Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Ground 138: Queensgate Stadium, Bridlington

Autumn and just over four hundred fans have made the twenty-mile trip down the North Sea coast to Bridlington, where Scarborough Athletic, now into their fourth season of out-of-town groundsharing, are hosting the blue and white hoops of Hall Road Rangers. Brief snatches of sunshine turn into rain, and after making our way through the turnstile we head straight back indoors to the bar.

The teams kick off in a gusty wind, sloshing the head off my pint as I stand with my back to a portakabin. A St John's Ambulance medic reclines in a caravan, watching the game through a window, and the impressive main stand, three-quarter seated and spanning the entire length of one side of the pitch, quickly begins to fill. There's a rugby match on a neighbouring pitch, a breezeblock stand turning its back to the football. "Come on Boro," someone shouts, but the atmosphere's surprisingly muted and most of the voices I hear are ordering chips and curry.

Hall Road's up and under defending isn't helped by having the wind in their faces and their aimless forays over the halfway line are invariably ended by a misplaced pass or the linesman's flag. Scarborough take the lead with a corner kick that swirls up and into the corner of the net, leaving the unfortunate goalkeeper clutching at nothing. A second goal follows before half-time, but try as they might Scarborough's forwards can't find another way past the keeper's fingertips until a tap-in on the hour mark.

Three-up, Scarborough start to relax. A mix-up in defence allows Hall Road to score in absolute silence, answering a question we've just asked about the number of away fans in the ground. Things are a lot noisier in the final minute, when a header's blocked on the line and the rebound's bundled in. The crowd return to their cars and start the journey home. Hopefully, it won't be much longer before their football club can finally do the same.

Admission: £6
Date: 25th September 2010

Bus shelter, dug-out, gas tank. What more do you need in a football ground?

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Ground 137: Ironworks Road, Tow Law Town

When the sports writer Arthur Appleton called the north-east corner of England "a hotbed of soccer" he had in mind places like the colliery town of Ashington, birthplace of Jackie Milburn and the Charlton brothers, and Tow Law, whose iron was made into cannonballs for the Crimea, and where Chris Waddle and Steve Howard once turned out for the local football team.

The production line has slowed but it hasn't stopped altogether. Jonny Godsmark, released by Newcastle United but chased by several lower league clubs before he opted to sign for his hometown team, starts wide in midfield for Ashington. Switching wings, spinning and speeding his way past three players, his early cross hits a forward's knee and is clutched two-handed on the line by the scrambling Tow Law keeper.

Ashington's pace and movement is too much for the home team. A few minutes later Godsmark sprints past a static centre-half and is clumsily brought down from behind as he races into the box. The keeper guesses left, the ball goes right. Tow Law, who went into the game on the back of five straight wins, already look a beaten side.

"Howay lads, should be out of sight now," shouts an Ashington fan as another shot spins narrowly wide. "Away! Away!" yells the keeper. A corner's deflected over the bar. "It's every time they attack this, man," mutters a defender. No-one is surprised by the second goal: the keeper calls too late for a cross, a defender miscues his clearance, and an Ashington midfielder gleefully sweeps the ball into the bottom corner of the net. Godsmark bursts through the defence twice more but shoots tamely at the keeper. Tow Law's only chance is a long-range shot that the Ashington goalie gathers at the second try.

At half-time we take a proper look at the ground. The pitch slopes right to left towards the covered main stand, painted black and white with three posts holding up the roof and the barren Pennine hills behind. There's open terracing and a wind turbine along the length of the opposite touchline, and a covered standing area behind the far goal with 'Tow Law Town Est 1890' written across the corrugated iron overhang. "It's just like Shildon again," I hear someone shout from the changing rooms. The queue of people at the brick tea hut make their way onto the small terrace at the end Tow Law are attacking. "Beautiful night," a home fan tells me. "It's what Tuesdays were made for."

Those raised voices in the Tow Law changing room bring an immediate response. The home team press forward, trying to bludgeon a way through the Ashington defence. The away side are happy to sit back, but Tow Law can't take their chances and it's the last minute when they finally score. An Ashington attack breaks down and a punt upfield finds the unmarked Scott Thompson, who controls the ball and curves it around the oncoming goalkeeper.

It's the last chance either side gets.

