Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Ryhope Colliery Welfare

Winn and Butler

It took 120 years and a manager from Seaham Kitchen Magic for Ryhope Colliery Welfare to make the Northern League. Wearside League champions four times in the 1960s, the days of Charlie Grose, Jackie Wilkinson and 4,500 cramming into the Recreation Ground for an FA Cup first round tie with Workington Town were a distant memory when Martin Swales was recruited from the Durham Alliance, where he'd just led his company team to a final success in the Washington Aged Peoples Cup.  "Ryhope hadn't won a trophy for donkeys' years.  I said I'd try and get them one," he told Northern Ventures Northern Gains.  Swales's first season saw the club lift the Monkwearmouth Cup, last won back in 1967. The following year Ryhope joined Marske United and Newcastle Blue Star as only the third team to sweep all four Wearside League trophies in the same season after a penalty shoot-out at Willington AFC.  Last season Swales and his players went even better - losing only one game in all competitions as they swept the board for a second time and were promoted to the Northern League.  "68 games 1 defeat" the club's Twitter profile justifiably boasts.

Paul Kane prepares to put Seaham two goals ahead.

Propelled by the goals of ex-Magic striker Johnny Butler and 21-year-old Chris Winn - 59 between them in 22 league games alone - Ryhope top Division Two at Christmas, two places and eight points ahead of fast-improving Seaham Red Star.  With Swales on holiday in Lanzarote, a subdued Ryhope fall two goals behind to a hard-working Red Star team, Channon North scoring from close range then earning a penalty which Paul Kane easily converts. "We were playing some lovely stuff earlier in the season," a home fan tells me, "but there's been no cohesion lately."  "It's all back to front and the odd diagonal," says a visiting Northern League manager. "I was expecting a lot better."

Chris Trewick reduces the arrears shortly before an interval which is lengthened when Ryhope chairman Dave Hall collapses and is taken to hospital. A photographer from the local newspaper turns up, snaps some pictures from the halfway line then promptly disappears, North misses two chances to seal the win and Seaham see a shot smash back off the crossbar, but with time running out Chris Winn edges the ball on to Butler - almost the first exchange of passes between the two all game - from a throw-in and the point is enough to keep Ryhope ahead of Crook Town, 3-2 winners in the wilds of Tow Law. "It'd been coming all half," says Red Star assistant Simon Johnson," but I'm absolutely gutted."

Admission: £4
Date: December 26th 2012

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Goalposts 2012: Bilbao and Moldova

When I wrote about Steve McLay's now defunct No Movement for Goalposts blog this time last year, my picks of 2011 included a UNESCO-listed dust pitch in the centre of one of Elche's many palmerals, a congested goalmoath at Jarrow Roofing, and movable posts on the shores of Biwako, Japan's largest freshwater lake.  This year's top two take us to a lesser known tributary of the Dniester and the Basque country, where I spent a weekend in January watching Marcelo Bielsa's then rampant Athletic at the soon to be demolished San Mames.

An hour's drive along the potholed roads out of Chișinău, we pulled into the cave monasteries of Orheiul Vechi just ahead of a clapped-out coach full of boisterous schoolkids and two men in a horse and trap. Fishermen paddled along the listless River Răut, where local communists had dumped whatever religious icons they could lay their hands on at the end of World War II.  Wreaths shaped like teardrops and mounds of bare earth marked the graves in the village cemetery, old women tied on headscarves before shuffling into the church, and the souvenir stand was a plastic table wedged against a crumbling stone wall.  The goalposts were crooked, the grass rubble-strewn and overgrown.  A horse stood by what might have been the edge of the penalty area, dribbling a pebble with its nose.

Our final morning in Bilbao. Hungover but ignoring the concrete lift, we panted up a flight of steps from the Casco Viejo and took an unplanned left into Park Extberri. The pitch was made of concrete, still wet with the previous night's rain. A metal fence stopped balls bouncing down the hill. The goalposts, of course, were painted red and white.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Football Art: Sir Bobby Robson and Newcastle United

"What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It's not the television contracts, get out clauses or the marketing departments or executive boxes. It's the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love." Sir Bobby Robson (1933 -2009)

Behind the malapropisms and mispronunciations -  "What can I say about Peter Shilton? Peter Shilton is Peter Shilton and he's been Peter Shilton since the year dot," said the man who in his five years as manager of Newcastle gave pre-match instructions to Kevin Dyer, regularly confused Shola Ameobi with Carl Cort, and occasionally addressed French international winger Laurent Robert as Lauren Baccall - Sir Bobby Robson never lost his instinctive grasp of what really mattered in football.  "He's been a winner all his life because he could see the bigger picture," thought Jose Mourinho, who donated a FIFA Balon D'Or World Coach of the Year award to the charity founded by his mentor. "It was a privilege to spend a year with him," said Pep Guardiola. "In my 23 years working in England," Sir Alex Ferguson once observed, "there is not a person I would put an inch above him."

The Sir Bobby Robson statue at the foot of the Gallowgate End steps.

The self-effacing miner's son from Langley Park played for and coached England, managed Ipswich Town to the FA and UEFA Cups, and won trophies with some of the biggest club sides in Holland, Portugal and Spain before returning to north-east England, where he'd started out as an electrician's apprentice in the County Durham coalfields.  A Newcastle fan all his life - "My father went to the 1932 Cup final and nine months later I was born" - he inherited a club rooted to the bottom of the table and led it to fourth, third and fifth-placed finishes in the Premier League, undeservedly falling to Chelsea in the last FA Cup semi-final to be played at the old Wembley Stadium and losing out to Marseille at the same stage of the 2003-04 UEFA Cup.

Tom Maley's bust in the Milburn Stand foyer

Sir Bobby's links to Newcastle United are commemorated by a bust inside the main reception at St James' Park - the starting point for stadium tours - a memorial garden and a three-metre tall bronze statue, unveiled in May before an audience of thousands of fans and ex-players. "It's a lovely statue - Sir Bobby all over," said Paul Gascoigne. "He was a great man and I’m proud to have known him.”  Sculpted by Tom Maley, whose earlier likeness of Jackie Milburn stands at the opposite side of the Gallowgate End, the statue shows Robson with his hands in suit pockets, right leg resting on a leather football and head turned towards the site of the old Newcastle Breweries, now a Sandman Signature Hotel and a Shark Club gastro bar.  Sir Bobby Robson 1933-2009 England reads the accompanying plaque.  "This is where his love of football began," Lady Elsie Robson recalled. "It feels fitting that we should be standing on the hill that Bob used to walk up with his father and brothers on a Saturday afternoon to watch Albert Stubbins and his other boyhood heroes...My husband's career took him all over the world, but he was always a Newcastle fan at heart. He loved this club and was very proud to be its manager."

