the 11am start.  Affiliated to a J2 side, the Challengers are the tournament favourites, scoring seven times in dispensing with Nagoya's AS Kariya and then Yanmar Amagasaki on the previous two days.  Nankatsu, who I'd seen just over a week earlier narrowly failing to earn promotion from the ninth-tier Tokyo Senior League Division Three, have eliminated Kyushu's Kashima SC and Tokyo division two side Ome FC.  "Fly to Wings", "Vamos SC!" and "Get Goal" urge the banners pinned behind their goal. "Powered By Kusatsu" is slung across the opposite end, where the travelling contingent have gathered with a bass drum and flags.  The underdogs fire one effort past the post and force the Kusatsu keeper into a scrambling save, but tire late on as Kusatsu clatter the post, scoop a penalty horribly high and wide, and then force the ball over the line in a goalmouth melee, the whole team rushing behind the goal to celebrate with their fans.  The beaten side have only a third-placed certificate - shared with Mitsubishi Yowa, who were beaten 2-1 by Kandai 2010 in a game played immediately after Nankatsu depart the pitch - and the acclaim of the opposition support to show at the end of a season of near misses.  "We didn't achieve our target," apologises a club official, "but we've taken an important step towards it."

The following day, I'm back at work as Thespa defeat Kandai in an afternoon kick-off watched by 162 at Komazawa Athletics Field. It's not quite Wembley - even for a Vase Final - but Kusatsu don't mind a bit.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday 1st and Monday 3rd November 2014.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Ground 241: Musashino Municipal Athletics Stadium

It's the last weekend of October, 23 degrees and still shirtsleeves weather in Kichijoji, where I've come to escape the madding crowds of central Tokyo and watch Japan Football League high-flyers Yogokawa Musashino take on MIO Biwako Shiga, near-namesakes of a team I'd seen walloping all-comers on a daytrip from Kyoto in 2011. Although Musashino, formed in 1939 as the club side of Yokogawa Electric Corp, don't have much to show for their history besides a smattering of prefectural honours and a handful of youth team graduates - notably ex-Japan and Southampton striker Tadanari Lee - Kichijoji is one of the capital's hippest suburban hang-outs; I pass Dutch flowermarkets, Italian trattorias, German bakeries, a faux-Thai backpacker cafe, university campus and, finally, two floors of a leisure centre before exiting at the entrance to the ground.

 In a display of synchronised efficiency, one person takes my 1,000 yen, another hands out a free photocopied programme sheet and a third - with a bow - a flyer for a women's game before I'm through into a concourse with merchandise stands, food concessions, volunteer sellers carrying alcohol down to the terraces in boxes, and a Brazilian restaurant stall flogging ice cold lager and meat-on-sticks.  A few dozen spectators sprawl across a grass bank opposite the only stand, which is around a half full, shaded by a metal roof and overhanging trees and awash with the noise of the Boys Musashino being comprehensively outsung by six Shiga fans belting out a clap-and-stomp number to the familiar tune of We Love You Conrad. They break off in a collective shriek as a Musashino shot spins backwards off the keeper's hand, cheer the agricultural clearance which prevents a goal, then pick up with a chant that sounds so disconcertingly like a paean to Newcastle United's Gabriel Obertan that I almost splutter my beer.

Rhythmic clapping and the drone of a helicopter soundtrack most of the half, Shiga probing intelligently down the sides of the pitch while Musashino storm and bully their way through the centre. It's not much of a surprise when the visitors take the lead,  Tatsuya Saito played through, drawing the keeper and sending the ball into the net and the celebrating Shiga fans into choruses of Go West and When Skies Are Grey.  Ever polite, the substitutes line-up to clap the starters off the pitch at the interval, two ranks of cheerleaders simultaneously breaking out into an acrobatics routine which ends in a human pyramid and the closing bars of the theme from Sesame Street. 

