Saturday, 30 April 2016

Ground 300: Kimberley Park, Prudhoe

It's not even midday but Newcastle's Central Station is already bustling with pissed off Metro passengers and fans on their way to the match with Crystal Palace.  "Every day, man," moans a bloke in a black and white retro shirt.  "Mind, I think we'll dee these," he says, brightening. "Pardew'll be buffing up his tan for Wembley and none of their lot'll want to get crocked before." "Ah divvent kna, like," his mate demurs, "but if we dee, we'll probably beat Villa an' Spurs an' all an' still gan an' get relegated.  Typical Newcastle, that."


I cross to an outer platform, where an optimistic cluster of promotion-hunting Oxford supporters are waiting to board the next train to Carlisle.  The engine sparks to life like a home stand growling at a mistimed challenge, then we chunter across the Tyne, bend right at a Hilton and slowly pull through the brownfield sites of Gateshead, home of submarine telegraph cables, the incandescent lightbulb, Chris Waddle and Norman 'Bites Yer Legs' Hunter.  Industry and football intertwine all along the early part of the route; where the first blossomed the second later thrived.  Paul Gascoigne was brought up in Dunston, close by the site of the Metro Centre - where former Newcastle United owner Sir John Hall made his knighthood and a large chunk of his cash - and the world's first bit of railway track, constructed to cart coal to the river from County Durham's pits.  The next station, Wylam,  is by the childhood home of George Stephenson, whose Rocket locomotive inspired the black-and-yellow colours of Uruguay's Penarol.  Howard Kendall came from neighbouring Crawcrook, while George Jobey, scorer of Arsenal's first goal at Highbury, grew up a few miles away at Heddon-on-the-Wall.  The railway line skirts Mickley, once home to Bob Stokoe and George Brown, signed out of a colliery strike by Herbert Chapman's Huddersfield Town, where he won a hat-trick of league titles and played nine times for England, and continues to Corbridge, home to an excavated Roman fort and three Sunderland managers, and Hexham, on whose pitches Bob Batey, part of the Preston team that won the first televised FA Cup final, learnt his trade.  Back towards St James' Park, Prudhoe was the birthplace of Crystal Palace custodian Billy Callender and has more recently unearthed a pair of Premier League goalkeepers, which is probably only to be expected from a place so dependent on defence.


Thrown up by the Normans to cow rebellious locals, the town's castle switched to harbouring them soon after the Percies took over in 1398.  The new owners proved more adept at picking lawyers than winning causes, their properties forfeited three times before finally passing into public hands in 1966.  The town's senior football club, set up by five friends seven years earlier, has led a similarly precarious existence, as might be expected when your home ground's named after a firm that makes disposable nappies, is built on a levelled out rubbish tip and periodically suffers from problems with rising gas. After joining the Northern League in 1988-89,  Prudhoe twice battled to promotion and twice hurtled straight back down, had a benefactor whose nerves weren't up to watching the team play, and spent £30,000 a year on maintaining the place to step five standards -  "A splendid venue, neat, spick and span, superbly maintained with not a lick of paint needed or a piece of litter out of place," a visitor enthused in 2006 - before quitting after 21 years, several resignation letters and three seasons stuck to the foot of Division Two.


For 12 months the club disappeared altogether, local papers reporting on the "bitter acrimony" and "rancorous legal dispute" between it and the town council, who refused to sell the land the ground stood on and then served a 14-day eviction notice when discovering neighbours Stocksfield were sub-letting the pitch. "Confusion surrounds Prudhoe Town Football Club, as Tynedale folk are unclear as to whether or not it still exists," wrote the Hexham Courant in July 2009.  "We have just basically had enough," explained chairman, secretary and treasurer Chris Lowther.  He was still in situ a year later, expressing a vastly different emotion as the club gained entry to the Wearside League. "I'm over the moon to be back,"  he told the Newcastle Journal, "my wife Susan will again look after the refreshments, while my daughter Rachel will again be physio."


Double cup winners in 2013, Lowther's "small band of helpers" have rarely seen their team climb out of the bottom half of the league.  With three games of the season remaining, they're 14th of 20 clubs,  a whopping 49 points behind probable champions Stockton and 15 adrift of visitors Spennymoor Town Reserves,  who've played in the Wearside since pairing up with Coxhoe Athletic in the summer of 2014.  It's only five days since the two clubs drew in County Durham. "Can we keep the great run going?" Prudhoe's Twitter account asks, the team winning six and losing only one of their last ten games.


