Wednesday, 31 December 2014

April 1992: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love David Kelly

This piece originally appeared in Issue 2 of Newcastle United's Popular Side fanzine.

Looking back now, April 1992 was a horrifically shit month. On the 9th, with the unemployment figures balanced by the fact Neil Kinnock had ginger hair, a Welsh accent and had just made a complete and utter arse of himself on stage in Sheffield, John Major led the Conservative Party to a come-from-behind election victory with 14.5 million votes and a working majority of 21. 'It Was the Sun Wot Won It' trumpeted Murdoch's biggest selling mouthpiece. Not even the sight of Chris Patton and Colin Moynihan - former sports mininster and Thatcher's principal cheerleader for ID cards - losing their seats came close to stemming my teenage rage at five more years of Tory rack and ruin.  Things weren't any better elsewhere in the world.  It was the start of the Seige of Sarajevo and the LA Riots, the Katina P. spilt 60,000 tons of crude oil into the sea off Mozambique, Right Said Fred's Deeply Dippy was nailed to the top of the charts, and my impending GCSEs meant I was spending most of my free time indoors going through the motions of studying dates, equations and four-line French dialogues that all seemed to end with someone wanting un velo, s'il vous plait.  And then there was Newcastle United...

 On the last day of March, the team had marked my 16th birthday with a 6-2 trouncing at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Andy Mutch scoring three times as Kevin Keegan impotently looked on from the touchline of the half-finished stadium.  Single goal defeats to Tranmere Rovers, Ipswich Town and Millwall followed in the first three weeks of the new month, before a catastrophic Easter Monday at the Baseball Ground in which Derby County won 4-1, Kevin Brock, Liam O’Brien, Kevin Scott and Terry McDermott were all red carded and Brian Coddington joined Trelford Mills as persona non grata on Tyneside.  There were only one hundred and eighty minutes of the season left to play and Keegan’s team were third from the foot of the old Division Two, ahead of Port Vale and Brighton but now twelve goals adrift of Oxford United and the precarious safety of 21st position.  With the club haemorrhaging an estimated £700,000 a year in interest payments alone, relegation meant doing a Leeds before Leeds had even thought of doing it themselves.   

Wind back two months and things had looked significantly rosier.  On the afternoon of February 6th, almost eight years after he was last seen being helicoptered clear of the St James’ Park pitch, Kevin Keegan pushed his way through the swing doors at Newcastle Breweries’ Visitor Centre. “I can honestly say that there’s no job in football I’ve ever wanted,” he confidently told the assembled press. “This is the only job I’ve ever wanted.” If the sentiment was confused the reaction to his appointment was anything but.  The previous month had seen Ossie Ardiles’side take a 4-0 hammering at Southend United, go out of the FA Cup to Bournemouth and surrender a three-goal lead to lose 4-3 at home to Charlton Athletic, Alan Pardew scoring the 89th minute winner.  The death knell sounded at the Oxford’s Manor Ground, a dispiriting 5-2 loss dropping the team to second bottom. “A shameful performance,” said Douglas Hall with all his customary tact and understanding.  'He didn’t know how to stop the slide. We would have gone down if he’d stayed. If we had gone down we would have gone bankrupt.”  

Something had to change.  Temporarily, something did. 29,000 people turned out to see Bristol City swept aside 3-0 in Keegan’s first game.  Forty days’ later, in a moment that was pure, unadulterated flounce, the second coming almost ground to an unexpected end when the directors refused to supply the £250,000 needed to turn Oldham defender Brian Kilcline’s one-month loan into a permanent transfer. “It wasn’t like it said in the brochure,” Keegan complained from a Hampshire driveway while fans in beanie hats and beige Harrington jackets barracked John Hall through the press room windows.  The king returned, a Kevin Sheedy equaliser nicked a point at Grimsby Town and then David Kelly scored the only goal of the Tyne-Wear Derby on March 29th; which, for those of you who’ve been paying attention, is right about where we came in.  

