Friday, 29 April 2011

Ground 167: Horsfall Stadium, Bradford Park Avenue

For much of the season, promotion seemed little more than a remote possibility for Bradford Park Avenue and FC United of Manchester. After their FA Cup heroics at Rochdale and Brighton, FC were next to bottom at the turn of the year, until a run of two defeats in twenty games lifted them into fourth, one place behind the similarly resurgent Park Avenue, who finished the regular season with eight wins out of nine.

“We’re up for it, we’re ready and we’re confident. We don’t mind who we play or where we play them. We’re a nomadic team, we’ve not got a home of our own so we play wherever we have to,” assistant manager Roy Soule tells the FC website, but United haven’t won in five previous visits to the Horsfall and there’s a palpable lack of confidence in the pub before the game. “Three-nil to them,” a mate tells me as we join the lengthy queue to get into the ground. “I think we’ll get stuffed, but I’m still hopeful,” another says. After a fifteen minute delay while the near-3,000 crowd tries to enter through the stadium’s two turnstiles, both pessimists are quickly proved wrong. Bradford keeper John Lamb does well to parry a shot from the prolific Mike Norton, but the left boot of Matty Wolfenden sparks bedlam in the tea hut queue, which otherwise hasn’t moved much since the two teams finished their pre-match warm-up.

Bradford have the better of the half but rarely threaten with Chadwick and McManus imperious at the centre of defence. The home side’s best effort comes direct from a corner, the ball striking the angle of post and bar. “Let’s play football, United,” a fan shouts as it’s hooked up towards Norton. The noise in the single stand is relentless, the 2,000 travelling FC supporters going through a repertoire of songs which includes The Beach Boys, Woody Guthrie, The Carpenters, Ewan MacColl, The Inspiral Carpets, Norman Greenbaum, The Drifters and The Sex Pistols. “Come on Avenue,” a few voices shout as Bradford press forward before half time.

The game has barely restarted when United’s front two combine once again to put the result beyond any doubt. Norton’s pass to Wolfenden is misdirected / struck perfectly through the covering defender’s legs into the path of Jerome Wright, who turns the ball at the far post, a Bradford player tumbling after it. Bodies surge forward, scarves twirl maniacally overhead. Some run on to the pitch, joining the heap of players in front of the stand. A Park Avenue defender looks across, arms folded over his chest, shaking his head in dismay. When James Riley is shown a second yellow for dissent only moments later, it’s all over for the home side. Riley stomps off, still remonstrating about a free kick. “Won’t pay Glazer, work for Sky,” sing a couple of thousand delirious Mancunians.

The ten-men have chances, Aiden Savory and Tom Greaves – scorer of a hat-trick when Park Avenue put four goals past United at the start of the season – both going close. The home fans begin to drift away. “We’re going to Colwyn Bay,” booms out as the other play-off ends in a 2-0 win for the Welsh side at home to North Ferriby United.

Somewhere down the line it became fashionable to knock FC United. “Why couldn’t they just go and watch a non-league team that was already there?” people ask, as if tribal loyalties have nothing to do with following a club. “The Chelsea of non-league football,” they sneer, although the stadium development fund and the rent they pay to Bury means the club’s playing budget is one of the smallest in the division. “Hypocrites,” they yelled when they switched their cup-tie with Rochdale for live TV in return for cut-price tickets for both sets of fans. “It’ll never last,” they tell you, though Alan Gowling said the same in the summer of 2005. “We’re gonna build our own ground, we’re gonna build our own ground,” serenades us all the way back to the car. With fans like these, you don’t doubt it for a moment.

FC United of Manchester – one win away from the Conference North.

Admission: £8
Date: 28th April 2011

Monday, 25 April 2011

Ground 166: Farnacres, Gateshead Rutherford AFC.

Rutherford AFC, “the famous football club from Newcastle” (or, more accurately nowadays, Lobley Hill). Formed, as Science and Art FC, in 1878 by schoolmasters from the Rutherford College of Technology (now the University of Northumbria), founder members of the Northumberland FA and first club of the legendary Colin Veitch, England international, FA Cup and League title winner, devisor of an offside trap that became so successful it necessitated a change in the law, the first man to use the humble chalkboard for pre-match tactical planning and, as a result, the most decorated Newcastle United captain of all-time. Playwright, musician, socialist and friend of George Bernard Shaw, “Veitch’s name,” began his obituary in The Guardian, “was synonymous with honesty and good fellowship.”