There's a dining table and portable barbecue by the turnstile booth, a portakabin clubhouse with blistered wood and a faded sign that still announces the club as members of the Arngrove Northern League. Inside the perimeter fence are floodlight poles, a flatpack all-seater stand and two terraces - the smaller now a dumping ground for advertising boards and dugouts - topped with corrugated metal, more remnants of the two-decade stay at steps five and six, though the only populated cover is a perspex bus stop that has an ashtray, a no smoking sign and three garden chairs. "Howay Pruddah," says a home player.  "Howay, get off the pitch" barks one of the 25 spectators to his dog as a home player hits the floor in the area just a couple of minutes into the game. "Liner, why would he go down there?" the manager shouts as the ref waves play on.  "Gamble," says a player.  "Big win," a spectator mutters by a spare set of posts.  "If there's no contact. why not book him?" the manager continues.  "As stonewall as you'll ever see," Spennymoor's boss agrees.  "I'd be going mad if it'd been at the other end." It's not long until Prudhoe score their first.  "Good goal, that," says one of the three fans in the bus stop.  "Just what they deserved."


The home team knock a second through the keeper's legs.  "Referee," snaps the Spennymoor assistant while a kid whirs behind him on a battery powered motorbike and I attempt to stamp off the mud that's been caked to my shoes since an ill-advised short cut through a wood.  "You kna what it is, he's got a hold of him round the waist.  Clear foul.  Have you ever played football?" he asks the linesman, who's backing nervously along the pitch like a first night eliminee on Strictly Come Dancing.  "Ah divvent think ye have.  Join in when you want, like." The third goal's a lob.  "Can we play like this every week?" laughs a Prudhoe fan laughs.  "Get yer fingers out yer arse and start fucking playing," a Spennymoor defender rages as he blasts the ball upfield.   The visitors break; "Bring him down if you have to," a home player says.   "Help him! Help him!" yell the Spennymoor bench to no avail, the ball cleared and then rolled into the net for a fourth with just 40 minutes played.  "We've been second best to everything," a Spennymoor official laments just before a striker hits a shot into the corner to make it 4-1.  "Canny half," claps a bloke in a high vis jacket.  "Owt yet from Newcastle?"


"Big 20," shouts one Prudhoe player.  "Switch on," a second implores. "0-0, we start again," goes a third.  "Overload right centre, overload right centre," says the Spenny keeper as an orange-shirted player rattles his crossbar drawing half a dozen smokers out of the clubhouse to see what's going on.  "Ten minutes' hard work," the Prudhoe boss demands of his team.  "Get a grip of yersel'," the visiting assistant groans as the referee misses a clear handball.  "Are you running this game, are you?" Prudhoe hit a fifth.  "0-0 again," says a defender. "One more big 15." "Ah kna we've been played off the pitch," the assistant says, "but the ref's a disgrace."

"Good win, eh?" asks a fan at the turnstile hut.  "Lovely." 

Admission: £2
Date:  Saturday April 30th 2016

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Ground 299: Harratts Nissan Stadium, Pontefract Collieries

It's been an eventful last eight months at "Pontefract's longest established, highest profile and top-ranked football club."  Promoted as runners-up after 16 years outside the North Counties East top-flight, Pontefract Collieries have since lost one manager - the long-serving Nick Handley dismissed just two hours before a training session - one chairman and 24 of their 39 league games, thrashed by six-goal margins three times before the middle of October and by a total of 11 goals to three in their last two games.  The faltering home team have only two league wins since November and start the season's final week next to bottom of the division and with just three games remaining to overhaul two of the sides above. “I’m going to be looking to put the club in a good position so that we can take it into the Evo Stik in the next 18 months," Chris Parry had confidently said when he was tasked with replacing Handley at the end of last year.


Formed in the late-1950s,  the Colls have dropped out of the top-flight twice since joining the NCEL as founder members in 1982, their bleakest season a grim 2007-08 campaign in which they won just one of 32 matches, propped up the table and only escaped dropping out of the league altogether by restructuring in the competitions below.  There have been brighter moments, too: back-to-back promotions in 1983 and '84, two Floodlit Cups, a Wilkinson Sword Trophy and career starts for Dave Penney, who played or managed at nine Football League clubs after being scouted by Arthur Cox's Derby County, ex-Rotherham United striker Andy Hayward and Paul Newlove, a world record transfer signing after giving up football for rugby league.


