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

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Ground 255: Longbenton Community College, West Allotment Celtic.

Peter Beardsley was the first real hero I ever loved and lost.  An impish, skittish genius of a footballer - picture Andres Iniesta born two decades earlier on a north Tyneside housing estate and dress him in a pudding-bowl haircut, black and white stripes and a pair of Puma Kings - he blazed, swayed, shimmied, chipped and dribbled his way through four seasons, 147 games and 61 goals of my childhood.  And then, like Chris Waddle before and Paul Gascoigne later, he was gone. "I'm happy," he told manager Willie McFaul just a year after playing for England at the 1986 World Cup. "All I want is for the club to show me the ambition of what they are planning."  "If you're not going to sign now, we're going to sell you," McFaul, pressured by an inept board of directors, replied. "I kept asking myself, "Did Peter really want to leave? And if so, why?" the Irishman pondered later.  Beardsley got a British-record transfer to Liverpool, two league titles and an FA Cup, McFaul the sack, and Newcastle a part-payment on their new main stand and the slow pull of relegation.

The Merseysiders' first approach to the player was made by Alex Smailes, who'd graduated from a hobby taking photographs of local matches into management before Bob Paisley made him Liverpool's north-east scout. Smailes had been an assiduous fixer and talent spotter during two decades of service with West Allotment Celtic, a pit club whose players once changed in a stable and cowshed before matches in the North Shields and District Churches League.  In 1983, Newcastle United brought Peter Beardsley home from Vancouver Whitecaps and West Allotment moved upwards to the Northern Football Alliance. Eight titles, six cups and 21 years later, they made the Northern League.

Allotment reappeared in the Alliance in 2013, their A team emerging out of a summer tie-up with Whitley Bay Boys Club.  The youthful reserve side survived an occasionally turbulent debut season in which they lost 20 out of 28 league games and "endured," as the excellent club magazine Three Miles West summarised, "a worrying decline in form, dressing room bust-ups, a change of manager and a small-scale squad overhaul".  Since then they've relocated from Churchill Playing Fields to Longbenton Community College, in whose classrooms, corridors and playing fields Beardsley once honed his skills, but have fared little better on the pitch, shipping 80 goals and losing 16 of 24 games. When I tried to watch them earlier in the season, I arrived to the disconcerting sight of a convoy of cars streaming back the way I'd just come. "Aye, somebody's left the changing rooms locked," a caretaker was telling the only two spectators with studied indeterminateness, "so they've all cleared off somewhere else."

Six months later it's Celtic v Rangers, fourth bottom against top, and green and white on white and yellow. Tyneside's Old Firm of the suffixes is contested on a windswept school playing field, buffeted by North Sea gusts and hidden by a plywood fence.  I count nine non-paying spectators taking refuge in their cars.  "Are you staying in here?" a Gateshead Leam Rangers player asks.  "I would if I could see owt," says a spectator, slapping his paper on the dashboard before setting off across bulldozer tracks in the direction of the pitch. A substitute pisses unhurriedly against a tree, his back to a playground allotment.  In the distance are call centre windows and what must count as one of the less scenic stretches of the East Coast Main Line.

Leam Rangers began in 1993, the year Beardsley came back for a second spell at St James' Park.  "I started one team for my bairns to play in," founder Rob Houghton told Andy Hudson,  "and then it just snowballed."  They score with their first attack and clank the metal crossbar with their second.  "Get on their toes, divvent gan to ground," the trainer shouts, patrolling the touchline with a spare ball and a scrunched-up physio's bag.  "Feet, feet" and "Squeeze, squeeze," players shout to each other. "Liner, howay man, watch the game."  The visitors sidefoot a second goal on the half hour and add a third, after lots of tidy but fruitless Celtic passing play, with the referee checking his watch for the break.

The teams retreat to opposite touchlines. "We start now, Celtic.  Get our heads on," claps an optimistic player.  "We've lost touch," says another. "We need to talk."  But the wind carries their best chance wide of the wheeled goalpost and the away side are soon cracking in their fourth.  "Move the ball into space," booms the Rangers keeper in case the concept hadn't already occurred to the rest of his team. "Concentrate, keep yer heeds and divvent bunch up."  A Rangers forward hits the bar with an overhead kick then cues up the fifth when the Celtic keeper tries to pass the ball out of defence.  Leam, daringly, switch to three centre backs. "Tell us what yer deein," their captain shouts.  "We cannut until we kna ourselves, man," the sweeper replies.  A sixth goal follows regardless.  "Still make an effort, Celtic," says a spectator from the shelter of a tree.  In the last minute of play the home side finally manage a response.  "I telt you to give that extra fifteen percent," the Rangers keeper screams when he finishes giving his goalpost a kicking.  Deprived of his clean sheet, he's still muttering abuse when the final whistle blows. 