It’s 115 years since Rutherford took on Newcastle United ‘A’ in the Northumberland Senior Cup semi-final which would turn out to be their 17-year-old captain’s last appearance in red and black stripes, but they remain one of the largest senior football clubs in the north east of England, with different men’s teams, two women’s sides and line-ups at ten different ages playing in the Gateshead Youth League. Each player contributes an annual membership fee which, along with cash with sponsors, helps keep the club afloat.

The Farnacres Ground is in dip just a few short metres from the A1 road and the Team Valley Trading Estate, hidden by trees, a dodgy postcode and the continuing inadequacies of the Orange mobile phone signal. When we arrive, five minutes after the 11 o’clock kick-off, a man, the dog from the Dulux Paint commercial and two children are exiting through an open gate, reducing the crowd to nine. The game begins as a war of attrition fought over and above the middle of the pitch, “Howay lads, get it doon and play,” shouts a Rutherford player as he watches a high ball disappear down the wing. The home side, with one of Ryton’s Northern League Day goalscorers Robbie Frame playing on the left of midfield, are the first to threaten, striking the base of the post midway through the half. “It’s coming, lads. Just a bit of luck,” shouts manager Danny Hall, an ex-FA Youth Cup winner with Manchester United and the man who led the Swifts to last year’s First Division title. But it’s Ashington Colliers, the reserve eleven of Northern League side Ashington AFC, who take the lead, Craig Knox turning away a shot only to see the rebound planted firmly between defenders as they scramble to cover the line. “They’ve only had one chance,” Knox complains.

They've barely had another one when Rutherford deservedly pull level just before the break, midfielder Chris Douglas spinning on the edge of the area and clipping the ball inside the keeper’s right hand post. “Cracking goal that, Dougie,” a dozen voices shout all at once. Ashington are on the back foot and when a midfielder accidentally runs the ball out for a throw-in he prods it away while he recovers his position. “Get on with it, man,” the referee says, jeeringly. “What’s the matter with you?”

The second half starts just as niggly, though the referee keeps the game flowing by shouting “Get on with it!” whenever a player appeals for a foul. “You just play football and shut it,” he tells a Colliers midfielder who’s disputing a throw-in. Gradually, though, with James Harmison, ex-Bedlington Terrier and brother of England cricketer Steve, an imposing presence at the centre of defence, the away team begin to press forward, their number nine blazing wide with a first-time volley, scuffing a shot over and steering the ball the wrong side of the post before he finally scores with a glancing header direct from a corner. “About time, Davy,” the goalkeeper shouts up the pitch. “How slow are we today?” a Rutherford defender asks. “It’s the exact same ball everytime.” We’re into the dying minutes before Rutherford finally exert some pressure of their own, Frame hitting the keeper square in the face before Douglas shoots low into the corner of the net. With third-bottom Murton beating Percy Main, it's a vital point for the home side. Nec Sorte Nec Fato (Neither By Chance Nor Fate), as the Rutherford motto puts it.

The two teams climb the steep bank to the clubhouse bar and we set off to see Jarrow Roofing at home to Whitley Bay.

Admission: Free
Date: 25th April 2011

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Ground 165: King George V, Guisborough

Easter: for football fans a time to celebrate new beginnings and an end to the dark winter days of doubt, denial and freezing cold terraces. Wycombe’s goalless draw at Torquay United had already put Chesterfield into League One. In Cardiff, two goals from Adel Taarabt left QPR on the cusp of the Premier League, while a last-minute header at Brighton’s Withdean Stadium put Nigel Adkins’ Southampton within touching distance of the Championship. And at the lovingly-tended King George V Ground in Guisborough, the home team, now six long years out of the Northern League’s top flight, need only a single point to clinch their first promotion since 1987.

Excitement mounts as the team news comes in.