Pontefract's ground, built up at the time of the 1984-85 Miners' Strike and further improved with hundreds of flip seats from Manchester City's Maine Road, has been blighted by theft, vandalism and subsidence from old mining work.  The only sign is half hidden by a traffic light and there's a dirt track beside a spoil bank left behind when the Prince of Wales Colliery - opened in 1860 and still producing 1.3 million tonnes of coal a year - was closed in 2002.  A train cuts above the opposite side of the ground and the Ferrybridge cooling towers rise up beyond the far goal.  At the turnstile, there's a handwritten sign and smiling volunteers selling raffle tickets ("2nd prize very LARGE basket of spirits and wines, 3rd signed JAMES MILNER football shirt...9th Dulux FLUFFY DOG") and programmes.  The bar's showing the end of the early Premier League game, a kid throwing darts next to trophies piled by a stack of ring binders, and a pair of coach seats are parked under an FA Charter Standard Club sign by the gents.  "I wasn't expecting much," says Andrew, "but this is lovely."  A previous visitor had been just as complimentary: "A gem, full of character but at the same time retaining a certain charm."


"Support your LOCAL club," the Colls Facebook page had implored, but the crowd is small - "Probably not much higher than the late thirties if you take out the committees," Andrew reckons" - as we near kick off.  "Big winners," demands a Pontefract player demands as they finish the warm up.  "Clipstone have left their cones all over the pitch," someone moans as the teams re-enter the pitch through a metal cage at the side of the main stand.  "Let's get organised early," says one Clipstone centre back to another.  "Keep that defence tight," a home fan yells across the ground.


Pontefract miss with two first-half chances, players simultaneously disputing the award of a throw in and a missed handball. "Cut it out, liner," one player advises the official. "Fuck off man," Clipstone's left back shouts. After a bright opening, the visitors fade as an attacking force and it's the home team who look the likelier to edge ahead.  Despite their efforts,  it's still goalless at the break.  "Your raffle's been claimed," says the bloke in the PA box as we greedily head towards a tea hut promising the delights of 'Steak Canadian', 'Spam Sandwiches' and 'Other Items (50p)'  just hours after polishing off a St George's Day Special of beef stew and Yorkshire pudding by a ruined castle in whose dungeons King Richard II once starved to death. "I could have another one of these spam sandwiches," Andrew reckons as the sides run out for the second half. 


Colls have a set piece palmed over the bar and find the outside of the post with the resulting corner kick before Phil Lindley heads in the opening goal.  Another set piece is played wide, crossed back into the centre and Lindley rises highest to nod into the net.  "Not even a free kick,"Clipstone's manager moans as a Pontefract player limps back towards the centre circle and a defender kicks the ball away off the referee's leg.  The home side miss a one-on-one and then shoot into the ground with two players in space on the six-yard line. "We've not done too bad," says a fan behind the goal.  "At least we've scored once."


With only seconds left a Clipstone player's felled by a trailing leg and the referee points to the spot.  "You bent get," shouts a home fan. "He's going to save this," Clipstone's keeper says.  The kick goes left but so does a gloved hand, turning the ball around the post.  "Told you," says the keeper.  The victory - only Pontefract's third since winning at Clipstone in November - keeps the home side level on points with Liversedge and leaves them one behind Brigg Town with a game in hand and two left to play. 

Admission: £5
Date: Saturday April 23rd 2016

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Ground 298: New Earswick F1 Pitch

After a midweek washout back on Tyneside, I spent a Saturday afternoon at Shildon's Dean Street  - indisputably one of the jewels of north-east football at any level of the game - as the swashbuckling home side went 25 points clear and all but sealed a first Northern League title since 1939.  The 11th-tier York and District League Premier Division was simultaneously drawing closer to its own denouement, 2012-13 champions Dunnington beaten 2-0 at Wiggington Grasshoppers, the green and whites cutting the gap at the top to just two points with three games still to play to the long-time leaders' one.


