Friday, 13 November 2015

Football Art: Brian Clough in Albert Park

"I was the kid who came from a little part of paradise, to me it was heaven. Everything that I've done, everything I've achieved, everything I can think of that has directed and affected my life - apart from the drink - stemmed from my childhood". 

It was the first weekend of September and summer was barely clinging on in Middlesbrough's Albert Park.  An elderly couple shuffled past the sunlit bandstand,  a bloke was showing his son the South African War Memorial and a cannon captured in the Crimea, and two women traded gossip under the branches of a tree.  "Get away, he never! He'll be alright if they win this afternoon."

A little way off stood another figure, seven-foot high, cast in bronze and with a familiar twist to the mouth.  "I want no epitaphs of profound history and all that type of thing," Brian Clough had once commented. "I contributed - I would hope they would say that, and I would hope somebody liked me."  Three years after his death, and over three and a half decades since he'd left his hometown club, there were enough there who still liked him to make up over half of the £65,000 a statue in his honour had cost.  "It's in recognition of one of the greatest people to ever come from Middlesbrough," said the chairman of the fund-raising committee.  "There was a deep reservoir of feeling for Cloughie in this town and they don't want him to be forgotten".

Clough, Albert Park and football went back a very long way.  It was there that Middlesbrough had played their very first matches, using the archery strips for pitches until they were kicked out for making a mess of the grass.  Born on one side of the park at 11 Valley Road, he would, wrote Jonathan Wilson, "race home from school every night, change into old clothes and then dash (straight there) to play football or cricket".  Later, even after moving from games with Acklam Iron and Steelworks Athletics to a professional contract, he'd return to the playground of his youth with a wheelbarrow and cart wallflowers home to his mother's garden.  "We spent many sunny days in ths park, so it's really appropriate that it's here," thought Clough's widow when the statue was unveiled in May 2007.

"When Clough left for Sunderland, the town wept," Daniel Gray wrote in  Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters, his magnificent account of football in England's lesser-visited provinces.  "The only thing I enjoyed during my six years there was scoring goals," Clough recollected in 1973. "From Saturday to Saturday I was very unhappy.  My ability was never utilised, by me or the management.  Only goals kept me sane.  That was my only pleasure."  Nonetheless, the man always remembered the place that had shaped him. "Wherever we went, Brian made sure everybody knew he was from Middlesbrough," his widow said. "I think if his success as a manager had happened here, that would have been his ideal.  But life is not that perfect."

Unlike the sculpted tributes at Derby and Nottingham, Teesside's Clough is young and lithe.  "Twenty-four and in training gear," wrote Gray, "his boots slung over a shoulder, purposeful, on the way to training or a match".  It's placed on his route from home to Ayresome Park - two pitches' length away from the statue - and now part of a waymarked trail that passes the street where a second managerial genius was raised.  Don Revie left at 17, fleeing poverty and the spectre of the Holgate End workhouse. "He used to talk about taking baths in the sink," said one friend. "It was a poor upbringing and that left him determined that everything went well later on the monetary side".  For all his flaws, Clough was a man of the people, sticking around long enough to become the Holgate's idol and leave behind a legacy of a phenomenal 197 goals in just 213 games. "He would have been absolutely amazed at the very idea of a statue and he would have been so touched at the different ways you have raised the money," his widow told the crowd at Albert Park. "You have done him proud and I thank you from the bottom of my heart". 

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Tow Law's Brazilian and Other Northern League Exotica

Early-November and already the English weather is playing havoc with my Saturday afternoons.  With my planned trip to Dringhouses falling victim to a saturated pitch, here's something I wrote for this afternoon's Jarrow Roofing programme instead.  