Seventh and fifth in the previous two seasons, the Priorymen began their league campaign with seven wins and a draw and haven’t been out of the top two anytime since. With just one defeat in 18 games – a run which includes a 1-0 North Riding Senior Cup final win over local rivals Marske United – Guisborough go into the game having scored 15 goals in their last four matches and 98 across the season as a whole. Washington had a barnstorming start of their own when they briefly challenged at the top and inflicted a 3-0 defeat on Newton Aycliffe – the champions’ second and final league loss of the season – but have recently lost their main source of funding, manager David Lee, and most of their playing staff to other clubs, resulting in a run of 20 games without a win which has latterly included a 9-1 battering at home to North Shields and only the third victory of a tumultuous season for bottom club Morpeth Town. In soaring temperatures, visiting boss Dave Smith is pressed into service in the centre of defence – his first competitive game in fifteen years as part of an otherwise youthful and largely inexperienced first eleven. Local lad, captain and top scorer Dave Onions, whose 35 goals – to go with the 31 he scored last year - include a stunning three hat-tricks in ten days against Crook, Seaham and Morpeth Town, leads the line for Guisborough. “Every player except the keeper has scored so far this season” committee member John Butterfield tells me as he chalks up the team on a board in the social club. Even so, Mark Cowan, who helps run the ever-growing supporters club and is currently writing Far From the Massive Crowds, an entertaining, anecdotal account of the club’s season, isn’t the only Guisborough fan to be feeling more than beer and hot dogs in their stomach as the kick off draws near.

Guard of honour

Those nerves don’t last long. It takes approximately two minutes for 19-year-old ex-Aston Villa junior Tom Portas to open the scoring, slipping a defender and stroking a 20-yard shot past the goalkeeper’s dive. It’s three within twelve minutes and six before half-time, ex-Horden forward Chris I’Anson scoring four times and Onions contributing his now obligatory goal. With the sublime Portus controlling the tempo from midfield and manager Chris Hardly patiently conducting his team’s play, Guisborough glide through the half, the Washington defence left looking despondently at the linesman as I’Anson scores his fourth goal OF the day and fifteenth of the season just before the break.

To the away side’s great credit they never once look like giving up, and their unstinting efforts are finally rewarded with a late goal for midfielder John Sherlock. By then the home team are seven goals ahead, Ian Clark – who made over 300 professional appearances for Doncaster, Hartlepool and Darlington – having scored shortly after the restart. As the North Riding Senior Cup is paraded in front of the tea hut, Lee Bythway stoops to head an eighth goal with his side’s final attack of the game. Most of the season high crowd of 210 stay back to celebrate with the players in the clubhouse bar. “We’ve got a lot of young lads in this team, seventeen and eighteen year olds,” a beaming Dave Onions tells me. “We’ll push on next season and see where it takes us.” “Beyond any of our expectations,” says Mark Cowan.

Thunder booms over the nearby hills as players from some of Guisborough’s ten youth teams start to practise on the now empty pitch, but inside the bar the celebrations are louder still. A fantastic club. Go and see it for yourself.

Admission: £4
Date: 23rd April 2011

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Ground 164: Links Avenue, Cullercoats

It’s a gorgeous April day, the warmest of the year on the south bank of the river, but the fog rolls in as I cross to the north of the Tyne and Cullercoats is all but deserted. A small troop of kayakers paddle in the sea like spectres on an Elsinore battlement; a JCB digger is parked on a sandy beach littered with the remnants of chip shop dinners.

Although it’s long since been swallowed by the urban sprawl of North Tyneside, Cullercoats has its own distinct history as a fishing village and fashionable bathing resort. The Cullercoats Colony, a group of artists which, between 1881 and 1882, included the renowned American illustrator Winslow Homer, helped put the village on the cultural map. The small bay, once home to coble boats and salt pans, still houses the Dove Marine Laboratory, first opened in October 1897, while the nearby Metro station, built the year Homer left as part of a loop in the North Eastern Railway, maintains its Victorian bridge and platform canopies. Andy Taylor, guitarist with Duran Duran, was born in Cullercoats in 1961; Chas Chandler, ex-Animal and later manager of Jimi Hendrix and Slade, lived there before his death in 1996.

Though it’s nowhere near as renowned as any of those, Cullercoats Football Club is fast approaching a milestone of its own. Founded in 1915, the black and whites had their greatest period of success in the late-1930s, winning two out of three South East Northumberland League titles and the League Cup in the season in between. Promoted to the middle division of the Northern Alliance in 2008, when they finished runners-up to Killingworth Sporting, they’re sixth in the table, eighteen points behind leaders Hebburn Reyrolle and nineteen ahead of Stobswood Welfare, who prop up the table in sixteenth. For much of the season that was a position occupied by Forest Hall, but after taking just a single point from their opening fifteen games five wins in their last six – including an 8-0 home win over third-bottom North Shields Athletic – have lifted them into fifteenth.