I walk the ten minutes to Blue Flames, where a considerably larger crowd is gathered on the banking overlooking a pristine surface shared by West Allotment's first team and the Northumberland FA.  Floodlight pylons sway, North Shields huff and puff, and a handful of spectators are beginning to drift home. Struggling Allotment hold firm for a valuable point. "We've lost our form," a Shields fan says, "but so has everybody else at the top."

Admission:  Free
Date: Saturday March 7th 2015.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Peterborough Away 1992

I had an hour to kill between connections and Peterborough's railway station didn't seem a particularly inviting place to stay.  "Aren't football grounds boring when there's nobody there?" my girlfriend asked, uncomprehendingly.  The week before, on a bus that twisted and turned through the streets of Salzburg, I got talking to a Queen of the South fan who was at Peterborough v Newcastle United on 26th September 1992. "I was on a course in Corby with a Geordie mate.  Boiling under that tin roof.  Manic support, but.  There was a guy in the pub with a guitar belting out songs beforehand. Don't think the locals had ever seen anything like it."  Back in Britain, it was 15 minutes with my bags from the station, walking the same direction John Hall had been serenaded along by hundreds of jubilant Newcastle fans 22 years before...

You are there, 7,000 Newcastle, late-summer sun beating on your heads. The pubs are closed by one o'clock.  Straight off the supporters' bus and into the shortest queue. Black and white everywhere you look.  Spilling off coaches and trains and transit vans.  Scarves in car windows. "Newcastle United will never be defeated!" you chant, nudging through the turnstile. "The biggest game in our history," the home manager says in a programme you read over shoulders as you wait for the teams to run out. 

The terrace is rammed, each and every movement dicatated by the surge of the crowd.  Seeing and not seeing.  Robert Lee stumbles through a tackle, Kevin Sheedy collects the pass and sand-wedges his shot over the goalkeeper's head.  You land four steps down. "Sheedy! You beautiful Welsh-Irish bastard, you," screeches a wiry bloke with no top on swinging backwards from the fence.  Delirium. The momentum unstoppable.  "And now you're gonna believe us," the entire stand bellows, "we're gonna win the league."  And you do.

It's the most exhilarating season you'll ever have.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Ground 254: Longbenton Sports Ground

There can't be many 11th-tier football teams who've had a book written about them, but then Percy Main Amateurs are anything but an ordinary side.  "A wonderful club," wrote Ian Cusack in his account of their triumphant 2009-10 season, when the claret-and-blues won both promotion and a Combination Cup.  Re-established by demobbed soldiers in 1919, the village team's pitch formed the middle of the oblong of pitmen's cottages where Jackie Rutherford, son of a coal trimmer and schoolboy football prodigy,  had been born three decades previously.  Spotted in the Northern Alliance, the 'Newcastle Flier' became the St James' Park club's youngest ever player, scoring on his First Division debut against Bolton Wanderers aged 17 years and 139 days.  At 19 he was capped by England; before he turned 30 he'd won three championships, played in five FA Cup Finals, fallen out with the directors over benefit payments and been sold on to Second Division Arsenal for £800.  The Highbury board hoped to get two or three seasons out of Rutherford; they got 13, the winger still holding the record as the oldest player to represent the club despite recent appearances to the contrary at the centre of their defence.  Rutherford's son and two of his 11 siblings also played professional football with Arsenal, Portsmouth and Newcastle United.  In 2012, his great-grandson (a Manchester United fan, naturally) won Olympic gold in the long jump.