Admission: £5
Date: 21st September 2010.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Ground 136: Purvis Park, Percy Main Amateurs

You probably haven't heard of Percy Main Amateurs, but they have a long and proud history in Tyneside non-league football. Reformed in 1919 by returning veterans of the Great War, there'd been a team in Percy Main since before the turn of the century. Jock Rutherford, winner of three Championships and one FA Cup with Newcastle United, began his career with the club. In 1930 they reached the quarter-final of the FA Amateur Cup.

Foregoing the televised delights of Stoke versus West Ham for an appointment with the dentist and a walk under the Tyne, I get to Purvis Park just in time for kick-off. The £2 entrance includes (to my surprise) a programme that puts many Northern League clubs to shame. Exiting the clubhouse, I head for the raised bit of concrete behind the dugouts where most of the forty or so spectators are already standing. There's a metal barrier around three and a half sides of the pitch, weeds and overhanging branches forming the boundary for the rest. A privet hedge shields the village cricket pitch behind the goal to the right. The only cover is from the overhang of the clubhouse roof.

The opponents for a place in Round Two of the Kicks Leisure Cup are Carlisle City, fifth versus seventh in the Northern Alliance Premier. The teams are evenly matched in the opening half: City have a shot tipped round the post at one end, Main clatter the crossbar at the other. Both sides struggle to keep the ball, and soon tempers begin to fray. "Encourage don't bollock," instruct the Main bench. "How many times, referee?"

Carlisle take the lead midway through the second half after a triangle of passes down the left, but Percy Main level when the keeper spoons a long free-kick over his shoulder and a substitute jabs the ball into the unguarded net. The keeper stomps his feet, Percy Main's coach dances on the pitch, "We don't crumble, we don't crumble," implore the Carlisle bench.

They don't - but they don't look like scoring again either. Main take the lead in the first period of extra time from a through ball into the area. "Too long," says the man next to me but one touch sends the ball under the keeper's body and into the net. The third comes from a corner, but both benches, engaged in an argument about sportsmanship, manage to miss it.

The final whistle goes with Newcastle one-nil up at Everton. That's two reasons to celebrate for the people at Percy Main.

Admission: £2 (including programme)
Date: 18th September 2010

Winding up another long throw.

Percy Main attack.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Ground 135: UPC Arena, SK Sturm Graz

Even at nineteen euro fifty a go, the scarf around the wrist look, we decide, is very definitely still in at Sturm Graz. It's an hour before kick-off and we're sitting outside the stadium, drinking gassy beer from hard plastic glasses. Everyone around us is wearing black and white.

Strip away the heavy-handed policing and nine-tenths of football legislation and attending a match can actually be a pretty civilised experience. Groups of people mill around with half-litres of beer, eating Wiener Schnitzel and talking to their friends. Nobody worries about finishing their drinks before the match starts - they just carry them through the turnstiles, where the helpful stewards scan the barcodes from their tickets. Once inside the stadium men in Puntigamer t-shirts walk up and down the aisles with bags of doughy pretzels looped over one arm and metal trays of beer in the other. "Bier! Bier!" they shout, collecting four euro for each glass and returning one when you finish, all dangerously in sight of the pitch. And nothing bad happens (unless, that is, you count having to pay thirty cents whenever you need to use the toilet).

There are around ten thousand people in the ground for the visit of bottom-placed Mattersburg, and the Fansektoren to our right is jumping already. Elite Nord 08, Bastards 09, Black Swarm, Black Hearts and Murtal Front read the flags strapped to the back of the stand. A megaphone-wielding fan in a stripey jumper and baseball cap stands with his back to the play choreographing the chants. There are precisely twenty-eight people in the away section at the opposite end of the pitch.

"Put your money on Graz to score at least three goals," we were told before the match but both teams are as poor as each other and it takes until time added on for the home team to even look like scoring. At one point a Mattersburg player fails to control a through ball and the number 24 (the only player to show any sign of invention) looks on utterly aghast, shaking his head and throwing his hands in the air. "It's lucky the fans are good because the football's shite," is our Hansen-esque summary at the half-time whistle.

The second half opens with Mattersburg beginning to look the more likely team to score. A header is saved, Graz counter attack, and the referee waves play on as the forward tumbles in the box. "Nobody's scoring here," I say. "Nil-nil written all over it." Luckily I'm wrong. Fifteen minutes from time subsitute Mario Haas breaks through the centre and sidefoots past the keeper. And with the crowd still celebrating that one, Haris Buvka gathers a cross from the left, turns and shoots the ball into the top corner of the net.

