Monday, 30 August 2010

Ground 129: Brinkburn Road, Darlington Railway Athletic

The second match of our Northern League double-header took us a few miles further down the A68 to Darlington Railway Athletic, where the visitors were promotion favourites and early season table-toppers Guisborough Town.

Arriving early, we watched the cricket on the next-door pitch and did a loop of the paved path that circles the stadium. There are covered stands behind both goals, the bigger one with red plastic seats, the smaller just three wooden railway sleepers.

The home side started like a train (sorry), smacking the bar in the first two minutes. "Lads, we need to wake up," bellowed the Guisborough manager. "This is fucking rubbish," agreed the number three. "Howzat?" roared the fielding team on the cricket pitch, celebrating the fall of yet another wicket.

It took Guisborough until half time to start hitting their stride - forty-five minutes in which Railway, lacking only a final ball, had been marginally the better side. But once the visitors took the lead early in the second half there was only going to be one winner. The second came from a cleverly worked free-kick, taken while the Darlington defence were busy debating whether or not to "Get out", and though Railway eventually pulled a goal back with a shot that squirmed under the keeper's body, they never really looked like adding a second.

Admission: £3 (cheapest in the Northern League)
Date: 30th August 2010

The main stand

One way of discouraging wayward shots

The cheap seats

This is how you photograph a football stand

Checking the teams

Ground 128: Moore Lane Park, Newton Aycliffe

It's August Bank Holiday but only the faintest hint of blue is present in the sky for the twelve o'clock kick-off at Newton Aycliffe. The home side are a club on the up, with a Wearside League title and a ninth place finish in their first ever year in the Northern League, but it's Crook Town who have the history. Five times FA Amateur Cup Winners, they played Barcelona three times in 1913 (winning one and drawing two) at the invitation of ex-player Jack Greenwell, who played for and managed Barca, won the Copa del Rey with Español, and coached Peru to the 1939 South American Championship.

A crowd of 312 has gathered despite the early start. The long main stand, straddling the centre-line, is almost full and Crook's Black and Amber Army have strung their flags across the wooden fence separating the football and cricket pitches. The game is close, temperatures increasing both on and off the pitch as three niggling fouls in a minute earn the Aycliffe captain the first yellow card. But in an otherwise eventless first-half only the kicking of Crook's goalkeeper threatens to put his side in any kind of trouble. "Out your hands, nothing else," orders the bench, and the kick out sails into touch by the dug-outs. "You're better off along the ground, mate," comes the shout from left back. "I'm getting telt two different things here," he complains, with some justification.

Things are just as tight in the second half. Aycliffe take an early lead and are denied a penalty for a blatant trip ("That one was (a foul)," Crook's pantomime-villain centre-half tells the crowd behind the goal) but most of the game takes place above head height. Crook have their chances but it's the home side who finally score again. A long-range shot catches the keeper off his line, sending most of the crowd home smiling and Aycliffe up to second in the league.

Admission: £4
Date: 30th August 2010

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Grounds Without Games: Home Park, Coldstream

A goal kick away from the English border, Coldstream's redeveloped Home Park ground was officially opened by a Newcastle United XI in 1991. "A brilliant and memorable day," as their website still records it. Newcastle fans use the words shambolic, naive and near-catastrophic to describe the rest of Ossie Ardiles's time in charge.

Formed almost one hundred years earlier, the Streamers have been members of the East of Scotland League since its inception in the 1923-24 season, when they won the league for the first and last time. Their Home Park ground is just off the town's main street, between the bowls club and a Universal Fibre Optics plant. There's a clubhouse behind one goalmouth and church spire over the other, the hills of England rolling away in the distance.

Ground 127: Netherdale, Gala Fairydean

Members since 1923 and eight times champions, Gala Fairydean are better known for their attempts to get out of the East of Scotland League than for anything they've done in it. Four times - in 1966, 1994, 2000 and 2002 - they applied to join the Scottish Football League - and four times they missed out. Professional football now seems further away than ever: in 2005 Gala were relegated to Division One, where they've remained ever since.

Visitors Peebles have had a similarly mixed history. After a short-lived spell in the Scottish Football League (they were part of the original Division Three, which ran from 1923 to 1926), they joined the East of Scotland League in the late-1920s and made the Fourth Round of the Scottish Cup twice before falling so low that in the 1982-83 season they were relegated with a goal difference of - 177 from just thirty-four games. Two years ago they almost repeated the trick, finishing a twenty-two game season with a goal difference of -112.