Former club of Jack Colback's brother - "the most intelligent, incisive and lethal finisher in the division," wrote Cusack -  these days Rutherford's hometown side are the biggest attraction in the middle-tier of the Alliance, a league where games are always enthusiastically contested,  usually free to watch and habitually only thinly populated by substitutes, injured players, relatives, members of the committee and men out walking their dogs. Unbeaten in the Nike First Division since the third weekend of November, Percy Main are 17 points clear of a trailing pack which includes the likes of AFC Newbiggin, Gosforth Bohemians and Wallsend Boys Club, amassing 64 goals in a mere 19 games. Eight of those were netted at home to Newcastle University - "a student club run by students," if that wasn't already clear from the name - when the visitors were thoroughly schooled in mid-September.

Last time I watched the scholars in action they were playing on a muddy pitch at Cochrane Park and I was forking over the best part of £5,000 to do an MA.  We've both moved on, though the undergrads only as far as a 3G pitch in Longbenton, where I once played spectacularly badly in a Thursday evening kickabout with the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences. With the increasingly wretched Metro service back at stage one of its modernise-breakdown-repair cycle, the nearest station which doesn't require me to switch to a bus is at Walkergate, twenty-minutes and the length of Coach Lane (or, in the geographical parlance of the Northern League, from Newcastle Benfield to West Allotment Celtic, with a turn off for Team Northumbria) away. The leaders haven't dropped a point in seven games, the students have picked up four wins out of five. As is so often the case with Tyne & Wear's transport infrastructure, you get the distinct impression that something is about to give. 

One side presses, the other passes, both trying their best to keep things moving on the ground. "Close in, plenty of talk, first and second," Percy Main's goalkeeper cajoles.  "Wake up!" comes a shout from the adjoining pitch, where a game of hockey is underway.  "Runners," scream the footballers.  "Too much space," say the men with sticks.  The students score first, number 9 clanking in off the post at the second attempt, though the crosser looks suspiciously offside.  Percy Main level with a shot that curls over the goalkeeper's head, but the pink-booted number 9 first shimmies and smacks in a second, then turns a defender and whacks the ball into the top of the net.  The University's Greek right-winger is roughly hacked to the artificial turf then clatters the bar as the game, evenly matched in the first forty-five minutes, takes a decisive swing from claret to navy blue.  "We don't stop, big last five," yells Percy Main's manager Richard Nugent, once of Cullercoats, Lindisfarne and New York.  By the time he's finished his sentence, the students are celebrating their fourth. 

Back down Coach Lane on the final whistle, I catch up with Ian Cusack, Harry Pearson and assorted members of the Popular Side fanzine litterati at the second-half of Benfield's game with Jarrow Roofing.  The visitors have travelled with a Scottish Under-21 international and a debutant Italian previously of Roma, Brescia and the Azzuri U19s, but are already down to nine men with one off for "a hard tackle" and another for some pushing and shoving in the aftermath.  The referee preens, Benfield win 3-0, and Roofing are left to check footage on a video camera while eating curry and chips in the clubhouse after the game.  "I bet the bugger sent himself a card this morning," says a spectator, shaking his head as the officials depart. 

Admission:  Free
Date:  February 14th 2015

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Thessaloniki Football Weekend

The Greek economy isn't the only thing suffering, the country's professional football leagues suspended when a refereeing official was beaten up outside his own home and whacked by a match-fixing scandal in which nearly two-thirds of players believed results were determined in advance. Plus ça change, you could say:  Christos Michas, referee for the 1973 European Cup Winners' Cup Final, arrived by plane before the match with the AC Milan squad, dismissed Norman Hunter and two Leeds United penalty appeals and later received a lifetime ban from UEFA.  "A diabolical travesty," Peter Lorimer says. "It was wholly, indisputably and wretchedly bent".  The game ended with Milan collecting their medals to a cascade of boos, their team bus stoned and spat at as it left the ground. "A disaster from beginning to end," wrote the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, "a night of rain and rage".

 Sneaking in at Iraklis 1908's Kaftanzoglio Stadium

The final took place at the home of Iraklis Thessaloniki, formed in 1908 out of a Macedonian music and literature club and Greek Cup winners in 1976 with the sublimely gifted Vasilis Hatzipanagis in their side.  In 2011, Iraklis - ironically the one top-flight team not mentioned in a UEFA file listing 54 suspect results - were demoted from the Super League over "various alleged misdemeanours", failed to get a ruling from the Court of Arbitration for Sport and started the next season in the fourth-tier Delta Ethniki while negotiating a merger with second division Pontioi Katerinis. The new club kept hold of the Iraklis name, badge, colours, history and stadium, took over Pontioi's place in the league and are currently unbeaten since September, through to the Greek Cup quarter-final and six points clear at the top of the Football League.

