Sunday, 18 September 2011

Ground 189: Nagoya Port Soccer Field

Underground to Tsukiji-guchi, cross water twice, turn left at Inaei Station and keep an eye out for the floodlights. That, and a 600 yen Donichi Ecco Kippu ticket, was all the preparation I’d done for the 11.30am kick off in the Tokai University Soccer League. Google Maps made it look like a two-mile walk each way; the weather forecast was for 9 mm of rain and an 80% chance of thunderstorms. In the end it was four, the sun beat down between squally showers and the closest we came to thunder was the applause for the third goal.

Look for the floodlights: bulbs like bug-eyes studded in rows above cylindrical, rusting poles. You could see them all the way from Inaei, rising above the trees, a concrete overpass and a Brazilian church cladded with ersatz brick. I take a short cut through a park, old women in golf visors power walking the pathways and kids in Mao collars practising their baseball swing by a Circle K convenience store.

I just about catch kick off through an unlocked metal gate before joining the hundred or so fans scattered along the top of the main stand. The rain blows in at angles, pushing everyone into the centre where a mini-roof hangs over the empty hospitality boxes and a man in a Chukyo University polo shirt is recording the game on a hand-held camera. The ball boys sit on folding chairs, hoods up and see-through plastic ponchos pulled right down to their feet. Behind the harbour-side goal is the Asian football ground’s scoreboard of choice: LCD display mounted on concrete with two clock faces on the side – one telling the time, the other ticking off the forty-four minutes still to play in the half. On the pitch, Chukyo University, dressed like Glasgow Rangers in red, white and blue, have already taken the lead. The greens of Gifu Keizai attack, the ball bounces in front of goal, and the scoreboard blinks before switching to 1-1. Although I didn’t know it at the time, for both Gifu and I the best part of the game had already been and gone.

Chukyu might be dressed like Rangers but they don’t play like any team Ally McCoist’s ever likely to send out, their centre halves resembling a pair of somnambulant pinball flippers as they slap passes back and forth across the defence. There’s a man and a dog at the back of the stand, but unlike England nobody disputes the referee’s decisions and the closest you get to bad language is the Keizai keeper’s “Aaagh!” when he miskicks the ball out of his hands for a throw-in. The few latecomers bow to people they recognise in the crowd, while at half time two women in short skirts and baseball caps stand by the entrance handing out small cans of Red Bull for free.

By then Keizai are two one down, a deflected shot earning a smattering of polite applause and four clucks of the tongue from a man sitting behind. While Chukyu are short on verve and cutting edge up front – even their free kicks are two-yard passes - Keizai look like they wouldn’t know which end of the knife to hold on to, their most prolonged spell in possession a block from an outstretched boot that gets passed out of play five touches later. Chukyu extend their lead with a quarter of the second half counted off on the scoreboard clock, their central midfielder calmly finishing off a minute-long passing move, and stroll through the remainder of the game. The sun comes out, heads start flopping in the seats to my right. “Dozo,” (Please) a Keizai forward shouts as he sets off on a run for a pass that never comes.

Admission: Free
Date: September 17th 2011

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Ground 188: Dr Pit Welfare Park, Bedlington Terriers

It’s a long, long way from the Northern Combination League to Buffalo, New York.

The journey begins with Bedlington Mechanics in 1949, taking in a Northumberland Minor Cup, promotion to the Northern Alliance, two championship trophies and four league cups, a home ground at West Sleekburn ‘A’ Pit, twelve months in the Tyneside Amateur League, four changes of suffix and a three year hiatus while the club was disbanded and reformed. And that was just before 1982.

The mid-1980s had seen Bedlington earn back-to-back promotions and finish runners-up to Bishop Auckland in the top division of the Northern League. The mid-1990s saw them stuck at the bottom of Division Two, out of cash and with the gates of Welfare Park shut on environmental health grounds. Enter the Perry brothers, Keith and Dave, local businessmen whose impact on Bedlington was like that of Abramovich and Mourinho combined. With Keith Perry and ex-Mansfield Town player Tony Lowery in the dugout, the Terriers won five successive Northern League titles, two Northumberland Senior Cups, reached an FA Vase final at Wembley Stadium and played in the second round proper of the FA Cup, losing at Scunthorpe after Second Division Colchester United taken apart 4-1 in front of more than 1,500 fans at the Dr Pit Welfare Park. Both men left in the summer of 2006, part of a chain of events which saw Bedlington teetering on the brink of extinction. Dave Holmes kept the club afloat off the pitch, while the combined efforts of Perry, Lowery and Newcastle Blue Star – whose promotion meant only two clubs went down – were enough to stave off fears of a first relegation since 1987. Set against all that, hearing that one of the world’s five hundred richest men wants to sponsor your shirts, buy you an electronic scoreboard and fly the team out to Buffalo to play for the Lord Bedlington Cup seems almost run of the mill.

