Monday, 28 February 2011

Ground 155: Croft Park, Blyth

Blame it on a corner flag.

The Racecourse Ground, Wrexham, the very last minute of the eleventh game of Blyth Spartans’ 1978 FA Cup run. Shildon, Consett, Crook Town, Bishop Auckland, Burscough, Third Division Chesterfield and non-league Enfield have all been disposed of. In the fourth round, Stoke City, with a side including Howard Kendall and a young Garth Crooks, are beaten 3-2, the Northern League team scoring two goals in the final ten minutes at the Victoria Ground. The game is twice postponed and the fifth round draw has already been made: Newcastle United or Wrexham at home to Stoke City or Blyth Spartans. But the Welsh side spoil the dream script with an upset of their own, cantering to a 4-1 win in the replay which follows a 2-2 draw at St James’ Park. They end the season Third Division champions, while Newcastle are relegated from the First with only six wins from their forty-two games.

February 18th 1978; the prize a home tie with Arsenal in the last eight of the FA Cup. The pitch is bone-hard, Alan Hill’s backpass underhit, and Terry Johnson, scorer of one goal at Shildon and two against Stoke, jabs his foot at the ball and slides it through the goalkeeper’s legs. Only seconds remain when Blyth’s skipper John Waterson tackles Bobby Shinton, the ball deflects off the Wrexham forward’s shin and dribbles harmlessly out of play. Waterson slips, Shinton raises his arm in hopeful appeal, and Alf Grey, who would referee the final in 1983, points erroneously for a corner. Lee Cartwright takes the kick, Dave Clark, Willie McFaul’s understudy in Newcastle United’s 1969 UEFA Fairs Cup winning team, punches away off the top of Shinton’s head. Cartwright tries again, Clark gathers the ball to his chest unopposed, but Grey signals for the kick to be retaken as the corner flag has fallen to the ground. At the third and final attempt Cartwright clears everyone except Dixie McNeill, who clatters in a headed equaliser at the far post. “And it’s gone in!” Barry Davies exclaims. “And the crowd go absolutely mad.” They weren’t the only ones. “It wasn’t a corner,” Shinton admits to Waterson immediately after the game.

Nine days later, 42,000 people turn up for the replay at St James’ Park, with an estimated 10-15,000 locked outside the ground. “We were stuck in traffic and a police officer pulled up beside the front of the bus,” remembers Clark. “Jackie Marks wound the window down and asked him if there had been an accident. The lads were anxiously waiting to hear what the situation was because we’d been stuck for quite a while. Jackie turned around and told us that it was just the traffic heading for the ground and we were going to have to be escorted. Nobody would believe him until the blue lights started flashing.” Perhaps affected by nerves, Blyth make the worst start possible, falling two goals behind in the first twenty minutes of the game. Grey awards a contentious penalty which Graham Whittle slams in at the Leazes End, before Dixie McNeill places a rising half-volley into the opposite corner of the same net. Though Johnson pulls one back with eight minutes remaining, Blyth Spartans’ fairytale has finally reached an end. A bedroom furniture supplier rewards each player with £350 worth of vouchers. Steve Carney, an electrician signed from North Shields at the start of the season, moves to Newcastle United for a £1,000 fee. Midfielder Keith Houghton eventually leaves the police force to sign for Carlisle. And, most famously of all, Alan Shoulder goes from the night shift at Hetton Colliery to playing centre-forward for Newcastle, scoring 38 goals in 117 games. “I was working down the pit on Sunday night, signed for Newcastle on Monday and made my debut against Stoke on the Saturday. It changed my life,” he later said.

It changed Blyth too. “The most famous non-league club in the world,” FA secretary Ted Croker said at the time, although their success was by no means confined to a few short months in 1977-78. Semi-finalists in the FA Amateur Cup six years earlier, in the decade and a half between 1972 and 1988 they never once finished lower than fifth in any league they played in, lifted the Northern League title on no fewer than ten occasions, were seven-time Northumberland Senior Cup winners, twice FA Trophy quarter finalists, and champions of the Northern Premier League First Division at their very first attempt.