Whatever they were listening to inside the changing rooms, Musashino - beaten only once in ten league games but without a home win since March - come back out reinvigorated, levelling the scores when a set-piece is only cleared as far as half-time replacement Daisuke Eiro.   The home support bounce up and down a bit, briefly return their attention to cup noodles and smartphones, and then start bawling out 'Musashino' as the previously unruffled Shiga defence starts gifting up chances.  Blue shirts swarm around the goalmouth but studs and shots miss by inches and the game soon drifts towards torpor despite the boisterous efforts of the Shiga fans, who attempt to rouse their team's attacking intent with bursts of Twisted Sister's We're Not Gonna Take It Anymore.

There are nine minutes left when a harmless ball down the left is centred along the ground and flicked in by Tsuyoshi Kaneko, the third of Musashino's second-half substitutions. Kaneko's marker looks at the goalkeeper, the goalkeeper looks back at him.  Musashino flags twirl in the windless air.  The stunned away fans, defiant to the last, launch into Popeye the Sailor Man.

Admission:  1,000 yen (about £6)
Date:  Saturday 25th October 2014

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Grounds 240 & 242: Niijuku Future Park and Katsushika Sports Centre, Nankatsu SC

Tsubasa Ōzora. Captain, Flash Kicker, global phenomenon.

Aged 11 when the series began in 1981 and still a Roy Raceish 21 three decades later, Tsubasa was brought up in Nankatsu City, where he played in all-star elementary and middle school teams and harboured dreams of becoming the greatest footballer in the world.  His adventures, first serialised in the Weekly Shōnen Jump magazine, have been followed avidly by hundreds of millions on TV and game consoles; in his home country, Tsubasa's triumphs played "a crucial role in Japanese football's exponential growth from relative obscurity" in the early-1980s to World Cup host in 2002 and, to the eventual detriment of the national team, inspired a whole generation to become attacking midfielders.

Captain Tsubasa statue near Katsushika's Yotsugi Station.

The fictional Nankatsu was based on the real-life eastern Tokyo ward of Katsushika, home to Yōichi Takahashi, a baseball fan and manga artist who'd become interested in football while watching televised games from the 1978 World Cup.  "I did some research into soccer and learned that in Europe it was far more popular than baseball.  Soccer was the world's number one sport. I was hoping I could share the excitement of what I had witnessed on television through my drawings and in so doing hope that football would become more popular here in Japan".  At first Takahashi had to educate and not just entertain his readers: "Even 'World Cup' was an unfamiliar term so I had to explain in Captain Tsubasa that it was such and such an event, that it's the world's greatest tournament, held every four years". 

 Crowd forming at Niijuku Future Park

In the following three decades, Tsubasa has guided Japan to World Youth Cup and Olympic-qualifying success, pioneered the flying drive shoot, clip jump and heel lift cyclone kicks, lost only a single game in which he's played, moved to Sao Paulo and then Barcelona, where he was shunned by a coach modelled on on Louis van Gaal before netting three goals in a 6-5 win over Real Madrid, married his childhood sweetheart, and influenced the likes of Zidane, Messi, Hidetoshi Nakata, Alessandro Del Piero, Andrés Iniesta and Fernando Torres. "I remember when I was a kid....everyone in school was talking about this cartoon," the Chelsea striker said when he visited Japan for the 2012 World Club Championship.  "These two young players got into the national team then moved to Europe and played for Barcelona, so it was like a dream. I started playing football because of this." 

 Ryo Ishizaki, Jubilo Iwata defender renowned for blocking footballs with his face. 

While Tsubasa and his contemporaries have long since departed Nankatsu, his creator still lives in suburban Katsushika, where seven bronze statues and an adult football team commemorate the place where Japan's greatest sporting export first honed his skills.  Formed in 2012 and swiftly renamed to mirror Tsubasa's all-conquering school team, Nankatsu SC currently play in the third division of the Tokyo Shakaijin Soccer League, six promotions off their goal of reaching J3, the lowest rung of Japan's nationwide professional league.