Even without the North American tour it’s been a typically eventful start to the season. Buoyed by an impressive signing spree which saw Spennymoor’s free scoring Steven Richardson and former Newcastle United and Queen of the South midfielder Tommy English join the club, the Terriers were touted by some as an outside bet for the title after a 4-2 opening day win over South Shields. Single-goal defeats to Billingham Synthonia, Shildon and Newton Aycliffe have alternated with a 4-1 win at Ashington, a 6-0 FA Cup victory over Billingham Town and a 15-0 trouncing of Stokesley Sports Club, who just happen to be the visitors today.

The lure of goals, the FA Vase and Bedlington's brand new scoreboard tempts Chris Smith and James Williams along, Chris breaking off from Twitter long enough to direct us to the ground. We arrive in Bedlington with half an hour to kick off, park up behind the ugliest Tesco supermarket in the whole of the British Isles, circumnavigate a bowling green while attempting to track down the stadium entrance, and are already through the turnstile when we realise we’ve gone straight past the door for the bar. It’s still a better start than the visiting team make, going 1-0 down after just two minutes when Anthony Shandran scores his thirteenth goal of the season and his seventh against Stokesley alone.

Having lost their secretary, manager and all thirty-eight members of their playing squad over the summer, Stokesley are relying on players who spent last season two or three levels below Northern League Division One. The gulf is obvious, Bedlington faster to the ball and sharper in possession as Shandran adds a second with barely twenty minutes played, the fiftieth goal Stokesley have conceded in just over eight games. Nathan Porritt – whose agent was offered £150,000 to take him from Middlesbrough to Chelsea as a 15-year-old schoolboy - pulls a goal back with a stunning finish from the edge of the box, but it’s 4-1 by half time, Shandran’s name appearing twice more on the £30,000 scoreboard Robert Rich donated to the club. Porritt, still just 21, and Joe Melvin, a summer signing from the Teesside League, the star turns in a hardworking but utterly outclassed Stokesley eleven.

Stokesley change goalkeepers at half time, the PA announcer apologising for not knowing the name of “the player in the yellow shirt”. Whoever he was, he won’t want to meet Anthony Shandran anytime soon, the ex-Burnley, St Patrick’s Athletic and York City striker laying on goals for Tommy English, Paul Swithenbank and Ian Graham while still finding time to score his fifth and sixth of the afternoon. Bedlington go though to play Northallerton Town in the second round. Inconsistent in the league, you wouldn’t bet against them reaching at least another quarter-final in the Vase.

Admission: £5
Date: September 10th 2011

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Ground 187: Bedford Terrace, Billingham Town

I’m reading Brave New World as the train pulls in to Billingham, Huxley’s dystopian vision of a synthetically-engineered future partly inspired, like Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner cityscapes, by the town’s petro chemical skyline:

"…one of the most extraordinary of experiences, a sight almost unique in England. On either side of the road are the works. Steaming, sizzling - tall steel towers, great cylinders, pipes everywhere... At night the whole industrial world along the banks of the Tees comes to life... brilliant with a thousand lights, the great girders of the Transporter Bridge dark in silhouette: a magic city." Henry Tharold, Shell Guide to County Durham.

After forty-three years it was almost the end of the world for Billingham Town when Hartlepool United started court proceedings to reclaim £10,500 spent on improvements to Bedford Terrace while it was home to their reserve team. Volunteer helpers arrived at the ground to find a writ taped to the main gate, club officials contested the debt, and an anonymous (or some still insist imaginary) donor finally gave Hartlepool their money two days before Christmas 2010. With the threat of extinction lifted Billingham ended last season comfortably above the relegation places but a poor start has left them with just a single point from their opening four league games and looking over their shoulders at the bottom of the league. Manager Carl Jarrett must wish he could produce bokanovsky clones of some of the club’s former players, starting with Gary Pallister, who moved to Middlesbrough in 1984 in exchange for a set of kit, a bag of balls and a goal net, and Notts County midfielder Neal Bishop, whose route to Meadow Lane took in Barnet, York City, Whitby Town and the same Billingham squad as his 16-year-old brother and 46-year-old dad.

It’s been a much better start for Sunderland RCA, top of the league after five games and unbeaten this season before losing at Spennymoor Town in the FA Cup preliminary round. Top scorer Gavin Barton – seven goals in just five games for the club – moved to Spennymoor before the tie, though ex-York City winger Bryan Stewart has since made the opposite journey, joining Andy Jennings and Mark Davison in a front trio that remains among the most dangerous in the Northern League.