When Julio Arca became, as Harry Pearson put it, “the only U20 World Cup winning captain ever to score against Stokesley”, it was far from the first contact between overseas footballers and stalwarts of the Northern League. In August, Fabian Otte, ex-starting goalkeeper for New Zealand's Western Suburbs and formerly of Bayer Leverkusen U23s, turned out for Bedlington Terriers against Whitley Bay, while recent years have seen, among others, Laurent Sanson move from France to Newcastle Benfield, Mateusz Halambiec go from Morpeth Town to the Polish second division, ex-AS Roma junior Matteo Faiola play for Roofing and Bishop Auckland, and Tow Law field Gustavo Silva, the league's first jogador do Brasil. “He knows all about the weather,” Lawyers secretary Steve Moralee promised. “He's trained here in the snow wearing shorts.”

The movement hasn't always been one way. While West Auckland's Lipton Cup exploits are well documented, Bishop Auckland toured Belgium for the first time in the year that West made their inaugural journey to Turin and made it as far afield as Hungary as early as 1912. Jack Greenwell's Barcelona hosted Crook the following season and employed a second ex-Northern League man when Harold 'Collie' Stamper – a 1912 Olympian and FA Amateur Cup winner – joined as a coach from Stockton. Stamper went on to Genoa; Greenwell, more famously, played 88 times for Barca, managed Espanyol and Valencia to league championships and guided Peru to a Copa America title in 1939. “The Peruvians were well served by their English manager, who out-thought Uruguay tactically in the final match,” wrote Andreas Campomar in his magisterial history of the Latin American game.

The Northern League's first foreign-born player was Arthur Wharton. “His father was half-Scottish, his mother was related to the Ghanaian royal family,” wrote the Northern Echo of a pioneer whose career achievements included an FA Cup semi-final and a world record time for the 100-metre sprint. Now recognised as the world's first black professional footballer, the goalkeeper won a Cleveland Challenge Cup with Darlington, was signed by Preston North End and later understudied William 'Fatty' Foulkes at Sheffield United. A less celebrated figure, Billy Charnock was born in Serphukov, 62 miles south of Moscow, to a family of textile factory owners who orginally came from Leek. In addition to playing for Bishop Auckland, Charnock also captained Russia in their first international victory, a 3-0 win over Norway in 1913.

As clubs continued to look outwards – Crook toured Norway in 1962 and lost by a single goal to the Indian national team 14 years later - Northern League imports have arrived from places as seemingly implausible as Atletico Madrid, who supplied Stokesley SC with Asenjo Bravo in 2012, and Japan. "In 1991-92 Durham City registered Yoshinobu Uchida, though the sole surviving reference in print or online merely reveals he was 'from Tokyo, a student at Durham University' ” I wrote in a programme column last year which also referenced the curious case of Yosuke Suzuki's time at Whitley Bay. In 2008, Owen Amos had a piece in When Saturday Comes on Brandon United's BJ Heijmans, “who, by a series of happy accidents, found his home in deepest County Durham”. Amos caught up with Heijmans at a training session: “We play the Dutch way, from the back. We have conceded 63 goals this season, and 50 were from individual mistakes. But we are young, and that will improve.” Among the onlookers that “cold Thursday night” was the Argentine Gus Di Lella, recently sacked as manager by Horden Colliery Welfare. Di Lella is now coaching at Seaham Red Star, who've also recently had a Bulgarian and a New Zealander on their books. Bedlington, of course, have close ties with the USA through president and Buffalo Bisons owner Bob Rich, while Durham City are owned by Olivier Bernard, once of Lyon, Newcastle United and the Champions League.

So next time someone writes disparagingly about the Northern League's insularity and isolationism, remember Heijmans and Wharton, Crook Town playing to 100,000 people in Calcutta, Suzuki, Uchida and the nomadic Jack Greenwell, born in Peases West in 1884 and buried, by way of Italy, Spain, Turkey and Peru, in a Bogota grave that is forever south-west Durham. 