The feeling, then and now, was mutual.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Dynamo Kyiv

My first visit to Kyiv was a daytrip in October 1997.  "The word Ukraine means borderland," the guide cheerlessly recited as we drove into the city. "Historically it was the breadbasket of Russia."  "Aye, man," somebody muttered, "but when are we getting to the bars?"  A Lada strained to overtake the coach, the passenger leaning out of the window to give us the finger.  The country's first McDonald's had just opened on Kreshchatyk and women in fur coats and posh frocks scoffed hamburgers and fries next to Newcastle fans in jeans and black and white tops. Outside, baboushkas in washed-out headscarves were offering household tat - dog-eared books, faded icons and threadbare blankets - for sale in gloomy concrete underpasses as we made our way towards the ground. Dynamo - Champions League semi-finalists the following year - were still a formidable side,  Rebrov and Shevchenko quickly putting them two goals ahead before a late, deflected double from the unlikely source of John Beresford's right boot shocked all but a tiny pocket of the 100,000 crowd into silence.  "You only wear leather jackets," taunted three hundred Geordies as the home fans drifted away and we bopped on the wooden benches. Not that it mattered in the end: Dynamo beat Barcelona by a combined score of seven goals to nil on their way to the quarter final; Newcastle, shorn of strikers by Alan Shearer's injury and Les Ferdinand's ill-timed sale, lost to PSV Eindhoven (twice) and Barcelona in their next three games.

Fifteen years on Kyiv is a very different city and Dynamo, sadly, a shadow of their former selves.  Rob Langham, one half of the ever wonderful The Two Unfortunates, picks up the tale. 

A winter break in Kyiv? I’ll admit to puzzlement on the part of some of our friends at our decision to embark upon a 5 day expedition to the frozen steppe in November. The city’s charms are undoubtedly low key and even if the marvellously atmospheric Bessarabska market, quirky Mikhail Bulgakov museum, the grandeur of the city’s onion domes and moving, monolithic monuments to the Great Patriotic War all stoke plenty of interest, yet there were many who suspected the round ball lay behind our choice.

I’ll admit that Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s rebuilding projects provoked much of my fascination in the past. In particular, the 1986 Dynamo Kyiv team that cantered to victory over Atletico Madrid in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final in Lyon and the subsequent enlistment of the bulk of that vintage into the USSR squad for the Mexico World Cup. A 6-0 shellacking of a previously heralded Hungary as followed by Vasyl Rats angling in a screamer against France and I was hooked – I watched with regret as Ihor Belanov’s hat-trick proved to no avail as the Soviets inexplicably lost out in a ding dong second round battle with Belgium.

I had also been dimly aware of the 1970s generation too – led by Oleg Blokhin and victorious in another Euro showpiece against Ferencváros. Of course Lobanovksyi was to create another set of marvels in the nineties – Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov terrorising Euro defences and taking the club to a Champions League semi in 1999. Dynamo, in their pristine white kit and marvellously embroidered ‘D’ of a crest are nothing short of World Football’s most storied clubs.

Rob at the wrong stadium

The day leading up to a 5pm Sunday kick off for the derby match between Dynamo and Arsenal and had been punctuated by much debate as to whether sitting outside for two hours on a tingling Ukrainian night was a good idea or not. Egged on by the proprietor of this fine site, Michael Hudson, we vacillated and at many points, the prospect of decamping to a coy restaurant with a steaming plate of borshch held more appeal. But, in the end, with temperatures rising to a smidgeon above zero come Sunday afternoon and equipping ourselves with more layers than an Angel cake, we set out for the Dynamo stadium, perched atop a high bluff looking out across the Dnipro river and an arena we had been lucky enough to view on a self-guided walking tour of the city a couple of days before.

Having been diverted by the site of a man leading a pony down the steps of the Khreshchatyk underground station and fortifying ourselves with steaming cups of coffee, we leisurely sauntered towards the stadium – its grandiose gate depicting its most famous coach and providing a striking entrance. There was one snag, however, the tall floodlights jutting up into the East European sky were still unlit – and this but half an hour only before the scheduled kick off.

Hence a quick rethink before deciding that either the game wasn’t taking place at all or was to be staged at the massive new Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex, a conversion of an arena previously glorying in the monikers Trotsky Stadium and Republikansky Stadium and the building where Spain went on something a romp against Italy in the Euro 2012 final this past summer.

 Dynamo ultras' light show

Kyiv’s metro stations are as austere and as grand as others scattered across the former USSR and they also plunge to extraordinary depths – hence, the complicated journey to the national team’s home was no small matter. Negotiating the labyrinthine passages of the Palats Sportu station would have troubled Theseus and a heavy uniformed presence (albeit disappointingly not the ranks of army personnel one remembers from European cup ties behind the iron curtain in the 1980s) did little to help our radar. In the end, we indulged in that time honoured policy of following the scarves, emerging above ground and filtering through a series of alleyways before emerging in front of the shiny stadium.

Already past kick off, we perhaps conservatively ignored the attempts to local youth to foist cut price tickets upon us before purchasing two mid-priced seats from a booth handily staffed by an English-speaking helper.  At roughly a tenner, the prices were relatively cheap although perhaps not so much given the Ukrainian standard of living. However, places were on sale for as little as £2 or £3.

A quarter of an hour in and the game was still 0-0 – the stadium’s yellow and blue colour scheme clearly evident given the quarter full arena. Indeed, we were far from alone in our tardiness – many fans choosing to tarry with cigarettes or simply amble to their positions. Two set of ultras felt differently however – Dynamo’s tyros created a good noise to our right while an infinitesimally tiny bunch of Arsenal fans were letting off steam just ahead of us.

To say the attitude among the bulk of the support was diffident would be an understatement however and it soon became clear as to why, with Dynamo camped in their opponents’ half and showing an ease in possession one would expect of an XI that had contested a Champions League match with Paris St. Germain only a few days before. Peppered with Brazilians and Nigerians, Ideye Brown led the line in a modern 4-3-3 style formation with perhaps the diminutive South American, Dudu, still only 20 years of age, doing most to unlock the massed defence of the visitors.

Ideye ended up netting twice with international centre back Yevhen Khacheridi and Oleh Husyev scoring the others, all of which came in the last few minutes of each half. The experienced Husyev in particular was in fine form raiding down the right, showing a tendency to graft which the much heralded Andriy Yarmolenko failed to match. After his introduction from the bench Yarmolenko missed a sitter and his slow progress along with that of another previous wunderkind Artem Milevskiy, absent here perhaps highlights some of the problems besetting Ukrainian football.

For the break-up of the Soviet Union has led to a severe lack of competition for a club like Kyiv, previously honed on a half century diet of intense encounters  with the Moscow clubs and other former giants such as the Georgians of Dynamo Tblisi. This victory was a cakewalk and, Shakhtar Donetsk apart, the Ukrainian Premier League is suffering from a lack of serious quality.

The glittering surroundings featuring electronic entry gates, the lack of home based players and the casual approach of many of the playing staff are a far cry from the discipline – and mystique ­­– of the Lobanovskyi years. Before, a victory in Kyiv, even for the most storied of western European giants, would be unheard of. Now, Paris St. Germain can come and chalk up the most functional of victories. Shakhtar are formidable of course – but their oligarch owner Rinat Akhmetov’s millions serve nothing but to reinforce the continued importance of the oligarch model. A European Football Weekend in Kyiv is still a treat but I wish I’d been there in 1985.

