Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Football Art: Bob Stokoe

Metres from the away turnstiles at Sunderland's Stadium of Light, Bob Stokoe stands forever immortalised as he was when the final whistle blew on May 5th 1973: clad in trilby hat and tracksuit bottoms, arms outstretched and coat-tails flapping as he raced to congratulate goalkeeper Jim Montgomery, his grin widening with every step across the Wembley turf. “I should pack it all in," he said after his second division team had beaten Leeds 1-0 to lift the FA Cup. "There’ll never be another moment like this."

Born on the banks of the Tyne at Mickley in Northumberland, 1973 wasn't Stokoe's only Wembley success. Eighteen years earlier he played at centre-half - given the job of stopping a deep-lying centre-forward by the name of Don Revie - in the Newcastle United side that defeated Manchester City 3-1 to lift the FA Cup. Stokoe made over 250 appearances for the Magpies before moving to Bury in February 1960, helping his new club to the Third Division title as Newcastle were relegated from the First.

After managing Bury, Charlton, Rochdale, Carlisle and Blackpool, Stokoe returned to the north-east to take charge at Sunderland, who were fourth-bottom of the Second Division and on a run of only four wins in eighteen games. "Once you’ve had that funny feeling that football gives up here," he later said, "nowhere else seems to matter."

Sunderland improved to sixth and won the FA Cup at the end of his first season, their first major honour in almost forty years. A Second Division title came in 1976, but the following season, winless after nine games and with fans chanting for Brian Clough, Stokoe resigned, blaming ill-health. He returned to Roker Park as caretaker-manager in Spring 1987, too late to prevent Sunderland being relegated to the Third Division, and retired from management immediately afterwards. Remaining in football, he scouted for a Chelsea side managed by Ian Porterfield, scorer of the winning goal against Leeds. "I have had lots of offers, like working in sports shops or becoming a publican," Stokoe once recalled, "but football is the only thing that matters to me."

When he died in 2004, Stokoe's funeral was attended by fans of both Newcastle United and Sunderland. A fitting epitaph to a north-east football legend.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Ground 150: The Oval, Glentoran

"Why Glentoran?" a Linfield fan asks me. "Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous." The taxi driver laughs as he takes our fare. "Glentoran - Donegal Celtic? Hope you're not expecting much in the way of football there, lads," he says, shaking his head. "You'd have been better off staying in the bar."

Just weeks after receiving a winding-up order over an unpaid tax bill of nearly £300,000, Glentoran are in a complete mess off the pitch, with overall debts reported to be over £1 million and rising. But recent rumours of a mystery benefactor and Linfield's defeat at Cliftonville have given the fans something positive to talk about, and with ticket vouchers for the Big Two derby ("Bigger than Rangers against Celtic," one Glentoran fan insists) on offer to early arrivals a queue's already formed as we pull up outside the turnstiles.

We've been sent a list of bars but can't find anything around the stadium except for parked cars, semi-detached houses and a stall selling t-shirts and pin badges. With an hour to kick-off, our last remaining option is the Fonacab Lounge inside the main stand. "Have you not got Guinness on tap?" I ask the barman. "Sorry, only in small bottles," he says, pouring it with a head so large it almost reaches the top of the glass. I'm still fighting my way through the foam when two representatives of the Spirit of 41 fundraising committee enter the room. "We don't know any more than you do about this benefactor," says Simon Kitchen, committee member and Business Development Manager for Fonacab, the club's main sponsor. "We're here to talk about the money we've raised so far. We've got over £13,000 but there's a £2,500 electricity bill upstairs right now, and if it's not paid next week, the lights go out and we don't have any more games." "The board should be here to answer our questions," says someone at the bar. "We all know what got us in this mess," replies another voice. "The board and the fans want success and they overspent chasing it." "We're hoping to have £25,000 by January 1st," Kitchen tells the room. "Let's hope this benefactor guy's for real," someone says. "Cos if he isn't, we won't have a club to support."