Football doesn't get its own way in the Scottish Borders. The game was switched to Galashiels with just a few days' notice because the local cricket club takes precedence at Peebles' Whitestone Park ("Fixtures are of a liquid format and are liable to change with very short notice," as Gala's website tactfully puts it). And it's the next-door rugby stadium - along with Twickenham, the Millenium Stadium and the Stade de France one of the host venues for the 1999 Rugby World Cup - that you see first as you arrive in Galashiels, closely followed by Peter Womersley's cantilevered main stand, built in concrete in the early-60s and awarded a Category B listing by Heritage Scotland ('Anger Over Listing for 'Soviet' Football Stand,' reported The Scotsman).

At kick-off the crowd was 37, including a dad and two kids having a kickaround behind the goal. The two linesmen had been pressed into service late. One was wearing jeans and had a mobile phone poking out of his jacket pocket. The other, dressed in a white shirt, tie and cardigan, waddled across the pitch to the centre-line, where he stayed for the rest of the game, framed by hoardings for The Auld Mill, Window Doctor, ££ CASH IT IN £££ and the SNP.

The inevitable moment of contention arrived a quarter of an hour in. A turn and shot was blocked in front of goal with the linesman busy checking his watch. "It was in," screamed the Gala bench. "Referee, you have got to have a better view than that." Not that it mattered much. Two minutes later, with one linesman chatting and the other halfway up a grassy bank with his back turned to the pitch, Gala went one up with a clipped finish from the edge of the box.

Worse was still to come. A ninety-second spat between a Peebles defender and the home number nine - "Ref, he elbowed me." "Shut up fatty." "Do you want to see my medals, son?" - ended with away team a man down. As the Gala player jogged across to take a corner, the Peebles number four, still lying on the ground, reached up and grabbed him by the ankles. Out came a second yellow, off went his shirt. "Did yer medals slow you down?" came the shout from the stand. With Peebles in disarray, the second goal wasn't far behind: a low-shot from twenty yards that went straight through what passed for a defensive wall.

The third came twenty minutes into the second half. A corner bounced around the six-yard box, a Gala boot hit it into the ground, and it bounced past half the Peebles team into the middle of the net. Number four was even simpler: a quick free-kick from the Gala half and a clip over the keeper with the Peebles' defence claiming offside. The linesman was twenty-metres behind play, his flag hanging from a side pocket.

Admission: £4
Date: August 28th 2010

Peebles in familiar pose.

The main (and only) stand.

The linesman tries to look interested.
Is anyone sitting here?

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Ground 126: Perth Green Community Association, Jarrow FC

Back in the days before it had pebble-dash dugouts and a high wooden fence, a significant part of my childhood was spent kicking a ball around Jarrow FC's pitch. Or playing cricket in the corner of it. Or smacking a golf ball from one end of the field to the other. As a kid, my bedroom window had a view of two corner flags, and I used to walk across the penalty area on my way to school. I'm sure I must have seen a game there at some point before tonight, though I can't recall ever doing so. Whichever way you look at it though, Perth Green Community Association (walking distance from my house: three minutes) is one of the hundred and twenty-six grounds I've now watched football at.

Set up in 1980 after the closure of Perth Green School, Jarrow FC have played in the Wearside League for as long as I can remember, but a Sunderland Shipowners' Cup win aside, they've been a lot less successful than one of their predecessor clubs, Jarrow AFC, who reached the first round of the FA Cup three times, losing 2-1 to Everton at Goodison Park in 1899, 2-0 at home to Millwall (in front of an 8,000 crowd!) a year later and 1-0 to Crewe in 1931. Sadly, AFC folded after the closure of Jarrow's shipyards and the requisitioning of their Campbell Park Ground by the 87th Anti-Aircraft Regiment before the outbreak of World War II.

This evening's visitors were New Marske FC, who'd started the season with a bang: four wins in a row and sixteen goals scored. The game kicked-off in front of a crowd of thirty-seven, including the driver of an Aqualisa Shower van, two kids who turned up on mountain bikes and a man out walking his dog. Marske started brighter but it was Jarrow who took the lead with a floated cross from the left. "Keeper's," came the shout, with all the horribly misplaced optimism of James Corden's gag writer. "No, no, no," muttered the away bench as the ball sailed over his despairing arms and plopped straight onto the head of the grateful forward.

The home team doubled their lead ten minutes into the second half after a game of "You first", "No, honestly, after you" between a Jarrow attacker and the Marske central defence ended with a daisy-cutter into the far corner of the net. Both sides hit the crossbar, but with the visitors displaying as many new ideas as the head of ITV Drama it was Jarrow who hit the third as the last rays of sunlight disappeared over the A19. If this had been a game of cricket, three-quarters of the Marske team would have gladly taken the offer of bad light.