You can read much more from Rob here.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Ground 217: Zimbru Stadium, Chişinău

Rohan Ricketts' move to Dacia Chișinău was always likely to be one of the shortest and strangest footballing episodes of summer 2010.  "Moldova was just horrendous," the ex-Arsenal, Spurs and Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder recalled after leaving for the German fourth division. "I had players take things from my room. (They) smoked in the changing rooms and drank four or five bottles of beer before games.  I was sitting in on meetings about match-fixing.  It was strange but almost amusing."

Founded in 1999 and champions of Moldova twelve years and a bit of alleged intimidation of officials later, Dacia are the capital's upstart football team, dislodging FC Zimbru, title winners in eight of the Divizia Naţională's first nine seasons, as the only threat to Sheriff Tiraspol's ongoing strangehold over the domestic game. Bankrolled by Gabriel Stati, occasional fugitive and eldest son of the country's richest man, the Yellow Wolves share Zimbru's eponymous stadium, twenty minutes on trolley bus 22 from the corner of Strada Ismail and Bulevardu Ștefan cel Mare, home to a branch of the ubiquitous Andy's Pizza, a glass-fronted casino, a half-finished apartment block with black bin liners fluttering in the space reserved for windows, and a nightclub with a plastic giraffe surrounding the door. Small wonder Ricketts spent so much time in his hotel.

Some mumbled Russian and thirty lei gets us seats on the halfway line. "Shit! A quid fifty and we've already missed a goal," Tom jokes as the fifteen Iskra Stal fans finish celebrating their team's second minute opener. "Don't worry, there'll be more," says Mikey as Dacia's Evgheni Matiughin fumbles at a tame shot.  While Moldova's national stadium is a far cry from the last game of  football I saw - Red House Farm Juniors vs Cullercoats in the Northern Alliance Division Two - a turgid first-half means the gap in quality isn't always so apparent. "This is the worst game I've ever seen," Mikey moans after quarter of an hour.  "Try watching Spurs," says Lisa.  "It's brilliant you can smoke here," chips in Tom. "Is there a bar do you reckon?" Dacia, beaten 1-0 by Sheriff in their previous league game,  muster a hardcore support of just over fifty people and no more than a handful of attempts to equalise until the visiting keeper kicks a clearance against Cairo de Andrade's back and then tops the first mistake by letting the Brazilian forward's shot trickle under his hand.

"What kind of place is this?" asks Mikey. "They don't have pies.  They don't even have beer."  "There's that bread thing," suggests Tom, his tone less convincing than the first-half display of goalkeeping.  As the second half begins the only thing on anybody's stomach is the belly laugh which greets Denis Ilescu when he calls for a header, misses the ball completely, slips on his front and ends up chesting the ball out for a throw-in. "He was on-loan at Anzhi Makhachkala," Tom says, scrolling through Wikipedia on his phone. "Imagine him and Eto'o in the same team."

Adama Guira, a Burkina Faso international who played six times for Djurgårdens, ambles menacingly around midfield as the home side belatedly start to impose themselves. Ghenadie Orbu heads them into the lead, a third goal takes a deflection off a defender and the fourth - a free-kick which curls over the wall and through the keeper's hands -  is scored by Nicolae Josan, voted best midfielder in the Russian first division when he played alongside Ilescu at Anzhi. It's eleven o'clock when we get back to the city centre, the giraffe nightclub is closed for a private party and Andy's kicks us out after the second beer.  A small crowd of people are buying cans at a street corner kiosk, a car bumps on to the pavement blasting Gangnam Style through the windows and the neighbourhood dogs settle down for the night on piles of rotting leaves.  "It's a bit like Skegness," says Tom, "but about a hundred times worse."

Date:  October 6th 2012
Admission: £1.50
  • The Moldovan league starts its winter hiatus this weekend, returning on March 3rd for a final thirteen rounds. Sheriff host second-placed Dacia at the Sheriff Stadium on Sunday March 10th. 
It was nuts. The players were welcoming but smoked in the changing room and drank four or five bottles of beer before games.
“I was sitting in on meetings about match-fixing. It was strange but almost amusing.

Read more:
It was nuts. The players were welcoming but smoked in the changing room and drank four or five bottles of beer before games.

Read more:
It was nuts. The players were welcoming but smoked in the changing room and drank four or five bottles of beer before games.

Read more:

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Ground 215: Langdale Centre, Wallsend Town

Football and Wallsend go together like Liverpool and missed chances or Munich and beer.  Almost seventy players, six full internationals, one Champions League winner and two of Newcastle United's current first team squad can count Wallsend Boys Club among their footballing alma mater, its Station Road cantera launching professional careers with the same kind of frequency that Swan Hunter once did ships. "I'll remain indebted to it forever," Peter Beardsley told the Daily Telegraph the year he was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame. "It was a special time. It’s played a huge part in my life and what I’ve done," remembers Birmingham City boss Lee Clark. "If we hadn’t had Station Road, who knows what we might have got ourselves into."

Wallsend was a thriving place in the mid-1970s.  The Swan Hunter shipyards were expanding along both banks of the Tyne, employing 11,500 people. Ray Hankin, schooled on Station Road, reached an FA Cup semi final with Burnley while a local amateur football club made minor headlines of its own, Wallsend Town defeating Annan Athletic and Sheffield FC to reach the last 16 of the FA Vase.  In 1979 Brian Lisle's team beat Vase holders Newcastle Blue Star and Hartlepool United Reserves to first place in the Wearside League and knocked three-time Northern League champions Ferryhill Athletic out of the FA Cup.  The title would turn out be the club's high-water mark: disbanded twice, it was eventually reformed by Alan James and Dave Grandini  in 1998, dropping to the foot of the Northern Alliance after an ill-fated couple of seasons in the second-tier of the Wearside League. A merger with Wallsend United promised an upturn in fortune but progress on the pitch was hampered by half a decade of vandalism off it. "Any money we were getting from sponsorship was being spent on repairs," Grandini told the Newcastle Evening Chronicle last year as his side on the brink of back-to-back promotions and the club's first top-flight campaign since 1986.  "Everytime we went down to the club something was wrong.

Promoted behind Amble United, an opening day draw at Walker Central preceded a half-time wash-out at home to Heaton Stannington, last season's Premier Division champions and the third of Town's victims in the FA Vase run of 1975. There are nineteen people at the Langdale Centre - still twelve more than turned out to see the club play Evenwood Town in the preliminary round of the 1981-82 FA Cup - to see the visit of Killingworth Sporting, Northumberland Benevolent Bowl holders but beatable in the league. Within three minutes Grandini's side are one ahead, Dekka Graham drifting right before looping up a cross which Paul Gordon dispatches unopposed. "You'd been warned," grumbles Sporting boss Davy Taylor from the sideline. Gordon's second goal is even easier, a backpass spinning away from ex-Hartlepool United keeper Liam Mooney and the striker jogging the ball into the vacant net.  In between, Killingworth's Michael Bowman hits two shots into Rikki Donaldson's midriff and is forced off with a torn hamstring, the visitors' chances disappearing along with him. "We've been atrocious," Taylor says at half time, "the worst I've seen us play."