Not even their biggest enemies would welcome that. "Much as I hate them, the Glens would leave a big hole in Northern Irish football if they went bust," a Linfield fan told me. "They've been trying to compete with us financially, but keeping up is killing them." Twenty-three times Irish League champions, Glentoran were founded in 1882, their red, green and black colours taken from the blazers of Dublin's Phoenix Cricket Club, whose players were touring Belfast at the time. Danny Blanchflower, Jimmy McIlroy, Billy Bingham and, more recently, ex-Hull City winger Stuart Elliott and Dunfermline's Andy Kirk all started their careers at the club. In the 1967 European Cup the Glens held Benfica to a goalless draw at the Stadium of Light, becoming the first ever club to exit the competition on away goals; seven years later they lost to Borussia Mönchengladbach over two legs in the quarter-final of the Cup Winners' Cup.

Donegal Celtic didn't exist when Eusebio played at the Oval. Founded in 1970, but denied entry into the Irish League until the Equality Commission took up their case in 2002, DC have spent the last few years yo-yoing between the top two leagues ("They're still not up to this division but they'll be much too good for the one below," I was told in the bar at Solitude). With just four wins from eighteen games, the away side sit deep, content to let Glentoran do what they can with the ball. Nothing happens in the first thirty minutes, but then a Donegal shot strikes the base of the post and an ugly tackle near the halfway line leads to at least three players being shoved to the ground, one being dragged back by his throat, and the referee, to everyone's surprise, producing just a single yellow card.

The home fans get increasingly frustrated, and a misplaced backheel brings a collective groan of dismay. "For fuck's sake lads, we've got no shape," someone shouts. "There's no urgency!" "Come on Glens, do something." Fifteen minutes have gone in the second half when the game's finally settled by a moment of class from Matty Burrows (shortlisted for FIFA's Goal of the Year after doing this to Portadown), who scampers onto a through ball, takes one look up, and calmly lifts his shot over the retreating goalkeeper's head.

With Belfast's recent snowfall, Glentoran's next major fixture is likely to come in the Royal Courts of Justice on January 13th. Football fans everywhere should hope it doesn't end in defeat.

Admission: £10
Date: 12th December 2010

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Ground 149: Solitude, Cliftonville

The last time I was in Belfast I shared a plane with the Newcastle United first team squad, watched a young Steve Guppy turn various shades of puce, and got to see Kevin Keegan and a pissed-up George Best kick a ball around the same pitch. There was nothing quite as dramatic this time, though after two rainswept weekends and the heaviest snowfall in more than thirty years I finally got to see a live game of football, which was enough of a feat in itself.

Half past seven on Cliftonville Road and an armoured police Land Rover blocks off the street as the Linfield coaches finally arrive. "The police only let them bring 500 supporters," a Cliftonville fan tells me. "It's two miles from Windsor Park but they all had to meet there at 6 o'clock and they've been taken around half of Belfast to make sure they don't get here until now." Despite the precautions, the atmosphere between the two sets of supporters is significantly less hostile or menacing than at most high-profile games in England. "There's no sectarianism in Northern Ireland football nowadays," a group of Cliftonville and Linfield fans had told me before we left the city centre. "There are only a few people who still cause problems and they never go to the games anyway."

In the spirit of neutrality we split up outside the turnstiles, one of us heading for the home end while I join the Linfield fans behind the far goal. After trying one of the famous Solitude burgers (70% bread bun, 20% boiled onion and 10% something I wouldn't like to guess at), I find a seat that has a perfect view of a wire fence and a large green emergency exit sign. "The left back's brilliant," a Linfield fan starts telling me as the teams come out from the opposite stand. "He was at Leicester but he got homesick. The right back was at Forest for a while and one of our midfielders came back from Dundee United." "Is homesickness a big problem for Northern Irish players?" I ask. "Seems to be," he shrugs, "but that's good for us."

