Saturday, 22 January 2011

Not Home Today

With my plans to see Boldon Villa scuppered by the overnight theft of 185 metres of copper floodlight cables from under the side of their pitch, it's back to the Northern Football Alliance and the east end of Newcastle, where Heaton Stannington are hosting Carlisle's Harraby Catholic Club in what's meant to be a two o'clock kick-off at Grounsell Park.

Newcastle are at home to Spurs and the metro's crowded with Saturday afternoon shoppers, Chinese students dragging suitcases to the railway station, and middle-aged men in blue jeans, knitted hats and black and white scarves. Disconnected sentences rise above the intermingled talk. "Try and relax, forget about work," "It starts at three o'clock," "Don't let me forget we need to go to Fenwick's," "What price is Bale to score the first goal?" "They've got some lovely stuff in Next," "Where are we getting off? Haymarket?" By Ilford Road, where there are cars parked on both sides of the road, allotments, bay-windowed houses and a yellow sign pointing 'To Local Shops', the carriage is almost empty.

I cut across the top of Jesmond Dene, past a real tennis club and what's left of a public school, coming out by the brown brick and pebbledash buildings at the Freeman Hospital. A left turn at a roundabout, by an empty duck pond and a public toilet, takes me on to Newton Road, where I'm passed by a jogger, panting up the hill. There's a church and a building site before the ground itself, tucked behind a garage, a chip shop and a Cantonese takeaway. Two elderly men stand just inside the entrance gate, bare-headed and wearing the kind of clothing you see advertised towards the back of a tabloid TV listings magazine. "Is it on, like?" one asks. "There's no cars here, mind." "Not a peep from the dressing room," says the other. "Ah divvent kna," says a third, slightly younger, coming out of the clubhouse door, "I've just been deein' some work inside but I would've thought they would've been here by now." "Last night's Chronicle said it was on," says the first man, trailing off into thought. "I'll have to gan and watch the Toon now, I suppose." "You know what it's like at this level," I say, "a little bit of rain..." "Aye, to be honest with yer, mate," he says, getting into his car, "this pitch is bloody knackered."

I make it back to the station in a quarter of an hour, edge on to the train, and am home in time to see Gareth Bale go off injured and Fabrizio Coloccini score the game's first goal, chesting the ball down and slamming it in off the fingers of Cudicini's left hand. You'd have got a decent price on that happening at half past one.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Places I Have Been: Siracusa

Siracusa: the New York City of Magna Grecia, birthplace of Santa Lucia, the city where Archimedes had his eureka moment, Epicarmus introduced the notion of pathos into comedy, and Claudio Ranieri had a one-month spell on loan from Roma in 1973.

The smell of marijuana and the sea, a 1930s entrance gate with graffiti on the sides, and whitewashed flats and palm trees overlooking the three stands.

In Sicily I lived so close to the Ionian Sea I could have chipped a pass into it. The Duomo was a five-minute walk away, work half an hour, and the football stadium, Stadio Nicola De Simone, was somewhere between the two, just before you hit the orange-squeezer church of Madonna delle Lacrime. The first time I went to see Unione Sportiva Siracusa play I sat in the posh seats and watched a routine 3-1 win. The second time I stood on the terrace and got caught up in the midst of a riot. I call it a riot because that's how it was reported and punished, but what really happened was this: Cavese scored two goals, a few fans sat astride the perimeter fence gazing moodily at the pitch, looking just as likely to start singing Coldplay songs as they were to invade it. Someone held up a banner depicting an elephant being straddled by a lion (a joke based on the symbols of Catania and Siracusa; Siracusa hate Catania, but Catania mainly hate Palermo, which makes things even worse) and a few stray objects were lobbed towards the pitch. The referee responded by taking the players to the opposite touchline, which prompted several loud suggestions that his wife was routinely unfaithful to him, that his mother had been unfaithful to his father and that he had used a donkey in being unfaithful to all three. After a few minutes of this two Carabinieri finally appeared from behind the top goal and everyone scarpered for the exit at the first sight of a riot shield.

The end result of it all was that Siracusa were banned from playing at home for the next three months. By the time they returned their promotion chances had gone much the same way as Vince Cable's, a loss to Vittoria in the end-of-season play-offs leaving them marooned in Serie D.

I predict a riot.

They finally made it up in 2009, and are now in Lega Pro Prima Divisione (or Serie C1 if you prefer your leagues in old money). As I type, they sit as comfortably as a Christian Democrat before Mani Pulite, sixth in the table, ahead of Zdenek Zemen's Foggia, Pisa and, best of all, Cavese.