Killingworth respond to their manager's call for "graft" but a few heavy tackles and some inconsistent officiating raise hackles on both sides.  Graham is booked for taking a shot after he's flagged offside and responds by calling the referee a "baldy fucking radgie". His teammates bundle him towards the dugouts, where he throws his top to the grass before heading off across the playground. "It's only a daft game of football," his response to the inevitable red card. John Amos scores a late goal for Killingworth, heading in a near-post corner with half the Wallsend team marking the back. As Sporting push for an equaliser, a mistimed challenge on Gordon sees the forward respond with an elbow and leaves the home side to play out the remaining seconds with only nine men. The referee leaves the pitch surrounded by irate Wallsend players. "Disgrace, isn't it?" says one fan to another.

Admission: Free
Date: August 11th 2012

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Ground 214: Oxford Centre, Longbenton

"Voy wawm" said the dustman
one bright August morning - 
But that was in Longbenton
under the trees

He was Northumbrian, he'd never known
horizons shimmering in the sun

Michael Roberts, 'Hymn to the Sun'.

August 11th, the closing afternoon of the men's Olympic football programme and the opening one of the 2012-13 Northern Football Alliance.  Amid the red-brick municipal estates of Longbenton, better known as the home of Findus Crispy Pancakes and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, the footballing temperatures have rarely been as high since a teenage Peter Beardsley went from sweeping factory floors to captaining Newcastle United, winning two league titles with Liverpool and turning out for England in 59 internationals and two World Cups.

Formed as recently as 2008 - among the most traumatic years for those who followed Beardsley into the Three Lions shirt -  Longbenton Football Club have since gone through three different sponsors, one enforced name change and three sets of home colours, last season's pink shirts now ditched in favour of Dundee United orange with black shorts and arms. Third place in last season's Tyneside Amateur League Division Two - 11 wins from 18 games holding off the challenge of Heaton Rifles and Lindisfarne Athletic - was enough to see the Bulls promoted behind champions Winlaton Queens Head, David Short scoring 17 times in the league and netting 33 in just 35 games overall. Keith Thompson's side made the final of the Selcray Bowl too, beating first division Blyth Isabella in the semi before losing 3-1 to West Jesmond after a man-of-the-match performance from ex-Longbenton goalkeeper Chris Saunders.  Better news was to follow, the Northern Football Alliance's June AGM seeing the club join Isabella and High Howdon Social Club in stepping up to Level 13 of the national football pyramid. "A massive success both on and off the pitch," Thompson says.

At £1,200 a year, chairman and former coach Tony Short is currently the club's only sponsor, with Wednesday night training sessions taking place on the municipal pitches at Paddy Freeman's Park. But both 31-year-old Short and last season's player of the year, midfielder Anthony Peel, are back for the new season while David McDonald and young keeper Tom Kindley - a substitute in the 2010 FA Vase Final, when he was briefly on Sunderland's radar - have been snapped up over the summer from Northern League Whitley Bay.

The Bulls kick off the new season at home, Alnwick Town Reserves the first Step 9 visitors to the Oxford Centre Stadium. North Northumberland League title winners in 2010-11, the black and whites could do no better than twelfth in the first attempt to get out of the Northern Alliance's basement division. "The game's here to be won," Thompson tells his starting eleven as Alnwick tap the ball around their half of the pitch and substitutes laze face down on a touchline sealed off with orange rope.  There are eight other spectators as the game begins with competing shouts of "Howay, get stuck straight in." 

 It's an orange shirt that almost gets in first, a quick counter upfield ends with Anth Brown, a teenage striker signed from Tynemouth Under-18s, playing in Short, who sidefoots straight at the oncoming goalkeeper. "Should have scored there, son," a home fan mutters under his breath. With Ben Keenan guiding and cajoling up front, Alnwick put the home defence under pressure before another breakaway sees Longbenton's Robbie Woods slide the ball inches past the post. "Keep yer shape! Two banks of four!" barks the visiting coach. Keenan almost stabs in past goalkeeper Martin Dixon and sends a left-footed volley a couple of metres wide. "Rules of attrition," he says as a forward ball is just cut out. "Nine times out of ten for that one time."

 "Plenty of positives from that half," begins the away team talk as Thompson rouses his team and assistant manager Paul Charlton, once on the books of Crystal Palace and Gateshead, takes a break from running the line to have a cigarette. Minutes after the restart, Alnwick's left winger miskicks when through on goal and Hutchins spanks the follow up into a garden. Longbenton are more clinical: man-of-the-match Brown running clear of his marker and redirecting a through ball into the corner of the net with an hour played. Alnwick respond through the wily Keenan, his first shot turned away by Dixon and a second rebounding off the post, but with Peel, easily the most skilful player on either side, controlling the pace in midfield it takes four good saves from the visiting keeper to stop Longbenton running away with the game.  Charlton passes on the flag with ten minutes remaining but hardly breaks sweat in the centre of defence as the home side play out their first ever victory in the Northern Football Alliance. With Peel and Brown in the side, it won't be their last.

Admission: Free
Date: 11th August 2012
  • It's a ten-minute walk from the metro platform at Four Lane Ends to pitchside at the Oxford Centre. Exit the station, cross Benton Road and turn right, walking downhill until you reach the grass roundabout at the junction with West Farm Avenue. Turn left here and the Oxford Centre is directly opposite The Charnwood pub. There's parking next to the pitch, while the neighbouring Boulevard Shopping Centre has a Booze Buster, Greggs, Betfred and side-by-side takeaways. 
  • Newcastle United's Darsley Park training complex and the neighbouring Whitley Park, home ground of Northern League side West Allotment Celtic, are both within walking distance of Four Lane Ends Metro. Nearby, Team Northumbria and Newcastle United Women's Football Club play at Northumbria University's Coach Lane Campus, which is visible from the Newcastle University-owned Longbenton Sports Ground. 

Friday, 10 August 2012

Ground 213: Stade Pourcin, Etoile Sportive Fréjusienne

What, to paraphrase John Cleese, did the Romans ever do for Fréjus and Saint-Raphaël? Well, for starters there was sanitation, education, fresh water and wine, provided for the veteran troops of Julius Caesar's Eighth Legion. Augustus later crammed its harbour with what remained of Antony and Cleopatra's fleet after the naval rout at Actium, the undisputed match of 31BC.  Gnaeus Julius Agricola, future consul and governor of the bad lands of Britannia, grew up on the Fréjus side of the bay, Saint-Raphaël, founded as a beach resort for retired soldiers, taking on the genteel part of Bournemouth to Fréjus' raucous, battle-scarred Pompey.

