Monday, 26 December 2011

Ground 199: Central Avenue Stadium, Billingham Synthonia

A village on the north bank of the Tees before 1914 Billingham was built on war, water and bombs, its proximity to the river, Durham coalfields and an offshoot of the Stockton and Darlington Railway making it a perfect base for the new Government Nitrogen Factory. The plant’s armaments production led to growth which was explosive in both senses of the word: within two decades there was a town of 19,000 people, a chemical works which employed more than a quarter of the local population, and the world’s only football team to take its name from an agricultural fertiliser.

 Billingham Synthonia began life on a pitch within the grounds of Imperial Chemical Industries. Joining the Northern League at the end of World War II, the club took part in the first floodlit game of football to be played in north-east England – 3,000 fans watching them beat an RAF side by eight goals to four in November 1952 – and briefly had a forward by the name of Brian Howard Clough in their side until he left his job as an ICI office junior to do national service and don the red shirt of Middlesbrough FC.  One of three Northern League grounds within a five-minute drive of the point where the A19 and A1027 overlap, the Central Avenue Stadium’s 2,000-capacity cantilevered stand was the longest anywhere in the country when it opened in September 1958 with a game against FA Amateur Cup holders Bishop Auckland. 

 The few hundred fans, wrapped up in new hats and jackets, take refuge from the buffeting winds under the stand’s metal roof as a blast of U2 accompanies Billingham’s two teams across the cinder running track. “We are the Synners haters,” chorus a group of six Town fans in blue and white, earning wry smiles from those in green. Across the pitch, you can see the slim floodlights of Town’s Bedford Terrace stadium through the bare, wintry branches. The Belsais Lane pitch which Clough turned out on is now an abandoned office block, marked out for demolition a couple of hundred metres from the Central Avenue’s turnstile. 

 It’s a scrappy, impatient first quarter, low on quality until Synthonia’s Matty Crossen turns smartly past a defender on the left touchline and delivers a cross which Danny Earl stops with one foot and stabs past Town keeper James Briggs with the other. “The scorer for Synthonia is Danny Earl,” crackles a voice from the tannoy. Half the stand is still chattering excitedly when Glenn Butterworth tries his luck from midway between the Synthonia goal and halfway line, the ball dipping over the flailing right hand of ex-Town keeper Josh Moody.  “Goal for Billingham Town in the 24th minute,” says the announcer grudgingly, not bothering to supply the goalscorer’s name. With the wind at their backs, the visitors aim high balls over the Synthonia defence for the diminutive Nicky Martin and recent signing Dave Onions to hurtle after. “Look at that, they defend with ten and leave one up top,” a home fan says, the disgust seeping from every syllable. “We don’t do that.”  On the stroke of half time, Earl splits the centre backs with a ball that Crossen thuds against the base of the post. “Just a matter of time,” slurps a home fan through his Bovril. 

Wind assisted in the second half, there’s a sense of inevitability about a second goal for Synthonia. Despite the occasional danger posed by the pace of Onions, gusts of wind more often curl attempted clearances back on Town’s hard pressed defence. When the goal does come, though, it’s an anti-climax - a cross headed down by ex-Town defender Danny Wray and the ball just beating Briggs across the line with seventy minutes played.  Already embroiled in a relegation scrap with Tow Law Town and Jarrow Roofing, the blue half of Billingham  push forward desperately. “Get in to the gits,” someone jokes. “Come on Town,” a woman’s voice urges repeatedly. But with just a minute of the ninety left to play, and the crowd spilling down the stairs to the bar and exit gate, midfielder Jamie Blyth beats Briggs from the edge of the box. 3-1 Synthonia and the smiles are on the faces of the people wearing green and white. 

 Date: December 26th 2011
Admission: £5

Friday, 23 December 2011

Goalhanging For Beginners

"Man is a goal-seeking animal." Aristotle.

