Friday, 27 May 2016

Ground 303: Etihad Stadium, Manchester

The last time I paid to see an England team play was in November 1994 when Kevin Keegan - top of the league with Newcastle United - had temporary charge of the U21s. Nicky Butt, Sol Campbell, Steve Watson, Shay Given and Steven Carr all started the game at St James' Park. Sunderland's Martin Smith - to the manager's later fury - had his every touch of the ball noisily booed by many of the 25,000 crowd. While the ordinarily sure footed Keegan was rightly embarrassed, he was for once out of step with the public mood; club sides trumped all.  If England  didn't leave you indifferent, it was probably because it was another source of the multifarious slights inflicted by outsiders on your region, your city and your team. "Watching England's for lower division fans that don't have any decent away trips to look forward to,"  a bloke in a black and white shirt had opined between songs about European qualification and Andy Cole, whose 41-goal season had mystifyingly failed to earn him a call up, during a 'B' international at Hillsborough earlier the same year. "That and southerners. If there wasn't anyone from Newcastle playing, I wouldn't be here." "It's always felt secondary," a Leeds fan elaborated in Tom Gibbons' English National Identity and Football Fan Culture.  "International games drift in and out of your life and England's never felt like my team."  Manchester United's support sang for Argentina in response to the barracking of David Beckham after the 1998 World Cup. "Why should I feel a connection to a country that is arrogant and detestable when it comes to football?" a Liverpool fan wondered.  England, increasingly, was the other: the 'No Surrender' thugs; the coach who never picked your players until they'd transferred somewhere else; the kind of people who give you Tory governments, pay to fly banners from planes or willingly appear on Arsenal Fan TV; Ashley Cole's wage demands; London culturally and economically stomping on your face forever. "Fuck England," a Newcastle season ticket holder once put it. "They don't care about us and I don't give a stuff about them."

Some things hadn't changed. "If Daniel Sturridge played for us and Jermain Defoe for Liverpool, then Defoe would be going to France and Sturridge staying at home," a Sunderland fan raged when Roy Hodgson announced his provisional squad for Euro 2016.  The sole north-east presence among the 26 players was Andros Townsend, though that felt more a consequence of the hapless state of the region's two biggest clubs  - Sunderland flatlining while Newcastle, fatally holed by incompetent recruitment and the risible Steve McClaren, contrived to relegate themselves for the second time in a decade - than any bias on the part of the England coach.  In Manchester city centre, the songs were all about the Second World War. "There were ten German bombers," fans chorused to the bemusement of the Sunday afternoon passersby. "And the RAF from England shot them down."

The new England was more evident at the ground itself, a thirty-minute walk from Piccadilly Station. There were slickly produced videos and marketing speak, messages from corporate parterns ("Celebrate Responsibly") and fans wearing jester hats and half-and-half scarves.  "If we see you on the big screen, we want to hear you as well," the PA droned with all the vacuous excitement of children's TV.  "Who. Are. You. Here. To. Support?" Red and white t-shirts had been handed out at one end of the ground, supporters forming a St George's Cross as they took their places behind the goal.  A Three Lions flag was passed down the touchline, and while there were muted boos at the start and end of the Turkish national anthem, there were much louder cheers for Vardy and Kane.  Such was the depth of confidence in England's attack, not even the opposition's 13-match unbeaten run could dampen the crowd's optimism. "I put a quid on 4-0," said a bloke to his mates.  "Easy 2-0 win," another reckoned.

Vardy had already gone close to opening the scoring when Kane put England ahead with just three minutes played.  "Who are ya? Who are ya?" asked the home fans, gleefully anticipating a rout.  But then the visitors settled, the hosts began to flounder in defence and the crowd got edgier and edgier once Hakan Calhanoglu had deservedly levelled with the first goal Turkey had ever scored against England.  A shoe was hurled from the top of the stand and shouts of "Pass it" alternated with pleas to "Just get it in the box."   "Vardy's not been involved," the bloke next to me said to no-one in particular.  "He's had a crap game, Rose," he added a few seconds later.  "What does Sterling think he's doing?"

"Stand up if you hate the Turks" a group of fans demanded. The visitors started to boo as the chant half-spread to different sections of the ground.  My neighbour was averaging a "That's rubbish" every five seconds as England struggled to re-impose themselves in midfield.  "Go back to your kee-bab shops," slurred a bloke with a red and white stetson, tattooed cheeks and a Pompey OK patch on his shirt.  Hodgson switched formation, moving the previously ineffective Vardy into the centre of the field.  A few minutes later the Leicester forward was felled in the area, but Kane put the penalty wide. "Rubbish," thought the now familiar voice. "The money he's on he should at least be able to get it on target." The miss infuriated the Pompey fan too. "No surrender to the IRA! Scum!" he raged, apropos of nothing that was happening down below.  There was an embarrassed silence.  "And ISIS scum too!" he finished, swaying alone in the aisle.  The minutes ticked by and then, with just seven left and the 44,000 crowd beginning to move towards the exits, Gary Cahill headed a corner at the keeper, a defender prevented anyone from gathering the loose ball and Vardy sidefooted in the winning goal by way of the keeper's nose.  "Sunderland 'ere we come," celebrated the bloke in the stetson.  At the final whistle a few pissed Manchester United fans were doing their best to smash a soap dispenser. "We're wrecking your toilets," one chanted as he tried and failed to dropkick a door.  "Your cubicles are terrified."

