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.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Ground 143: Blue Flames Sports Ground, West Allotment Celtic FC

The words West Allotment Celtic always seemed faintly exotic when I was younger. I used to search them out every weekend in the Sunday Sun, where they appeared towards the top of the mysteriously named Northern Alliance Premier. I imagined them as a team of expatriate Caledonians, possibly bohemian, dribbling and zig-zagging the ball around their bemused opponents. Years later, disappointingly, I found out they actually came from Benton.

And so here I am at the Blue Flames Sports Club, home, the sign at the entrance to the car park tells me, of the Northumberland FA and the Northern League's West Allotment Celtic FC, who are playing Team Northumbria in the First Round of this year's Northumberland Senior Cup. Dire Straits are on the tannoy, and there's a crowd of about seventy people lined up along the top of a grass bank, looking down on the floodlit pitch. There's a metal stand, a couple of wooden picnic benches, an open window into a kitchen, and a view of the bar through sliding glass doors.

Celtic vs Aberdeen.

West are in Celtic hoops, Northumbria Aberdeen red. The home side score first when Dean Nicholson breaks through the students' attempt at an offside trap. "They must learn that one in the second term," a spectator says. Northumbria get a penalty, the West Allotment players rush to the linesman, "You haven't got a fucking clue, man," one shouts at the referee. They're still complaining when the keeper drops to his left and stops the ball one-handed. "It was his trailing leg," says the ref. "Now stop your whinging and get on with the game."

Nothumbria equalise, and go two-one up midway through the second half when a shot smashes against the crossbar and is toe-poked in with the keeper still scrambling on the ground. The home team have chance after chance, but appear to be aiming for a spot that varies randomly between six inches above and ten yards wide of the goal. My feet are freezing, the tea hut's closed - and then West Allotment take the game to extra-time.

Extra-time team talk.

The winner comes at five to ten as I mentally prepare for penalties. A Northumbria player's dragged down by the touchline and the flag goes up for a foul. "It's football not ballerina," screams West Allotment's keeper. "Just you watch your kicks and keep it shut, eh?" replies the linesman. The free-kick's cleared, the ball blasted up the pitch, and the net ripples for a fifth and final time.

The draw for the next round's already been made. West Allotment are away to Newcastle Benfield, two games from a final at St James' Park.

Admission: £4
Date: 13th October 2010

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Ground 142: Daren Persson Stadium, North Shields

Twelve times Northumberland Senior Cup winners, Northern League and FA Amateur Cup champions in 1969, joint holders, with Almas Roma, of the European Amateur Cup, twice in the FA Cup Second Round, Northern Counties East runners-up two times and champions, by twenty-four points, in 1992. But history didn't count for anything when North Shields ran out of cash. Their ground was sold for housing, the playing staff released, and the reformed club played their games on council pitches in the second division of the Wearside League.

It's a long way back from there, but North Shields are slowly making strides. Fourth in Northern League Division Two, their new ground, the Daren Persson Stadium, has recently been sponsored by a local firm of funeral directors. It's a decent place to watch football but no Appleby Park (the old stadium had a 15,000 capacity and "dressing rooms of Football League standard"): weeds, wooden fencing and paving stones surrounding the pitch and a metal portakabin, decorated with pennants and old team shots, housing a tea hut. Cover is provided by a stand named after a shopping centre that has wooden bench seats on brick supports, and a pair of red-roofed standing areas in the shape of rural bus stops. The Red Ultras stand on a terraced bank hacked out of the weeds, their flags tied to the top of a metal fence.

Nothing much happens in the opening forty minutes. Birtley, whose last five games have seen thirty-three goals, play with one up front, one on halfway, and everyone else back. Their keeper makes a double save with his feet and a free header's steered straight into his chest. Birtley have a goal disallowed for offside and put a free kick into a housing estate that has a CCTV camera mounted on a streetlight, protected by a cage.

It's almost half-time when North Shields go one-nil up. Danny Patterson slips past two tackles on the left and loops the ball into the centre. James Luccock plants both feet, bends forward at the waist and heads straight and low past the keeper's left hand. "Same old Luccock, always scoring," sing the Ultras. Birtley attack, float a corner kick over the goalkeeper's head, and Martin Roper stabs in the equaliser at the far post. "Not much of a game, is it?" I overhear at half-time. "Aye, I thought one goal was going to settle it."