Everywhere you look you can sense the relief.

Admission: €15
Date: 11th September 2010

Waving flags before kick-off? That's what happens when you drink, see?

Mattersburg's travelling army.

Beer and pretzels - he even comes to you.

The Graz cheerleaders.


Thursday, 9 September 2010

Ground 134: Belle Vue Park, Consett

It's almost kick-off when we pull up at the car park behind Consett's red-brick stand. There's a skateboard park with a penis drawn across one of the ramps, a social club still advertising Vaux Beer and a leisure centre with a roof shaped like an ashtray. "Sweep the floor, ladies. No excuses now!" comes an encouraging voice from inside.

We walk through the turnstile, past the man selling programmes and raffle tickets, and emerge on a terrace, steps leading up to the covered seating above. There are grass-covered banks on the other three sides of the pitch, portakabins behind the goal, and a brick tea hut set back from one corner flag.

Consett, runners-up two seasons out of three, are one of the Northern League's big spenders. They start well, West Allotment's keeper pulling off two good saves in the first five minutes. But he fumbles the third, which is swept home by the yellow boot of Gavin Ross. "Just a young 'un him, isn't he?" asks a man behind the goal. "Aye," replies the Consett keeper. "Only 18."

West Allotment expend more energy shouting at each other than attempting to attack the Consett goal. "This is shocking lads," shouts the keeper ten minutes before half-time. As if to prove his point, he then shanks his goalkick straight into touch. Consett end the half stroking the ball around like Arsenal - but having similar problems walking it into the net. "Great football, Consett," people shout from the stand. "Aye, but two touches too many," mutters a voice behind the goal.

It starts to rain at half-time and when the teams come out everything has changed. Allotment equalise when Marc Walton, once of Torquay United and Newcastle Reserves, is left unmarked in the middle of the box. Their midfield starts driving forwards and mere inches save Consett as they struggle to get any kind of service to their front two. The crowd are getting nervous: "Get it out!" and "Get yer head up, man!"

Consett come back. The keeper claws a shot around the post and Gavin Barton, newly signed from Bishop Auckland, sidefoots in from the corner. Celtic have one more chance from a corner of their own, but the keeper dives to his right and palms the ball away.

Stephen McManus was elsewhere tonight.

Admission: £5
Date: 8th September 2010

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Ground 133: Birtley Council Sports Complex, Birtley Town

Non-League Day and the first home game of the season have attracted 58 fans to the Birtley Council Sports Complex, including a man from The Times and ten who've travelled up from Northallerton. There are five people in the tiny covered stand, which we've just spent an hour and a half cleaning with a sweeping brush and rag.

The game is scrappy, with Northallerton starting marginally the better side. "Yorkshire, Yorkshire," their fans shout confidently from behind the factory-end goal. But it's Birtley who take the lead, scoring from a long free kick that smacks against the post and is scrambled in at the second attempt with the keeper still looking surprised. You expect the away side to hit back but the home team keep up the pressure, the Northallerton keeper having to scramble backwards to tip a long-range shot over. A few minutes later a looping effort comes back off the bar and Birtley, last season's Division Two whipping boys, leave the pitch to the unaccustomed sound of applause.

The second goal comes with twenty minutes left. The ball's kicked forwards, bounces back off a Northallerton player's leg and falls into the path of a green-and-white shirt. One touch and the net ripples: Birtley Town are back in business.

Admission: £2 (half-price for Non-League Day)
Date: 4th September 2010

The away fans mob the tea hatch.

The home end.

Warming up for the big day.

What goes where?

Gleam on seats the photographer's own work.

Ground 132: Station Road, Norton & Stockton Ancients

Only four places in the league and the width of the A19 separate Norton & Stockton Ancients and Billingham Town at the start of tonight's game. A couple of hundred people have turned out in the evening sunshine and the covered stand, with seats in the club colours of amber and black, is around a quarter full.

Norton make a fast start but the Billingham defence stand firm. "Faster lads, eh?" yells the Billingham coach. "Start again," coax Norton's bench. The ball goes from left midfield to the halfway line, is floated into the box, and the centre-forward curves a header around the keeper into the corner of the net. "Good game," the man next to me says. "Glad I came out." "Aye, well," laughs his mate, "the only other option's England, isn't it?"