Two-time York League Cup winners, the Grasshoppers don't have any top-flight titles but were the first club side of the Premier League's Sam Byram.  Born in Thurrock, the future Leeds and West Ham defender moved north with his father's bank job and was schooled in New Earswick, a century-old model suburb planned out and funded by one of  York's philanthropic chocolatiers.  "A Rowntree man would return to his three-bedroomed home with living room and parlour, tend his own fruit trees and vegetable garden and watch his children play safely on an ample village green - all laid on for six shillings' rent per week," the Independent reminisced in 1999.  Two and a half miles from the city centre, the community still has almost 3,000 inhabitants and, at Rowntree's insistence, not a single public house, the alternative sources of fun a village hall that once hosted the likes of  Procol Harum and Pink Floyd and a Sports Club where midtable F1 Racing - formerly the works team of Regional Railways North East - were entertaining Church Fenton White Horse.


After three successive promotions,  F1 have slowed down a bit this season, the team now named after a go-kart track following up their second-tier title with eleven wins, ten defeats and a single draw from 22 top division games.  Church Fenton are six points and three places further back, dropping to ninth in the 14-team table after a 9-0 weekend spanking by Old Malton St Mary's.  "Same as Saturday, yeah?" says the F1 left back.  "Switch on boys," adds a midfielder before he hits a crossfield pass that bobbles over a boot and goes straight out of play.  "Can we swap the ball, please?" a third player complains.  "This one's shite."

The game's one of two played on adjacent pitches bordered by hedges on three sides and a rail on the other, passenger trains to Scarborough cutting behind twin perspex dugouts and a single advertising board. Aside from those involved in the match itself, there are precisely seven spectators - and two of those are dogs. F1 score a pair of quick goals - the first a four-man move that starts with their own keeper - and go three ahead within 20 minutes, the Church Fenton team all stopped as they wait for offside.  "Just enjoy it," an F1 player celebrates.  "Fucking hell," thinks one of the visitors' defence. The home left back has to tape up his right boot, which starts flapping open at the front, and a substitute doesn't turn up until the stroke of half time. "Didn't finish work until 20 minutes ago, did I?" he says.  "The game's not over yet," manager Ian Yeowart tells his team. The moment he's finished, four rush off for a piss in a hedge.


The second half continues at an entertaining pace, Church Fenton putting a shot into a cornfield before Yeowart's side nod in a fourth from a free kick.  Seconds later, the visitors finally hit the net themselves.  "We're back in it here, lads," the scorer says optimistically. "Let's keep this up to the end." More correctly sensing that the scoring is done the few watchers start drifting away as the sun drops slowly behind the railway line, a substitute wandering over to take a photo on his phone. Elsewhere in the division, a deflated Dunnington side lose 1-0 at home to lowly Tadcaster Magnets and Wiggington go down by a two-goal margin at Old Malton St Mary's, who take their third set of maximum points in just five days.  "Yet another twist," the York Press reported, St Mary's, champions in 2012 and 2014, now certain to lift another title if they win two and draw one of their three remaining games. 

Admission: Free
Date: Wednesday April 20th 2016

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

World Cup Stories: Football in the Favela

I'd been planning a midweek visit to Hazlerigg Victory but a waterlogged pitch put paid to the game.  So instead, and with my trip to the 2014 World Cup almost two years distant, here's a piece from a pre-tournament stay at the Ladeira dos Trabajas favela organised by Paul Finnerty, probably the only man in a Rochdale top in the whole of Rio de Janeiro.

Down on Copacabana Beach the football tourists were out in force.  Colombians swapped chants with Chileans, Argentina fans lined up photos by their flags, and lads in Scotland and France shirts took on a combined USA and Brazil team by the entrance to FIFA's fenced off Fan Fest, workers scooping sand and laying scaffolding for a space which would be packed to its 20,000 capacity for the tournament's opening game.


There were plenty of supporters up in the Ladeira dos Trabajas favela too, where an eight-team competition had been organised ahead of the main event. "It's not about the World Cup, it's about bringing people together," Alex, whose idea it had been, told me as we toured the Lajao (Big Roof) pitch, built on a bit of flat ground the drug gangs had laid aside for community use. "When it rains, it's impossible to play here," he explained, anxiously scanning a skyline which stretched all the way down to Copacabana. "We built it in the 1990s and now three teams are based here." Wire cages enclosed the top and sides; down below an armed police officer patrolled in front of mounds of earth and plastic bottles. "We have tournaments for teenagers and adults," Alex went on. "It's four-a-side and you're allowed between four and ten players in each squad.  We have five pitches and each team chose one as their home ground. We play home and away legs and the teams raised the money from local businesses to buy a trophy for the end.  The people who play put in money for improvements to the pitches. If you want something done here, you do it yourself."