The roles were reversed as soon as football hit the south of France, Stage Raphaëlois lifting six Riviera Championships in the seven seasons preceding the Great War. In 1912 a line-up including Wallace, Rushford, Baird, MacLaren and Victor Bentall-Sergeant captured a national title in Paris's Stade Colombes, beating defending champs Stade Helvétique de Marseille, Lyon and Tourcoing - hometown of Yohan Cabaye - before seeing off local favourites French Sports Association 2-1 after extra-time in the final. Semi-finalists in the 1927 and 1929 Coupe de France, Stage's time in the sun ended in 1932 when their application to take part in the first professional French Associaton Football League was rejected, leaving the amateurs in the shade of AS Cannes and OGC Nice.  It was another six years before Etoile Sportive Fréjusienne started out on the opposite bank of the River Pédégal, reaching the minor heights of a fourth division title in 1991 and later developing the likes of Anthony Modeste, the Nice striker who spent part of last season on loan at Blackburn Rovers, former Newcastle United, Portsmouth and Stoke City midfield carthorse Amdy Faye and Adil Rami, the Lille double winner last seen lumbering around the heart of Laurent Blanc's Euro 2012 side in a manner reminiscent of England's own John Terry after ten pints of lager, a chicken madras and a heavy night with 'er next door.

The queue for beer and suspect baguettes.

Seventy-odd years of mutual insignificance later, the neighbouring clubs decided to pool forces in June 2009. "Times have changed. The rivalry between the two cities are of another age," said George Ginesta, deputy mayor of St. Raphael, announcing the formation of Étoile Fréjus Saint-Raphaël. After finishing eighth and sixth in their first two seasons, Étoile have dropped to midtable in the Championnat National, the third-tier of French football, ahead of the final home game of the season at the 3,000 capacity Stade Pourcin, which, despite the promise of entry gratuite taped to the ticket office windows, is less than a third full for the visit from second from bottom Besançon. "What else do people do on a Friday night in the Cote d'Azur?" asks Bolton fan Mark, one of fifteen newly-qualified teachers I'm training here for a month, as he bites through a three-euro baguette. Allowing for its slightly dubious pinky-brown filling, the food proves a much bigger bargain than the beer - €2.50 for a half pint - we spend most of the first half repeatedly queuing up for.

The home side start slowly, caught flat-footed in defence as Charly Vuillemot puts the relegation battlers into a sixth-minute lead. Nottingham Forest Academy graduate Victor Hernandez soon levels from the penalty spot, local boy Eyemen Henaini adding a quickfire second to give Étoile a twelfth-minute lead.  While eight hundred fans applaud the six-seater press box is empty and there isn't a TV camera in sight. "There's something cool about knowing no-one will ever see those goals again," grins Huddersfield supporter Ben through a mouthful of Kronenbourg. Galvanised by the double success, Étoile pour forward, smashing one shot against the crossbar and tapping another straight at the last defender after keeper Willy Maeyens is left stranded in the Besançon goal. "It should be about 9-1 here," says Ben.  The final scoreline could have been "a tad heavier", reflects Étoile's official match report later, with Gallic understatement. Substitute Laurent Maquet finally puts the game to bed with his second goal of the season on seventy minutes, the ex-Cannes and Charleroi midfielder slamming a first-time effort right-footed into the corner of Mayens' net.  A soft penalty reduces the deficit in the final minute of normal time, Lakdar Boussaha beating Wilfried Bulgare after the slightest of touches sees Youssouf Ahamadi fall poleaxed to the ground, but when Mayens strays upfield for an injury time corner Jordi Delclos easily outpaces the sole remaining defender, passing the ball into an empty net for the game's sixth and final goal.  We head back to Saint-Raphaël's seafront for red wine and cocktails, lights twinkling along the bay and palm fronds swaying gently in the Mediterranean breeze. "Not a bad night, all things considered," thinks Mark. "Better than watching Bolton anyway."

Admission: Free (normal price €10 for the covered seats in the tribune and half price for the open terraces of the populaires)
Date: May 11th 2012

  •  The son of an English mother and French father, Victor Bentall-Sergeant had already won one national championship in 1907 with Racing Club de France.  He played five times for France between 1907 and 1913, including a 12-0 defeat to England at QPR's Park Royal Ground in March 1908. Another French international, Joseph Kaucsar, a Hungarian immigrant and Saint-Raphaël garage owner, played for Stage between 1925 and 1931, making 15 appearances for Les Bleus. Kaucsar's second cap, in May 1931, came as part of the first French side to defeat England.
  •  Built in 1947, the Stade Eugene Pourcin stands on the edge of Fréjus town centre. The stadium was renamed after one of the 421 vicitims of the Malpasset Dam Disaster in December 1959. Open on three sides, the repairs to the main stand were paid for by Real Madrid, the former club of French international defender Louis Hon, who'd wound down his playing days at Saint-Raphaël three years previously. Hon later managed Lyon, Celta Vigo, Racing Santander and Real Betis.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Ground 212: Ford Quarry, Sunderland West End

All things considered, it's been quite an opening ten months for Sunderland West End. A suspected outbreak of Legionnaires' disease caused the abandonment of one game, eleven league wins in a row were followed by four defeats in five, one star player is out for the season, another - the leading scorer - moved up a league and two divisions after fourteen goals in sixteen games. And all that before you  even get started on the 3-0 cup semi-final defeat the very same week their joint-manager quit the club after six years in charge.

Pennywell's Jolly Potters had won three Wearside Combination titles in a row when they were grafted onto Wearside League strugglers Houghton Town - themselves a former former pub side  - at the end of last season. The combined team took Town's league place, playing daylight games at the council-owned Ford Quarry complex in Sunderland and their floodlit fixtures back in Houghton-le-Spring.  West End and Prudhoe Town have jumped from the bottom three in 2011 to seventh and twelfth, scoring 134 goals and conceding 133 in the 61 league games they've played this season.  The reverse fixture ended in a 3-3 draw and Prudhoe's Chris Winn is on 31 goals after scoring twice in the 4-3 midweek defeat to leaders Ryhope Colliery.  The only things more certain than goalmouth action in this game are a player telling the referee he's "fucking joking" and a lone man turning up with a dog. Bingo to both in the opening ten minutes.

The other spectator has come by bike, propped against the metal railing while he reluctantly does ballboy duties every time Prudhoe's four substitutes miss their shot at the empty goal.  Boof! "Cheers mate." Boof! "I told you I wasn't a forward." No walking after stray balls for me.  I head towards the nearest solid surface as the two teams emerge from the clubhouse, nine home fans and a referee assessor - wielding a clipboard and stylishly attired in slacks and an Air Asia jacket - following in their wake.