With the fog getting worse by the minute I’m almost certain the game has been called off until I turn a corner behind the Sea Life Centre and hear a shout of “Man on!” A few hundred metres inland from the North Sea, Cullercoats’ Links Avenue pitch has a single-storey changing room block on one side and a main road, bus stop and road sign marking the boundary with Tynemouth behind the nearest goal. Except for the home goalkeeper, I can’t make out a single thing at the opposite end of the pitch, though I suspect on a clear day you’ll be able to see overhead Metro cables and the French Gothic spire of St George’s Church.

The home side do most of the early attacking but outstretched legs and some desperate blocks just about keep them at bay. With ten minutes gone, Forest Hall’s keeper palms a shot against his left-hand post. “Pressure the ball,” comes a voice through the gloom. Gradually, the away side improve, and a shadowy five-man passing move ends with a first-time shot swerving metres past the post. “We’re all going to make mistakes,” shouts a Cullercoats defender. “First pass you see, lads, first pass you see.” Just before half time a misplaced ball squeezes through the goalkeeper’s hands, a Cullercoats player squares it across the unguarded goal and a forward spins a shot wide from six yards out. It’s a costly miss: with their next attack Forest Hall produce the best moment of the half, a looping cross from the right redirected in to the top corner of the net via the number 9’s head. “How come their tops are all wet?” asks a substitute, shivering in the fog. “Didn’t you do geography at school, like?” “Yeah, but we didn’t study weird weather, did we?”

“The effort’s got to be better, lads,” cajoles the Cullercoats captain as the teams come back from a six-minute break (no namby-pamby quarter hours this far down the pyramid; at least not when there’s still a danger of it getting dark before full-time). The fog lifts enough for me to locate the Metro line and a junior football game taking place on a second pitch. The home side force two corners but it’s the visitors who fashion the best chance, the number 9 spinning a defender and letting fly with a shot that the keeper gets his fingertips to and turns away from goal. Minutes later the same player outpaces two players down the left and his cross is volleyed in off the bar. “Remember last week?” the home captain asks. “It’s still there for us.” “Twenty minutes,” echoes his manager, “plenty of time if you decide to start playing.” They try their very best, a shot deflecting on to the bar and out for a corner before they finally cut the deficit with ten minutes remaining, Forest Hall having previously squandered two glorious chances to extend their lead. But the away side cling on – and with Stobswood winning 4-2 at Berwick United Ultras, North Shields Athletic drop two into the single relegation place.

Admission: Free
Date: 20th April 2011

Monday, 18 April 2011

Ground 163: Kingsley Park, Ryton

This time last year Ryton FC were a club that was really going places. Places like Eppleton Colliery Welfare, where after surviving their second season in the Northern League’s top flight, they made it all the way to the Durham Challenge Cup Final, losing out 2-0 to holders Billingham Synthonia.

But then disaster struck. Just a few games into the new season, club secretary Ken Rodger discovered that the £1,000 a week sponsorship money he’d been promised wasn’t actually going to arrive. Ryton, who had already set their playing budget for the year, had to sack manager Barry Fleming and his assistant Paul Brown; every single player but one – David Wansell, who’d been signed from Chester-le-Street Town’s youth team as recently as May – followed them out of the door.

A starstruck Mike Amos meets Tyneside's top football bloggers.

Ex-Ashington assistant manager Peter Craggs arrived from a Sunday League side in Wallsend but just weeks after the club had gone out to an unlucky defeat by Scarborough Athletic in the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup, Ryton’s team of untried youngsters were thrashed 8-0 at home by Division One rivals South Shields in the Second Round of the FA Vase. Craggs tried out thirty-five players in the month that followed, none with any previous Northern League experience. A 7-0 loss at Esh Winning gave the Durham side their first win of the season, Spennymoor Town won 8-1 and Shildon topped both, scoring ten without reply at the end of October. Ryton were already relegated by the middle of March, with just a solitary win, three points all season and a goal difference of -128. Not that anybody at the club was throwing in the towel. “We’ll get to the summer, regroup, and try to get back on track,” Ken Rodger told The Northern Echo.

Which is right about where Northern League Day came in. What started out as an effort to get a few dozen fans along to Kingsley Park the day before Newcastle United played at Aston Villa soon snowballed into a league-wide campaign and a national football bloggers’ get together(in Northumberland’s finest pub, naturally). Going into Northern League Day, and on the heels of a pair of heavy defeats at Consett and Dunston, Ryton’s young team had drawn both of their previous two games – their first points since August 10th – and hopes were high for a big turn out to see their match with Brian Clough’s old side Billingham Synthonia.

