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