People mixed more happily back in the city centre, where the souvenir scarves had dropped from a fiver to £3 and the songs were all about Vardy's parties and Hodgson's trip to France. "My first England game," said a Leeds supporter on the train back to York.  "Way they played today," his mate laughed, "it's probably your last one too."

Admission: £25
Date:  Sunday May 22nd 2016

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Ground 302: Eon Visual Media Stadium, North Ferriby United

"Incredible when you think about it," a North Ferriby United fan ponders. "There aren't even 4,000 people in this place, other clubs reckon we're just a glorified pub team and yet we've won a cup at Wembley and are ninety minutes away from a place in the fifth division of English football."  It's been a remarkable journey: from humble beginnings in the East Riding Church League, the village team had already been to Wembley once - losing 3-0 to Whitby Town in the 1997 FA Vase - when they ended an 18-year stay in the Northern Counties East by lifting the championship in 2000.  It took five years to add another title, eight more to make it out of the seventh-tier Northern Premier League.  Just one season later they lost top spot in the Conference North on the final afternoon of the 42-game season and were beaten in the play-offs by Guiseley without scoring a goal.  Wembley was the unlikeliest of fillips, the fairtyale story that made North Ferriby headline news: two-nil down to the relative giants of Wrexham with just 14 minutes to play, the Villagers roared back to take the FA Trophy on penalties in front of a 15,000 crowd.  "It’s all a bit of a blur," said boss Billy Heath, whose previous visit to the national stadium had been as a ball boy when England played Yugoslavia in 1986.  "I never dreamt I'd have a chance to manage team here."

The victory came at a cost, fixture congestion leaving the team in midtable and Steve and Eman Forster, son-in-law and daughter of Hull City owner Assem Allam, deciding to sell up after two years in charge.  "Early talk was of reduced budgets and voluntary relegation to a more sustainable level," wrote Darren Norton, editor of the  View from the Allotment End fanzine. "With crowds around the 300 mark on a good day, that level would probably have been back in the Northern Premier League or below."  Finances were tightened but the the owners stayed on,  United winning one and drawing five of their first seven league games. "We expected just to make up the numbers," Darren Norton recalled. Instead, the Villagers pipped Fylde to second place and then overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit against Boston United in the play off semi-final.  "Another Sunday afternoon comeback," the Hull Daily Mail reported. "They had two thirds of the crowd," a North Ferriby fan says, "but they turned up thinking they'd already won."

Much like the home team's season, my morning gets off to a bumpy start.  Still recovering from a week in Montenegro and a Friday night house party,  I'm unexpectedly forced to navigate two barriers to collect a ticket from York Station and a third to reach the platform my train's just pulling away from. I consider going home, head out of the station in search of another route and the very first bus I see has North Ferriby written along the side.  "There's one every two hours," the driver says.  "Must be your lucky day." An hour and a half later I belatedly reach the north bank of the Humber just as two coaches from Preston are disgorging orange-shirted Fylde fans into the village pub.  "The play off should be on a neutral ground," complains a bloke hauling a drum and five balloons.  "Their pitch is awful for a final." His mate nods sagely.  "The next one up's at Wembley, isn't it?"  "Duh, duh, duh, duh," chant a moody gang of teenagers dressed in Stone Island leisurewear.  "Just look for the floodlights," a pair of stragglers tell each other as they walk the wrong way past a church.  'Horses, dogs and golf prohibited on the grass' says the sign at the turn off for the ground. "This is it," says an elderly woman with a white Fylde scarf and two orange balloons. "Next stop the National League."

The ground is hemmed in on three sides, allotments restricting further development at one end and a children's playground and railway line marking the boundary of two others.  The carpark is cramped,  the club shop's in a portakabin and there's a train trundling past the top of the main stand.  The clubhouse isn't selling alcohol after a pitch invasion by Boston fans but is still packed with a couple of hundred people celebrating Hull's second goal at Derby.  "It's really mainly people from Hull who come to watch Ferriby," one confides.  "The villagers are a bit sniffy about what's  going on here. It's not really a football kind of place."   The talk outside is of prospective new owners  and Hull City scrapping concessionary pricing.  "It's like Allam just wants to piss people off," a bloke in a City baseball cap says.  "People my age will save a bit of money but he's asking kids and pensioners to pay more. There'll be loads of bad publicity if Premier League teams are visiting next year."  

