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.