Behind the Wire: Niijuku Future Park

Seating at the Niijuku Future Park is in perspex dug-outs or a grass bank, the pitch fully enclosed by wire fencing and a solitary vending machine and smart new changing block behind one goal.  Nankatsu's pre-game preparation includes passing drills, shuttle runs, set-piece routines and an exhaustive series of sprints and stretches; their opponents, Jam FC, make do with half an hour of pinging a ball off the fence followed by a quick burst of attack v defence. Nankatsu finish off with a loud cheer, I'm handed a free match programme in a cellophane bag, and then, accompanied by the click, click, click of a cameraphone from the visiting bench, the first of the evening's double header gets promptly underway. The 100 or so spectators spread out picnic mats or unfold camping chairs, one practising his golf swing with an imaginary club while the nimble-footed Daiki Hatakeyama skips round two challenges and loops a cross which is redirected into the grip of the grateful Jam goalkeeper.  Moments later Hatakeyama skillfully pirouettes between his markers and chips to the far post, where the number nine is lurking to put Nankatsu ahead.  The lead's doubled from a rapid counter before Hatakeyama drifts into space and slams a cross into the top of the net for the third.  "Wooah!" yells an appreciative spectator between mouthfuls of Pocari Sweat, "Action!" claps the Nankatsu coach.   Jam head one back from a free-kick but Nankatsu smash in a fourth before Daisuke Takiguchi twice unpicks the defence to make the final score 6-1, the two teams shaking hands before walking over to bow to each bench. 

Katsushika Sports Centre
The following week I'm at Nankatsu's final league game of the season, the home side needing a series of results worthy of a Captain Tsubasa plot - a four goal win, the leaders to lose and the second-placed team to emerge pointless from their final two games - to snatch the only promotion place.  The game takes place on the opposite bank of the Nakagawa River,  a few hundred fans converging on the Katsushika Sports Centre's single stand. As the first game of the evening draws to a close, Nankatsu volunteers bustle about setting up sponsor logos, giant drums for the pre-match entertainment and a chalkboard on wheels to keep track of the score.  The club's players are every bit as busy, one goal disallowed and another blocked at the last by the goalkeeper's legs before the Recruit FC defence leave the number 34 alone from a corner to nod Nankatsu's opener with 15 minutes played. 

Nankatsu (in white) on the attack

Shota Meguro toepokes wide after managing to outsprint the keeper to a through ball, the number 18 cuts past three challenges but steers his shot the wrong side of the post, the tireless Meguro scoops wastefully over the crossbar and the Recruit keeper fists a free-kick away for a corner.  Time ticks on, Kazato Yamagishi smacks the ball against the keeper when sent through on goal, and the second doesn't come until the game's in its final minute.  By then, promotion is out of reach.

"Captain Tsubasa will keep going," Takashi recently told an interviewer.   So too Nankatsu SC, whose story has just begun.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday 19th and 26th October 2014.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Ground 239: Tynedale Athletics Park, Hexham

"It was," they reckoned, "the finest team Hexham had ever seen."  The near invincible Hearts side of 1946-47 won 25 and drew six of 34 league games, playing 11 times in eight days as they pipped Newcastle United 'A' to the Northern Alliance championship by a single point.

Formed only three years previously, Hexham Hearts had played in the Ryton & District League before moving upwards to the Alliance, their side stacked with talent from front to back. Goalkeeper Maurice Edgar and inside right Steve Howdon had played wartime football for Newcastle United,  Bob Batey was in the winning side in the first televised FA Cup final, Walter Atkinson would be taken on by Norwich City, while Sunderland, Bury and Darlington had all cast admiring glances at midfielder Norman Menzies only to be deterred by the £1,000 fee the Tynedale club demanded for the move.

