Saturday, 18 February 2012

Ground 205: Frenchfield Park, Penrith

"The pitch is slanted, bumpy, and dotted with dandelions...every linesman who visits digs deeper into a three-inch mud trench that traces the touchline nearest the club house," wrote the News & Star on the morning football finally left Southend Road. "A sign glued to the main gate (reads) ‘Penrith AFC, 1884-2009 RIP’"

The last - and possibly only - time I visited Penrith was in September 1999, the month that I signed up for my first ever email address, Kieron Dyer made his international debut, Sunderland beat Newcastle in a match made absolutely farcical by torrential rain and Ruud Gullit's ego and I left Tyneside for South Korea, where I worked for the next three years (the last two events were only tenuously related).  Preoccupied with the task of tracking down Withnail & I locations (we didn't realise until later that cake, tea, morally outraged proprietors and "the finest wines available to humanity" could actually be found not far from Milton Keynes), we failed to notice the existence of a football ground between the red-brick, Victorian railway station and Toppers, Penrith's only nightclub,  which, to my lasting regret, we stumbled across later that night.

Stanley Matthews, Kevin Keegan, Bill Nicholson and Burnley were among the many who did find their way to Southend Road, though none - not even the Clarets, who recorded a 9-0 victory in the first round proper of the 1984-85 FA Cup - could come anywhere near the ludicrously prolific Charlie Short, scorer of 212 goals in three post-war seasons - an incredible 102 coming in 1947-48 alone - as the Blues went from facing district competition to playing in the Northern League. Crowds of up to 2,000 were the norm, an estimated 4,000 fans witnessing an epic Amateur Cup tie with West Auckland in 1961 and 2,100 celebrating an FA Cup first round win over Chester City thirty years later.  “At home games I had to crawl on hands and knees past spectators three-deep around the ground to get to watch games from the touchline," remembered David Noble, who went from childhood supporter to chairman of the club. In 2009, when Penrith finally relocated to an out-of-town site at Frenchfield Park they left behind a decade of near ruinous turmoil and a ground that had existed for as long as the football club itself.

 "A smashing little club" in the words of Northern League chairman Mike Amos.  If you come by car, it's a smashing little ground too, a few hundred metres from the A66 and the River Eamont with a covered main stand looking out on the North Pennine hills.  We park in the town centre, have a pint in the pub where the Duke of Gloucester - later Richard III - stayed while he supervised work on Penrith Castle, then drive back out past the half-completed Sainsbury's which now marks the spot of the old Southend Road. "It's a young, inexperienced, very keen and very enthusiastic Penrith side this afternoon," says Colin Seel, 25 years a Football League referee and now the voice of the Frenchfield Park PA, "depleted due to injuries, commitments and other reasons."

After trying their luck in the North West Counties and, briefly, the Northern Premier League Division One, Penrith returned to the Northern League at the end of the 1990s, winning two second division titles but never threatening to match the achievements of 1961-62, Alan Ashman's ending runners-up behind Stanley United and winning the second of six successive Cumberland Senior Cups.  Ashman left to take West Bromwich Albion to the 1968 FA Cup, Olympiacos to a second-place finish in Greece and Carlisle United to top-spot in the Football League.  These days Penrith have slightly lower aspirations: "The Blue Square Premier would be a nice dream," owner Ges Ratcliffe says.  They start the afternoon in eighteenth place, twenty-nine points behind a Spennymoor Town side who've won the Northern League title two seasons in a row.  "We'll have to do lots of defending today," predicts an elderly home fan as we queue up for food. "The chips are crap,  the pies are good and the burgers are better," my brother had told me after his visit earlier in the season. For the burgers at least, I wouldn't disagree.

Penrith start well but are soon pegged back. Lone forward Martin Coleman hesitates when given a chance to shoot at keeper Robert Dean; at the other end James Holland turns a shot from Spennymoor's Jamie Harwood away one-handed then blocks a second shot on the line. The afternoon sunshine turns to sleet, the floodlights turned on for five minutes as Steven Richardson squeezes through a challenge and slips the ball through Holland's legs.  "It's been coming," a home fan says.  Richardson has more chances to score, heading wide and skying a half-volley into a hedgerow in the opening ten minutes of the second half alone.  By this time we're in the bar at the top of the stand, peering through a window while we finish off pints of Jennings and listen to the half-time scores. "Don't forget the prize in the raffle is a ticket for tonight's National Lottery," says the voice on the tannoy.

The home side are as enthusiastic as Seel had promised but can't breach a midfield every bit as solid as the walls of neighbouring Brougham Castle. There are ten minutes left when Gavin Cogdon finds space in the area and passes a shot under Holland for two-nil.  Richardson gets his second with the very next attack, a long ball bouncing off two defenders and landing at his feet as he bursts into the penalty area.  "We didn't deserve that," a Penrith supporter rightly says. "Could have been three or four just in the first half, mate," a Spennymoor fan replies with equal justification.  Having controlled the game the defending champions move up to third in the league table, now just two points behind leaders West Auckland Town.

Date: February 18th 2012
Admission: £5

Friday, 3 February 2012

Ground 204: Victor Tedesco Stadium, Malta

Malta is a three-hundred-square-kilometre speck in the Mediterranean Sea with a population only marginally bigger than the city of Bristol. It also has over fifty football clubs split into a four-division domestic league, three hundred days of sunshine a year and beer for as little as €1.50 a pint. Seriously, what's not to like?*

 * Except this wall, obviously.