Part of the graffiti wall in Kalamarias.

"The only thing they deserve is contempt," says a supporter of Apollon Kalamarias.  "Iraklis is the shame of Thessaloniki.  They sold out their history when they bought Pontioi."  Formed in March 1926 by Pontic Greek immigrants from the Greco-Turkish War (the club colours mix red for the blood of those massacred in Turkey and black for the eternal mourning of a community for whom every game is played several hundred miles from home),  Kalamarias have spent much of their history shuffling between the first and second flights. In 2009, unable to pay debts of €5 million, Apollon was stripped of its professional licence and forcibly demoted to the amateur divisions.  "We did not change," the fan says.  "We did not erase our debts by extinguishing the name of our club."  While Iraklis prosper, Apollon languish in the Football League's relegation places, their single-sided Kalamaria Stadium a thirty-minute ride on the number 5 bus in a seafront suburb between the city centre and Thessaloniki's airport.

View from the Ano Poli (Upper Town). 

The city's third Football League team, Agrotikos Asteras, are one place lower and six years younger than Kalamarias, formed by refugees from Izmir in 1932.  Semi-finalists in the 2005-06 Greek Cup, where they lost 3-1 over two legs to AEK Athens, the green-and-whites play at the 2,200-capacity Evosmos Stadium, its seats donated by Iraklis when their Kaftanzoglio Stadium was refurbished for the 2004 Olympic Games.  The ground is in a western suburb, north of the port and Ampelokipoi (where Thessaloniki's other Iraklis, a Football League Two side, are based); the club's ultras, the Green Ghetto, are fiercely anti-fascist but number no more than 50 people in a city dominated by the big two of Aris and PAOK.

Tying banners at Aris.

PAOK are another of Thessaloniki's immigrant clubs, their black and white stripes symbolising mourning for a lost home and the hope of a brighter future.  Founded in Istanbul, PAOK relocated during the population transfers that followed the Greco-Turkish War and have always viewed themselves as outsiders.  "The orginal fans were Greeks but were badly welcomed here because the local communities thought that they were Turks," one member of the Gate 4 Ultras explains.  "We are the only club in Greece against the rotten system of Olympiacos, the team of the state.  We don't care about championships and cups, but what PAOK represents.  Everything we won, we deserved. We are PAOK because of the history, the struggle, the idea beyond this team."  Twice national champions and four-time winners of the Greek Cup, the club were banned from European competitions in 2006 after building up debts of over €30 million, but have since stabilised under the presidencies of Euro 2004 champion Theo Zagorakis and Ivan Savvidis.  Their Toumba Stadium, built by supporters in the late-1950s,  is within walking distance of Aris, Iraklis and the centre of Thessaloniki; with Aris marking their 100th anniversary by dropping two divisions, it's also currently the only ground in the city where you can watch top-flight and Europa League football.  Ticket booths are open from around four hours before kick-off on matchdays or you can print-at-home from the club's website. 

Outside the Toumba

Thessaloniki's Macedonia International Airport is linked to Stansted, Gatwick and Manchester by Ryanair and easyJet flights.  It's a 40-minute ride into the city centre on the number 78 bus (ticket machines onboard), which runs 24 hours and stops directly outside arrivals, on the main shopping street, Tsimiski, and at both the train and intercity bus stations.  Most of the city's best bars (try Pulp or Beer Store) are either facing the promenade between the White Tower and the port buildings or in Ladadika, a narrow tangle of cobbled streets two blocks west and one inland from the start of the port and the Holocaust Memorial at Eleftharias Square, where you'll also find the most central stop for the bus back to the airport. A five-minute walk along Ionos Dragoumi,  the Pella Hotel is a good budget hotel option, though the beds are even harder than the defence in that 1973 Leeds team.  If you want to splash out, the Electra Palace is the best in town, while the The Bristol, a five-star boutique hotel, is in the middle of the action in Ladadika.  There's also a hostel, Little Big House, uphill from the centre between Kaftanzoglio Stadium and the UNESCO-listed old town, the Ano Poli.  The tourist information centre keeps irregular hours, so download a map before you go from here or here. 