Even Archimedes would have been proud of that.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Ground 151: Cochrane Park

It's cup weekend on Tyneside, but while big boys Killingworth Sporting, Shankhouse and Percy Main Amateurs are busy scrapping it out for a place in the third round of the Kicks Leisure Challenge Cup, Newcastle University AFC and Newcastle East End are playing league fixture catch-up in the perceptibly more mundane environs of the Northern Football Alliance Division One.

The £4,500 I've recently handed over in tuition fees doesn't get me so much as a garden chair to sit on at Cochrane Park. With trees along one half of the pitch, open fields on the other, and a crowd of just five people, my main concern as the game kicks off is to find a place to stand where I won't be expected to run and fetch the ball, eventually settling on a spot between a conifer tree and the corner flag.

It's immediately apparent that East End (disappointingly, the only things they share with the club that made up one half of Newcastle United in December 1892 are the name and shirt colour) are the more talented of the two teams. Three of their players have turned out in gloves, four more are wearing long sleeves, and they occasionally manage to kick the ball in the general proximity of a teammate. Newcastle University - a student club run by students for students, their website says, as if there wasn't a big enough clue already in the name - were Northern Alliance Premier Champions in 2000, but start out fourth from bottom, having managed to play only five games all season. East End sit in midtable, seven points better off, though recent form doesn't count for much when you haven't played since November 6th.

The players are rusty, the pitch is wet, and the game soon takes on the sound and tenor of an inexpertly-managed sexual encounter. "On his...tighter! There's two of yuz, ye kna," screams a defender. "Tuck in", "Eyes" and "On yer back," cries the bench. Good foot in!" and "Stuck in Robbie," purrs East End's number 4. "Plenty of space up there," suggests the University keeper, "but you've got to want it." "Stand, Jeff" and "Talk to me," shrieks a voice in midfield. "Come on, we've got to hurry this up," cautions someone on the touchline. "Let's try and get the ball down." "Take your time," cajoles a defender. "Keep it up" and "Good shape," the away keeper encourages. "Push!"

The game's first shot on goal drifts harmlessly over the University bar with thirty minutes gone. The students counter, and a forward rounds the keeper but scuffs his shot against a defender's knee. East End scrape an effort wide and miskick in front of goal. Then a University midfielder takes a pass on the edge of the area and casually slams the ball into the top corner of the net. His teammates break into applause. "And he just stood there like he does it every day," laughs one of the substitutes.

The home side grow in confidence after their goal and have the better of the second half. East End's keeper slaps a shot off the line while blinded by the sun, and as two of the five crowd members drift away the visitors' final chance of the game* pings back off the crossbar.

"I'll have to go inside, man," says a voice from the dugout. "If I stay here any longer me feet'll drop off."

Admission: Free
Date: 8th January 2011

* As it turns out, it wasn't quite their final chance, as they equalised in the last minute of the game, just as soon as I was out of sight.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Places I Have Been: Busan I'Park

One of the K-League's six founding clubs, Busan was also the first Korean football team I ever saw play. It was March 2000 and Ahn Jung-hwan, on the verge of an ill-fated loan move to Perugia, was still their undisputed star. "Just like David Beckham," Koreans used to insist, though Ahn's subsequent career trajectory suggested Bentley may have been a better choice of surname. Busan won easily, but then teams usually did when they played against Daejon.

For as long as they belonged to Daewoo - at one time Korea's second largest conglomerate, manufacturing everything from cars and container ships to toasters and toothpaste - Busan were among the best teams in the league. Pipped to the post by Hallelujah FC in 1983's inaugural K-League season, they won three of the next eight titles, beat Egypt's Al-Ahly to lift the 1986 Asian Club Championship and, inspired by ex-Red Star Belgrade forward Saša Drakulić, added an Adidas Cup to their fourth K-League triumph in 1997.

Not the last time I'd see Daejeon lose to Busan.

But then Daewoo went bankrupt, company founder Kim Woo-chong took an extended holiday in France with $3.2 billion he'd borrowed from the till, and in the chaos that followed Busan were acquired (rather appropriately given the circumstances) by I-Con, a construction company belonging to the Hyundai Group. For both Kim and Busan, the glory years were over.