Unlike disillusionment, money's an issue wherever you go.  "We've cut the budget by half this season," a home supporter tells me.  "A couple of high earners went and we've only used 18 or 19 players all year.  We've been really lucky with injuries because three of those have only come on as subs." The Fylde support begin to fill the space behind the Humber Bridge end of the ground.  "Lancashire, Lancashire," they chant, territorially marking out their space with flags and a banner that reads 'In Chally We Trust'.  As kick off approaches, nerves set in and the atmosphere's more reflective.  "I think Challinor might get the sack at Fylde if they don't win today," someone reckons. "Some of these players will be going up even if the club doesn't." says Darren Norton as his team begin their warm up for the game.  "Anyone for a golden goal?" a raffle seller asks.

Not much happens to get the 1,800 crowd going again until midway through the half, Adam Nicklin opting to come for a cross his defence has covered and  Sam Finley squeezing the opening goal in off a post.  "Shite defending," rues one supporter.  "Haven't got going yet, have we?" says another.  All the noise is from the other end of the ground. "When we get promotion, this is what we'll sing," the Fylde fans chant.  "Plenty of time yet," a single voice responds. It takes a while for the home side to recover, a shot tipped over and another scrambled away from the line.  "Not our day," a fan says despondently.  We're three minutes into time added on when Liam King squares the ball across the Fylde penalty box and Wayne Brooksby gleefully hits the equaliser. "His first touch of the game just about," laughs a celebrating fan.  "They didn't want to go in and face Billy (Heath) losing.  Even the linesman runs away from him."

The home team look the likelier to score in the early stages of the second half. "They're flagging, Ferriby!" encourages a supporter after a goal's disallowed for a push in the back.   He's less confident in the final minutes, Fylde's Dion Charles blasting over with Nicklin exposed once again. "It's not like him," Darren Norton reckons. "He's been brilliant for us in goal.  It's been a long season, though."  Even longer as the game heads into an extra 30 minutes, Ferriby finally edging ahead for the first time when Danny Hone nods in at the other end of the pitch.  "We're the green and white army," a corner of the main stand begins to sing.   "Keep talking, keep talking," Billy Heath urges.  The fourth official raises his board. "Last minute of Conference North football," someone says nervously.  When the whistle blows fans trickle on to the pitch. "Unbelievable," Heath says into an iPhone.  "We have an unbelievable team spirit and an unbelievable desire to win."  "I grew up with Hull City and I'll always say I'm a fan, but I'd feel a bit of a fraud going to Wembley to see them now," a supporter admits as the play-off trophy is hoisted overhead.  "This is my team.  North Ferriby United in the National League! It's close on a miracle what's happened here."

Admission: £12
Date: Saturday May 14th 2016

Many thanks to Andrew Wilson for the lifts around the Ridings and the lads behind the Allotment end goal for the wit, hospitality and background on the club. The first issue of North Ferriby's fanzine is due out at the start of next season, when the Villagers step out in the English fifth tier... 

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Ground 301: Stadion pod Vrmcem, Bokelj Kotor

"Bokelj stadium," the taxi driver told me, jabbing his hand in the direction of a few trees and a cracked breezeblock wall.  "But I like water polo and boxing," he grinned. "Our football is shit."  It was, it appeared, a widely held view: while the national team has drawn three out of four meetings with England, beaten Wales and Switzerland and made it as far as the play-offs for Euro 2012, the Montenegrin First League - the top tier of domestic club football since the country narrowly voted for independence from Serbia in 2006 -  is among the worst supported competitions anywhere in Europe, its average attendance of 555 only very slightly higher than the numbers who regularly watch Workington in the seventh-tier Evostik Premier League.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the First League's international reach is as low as its crowd figures, UEFA currently ranking it between the top-flights of Luxembourg and Lithuania and none of its title holders ever progressing through the second qualifying round of the Champions League. Only Buducnost Podgorica have made any kind of impact elsewhere, twice finishing sixth in the Yugoslav First League, where they played between 1975 and the departure of clubs from four of its member nations in 1991-92. Buducnost supplied three of the 18 players that won the 1987 World Youth Championship for Yugoslavia, Predrag Mijatović going on to win 73 caps and score the only goal of the 1997-98 Champions League Final for Real Madrid.  Another former Buducnost midfielder, the sublimely talented but temperamental Dejan Savicevic, had already won the competition twice with Red Star Belgrade and AC Milan.