"It's like watching Inter Milan versus an eco-Bristol Rovers."

The sun beats down on the Tyne Valley as the two teams come out to the sight of just over a hundred fans – Ryton's third-highest attendance of the season and more than double the crowd they would ordinarily have expected. With queues building at the burger van (we’ve gone through the pies by half time, leaving “one pastie and a few hotdogs”), the home side take an early lead through Chris McCabe, a local teenager making his full debut up front, only to be pegged back by the first of James Magowan’s three goals. After a half-time snack of jam tarts, sandwiches and cups of tea, we're still in the bar when 20-year-old midfielder Robert Frame scores the home team’s second. Actually, some of us are still there when the excellent McCabe scores again just two minutes later. Not that we miss anything: how many Premier League grounds offer cold beer in a real glass and a view of the pitch through a window in the bar?

Socrates Football Writers

When McCabe converts a loose ball for his hat-trick there are scenes of pandemonium under the five bus shelters lining the near side of the pitch. Billingham hit the post and Alex Curran, outstanding in the Ryton goal, has to make a smart save to deny former Hartlepool United and IFK Uppsala midfielder Chay Liddle. Curran's next touch is just as crucial - a free kick from the halfway line which Daniel Wilson, another graduate of one of the nineteen youth teams the sponsorless club still operates for local players, smashes past Josh Moody in the Synners goal. Ryton, without a win in 42 games and with just seven shots on target all game, are, astonishingly, 5-1 up with a little over ten minutes left to play. “Remember you’re playing for the public who’ve turned up here today,” Craggs told them at the start of the second half.

Billingham come back, Magowan scoring twice to make it two hat-tricks and eight goals with a minute plus injury time still to go. “Settle, lads. Just settle,” Craggs says from the touchline. When the final whistle goes, there are eleven heroes in blue and black stripes, exhausted but unbeaten.

Leazes Terrace gets press accreditation.

“It’s fantastic to be playing for my local team. It means a lot,” Ryton's young captain Phil Burdon tells us in the clubhouse bar after the game. “I just want the lads to have fun,” says Peter Craggs. “Just to come out and play football and enjoy it.” “Help yourselves to food,” the ever hospitable Ken Rodger tells us. “It’s like having a press pass this, isn’t it?” grins a Newcastle supporter through a mouthful of chips and dry rice. Another Premier League fan has brought his five-year-old son to his first non-league game. The clubhouse is packed, Mike Amos, Northern League Chairman, gets the drinks in and Craggs, after shaking everyone by the hand, invites us out to his car to listen to the classified results on BBC Radio Newcastle. We stand around the open door while they get to the Northern League. “And on Northern League Day,” the announcer begins, “relegated Ryton won their first home game of the season.”

A fairytale ending, fantastic people and a grand day out in the Northumberland countryside. Like the newly-named Ryton and Crawcrook Albion, I'll be back next year.

Admission: £5
Date: April 9th 2011

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Ground 162: Welfare Ground, Brandon United

From the 1968 Durham & District Sunday League to the most unlikely of Northern League champions thirty-five years later, life has rarely been dull at Brandon United FC . Little more substantial than an uphill street southwest of Durham City, and a few short miles from the battlefield at Neville’s Cross, where on October 17th 1346 a Scottish army of 12,000 men was routed, their king, David II, captured, imprisoned and later ransomed, and both his Chancellor and Chamberlain killed, Brandon made it all the way to the first round proper of the FA Cup twice in the 1980s, losing 3-0 to Bradford City and, more narrowly, 2-1 in a second game at Doncaster Rovers, and have sent four players on to the professional game including the mercurial Paul Dalton, signed first by Alex Ferguson and Manchester United and later of Hartlepool, Huddersfield and Plymouth Argyle. Alan Shoulder, Blyth Spartans’ centre-forward in their famous 1978 FA Cup run, once managed the club with ex-Newcastle United, Manchester City and England defender Steve Howey serving briefly as his assistant. "A super move for us all," Shoulder called it at the time – but in 2006 the club’s financial backers pulled out, the committee resigned en masse and United were relegated with just four wins in forty games. Two years later, Brandon had tumbled to the very bottom of the Northern League’s forty-two clubs, and were only saved from relegation by the travails of those in the feeder leagues.

