It was July 1977, in the middle of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, that the king came to Tyneside. Muhammad Ali, heavyweight boxing champion of the world, toured the streets on an open-top bus, had his wedding blessed at South Shields Mosque, played darts at Gypsies Green Stadium and sparred with young hopefuls at Newcastle's Grainger Park Boys Club. "A fantastic experience," thought 16-year-old Kenny Wharton, who turned professional with Newcastle United just a year after meeting Ali. "The feeling I had at being in his presence has never left me." Wharton went on to make 335 appearances in eleven seasons at St James' Park, where he played alongside Kevin Keegan, Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley and Paul Gascoigne, won promotion to the first division and memorably applied the coup de grace to a 4-0 revenge humbling of Luton by sitting on the ball in the middle of the pitch. "Grainger Park was a big part of my young life, helping me develop as a player and get the opportunity to play for my hometown club."
Grainger Park Boys Club has been providing chances for young footballers like Wharton since it opened in in a room of the Toc H Hostel in 1928. A more recent graduate, Rotherham midfielder Conor Newton, joined Newcastle United's academy and won a Scottish League Cup medal while on loan at St Mirren in 2013. Earlier in the year Papiss Demba Cissé had been at the club's Denton Road home to hand out sponsored shirts. “We’ve got nothing,” secretary Nicola McCabe told George Caulkin of The Times. “Most kids
struggle to pay their £2-a-week subs. But we would never stop a child
from playing football if they can’t afford it.” With over 200 members and 13 different teams, it costs £10,000 just to keep going every year. "Grainger Park is one of the forgotten clubs," said McCabe. "It's massive to get someone to come here to Scotswood."
"A road to nowhere," The Independent headlined an article on the Scotswood Road.
It was once the "workshop of the world", ringing to the sounds of shipyards and armament factories - during the First World War up to 78,000 people, or a quarter of the city's entire workforce, were employed at the giant Armstrong-Vickers plant - but Scotswood's jobless rate had edged past 25% by the time Wharton made Newcastle's first team. Today, after four decades of demolition ball regeneration, the munitions, battleship and locomotive works are all but gone, replaced by business parks, enterprise centres and car showrooms.
There have been changes at Grainger Park Boys, too, the club entering a senior side in the Tyneside Amateur League for the 2007-08 season and since placing twelfth and fifth in their two seasons in the Northern Football Alliance's second division. Three years younger, Whitburn Athletic come from a South Tyneside village with a footballing heritage of its own, but are fortunate not to be more than a single goal behind at the end of a first half in which Grainger Park have the build-up play but not the finish, the visiting keeper making a smart one-handed stop when a green shirt does get a shot on goal. Thirty minutes in, with Whitburn outpassed but not outbattled in midfield, a low cross evades several pairs of feet and is turned in at the post. "About time," a spectator says.
The away team manage a handful of long-range attempts but can't find a way past a defence marshalled by the impeccable Dale Robson, Grainger Park having a goal wrongly flagged offside before killing the game with a second in the 74th minute. The sun beats down, dog walkers pause by the railed off pitch and Hadrian's Wall hikers walk west towards Carlisle. "Canny game," one says, rightly. "Everything on the ground."
Date: August 9th 2014
Tuesday, 5 August 2014
Street football in Sao Paulo
Uruguay's Estadio Centenario
Rio de Janeiro on match day one was a very different place. Chileans mixed with Colombians, Argentina fans played beach football with a combined France and Scotland team, and Brazilians thronged the Copacabana Fan Fest. "There are different queues to buy and pay for your beer," moaned one English fan, "and only about fifty toilets for everyone to use." I chose to watch Spain play the Netherlands from the beach outside, the Atlantic lapping just metres away as Robben turned Ramos, Pique and Casillas into Boumsong, Bramble and John Karelse. A few days earlier I'd clambered sweatily up Sugarloaf mountain with Paul Finnerty, taken a wrong turn and seen England's oceanside training complex from above. One half against Italy aside, it would be the only impressive thing about Roy Hodgson's team.
Brazil vs Croatia on Copacabana Beach
Enough buses. From Rio I decided to fly back to Porto Alegre. The temperature dropped by ten degrees and the French fans were all congregated in a single city centre bar. A member of their Football Federation arrived in a sponsored car, supporters lining up to pose for photos. "If he was one of ours we'd be queueing to throw things at his head," said a bemused waiter. I watched England lose to a Balotelli header in the company of an Irishman, two customers and a bar owner round the corner then headed back to the hotel. "Not much of an atmosphere, is there?" mused Laurie Hanna. The next morning a broken door foiled my plan to meet up with the Honduras squad pre-game, leaving my mood no more positive than the graffiti - No Fifa, FIFA Go Home and Sem Copa among the politer messages - lining the Goal Walk on the way to the Beira-Rio ground. I ducked back out of the cordon to see Laurie in a bar owned by Andre Vieira, a Copa Libertadores winner with Luis Scolari's Gremio in the mid-1990s before a peripatetic career took him to Switzerland, Romania, Moldova and Costa Rica.
Inside the Beira-Rio
Honduras could have done with him in a starting eleven which was reduced to ten when Wilson Palacios was dismissed in the move that led to France's first goal, Karim Benzema coolly converting a penalty awarded when Palacios barged into Paul Pogba. The Brazilians in the crowd - supporting the underdogs with memories of the 1998 final yet to abate - whistled in derision, the woeful French support countering with a muted 'Allez Les Bleus' before attempting to start yet another Mexican Wave. Benzema was instrumental in the second strike, the first ever use of goalline technology at a World Cup sending the BBC's Jonathan Pearce into on-air meltdown. Inside the ground, the boos just got louder. While Honduras hacked and harried, France - with Matthieu Valbuena buzzing and Yohan Cabaye at his imperious best - controlled, Benzema scoring a third goal with eighteen minutes left. "I'm sorry," Andre told Laurie, his Honduran flag a souvenir of the 2010 tournament, when we returned to the bar post-match.
Waiting for kick-off
When the French left the Australians arrived. My final afternoon in Brazil was spent watching Germany demolish Portugal in the company of a few hundred Fanatics dressed in matching hoodies, t-shirts and baseball caps. I flew back the next day, beating England home by a week. No luxury hotels for me but no contest when it came to who had the better time.
Laurie Hanna's Honduras flag (on the left), the only banner covering a FIFA sign.
Roll on mid-January and the African Cup of Nations.