I came across Steve McLay's simple but brilliant No Movement For Goalposts at the start of the year. The tumblr site is made up of nothing more than pictures of goalposts around the world, "(the) shapes and settings of childhood football dreams. Each has it's own story, each looks different to the next".  Intrigued, I trawled through my old photos, sending off a batch which included a five-a-side goal buried in a mound of snow by the side of Moldova's national stadium and England, with me between the sticks, conceding to Algeria in an Odessa public park.

And then things came to an end. The site hasn't been updated since June; in its absence, here are a few of my favourite goals from 2011. Cue the Lightning Seeds.

 Palmeral de Elche, Spain. UNESCO World Heritage football pitch. 

Guisborough Town's King George VI Stadium.

New Mills AFC and the edge of the Peak District.

Jarrow Roofing and Penrith players at the Roofers' Boldon CA Sports Ground.

Goalnet in club colours at Gateshead Leam Rangers

Sagawa Shiga and a glimpse of Biwako, Japan's biggest lake.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Ground 198: Yamaha Stadium, Jubilo Iwata

Think Jubilo and you think fallen giants. 'Road to Champion 2011' is the homepage banner on the club's official website, but Iwata haven't managed to get anywhere near that since they won both stages of the championship in 2002, finishing a mighty 16 points clear of Yokohama F. Marinos overall. Backed by Yamaha, initially marshalled by World Cup winner Dunga and inspired by the legacy of Hans Ooft, the first foreigner to coach the Japan national team, and the Italian forward Toto Schillachi, who wound down his career with 56 goals in 78 J.League appearances, the Shizuoka side lifted three titles, the League and Emperor's Cups and the Asian Club Championship in the space of seven seasons between 1997 and 2003.

At their peak, Jubilo had a squad packed with Japan international talent: Toshihiro Hattori, Hishori Nanami and Masashi Nakayama represented the Blue Samarai at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, Nakayama scoring his country's first ever goal in the finals in a group stage game with Jamaica. Daisuke Oku and Toshiya Fujita won fifty caps between them, Naohiro Takahara scored 26 goals in a single season, played for Boca Juniors and made over 100 appearances in the Bundesliga with Hamburg and Eintracht Franfurt.  His depature in 2002 marked the start of Iwata's decline, with a rapidly ageing squad slipping from runners-up in 2003 to ninth four years later. In 2008 Jubilo reached their nadir, narrowly edging out Vegalta Sendai in the last ever Promotion/Relegation Series thanks to a temporary comeback by Ooft and three goals from the otherwise unheralded Takuya Matsuura. "We'll do much better next season," the Dutchman promised. Masaaki Yanagishita returned for a second spell in a managerial job once briefly held by Luiz Filipe Scolari (the Brazilian replaced Ooft in 1997 but left for Palmeiras after just 11 games), and though his team have made it no higher than eleventh in each of the last two seasons, they scrapped their way to a first trophy in seven years with a 5-3 extra time win over Hiroshima in the 2010 J.League Cup final.  Just as significantly, national team forward Ryoichi Maeda has finally emerged as a worthy successor to Takahara, 37 goals in two seasons earning him a pair of Golden Boot awards and a starting place in the Japan team which won this year's Asian Cup.

I take the train south from Nagoya, passing through the Brazilian belt of Toyohashi and Hamamatsu. When I get off at Iwata, the first thing I see are pale blue Jubilo flags: tied to the front of buses, lining the entrance to the station and propped in front of almost every shop on the half-hour walk to the ground, along with a Jubilo-branded vending machine, Jubilo posters - all, unsurprisingly, bearing a picture of Maeda - and even a Jubilo paving stone pointing the way to the Yamaha Stadium. Built at the end of the 1970s, the Yamaha's one of the more atmospheric grounds in Japan, its compact, running track-free design featuring a double-tiered home end, monolithic floodlights in all four corners and some impressively steep terracing, which I immediately head to the very top of. The travelling Kawasaki Frontale fans have filled one end of the pitch and a corner to the side, keeping themselves entertained with a lengthy display of synchronised bouncing. The home supporters respond by pumping their fists, clapping in time with a drum and twirling Brazilian flags and Jubilo scarves like helicopter rotor blades.