Both sides go into the game on the back of cup defeats to Glentoran, but Linfield - five points clear at the top of the league - are looking more confident in possession of the ball. An early shot's deflected just wide of goal, another hits the side netting, and a free-kick - "our most accurate in years," in the words of the fan sitting next to me - strikes the top of the bar. When the goal eventually comes, though, it's at the other end of the pitch. A disputed free-kick is headed down in front of goal and Kieran O'Connor smashes the ball past Alan Blayney. "Can you hear the Linfield sing?" two sides of the ground ask. "Poor referee, isn't he?" sighs a voice in the row behind. "Aren't they always?" someone else replies.

The Blues come back, equalising from a corner that smacks against an outstretched leg and trickles over the line. "That's our most accurate corner in years too," laughs my neighbour. "What do you reckon so far?" he asks at half-time. I mumble something about League 1. "We're usually a bit better than this," he says.

The second half follows the same pattern as the first. Linfield have three good chances before the home side take the lead. A stray boot connects with the side of a Cliftonville player's face and Ciaran Caldwell sends Blayney the wrong way from the spot. The Reds have a goal disallowed for offside, Linfield have a player sent off, and midway between the two John Connolly, Cliftonville's keeper, scores his side's second penalty and third goal of the night. It's all too much for some in the away end. At the final whistle one fan slams his foot into the back of an advertising hoarding four times while holding his trousers up with one hand and waving the other in the direction of the pitch. "Don't you go shaking his hand," someone shouts from the back of the stand as the players approach the referee.

"We've been in a rut," Cliftonville chairman Gerard Lawlor says after the game, "and we're delighted because we've beaten the champions tonight." "Keep playing like that and you'll be challenging yourselves," replies Linfield's Jim Kerr. Downstairs in the social club, Cliftonville and the handful of Linfield fans who escaped being herded back on to buses mix together at the bar. "There's no problem between us, we're just football fans," someone laughs. "Besides, we both hate Glentoran more." The ribbing Linfield boss David Jeffrey receives through the window a few minutes later suggests that's not a view shared by everyone.

Admission: £10
Date: 10th December 2010

Friday, 26 November 2010

Winter 1 Football 0

The weekend call-offs came one after another, with the awful, hope-sapping regularity of Conservative gains on election night. Ashington, Tow Law, Chester-le-Street, Esh Winning. The afternoon pitch inspection at Sunderland RCA took just long enough for the referee to spot the five inches of snow that was piled on top of the ground. Gilford Park's long awaited first 'home' game of the season was postponed at 8am, with fifty Newton Aycliffe fans about to set off by bus for Gretna. West Auckland were still officially hopeful - "there's an inch of snow on the field but underneath it is soft and playable" - until another four came down during the night. Hebburn Town and North Shields dug out their long-sleeved shirts and made it as far as half past ten - by which time the Wearside League's fixtures page had gone as blank as Nick Clegg's conscience and the Northern Football Alliance was down to its last five games.

Boldon CA, Friday afternoon. Chances of play "looking a bit slim".

The sun was out at Villa Park. But at one o'clock, as Marouane Chamakh sliced a shot wide of goal, Cullercoats Custom Planet finally bowed to the inevitable.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Places I Have Been: Suwon's Big Bird

In 2002, after a full year in Daejeon and seven months of purgatory on the north-eastern edge of Seoul, I moved to Ansan, an industrial town near the west coast of Gyeonggi Province that was best known for having one of the capital city's largest concentrations of massage parlours-cum-brothels. Probably explains why it was twinned with Las Vegas.

As the crow flies, my closest K-League team was Suwon Samsung Bluewings. Unfortunately, I was reliant on Seoul Subway Lines 1 and 4, which took considerably longer to cover the same distance. Bankrolled by electronics giant Samsung, in footballing terms Suwon - twice K-League winners, holders of the AFC Champions League, and with World Cup semi-finalist Lee Woon-jae keeping goal - were the real deal. As a Newcastle United fan, I was never going to feel very comfortable there.