Admission: Free
Date: 25th August 2010

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Ground 125: West Terrace, Esh Winning

There's been a football team in Esh Winning for almost as long as there have been people living there. Settled in the 1850s to house workers for the newly-opened mine, the village's first club was formed in 1889 and lived up to their name by winning the Northern League title in 1913.

It's not something they're likely to repeat anytime soon. After a 2008 Ernest Armstrong Memorial Cup win and promotion back to Division One of the Northern League a year later, Esh finished last season just above the relegation places and went into tonight's game bottom of the table with a solitary point from their first four matches. As we arrived at the ground (memorable features: a garden fence around three sides of the pitch, trees - lots of trees, a main stand (five rows, yellow-painted wood and a metal roof lifted up to let the wind in), a social club showing Sky Sports News and two bus shelters placed strategically above a grassy bank) they were nearing the end of a fiendishly complex training drill: "Player one lays it off, player two sets it up, player three passes right, player four.." "How the hell are they gonna remember that?" the man next to me asked. They didn't.

Playing down the slope, newly-promoted Stokesley looked easily the better side, taking the lead with a simple lob over the onrushing goalkeeper. "Getting murdered down the right, we are," was the verdict from behind the far goal. "Fucking murdered." The second came a minute before half-time with a sliced cross that went in via the keeper's right-hand and the middle of a post. "Down the right a-fucking-gain," came the sigh from the other end of the pitch.

It was three points won. Stokesley stroked passes around for the remainder of the game, easily dealing with Esh's long balls out of defence. For the home side the only other action came with an injury midway through the second half. "It's a stretcher job," shouted the trainer. "Have we got one?" "There's one in the shed, I think," answered someone near the main stand. "Has anyone got a key?"

Admission: £5
Date: 24th August 2010

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Places I Have Been: Pride Park

Derby was the first Newcastle away game I went to without my dad. The second game of a new season, the first meeting of the two favourites for promotion, thousands of us packed into a terraced pen by the main stand corner flag. "Ooh aagh Franzie Carr" we chanted for ten full minutes, the din reverberating around the corrugated metal stand, so close we could have breathed down his neck. We only stopped to celebrate the second goal. A proper football stadium, the Baseball Ground was.

Pride Park is just a modern one. Opened in 1997, it's a ten-minute walk from the railway station, through a business park, past a Harvester pub and a Holiday Inn Express. There's an Old Orleans Bar and Restaurant on the main road, and a Starbucks Coffee concession next to the ticket office.

Greggs, Frankie & Benny's, Burger King, Subway Sandwiches - there are more big names around the ground than there are inside it. I'm not a fan of out-of-town grounds in general and Pride Park has no happy memories for me: I saw Newcastle twice here in the late '90s - both times we lost 1-0.

As for the Baseball Ground, it's now a housing estate.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Ground 124: Lenton Lane, Greenwood Meadows

Formed in 1987 by the amalgamation of Greenwood FC and Meadows Albion, Greenwood Meadows currently play in the East Midlands Counties League, step six on the non-league pyramid. Squeezed between a two-all draw with Holwell Sports and a trip to Thurnby Nirvana, today's visitors were Winterton Rangers, members of the Northern Counties East League and home to Hull City Reserves, in the FA Cup Extra-Preliminary Round, a mere 1,260 minutes from a trip up Wembley Way.

The Lenton Lane Ground is located on, surprisingly enough, Lenton Lane, which runs between a roundabout at the end of the Clifton Bridge to the banks of the River Trent, passing three non-league football grounds (Pelican, Greenwood and Dunkirk), a cricket pitch, golf club, and a super-posh restaurant on the way. The record attendance of 302 came as part of a world record Groundhop against Radford in 2004. Magic of the cup or no magic of the cup, this afternoon's attendance was no more than a tenth of that.

I got to the ground ten minutes for kick-off. "For Greenwood?" asked the man on the solitary turnstile. "It's just we've had loads through asking for Dunkirk." As the players walked out of the clubhouse the clouds opened and the entire crowd - all thirty of us - hurried to the only bits of cover - two iron-roofed stands, one with paint-spattered wooden benches, the other with two rows of plastic seats, that ran either side of the dug outs on the near side of the pitch. Waist-high ply-wood boards had been hammered into the grass instead of advertisement hoardings. The Horizon Tobacco Factory, home of John Player cigarettes, and menacing grey clouds made up the remainder of the view.

Winterton's support looked to have taken up their full 25% ticket allocation and at least eight seats on their team coach, but on a slippery surface it was the home side who made the fastest start. Two minutes in a mishit lob had the keeper flailing like a man trying to catch mosquitoes in a malarial swamp. Four minutes later it was two: Winterton throw, tackle, through ball, goal (raking shot being the appropriate technical term). It took the visitors to the quarter hour mark before they hit back with a gently chipped free kick that went straight through the goalkeeper's hands. "Shocker," was the view from the touchline.