After more impressive showings in the previous two years, Brandon went into this season having lost manager Adam Furness to Esh Winning and most of their players to rival clubs. An understandably poor start – they didn’t win a single game before October and have added only three more wins since then – was compounded by a failed ground inspection which left them in grave danger of expulsion from the Northern League irrespective of what happened on the pitch. When Furness’ replacement Steve Cook walked out following a one-all draw with third bottom Horden Colliery, Brandon were without a win in nine and had only Morpeth Town below them in the league. "I have operated with no budget and with the intent of formalising a club structure that works. I believe the club now has this,” Cook told The Northern Echo.

‘Lee Hitch is a Rapeist 2010’ is the first thing I see as I enter the Welfare Ground, daubed along the breezeblock back wall of its solitary stand. The second is the bags of sand and building materials dotted around the pitch, work progressing quickly as Brandon upgrade their ground. The third, the glorious view back over the valley, Durham Cathedral regal above the huddle of semi-detached suburban houses. The team sheet is sellotaped to the side of a cargo container. “Enjoy it,” shouts Marske keeper John McDonald. “Let’s start well, lads.”

The visitors, desperate for the points as they chase down North Shields in the third and final promotion place, hit the post and Andrew Wilkinson in the Brandon goal turns a shot away one-handed, but the bone-dry pitch hardly encourages possession football and soon enough both sides are resorting to lumping the ball high over the desperately flailing heads of their respective centre forwards. Passes bobble, Brandon put a header wastefully over the bar, and Wilkinson, whose handling is immaculate throughout, somehow gets his fingers to a rising shot. But too much of the play gets bogged down in midfield; “We’ve got to pick it up,” a Marske player shouts in frustration just before half time.

Marske come out brighter after the break. Within minutes a Brandon defender hooks off his own line and Wilkinson scampers out to stop ex-Whitby Town forward Karl Charlton. The away side finally score when a ball is laid back into the path of John Burton, who slams it low into the corner. “Blatant push, ref,” a Brandon defender complains to no avail. To the increasing consternation of their travelling fans, though, once in front Marske seem content to protect their lead. With fifteen minutes left the unthinkable happens and Brandon equalise, McDonald swatting the ball away from his line and top scorer Daniel Corbett scrambling home his 19th goal of the season. “Someone’s got to give us something,” a Marske player pleads. “Come on, lads. We need a goal. We’ve still got time.” Yellow shirts pile forward, Brandon miss a chance on the break, Atkinson blocks a shot with his feet, and then, with a minute of injury time left to play, Charlton holds off a defender and hits a shot across goal…it bounces off the post, thuds against a Brandon chest and rolls back over the line. It’s heartbreak for Brandon, but Marske, undeservedly on the balance of play, move to within three points of a promotion place – and still with a game in hand on North Shields.

Admission: £4
Date: April 7th 2011

Friday, 8 April 2011

Ground 161: Recreation Park, Ryhope CW

Chelsea – Manchester United wasn’t the only game taking place on the night of April 6th. At the southernmost edge of Sunderland, within sight of the Tunstall Hills and North Sea, it’s second against first in the Wearside League, Ryhope Colliery Welfare versus Easington Colliery.

For much of the season it looked like Easington, who along with Redcar have applied for promotion to the Northern League, would run away with the title in the same manner as Scarborough Town did last year, but their stuttering recent form – including a 2-1 home defeat to Darlington Cleveland Bridge at the weekend – has left them looking over their shoulders at Ryhope, Redcar and New Marske. For Ryhope, founded in 1892 but whose heyday came in the 1960s when over 4,000 fans packed in to the Recreation Ground to see an FA Cup first round tie with Workington Town, the season is shaping up for a hectic, and potentially historic, climax with a League Cup final against Willington, a Shipowners Cup final versus Easington and a Monkwearmouth Cup final at Kirkbymoorside on top of the title run-in. Fixture congestion is an inevitable consequence, with this their third game in just five days, including a 2-1 extra-time victory over New Marske in the League Cup semi-final.

Despite their success on the pitch, it’s a little too early for Ryhope to be thinking of moving up the pyramid. While there are plans to extend hard standing around all four sides of the pitch, a Northern League ground inspection in December found the changing rooms were a foot too narrow for the higher league which, along with the lack of cover, currently poses a far more intractable barrier to promotion.

