Saturday, 29 March 2014

Ground 231: Bullocksteads, Heddon FC

They hadn't seen so many foreigners in Heddon since Emperor Hadrian's legions stuck up Milecastle 12.  It was February 2001 and the foot and mouth outbreak - which had spread across Britain to Germany, Ireland, France and the Netherlands - had been traced back to a pig unit by the A69. Cue exclusion zones and import bans, almost four million animals slaughtered and £9 billion in costs.  "People kept away...on meeting people who found out you were from the Heddon area, you were sometimes treated with suspicion," runs one eyewitness account on the village website.

The village football club was born the year after with the merger and acquisition between Northern Alliance teams Proctor & Gamble and Heddon Institute. The players made news of their own with a First Division title and six seasons in the Alliance top-flight, finishing as high as fourth in a division that included current Northern Leaguers Alnwick Town, Heaton Stannington and Celtic Nation (née Gillford Park) before going down with Newcastle University in May 2010.  Denied promotion when their ground failed the grading requirements, the Tyne Valley club moved back to Bullocksteads - variously used by Newcastle Gosforth Rugby Club, the University of Northumbria, Newcastle United Women's Reserves and Tyneside Irish FC - but lost one manager to neighbours Ryton and Crawcrook, a second to work commitments and their first five games of the season by an aggregate score of twenty-six goals to six.  When only half a team turned up for a game with Ponteland United the club decided to call it a day.  Salvation came from Cowgate Juniors, Billy Finlay providing a decade of experience, a crop of young players and a 4-3 win from 3-0 down to local rivals Hexham in his opening game in charge.  "It's been a torrid time but things can only get better," secretary John Shaxon told the Hexham Courant.  

Six months and 19 matches later, Heddon enter today's game against promotion chasing Newcastle Chemfica (Ind) having won three of their last four but with only Willington Quay Saints below them in the league.   The visitors, probably the only team in the entire pyramid whose name resembles a losing candidate in a local election, have already beaten Finlay's side this season but had been wobbling like Ed Miliband's poll ratings before last week's 4-0 home win over Wooler. "Don't let them bully's a nice pitch so keep it on the deck first and then get behind them," the Chemfica trainer tells his starting eleven.  "You're not in any rush."

The pitch is railed off with metal dugouts, one part of a Univeristy of Northumbria-managed complex in the open space between Woolsington Village and the Kingston Park rugby ground.  Chemfica draw patterns but the home side go closest with a looper that the goalkeeper turns against the bar.  A few minutes of Heddon pressure later ends in a cross taking out everyone except Frank Storey, a lone forward of Stakhanovite workrate and Desperate Dan build, who nods in to the empty net.  "Hold", "Squeeze out halfway", "Push", "Start again" and "Don't foul," exhorts the beaten Chemfica keeper, though a passerbymight wonder if he's marshalling his defence or toilet training a pet dog.  A defender's head preserves Heddon's lead before a free kick evades two attackers and the goalkeeper's dive, dropping into the far corner to square the game.  Tempers flare, two players challenge for a ball and a Chemfica striker drops to the ground.  "Absolute disgrace.  It's supposed to be a football game,"  Chemfica boss Nigel Reeves shouts.  "Not as bad as he made out.  He caught him, like.  Elbow," a Heddon official reckons.  "It's wrang," says a spectator. There's thirty seconds' silence and then a yellow card. "Lucky," a Heddon fan tells me.  "Very lucky."

After a six-minute break we're into the second half.  A three-man, one-touch passing move nudges Chemfica ahead, an individual goal from the Spaniard Dan Sherliker makes it three, and a tap-in after a defender miskicks the ball puts the visitors 4-1 up with just  over an hour played.  The home side never give up, sneaking a goal back and seeing their keeper impressively deny both Sherliker and the tireless Dieu Lomana, but with only four games remaining Finlay's team are still three points short of beating the drop.

Admission:  None
Date:  Saturday March 29th 2015

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Ground 230: Heritage Park, Bishop Auckland

1889 was the year the Eiffel Tower opened, Charlie Chaplin was born and the first Kodak camera went on sale. In sport, John L. Sullivan retained his heavyweight title after 75 rounds of bare-knuckle boxing, Preston North End's invincibles lifted the inaugural Football League championship, and Charles Samuel Craven, a 25-year-old railway engineer, invited 19 clubs from Durham and Northumberland to a meeting in Brown's Hotel, Durham City.