I went to the Suwon Big Bird Stadium three times: to see the host nation's 1-0 win over Australia in the 2001 Confederations Cup, Spain knock out Ireland on penalties in the World Cup's round of 16 (the only Spanish fan I saw that night was a Londoner with a nylon flag) and, just once, to see the Bluewings themselves. Always one of Korea's best supported teams (their Grand Bleu fan club claims to have 30,000 members), they almost managed to fill all 43,000 multi-coloured seats in the immediate post-World Cup euphoria (slightly more than I'd seen at the Suwon Civil Stadium earlier in the year).

A few weeks later I travelled eight hours by bus to see Daejeon lose at Ulsan Hyundai. I always did feel better around mediocrity.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Rain Stops Play

For the second Saturday running, my chances of seeing a live game of football were thwarted by the weather. I'd feared as much since five in the morning, when I was woken by the sound of rain pattering against the windowpane and gurgling noisily out of the drainpipe below. Although it had eased to nothing more than drizzle (in Newcastle terms, that is) by half twelve, a second downpour as I left the platform at Walkergate got so heavy I risked public humiliation by putting an umbrella up halfway (things would have been worse back in Jarrow, where a relative once refused to stand near me in a pub because I'd been wearing a scarf - in the middle of December).

The game had just been called off. The goalnets were still pegged up and the team names - East End and Newcastle University Firsts - chalked on a board outside the pavilion door. The only sporting event actually taking place, though, was a rugby training session on the far side of the field which, out of sheer desperation, I watched for all of ninety seconds. Starting back for the Metro, I passed two chip shops, a plastic tube and fittings plant and several of the kind of puddles an Olympic steeplechase runner might expect to encounter after clearing a hurdle. Umbrellas, unfortunately, don't do much to cover your feet.

Next week, weather permitting, I'll stick with the ten-minute walk to Boldon C.A.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Called Off

After a twenty-minute walk from a Metro station and several wrong turns around a housing estate, I eventually managed to track down the entrance to the Bohemian Ground, home of (breathe in) Gosforth Bohemian Garnett Amateur Sports Club (and out) exactly one minute after the appointed two o'clock kick off time. There was a padlock on the gate, a bit of mud around the pitch and not a single sign that a football match was taking place anywhere (the fact that no-one could be heard screaming the words 'squeeze' or 'lino' should have already, if I'm honest, given the game away). Not even a goalpost.

A dog cocked its leg over the sign for the sports ground, and a man across the road eyed me suspiciously as he trundled a mower around his postage-stamp lawn. I shrugged, went back home and sat through Newcastle's goalless draw with Fulham on a live internet stream that required more of my attention than the game did itself. "Not enough width," I sneezed after five minutes. Nothing had changed after ninety.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Ground 148: Harton & Westoe Miners' Welfare

I won't bore you with the history of South Shields United - mainly because they don't have one. Founded and managed by Gareth Allen (described in Ian Cusack's Village Voice as "Humpty Dumpty with Tourette's"), they were promoted out of the Northern Alliance league's bottom division in only their second season, and ended last year as Durham FA Minor Cup winners and beaten finalists in the Dave Foster Cup. Heady days indeed.

After moving between council and community centre pitches, United have settled at the Harton & Westoe Miners' Welfare ground, which they share with Simonside FC. An 8-2 win over Peterlee Town in their last home game has attracted a crowd of nine, with an extra three on the balcony during breaks in the bingo. At Level 12 of the National League System, this is the lowest level of football I've seen since England played Algeria.

Hampered by the pitch, Shields play a modified version of what FC United of Manchester manager Karl Marginson calls 90-90 football: 90% of their play comes down the left of midfield and 90% of their passes go out for a throw in. Heddon, more famous for starting the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak, have a penalty appeal turned down ("Blatant," admits Allen) before the home side take the lead. A crossfield pass is cut back into the centre where a diving header smacks the ball beyond the keeper. "What a good goal, what a good goal," purrs the man in the Heddon manager's coat who's standing on my right.