Width isn’t a problem outside, where a crowd of almost a hundred, including local footballing celebrities Keith Stoker (who as Assistant Secretary of Hylton Colliery Welfare once swapped team sheets with Brian Clough before a match with Hartlepool Reserves) and ex-Seaham Red Star player and coach Joe Dixon, has gathered along both sides of the pitch. Ryhope take an early lead and with the Easington team rattled and their defence embroiled in a continuing argument, the home side pile forward in search of a second, only for their momentum to be disrupted by the sound of the referee’s whistle. “Christ man, are you watching the same game?” a Ryhope player asks when he’s pulled up for a foul. The home fans are dancing on the touchline in the 24th minute when a long cross from the right is nodded back across goal and bundled in on the line with the Easington keeper stranded. “Get in!” shouts Martin Swales on the Ryhope bench. “We don’t stop, we don’t stop.” “Come on boys, let’s have a lift,” replies an Easington player.

His team gets a goal back shortly after the restart and Jimmy French in the Ryhope goal has to make a smart one handed save to keep his side ahead. But as the game wears on it’s Ryhope who are in the ascendancy. A diving header goes inches wide and a lob beats the keeper but drops the wrong side of the bar before the home team kill the game off, a shot hooked back over the goalkeeper’s head after he tips a goalbound effort off the line. Easington huff and puff but misplaced passes and resolute defending keeps them comfortably at bay. With minutes to go French rushes to the edge of the area and pushes the ball out with his hands. “He was yards outside,” yell the Easington bench, though it looks more like an inch, if that, to me. The linesman flags for a throw-in. “You bottled it, liner,” an Easington fan tells him. “He wasn’t outside the box. We’ll talk about it at the end,” he replies. “You bottled it.” “You can’t say that.” “You bottled it.” “That’s your last chance.” “You bottled it.” “Last chance.” “Doesn’t matter now, it’s finished anyway.”

Soon enough it really is. Ryhope, still with a game in hand, are just three points behind in the race for the title.

Admission: £2
Date: 6th April 2011

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Ground 160: Benson Park, Gosforth Bohemians

You wouldn’t have thought there’d much of a tradition of non-conformist behaviour in the Newcastle suburb which gave the world Alan Shearer, Greggs the Baker and Lord Justice Taylor. But in 1894, in the front room of a Georgian townhouse in the city’s Leazes Terrace, Gosforth Bohemians Football Club were officially formed by Messers Reid, Anderson, Hope, Frain and Hill. The meeting took place in the shadow of St James’ Park, where Newcastle United were taking part in only their second season in the Football League. Many of the street’s other residents were unhappy at the construction of a small stand on the site and had threatened legal action over the “intolerable nuisance” of having a football club on their doorstep.

In the half century which followed Newcastle United were four times English champions, FA Cup winners on three occasions and beaten finalists on another four. Bohemians moved around cricket pitches and public parks before finally securing a 99-year lease on a ground of their own, Polwarth Park, in 1951, the year their illustrious neighbours won the first of three FA Cups in just four years. A pavilion was erected ten years later and the ground renamed Benson Park in honour of their club secretary and benefactor.

Eighty years after Bohemians were born, Garnett FC were formed in another Leazes Terrace meeting. The Grade I-listed street, designed by Thomas Oliver in 1829, was by now given over to student accommodation and Garnett took their first steps in local football in Newcastle University’s Saturday Inter-Mural League. By the mid-1980s, the team had begun its ascent through the university divisions, winning successive promotions, changing their club colours and adopting the motto ‘'fortissimi pratinonigri' or ‘the mighty green and black’. Before the century was out Garnett had won the Corinthian League by a margin of eleven points and were one of the largest football clubs in north-east England with eight teams and eighty-one players. The only thing they lacked was a ground of their own.

By another of those coincidences that bind football teams together, Bohemians now found themselves in the opposite predicament, only three years after winning the Northern Alliance First Division title. Garnett provided the players, Gosforth the pitch and in 2002 the newly-formed Garnett Bohemian F.C started life with seven teams and the goal of promoting “the amateur sport of Association Football in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and community participation in the same.”

In their short joint history, Garnett Bohemian have consistently finished midtable in the Northern Alliance’s middle division. This season, with bad weather restricting them to just twelve matches, they’re in a more precarious league position, three points and nine games behind fourth from bottom North Shields Athletic. The visiting Newcastle East End side are comfortable in seventh, one place ahead of a Newcastle University team I’d seen them lose 1-0 to at the turn of the year.