With Maeda missing, young forward  Hidetaka Kanazano - scorer of an impressive 12 goals in his first J.League season - partners the popular Brazilian Gilsinho up front, but it's Kawasaki who draw the first reaction from the crowd for anything happening on the pitch, a ball turned round the two central defenders for striker Yu Kobayashi to chase, only for ex-Portsmouth keeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi to come storming off his line to clear.  "Allez, allez, allez, Frontale!" trampolines nine tenths of the away end, still bobbing up and down when Gilsinho lashes in to the roof of the net on 16 minutes after keeper Rikihiro Sugiyama fumbles a high cross into a goalmouth crowded with blue shirts. With ex-Nagoya Grampus stalwart Masahiro Koga keeping Kobayashi as quiet as the Emirates Stadium  it's left to Juninho, scorer of more than 200 goals for Frontale since arriving from Brazil eight years ago, to threaten Kawaguchi's goal, hooking a couple of metres wide after a game of up and under on the edge of the Jubilo penalty area. Off-balance, Yusuke Tasaka pushes the away side's only other chance of the half into the top deck of the stand as Jubilo, fleet-footed and tenacious in midfield, attack at will. Three minutes before the break Gilsinho adds a second goal, evading his marker at a corner kick and powering a header past Sugiyama. The Kawasaki fans bop out the rest of the half while Jubilo wave scarves and umbrellas and their team begins to showboat.

Frontale captain Yusuke Igawa replaces the youthful Yuki Saneto at the start of the second half as the away side immediately force Kawaguchi into action. Five minutes in the experienced keeper embarrassingly fluffs an easy catch from a left-wing corner and Juninho - a free agent next month - bundles in his ninth goal of the season. With their next attack full-back Yusuke Tanaka smashes the ball against the base of the post with Kawaguchi flailing and Jubilo, improbably, suddenly clinging on.

It takes the home side time to gather themselves, but when they do Sugiyama has to claw a Kanazono effort one-handed around the post and Daisuke Nasu slams a shot against a Yamaha hoarding to the side of the goal. It's the start of a breatless final third in which play lurches from one side of the pitch to the other like a pissed-up salaryman on a midnight pavement. The season ends with Gilsinho shielding the ball by a corner flag and Kashiwa Reysol clinching their first ever title with a 3-1 win in Urawa, bringing the curtain down on another thoroughly enjoyable year of J.League football.

Roll on next March.

Date: December 3rd 2011
Admission: 2,000 yen.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Ground 197: Home's Stadium, Vissel Kobe

Imagine a scenario that goes something like this: a billionaire retail mogul buys a near-bankrupt football club despite cheerfully admitting to knowing little about the sport. He appoints business contacts with no experience of the game to oversee his investment, overspends on burnt-out superstar forwards, sells stadium naming rights to an online estate agency, completely rebrands the club, changing its kit from black and white stripes to the crimson of his own company, and suffers an embarrassing relegation before a semi-redemptive season in a lower league restores it to the ranks of top-flight also rans. The ghost of Newcastle United past? Not quite. This is Vissel Kobe.

 Hello sailor

'We are Kobe. We walk together forever' reads the sign above the entrance to Home's Stadium, but Vissel (a mishmash of the words 'Victory' and 'Vessel', in linguistically awkward homage to Kobe's seafaring heritage) have spent more time stumbling than strolling - never finishing higher than 10th in J1, and suffering major financial problems after the Daiei supermarket chain had to withdraw its sponsorship in the aftermath of 1995's Great Hanshin earthquake.  But still the big names came (and very often flopped): Michael Laudrup played 24 games between leaving Real Madrid and signing up for Ajax, Turkey's Ilhan Mansiz, Patrick Mboma, South Korean international Kim Nam-il,  former Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday star Emerson Thome, ex-Rayo Vallecano forward Shoji Jo and Masayuki Okano, the man whose goal sent Japan to their first ever World Cup. Nowadays, Mikitani's increasingly parsimonious ownership means the talent is spread much thinner, with the team's star player Yoshito Okubo, an ex-Japan international forward who played a minor part in Wolfsburg's 2009 Bundesliga title success and lasted two seasons in La Liga with Real Mallorca, and one-time assistant coach Mashahiro Wada occupies a managerial position formerly held by Stuart Baxter and ex-Real Madrid boss Benito Floro. After avoiding relegation on the final day of last season, Wada's side are doing markedly better this time out, pushing for their best ever finish in the J.League table.