He's not so happy with the second. A shot hits the base of the post, the rebound is hacked off the line, and the ball goes in at the third attempt. "It was offside in the second line or whatever you call it," he says to his mate. "Yer watch too much telly ye, man."

"Two-nil's a horrible score," consoles the Heddon manager in his half-time team talk. "They won't know whether to go for it or to sit back. The next goal's massive." The players listen silently - then concede a third with the first attack of the half. A free-kick is nodded down and Heddon's keeper hits the ground like an imploding smokestack, only to find the ball's already crossed the line. "Dear me, lino, that was never a free kick," says one Heddon supporter. "Are you from South Shields?" asks another.

Heddon score from a corner, Shields hit the bar with only the keeper to beat, the sun drops below the starter homes behind the far goal. "They're trying to play impossible balls," says the Heddon fan as a last-minute through ball goes out for a goalkick.

Admission: Free
Date: 6th November 2010

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Places I Have Been: Daejeon Citizen

The Hanbat Stadium. Do the shake and vac.

The first time I saw Daejeon Citizen they lost 2-0 to Busan in front of a four-figure crowd on a city-owned sandpit. "Bit crap this, isn't it?" said the Darlington fan I'd gone with as the Daejeon defence launched an aimless ball in what looked to be the general direction of the corner flag. We were given scarves and interviewed for the programme midway through the second half. Foreign fans of provincial K-League teams were unsurprisingly thin on the ground.

The club had been founded under the catchy slogan "Along With Citizens With New and Fun Soccer!" but there wasn't very much that was new or fun about losing every week. Eight of the league's other nine teams were bankrolled by a chaebol, the powerful family-run conglomerates that still dominate the Korean economy. The ninth, Seongnam Ilwha Chunma, were funded by Sun Myung Moon, revered by his followers as the second coming of Christ. Daejeon, two years old and with only a local construction company behind them, never stood a chance, finishing the season with six wins and eighteen defeats from their twenty-eight games.

The Purple Crew

A lot can change in two and a half years. By the time I left Korea an out-of-shape Dalian Atkinson had come and (thankfully) gone. Kim Eun-jung, the club's star forward, went blind in one eye and scored the only goal of the 2001 Korean FA Cup Final. Choi Eun-sung had made Guus Hiddink's 23-man World Cup squad in the vital role of third choice keeper, and Daejeon were now half-filling the Purple Arena, the 40,000-capacity stadium where Italy had lost to an Ahn Jung-hwan header (or the referee, if you were Italian).

That season they played twenty-seven and won just one.

Possibly Alan Shearer's first recorded mention in a Korean football programme.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Ground 147: Monkchester Recreation Ground, Walker Central

Newcastle United's Shola Ameobi, Gateshead midfielder Kris Gate and Carlisle's ex-Hamilton striker Richard Offiong are just three of the Walker Central players who graduated to the professional game. The club was founded by ex-Newcastle scout Brian Clark and his namesake Lee, the Newcastle and Fulham midfielder turned Huddersfield manager, in 1988 to provide football for young players in Newcastle's economically deprived East End. Northern Alliance Premier Division champions in 2001, 2008 and 2009, this season has been more of a struggle for the men's senior team - one of 20 male and female sides playing under the Walker Central name - who started the afternoon fourteenth in the league, 22 points adrift of runaway leaders Alnwick Town.

Defending champions Harraby Catholic Club, footballing representatives of "Carlisle's most exciting hotspot", bookended Walker's title wins with two of their own, though an indifferent start to the season has left them fifth. When we arrive they're finishing off a game of bibs versus strips in the goalmouth while the referee has a chat with his linesmen in the centre circle. A rust-spotted railing and some pavement stones go round the pitch, when the teams finish warming up the equipment is locked in the same portakabin where the dugouts are kept, and every time the ball goes out a player has to wade through knee-high undergrowth to retrieve it.