Only seven turned up - and only three of those took part in the first season of Craven's brainchild, the Northern League.  Saturday September 7th saw 1,500 supporters and Newcastle East End waiting 45 minutes for Darlington to arrive by train, and Elswick Rangers - beaten 4-1 at Birtley - protests so vehemently about the result that it was eventually counted as a draw.  A Catholic church team, Darlington St Augustine's, won the first title on goal difference from Newcastle West End, who played their home games at St James' Park.

East and West End became Newcastle United, while Darlington, Middlesbrough (fifth and sixth that first season), Scarborough, York City - who registered 746 players in the first three months of their two year stay - and Sheffield United all progressed from Northern League to Football League.  The Blades provided two Northern League players for England in 1892-93, Middlesbrough won the first of the League's 24 FA Amateur Cups in 1895, while Middlesbrough Ironopolis - formed by disaffected members after Boro's committee refused to countenance turning professional - won three successive Northern League titles, played a midweek friendly by "artificial lamplight" and took Preston to a replay in the quarter-final of the FA Cup watched by 15,000 fans.  West Auckland won Lipton Trophies in 1909 and 1911, defeating Juventus and  FC Zürich while finishing no higher than fifth in the Northern League.  Crook Town beat Barcelona and gave the Catalans their second longest serving manager behind Johan Cruyff. 

Raich Carter, Bob Paisley, Brian Clough, Frank Clark, Gary Pallister and Chris Waddle are just half a dozen of the hundreds of professional footballers who spent their formative years in the Northern League.  It developed referees and cricketers too:  England fast bowler Steve Harmison played centre-half for Ashington in the mid-1990s; George Courtney, Terry Farley, Pat Partridge, Peter Willis, Michael Oliver and Mark Clattenburg all officiated in the League.  Courtney, Northern League president since 1997,  started out on Cockfield Hill recreation ground - "A public footpath crossed the pitch. Every few minutes I'd be stopping the game to let a litle old lady cross with her shopping bags," he told the he told the wonderful Northern Conquest  - and went on to two World Cups and three European finals. Over 100,000 people saw Crook Town and Bishop Auckland meet in a Wembley final that Kenneth Wolstenhome rated the best sporting occasion of 1954.  Four years later, the Bishops lent three players to Manchester United.  One, Warren Bradley, scored two goals in three games for England just over 12 months after playing in the Northern League.  Seamus O'Connell, another Bishops man, played at Cockfield in October 1954 and then hit a First Division hat-trick for Chelsea against Manchester United the following weekend. Blyth Spartans - "the most famous non-league football team in the world" - came within a minute of an FA Cup quarter-final,  Whitley Bay won three back-to-back Wembley finals, Gretna - Northern League members for a decade from 1982 - lost at Hampden to Hearts and made the Scottish Premier League.

Brown's is now student accommodation and Craven buried in far-flung East Grinstead but the competition he founded - the second oldest league in the world - has endured into his 125th year.  "We wanted to make a fuss of this anniversary for several reasons," says genial chairman Mike Amos, "not least that most of us in league administration are unlikely to be around for the 150th."  Wreaths have been laid at Craven's grave, and a celebration service at Durham's Elvet Church - a pitch's length from that first meeting place - and anniversary lunch are followed by tonight's commemorative game between a Northern League Select and an FA X1 largely drawn from former member clubs.

Bishop Auckland's smart new stadium - covered on two sides, temporary seating on a third and a giant Sainsbury's behind the other - is around a fifth full, the damp night, Premier League football and an out-of-bounds bar putting all but 305 fans off attending. "We've got a young team but they're really enjoying it," one of the FA coaches tells me before the game.  "It's a big honour for us all."  The quality of the programme - written nationally, edited in Jarrow and designed in Serbia - is rich testament to a league which continues to innovate and inspire well outside its traditional County Durham borders.  "It's both a real pleasure and an immense privilege to welcome everyone," Amos writes in his notes.  The game itself is incidental to the occasion.  We kick off at 7.30pm, almost 125 years to the minute since the meeting that started the whole thing.  A raft of half-time substitutions is followed by Stephen Capper - Republic of Ireland U21 international, Vase winner and three-time titlist with Spennymoor Town - smashing in from a quick break on the hour.  Ashington skipper Andrew Johnson heads a second eight minutes later, the FA's best chance of a reply foiled when Dunston's Liam Connell turns a shot against the bar.  The players are presented one by one after the final whistle and Bob Rogers, grandson of the founder, talks of his pride in seeing what the Northern League has become.  Outside, fans drift away into the County Durham mist. "If you ask what makes the Northern League such a very, very special place to be," Amos writes in Northern Conquest, "then the principal answer will always be its people."