I met up with Leandro and Paul for the big evening fixture. Leandro had started a volunteer project in 2007 to teach English, Spanish and art and had more recently set up a book exchange at various points around the streets. "We want to bring the community together," he explained. "It's important to do things. You know, one of the players who started out on these pitches eventually made the Brazilian beach football team." Paul, originally from Rochdale, had first arrived to help out with the language classes. "Everything's constantly being built and rebuilt," he told me. "Nothing stays the same."


We wound up crumbling staircases to the stadium past exposed pipes and breezeblocks, bags of cement and open doorways through which cooking smells wafted on the breeze. There were indoor dance classes and the sound of the evening news on dozens of flatscreen TVs. On the final step a hand painted sign announced the home of Jaca Verde FC, named, I was told, after a fruit which grows in the neighbouring hills of Sejam Bem Vindos. The crowd was gathered around the cage fence and on a rock face adorned with the national flag and dates of the country's five World Cup wins for a game which pitted the hosts against Colombia. Yellow and green streamers hung from the roof netting in the colours of both teams while a giant green and white flag had been territorially draped behind a goal. Colombia netted first, sparking a mini-pitch invasion and recriminations among the Jaca back four, the orange-and-white shirted official flashing yellow cards for dissent and encroachment at the free kick which had started the move. "The refs come from one of the other six teams," Paul told me. "They get a bit of stick during the game but nothing too bad."


Jaca scored two quick goals, the second drawing mocking cries of "Frangueiro" ("Chicken") from the kids leaning over the perimeter fence.   By full time the home team had stretched the lead to 6-2.  "Where's your screaming now?" their keeper asked the travelling fans.  Behind, lights twinkled over the sands of Copacabana, Jaca players danced and rolled towards the sidelines and Colombia, deflated, looked off in the opposite direction, puffing on cigarettes. 

Leandro and Alex at the Lajao
Brazil v Croatia at the FIFA Fan Fest

I wrote more contemporary World Cup missives from Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre, where I watched France beat Honduras 3-0, while there's an overview of the entire trip on In Bed With Maradona, which includes stops in Argentina, Uruguay and the day I had a conversation in broken English with a man who coached Diego himself. 

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Ground 297: i2i Stadium, Tadcaster Albion

Most ninth-tier clubs would have reasonably expected the signing of a Champions League winner to be by far the biggest news story of their season.  But Jonathan Greening's return to Tadcaster Albion - "I contacted  the chairman and was really pleased the club wanted me," said the ex-Manchester United, Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion midfielder - came just days after a Christmas flood washed part of a 300-year-old bridge away, severed the town in two and left the promotion chasing side with six foot of river water and raw sewage on their pitch and a £250,000 bill for repairs. "We may need to knock everything down and start again," chairman Matt Gore told the Harrogate Advertiser. “The clubhouse needs a new bar, new walls, new everything. It's just ruined. Even the things that are still standing. It's all contaminated. Probably the only thing that will survive is the Ken Gilbertson Stand because it's made of metal.”


It took 73 days, a fundraising campaign that reached all the way to Australia and a clean-up effort involving hundreds of volunteers before Albion could return home.  “It’s been a very difficult few weeks for everyone in Tadcaster, but every day we are constantly amazed by the kindness and generosity shown by others to help the town back on its feet," thought Gore as the Brewers trounced bottom-of-the-table Liversedge in front of over 500 fans.  The preceding 123 years hadn't always been so eventful.  Formed as John Smith's FC in 1892,  Tadcaster won a solitary York League title in 1948 and worked their way through three divisions of the Yorkshire League before helping to found the Northern Counties East in 1982-83.  The arrival of Gore and hisYork-based i2i Sports as owners coincided with the Brewers topping the NCEL table for the first time ever in autumn 2013; third and third again, Albion went 25 games unbeaten, made two semi-finals and the last-eight of the Vase last year but faded in a congested spring programme that closed with the long-serving Paul Marshall losing his job. “It’s been a pleasure to manage the club and to see it rise from the ashes," he reckoned.  “I just hope that the dedicated group of fans we have amassed over the last few years carry on and grow in numbers". 