As the rain swept on from York, Roofing's game with West Allotment Celtic was called off with most of the club's volunteer matchday staff midway through a 12-mile charity walk. "Some good stories, anyway," messaged the club's media manager and goalkeeper coach. "Bird shat on me, the secretary slipped on dog shit and we spent 30 minutes in a bus stop sorting out the postponement." The full programme, plus insert, will be on sale for £1.50 at the re-arranged fixture, or via email for whatever you want to pay.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Ground 282: The Outgang, Heslington

Since moving south in mid-September, almost all of my non-league exploration has taken place in the York Minster Engineering League, a five-division 57-team competition whose top-flight has recently been lifted to Step 7A of the National League System.  "I'm still not convinced there's anything below Step 6," someone joked when I told him I was off to Osbaldwick last weekend. "I always thought it was just something parents said to naughty children."

This afternoon I'm one division lower: despite a 100% league record and six wins on the bounce in all competitions, Heslington are still 11 promotions and a few hundred million in ground improvements from ever making it on to Match of the Day. While they head the Minster's second-flight by three points, their opponents, Easingwold Town, were relegated with just a single point last season and have lost all three of their league matches so far, throwing into some doubt their status as "the highest ranked team within the Easingwold area".

A few hundred metres south of the University of York, the Outgang's pitch is at one end of Heslington Village - where I find ivy-clad cottages, bank branches and a rotund bloke in a red jumper with Cremonese Football Club sewn across the front - at the top of a leafy turn-off from the main road.  Shared with, amongst others, the city's Civil Service Cricket Club, there's a brick clubhouse, plastic wheelbarrow and children's playground behind the near side goal.  "Come on Heso, from the off," claps the goalkeeper.  "I've managed to get that direct debit sorted," says one Easingwold midfielder to another.  "Our pace, our pace," the manager screams over from halfway.  A dozen or so spectators look on from between ropes; one linesman's wearing a manager's coat and dress shoes, the other, in jeans and a baseball cap, keeps his arms folded as he reluctantly inches up and down the line.  "Hit it!" shouts one player. "Keep the ball," urges another.  An Easingwold player goes down easily as he attempts to hold off a challenge. "Do that in the area and I'll caution you," admonishes the referee, who's handling the game in the manner of a mildly exasperated parent.

Despite their lowly position, the visitors start off marginally the better side. "Listen up, gentlemen," says the referee as they prepare to take a corner.  "No pushing, no pulling and no backing in."  There's a pause.  "That goes for you as well, number nine."  Heslington twice go close to opening the scoring, prompting an enraged "Switch on and get control" from the Easingwold side of the pitch.  The home team are no happier, a defender angrily contesting a throw-in on halfway.  "Are you looking down the line?" asks the ref.  "Eh?" says the player.  "Are you looking down the line?" "Eh?" "Are you looking down the line?" "No." "Then," concludes the ref, in a tone every bit as world-weary as one of Graham Greene's protagonists, "you have no business telling me whether or not it's gone out of play."

The only goal comes after 35 minutes, Easingwold finding the net at the second attempt after a shot comes back off the goalkeeper's stomach.  "Next time get it into row Z," says a player, pointing towards a climbing frame and two plastic horses on springs.  "Right! Everyone fight," rages a defender as he boots the ball angrily back in the air.

"They've earned the right to be ahead," the Heslington manager tells his team at half-time. "It's the first time you've been behind this season.  Now you've got to show them why you're top of the league." "Character," adds a player somewhat unnecessarily.  "Character." Easingwold almost grab a second before Heslington get going, the away keeper juggling a shot which is destined for the top corner before a head knocks it away.  Moments later, the home team smack the crossbar; the next effort, a bit further out, is deflected off a slide.  An Easingwold player drops to the ground. "Get him off," advises a Heslington defender, suspecting a ploy to slow down the game.  "Are you a doctor?" starts the referee.  "Aw come on ref, it gets dark early nowadays," Easingwold's captain intervenes.  Heslington finally bring on a substitute warmed up by 20 minutes of hitting a ball against a fence.  "What's happening?" asks a confused midfielder. "Where are we playing now?"

"Dig in" and "Winners" shout Easingwold's back four as Heslington keep pushing.  "We need a goal," says a player, but for all the home team's industry it just never comes. 