 With just nineteen grounds and two grass pitches across the whole of the main island, matchdays are almost always double-headers, one ticket good for two fixtures with a quarter of an hour break in between.  The national stadium, Ta' Qali, is off a main road in the centre of the island, while Paola's Hibernians Ground and the Victor Tedesco Stadium in Hamrun are more easily accessible from Valletta's main bus station. The Tedesco is named after the engineer-cum-actor-turned-political fixer whose Saudi and Libyan oil interests funded Hamrun Spartans' decade-long hegemony over Malta's football league. Without a domestic honour since the end of the 1940s, the club won an average of two every season between 1982 and 1994, Tedesco splashing money on foreign talent like Tony Morley, once a European Cup winner with Aston Villa, and former England international Peter Barnes. The English players were given new suits and shoes, free transport and accommodation and four flights back to Britain every year. "I paid the best wages," Tedesco said. "I was also the manager. I selected the team in spite of the coach at times. He was really just my trainer."  In the end he overreached himself financially, almost bankrupting the club in the process. "I was too enthusiastic, too egotistic," he admitted. "It's a mistake to want only victory."

With Hamrun away to Hibernians in one of two Monday night games, first division sides St Andrews and Lija Athletic take up the mantle of home teams for the day, the opening fixture pitting St Andrews against midtable rivals Vittoriosa Stars. I'm accompanied by  Derek, a Newcastle fan who once travelled by train to Bari to watch them play in the Anglo-Italian Cup, and his girlfiend Jo, who's only ever seen  football on TV but thinks she might be able to make it until half-time.  There's an hour to spare until the two o'clock kick off and no-one else in the ticket window queue, so we follow a handwritten sign down a staircase towards 'Il-Bar', finding a squad of ex-Hamrun Liberty players drinking around a pool table. "You want to see more pictures?" one asks, taking us on an impromptu boardroom tour. "Bring your beer. Take photos," he tells us, gesturing towards plastic garden furniture, filing cabinets marked 'Archive', 'Stationery' and 'Tombola', pennants from West Bromwich Albion and Reading Schools, and a trophy collection stretching back fifty years.

The teams are jogging-out as we head into the ground. "St Andrews' end?" asks the turnstile operator. "Erm, yeah." Inside, a central VIP section appears to be mostly populated by the teams from the second game. A few dozen supporters are segregated either side, watched by four policemen wearing sunglasses and black gloves.  The warm-up consists of a couple of minutes spent tapping a ball around. "Yeah boys, come on," claps St Andrews' Malta Under-21 keeper Daniel Balzan, his gloves thudding against the whir of a generator behind his goal. "One-nil to Liverpool," someone says. "Rooney's not playing."

The first half is played at a pace as sedate as a Sicilian passagieta.  A defensive header goes vertically off a forehead, a midfielder slips over and sees a pass bounce away off his knee, and a forward tries a volley which smacks harmlessly off his own chin.  With St Andrews' Portuguese strikeforce of Guti Ribeiro and Valdo Alinho Goncalves left to fend for themselves up front, I count two shots in the opening twenty-five minutes, one of which lodges so high in the netting behind Balzan's goal that the ballboy only manages to dislodge it by throwing a backpack in the air. As soon as the whistle blows we join the queue for a beer, while a full quarter of the police presence retreats to the back of the stand to scoff a bag of Minstrels.  Neil, an English St Andrews fan, fills us in on the background of a team formerly managed by Ally Dawson, a Scottish international defender recently inducted into the Glasgow Rangers Hall of Fame.  "Because we're essentially from Sliema there's a lot of English spoken around the club, which most of the other sides dislike us for. There's a lot of us against the world at St Andrews."  "Especially Melita," his son concurs. "This place will be full when we play against them."  With clubs like Melita and St Andrews often just a mile apart, football rivalry inhabits the fault lines of Maltese society: language, politics and, occasionally, patron saints. "When the World Cup's on the island splits almost straight down the middle," says Neil, "half support England, the rest go for Italy."

The second half is a much more rollicking affair. Goncalves strikes the crossbar before Nicki Vella Petroni's volley crashes in to give St Andrews the lead. Vittoriosa, with Scottish forward Gary Muir wearing long-sleeves and gloves in thirteen-degree heat, gradually begin to find their way back into the game. "We have a habit of throwing away leads," Neil warns as the referee blows for a free kick. Balzan parries the shot straight to Ramon dos Santos, the Brazilian nudging in at the far post. "We've hit the crossbar twice and now it's 1-1," a St Andrews fan complains. Five Lija fans arrive for the next game, swigging Heineken out of paper cups. Their team are doing shuttle runs behind Vittoriosa's goal when Ryan Previ cracks a first-time shot past Jean Matthias Vella from twenty-five yards out. The Lija and St Patricks players applaud, Previ is mobbed and St Andrews fans jump in the air. "It's more interesting when you watch in person," Jo says on the bus back to Valletta. "Not bad," Derek agrees. "I've seen worse games in the Scottish first division."

Date: January 28th 2012.
Admission: €5 for two games.

If you're planning a football weekend in Malta, you can find a full list of fixtures here.  All-day bus tickets cost €2.60 for non-residents. For the Victor Tedesco Stadium, take any bus from Valletta towards Rabat and get off at the Mile End Road II stop just after Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church.  Bus routes and timetables are here and you'll find a great account of a day at Ta' Qali on the Tales From The Pigeon Stands blog.