With eight league games to fit into just three weeks, new manager Billy Miller had guarded against fatigue by adding ex-Sheffield Wednesday striker Richard Creswell and Sébastien Carole - a French midfielder once of Monaco, Leeds and Brighton - to the squad for the visit of leaders Handsworth Parramore, unbeaten in 17 games themselves and two points clear of the home side in the single promotion place. "A massive match," Miller thought.  "A gigantic battle," echoed Non-League Yorkshire in its preview of the game. "Win today and we go top," said an old bloke in an Albion bonnet at one end of the temporary footbridge which now links the bus station to the car park at Tadcaster's Ings ground, where attendances have swelled to 350 from an average of just 106 in 2012-13.  "They're expecting 700 today," said someone checking the Leeds score on his phone. "Are you off to York City?" a bloke asked his mate in the main street.  "Nah, I'm going down to Albion.  Better than watching that shite, isn't it?"  In the Angel and White Horse pub, a pint got me change from a £2 coin and the talk was all about the game.  "There'll be lots of nerves this afternoon," one drinker reckoned.  "Lad I know's giving up his Leeds ticket next year and coming here instead," another said.


There were early queues at the turnstile block, where a friendly raffle seller handed out free sweets and three i2i coaches were discussing UEFA A Licences in Bulgaria.  A bear mascot patrolled the touchline, the packed clubhouse and portakabin toilet block were on the near side and there were a pair of seated stands - one flatpack, the other in several different colours and topped with a canvas roof - behind the brewery goal.  "Handsworth have got the two top scorers in the division," nodded one of a cluster of middle-aged blokes in Tadcaster scarves. "Hope you're better than last week's," someone yelled at the referee.  The teams formed up to the noise of 'Tad All Over' piped over the PA.  "Come on, eh!" a dozen voices encouraged simultaneously.  "Let's start fast," Albion's keeper clapped, though it was Parramore who had the first sights of goal, the ball deflecting away off the keeper's thigh before he easily gathered a shot that was scuffed along the ground. With just 11 minutes played, the visitors work down the left, Danny Buttle hung up a cross and Jon Froggatt blasts in his 33rd goal of the season.  "Number three, you're too slow," a home fan yelled repeatedly.  "Plenty of time yet," a wiser voice countered.  The Handsworth support was still smiling as the home side pushed forward,  Josh Greening turning in the equalising goal after the ball bobbed around Parramore's six-yard line.  Seven minutes later a pass put Greening through on goal and the leaders were behind. "Easy, easy," crowed the clubhouse partisans.  They were even happier just before half-time, Handsworth's keeper Archie Sneath red carded for clattering Tom Corner as he lifted the ball towards  goal. "Unbelievable," said Parramore's Twitter account. At the other end of the pitch, Gary Stevens shook his head and then jogged over to shake Sneath's hand as Tyler Bates - "a defender from our U17s, he just put his hand up and said he fancied it," a substitute said later - picked Corner's penalty out of the net.  The away fans muttered their complaints.  "They're buying it," moaned one unfairly.  "He wasn't even the last man," said another, his view slightly clouded by the hundred-metre distance to where the incident took place.  "You've got to feel sympathetic for them," was Billy Miller's more even handed response.  "You can see their frustrations."


A man down and with a teenage outfield player in goal, Handsworth made the switch to three at the back.  "They're going for it," said a fan as the ball was lobbed forward, Bates missed a punch and Corner headed in his second goal.  "4-1," groaned a bloke in a Sheffield Wednesday tracksuit.  "Owt on target's going in here, isn't it?"  Undeterred, Parramore kept going, Simon Harrison payeting a free kick into the corner as Tadcaster were pushed back by the spirited away side. "They think they've won it already," an old bloke grimaced as the left back cushioned a cross which just missed three red shirts.  After the shock the home team reasserted their advantage, Greening completing his hat-trick after Bates parried a shot.  "We are top of the league," sang the home sections of the 631 crowd.  "Just one of them days," said a Parramore fan.


"Very happy man," Gore tweeted later. "Fans were immense today.  Can't stop smiling."  First by a point and 24 goals, the next challenge for the admirably progressive club is Tuesday's visit of relegation threatened Armthorpe Welfare, from the Doncaster suburb where Kevin Keegan was brought up.  "A brilliant result for us," Billy Miller said later. "It'll go right to the wire, no doubt...the plan's now just to get through the next two games."