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday October 31st 2015

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Ground 281: The Leyes, Osbaldwick

From cup ties on North Tyneside back to the eastern outskirts of York. Osbaldwick, named after a 27-day king of anarchic Northumbria, spent considerably longer on top of the York Minster League under the princely management of the late Dave Taylor.  In the decade splitting 1984 and 1993, the club carried all before them, lifting ten consecutive championships, two trebles, three doubles, and becoming to the city's non-league scene what Liverpool were to England as a whole pre-Premier League, Alex Ferguson and the return of the managerial miasma otherwise known as Graeme Souness.  "We were pretty much the most hated team in York," Taylor's son recalled.  "Everyone wanted to beat us but we were the best."

The new boss arrived to take over the champions in 1985, stepping down after 12 years and one last title success.  "He used to say it was the players who made it, but it was down to his dedication," another former player remembered. "We played for the man not the club."  It's a club that's fallen a long way since, needing three promotions in four years just to reclaim their place in the Minster League's Premier Division, and winless this season with only two points from the opening five games.  The sixth is at home to Tadcaster Magnets, the green-and-whites another side who've recently risen from the depths but are yet to win in the league, drawing one of four but knocked into minus by a three-point deduction; only the sporting misnomer that are Terrington Glory have been less successful so far.

Osbaldwick's The Leyes is probably the only football ground I can walk to from home via a set of medieval city walls, the remains of a Norman castle and a city centre branch of Greggs.   It has a cricket net behind one goalpost, a pair of pop-up dugouts on the side nearest the scoreboard and bar, and a starting crowd of eight adults, one alsatian and a kid with a kickboard.  "Come on," clap the Magnets. "Get it right from the start," shouts the goalkeeper, his studs clattering repeatedly against a post.

Tadcaster have the first shot, a 30-yard conversion which curves unerringly over the crossbar and straight into a hedge.  I catch fragments of conversation beneath the cliched chatter of players' shouts.  "I'll drop that pizza off for you,"  one bloke says.  "Hold it!  Six there. Six!" screeches a midfielder. "...and it's 1.7 miles from there to Helmsley," the spectator continues, unpreturbed.   The visitors take the lead when a shot cannons off the post, smacks a leg and goes over the line. "We go again," someone yells. "Switch on, sort it out."  Osbaldwick strike back with a shot that clears the bar and heads down the wicket like a fastball from Steven Finn.  "All a bit average," a spectator sniffs.  A minute later, the home side put a penalty against the outside of the post after the goalkeeper crumples an attacker just inside the box.  "Who was playing him onside, liner?" a defender moans.  "You and two others," says a bloke on the touchline. "It's a pity your feet don't go as fast as your mouth."

With the other linesman backed by fallen leaves and garden gates, it's the dugout-side official who bears the brunt of the complaints.  "Why aren't you giving that?" a player asks when the referee correctly signals a free-kick.  "That's three you've got wrong.  Three!" says a Magnets defender only seconds after he again plays a forward onside.  When the embattled official does make a mistake, another player yells "What the fuck are you doing?  What the fucking fuck was that?" from halfway across the pitch.  "There's children here, you know," a spectator tuts aloud.  In between, Osbaldwick have a shot tipped over and the Magnets rattle the bar.  "We're much the better footballing side," the home side's half-time teamtalk begins.  "The keeper's shitting himself.  Up the workrate."

The black-and-whites find the inside of the post and the goalkeeper's arms as they dominate the start of the second half.  "We've got to get on the ball," a Tadcaster player explains, as if his teammates haven't yet grasped the point of the whole game.  With 15 minutes left the home side finally get their leveller. "Bunch of fucking wank," the Tadcaster manager shouts, appealing for a foul.  His team come close to taking an immediate lead, Osbaldwick's keeper turning away a palm-stinger and then watching helplessly as the next attack ends in a shot that crashes off the bar.  The sun comes out for the last ten minutes with Tadcaster playing most of the game in the home team's half.  "Come on, force a mistake," an Osbaldwick fan pleads just before a Magnets player hits the ground.  The free kick goes out wide, is chipped on to a balding player's forehead and ruffles the net like a sea breeze on a windshield.  "Game management," says a spectator, hauling his dog towards the exit. "That's the difference here."