April 25th 1992. Financial oblivion beckons as Newcastle United face the unwelcome prospect of a first  relegation to the third-tier of English football.  It’s the final home game of the season and the opposition are FA Cup semi-finalists Portsmouth.  Among the starting line-up are Tommy Wright, Brian Kilcline  - “the most important signing I made for Newcastle,” Keegan later judged – top scorer Gavin Peacock, future football financier Ray Ranson, and Seb Coe lookalike Kevin Brock.  There are 26,000 in the crowd, both the Milburn D Paddock and my stomach are heaving. “Trust in Keegan,” they'd said, but as the 85th minute ticked by on the Gallowgate scorerboard whatever youthful bravado I’d entertained pre-match had long since disappeared I was busily composing a chain of conditional sentences – “If we don’t score here, we’ll have to beat Leicester…but if we don’t beat Leicester…” - which ended in the discomforting thought of Newcastle going not just down but under when the ball was struck forwards in the direction of Micky Quinn, who’d moved two steps off his marker on the edge of the Portsmouth ‘D’ 
What happened next is preserved in video-recorded footage online. Ray Ranson floats a long pass from halfway that brushes the top of Kelly's head. Quinn, his back to the Gallowgate goal, hooks the ball right-footed into space on the Milburn side of the penalty area, Kelly reacting half a yard quicker than Andy Awford to whack a rising shot past Portsmouth keeper Alan Knight on the second bounce.  Kevin Sheedy, a man who’d won two English championships and a Cup Winners’ Cup with Everton, celebrates with a scissor kick to the roof of the net. On the concrete steps of the Gallowgate bodies writhe in every conceivable direction, hats and scarves go tumbling and arms clutch joyously at the nearest neck. I bear hug my dad, grab hold of my brother, half-stumble forwards and am pinioned against a crash barrier by a fat man with beer-and-boiled-onion breath screeching “Get in! Get in! Get in!” over and over and over and over. Sometimes life is as simple as this: the ball hits the net and nothing else matters.  

“The place just erupted like you’ve never heard before,” Gavin Peacock remembered. “The relief flooded all over everybody. You could feel it – relief from the whole of Newcastle.” If it wasn’t exactly jogo bonito, it was incontrovertibly the moment that altered everything for Kevin Keegan and John Hall. In the financial circumstances, Kelly had just struck arguably the most important goal ever scored at St James’ Park. “It happened because Kevin was so positive,” he said seventeen years later, as we prepared, less successfully, for another must-win clash with Pompey. “We had been battered at Wolves and Derby and it was looking grim…but he was telling us ‘Get through this and we will be in the top flight in a year’s time’. I think I scored about three goals in my entire career that were outside the box and that was one of them.” 

The rest, of course, you know as well as I do.  For those of us with birth certificates dating from the mid-to-late 1970s football really did seem to have been invented in 1992: when Newcastle United next played Portsmouth we were in the midst of an eleven-game winning streak that would end in promotion with 96 points, 29 wins and 92 goals from our 46 matches. Without David Kelly, we might not have existed at all. 

Friday, 12 December 2014

Ground 249: Kashima Soccer Stadium

They've had it all at Kashima Antlers: superstar Brazilians, seven league titles, nine domestic cups, one treble and three world champions.  Along the way they've sent two Japanese internationals to Serie A, one to Schalke and a Champions League semi-final, hosted three World Cup fixtures and netted one of the greatest individual goals you're ever likely to see.  Not bad for a club which attracts average crowds of under 20,000 and was once told its chance of getting J.League membership stood as low as "0.0001%."

The current crop of Antlers are nowhere near as storied as the likes of Zico, Leonardo, Bebeto or Uchida, but in Gaku Shibasaki and Caio, who left Sao Paulo behind for Japanese high school football and is now touted as a future Samurai Blue, they have a pair of young players of genuine star potential.  They also began the final day of J1 matches as one of three sides who could still top the table, two points behind title favourites Gamba Osaka, who travelled to already relegated Tokushima Vortis, and the stuttering long-time leaders Urawa Reds. 