It was off the pitch that problems were beginning to mount. By 2001 Spartans had amassed a debt of almost £300,000, with £56,000 owed to the Inland Revenue alone. “We were 10 minutes away from a winding-up order being issued,' says chairman Tony Platten, who was instrumental in saving the club from extinction. “The Inland Revenue said the cheque had to be at the Morpeth tax office by 4pm. I managed to twist some people's arms in local business on the basis that they would lend us some money and they might be paid back one day. We got the cheque to Morpeth at 3.50pm.”

With the Spartans back on a more secure financial footing, and promoted as Unibond Premier Champions in 2005, the cash from 2009’s televised third round home tie with Premier League Blackburn Rovers was used to help develop Croft Park, Blyth’s home since 1907 and now with cover on all four sides. "Spartans is a famous club because of the FA Cup,” Platten told The Telegraph. “Football supporters across the world over the age of about 40 will always associate Blyth with upsetting the odds.”

Sixth in the Blue Square Conference North following Tuesday’s 2-0 win over Redditch, Blyth nonetheless start as underdogs against Gateshead, up to tenth in the Conference Premier on the back of six straight wins and eleven goals in their last two games. The Tynesiders have brought a dozen of their own stewards, a pair of uniformed bouncers are patrolling outside the Masons Arms and families in green and white scarves are already making their way into the ground with an hour and a half to go until the game begins.

I head inside at half past two. “One student,” I say, showing my card. The turnstile operator looks at me blankly. “Nee students today,” he says. A tenner it is, then. Heavy morning rain gives way to weak, cold sunlight by 3 o’clock. Blyth line up with six former Gateshead players in their starting eleven, including Stephen Turnbull, whose elder twin Phil, an ex-Spartan loanee himself, starts in midfield (Gateshead name two more Blyth old boys, Paul Farmer and Josh Gillies, among their substitutes). The crowd is 2,719, including 967 who’ve made the short journey north. “Tynesiders, Tynesiders” and “When the Heed go marching in” start off the Gateshead fans. “Spartans! Spartans!” comes the reply, accompanied by a drum. “We are Northumbria,” from the Kingsway, “You’re just a town full of smackheads,” retorts the Plessey Road, alluding to the coastal town’s unfortunate reputation as the heroin capital of the North. The teams come out, smoke bombs and toilet rolls hit the pitch and a flag is passed along the length of one stand. “Welcome to Sparta” says a banner behind the Kingsway goal.

After a fairly even first fifteen minutes Gateshead open the scoring when a seemingly harmless cross from on-loan Sunderland left-back Michael Liddle hits the luckless Chris Swailes on the boot and spins past Dan Lowson in the Spartans goal, a mirror of the own goal Swailes scored on his Premier League debut for Ipswich Town. With their next attack, the Tynesiders make it two; skipper Ben Clark breaking through a challenge and squaring the ball for James Curtis, Gateshead’s longest serving player, to roll into the net. There’s delirium behind the opposite goal. “Press them, press them,” mutters the man to my left, who’s wearing a blue snorkel parka and smoking a cigar. With Phil Turnbull and Kris Gate utterly dominant in midfield, Gateshead cruise the remainder of the half.

Blyth, with 20-goal top scorer Paul Brayson now playing wider on the left and beginning to pose some problems for the previously immaculate James Tavernier, improve markedly after the break. Tim Deasy palms away a Brayson effort from just inside his post and Turnbull has a goalbound shot blocked, but Blyth just can’t exert enough pressure on the Gateshead defence. With ten minutes left the visitors’ Nathan Fisher (signed for £3,000 after scoring 44 goals in just 49 games for Chester-le-Street Town last season) puts a volley wide and the Spartans fans begin to drift away. “We’re going to Wemberlee,” the Gateshead fans sing in the Plessey Road end. Not even Brayson - who strikes the bar inside the final minute - can do anything to alter that.

“We got a great result and we’re delighted to be in the semi-finals,” says victorious manager Ian Bogie. “In the second half we got a bit complacent and gave Blyth a bit of a head of steam, letting them in on a couple of occasions. Credit to them, they kept going right to the end.” “We gave a good account of ourselves,” Blyth boss Mick Tait tells The Sunday Sun, “but I’m very disappointed to have lost. We did our best in the end but we didn’t give ourselves a chance because of the goals we gave away.”