In the same era that Second Division Newcastle United smashed records as Britain's best supported team - their average attendance of 56,299 in 1947-8 only narrowly overtaken by Manchester United in the year the Old Trafford club won the European Cup - Hearts regularly drew four-figure crowds to their Tyne Mills ground.  In 1949, 4,000 watched an Aged Miners Cup win at Ashington, 14,000 turning out at St James' Park when Howdon's hat-trick beat Blyth Spartans in the Northumberland Senior Cup final.  Five seasons later, 2,000 were present at Hexham to see Hearts - conquerors of Cramlington, Alnwick Town and Newburn - play Horden Colliery Welfare for a place in the first round proper of the 1953-54 FA Cup.  They lost 2-0 in a replay and would never come close again. 

League success and supporters were both dribbling away, gate receipts down to "a few shillings" when Hearts dropped out of the Alliance in 1956.  In 1960, they went out of existence, their committee down to the last three men. "The players we had our eyes on have gone elsewhere," lamented secretary W. Hepplewhite, "and I cannot see the club starting up again."

My bus trundles west out of Newcastle and into the old Reiver lands. 'Welcome to England's Border Country' reads a sign in front of aged miners' cottages in Heddon-on-the-Wall; a burger van on the A69 has a St George's Cross flapping either side of the serving hatch.  "I'd have let them go, me," a woman says, effortlessly switching between TV talk and the Scottish referendum.  "They'd soon stop complaining when they have to pay their own way." "I don't know," her friend says less truculently.  "I wish they'd have gone and taken us with them." Their conversation brings back memories of my grandad, who went from the Normandy landings to United Buses.  "The north-east's biggest problem," he used to say, "is that England doesn't need us and Scotland doesn't want us."

Through Ovingham and Corbridge - birthplace of Steve Bruce and, incongruous as it therefore may seem, once labelled "the snobbiest village in Britain" - to Hexham, a prosperous market town with an Anglo-Saxon abbey and a football pitch tucked between a Waitrose, a swimming pool and its railway station.  Nowadays only Hearts' green-and-white hoops remain, sported by a neoteric Northern Alliance side that has its origins in the 2002 merger of two junior teams, and whose 2011-12 Second Division title success was the first in the town since their long-defunct predecessors packed up half a century before.

This afternoon's Bay Plastics Combination Cup visitors are Bedlington Terriers Reserves.  There's a crowd of twelve, the picnic benches left unattended but an elderly couple occupying two of the blue plastic seats. "A Stanley knife went in sideways," one of the spectators says.  "Ah rammed it in, pulled it oot.  Mind, me hand was sopping by the time wu got to Kwik Fit." There's a respectful silence. "First ten minutes, stay alive," yells a Bedlington centre-half.

"Hoy another ball on.  That one's shit," Hexham's keeper grumbles to the dug-out. "There's nowt the matter with it, man," comes the indignant reply. "It's just been blown up."  His opposite number has a voice as sonorous as a newspaper seller.  "Work," he rasps.  "Keep yer shape." Midway through the half he clutches a header from the Hexham number 11 that's vaguely reminiscent of Alan Shearer's against Germany in Charleroi. "Tremendous!" admires the Terriers left back. "Divvent push it. If there's nothing on, gan back," Hexham's coach tells his team at the break.

In the end, it's not as if they have any choice.  We've barely kicked off when Bedlington's burly number 10 heads down into the clarts, accelerates through a gap and toe-pokes under the goalkeeper for the game's opening goal. The number 9 sweeps a second home with the side of his foot, the third comes when the keeper flaps at a corner and 11 nods in at the post. "Howay lads, keep yer legs moving," claps a Hexham centre-half.