Two-one at half-time, the equaliser came twenty minutes into the second half. A simple long ball split the Greenwood defence and the side of a boot did the rest. Three minutes, and one near miss from the home side, later it was three with a virtually identical move. The Greenwood players started arguing among themselves; Winterton just repeated the trick. Four-two - and Greenwood Meadows had nothing left to give.

Winterton for the Cup?

Admission: £4
Date: August 14th 2010

Friday, 13 August 2010

Places I Have Been: Nottingham

A ten to fifteen minute walk south-east of the train station and city centre, Nottingham’s three main sports stadiums stand in a line either side of the River Trent. Meadow Lane, home of Notts County, the World’s Oldest Football League Club as the sign above one of the stands proclaims, wedged in tightly by light-industrial units on one side, the City Ground backing on to the river bank on the other, barges and rowing boats running in between. The fly-swatter floodlights at Trent Bridge cricket ground, where County played until 1910, loom over a municipal tower block a few streets away - not bad for a city of under 300,000.

I’ve been to both of the football grounds more than once, seeing Newcastle draw with Forest at the tail end of the 1995-96 season (we returned a couple of weeks later for Stuart Pearce’s Testimonial, the arranging of which led to Keegan’s “I’d love it if we beat them” rant. “Now you’re gonna believe us, we nearly won the league," we sang. It was the closest we ever got) and a goalless draw the following year. We were more successful against County, winning easily both times.

As the crow flies, the stadiums are just under 300-metres apart, making them the closest league grounds in England. Visit the City Ground while you can, though – plans are afoot for the club to move to a new 40,000-seater stadium in time for the 2018 World Cup.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Ground 123: Pirelli Stadium, Burton Albion

Nigel Clough, a Conference title and two FA Cup third round ties against Manchester United might have put Burton Albion on the football map but the town itself will always be synonymous with beer. Bass Pale Ale, Worthington's Bitter, Carling Black Label, Marston's, Burton Bridge and, erm, Coors / Moulson. Coming out of the tiny train station the first things we saw were massive metal fermentation vessels. The second was a group of Oxford fans. “You got the flags?” asked one. “No, but I’ve got all the poles,” replied another. They went left for the stadium; we turned right for the pubs.

First impressions of the Pirelli Stadium? Grey

The air had the smell of beer lorry fumes, malt and hops but the only pub we could find anywhere near the ground was the Great Northern, where we drank Burton Bridge Bitter while watching Newcastle lose to Rangers on a big screen. We searched for somewhere else to drink (“That’s one up there, isn’t it?” “Nah, it’s a tile warehouse”) but gave up at two o’clock and headed for the ground instead. “"Where you from lads?" asked the steward. "Will you be supporting Oxford at all?" There was a car park on two sides, a housing estate on another, and warehouses and factories everywhere else you looked. Except for the red brick exterior, the stadium had been done out entirely in grey: grey crash barriers on grey concrete steps, grey breeze block walls, grey floodlight pylons, grey loudspeakers by grey metal posts.

We went straight to the bar, drinking Worthington’s Bitter from plastic glasses that were impossible to pick up without slopping beer over the sides, and doing our very best not to listen to a woman who could loosely be described as a singer whipping the crowd into a frenzy of mild applause – “This next one’s My Girl, I’d love to hear you singing”, “Come on Burton, show ‘em how it’s done”, “Sing it!”

Those flags

The entertainment was no better after three o’clock. Burton had the impressive Darren Moore, ex- of Derby and the Premier League, in defence and a new goalkeeper from Crewe (“Good kick, keeper” and “Look at the kick on him,” admired the man on the step behind), but the afternoon’s only show of creativity came from the Oxford fans behind the far goal, who unveiled giant Oxford and The Resurrection flags before kick-off (looks like those poles came in handy after all) to mark their team’s return to the league. There were chances at neither end until just after the hour mark when a Burton player blazed a shot wildly over from the edge of the six-yard box. “How the hell did he miss that?” someone asked. Like a goal or an accurate cross, the answer never came.

Entrance: £13 (standing)

Date: 7th August 2010

The new stadium in the middle of nowhere look.

Yellow, Yellow

The Burton Ultras in reflective pose

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Football Art

The Brian Clough statue, just off the Old Market Square in Nottingham city centre. £70,000 was raised in a year and a half to pay for the bronze sculpture, which was unveiled in November 2008 in front of a crowd of over five thousand people (and Gary Newbon off ITV). "It's an incredible statue," said Barbara Clough. "Brian would have been absolutely amazed."