It’s a blowy night on the North Sea coast and RCA don’t look much like title contenders in a scrappy first half, the wind blowing the ball around in directions every bit as inexplicable as Michael Gove's pronouncements on education. Manager Neil Hixon watches from the edge of his technical area, arms folded across his chest. “Play, play! Movement, movement!” coach George Herd – an ex-Scotland international who made almost 300 appearances for Sunderland – shouts as the visitors fire high balls across the area. “Look to feet, look to feet!”

Billingham old boy Andy Jennings has the best of the early chances when home keeper James Briggs miscues a clearing kick. Stewart retrieves the spinning ball by the left-side corner flag, but Briggs recovers his poise to turn the low shot one-handed around the post. As RCA begin - as local boy and Maximo Park frontman Paul Smith might say - to apply some pressure, Briggs gets both hands to a Stewart shot and acrobatically pushes away a thirty-yard strike from the advancing right-back, though both come to him at the right height for a goalkeeper (my thanks to the football pundits’ book of cliché). With just minutes to go before the break Gary Shields just about manages to stay onside and squares a cross for Davison to curl first time into the roof of the net. The RCA players are still grinning when Steve Roberts equalises, heading in from a corner with the last touch of the half.

The hundred or so fans find shelter in their cars or head inside the tea hut – a wooden portakabin with tables and chairs and a Canteen sign stuck in one window – as they wait for the teams to come back out. When they do, the football is even more warming than the half-time Bovril. The goal and the wind give the home side extra impetus, Jamie Owens twisting, turning and hitting the base of the post and James Hackett – scorer of eight goals already this season for Thornaby Dubliners – warming Gary Hoggeth’s hands in the RCA goal. The visitors break, Jennings meeting an ankle-high cross with his head and scooping it over Briggs and into the top corner. Town respond immediately, Michael Arthur played into space down the left and clipping the ball over Hoggeth as he sprawls to cover the post. Arthur shoots just over from an identical position, Jennings rounds the keeper but pokes the ball wide, and then Stewart converts a penalty for 3-2 when Davison has both feet taken from under him in the area.

After that incendiary opening twenty minutes, the game inevitably slows. Jennings kills it completely ten minutes from time, his outstretched leg stabbing the ball past Briggs after a shot comes back off the post. Temporarily, at least, Sunderland RCA are four points clear at the top of the league.

Admission: £5
Date: 6th September 2011

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Ground 186: Hilltop Playing Fields, Gateshead Leam Rangers

1993. Olympique de Marseille beat AC Milan in the Champions League final; Manchester United win their first league title in twenty-six years; Kevin Keegan’s swashbuckling Newcastle United side are promoted to the Premier League; south of the Tyne, close to the streets where ex-Marseille and Newcastle winger Chris Waddle first kicked a ball around, Rob Houghton starts an under-12 football team called Leam Rangers Youth Club.

What happened next was a labour of love. As the club grew, Houghton leased a derelict plot of land from Gateshead Council, levelled a pitch and found some steel containers to use as changing rooms. When the players needed better facilities, he took a bricklaying course and helped to build them himself. Without external funding, volunteers trained the players, washed the kits, put up the goalposts and marked out the pitch. Cash from the Football Foundation enabled a proper clubhouse to be built, the club expanded to more than twenty-five teams, gained an FA Charter Standard award and helped produce Danny Graham, a £3.5 million signing for Swansea City this summer, and Christie Elliott, who recently moved from Whitley Bay to Partick Thistle. In 2009 a senior men’s team, Gateshead Leam Rangers, was formed, playing against the likes of Wheatley Hill Working Men’s Club, Brandon British Legion and Durham Garden House in the Durham Alliance League. After finishing sixth last season they successfully applied for membership of the Wearside League, one promotion away from the oldest grassroots football league in the world.

I’ve already seen Rangers play this season, their 1-0 win at Coxhoe Athletic one of three so far in the league. The visitors to the Hilltop Playing Fields are Peterlee Town, a one-time Northern League club and newcomers to the Wearside League themselves after five seasons in the Northern Alliance. Climbing the hill from Heworth Golf Club, there’s a Leam Rangers sign on the perimeter fence and the club’s name written across the metal entrance gates. Houghton collects the £2 entry as we pull into the car park. The pitch is railed off with hard standing newly laid along both sides and overhead power lines along the touchline nearest the clubhouse bar.

Non-League Day attracts a crowd of forty people, including several who’ve made the journey from Peterlee. The game’s played at a brisk pace and both sides have their chances before David Laight runs on to a bouncing ball in the twenty-fifth minute, sidefooting past keeper Dean Saunders to give the visitors the lead. The second goal comes five minutes before half time, a shot ricocheting around the goalmouth before Laight toes home at the second attempt as Saunders tries to get his hands on the ball.