Finally, there's a separate post on Aris FC here.

Sun, sea, beer, football and anti-fascist ultras: there's a lot to like about Thessaloniki.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Ground 253: Kleanthis Vikelidis Stadium, Aris Thessaloniki

Going down two divisions in the year their club turned 100 didn't stop Aris Thessaloniki from throwing a party.  A giant yellow-and-black banner was draped from the top of the Byzantine White Tower and more than a thousand red flares set the night sky aglow as supporters paraded noisily around the streets of the city. Majority owners of the club, Aris' avowedly left-wing fanbase is famed for the frenzied, unrelenting backing it gives to a side which last won the national championship in 1946 and has no major honours since the 1970 Greek Cup.  "Are these the best fans in Europe?" asked EFW's Danny Last after Manchester City's visit in the 2010-11 Europa League. "There can't be a single football fan that has come away from watching a game at Aris, either on television or in the flesh, and not talked about their support."

Those foundations are absolutely vital.  After finishing fourteen points adrift at the foot of the Greek Super League, the cash-crunched club followed AEK Athens in relinquishing professional status and starting over in the third-tier Football League Two, their supporters successfully agitating against an investment offer from a Canadian mining company accused of causing environmental damage to the nearby Halkidiki peninsula.  "We have difficult moments," one member of the Super3 fans' group says, "but we are still proud and determined to make the club strong again as it always used to be."

Thessaloniki is a walkable city, wedged against the sea and within striking distance of Skopje, Sofia, Tirana, Mount Athos, Athens and Istanbul.  Just as importantly for the football tourist its fixtures are spread right across the weekend, Iraklis 1908 first up on Friday evening, Apollon Kalamarias and Aris kicking off at Monday teatime, and PAOK, Agrotikos Asteras and Iraklis Ampelokipoi all in action at various points of Sunday afternoon. Simultaneous kick-offs and easyJet's arrival times mean I'm limited to three of the six games, a bum steer from Soccerway leaving me with a choice of two by the time third-placed Aris get underway against Kampaniakos Chalastras, a day and a bit after it was originally scheduled to take place.

You can stroll the four kilometres from the city centre to the Kleanthis Vikelidis and bag a three-for-one by calling in to Iraklis (where Revie's Leeds United were cheated out of the 1973 European Cup Winners' Cup) and PAOK's Toumba Stadium on the way, or €2 gets you there and back on the number 10 bus, the stop a few steps from the cramped stadium front and its shuttered doorways for a wrestling club, mobile phone shop and the does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-entrance Beer FC 1914.  A gap-toothed man hawks tea from a metal urn on wheels, while a few other street vendors try to offload yellow-and-black scarves and slabs of polystyrene, one to cover your neck, the other - with three and a half of the four sides completely open to the elements - to comfort your behind.

None of the four are anywhere near full, a snowy afternoon, the late rescheduling of the game and the club's recent tribulations keeping the attendance to a smattering down the sides and several hundred at the back of each goal.  There's silence until the teams enter, then a red flare is whirled around above a long Aris Super 3 banner, hooded fans clamber up fences, and drums and voices belt out a somnambulistic beat that rises to a hail of boos whenever a Kampaniakos player touches the ball and ratchets up with each slow-moving Aris attack. The fans provide all the early entertainment with several minutes' bouncing and a rumbling chant that repeatedly crescendos in a strident, stress-on-the-second-syllable "Aris!"  The first goal gets another flare, two bangers and a few extra decibels. "Bravo," says the bloke next to me, his eyes a pair of slits between a Napapijri hood and the lower half of a balaclava. "Bravo."

Things go quieter in the second half.  Aris keep giving the ball away, Kampaniakos keep giving it back. I try standing on a seat and shuffling from side to side like a crooner at a working men's club to maintain circulation in my feet, while the Super 3 get their lungs working and a linesman is thoroughly doused in a liquid I hope is just water as he flags for offside, enraged fans emptying plastic cups through the perimeter fence as he inches ever closer to the safety of the pitch.  Aris score again, torn yellow paper is flung in the air  and the Super 3 run through their litany of victory chants. "You came at a bad time," says a spectator through clenched teeth and cigarette smoke. "When we are many it is a wonderful place."

Admission: €5 (Gate 1)
Date: Monday February 9th 2015.