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday October 24th 2015

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Ground 280: West Moor Community Association, Killingworth

Starts don't get any better than consecutive titles in your first two years.  Established in 2007 - a couple of centuries after an engineman at the local colliery started messing around with locomotives - Killingworth steamed straight through the lower echelons of the Northern Football Alliance, collected two Benevolent Bowls and rocketed to a high of third upon arrival in the top-flight. "We've already climbed a few mountains in a short space of time," the club's chairman wrote soon after the blue-and-blacks upscaled from Amberley Park to the West Moor Residents' Association, took the name of a local boozer and hired player-coach Richie Latimer, who brought along the core of a Washington team that had just finished midtable in the second tier of the Northern League, which, league and ground grading points permitting, the Alliance feeds into at the end of each year.

As the afternoons shorten, kick-off times are forced forward in a league where barely any of the clubs have access to floodlights,  making it a 1.30 start for the Northumberland Senior Benevolent Bowl tie against the world-renowned Wallsend Boys.  An early finish isn't all that's guaranteed with the home team's three cup ties this season producing even more goals than Newcastle United's second-half defending.  "We're going to have the tap water tested as I think it's causing a few of our players to go mad," thought chairman Colin Dunn after Killingworth and Birtley St Josephs traded six strikes, three red cards and nine successful penalty kicks last weekend.

I get off the Metro at Palmersville (gratefully leaving behind a bloke in a neighbouring seat who got on at South Jesmond and started brushing his teeth), passing the pitch used by Forest Hall, a "quality award winning" chippy and a stone cottage the Stephensons once lived in before turning left off the Great Lime Road.  The ground's half hidden by a playground and the community centre building, a trestle table at the entrance manned by someone with a Killingworth windcheater and a printed sign.  "A quid in with a programme," he says, which is 50p cheaper than it used to be but without the half-time cup of tea.  Advertising hoardings are hooked over the metal perimeter railing, a blue five-a-side pitch marked out between the white lines.  There's a minute's applause, a flurry of howays, the first of the afternoon's planes rising over the far goal and the clink of a shot on the metal netting shielding the carpark from wayward strikes before Killingworth sidefoot an early first goal calmly inside the post.  "Argh, fucking hell," a Boys Club defender exclaims.

"Up the line," screams one player, "Switch on," another.  "It's a watcher," advises a centre back as a Wallsend winger hares vainly after a crossfield ball.  The Boys Club keeper has a playing style somewhere between Billy Whitehurst and Manuel Neuer, wears canary yellow shorts and possesses a voice twice as deep as the Dogger Bank.  "Time, time," he booms.  "Get out, get out."  Gradually, the game settles:  Wallsend prod and slide to feet, Killingworth hit the channels and charge upfield with intent.  "Can we get it?  Can we get it? Can we play?" asks a home defender, his teammates  distracted by an argument about who should track back.  "It's workrate," someone hollers.  "Not good enough," the people in front of the dugout say.  Fortunately for the out-of-sorts home side, Wallsend prove as potent in front of goal as the 2015 version of Emmanuel Riviere, coming no closer to an equaliser than a dinked free kick that bounces out off the edge of the post.  Right on half time Killingworth double their lead when a set-piece rebounds, veers upwards on the six-yard line and is hammered high into the net.  "Howay man, it's been all us," a Wallsend player moans.

"Switch on," foghorns the Boys Club keeper at the start of the second half.  "Switch on," shouts a defender.  "Switch on," says someone in midfield.  What the away team can't switch are chances into goals until a midfielder finally manages to both time a run and find a forward, the cross slid in while four Killingworth defenders chorus "He's off!"  "Big last 20," comes the inevitable clap but the home team stroke a swift third goal and comfortably see out the rest of a game, scoring a late fourth after the net is reattached to the crossbar by a Boys Club defender teetering on his goalkeeper's shoulders.  Clouds stretch, an express train whizzes by,  "Howay ref, mate," someone pleads as the whistle sounds for yet another free-kick.  Programme or no programme, it's a cracking day out for a pound and the Metro fare.