"Very nice stadium but a bit of a trek to the middle of nowhere," Gamba fan, Guardian writer and Japanese TV star Ben Mabley had warned, though I'd worked out the accuracy of that second clause for myself long before arriving at Kashima Jingu Station - two platforms, one train every hour on Saturday evenings and the final stop on a line which takes in one floating torii gate, several concrete bridges and an innumerable number of paddy fields.  The town has 60,000 people and very little that isn't almost entirely centred on either its football club or shrine, purportedly first raised 1,500 years ago and still home to a two-storied gate, the kind of sword you'd expect to see Ned Stark wielding and the Japanese god of thunder.  Outside the station, the tourist information booth stocks religious guides alongside Antlers biscuits, key rings and stuffed toys; flags flutter by carpark exits, stone footballs ornament street corners and shop windows are adorned with the club badge or players' faces advertising the goods inside.  At the Cheerio Mall, three traffic lights down and four across from the shrine entrance, the staff are dressed in Kashima home shirts and there's a Zico Mini Museum at the foot of the escalators, young children and the elderly staring at TV screens while a life-size statue of the Brazilian looks back across two aisles of shoes and a cosmetics stand. 

Back at the station, it's a 25-minute walk along the side of the main road to Mito or a single stop on the matchday-only train service to Kashima Soccer Stadium, whose concrete curves loom suddenly above the tree cover as you round an otherwise unremarkable bend next to a supermarket and a 100 yen store. The first football-specific venue in Japan, the 40,000-capacity stadium was damaged in 2011's Tohoku earthquake but remains a mightily impressive sight despite beginning to show signs of its age.  The socio gates are already busy an hour-and-a-half before kick-off, red shirted supporters preparing banner displays, the light blue and pink of Sagan Tosu - which I'd last seen on a foul night in Gifu three years ago - sit out in the sun, and from the back of the east stand you can see all the way to wind turbines, smoke stacks, two lighthouses and a cartoonishly hued Pacific Ocean.

"Sagan Tosu!" the away end bops, fans clinging on to vertical streamers while swinging a flag back and forth like an executioner's axe.  The home fans don't reply until the moment their team enters the field, instantaneously bursting into a 15-minute long rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In as the players begin their warm-up with a group bow.  Four giant banners are rolled across the twin-tiered home end, one showing a deer with a samurai sword, another bearing the message: 'Kashima Antlers Soul Supporter Red Storm Inflight'.   The whole stand pogoes in unison, an red-and-black image sloganned Spirit of Zico making its way towards the pitch. 

Sagan score after just six minutes, Yoshiki Takahashi turning in his only goal of the season as the continuous Kashima din is very briefly topped by the sudden roar of the visiting support.  The Reds ratchet up the noise as their team push for an equaliser, but too many unforced errors in possession allow Tosu to comfortably play out the remainder of the half.  "Hey! Hey! Antlers!" the red shirts pump out as the sides re-enter the field.  Kashima strike the top of the crossbar with a header Tosu's Akihiro Hayashi has well covered and overhit a succession of corner kicks - one so far it gifts Sagan the ball on halfway and has the Antlers' keeper frantically scurrying for the cover of his goal - before some neat triangular passing and a fortuitous bounce puts Yashushi Endo free for a shot he smashes wide.  Shuhei Akasaki balloons into the crowd, Shibasaki crashes the ball back off an advertising hoarding and Naomichi Ueda takes one touch too many.  Tosu defend resolutely, both sets of supporters keep singing until the very end. 

The loss leaves Kashima in third, the victory proving not quite enough to keep Sagan fourth as Kashiwa Reysol net twice to overhaul the Kyushu club on goals scored.  Defeats for both the challengers means the title goes to Gamba Osaka, who recovered from relegation two seasons ago and a 14-point deficit before the mid-season break at the start of the World Cup.  "Absorbingly unpredictable," was how Ben Mabley summed the season up, though with the J.League set to revert to the failed two-stage format, both Japanese football and its most successful club side could be facing more challenging times ahead.