Harraby have a goal struck off when a forward strays offside but take the lead when a pull back finds an unmarked player on the edge of the box. "You've got to track him, man," a defender shouts. The response from his teammate is measured: "Fuck off, you. You're the same every week. You're shite." Harraby shoot against the outside of the net and have another goal disallowed before Walker have a chance to regroup. With no support from midfield, their one man up front manages enough flicks and feints to look reasonably promising, but you get the impression he could play for another 48 hours before threatening to score a goal.

Walker throw a second man forward after half time and try playing the ball through the centre of midfield. It's Harraby who still look the most likely to score, though - not least when Walker's keeper, whose handling has been jittery all game, fumbles a catch and scoops it onto the bar. "Push on!" comes the shout from the touchline, but the only chance the home team get is struck wildly into branches over by the corner flag.

With planning permission for a 50-seater covered stand and floodlights to be erected, the situation looks more promising off the pitch than on it for Walker. Their eventual aim is promotion to the Northern League. In the meantime they'll keep looking for the next Ameobi.

Admission: Free
Date: 30th October 2010

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Being There: Newcastle Awaydays '94-'97

Geordies in Antwerp, 1994.

The Harbour At Monaco, 1997.

London away: Lads on a Tube train.

Flag at Anderlecht, August 1996.

Las Ramblas, the morning after Barcelona vs Newcastle United.

Between bars in Antwerp, 1994.

The Fanzine Seller. Half Mag Half Biscuit on sale outside Highbury.

Mobile Ticket Office. Halmstads BK, UEFA Cup 1996.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Ground 146, GER Stadium, Marske United

Saturday afternoon, one minute to three, and I'm standing in the rain at a place called Mount Pleasant. "Just a shower," a Marske fan says, looking upwards at a black cloud that stretches all the way to the sea. "It'll blow over in a minute."

Hemmed in by back gardens on two sides and a conifer hedge on a third, the shelter at Marske's GER Stadium comes in the form of a wooden stand and metal lean-to along one touchline. There's a wonky sign with 'Marske United F.C.' written in capitals, a blue and yellow flag flapping around in the wind, and a banner reading 'Passionate about steel' tied to one of the scaffolding poles that form a fence around the pitch. And rain, of course. Lots of rain.

It's the fourth time I've seen Birtley this season and it's their most listless start so far. Marske are given plenty of space to work the ball around, but with both their forwards dropping deep they lack any threat closer to goal. Birtley don't have much possession but are far more direct with the ball, taking a surprise lead with their first real attack of the afternoon. Stuart Nicholson, once a Premier League subsititute with West Bromwich Albion, runs between two sleeping defenders, controls a pass from his own goalkeeper, and jabs the ball in with his second touch. "Shite game, isn't it?" says a Birtley fan at the end of the half.

Everything changes in a five-minute period after the teams come back out. Marske equalise quickly and take the lead when the goalkeeper's down too slowly to a free kick that's curled low around the wall. He redeems himself by palming a shot onto the post as Birtley try to push forward and Marske catch them on the break. A Birtley player blocks a shot on the line, Marske get the ball mixed up in their feet when it looks easier to score, while at the other end Nicholson beats the keeper but squeezes his shot past the post. Birtley's physio cups a cigarette behind the dugout, children play three-on-four behind the goal his team are attacking, oblivious to what's happening on the pitch.

For all Birtley's effort they rarely look like scoring and it's Marske who kill the game with four minutes left. A run and cross from Karl Charlton, scorer of the second goal, is tapped in by a substitute as Birtley's defenders struggle to get back. "We could have won that six or seven," says a Marske fan at the final whistle. His team go third after three league wins in a row, while Birtley's loss is tempered by the fact they've already gained more points than in the whole of last season. "We just didn't have the fitness in the second half," says one of their players after the game. It might be Stuart Nicholson's last - on Tuesday he starts a trial at Hereford United.

