Sunday, 20 December 2015

Ground 283: St Helen's Road, Dringhouses

Third time lucky and six weeks late, I finally make a game at the Dringhouses Sports and Social Club, stop five of the fifty-ish pitches in the York Minster Engineering League. Like Osbaldwick and York Railway Institute, Dringhouses are among the competition's heavyweight outfits, winning the championship 12 times since deposing Olympia Cake & Oil Selby in 1932-33.  Much of their more recent success stems from the work of stalwarts such as Colin Mole and Frank Prole, who stepped down from the club's committee in 2005 having amassed 53 years and 33 trophies between them.  Mole was once a schoolboy player at Middlesbrough, Prole arrived by way of Accrington Stanley, Scarborough and RAF Command.  "I'll still be there every Saturday to support the team," he promised the York Press. "It'll be nice to go into the bar after a game and instead of selling raffle tickets, I can enjoy a few pints."

The first things you see from the bar are a railway line and cricket field.  There's a conifer hedge half screening the train traffic, a sign prohibiting "the exercising of dogs" and a fishing net propped against a dugout, used to scoop balls out of a muddy stream of water by the side of the football pitch.  Named after a go-kart track, the visiting team, F1 Racing, clatter and squelch out of the changing rooms, forming up in a huddle as one of their players jogs across from the obligatory pre-match piss against a tree.  "All the best," the two managers say.  "Plenty of talking," instructs the referee.  "Straight in, boys.  Pressing, yeah?" shouts a defender as the Dringhouses keeper belatedly ambles over from halfway.

"Pieces" and "Feet" urge the home dugout as Dringhouses gather up a loose ball and work it down the wing.  "Travel," someone advises.  "Options," says the manager as the cross comes in, adding "Drive" a split-second before it's headed into the net.  "Wake up," screams an F1 player.  "Alert," claps the Dringhouses bench.  They're two ahead with their very next attack.  "That keeper's rubbish," a kid says to his dad.   Dringhouses take matters into their own hands, their goalkeeper chucking the ball out and then watching as it sails almost immediately back over his head.  "Terrible, that," says the home manager, the error so grave it almost stings him into a sentence.  Both sides push forward relentlessly. "Get the fucking thing in the net," an old bloke advises as the ball richochets around the penalty box.  Just before half time, a corner squeezes through the F1 keeper's legs.  "Easy as that," the old bloke claps.

"If in doubt, just don't worry about it.  Know what I mean?" reckons the Dringhouses manager at the break.  "Effort, workrate, squeeze further on and chase everything."  An injured player limps his way along the touchline.  "You want to get some physio on it," says a bloke with a stool on a metal spike.  The sun comes out, tempting a few more spectators away from the bar, but nothing much happens until there's a bust-up in the penalty box and the Dringhouses keeper says something to a foreign player that's audible to everyone besides the referee.  "Ey, ey, ey," admonishes the F1 left-back, "Ey, ey, ey," adds a spectator, wagging an index finger over the touchline rail. "We all heard it," the victim tells the ref, who mutters something about being distracted as he swiftly backpedals away.  People are still pointing at each other as Dringhouses break through midfield and tap in a fourth, and though F1 score again late on the remainder of the game peters out along with the daylight.  "They need to stop the crosses and work harder tracking back," an F1 fan tells his son as they walk towards the car park. The kid hoofs his ball in the air and looks back at the pitch, slowly formulating a response. "Can't we watch a more successful team?" he finally asks.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday December 19th 2015     

Friday, 13 November 2015

Football Art: Brian Clough in Albert Park

"I was the kid who came from a little part of paradise, to me it was heaven. Everything that I've done, everything I've achieved, everything I can think of that has directed and affected my life - apart from the drink - stemmed from my childhood". 

It was the first weekend of September and summer was barely clinging on in Middlesbrough's Albert Park.  An elderly couple shuffled past the sunlit bandstand,  a bloke was showing his son the South African War Memorial and a cannon captured in the Crimea, and two women traded gossip under the branches of a tree.  "Get away, he never! He'll be alright if they win this afternoon."

A little way off stood another figure, seven-foot high, cast in bronze and with a familiar twist to the mouth.  "I want no epitaphs of profound history and all that type of thing," Brian Clough had once commented. "I contributed - I would hope they would say that, and I would hope somebody liked me."  Three years after his death, and over three and a half decades since he'd left his hometown club, there were enough there who still liked him to make up over half of the £65,000 a statue in his honour had cost.  "It's in recognition of one of the greatest people to ever come from Middlesbrough," said the chairman of the fund-raising committee.  "There was a deep reservoir of feeling for Cloughie in this town and they don't want him to be forgotten".

Clough, Albert Park and football went back a very long way.  It was there that Middlesbrough had played their very first matches, using the archery strips for pitches until they were kicked out for making a mess of the grass.  Born on one side of the park at 11 Valley Road, he would, wrote Jonathan Wilson, "race home from school every night, change into old clothes and then dash (straight there) to play football or cricket".  Later, even after moving from games with Acklam Iron and Steelworks Athletics to a professional contract, he'd return to the playground of his youth with a wheelbarrow and cart wallflowers home to his mother's garden.  "We spent many sunny days in ths park, so it's really appropriate that it's here," thought Clough's widow when the statue was unveiled in May 2007.