Admission:  2,500 yen (£13.50)
Date:  Saturday December 6th 2014

Monday, 1 December 2014

Ground 248: Ichihara Seaside Stadium, Chiba

On the weekend that Gamba Osaka knocked Urawa Reds off the top of J1 with just one game of the season left to go, Diego Forlan was relegated with Cerezo, and Toto Schillaci's old club Jubilo Iwata lost their J2 promotion play-off semi-final with Montedio Yamagata, the capital city's non-league football teams kept rolling on.  Ome FC and HBO Tokyo met on a training pitch at Urawa's stadium to decide the winners of the Tokyo Senior League Division Two Cup,  FC Shinjuku, Griffin and Nomura Research Institute all played league fixtures, and Nankatsu SC were at home to Marubeni Corporation in a cup semi-final.  On the other side of Tokyo Bay, the group stage qualifiers in the Kanto Soccer League's Ichihara Cup were decided in two rounds of games held just 24 hours apart.

Contested between 20 clubs over 37 games, six days and a month and a half of competition, the final prize of the 2013 KSL season was finally decided 5-4 on penalty kicks, Urayasu SC - second division champions with seventeen wins and a draw - edging out top-flight Tokyo 23 FC after a 3-3 tie in normal time. After strolling to the Division One title with just a single league defeat all year, Urayasu are back to defend their trophy, grouped together with Vonds Ichihara, Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance and MSDF Atsugi Marcus, club side of the Japanese Navy.

Four trains, a half hour walk and 20 minutes in the company of a man with 'If I tell you I have to kill you'  written in capital letters across the back of his jacket after exiting my front door, I arrive at a sunny Ichihara Seaside Stadium, where the views, disappointingly, are more Billingham-on-Tees than beachfront chic. Homeground of J.League pioneers JEF United from 1983 until they relocated three stops north on the JR Uchibo Line to the Fukuda Denshi Arena in 2005, the two-sided stadium's now used by Vonds - their name a fairly unlikely portmanteau of victory and bonds - who, after finishing a distant second and then third behind Urayasu in their last two league campaigns, have finally got in front of their fellow Chiba-ites, a pair of goals better off after the opening two group matches.

Needing the win, Urayasu attack first, ex-Tokyo Verdy striker Koki Takenaka leisurely cutting inside a dangling leg then sweeping the ball past the keeper's left hand.  "Wooah-ooah Urayasu," chant the four visiting supporters.  The man handing out Vonds merchandise sits impassively, a poster curled in his hand.  Urayasu press high, Vonds kick higher:  a shot flies over the bar, a free-kick hits the top of a stanchion and a lofted cross is redirected weakly into the goalkeeper's hands.  The blues are more composed but come no closer to scoring again themselves, the first half perfectly encapsulated when a player takes only three touches to control, shimmy clear of two defenders and then pass the ball out for a throw.

I move to join up with the Vonds hardcore for the second period, bang in the midst of green tartan blankets, thundersticks and tupperware containers, then shift once again to an empty expanse of orange and blue seats where two middle-aged women are echoing Urayasu chants in whispers while divvying up the contents of an Eiffel Tower picnic bag.  The home side huff, puff and almost score when a backpass lands at a forward's feet but the blues kill the game with ten minutes remaining, a free kick looping off a head, over the goalkeeper and just under the crossbar.  The travelling support bang their drum and roll their hands in the air.  Knocked off the top of the group, the home side still go through to the quarter finals as one of the three best runners-up.   

Heading back to Tokyo I end up next to an elderly, bespectacled Japanese man who's chosen to dress in snakeskin boots, blue jeans, a stetson, black leather waistcoat and Texas pin badge. Across the aisle, someone at least two decades younger is attempting to pull off a look which daringly combines 60p plastic porch sandals, a beach bag and a Christmas tinsel wreath hooked over a suitcase.  We all change at Funabashi, where Japan's wild east meets a Hans Christian Andersen Park,  Colonel Sanders in Santa outfits and a seven-storey 100 yen store, while the train speeds on towards Kurihama,  the port where Commodore Perry, laden with gifts including "a working model of a steam locomotive, a telescope, a telegraph wire and variety of wines and liquors",  first opened the long-secluded nation up to western consumer goods and helped make a Chiba cowboy's dreams come true. 

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday November 30th 2014