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