Vissel Girl and Pirate Cow

Opened in 2001, the ground formerly known as the Kobe Wing Stadium hosted three games in the following year's World Cup including Brazil's 2-0 second round win over Belgium. As I enter I'm handed, in strict order, a matchday programme, a '2011 thanks book', a Football Allstars digital gamecard and a Big Mac discount voucher in a silent operation of military-style efficiency.  I stop to pick up a double Vissel dog from a woman clad in a black shirt and white gloves.  Inside, the two sets of fans are already trading songs. "We'll get up the anchor" and "My sweet Kobe home" read banners in the home end. Jublio reply more succinctly with "We Believe".  The teams are announced, giant flags are raised and lowered, and a cow in a pirate's hat rushes around the pitch waving a Kit Kat banner back and forth over its head.

The away end

Prompted by the former Santos and Vasco da Gama player Rodrigo Souto in midfield Iwata enjoy marginally the better of the early possession. Kobe are more aggressive, and when their bustling Brazilian forward Popo crosses at pace his compatriot Botti beats Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi to the ball only to see his header strike the net stanchion. In the 18th minute the home side take the lead, Kunie Kitamoto striding upfield and sliding a pass which leaves Takayuki Yoshida one on one with Kawaguchi.  Kitamoto continues his run, turning in the rebound after Kawaguchi's initial reflex save.  Six minutes later, left-back Takahito Soma, formerly of Maritimo and Energie Cottbus,  bursts through two defenders, slaloms round a third and slots in at the opposite post. "That's the way we like it," sing the Kobe fans, moshing at the far end of the pitch. It's very nearly three when Okubo gets on the end of another Popo pass but just fails to jink through  two covering defenders.

And the home (at Home's)

Half time comes, with entertainment provided by a penalty shoot competition for children, a parade of Power Rangers, men in beige slacks repairing divots in the pitch and the travelling Jubilo fans clapping and stomping their way through an elongated version of the Colonel Bogey March. It takes until the 56th minute for their team to manage anything as noticeable themselves, the Brazilian Gilsinho nodding down a Yuichi Komano centre but the ball dribbling wide of Vissel keeper Kenta Tokushige's left-hand post. Kobe reply with a cleverly worked set play which eventually sees Kawaguchi save with his chest from Okubo's shot. Jubilo press forward - Komano stinging Tokushige's fingertips from 25 yards - leaving gaps which Kobe almost exploit when Masahiro Koga miscues a hurried clearance straight to veteran forward Takayuki Yoshida, the defender recovering as Yoshida struggles to control the ball. The anonymous Gilsinho is withdrawn for Tomoyuki Arata and Jubilo pull an unexpected goal back when Japan international Ryoichi Maeda emerges unmarked in the area to head in against his hometown club with ten minutes left to play. "Come on Vissel!!!" the scoreboard implores. It works. Four minutes from time young substitute Ryota Morioka advances onto a Popo lay off and curls a right-footed shot past Tokushige from almost 30 yards. The three points send Kobe up to eighth with just one game of the season - away at Vegalta Sendai - still to play.

Anything you can do...

Date: 27th November 2011
Admission: 2,000 yen (reduced from 3,000 thanks to the sterling efforts of Alan Gibson, owner and editor of the excellent JSoccer Magazine).