Admission: £10
Date: 26th February 2011

Three more facts about Blyth:

More than 100 players have gone on to Football League clubs from the Spartans, though none is more notorious than the Senegalese student Ali Dia, who made one brief Premier League appearance after someone purporting to be George Weah recommended him to then Southampton boss Graeme Souness. He later played for Gateshead. “His performance was almost comical,” recalled Matt Le Tissier. “He kind of took my place, but he didn't really have a position. He was just wondering everywhere. I don't think he realised what position he was supposed to be in.”

As well as 1978, the redoubtable cup fighters have reached the FA Cup first round proper 31 times, the second round on 14 occasions and the third round three times.

Their most famous current fan is England cricketer Graeme Swann, whose father Ray made his debut for Blyth CC as a 16-year-old, later playing for Northumberland and Northants.

Blyth links: Blog Spartans and Blyth Fans’ Forum.

Pre-match: Along with the Masons Arms, there are several pubs – Olivers, Oddfellows, The Steamboat and The Post Office - clustered together on Bridge Street, a 5-10 minute walk along Plessey Road towards the Quay and Ridley Park. Nearby, @Ivy does breakfast specials until 11.30am.

Getting there
: Arriva’s X11 service from Newcastle stops outside the ground on Plessey Road. Day return tickets cost £4.80 from Haymarket Bus Station.

A version of this post also appeared on The Real FA Cup.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Ground 154: Nissan Sports and Social Club, Washington FC

It was 1926, the year of the General Strike, when the miners of Washington’s F Pit entered a football team in the second division of the North Eastern League. In the decade that followed Washington Colliery produced Jimmy McGrath, later of Cardiff and Port Vale, Gordon Dreyer, who played for Hartlepool and Hull, Liverpool and Bolton defender Jack Tennant, and Jack Atkinson, who would join many of his Bolton Wanderers teammates in the landings at Taranto as part of the 53rd (Bolton) Field Regiment. Ronnie Starling left Colliery for Hull and turned out in the colours of Newcastle, Aston Villa and England, captaining Sheffield Wednesday to the 1935 FA Cup. A second England international, Jimmy Hagan, went on to make over 350 appearances for Sheffield United, managing Peterborough to the Fourth Division title, West Bromwich Albion to the League Cup, and Benfica to three successive Portuguese championships, a domestic treble and the semi-final of the European Cup. “A wonderful manager and a great man,” Eusebio later called him.

In 1947, the club reformed as Washington Mechanics under a committee elected in the F Pit canteen. The Mechanics won seven Washington Amateur League titles, two Durham Trophy Challenge Cups, and went as far as the third qualifying round of the FA Cup in 1971, losing 3-1 to Bradford Park Avenue before a record crowd of 3,800. After their ground was torn up to make way for an access road, Washington moved to Albany Park in 1979; nine years later they joined the Northern League. Carl Magnay, Chelsea defender and Football Icon winner, played for them in Division Two after being released from Leeds United. In 2009 he won his first Northern Ireland Under-21 cap.

Vandalism was a common occurrence at Albany Park, with ground equipment stolen and seats in the main stand regularly smashed up. But the people who broke in on the night of January 16th 2009 had something far more devastating in mind. A fire was started in a portakabin but quickly engulfed the rest of the ground, completely destroying the changing rooms. The first team kit, already laid out for a home game with Norton, was stacked in a pile and deliberately set ablaze. Tracksuits, footballs, goal nets and first-aid kits were all irreperably damaged. Despite the many offers of help - Durham FA donated a match ball and medical gear, fans of other Northern League clubs raised cash, Camerons Breweries paid to renovate the changing rooms and Hartlepool United defender Micky Nelson arranged for the club to send a spare set of strips – Washington’s biggest problem was simply finding somewhere to play. “We’re devastated. We want to battle on, but we need to find a place to play our home games,” said Derek Armstrong, player, committee member and finally chairman during his 25 years with the club.

While their own ground was rebuilt, Washington moved to Britain’s biggest car plant, sharing the facilities at Nissan Sports and Social Club. The arrangement was made permanent at the start of this season, Albany Park now left for Sunday morning football and Washington Town of the Durham Alliance. A hut at the entrance to the Social Club car park doubles as a turnstile and programme stand. There are picnic tables and a children’s playground next to one of the corner flags, a bar overlooking the pitch and a cantilevered stand down one side.