The second half is every bit as eventful. Lee Turnbull – who’d earlier clipped the top of crossbar – smashes a penalty into the roof of the net on forty-seven minutes and the home side clatter the woodwork soon after. A players from each side is sent off, Saunders saves two penalties – the second denying Laight his hat-trick – a Rangers player is taken to hospital with a shoulder injury and Peterlee score a late third goal, their number seven breaking upfield and passing the ball into the corner of the net. At the final whistle the Rangers team untie the nets, collect up the corner flags and carry the goalposts back to the storage hut that Houghton helped build. It's an image which sums up a hugely impressive football club.

Admission: £2
Date: September 3rd 2011

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Ground 185: Rheydt Avenue, Wallsend Boys Club

“There have been many examples of what Wallsend Boys Club has done not just for Newcastle but also for football in general and the England team. It really sets the standards at a young age and you are prepared for the rest of your career and life,” Steve Watson, England Under 21 international and Premier League runner up with Newcastle United.

What has Wallsend Boys Club given to the game? More than sixty professional players, two current managers and Alex Ferguson’s goalkeeping coach, one Champions League, a Cup Winners’ Cup, 14 league titles in England and Scotland, 145 caps and five of the last six England World Cup squads. “A local charity youth club with a history of producing talented football players,” its website modestly proclaims. The club’s origins are thought to go back to the early years of the 20th century, though it was formally founded in 1938 by the directors of the famous Swan Hunters Shipyard, who wanted to provide a sporting outlet for the energies of their young apprentice workers. “The objects of The Club are to help and educate members through leisure activities, to develop their physical, mental and spiritual capacity in order to help them become useful and responsible members of society,” as the constitution states to this day.

It was shipyard workers who provided the first clubhouse, a corrugated iron shed built on Station Road in 1903. The latest building, in nearby Rheydt Avenue, was paid for by a Football Foundation grant and local fundraising events, including an Annual Dinner which Alan Shearer, Peter Beardsley and Steve Bruce still regularly attend. Shearer donated £15,000 from his testimonial funds to the club and Michael Carrick’s dad serves on its committee. “I started going there when I was five on a Saturday night,” the Manchester United midfielder recalled. “It was the focal point of the community. It was the gathering place for my mates and me and a great place to play five-a-side. The quality of coaching when we played was always excellent despite the fact they were mainly volunteers. Their expertise helped bring me along and develop my skills." “The attitude and conduct demanded,” explained ex-Burnley player Jeff Tate, “not only made you a more complete, competitive footballer on the pitch but a better, more rounded personality off it”.

Wallsend’s senior team play in the Northern Alliance Division Two, where opposing sides include both Bedlington and Alnwick Reserves, Whickham Lang Jacks and Harton and Westoe Colliery Welfare. Harton were previously known as Simonside Sporting Club. After stepping up from the Durham Alliance, they finished third last season and are still unbeaten this time round.

“It’s about how we approach the game,” the Wallsend coach tells his team before the start. “These are a decent side and we’ve got to be on our toes.” There are training sessions on the other seven pitches, though the main one stays empty while everyone waits for the car bringing Harton’s kit. “He’s gone to the wrong post code,” one of the officials explains.

When they do come out, the visiting team – whose squad includes players from the recently folded first division side Shields United – are visibly older than the young Wallsend side, and it’s little surprise when they take the lead, a 40-yard lob catching teenage keeper Sam Guthrie off his line. The home side equalise four minutes later, a miskick dropping fortuitously for the unmarked centre forward, and Guthrie makes a double save with his face to keep the scores level at half time.

In deepening gloom, the second half is a manic, ill-tempered affair, not helped by some heavy tackles and the Harton official’s unique interpretation of the offside law: if the ball goes towards an opposition forward, the linesman shall immediately raise his flag. Wallsend take an early lead, their two front players combining well, but Harton level the scores soon after and edge in front when a free kick plummets onto an unmarked head in the area. As darkness and midge clouds descend on our heads, Wallsend bring the scores level and then go 4-3 ahead, the two forwards breaking the offside trap as the slower Harton defence play an unwisely high line. With nine minutes left to play, the visitors equalise again, their centre forward groping towards the ball and heading in on his knees. Three minutes later it’s 5-4, a Harton midfielder touching the ball past the onrushing keeper and outpacing two defenders to slot into the corner of the net. Immeasurably more entertaining than deadline day on Sky Sports News; “That was undoubtedly the craziest game I’ve ever reffed,” Paul Mosley tweets after full time.

Admission: Free
Date: August 31st 2011