Admission: £5
Date: Saturday April 9th 2016

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Ground 296: Mille Crux, York St John's

Nestle Rowntrees FC had got through 116 years, the acquisition of its sponsor, five leagues and a pair of name changes, lifting the York League title on ten occasions and playing out almost a decade in the rarefied heights of the NCEL.  Goalkeeper Andy Leaning, arguably the club's most storied old boy, swapped Rowntree Mackintosh for York City Reserves, starring in a 1985-86  FA Cup fifth round tie at Anfield within months of turning pro.  In 1990, with future City, Northampton Town and Cheltenham striker Neil Grayson banging in the goals, the amateurs cantered to the Northern Counties East League Division One championship but were relegated instead, their Mille Crux ground falling foul of new grading rules.  By 2013 they had disappeared altogether,  withdrawing from the York League "due to a lack of players and continuing financial pressures".  The death knell, it was said, was the loss of their home ground, Rowntree's, the world's fourth largest confectionary maker when Nestle paid £2.5billion for it in 1988, cutting all ties and selling off Mille Crux - where the reformed York City had played their first ever home games in 1922 - to York St John University. "When we start the new season, we'll be without our most historic and well-known club," rued a York League press release.


Since the departure of its longstanding tenants - Rowntrees unable to raise the £30 per game to play on their old pitch - Mille Crux has been converted into a £7 million sport and teaching facility formally opened by honorary graduate Howard Webb in 2015. St John's best-known actual alumni, PE student Matt Messias, followed Rowntree's route through the York and NCEL Leagues, eventually making the FIFA list and national headlines when he owned up to letting Paul Ince and Dennis Wise "kick shit out of each other" during a game between Millwall and Wolves.  "Against my better judgment, I opted to go with the players and they did exactly what they said they were going to do," he admitted after retiring - "by mutual consent" - as a referee. "Every time there was a crunch, I got told to leave my yellow card in my pocket. The crowd were chanting 'off, off, off' and didn't realise what was going on. They must have thought I was the worst ref in the world".


This afternoon's sole official has other problems to contend with, not least the fact there are no assistants in the 12th-tier York League Division One.  As the teams pass the three available balls around, Andy McEvoy is trying to find a spot where his jacket and the tupperware box he's stored the teamsheets in won't be blown away in the wind. A home player keeps warm in a parka while he finishes off a pre-match pie, the crowd edging up to 20 if you count the occupant of a pushchair and a bloke who stays sitting inside his car.  The game's being staged on one of the floodlit 3G pitches, Sporting Knavesmire - formed six years ago as an offshoot of the successful Hamilton Panthers youth sides and unbeaten in league football for 22 months and 39 games before October's home defeat to Hemingbrough United - clad in Fiorentina purple with fluorescent stripe and taxi firm logo, while St John go for two shades of blue with the student union's Twitter account splashed across the back.  The away team provide both linesmen, St John still waiting for their sub to turn up.  "If nobody knows, we go with defence," McEvoy explains to an aggrieved Knavesmire player when he contests the award of a throw.  "There were three of you blocking my view."


The purples take an early lead with a shot that hits both posts before trickling over the line. "Good stuff," claps their manager, the linesman's flag wedged under an armpit.  "We go again," yells an enthusiastic centre half.  Some errant Knavesmire finishing keeps the gap at a single goal, allowing St John to level midway through the half from a position the visitors complain is "a yard offside". Sporting edge back ahead when a cross is intercepted on the six-yard line by a St John defender, who attempts a clearance from the wrong direction and just whacks the ball in off his own crossbar, but the home side hit back almost immediately.  "You have to deal with that better," the away boss admonishes his team.  "That's too easy!" shrieks a defender. "Fucking hell!" St John clatter the inside of the post at one end, Knavesmire breaking to slide in a shot at the opposite goal.  "I couldn't see if yours was over the line," the ref says to a home player.  "That's half time."