Washington, struggling towards the bottom of the table, fall two goals behind - the opener scored by Team Northumbria’s Dean Critchlow, once an FA Youth Cup semi-finalist in a Newcastle United side that included Andy Carroll and Fraser Forster. On the stroke of half time the ball’s kicked long towards Northumbria’s goal, keeper Andrew Jennison stoops to pick it up at the feet of a forward and the referee signals for a penalty. The players look bemused. “What was that for?” someone laughs. Jennison dives the wrong way and is still busy arguing with the officials when the teams come back out for the second half. “If you see it, get your flag up,” one of his teammates tells the linesman. “You kna yersel' the referee’s having a beast.”

Not that it takes very long for Northumbria to restore their two-goal lead, Lee Scott scoring his ninth of the season as we're finishing our half-time tea in the Penshaw Suite. Jake Richardson, son of ex-Everton, Arsenal and Real Sociedad midfielder Kevin, adds a fourth, but the visitors squander as many chances as they take before Mark Fenwick, one-time junior at Swindon Town, wraps things up in the final minute of the game. “Promotion is the aim. Our side is good enough and we deserve it with our performances over the season. We’ve played all the teams above us and they still have to play each other,” manager Paul Johnson had said beforehand. His side move up to fourth, seven points behind North Shields but having played two games more. For Washington, forced to submit a provisional resignation to the league as they wait for Nissan to formally announce they can stay another season, the biggest victory is surviving at all.

Admission: £4
Date: 19th February 2011

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Ground 153: Glebe Sports Ground, Whickham FC

Although it had one of the largest coalmines in Europe at the start of the 14th century, Whickham is much better known nowadays as an elevated, genteel suburb of Gateshead, a two-time Britain in Bloom winner which “commands a beautiful prospect of the vale of the Tyne from Newburn to Newcastle” as the History, Topography and Directory of Durham eloquently put things in 1894.

The Victorians had their scenic view, but it would take another fifty years before there was a football club for anyone to watch. Set up towards the end of WWII, and initially named Axwell Park Colliery Welfare after the village’s last working mine,
have had an up and down existence since joining the Northern League in 1988. Promoted at the first attempt, they were relegated in both 1992 and 1997 and have been stuck in Division Two ever since.

Whickham’s best years undoubtedly came as a Wearside League team when, in the five years between 1979 and 1984, they reached the semi-final of the FA Vase no fewer than three times, losing to Almondsbury Green in ’79 and, controversially, to eventual winners Stansted five years later. In 1981, after squeezing past Windsor & Eton in front of a crowd of more than 3,000 people, they took part in Wembley’s first all-seated final against Willenhall Town of the West Midlands Regional League. Watched by 12,000 fans (included an estimated 5,000 who'd travelled down from Tyneside), it was Willenhall who made the better start, scoring two goals in the first ten minutes of the game. Full-back Alan Scott, a fireman from Consett, scored a quick reply, before Willenhall’s goalkeeper collided with Billy Cawthra’s bulky frame and had to be stretchered off. With the opposition centre forward forced to play in goal the momentum was now almost entirely one-sided. Ronnie Williamson levelled the score midway through the second half; in extra time a Cawthra shot was blocked, hit a defender and ricocheted into the net. George Cook collected the winners’ trophy from Sir Matt Busby, and thousands of people turned out to greet the returning team at Glebe Park the next day. “All that standing around on cold football grounds, all the knockbacks, were worth it for that one moment of leading your side out at Wembley," manager Colin Richardson told The Northern Echo.

Except for a brief, vicarious brush with fame through Big Brother 6 winner Anthony Hutton, once signed by Whickham for £75, in the thirty years thereafter success has been much thinner on the ground. The black and whites finished tenth last season, and could manage no better than fourteenth the season before that. This year, though, they're up in fourth, nine points behind Graham Fenton’s North Shields but with games in hand on all the teams above. As improvements go, it’s almost as good as Birtley Town’s: hard on the heels of a disastrous season in which they lost their sponsors, used more than ninety players and won only sixteen points, the visitors now sit comfortably in ninth.