Birtley take the lead, the North Shields bench abuse the referee and bring on their substitutes, and Graham Fenton, who I last saw scoring two late goals to wreck Newcastle's title challenge in April '96, starts screaming instructions from the sidelines. A header squirms wide, a cross spins over, a shot slams against a hoarding. The equaliser comes with a minute left and the crowd edging towards the only exit: a shot smacks a Birtley defender's hand and the penalty's calmly rolled into the net by substitute Michael Pattison, the grey-shirted North Shields keeper chasing in for the rebound.

Admission: £4
Date: 9th October 2010

North Shields locate the penalty spot.

"Referee, you baldy bell-end."

The Red Ultras

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Ground 141: Sam Smith's Park, Newcastle Benfield

Newcastle Benfield have come a long way in a short time. From the basement of the Northern Alliance in 1988, when they were founded as Brunswick Village FC, to Northern League champions in 2009, four promotions and five changes of name later. With the demise of Newcastle Blue Star they're now the second biggest club in the city, though their average home gate barely tops a hundred people. Blogger Paul Kirkwood, visiting for an FA Cup tie against York City, thought the club's record crowd of 927 showed no more interest than "neighbours who were curious to know what the noise over the garden fence was all about".

Esh Winning, who've won one point, changed half their team and sacked their manager since I saw them six weeks ago, aren't the biggest draw in the Northern League, and tonight's game is watched by around a hundred people, including four away fans and a group I recognise from last night at Whitley Bay. "Imagine doing this in the Premier League," says one. "It'd cost you eighty quid." "It's a decent crowd," I say. "Aye, half of them are from Whitley. These don't even cheer when they score." The ground's fenced off from a school playing field, with two all-seater stands across either end of the halfway line and a long bit of terracing covered by scaffolding poles and corrugated sheeting nearer the turnstile. The club offices, tea hut and (soon to be completed) clubhouse are in building site portakabins behind a goal, where you'll also find possibly the worst pair of toilets in the whole of English football.

Esh hustle and harry but gift Benfield a goal with their first attack of the game. The keeper waits, a defender dallies, and Scott Fenwick nips between the two to turn an overhit through ball into a one-nil lead. The away side almost equalise with a scramble from a corner but it only takes two touches from John Campbell to put the game out of reach. He has a shot cleared off the line, pings the follow up against the post, scores with a free kick that leaves the crossbar humming and the keeper staring blankly into space, and passes a penalty into the net after Fenwick's quick feet suck a defender into the tackle. "Now we're playing," says player-coach Alu Bangura.

Esh are making space in midfield but don't have a forward anywhere near as clinical as Campbell and spurn two good chances before half time. Soon after the restart he shows them how it's done. His third is a controlled clip around the keeper, the fourth rolls into the net like a snooker ball across green baize, his fifth - his fifteenth goal in nine league games - is volleyed in on the turn after the keeper spikes a shot in the air. He's involved in the seventh too, his attempt on goal parried for Adam Rowntree to sidefoot over the line. Everything he does looks absolutely effortless. All Esh can do is chase after the ball.

Benfield move up to fifth, six points behind leaders Consett but with three games in hand. For Esh Winning, it's played thirteen and won none.

Admission: £5
Date: 6th October 2010

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Places I Have Been: Omiya Ardija

Late-autumn 2004, and while the leaves are falling, Omiya Ardija are already up. Kyoto Purple Sanga players walk back towards the halfway line, a Brazilian forward dances by the corner flag, the orange-clad crowd restart a raucous chant of "Let's go, Omiya, let's go!", and a fan sits on a crash barrier raising his middle finger to the beaten Kyoto goalkeeper, as he has done throughout the entire second half. "Maradona played here once, you know," my friend Declan leans across and shouts in my ear. If ever there was a moment to fall in love with a football team, then that was it for me. Later that night, half-drunk, I shin up a lamppost in a shopping arcade and liberate an Ardija flag, two Omiya fans and a shopkeeper cheering me on.

Ardija fans at the Omiya Soccer Stadium in 2004.

I didn't know much about Ardija until that game, though I passed through Omiya station every weekend on my way into Tokyo. I'd heard there was a John Lennon museum somewhere nearby, and that the club was named after the Spanish word for squirrel, the symbol of the park the Omiya Soccer Stadium was located in. I wanted to go to Yokohama, where the World Cup Final had been played, and had a soft spot for Vissel Kobe, who at the time played in black and white stripes. I'd even thought about going to Urawa Reds, the other half of the Saitama Derby, before discovering they modelled themselves on Manchester United and had just taken part in the Vodafone Cup. Urawa had moved to the Saitama World Cup Stadium, where England played Sweden in 2002. Omiya still played in a ground built for the 1964 Olympics. The trees outside the stadium were almost as tall as the cramped main stand.