"Let's play as a team, eh?" asks the visiting manager, puffing away like Enzo Bearzot on an e-cigarette.  "We look good with the ball," one of St John's 12 men tells his teammates. "Can I just get a drink, lads?" the ref apologises, retrieving his holdall from the fence. Sporting stick a volley through the rugby posts before knocking in a fourth with the ref pointing to the St John defender playing everyone onside. The fifth goal follows with 25 minutes left, the wind so strong the corner flags have been flattened and the home keeper's kicks no longer reach halfway.  Back come St John, heeling in from a corner, before a Knavesmire player dances through four challenges and sidefoots home a sixth.  It's seven moments later and should be eight but for a dreadful attempt at a penalty, the home side looking spent with ten minutes still to play.  St John hold out, grab a late fourth goal themselves and then retreat to the warmth of the portakabin changing block.  "Best get off before the rain," a spectator says, looking at the darkening sky.  "Typical bloody Easter."


Admission:  Free
Date: March 26th 2016

Monday, 21 March 2016

"The Most Northern Looking Bloke in Football History"

Inspired by a talk from Harry Pearson, here's a piece from the programme for tonight's Jarrow Roofing v Morpeth Town game, which the FA Vase finalists currently lead by a goal to nil.  Northern League programme of the year in its debut season, the Roofer - designed in Serbia and written by volunteers in South Tyneside, York and Japan - was runner-up behind West Allotment Celtic in 2014-15. 


Non-League Day 2015 came and went with defending Northern League champions Marske United between matches and Roofing going down 3-1 at Morpeth Town, a side many still fancy as the next title holders of the world's second oldest football league.

While the Roofers were at Craik Park, I was in Malton, North Yorks, where Harry Pearson, Northern League chronicler and Great Ayton native, was giving a talk at the Ryedale Book Festival on the sporting heroes of the North Riding. Extensively covered elsewhere, Clough and Revie were only briefly touched upon, the main footballing focus the likes of South Bank – three-time Northern League champions before their Normanton Road ground became so blighted by theft and vandalism that someone even stole the guard dog - Wilf Mannion, the irascible golden boy, and Bobby Smith, who Pearson described as “the most Northern looking bloke in football history”.

Born in Lingdale, just a few miles from the modern Northern League heavyweights of Marske United and Guisborough Town, Smith was working as an apprentice blacksmith when Chelsea spotted him playing for a Redcar youth team. The 15-year-old arrived in London in 1948, turned professional two years later, and scored 18 goals in 48 league appearances before Spurs paid out a £16,000 transfer fee in December 1955. Team captain at White Hart Lane from 1958 to March 1959, the miner's son equalled Tottenham's scoring record with 36 strikes during the 1957-58 season and won renown for what was euphemistically described as “a robust style of play”, Jimmy Greaves recalling how his forward partner would scream "You're going to f***ing get it, mate'' at opposition defenders before the start of each game.

Double-winners in 1961 as Smith contributed another 33 goals, the following March Spurs were closing in on what would have been Europe's first ever treble, topping the Football League and through to the semi-finals of both FA and European Cups. Drawn against eventual winners Benfica, the Londoners came within a crossbar's width of taking the tie to extra-time, Smith scoring in both legs of the 4-3 aggregate defeat. Weeks later, he netted the crucial second goal in the 3-1 FA Cup Final victory over a Burnley side which included five more players from the Northern League's hinterland, including Ashington's Jimmy Adamson and John Angus, once of Alnwick Town. Burnley's manager, Harry Potts, hailed from Hetton-le-Hole, while his counterpart, Bill Nicholson, came from Scarborough. In May 1963,  Smith, Nicholson and Malton's Terry Dyson were all present as Tottenham picked up England's first European trophy with a 5-1 Cup Winners' Cup thrashing of Atletico Madrid. In all, Smith scored 208 goals in just 317 games for Spurs and 13 in 15 caps for England before, angered by a series of newspaper articles he'd written, the White Hart Lane board sold him off to fourth division Brighton for a mere £5,000 in 1964.  A year and 19 goals later he was off again, released from his contract after reporting for pre-season training two-stone overweight. 

By 1968, the double winner, now out of football altogether, was working as a taxi driver and painter and decorator, his gambling addiction frequently forcing him into penury. “If he'd been playing today,” thought his biographer Norman Giller, “he would have been revered as a player in the Alan Shearer class, and rewarded with the riches that his ability warranted. But he played in the soccer slave era. His rewards were pain in the limbs and – much of it self-inflicted – poverty in the pocket.”

“A wonderful footballer but also one of the hardest men ever to lace up a pair of boots, a prolific gambler and a bloody good friend,” wrote Jimmy Greaves when Smith, aged 77, died following a lengthy battle with cancer in 2010.