After the quarter hour slog along the Great North Road from Regents Centre Metro Station, I make it through the entrance gate just as the game gets underway. East End are kicking into the sun, a chest-high metal fence encircles the pitch and there are two tennis courts and a clubhouse behind the goal the home side are attacking. Despite some early pressure from Garnett, it’s East End who score the game’s opening goal, a daisy cutter from the left touchline finding a forward completely unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box, leaving him to redirect the ball past the helpless home goalkeeper. Bohemians respond with a few shots off the tennis club fence before smacking a dipping effort against the East End crossbar. But just before the half hour the visitors break upfield and add a second from much closer range. “This is too easy,” two different voices complain simultaneously. “We’ve gotta buck our ideas up here, man.” They don’t, and it’s three before the break when a crossfield ball drops Xavi-like out of the sky straight on to the number 10’s right boot. “Bit more, lads, bit more,” shouts a Gosforth midfielder with admirable optimism as the referee blows his whistle and the two teams regroup on the touchline.

“Absolutely shocking all over the park,” is the opening line of the Garnett half-time team talk. “You’re trying to play forty-yard passes when there’s a ten-yard pass on. We’re not out of it, lads. Step it up and we can score four or five easy.” But though Bohemians improve after the break the manager’s mood is little better when I leave, with darkness falling and the visitors’ goalnet unruffled to the end.

Admission: Free
Date: 4th April 2011

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Ground 159: Grounsell Park, Heaton Stannington

Grounsell Park is one of Newcastle’s less well-known football grounds, tucked behind a chip shop, delicatessen and a Cantonese takeaway in a trendy student suburb of the city’s east end. It’s the quarter final of the George Dobbins League Cup, the visitors are Percy Main Amateurs, and after January’s rain aborted trip, it's my second attempt to see Heaton Stannington play at home.

On paper the two teams are about as evenly matched as it’s possible to get: seventh and eighth in the Northern Football Alliance Premier Division, with only two points and three goals keeping them apart. The visitors – formed in 1919 by Great War veterans – have the longer history, Heaton - founded around the same time Hitler was marching into Poland two decades later – the slight edge on the pitch, having returned from Percy Main with a 2-1 victory back at the start of the season. Encounters between the two sides haven’t always been friendly. Five years ago a twenty-one man brawl over a disputed throw-in led to the abandonment of a goalless league game with just a handful of the ninety minutes left to play.

Never the most successful club on the pitch, Heaton nevertheless managed seven seasons in the Northern League either side of the Second World War, disbanding after a 12th-placed finish in 1952. The club reformed in the late-1970s and played out five uneventful seasons in the Wearside League before joining the Northern Football Alliance in 1986. Along the way, they made it through fourteen FA Cup ties and as far as the third round of the 1974-5 FA Vase, losing 2-0 in a replay to Wallsend Town. Last promoted to the Northern Alliance Premier in 2004, their best effort in recent years was finishing fourth behind Team Northumbria two seasons later.

Except for the bobbles on the pitch, Heaton’s facilities are positively salubrious for this level of football, with a metal entrance gate, a two-storey clubhouse, and parking spaces and picnic benches facing on to the pitch. The dugouts are separated by the width of the halfway line, and a grassy bank slopes up towards wooden fences and back garden washing lines on the far side of the ground.

With the wind gusting at their backs, Percy Main have the better of the early play but lack composure in front of goal. Heaton have a header brilliantly tipped over the bar and another barely scrambled away for a corner. The visitors, with Pierre-luc Coiffait’s throw-ins inducing bouts of mild panic in the Heaton defence, have a goal disallowed for a push before the break, but it’s the home side who eventually put the ball in the net ten minutes into the second half, a long punt upfield hooked past Rob Rodgerson before he can scramble off his line. It’s two shortly afterwards – if I was a tabloid journalist I’d be shoehorning in a Stannington turn up the Heat reference right about now - the ball bobbling around the edge of the area before it’s dispatched low into the corner. When a third goal follows soon after the hour mark, the game’s as good as over. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for my digestive process, which is still suffering as a result of the Kilimanjaro-sized portion of chips I’ve been working my way through ever since half-time.

Main pull a goal back from a late penalty but with ten more matches to play this month and a Northumberland Senior Benevolent Bowl final to come against Seaton Delaval Amateurs, their disappointment is tempered with relief at having one fewer game to schedule between now and the end of the season. Heaton march on to a last-four game meeting with Whitley Bay ‘A’, Blyth Town or Ashington Colliers awaiting the winners in the final.

Admission: Free
Date: 2nd April 2011