Despite the plastic Red Star and Partizan balls hanging outside tourist kiosks and the occasional foreign ultra symbol stickered on a wall, Kotor is no great football city.  Formed in 1922, Bokelj had never been higher than the second tier of Yugoslav football and played in the shadow of a water polo team that won a national league and cup double in 1986.  When Montenegro broke away from Serbia - Savicevic prominent among those who urged an independence vote -  Kotor's footballers were placed in the Second League, winning promotion through a play-off in 2007 and drawing 0-0 at Rudar Pljevlja in their first ever top flight game. Two years later, Primovac Kotor won the Euro League in water polo and Bokelj - relegated after a single season - could only finish sixth in the second flight. "Even the smallest child here knows the rules of the sport," the leader of Petrovac's Bestije 1986 ultras told Water Polo World after watching his team lose another Euro League final in 2010.  Bokelj, meanwhile, played a single season in the First League between 2008 and 2013 and were even outshone by provincial neighbours Grbalj, two-time qualifiers for the UEFA Intertoto Cup.

The Stadion pod Vrcem is in the decidedly untouristy Skaljari district, by an abandoned hotel with no windows and bushes sprouting from its roof tiles, a few open-fronted snack stands and a space for coach drivers to park up while their tour groups are busy elsewhere.  The entrance is along an unmarked concrete path which skirts and then crosses a stream.  "Two euro," asks a bloke seated at a plastic garden table.  "Cheap," I say, inanely.  A rusting gate opens on to the single concrete-stepped stand, where a few early arrivals are sitting on chunks of polystyrene and folded up carboard while tipping packets of nuts into their mouths.  There are no floodlights or toilets that I can see and the only cover is a corrugated oblong just about big enough for five people to squeeze under. The terrace ends abruptly by a grassed over rubble heap three-quarters of the way to the corner flag.  'Bokelj Zivi Vjecno' (Bokelj Live Forever), reads a board behind one goal.  At the other end of the pitch, the top deck of a cruise liner protrudes above the tree cover. "Hey Kotor," claps a kid in a Fidel Castro t-shirt before returning to his phone.

Five games into the third and final round of the 33-game season, Bokelj are in an unprecedented fourth position and are just about holding off FK Sutjeska Nikšić for a place in next season's Europa League.  The visitors, Rudar, were bankrolled  to two league titles and three Montenegrin Cups by a family of drug smugglers before Darko Saric, "the cocaine king of the Balkans" was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Serbian court.  This season, perhaps coincidentally, they're well adrift of the leaders in third.  When the two teams clatter down a metal staircase for kick off there are between 4-500 paying spectators, including a smattering of Wags in summer dresses, a family who turn up with house cushions and a dozen or so fans in replica shirts with a drum and four flags that they sellotape to the fence.  "Bravo!" they chorus as a home defender goes in for a tackle and wins his team a throw, though the type of pinged crossfield passes that would leave Steven Gerrard and an English crowd purring go completely unremarked.  The small contingent of police pass round a bottle of water, the drum hangs unaccompanied and its owner leisurely drags on a cigarette as the sides pass the ball around in the sun.  When the PA announces the score at another game there's a half-hearted cheer while the bloke next to me checks his betting slip for the time of the goal.  He's no sooner scrunched it up in disgust than Dejan Đenić, a much travelled Serbian formerly of club sides in Slovenia, Holland, Azerbaijan, Lithuania and Poland, stoops to head in for Bokelj.  "Dobre!" one of the Wags claps enthusiastically.  The next biggest cheer of the half is when the sun finally dips behind the mountains and there's no more need for everyone to screen their eyes.

After the interval I'm flanked by a chain smoker in a Royal Marines Commando hoodie and a bloke decked out in Real Madrid tracksuit top and bottoms.  "Luka Modric has football intelligence," he says, among several other things that aren't quite so similar in English and Serbo-Croat.  I'm more interested in Rudar's Ryota Noma - one of only two players not from Serbia or Montenegro - who wears number 2 but darts and hustles about in attacking midfield, dropping short passes into feet that are rarely if ever returned in the direction of his run. Bokelj have a shot tipped away and several heads pop over a fence dividing the far side of the pitch from what looks like a semi-dilapidated hospital building to see what's going on.  For all the attempted promptings of their Japanese playmaker, the visitors manage little until ten minutes from the end, a goalbound poke kept out by the keeper's legs before a follow up swipe is hacked unceremoniously away.  The fourth official raises a board showing three minutes of time added on; a home player immediately goes down with cramp while a second is substituted off.  The whistle blows, everybody roars and the players come across to salute the packed stand.  "Bravo!" shout a pair of fans in the colours of the water polo team.  With Mladost Podgorica on the brink of a second title, and runners-up Budocnost playing Rudar for the Montenegrin Cup, Bokelj, little Bokelj, are just five games away from a first ever trip to Europe. 

Admission: €2
Date:  Saturday May 7th 2016

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.