An overnight deluge means the sound of squelching footsteps is almost as loud as that of boot on ball. The pitch slopes down towards the distant River Tyne from the open cricket club boundary; there’s a single covered stand behind the near goal with numbered wooden bench seats and ‘Made in Britain’ embossed on its roof support posts. I take a seat against the back wall - behind a half eaten Rich Tea and an empty can of Foster’s. The game starts slowly, with more sliding tackles than shots on target until Birtley old boy Tony Thirlkell sidefoots the home side ahead after twenty-five minutes, his sixteenth goal of the season. “Birtley, our heads don’t go down, mind. Everyone!” bellows one of the beaten defenders as the tannoy briefly crackles out live commentary from Newcastle’s game at Ewood Park. Ross Peareth doubles the lead just before half time, and a near post header from Scott Swanston, the game’s outstanding player, makes it three almost as soon as the teams start again after the break. “Smallest bloke on the pitch,” the goalkeeper laments. “Shite goal to give away, lads,” says Scott Oliver on the Birtley Town bench. “Are we up to third now, are we?” asks a substitute. “How am I supposed to kna?” his mate replies.

Admission: £4 (plus £1.60 for a gorgeous homemade sausage roll and a Bovril that came in a proper mug).
Date: February 12th 2011

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Ground 152: Boldon Colliery Welfare

Until the 1980s there was a pit wheel overlooking Boldon Villa's football ground. Both would have been familiar sights to Sam Bartram. On Saturdays he would start his early shift down the mine at four in the morning, then turn out for the football team at three in the afternoon.

Born in South Shields in 1914, Bartram's family moved the few miles to Boldon Colliery at the end of the Great War. He played for Sunderland and Durham Schoolboys, started out at Boldon Villa playing wing-half, then switched to centre-forward while at North Shields where, partnering his uncle in attack, he scored 33 goals in just 25 games, including six in a single match against Wallsend. In 1934, aged 20 and back with Villa following an unsuccessful trial match with Reading, he volunteered to play in goal when Boldon's regular keeper was injured before a cup final replay. In the crowd that day was Angus Seed, whose brother Jimmy, once of Tottenham Hotspur and England, had recently been appointed manager of Charlton Athletic.

Bartram signed for the Addicks in September 1934. Despite conceding eight goals in his opening two reserve games, he soon broke into the first team as Charlton finished eight points clear of Reading at the top of the Third Division South. He would remain Charlton's first-choice goalkeeper for the twenty-two years which followed, his 623 games encompassing all three divisions of the Football League, second, third and fourth place finishes in Division One and two successive FA Cup Finals. "Sam is to Charlton what Matthews was to Blackpool or Milburn to Newcastle," says Mike Blake, author of Sam Bartram: The Story of a Goalkeeping Legend. Today, within a goalkick of the Valley you'll find Bartram's Restaurant, Sam Bartram Close, the Sam Bartram Gates and a nine-foot bronze statue of "Charlton's greatest ever goalkeeper", balancing a ball in the outstretched fingers of his right hand, sleeves rolled back, and polo-neck shirt tucked in to his shorts. Supporters raised £60,000 in a mere nine months to pay for it: "Charlton without Sam is like Laurel without Hardy" as the inscription on the 1950s bubblegum card went.

Although he was never capped, Bartram achieved international renown. "With his polo-neck woolly sweater, voluminous bloomers, hulking boots and Desperate Dan chin," wrote The Daily Telegraph in 2004, "Bartram has come to represent his generation of footballers; his brooding sepia image adorns the window of a photographic shop in Paris while, even more curiously, his life-sized cut-out is on display in Marshall Fields, the biggest department store in Chicago, for the simple reason that the manager of 50 years ago (who knew nothing about 'soccer') decided Bartram's presence would lend a certain charm."

And yet he isn't the only link between Boldon Villa and Charlton Athletic. Four months after signing their goalkeeper, Jimmy Seed - born in nearby Consett and an ex-Wearside League player himself - returned for Villa's 17-year-old full-back, Jack Shreeve. Both Shreeve and Bartram played in the FA Cup Finals of 1946 and 1947, Charlton emphatically losing the first to Derby County but winning the second 1-0 against Burnley in front of 98,215 fans (they had beaten Newcastle United, the team Bartram had grown up supporting, 4-0 in the semi-final). Later that year, the two men paraded the Cup around the streets of Boldon Colliery after Charlton had played at Sunderland. Another Boldon goalkeeper, Harry Smith, signed for the London club at the same time as Shreeve. A decade later, Ron and Jack Vitty followed them south. Jack would go on to make almost 250 appearances for Brighton & Hove Albion and Workington Town. In 2008, Boldon hosted the inaugural Sam Bartram Cup. Charlton Athletic donated a signed goalkeeper's shirt, which still hangs in the clubhouse.