Since 1997, thirteen different coaches have tried, and failed, to emulate Lee Cha-man's title-winning team. Ex-Swiss international Andy Egli lasted one season before resigning due to "differences with the management of the club". His replacement, Park Seong-hwa, departed for the Korean Olympic side after fifteen days and just one match in charge. Hwang Sun-hong, scorer of Korea's first goal of the 2002 World Cup, stayed for three years, tempted Ahn Jung-hwan back for nineteen games, and took the club to the Korean FA Cup Final earlier this year. But none could match the achievements of the man Egli had replaced.

Ian Porterfield arrived in November 2002, at the end of a season in which Busan had won just six games and finished second bottom of the league. Korean international Song Chong-gug had already left for Feyenoord and the club's owners, having agreed to move into the 54,000-capacity Busan Asiad Stadium, were now threatening to relocate to Seoul after the council refused to let Porterfield's team train on the pitch. "My wife called me and was really worried, she said: 'We are moving to Seoul, it's all over TV.' In all honesty it was a good marketing exercise," the Scot told Soccerphile's John Duerden.

The Busan Asiad Stadium during the 2002 Asian Games.
It didn't get much busier when Busan played at home.

Porterfield brought in ex-Aberdeen and Airdrie player Drew Jarvie as assistant and used some of the Feyenoord money to rebuild his team. Jamie Cureton arrived on a free transfer from Reading, soon followed by Stoke City's Andy Cooke and Forest's Norwegian defender Jon Olav Hjelde. "Apparently it's very good money out there – and it's tax free," explained Preston boss Craig Brown when North End's Colin Murdock flew out to Korea for talks. But Murdock, like Reading's Martin Butler, turned Porterfield down, signing for Hibernian instead.

Cureton soon wished he'd done the same. After four goals in twenty-one games a group of QPR fans helped to raise the £100,000 needed to take him back to the English First Division. "Curo just does not like the lifestyle out there and he's struggled with the language," his agent explained, "so the club have agreed to terminate his contract a year early." "I wasn't happy in Korea," Cureton said on his return to England. "Within the first month I realised I was not getting what I wanted out of football, with the language barrier to overcome and the fact the build up to games was so low-key. The crowds were small and there wasn't the same buzz you get over here".

Hjelde suffered too, playing sixteen games in a year before rejoining Joe Kinnear at Nottingham Forest. "I don’t know what sort of football they play in Korea," said Kinnear, "but you could tell he’d not been playing in England." Despite thirteen goals (and almost as many yellow cards) from Cooke, Busan finished ninth in 2003, losing almost half of their forty-four games.

Undeterred, Porterfield signed Chris Marsden, who'd captained Southampton in the previous year's FA Cup Final. Marsden scored the opening goal of the 2004 K-League season, but walked out on Busan a single game, one unhappy wife and £136,000 of Sheffield Wednesday's money later. "I'm sad and disappointed," Porterfield said. "I'd have hoped that he would have waited to the end of the stage, sat down and discussed it. If that had happened, everyone would have seen it differently."

That left only Cooke, who scored another six goals as Porterfield (now assisted by ex-Swindon midfielder Tom Jones) led the side to seventh in the league. At the end of the year, to almost everyone's surprise, Busan won their first Korean FA Cup, beating Bucheon SK on penalties in a Christmas Day final. "Like winning the Scottish Premier with Dunfermline Athletic," Porterfield said.

Busan 3 Daejeon 0 at the Gudeok Stadium, a few months before Porterfield arrived.

But while things were looking better on the pitch - the team losing just a single game on their way to winning the First Stage of the 2005 K-League season - problems were mounting off it, with attendances down to just 4,000 at the Asiad Stadium. "I think that one of the reasons that we don't get good gates is that we play in the World Cup Stadium way over outside of town," Porterfield explained. "It's very difficult to get there, no train service and it takes a long time by bus." An even bigger problem was the indifference of the city's four million inhabitants: "When I first came to Busan and met people," Porterfield said, "no-one knew that there was a football team here."

Porterfield's cash-strapped team lost nine and drew three of their last twelve games to slump to tenth overall, going out of the FA Cup to non-league Ulsan Dolphin and losing 7-0 on aggregate to the Saudi team Al-Ittihad in the semi-final of the Asian Champions League. Despite the offer of a new contract, Andy Cooke had left for Bradford before the start of the season. "I thought about it," he said, "because the money was more than you could ever imagine getting here in England. But I just thought enough was enough and I wanted to get my family home. There are only so many shops and restaurants you can go around and in the evening, the highlight of our day, every day, was going for something to eat."

Porterfield and Jones followed in 2006, leaving to coach the Armenian national side. The British invasion of Korean football had come to an end.