Admission: £4
Date: 23rd October 2010

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Ground 145: Meadow Park, Sunderland RCA

Two red and white stands, a red and a white welcome sign, red and white strips, a red and white badge, red and white programme cover and red and white railings around the pitch - the address isn't the only thing that gives Sunderland RCA's footballing allegiances away. Scarves are on and hoods go up for the first round of the Durham Challenge Cup. "Bloody freezing, isn't it?" says someone disappearing through the red portakabin door that leads into the bar and snack counter.

There are three corners and a goal in the first five minutes, all to RCA. Ryton, last season's beaten finalists, have had to slash their playing budget after failing to find a sponsor and have lost their last two away games 7-0 and 8-1. Their manager stands with his arms folded across his chest, his assistant repeating every instruction with a half-second delay: "Keep your heads up", "Howay lads, we're miles off them, "Push up" and "On his feet." The goalkeeper takes the last one too literally and unwisely attempts a tackle on the edge of the area. As a defender races back to cover, the forward turns in two movements and leisurely chips the ball over his head.

The third clanks in off a post, the fourth comes when a player drifts past a half-challenge and puts the ball into the space the keeper, edging across his line, has just left behind him. The Ryton bench goes silent. "They'll go to pot if they let another one in before half time," my brother says.

Half time comes and goes, Ryton hold on and have a long-range shot spectacularly tipped away. They should score once, maybe twice, but instead allow a single attacker to squeeze the ball through eight defenders and another to spin it into the net. Job done, Sunderland take off their scorers and play two centre-halves up front. We're into time added on before they score a sixth, but they still find time to hit the post and blaze a shot over the bar. "Can't be much fun," says an RCA fan, "getting howked like this every game."

Admission: £4
Date: 19th October 2010

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Ground 144: Galabank, Annan Athletic

There's a crowd of 517 at Galabank for Annan Athletic versus Albion Rovers, fourth plays first in the third division of the Irn-Bru Scottish League. This total includes a West Bromwich fan bemoaning the price of tickets in the Premier League ("Forty quid they were asking for us at Old Trafford") and two people I saw waiting for the 9.24 train all the way back in Newcastle. Albion have been involved in Scottish professional football for more than eighty years, Annan, who played in the Carlisle and District League until 1976, for just over two. In 2008 they beat Cove Rangers 17-12 in the third round of voting to replace Gretna, nine miles and one stop away on the train between Glasgow and Carlisle. It shows in their ground: next door to a carvan park and camping site, there's nothing but hard standing on three sides of the pitch and a road opposite the only stand. The players get changed in a room next to the bar and come out of a yellow canvas tunnel. The away fans' tea hut is in a garden shed.

We drink in the railway station bar and the Blue Bell Inn, buy fish and chips in the building where Robert Burns wrote The Deil's Awa' Wi' Th' Exciseman, and pass the public park where Gretna 2008 started out in the East of Scotland First Division. Sightseeing over, we arrive at the ground just in time to beat a coachload of Albion fans to the bar. The clubhouse walls are covered with old team photos, Sky Sports is on mute, and you can see the pitch through a metal grille on the window.

"We love the Rovers, we do," sing the Albion fans as the match gets underway and a pass goes over the road and bounces in some trees. Annan's young goalkeeper makes a one-handed save, tips a goalkick away for a corner, and picks a shot up off his feet before Annan take the lead with their first real attempt of the game.

The theme from the A-Team plays as Albion run out for the second half, but it's Annan's plan that comes together while I'm still waiting in the queue for a lukewarm Bovril. Aaron Muirhead crosses, a wall blocks my view, and then the crowd go up and Muirhead pumps his fist in the air. Albion score from a corner, Annan knock a third in off the post and bring on their new Spanish forward, who comes from Almeria via a loan spell at Raith. A defender's knee stops a fourth goal, but then Albion's goalkeeper loses out in a tackle, the ball goes sideways and Chris Jardine pings it into the still unguarded net.

Only a single goal from Stranraer keeps Annan off the top of the league.

Admission: £9
Date: 16th October 2010

Galabank looking good.

And not so good.

Albion bring their big men up for the corner.