Date:  March 25th 2014
Admission:  £5

The League's anniversary celebrations continue with an exhibition at Manchester's National Football Museum (until April 30th).  Former Northern League ground St James' Park hosts this year's League Cup Final on May 6th.  The excellent Northern Conquest is available for just £3.99 from any Northern League ground, on amazon, or by post here.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Ground 229: Whitburn Academy, Whitburn Athletic FC.

In the first half of the twentieth century Whitburn's coastal hamlet and colliery produced up to 1,500 tons of coal per day, the creative impetus for Lewis Carroll and half a dozen FA Cup finalists.  West Ham United's Billy Henderson and Jack Young formed an all-Whitburn full-back pair in 1923.  Portsmouth's 1929 line-up included Jack Weddle at centre-forward and inside-left Jack Smith, both men returning to Wembley in 1934 along with Billy Smith at left full back.  Weddle's hat-trick in the 4-1 semi-final victory over Leicester had seen off a third Smith brother, Sep playing over 500 times for City, attracting £10,000 bids from Arsenal and Aston Villa and becoming by common acclaim "the greatest player ever to wear the club's shirt".  "An extraordinary footballer," Don Revie thought.  "He played a big part in shaping my career."  Joe Smith  also found his way to Filbert Street; Tom Smith turned out for Manchester United, Norwich City and Northampton Town.  The five brothers started in homemade boots with corks nailed in for studs.  Two were capped by England.  They returned every summer to play cricket for the village team.

And still the players came. John Hastings was a half-back at Rotherham United, George Farrow a wing-half who played for Bournemouth, Wolves, Sheffield United and Blackpool. Centre-forward Bill Robinson scored a four-minute hat-trick for Sunderland, won the 1947 final with a Charlton Athletic side including fellow South Tynesiders Sam Bartram and Jack Shreeve, and was  player, coach and assistant manager at West Ham United. Keith Waugh, schooled in the village in the same decade the pit finally closed, went on to make over 400 league appearances in goal for Bristol City, Peterborough, Sheffield United and Watford.

Sep Smith had received a £150 signing-on fee and £4 a week when he turned professional at Leicester in 1929.  Eighty-five years on Whitburn Athletic's amateur footballers train on Mondays and Wednesdays, pay weekly subs and contribute £5 per red card, 50p for turning up in dirty boots and 20p for each goal conceded into the shared players' pool.  Formed by Andy Smith in 2010, three years facing the likes of the Dray and Horses, Wearside Wildcats, East Durham Spartans, Blue Stone Construction, Aquatic Sports and Sunderland University 'B' in the Wearside Combination League preceded last summer's switch to the Northern Football Alliance Division Two.  Their first game was a 4-1 spanking by Longbenton, though last weekend's 1-1 draw against the same opposition marked the club's progress since a difficult opening two months which also saw them lose 3-0 at High Howdon and 7-1 at home to Grainger Park Boys Club.

There's a seating capacity of five picnic tables and six benches at the Whitburn Academy pitch, with views of the North Sea and Sunderland's cantilevered stands.  Club officials run the touchline, the perimeter's marked out with yellow tape and the substitutes are kept busy chasing stray balls.  "Keep it tidy, keep it tidy, fellas.  Nothing silly," referee James Milne says just moments before a late tackle draws the afternoon's first yellow card.  "Settle doon, that's his first one," shouts a High Howdon Social Club defender.  "He won't listen, man," says a teammate. "He's still in nappies, this one."  The complaints are even louder when a Howdon midfielder gets a straight red.  "He's gonna gi' wu nowt if we whinge so shut it!" the visiting keeper tells his team.  Despite their numerical disadvantage, the away side take the lead on 38 minutes when a Whitburn player is dispossessed and the hardworking number 9 rifles a shot into the bottom corner.

Athletic think they've equalised midway through the second half, their players back on the halfway line and the referee cautioning the Howdon keeper for dissent before he spots the visiting official's late flag.  "Can I have a word, please?" Whitburn's manager asks.  "It looked offside to me," Milne says apologetically.  A goal's chalked off in similar circumstances at the other end, levelling the sense of injustice if not the scoreline.  When the final whistle goes, it's the black and white shirts of High Howdon who are making all the noise.

 The gates to Sunderland's former training ground, at the entrance to Whitburn village. 