The fourth is scored by number 5, jabbing home from six yards; the fifth comes when number 8 feints, steps over and then delicately curls the ball into the top corner, the sixth when the goalkeeper parries in the direction of yet another red shirt. "Got to be off," groans a home defender.  The linesman - a Hexham substitute - looks up at the sky and shakes his head.  Right on the whistle, number 5 scores again, running off laughing as his teammates turn back towards halfway.  "Seven-nil," mutters a spectator, wrapping his tongue around each syllable.  "Seven bloody nil."

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday September 20th

Monday, 15 September 2014

Football Art: Joe Harvey

Bertie Mee said to Joe Harvey
Have you heard of the North Bank at Highbury?
No says Joe, I don't think so
But I've heard of the Leazes aggro!
(Traditional, various)

"Newcastle should have the finest team in the world. God willing, I will live to see the day they do."

If Stan Seymour hadn't already bagged the name, Joe Harvey would have made a fitting candidate for the title of Mr Newcastle. "A devoted Magpie for over thirty years," begins his entry in a Complete Who's Who of Newcastle United. "He led from the front - captain supreme and manager of distinction.  His life was all about Newcastle United," wrote veteran correspondent John Gibson in his selection of the club's greatest names. "He relinquished his Yorkshire background for a life in which everything was black and white."

Born in Edlington on the outskirts of Doncaster, Harvey pitched up at St James' by way of Edlington Rangers, Wolves, Bournemouth, wartime service with the British Army - where he'd been a Royal Artillery Company Sergeant Major - and Bradford City, his 17 goals for the Bantams in 1943-44 including two against Newcastle in one of Jackie Milburn's first games for the club.  It was a performance Stan Seymour kept in mind, paying £4,250 in a Darlington pub for the right-half's signature in the autumn of 1945. 

A colossus of a half-back, he combined a Desperate Dan diet - 12 eggs and six bacon rashers for breakfast, two pints of Guinness before kick-off and a cigarette at half-time - with the steely resolve of a champion boxer. "Piss off and let me get on with my job," he would bark at interfering full-backs. "Come on, you lot," he growled before leading his team out to the pitch. "Essentially a man of iron and pride," wrote Gibson. "We all thought the world of him," Jackie Milburn said.

 Harvey and Milburn United Again

Made captain in only his second game, he skippered the club for eight years, driving the black and whites to promotion in 1947-48 and FA Cups in 1951 and 1952. "The perfect football machine," one observer called them.  Jackie Milburn always rated the 1951 as the finest he played in.  Collecting the trophy, Harvey clattered down the Royal Box steps and across to the Newcastle support, shouting "It's yours!  It's yours!" as he ran.

Trainer to the 1955 side - the 35-year-old displaced in the team by Jimmy Scoular in the summer of '53 -  Harvey moved on to coach Crook Town and manage Barrow and Workington before returning to Tyneside in 1962 on a 12-month contract and a salary the Evening Chronicle reported as "probably £3,000 per year." "It's good to know the reins will be in the hands of a man who has already done much for the club, and burns to do more," said Norman Smith, a stalwart at St James' since 1938. Harvey took a down-at-heel side that had just finished 11th in Division Two to a championship in three years.  "The capacity crowd of 59,000 roared its delight," reported the Daily Mirror after the Magpies made sure of promotion with a 2-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers.  "The sound of bells, bugles and rattles rang out over the city."

But it's for the Fairs Cup - "it remains Newcastle United's most recent piece of major silverware," the club's official website laconically notes -  that Harvey the manager will always be remembered. The tenth-placed Magpies had only qualified for Europe after Everton, Spurs and Arsenal had struck out on the one club, one city rule. On June 11th 1969 they defeated the mighty Ujpest Dosza, conquerors of league champions Leeds, 6-2 on aggregate in United's most glorious evening since the mid-1950s. "I have not seen any cup final that matched this game for excitement and fighting courage," the manager beamed.  Picking up scouting tips from journalists and taxi drivers, Harvey's sides outbattled Rangers and terrified their way past the likes of Inter Milan, Sporting Lisbon, Feyenoord and Porto in three seasons of European competition. "We were a team in the best sense of the word," thought outside-right Jim Scott.  Harvey always knew how to knit one of those together.  "You have got to have a mixture of big names and home grown talent.  Finance necessitates that," he once said.