Admission:  £1 (including eight-page programme)
Date:  Saturday October 17th 2015

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Ground 279: Fitzwilliam Sports Field, Old Malton

Another Non-League Day, and the first I'd been in England for since the whole thing kicked off five years ago on a sunny September day at Birtley Town.   This time I'd traded views of Komatsu diggers, used caravans and the East Coast Main Line for the affluent surroundings of Ryedale Council's HQ,  where 2013-14 York Minster League title winners Old Malton St Marys - "We have been established over 100 years and have a proud history" their website succinctly states - were taking on the Teesside League's Nunthorpe Athletic in the early rounds of the North Riding County Cup.

"What are you going there for?" a bloke in York had asked.  "All they've got are horses and people who like horses, Tories, a market place and a butcher's you can't get parked next to." More promisingly, the Guardian had it down as the food capital of Yorkshire, I found a brewery that promises to let you in for free, there was a book festival and market, and a town sturdily built of brick and stone, banks and independent traders intermingled with the more usual chain stores and charity shops. It's the kind of place given to understatement and conservative values:  "It's mild today," said a bloke outside a stationer's and hobby shop. "Well," cautioned his mate, "I wouldn't say it's cold."

Old Malton's pitch is just past the site of a Roman fort and the Fitzwilliam Estate, separated from the main road by a cricket field, a rehabilitation centre for injured jockeys and a row of chestnut trees.  The far side had a stone path, a rope and a bloke picking up dogshit with a spade, while the seated end was a long bench along the clubhouse wall which had already been monopolised by a pair of flatcapped locals.  The home side were taking turns to piss in the undergrowth as Nunthorpe lined up for a photo.  "Handshakes, please," the referee bellowed.  "Bloody hell, he must be getting assessed," observed one of the flatcaps.

Nunthorpe began with some slick passing and lengthy slides across the grass, the strings being pulled by a player whose midriff was reminiscent of Middlesbrough-era Branco.  "Squeeze up!", "Winner" and "Good man," the home keeper shouted as his team advanced upfield.  Old Malton clanked the post, scooped the ball over with the goal gaping - "He couldn't do that again if he tried," someone laughed - and shanked wide with only the keeper to beat before Nunthorpe took the lead.  "You have to take your chances at this level," a spectator joked.  The home side finally got their goal via the side of a head and threatened a second when a winger cut inside, did two stepovers then unleashed a shot to the dugout side of the corner flag.  "Mark up, back post, know your man early," screamed a defender with pause for neither breath nor punctuation.

At half-time we retreated inside while the Nunthorpe team opted to sit out on the grass.  "We don't do tea," said the barman so I settled on a pint instead, which I was still finishing off when Old Malton St Marys finally took the lead. "On your toes, get it out, game on," breathless urged.  The home side scored a third from a header and a fourth when the entire Nunthorpe defence stopped waiting for a flag. "Could get a bit tasty," a spectator judged, though the closest the away side came to their naughty epithet - "In the 70s the place was famous for wife swapping parties.  They should have a goldfish bowl and a set of car keys on their badge," Harry Pearson reckoned - was a bit of histrionic hand waving from an overweight substitute and a mild rebuke from the goalkeeper for the referee which reminded Harry of a story about a female pitch invader at an Under-11s game in South Shields.  "The bloke who told me about it said she tried to attack the ref.  'Did she catch him?' I asked.  'Nah, she was a bit pregnant'".   As the visitors tired, the home team played through the ever widening gaps in their defence. "They're running but not tracking," a spectator told his mate as a substitute in luminous boots squared the ball to nobody.  When the whistle blew, St Marys headed indoors and Nunthorpe went back to the grass.  "Like naughty schoolboys," someone said as we set off back for the pub.