Admission:  Free
Date: Saturday 22nd March 2014

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Ground 228: Bastion Gardens, Prestatyn

By the end of the week I had to get out.

I'd been teaching Italian teenagers for five consecutive mornings in a corner of an otherwise empty school.  I'd walked up to and round the castle three times,  the nearest supermarket twice, had a visit from the local newspaper and seen several dozen hills, a trio of classrooms, one Co-op and a dining hall.  On Saturday morning everyone else left by bus for the Beatles Museum and Liverpool One.  "You could go to Prestatyn,"  someone suggested.  And so I did.

Truth be told, the town's football club had been on my to-do list for a while.  Birthplace of John Prescott and the Kwik Save chain,  I only knew it as a brief stop between Rhyl and Manchester Piccadilly, the place where Alan Partridge enjoyed weekend-long Wings binges - "the band the Beatles could have been" - and for a Philip Larkin poem that opens with the words 'Come to Sunny Prestatyn'.

Even on the warmest day of the year so far there wasn't much of that to be found on the north Wales coast. Wind, drab skies and dog walkers follow me along the brisk hour's hike from Rhyl town centre to the sign at the start of Offa's Dyke National Trail, virtually point to point between two of the twelve venues in the Welsh Premier League.   Immediately visible from the seafront, Prestatyn's Bastion Gardens ground backs on to a cricket pitch and a Pontins holiday camp, its near neighbours a crazy golf course, an amusement arcade and a plaque remembering a Beatles concert that has an insolvency notice blutacked underneath.  The first two pubs I try are eerily deserted, the Wetherspoons-clone on the main street standing room only, jammed with pushchairs and two deep at the bar.  Luckily, the football club has beer plus memorabilia, a smattering of red-shirted drinkers and a friendly, immediately welcoming vibe.

The Welsh Premier League's a world away from the bombastic, globalised and relentlessly comercial near-namesake operating across and within its borders.  "This is not a pot-hunting or title-winning club and never has been," said one of Prestatyn Town's founder members.  "If we can get to the top then all well and good, but there will be no broken hearts if we don't."  When the club was promoted in 2008, groups of volunteers worked around the clock for just over a week to ensure the ground met the WPL's grading criteria.   Merchandise is sold from a hatch as you walk through the turnstiles.  The seats in the solitary stand were donated by Shrewsbury Town.  Nonetheless, last season's debut Welsh Cup win had, remarkably, bagged Neil Gibson's side a first foray into European competition, where they defeated Liepajas Metalurgs on penalty kicks before losing 8-0 on aggregate to  HNK Rijeka.   Equally improbably, today's visitors Bala Town - hailing from a village of fewer than 2,000 people - came within an away goal of victory over Levadia Tallinn just a decade after playing in the Wrexham Area League.  

Bala's support arrives with four flags and a drum, which they rat-a-tat whenever their team attacks.  We're a quarter of an hour in and just past the fifth flourish when Sean Thornton - still bottle-blonde but nowadays several rungs below his Premier League peak - finds Ryan Valentine, whose cross bounces in front of the hesitant home goalkeeper, hits a stanchion and drops into the net.  The away side have the swirling wind largely at their backs,  Jon Hill-Dunt's goalkicks barely reaching the halfway line while an attempted up-and-under spins backwards and goes out behind the place it was kicked. But with Lee Hunt - once of Bala and with over 150 career goals in the WPL alone -  the sort of forward you could aim at a gatehouse and expect it to give way first,  the home side have significantly more luck battering their way through the centre while slinging balls in from the flanks.  On 29 minutes Hunt harries the ball away from a Bala defender, Chris Davies cuts it inside and Gareth Wilson deftly scoops into the top corner.  Moments later, Hunt's upraised boot is just centimetres away from a second.  "Sort it out, lino," a Bala fan yells.

After a stuttering opening quarter, the second half sparks into life when Hunt tumbles in the penalty area, the referee signalling a goalkick with the majority of the crowd screaming for a foul.   "No contact," the linesman explains.  "Embarrassing,"  says a defender. "Do you want to think about that again, referee?" asks Gibson from his technical area.  Ten minutes later Bala's  Kieran Smith is tugged to the ground. This time the referee doesn't hesitate.  "Soft one, that," says a home substitute as Ian Sheridan calmly rolls in the third and final goal.  The Prestatyn supporter to my right takes out his e-cigarette, pauses for a moment, and then silently mouths an obscenity.  
Admission: £7
Date: Saturday March 8th