Five years later he took a team including Malcolm Macdonald,  Alan Kennedy, Frank Clark and Terry McDermott to an FA Cup final. "From the moment I got the manager's job 12 years ago, I have wanted to lead out a Newcastle team at Wembley," he said.  Long before the end of the 3-0 undressing - "Newcastle should today be prosecuted under the Trades Descriptions Act for masquerading as a first-class football side," wrote one post-match critic - pride had turned to embarrassment. "I felt sick. We never got started and I can't understand it." Emotions were different when the team returned to Tyneside, many of the players crying as they toured the city on an open-top bus.  "Our supporters have moved me to tears on many occasions, most of them winning ones," the manager said.  "But this time I knew they were entitled to show their anger, even disgust. They did no such thing. They gave us a heartwarming return which staggered me. I have never felt so humble."

Harvey signed a new contract in October 1974 - "The manager shall receive by way of salary the sum of ten thousand pounds per annum and be entitled to three weeks holiday with pay" -  but it wasn't to last.  A poor season - United winning just one of their last eleven games - led to unease on the terraces, the board responding to "Harvey Out" chants by demanding his resignation in May 1975.  "We Want Success" said a banner draped plaintively on the new East Stand.  "Any manager is vulnerable if he's been there a long time," thought John Gibson. "In hindsight, it was a desperate decision but, at the time, some people thought it was a good idea.  Not Malcolm Macdonald: "We were horrified...Joe was no tactician but he knew how to build a club, put together a side and work the transfer market.  He was sacked by directors who should've known better."  "It was very sad the way it finished," remembered Frank Clark, released on a free transfer at the same time coach Keith Burkinshaw was sacked and Harvey forced upstairs.  Clark won a First Division title, two League Cups and was champion of Europe in four seasons at Nottingham Forest;  Burkinshaw managed Spurs to two Wembley victories and the 1984 UEFA Cup.  By August 1980, when Harvey briefly returned as caretaker manager, Newcastle were bottom of the second division and had won only two league games in seven months. 

On February 24th 1989, still employed as a scout by the club, Joe Harvey died of a heart attack while chatting to his FA Cup winning teammate Bobby Cowell.  A memorial plaque - joining a St James' Park suite named in his honour - was finally unveiled a quarter of a century later in front of his son, grandchildren and 20 of his former players.  £10,000 had been raised by the fan-organised Fairs Cup Club, Wyn Davies sending his first Wales shirt and Vic Keeble the shorts he'd worn when winning the 1955 FA Cup.  Newcastle United added "a substantial donation" and paid for the plaque's installation on the back of the Gallowgate, just yards from the statue of his old teammate Milburn.

"He was a gem," reckoned Malcolm Macdonald. "He knew how to treat players and get the best out of them." “Joe was a real man-manager," said Bobby Moncur. "He might not have been the greatest tactician in the world, but when he spoke we listened. He liked entertainers and knew what the punters wanted. Joe was good at that." "A great man," said Wyn Davies.  For Bill Gibbs, chairman of the Fairs Club, it was "the best day of my life...We have had a long-standing ambition to see Joe Harvey rightfully remembered with a permanent memorial at St. James' Park and we are delighted to see it come to fruition with this plaque. We are very proud to see it in its glory as a lasting reminder of Joe's immense contribution to the club."

Joe Harvey: captain, coach, manager, chief scout, and always one of us.

'United - the First 100 Years' by Paul Joannou
'Newcastle United Greats' by John Gibson
'The Footballer Who Could Fly' by Duncan Hamilton
'Fifty Years of Hurt' by Ged Grebby
'A Complete Who's Who of Newcastle United' by Paul Joannou