One of the Wearside League's eleven founding members, Boldon Community Association are a club whose current ambitions match the size of their history. Despite their lowly league position (second bottom, ahead of only Prudhoe, and five places behind visitors Stockton Town), the club plan to apply for a place in the Northern League within the next two years, having raised over £24,000 in grants and donations to improve the facilities at Boldon Colliery Welfare. Hard standing now rings the touchline, and floodlights were installed at the beginning of the year. Less than a day later, though, copper thieves removed 185 metres of cable from under the sides of the pitch, digging trenches three-feet deep before dragging the cable out through a hole in the perimeter fence. “Devastated is probably the only word that’s printable to describe how we’re feeling at the moment," club secretary Bryn Griffiths told The Shields Gazette. "For five years we’ve fundraised and applied for grants. The lads have given up their free time at weekends and after work to dig out the trenches for the cable, and just as everything was coming together, someone has gone and done this."

Sited between a social club carpark and a bridle path, Villa share an entrance gate with the Boldon C.A. Sports Ground, home of Northern League club Jarrow Roofing. Our arrival, right on kick-off, swells the crowd to twenty-four. There are a couple of green portakabins, a loudspeaker tacked to a corrugated roof and an all-brick clubhouse, painted red, with Villa in white capitals on the chimney.

Both sides struggle on the sodden pitch, but it's Stockton who create the chances in a one-sided first half. A quick break sees two attackers bearing down on goal. "Now! Now!" urges the onrushing number 10, but the sideways pass bobbles, hits his shin and dribbles harmlessly wide of the post. "Ah, man!" he shouts, clutching the back of his head. Minutes later, an almost identical move ends with the number 11 sliding past the prostrate keeper. "That's five times that, man," complains the Boldon right-back. "It's them ower there," the centre-half points to the left, "they're not deeing nowt."

Things are more even after the break, and only some truly atrocious attempts at finishing keep the score at 1-0. Ten minutes from the end, it's the visitors who finally kill the game. A diagonal ball out of midfield splits the gap between two defenders and the low cross is angled back past the diving keeper into the bottom corner of the goal. For Boldon, it's a seventeenth defeat in just twenty-three league games.

Admission: £2.50
Date: 5th February 2010.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Greatest Game: South Korea 2 Italy 1

When I bought my 2002 World Cup tickets the year before the tournament began, few people seriously expected South Korea to qualify past the group stage. In the space of three months, Guus Hiddink’s side had been thrashed 5-0 by both France and the Czech Republic, mirroring the scoreline (ironically, against a Dutch side coached by Hiddink) which got Cha Bum Kun fired two games in to France ’98. Samsung hastily withdrew a TV campaign which ended with the tagline ‘Hiddink, show us your ability’ and the Korean press derisively nicknamed him ‘Mister 5-0’. “The players should be well equipped with advanced superior skills and be more than ready for the World Cup by now when the opening is less than two months away. Isn’t that what Hiddink is here for?” raged the Chosun Ilbo. Despite the optimism of the players - "If we try our hardest we can do well," said midfielder Choi Sung-yong - most of the people I knew were relatively downbeat. “I’ll be happy if we score one more goal than Japan,” a Korean friend confided minutes before the start of the opening game against Poland.

But the Poles were swept aside with ease, a 2-0 win giving the Koreans their first World Cup victory in fifteen attempts. And now, four days after Park Ji-sung’s goal had beaten nine-man Portugal and sent Hiddink’s team through as the winners of their group, here we were, high up at the Daejeon World Cup Stadium, lone dots in a tumultuous expanse of scarlet bandanas, noise sticks and t-shirts with the slogan ‘Be The Reds’ written across the chest. A giant Taegeukgi was passed overhead; “Dae Han Min Guk!" (Korea Republic) reverberated across the stadium, hands thrusting the words ‘Again 1966’ into the air. The only time you noticed the tiny pocket of Italians was when they stood for their anthem and walked out, gesticulating furiously, at the very end of the game.