Dave Keithley has West End's first shot on target, drags a second wide and watches Gavin Dorward toepoke straight at the keeper with the midfielder clean through on goal.  The main action at the other end is the referee ordering Chris Winn off the field to change out of his undershorts. "Darker colour than the rest of your kit," he explains. "What do you want, me testicles hanging out? Give yer head a shake."  Winn, alone up front, finds tucking balls away a bit more difficult back out on the pitch, scooping over the bar when a blocked clearance falls straight to his feet.  Despite the scare it's West End who go closest, Michael Wharton's low shot fingertipped around the metal post by Prudhoe's Mark Fish. "Tighter, you've gotta get tighter," rages the away team's coach, a Steve Kean lookalike only five times more manic and dressed in a bright orange top. "You're not staying with the runners."  Fish scuffs a kick straight to Keithley, who's too surprised to do anything but prod it straight back. "Unlucky but it's gone. A mistake but it's gone. We move on and it's gone," clap the Prudhoe bench.  Within thirty seconds Nathan Burrell smacks a dipping free kick that Neal Bussey just about nudges onto the bar.

The first chance of the second half falls to West End, the next three to Prudhoe.  Under pressure, a home defender hooks the ball clear towards Wharton, who swerves a rocket from thirty yards out past Fish's left hand. "Helluva goal," clap two home fans who've been sitting in their car with the engine running since the start of half-time.  Keithley adds a quick second, sliding the ball under the keeper after a defensive mistake, and Prudhoe heads drop like Andy Carroll's transfer value. "You're feeling sorry for yourselves," shouts the manager. "We're feeling sorry for ourselves," repeats Nathan Burrell, now pushed up front in support of Winn. Prudhoe rally late on and have a goalbound effort hacked off the line, but with Brad Forster shackling Winn West End comfortably hold on, their eighteenth win of the season lifting them sixth in the table ahead of Darlington Cleveland Bridge.

Admission: Free (there was nobody to collect the usual £2 entry)
Date: April 7th 2012

  • The club's proximity to Sunderland's Nissan plant isn't its only tenuous link to Japan. Born in Houghton-le-Spring in 1957, Tony Henry made 441 appearances for Manchester City, Bolton, Oldham, Stoke  and Shrewsbury Town before playing two seasons for Mazda (now J1 side Sanfrecce Hiroshima) in the semi-professional Japan Soccer League.
    Tommy Thompson, an England international forward who scored over 200 goals in 443 games for Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Preston, Stoke and Barrow, was born on the outskirts of Houghton in 1928.  A next door neighbour of Sir Tom Finney during his six years at Deepdale, he scored 34 league goals in a single season as North End finished England's third best side in 1957-58.
  • The nearest Metro station to Ford Quarry is South Hyton, at the end of the line which runs between from the Airport and Newcastle and Sunderland city centres.  Turn left out of the station and follow the hill up Hylton Bank, passing Pennywell Comrades Social Club and a betting kiosk, before turning left into Hylton Road at the top of the street.  St Luke's Road is the first left after St Anne's RC School, Nissan's wind turbines a few hundred metres away on the other side of the A19.  Take the unsigned left turn immediately after Maplewood School, directly opposite a bus stop and black CCTV tower.  The clubhouse car park is the first gate on your right.  

Friday, 6 April 2012

Ground 211: Hetton Centre, Hetton-le-Hole

The first ever final of the Durham Challenge Cup took place at Monkwearmouth Cricket Club on an April afternoon in 1884.  Sunderland, originally founded in 1879 as Sunderland and District Teachers' Association Football Club, lined up against Darlington, formed at a grammar school meeting in July 1883.  Appropriately enough, the game would be an education for everyone involved.

Sunderland had lost 2-0 to Tyne in the final of the 1883 Northumberland and Durham Cup before "a large assemblage" at Newcastle's Brandling Park.  A year on, sporting their normal colours of navy blue shirts and knickerbockers and urged on by a partisan crowd of 2,500,  the Wearsiders emerged 4-3 victors after what the Northern Echo called "a most unpleasant match".  Darlington appealed the result, the referee later admitting the winning goal had only been awarded after threats of violence from both players and spectators. The FA ordered the final to be replayed at a neutral venue and dispatched Major Francis Marindin - Crimean War veteran, founder member of the Royal Engineers Football Club, former FA president and eight times an FA Cup final referee - north to handle the game.  "An outstanding official who really knows the rules," was the commonly held verdict on Marindin's abilities.  Sunderland won 2-0 at Birtley.  It was the first trophy won by the fledgling club; within ten years they had lifted the first two of their six Football League championships.

 There's hard standing on three sides of the pitch, a grassy rise facing the main stand and a balcony of the Bob Paisley Bar overlooking the goal to the left.

Sunderland - winners of the cup a record twenty-one times - didn't enter their reserve side in a 2011-12 competition that's been contested by almost fifty clubs drawn from six different leagues. Durham City, Darlington and Hartlepool United went out in the early rounds, leaving Gateshead FC's blend of youth players and full-time professionals - finalists in three of the last five seasons  - favourites to retain the cup they won for the first time last year. The Tynesiders haven't disappointed, scoring thirteen and conceding only twice in four games against Northern League opposition. 

Gateshead's opponents in the final, Spennymoor Town, are themselves fourteen-time winners of the competition and are currently chasing their third Northern League title in a row. "They'll undoubtedly be the strongest side we've faced in the Durham Challenge Cup this season," says Gateshead coach Paul Bryson, once a Spennymoor player himself.  His managerial counterpart, ex-Hartlepool United midfielder Jason Ainsley, is one of seven Gateshead old boys in the Spennymoor set-up.

 "Come on you Moors"

The final is held at the Eppleton Colliery Football Ground for a second successive year, the 10.45am Good Friday kick-off and threat of rain doing little to dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd. Developed to Northern League standards when Eppleton Colliery were promoted in 1992 having won two Wearside League titles and seven cups in the space of three seasons, the ground received an extra upgrade when Sunderland City Council spent £3 million relocating community services there, and is now maintained by the Hetton Town Trust and Sunderland AFC, whose reserve and women's teams are now the most frequent users of the pitch. Eppleton Colliery - Durham Challenge Cup winners themselves in 1990 - folded in 2005, resigning their place in the middle division of the Northern Football Alliance after back-to-back relegations and five bottom place finishes in the last seven of their seventy-six years as a club.

With six players injured, two suspended and the first-team in action over the weekend, Dyson sends out five full-time professionals to supplement his youthful squad.  Goalkeeper Tim Deasy played in the FA Cup third round during his 93 games for Barrow, Chris Carruthers - capped eleven times for England U20s - won the 2007 Division Two play-offs with Bristol Rovers, Martin Brittain turned out for Newcastle United and Ipswich Town, Chris Moore has won both the FA Vase and FA Trophy, and James Marwood - son of the Manchester City executive and Arsenal title-winner - is a former Newcastle United reserve. Deasy's called into action twice in the opening minutes as Spennymoor start brightly, and with the fleet-footed Gavin Cogdon driving through the centre and Craig Ruddy a constant danger down the right, nobody is surprised when Adam Johnston opens the scoring with only ten minutes played. "There's only one united and we're in the Northern League," sing the fans in black and white stripes behind Deasy's goal.