Admission:  Free
Date: October 10th 2015

Thanks to @MaltonTom for the marvellous hospitality, Harry (@camsell59) for the talk on North Yorkshire Sporting Heroes in the excellent Ryedale Book Festival and @pibarrister & @TillerPop for the company in the first half.  

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Ground 278: New Lane Sports Ground, York Railway Institute

After three months getting ready to move to Oman, a protracted break-up unluckily combined with a recruitment process that managed to be even less proficient than Joe Kinnear  during his ill-starred tenure as Newcastle's director of football. The upshot was I took a job in York.  "Less cash but better beer and more grounds to visit," a mate said consolingly.

In the process, my neighbourhood stadium changed from Yokohama's Nissan International to Acomb's New Lane, home to the 129-year-old York Railway Institute since 1926. The step 11 side were having a summer every bit as turbulent as mine.  "Sporting Life and Strife," reported the York Press following an aborted AGM that attracted 400 of the club's 2,800 members instead of the more usual 20.  Hit with a change on rates relief for Community Amateur Sports Clubs, the directors had voted 7-6 to split the RI into five sections, reducing its overall turnover by enough to avoid a £70,000 annual tax bill. When the members got involved it was soon apparent that many disagreed.  "I'm gratified by the strength of feeling shown," said the club president, "but we must get a solution.  Doing nothing is not an option."

The RI's players had been doing plenty on the pitch, the 11-time York Football League champions winning four and drawing one of their opening half-dozen games.  Their seventh opponents were one of the few with an even better points total, Huntington Rovers the early pacesetters with five wins from eight. Even so, there wasn't much of a build-up: New Lane's gates had notices for a slimming club and a league match played three weeks previously, there was a bouncy castle by an empty rugby pitch and, more promisingly, round balls being skied over  a couple of heaped trestle tables in the clubhouse car park.  "It's a charity thing, innit?" said a bloke, gesturing towards a stack of used toys.

The pitch had a metal rail on three sides and a try line on the other. "Any person caught urinating against this fence will be prosectuted" read a sign while players took turns to piss against a nearby tree.  "Do you want to kick off early?" an RI official shouted across.  "Ref says we can start at five to and it's a few more minutes in the pub."

"Big first 20," clapped RI's manager. "The first 20 minutes are really important so communicate and get stuck in."  "Bit of talking," echoed the keeper before letting off a prolonged burp.  Huntington put the kick-off out for a throw-in then attacked the next time they got the ball.  The home keeper misread the bounce and two seconds later his team were one behind with three minutes played.  "Sorry lads," he said, more quietly this  time.  "We're half asleep," roared a voice from halfway.  We were still inside the "big first 20" when RI's captain rolled the ball to  Huntington player, failed to cut out a pass with his hand, and then watched from the ground as a second goal went in off the post.  "It's alright talking but we're not listening," the keeper pointed out.  Just before half-time, Huntington played all the way through midfield, a forward looping the ball over the goalkeeper and nodding in to the empty net at the other side.  "We go again, don't we?" an RI player said.  "We've got no-one to blame but ourselves."

"We can still win this if we stop arguing and belive," the RI manager said at half-time.  Four minutes later a Huntington forward strolled through the defence and rolled a fourth into the corner of the goal. It briefly spurred the railwaymen on, the number 9 firing a shot in before doing enough to put the keeper off as RI scored a quick second. "The ref's missed three offsides in nine seconds and a clear foul there," a spectator tutted. "The problem is that they come from different areas like the West Riding and they don't...look at that marking at the back!"  He broke off as Huntington cheered their fifth goal. There was a pause.  "Shocking," he finally said.

With time running out and the RI rugby union team seven points to the good on the next-door pitch, the home footballers managed to reduce the gap to two once more.  "Big 10," shouted their manager.  But this time it wasn't.

Date:  Saturday September 26th 2015
Admission:  Free