And at the Ajinomoto Stadium, Tokyo, in 2008.

The Reds like to think they're special. "Why do you like Omiya? They never win anything," I was sometimes asked, but only ever by people who supported Urawa. The mayor of Saitama City, wearing an Omiya shirt over his salaryman uniform of white shirt and dark tie, once took to the pitch with an eight-foot squirrel and made a speech extolling Urawa's recent effect on the profile of the city. Omiya fans were not impressed. Somewhere on the packed terrace behind the goal, there was a man in sunglasses, orange scarf half-covering his mouth, extending a middle finger towards the centre of the pitch.

Let's go Omiya, let's go!

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Ground 140: Darlington Road, West Auckland Town

Before Spain's tikka takka there was Zidane's headbutt, Gazza's tears and Maradona's hand. Before that came Paolo Rossi and North Korea, Cruyff's turn, Banks's save and Bobby Moore with the Jules Rimet. But before all of that, before the Miracle of Bern and USA 1 England 0, there was a team of miners from County Durham beating Juventus in Turin.

Nobody knows how West Auckland Town ended up in the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy. Some think their invitation was meant for Woolwich Arsenal but got mixed up in the post. We do know that West Auckland paid their own way to Italy in 1909, and, once there, beat a team from Stuttgart 2-0 and the Swiss side FC Winterthur by the same score in the final. Two years later they were back, beating FC Zurich in the semi and thrashing Juventus 6-1 to win the cup outright. Juve have since won fifty-one major competitions. West Auckland went bankrupt and had to pawn their trophy to the landlady of a local hotel.

Unsurprisingly, the club make a big deal of their history. 'Home of the first World Cup' says the sign at the start of the village, and an image of the Lipton Trophy adorns both the entrance gate and the club badge. You pass through the gate to get to the turnstile, where you see a paper packaging plant and a housing estate, and an old man at a table selling raffle tickets and programmes. There's an open-air terrace behind one goal and two covered stands on the far side of the pitch, the larger painted black, white and amber with 'This is West Aycliffe' written above the players' tunnel. A Juventus pennant hangs in the clubhouse, where a man with a biro in his mouth is watching the horseracing on a portable TV.

It's the First Round Proper of the FA Vase and the visitors are Birtley Town from Northern League Division Two. "Anything we get here's a bonus," Birtley manager Scott Oliver says before the start. Auckland, playing down both slopes, have the game's first chance but the referee misses a clear penalty when a defender sweeps away a Birtley forward's legs. "He went down too easily," he says at full-time.

Neither side is happy with the way they start the game. "Sharpen up," is the shout from Birtley. "Faster to the ball!" screams the Auckland centre half. But on twenty minutes a hopeful clearance becomes a two-on-two and Mattie Moffatt, reputedly coveted by Workington of the Blue Square North, rolls the ball across the box for Steven Brown to poke past Birtley's debutant keeper. Moffatt scores the second himself after half an hour when an overhit cross is knocked back into the centre of the box, Birtley's defence standing open-mouthed, and Auckland are just a miskick away from a third with their next attack. Suddenly, all the space belongs to them. "Too nice, Birtley," Scott Oliver shouts. "You can't just stand and let them have it."

The game's all over before half time, Moffatt easing off his marker to score a second goal after a tackle wins the ball in midfield, then lobbing the keeper with his very next touch. Birtley are dispirited and every attack is a near goal, but Moffatt doesn't get his fourth until midway through the second half, the keeper swatting one hand at a corner before the forward guides it over the line. The sixth comes from another cross, headers pinging right to left before Gary Barnes nods in at the near post, the goalkeeper at fault again. He goes down in the next attack. "Do you want treatment? No? Yes?" the referee asks as a Birtley coach jogs across with a water bottle. "Nowt's went reet," says a watching substitute. "Aye, well," comes a voice from the bench, "we did ok just to get here."

Admission: £5
Date: 2nd October 2010

Just like Anfield.

Birtley attack. Scott Oliver looks on.

Half time and the Sunday Sun journalists wish they'd gone to Bedlington instead.