Gateshead try to take the sting out of Spennymoor's gameplan, passing the ball around midfield as the Northern League side hustle, snap and attempt to release the dangerous Cogdon and Johnston on the break.  Teenage forward Jordan Marshall bustles around but never manages to escape Leon Ryan at the heart of the Spennymoor defence, while  Chris Moore tries unsuccessfully to work openings down the left.  Right on half time a quickly taken free kick puts Cogdon in on Deasy, the striker celebrating the second goal with a handstand on the six-yard line as a few Spennymoor fans start a chant of "Easy, easy."

With Carruthers already off injured and the ineffective Marwood and Brittain withdrawn at half time, it's a less experienced Gateshead side which resumes after the break.  Moore plays more centrally, his direct running posing the occasional danger to the Spennymoor defence, but Marshall is too often as lonely as Andrew Lansley in a roomful of doctors.  Ruddy sees a shot bend tantalisingly wide, Deasy beaten, before Dan Moore nods in a left-wing cross for the third goal. "You're terrible man, Gateshead," screams a man in a Geordie baseball cap. "Nee shape at all."

128 years after it was first contested, Spennymoor Town's Leon Ryan lifts the Durham Challenge Cup off a wooden trestle table by the side of the pitch (a slightly better look than the blue plastic chair it had been left on before the game).  Gateshead fans pack up their flags, the jubilant Spennymoor squad head off to celebrate with their supporters at Hetton Lyons Cricket Club.

Admisson: £5 (including a free programme)
Date: April 6th 2012

  • Sunderland and Darlington would meet in the 1885 and 1887 Durham Challenge Cup finals. "A lithe and active" Darlington took the first 3-0, Sunderland disputing the result on six counts, including the fact the game took place in Darlington, and withdrawing from the following season's competition when their appeal was turned down.  The Wearsiders took revenge with a 4-2 win two years later.
  • On the south-western edge of the City of Sunderland, Hetton-le-Hole is the unlikely home of the only manager to win three European Cups.  A granite and marble memorial in a town centre park commemorates Bob Paisley - 'Proud son of Hetton-le-Hole and loyal servant of Liverpool FC for 52 years.'  "A typical Durham mining village," Paisley called his home town, "a close-knit community seven miles from Sunderland where coal was king and football was religion.  My father was a miner, and although he never wanted any of his four sons to go down the pit, there didn't seem to be many alternatives." Paisley, who won nineteen trophies as Liverpool manager, wasn't the only son of Hetton-le-Hole who used football to escape a miner's life. Ralph Coates, an apprentice colliery fitter, won four England caps and a UEFA Cup with Tottenham Hotspur.  Bryan 'Pop' Robson won a Fairs Cup with Newcastle United and later played for Sunderland, Chelsea and West Ham.  Harry Potts played in an FA Cup final with Burnley and managed the Clarets to a Fairs Cup and Football League title.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Ground 210: Bower Fold, Stalybridge

It's the afternoon of my 36th birthday and we're wavering between a train ride to FC United or a dash by car to see Dunston at Staveley when a sat-nav error leaves Andy on the wrong side of a Manchester canal.  The FA Vase semi-final is hastily ruled out, I finish a three-hour journey from the Welsh countryside and am then told I have ten minutes and counting to dump two bags at left luggage, buy an onward ticket and make it onto the 13.11 from Piccadilly to Stalybridge.  During the fifteen-minute journey I discover the following events have occurred during my week among Russians in the wilds of North Wales: Sunderland have been knocked out of the FA Cup by Everton - "Best own-goal ever," says Pras - that neither Pras, Andy or fellow birthday boy Johan has the faintest idea what the result of the first test match between England and Sri Lanka was, that Barcelona drew with AC Milan in the Champions League, Stiliyan Petrov was diagnosed with leukaemia, and that British cabinet ministers, in a frantic scramble to divert the nation's attention away from pasties, granny taxes, quarter million pound dinners and all-round hapless buffoonery (yes, Gideon, I'm thinking of you), have managed to stoke a panic which leaves people hoarding petrol in milk cartons and a York woman with 40% burns.

The recent news headlines have made a lot better reading for supporters of FC United, the fan-owned club they said wouldn't last until Christmas 2005 hitting a £1.6 million community share target to fund a 5,000-capacity stadium after seven years as reluctant tennants at Bury. With the landlords having first call on the facilities at Gigg Lane, the Rebels are in weekend exile at Bower Fold, Stalybridge, which by happy coincidence is also home to one of Britain's very best railway station bars.  Less serendipitously, our late arrival means it's also one of the most overcrowded, necessitating a quick bounce to the nearby Q Inn - officially listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the shortest pub name in the country - and the White House, from where a botched attempt to walk to the ground and a wait for a taxi combine to make us five minutes late for kick off.

There are 1,726 people in the ground when we pile through the turnstiles by way of a quick stop off at the burger van.  That's down from the near 3,000 who took in United's last home game at Gigg Lane, though the relocated Manchester Roadenders are making up for their reduced numbers by ratcheting up the decibels. "This badge is our badge" segues into "Hello! Hello! We are the Busby Boys", Woody Guthrie's gentle melody merging into Henry Clay's marching song chorus. The lull, when it comes, is almost immediately broken by the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK: "I know what I want and I know how to get it. I wanna destroy Glazer and Sky!"

Befitting its regular owner's elevated status among the Conference North's top six, Bower Fold's a tidy, well-appointed stadium: 6,500-capacity, covered stands on every side of the pitch, and half-forested hills behind the all-seater Sir Tom Pendry Stand, renamed in honour of the long-time local MP and one-time Shadow Minister for Tourism and Sport. There's plenty of time to take in the view, the extent of United's dominance ensuring much of the game is played at a pre-season pace, with home players seldom hurried in possession and able to almost stroll away from their nominal markers at will.  It's a strangely languid display from Mickleover, who had won three in a row before Wednesday's 3-1 defeat by Buxton dumped them back into the relegation zone. Only Kristian Ramsey-Dickson, drafted in on-loan from Burton Albion, impresses for the visitors. With top-scorer Karl Ashton starved of service up front, United keeper James Spencer has so little to do in the first half he could almost join the crowd behind the opposite goal.

It takes twenty minutes until the deadlock is inevitably broken. Mickleover can't clear the ball, Matty Wolfenden plays in Mike Norton, who hits the ball past keeper Damon Clarke without breaking stride for his 16th league goal of the season. Behind the goal, fans launch into "He's Michael Norton, he's not from Gorton", hundreds of scarves are twirled in the air and handfuls of confetti blow across the concrete at the bottom of the stand.  Minutes later, Lee Neville crosses from the left and a defender heads the ball straight into the path of Wolfenden. Game over. Goal number seventeen for United's top scorer in the league. "They should have cleared it again," points out Pras. "Did you see Wolfie's volley?" a kid marvels to his dad.