Without the injured Nesto and suspended Cannavaro, Italy start with Paolo Maldini at the centre of defence and Alessandro Del Piero partnering Christian Vieri up front. They came under pressure immediately, both on and off the pitch. “Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo,” the Korean fans boom. “Arirang gogaero neomeoganda…” (Crossing over Arirang pass, the one who abandoned me will not walk four kilometres before their feet ache in pain). Coco, outpaced, scythes down Park Ji-sung, Song Chong-gug takes the free-kick from the right and Seol Ki-hyeon is grappled to the floor by Christian Panucci. “Penalty!” scream the commentators, but Ahn Jung-hwan nervously places his shot low to Buffon’s right and the Italian, arms flailing, palms the ball round the post.

The crowd quietens, but only momentarily. Arirang” segues into “Oh, Pilsung Korea!” (Victory Korea!) as first Vieri then Totti miss with shots at goal. But then Totti pitches a corner to the near post and Vieri, bent almost double at the waist, heads in to the top of the net, wheeling away with a finger to his lips.

The noise doesn’t stop. Nor do the Korean players, who have more of the possession as the Italians fall back, content to hold their lead. On the hour, Del Pierro is replaced by Gattuso; Hiddink, in contrast, brings on another two forwards. His team attack in desperate waves, but are more and more vulnerable to the counter. Vieri scuffs a one-on-one, and Lee Young-pyo’s knee deflects a goalbound shot inches wide of the post. There are only two minutes left when a cross hits Panucci on the chest and spins back off his arm to Seol Ki-hyeon, who jabs the ball left-footed past the static Buffon. The stadium explodes, Hiddink, dark-suited, pumps the air with his fist. In a madcap couple of minutes, Vieri misses again and Seol hits the side netting with 39,000 fans already out of their seats.

Almost everything that could possibly happen on a football pitch happens in extra-time. Totti turns Song Chong-gug and tumbles in the box as the defender slides to make a challenge. He looks back, arms raised, only to see the referee, correctly, reaching into his pocket for a second yellow card. Minutes later, Damiano Tomassi is wrongly flagged for offside as he touches the ball around Lee Woon-jae. The play takes on the cadence of a basketball game. Hwang heads the ball into the ground and straight up at Buffon; Seol gets into a tangle and Lee, flying to his right, somehow manages to divert Gattuso’s rising shot over the bar.

There are three minutes left before penalties when Lee Chun-soo rolls the ball back to Lee Young-pyo. The cross swings in right-footed, “Ahn Jung-hwan…heading! Goooooal!” the commentators howl in unison. Ahn, kissing his wedding ring, sprints off in the same direction as Vieri. Fireworks go off, the Korean players are all on their knees as the Italians, dumbfounded, sit silently by the touchline. Ahn leads a lap of honour. Not for the last time that night, a beer is shoved into my hands. “Dae han min guk!” roars out again, and this time it sounds like the whole city is singing.

“THIEVES” spits the Corriere dello Sport, black capitals blaring out from its front page. “Outrage!” says the slightly more measured La Gazetta dello Sport. “It was a scandal,” says Francesco Totti, so confident before the game. “The truth is the referee was set against us…They wanted us out”. “Korea is a powerful country. It’s clear they would have done something. I’ve never in my life seen refereeing that bad,” remarks the head of the Italian World Cup delegation, sardonically. “It was like something out of a comedy film." They were laughing in South Korea, where five million people had joyously spilled onto the streets. "Veni, vidi, vici," mocked the following day’s Chosun Ilbo.

“The gentleman will never set foot in Perugia again,” Luciano Gaucci said of South Korea’s matchwinner. "I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian soccer." Although he later backtracked, Ahn moved on to Japan. Byron Moreno, the Ecuadorian referee, was banned for twenty games after allowing twenty minutes of injury time in which LDU Quito scored twice to defeat Barcelona Sporting Club, and retired as a referee. In September 2010 he was arrested at New York’s Kennedy Airport after police discovered ten bags of heroin strapped to his stomach and legs. As for ‘Mister 5-0’, Guus Hiddink was granted Korean citizenship and had statues, hotels, a song and a football stadium named in his honour. More than 200 books were published on the subject of ‘Hiddink syndrome’, Samsung hurriedly re-released their old TV campaign (it would eventually have an estimated marketing value of over $1 billion), and presented Hiddink’s parents with a plaque of appreciation.

But before all that, we moved on to Gwangju, and a quarter-final against Spain.