Norton's second goal comes from a corner. "Where's the movement in there, eh?" the Billingham coach asks as the left back shifts the ball on to his right foot and bends his shot in off the post. The defenders look at each other, their coach up at the sky.

The second half follows much the same pattern as the first. Norton pass the ball to feet, Billingham lump it aimlessly upfield. "Why can't we keep the ball?" shrieks the goalkeeper just before Norton add a third. Billingham lose whatever semblance of shape they had. "What's left?" their keeper asks after Norton have another shot. "Plenty," shouts a fan. "Seventeen," says the linesman.

It's going to be a big season for Norton & Stockton Ancients.

The main stand.

Billingham away.

Admission: £5
Date: 3rd September 2010

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Ground 131: Easington Welfare Park

Easington's glory year came in 1986 when they finished runners-up to Newcastle Blue Star in the Northern League Division Two. Two years later they took revenge, thrashing Blue Star three-nil to reach the last qualifying round of the FA Cup - the furthest they'd been since Tranmere Rovers visited Welfare Park in 1955. It's a ground which, unlike the team, remains Northern League standard. A concrete terrace runs down one side of the pitch, with a covered stand by the corner flag and a red-brick changing block either side of the halfway line. The teams come out of the corridor, their studs clattering on the steps. Easington, with five wins and twenty-two goals to start the season, look confident as they wait to run onto the pitch. Windscale have travelled all the way from the west coast of Cumbria, which at this level of football is a very long way indeed. "Come on Easington," a lone voice shouts. An old man sits in the social club, finishing his pint, and there's a queue of three at the food hatch. "Bovril? That's 80 pence, mate. Here, stick some pepper in, give it a kick." We walk round to the far corner of the pitch, where you get a view of the sea from a steep bank of terracing.

Easington start well, rattling the frame of the goal, but it's Windscale who take the lead with a four-man right-to-left move and a sidefoot finish. "Lose one goal and we go to pieces," complains an Easington player at half time.

The game opens up in the second half but some decent defending means neither side gets any real chances until Easington equalise out of nowhere with ten minutes left. "Come on lads, big last ten," the manager shouts but too much of their play is rushed and it's Windscale who finish the stronger side. "Thing is," a spectator says, "sometimes you've got to go back to go forwards."

For Easington's sake you really hope he's right.

Admission: £2
Date: September 1st 2010

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Ground 130: (The Other) Stadium of Light, Sunderland

I saw Newcastle play three times at Roker Park, drawing one and winning two. In 1996, with away fans officially banned, I watched Les Ferdinand head the winner from the Clockstand terrace, saving my celebrations for the train ride home. Two years later they knocked it down.

I'd moved abroad before the first derby at the Stadium of Light, but I listened to us toss away a two goal lead from the basement of an internet cafe in Busan, South Korea. For the next two years I was in Seoul, and the year after that I heard Solano's penalty winner on the BBC World Service from my kitchen in Siracusa, Sicily. Five years later, I missed Sunderland's first home derby win in 28 years while I tried to find a bar showing the game in Shimo-Kitazawa, Tokyo. "Bollocks," I shouted, seeing the result online. "It's only a game," said my soon to be ex-girlfriend.

Peter Lovenkrands. Signed on a free, from Germany.

United name a strong side, with Sol Campbell making his debut and Peter Lovenkrands on the left of midfield. There are a couple of thousand Sunderland fans to our left, gradually spreading out to fill the middle tier of the West Stand. "If you hate Newcastle, clap your hands," a few dozen start singing. "My old man said be a Sunderland fan," break in the three or four hundred Newcastle fans behind the goal.

Even at reserve team level, a Tyne-Wear derby matters. United score once, twice, three times, seats are snapped off and taunts fly back and forth. "Cheer up Alan Shearer..." "4-1, even Chopra scored" " a sad Geordie bastard..." "Kill the Mackems!" Campbell goes off at half time, having had to exert himself with little more than a forward run and two hooked clearances. Sunderland hit the post twice late on and pull a goal back with a penalty but ten-man Newcastle, with Nile Ranger outstanding up front, deserve the win.

Not that I'm biased or anything.

Admission: £3
Date: 31st August 2010