We head towards the bar before the whistle blows, just in time to beat the rush. "Players' food will only be served on production of a meal ticket," reads a sign taped to the wall, though even with the crowds FC attract there are precious few of those about at this level of football. "Ten in at a time, sorry," says the man on the door, a United fan-cum-matchday volunteer like those selling programmes, pies and lottery tickets, running the merchandise stall, operating FCUM Radio's live broadcast or hanging up the impressive array of flags: 'FC United. Cheadle Lushes!', 'Songs of Freedom' and 'Republica FCUM Margentina.' "Another twenty and that's it," says a second doorperson, looking at a line that stretches all the way back to the brick toilets.  "I heard we might be here next season," says a fan at the head of the queue. "Here?" I won't be coming if we are."

We're well into the second half when Adam Jones nods in a free-kick from the excellent Carlos Roca, prompting a brief flurry of action which sees Wolfenden nip in ahead of Clarke and substitute Nicky Platt roll the pass in for the game's fourth and final goal. "It's a better standard of football than I expected this season but we're also more inconsistent than I expected," says Mike Molloy, part-time FCUM DJ and one of the thousands of fans who part-own the club. "There are better teams around us but anything's possible with the individual ability some of our players have got." As if to underline that last point, left-back Lee Neville gets the man of the match award from the sponsors, while the club's website - whose report on the game is headlined "Rampant Reds Roll Over Mickleover." - opts for the equally impressive former Oldham and Wrexham striker Wolfenden.

Hednesford's draw with Nantwich puts United three clear in the final play-off place as they chase a first promotion since the summer of 2008, although the knot of post-match drinkers gathered around the portable TV in the neighbouring Hare and Hounds pub are more immediately concerned with the number of points about to be dropped by Manchester City.  "City have scored," one yells through to the queue at the bar. "I know, it's 3-2," comes the shouted reply.  "It was. It's three-all now." "Bollocks."

We make it back to the station bar for more beer and the famous black peas ("They're just like peas in vinegar," Andy says, declining a second spoon). The night finally draws to an end back in Manchester, where I manage to fall asleep in a Chinese restaurant at the same time as forking one last scoop of rice into my mou...zzzz.

FCUM plus beer has a way of doing that to your Saturdays. Give it a whirl.

Admission: £8
Date: 31st March 2012

Friday, 23 March 2012

Ground 209: Belle Vue, Rhyl

Things to do in Rhyl: spend the day at the indoor Suncentre, see the Sky Tower (currently closed for repair), stroll along the beach as far as Kinmel Bay in one direction or Prestatyn in the other, play mini-golf, have a ride on the Rhyl Miniature Railway, watch a show at the Rhyl Pavilion Theatre, try and win a toy in SeaQuarium's Sharky Shack Fun Zone, scoff a Corfu Kebab, have a meal in the Welsh Curry House of the Year - "Classy Kareem's is a Spicy Choice" - or head straight for one of the bars on Sussex Street: Viva, Revive, Rendezvous or JD Wetherspoon. Me? I did none of the above. I watched Rhyl FC Reserves.

Which way to the Kandy Kabin?

 "Few clubs in the Welsh Premier League have as distinguished a past as Rhyl's," the club's official website boasts.  They're not wrong. Four-time Welsh Cup winners and twice champions of the principality's big league, the team from the North Wales seaside managed fifteen successive appearances in the FA Cup first round or better between 1949 and 1963 - beating Stoke City, Barnsley and Notts County along the way - and  knocked Lithuania's FK Atlantas out of the 2005-6 UEFA Cup before exiting over two legs to Roy Hodgson's Viking Stavanger. Beat that Afan Lido.

Rhyl's problem is that they're not actually in the Welsh Premier League. Now volunteer-run, the 140-year-old club had the eject button pushed on them at the end of the 2009-10 season, sent down to the Cymru Alliance despite finishing sixth in the eighteen-team top-division.  "The standard we have reached has exceeded the ability to finance itself," former club secretary Joe Pearson-Furnival told the WPL website. "We get very little financial help from our own FA and the financial demands of the players has now caught up with the lower leagues in the English game."  While pushing for promotion on the pitch, the club have made improvements off it too.  Nonetheless, finances remain tight: signs invite local companies to sponsor a seat for £5 a season and the club recently had to ask fans to help raise the £2,000 cost of repairing their pitch mower.

Tonight's game is the semi-final of the North Wales Coast FA Intermediate Cup, the club's second stringers taking on Rhyl Athletic, formed in 2009 and currently midtable in the Clwyd Football League Premier, two divisions below Rhyl's first team. Before kick off the couple of hundred fans manage a rousing minute's applause in honour of the recently deceased John Wright, head steward, junior football coach, general manager of the reserve team and father figure to many at the club. Executive seats are reserved for members of the Wright family, the home players warming up with RIP John printed on the front of their t-shirts and personalised messages written across the back.

"Pass it," "Keep it," "Win it," "Get the ball," "Shit!" the visiting bench shouts, though their team matches the home side until midway through the opening half when James Stead controls a pass on the right wing and slams it over the Athletic keeper's head into the far corner of the net.  "Great goal," says the very friendly woman who's just sold me a pie and polystyrene cup of tea for the bargain price of £2.50.  "What do you do for a pound?" ask a couple of teenagers. "You can have chips, you can have two sausage rolls, two bars of chocolate."  "Where are they tomorrow?" asks another customer. "We're away at Connah's Quay.  I'll have to watch it on Twitter."

In Mike Hulse, James Malloy and ex-Oldham Athletic junior Stead, the home side have the game's three most lively and inventive attackers.  Athletic have a lot of possession but their attempts to work openings down the right founder every time they reach the edge of the area.  Two minutes after the interval Stead adds the second goal via a free kick which takes a deflection and goes over the goalkeeper's head.  "Sunny Rhyl, sunny Rhyl, sunny Rhyl," a few children start chanting behind a skull and crossbones flag that has the words 'Sunny Rhyl West End Boys' emblazoned across it  in white.  The hardworking Malloy adds a third six minutes later as the home side, pacier and sharper on the ball, begin to dominate, though some good goalkeeping, several subsitutions and the linesman's flag combine to keep the score at three-nil.  Rhyl go through to the final to await the winners of Beaumaris Town versus Prestatyn Rovers. With the first team second in the league and into a semi-final of their own, the sun might not quite be back out yet - but it's definitely inching through the clouds.
Date: March 23rd 2012
Admission: £3 (£6 for first-team games)

  • The Belle Vue's been Rhyl's home ground since 1900.  A ten-minute walk from the town's bus and train stations - turn into Brighton Road at Apollo Bingo, take a right over the railway tracks just after Tongs Funeral Services and you'll see the floodlights just before you get to the Millbank pub - the tidy ground has four all-seater stands - three of them covered - and open steps in each corner where the smokers congregate.  Seats come in a choice of yellow, sky blue or two shades of green. 
  • Rhyl's greatest ever player is Don Spendlove, scorer of 629 goals in sixteen seasons with the club and rated by some as the best non-league footballer ever. With a young family settled in North Wales, the striker turned down a £5,000 move to Spurs in the early-1950s, a period when he averaged over seventy goals a season. "Rhyl had always been good to me and I wasn't looking to leave," he later said. "The first I heard about the Spurs approach was when I read it in the papers. I've never regretted not moving or wondered what might have been."