"When Clough left for Sunderland, the town wept," Daniel Gray wrote in  Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters, his magnificent account of football in England's lesser-visited provinces.  "The only thing I enjoyed during my six years there was scoring goals," Clough recollected in 1973. "From Saturday to Saturday I was very unhappy.  My ability was never utilised, by me or the management.  Only goals kept me sane.  That was my only pleasure."  Nonetheless, the man always remembered the place that had shaped him. "Wherever we went, Brian made sure everybody knew he was from Middlesbrough," his widow said. "I think if his success as a manager had happened here, that would have been his ideal.  But life is not that perfect."

Unlike the sculpted tributes at Derby and Nottingham, Teesside's Clough is young and lithe.  "Twenty-four and in training gear," wrote Gray, "his boots slung over a shoulder, purposeful, on the way to training or a match".  It's placed on his route from home to Ayresome Park - two pitches' length away from the statue - and now part of a waymarked trail that passes the street where a second managerial genius was raised.  Don Revie left at 17, fleeing poverty and the spectre of the Holgate End workhouse. "He used to talk about taking baths in the sink," said one friend. "It was a poor upbringing and that left him determined that everything went well later on the monetary side".  For all his flaws, Clough was a man of the people, sticking around long enough to become the Holgate's idol and leave behind a legacy of a phenomenal 197 goals in just 213 games. "He would have been absolutely amazed at the very idea of a statue and he would have been so touched at the different ways you have raised the money," his widow told the crowd at Albert Park. "You have done him proud and I thank you from the bottom of my heart". 

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Tow Law's Brazilian and Other Northern League Exotica

Early-November and already the English weather is playing havoc with my Saturday afternoons.  With my planned trip to Dringhouses falling victim to a saturated pitch, here's something I wrote for this afternoon's Jarrow Roofing programme instead.  

When Julio Arca became, as Harry Pearson put it, “the only U20 World Cup winning captain ever to score against Stokesley”, it was far from the first contact between overseas footballers and stalwarts of the Northern League. In August, Fabian Otte, ex-starting goalkeeper for New Zealand's Western Suburbs and formerly of Bayer Leverkusen U23s, turned out for Bedlington Terriers against Whitley Bay, while recent years have seen, among others, Laurent Sanson move from France to Newcastle Benfield, Mateusz Halambiec go from Morpeth Town to the Polish second division, ex-AS Roma junior Matteo Faiola play for Roofing and Bishop Auckland, and Tow Law field Gustavo Silva, the league's first jogador do Brasil. “He knows all about the weather,” Lawyers secretary Steve Moralee promised. “He's trained here in the snow wearing shorts.”

The movement hasn't always been one way. While West Auckland's Lipton Cup exploits are well documented, Bishop Auckland toured Belgium for the first time in the year that West made their inaugural journey to Turin and made it as far afield as Hungary as early as 1912. Jack Greenwell's Barcelona hosted Crook the following season and employed a second ex-Northern League man when Harold 'Collie' Stamper – a 1912 Olympian and FA Amateur Cup winner – joined as a coach from Stockton. Stamper went on to Genoa; Greenwell, more famously, played 88 times for Barca, managed Espanyol and Valencia to league championships and guided Peru to a Copa America title in 1939. “The Peruvians were well served by their English manager, who out-thought Uruguay tactically in the final match,” wrote Andreas Campomar in his magisterial history of the Latin American game.

The Northern League's first foreign-born player was Arthur Wharton. “His father was half-Scottish, his mother was related to the Ghanaian royal family,” wrote the Northern Echo of a pioneer whose career achievements included an FA Cup semi-final and a world record time for the 100-metre sprint. Now recognised as the world's first black professional footballer, the goalkeeper won a Cleveland Challenge Cup with Darlington, was signed by Preston North End and later understudied William 'Fatty' Foulkes at Sheffield United. A less celebrated figure, Billy Charnock was born in Serphukov, 62 miles south of Moscow, to a family of textile factory owners who orginally came from Leek. In addition to playing for Bishop Auckland, Charnock also captained Russia in their first international victory, a 3-0 win over Norway in 1913.

As clubs continued to look outwards – Crook toured Norway in 1962 and lost by a single goal to the Indian national team 14 years later - Northern League imports have arrived from places as seemingly implausible as Atletico Madrid, who supplied Stokesley SC with Asenjo Bravo in 2012, and Japan. "In 1991-92 Durham City registered Yoshinobu Uchida, though the sole surviving reference in print or online merely reveals he was 'from Tokyo, a student at Durham University' ” I wrote in a programme column last year which also referenced the curious case of Yosuke Suzuki's time at Whitley Bay. In 2008, Owen Amos had a piece in When Saturday Comes on Brandon United's BJ Heijmans, “who, by a series of happy accidents, found his home in deepest County Durham”. Amos caught up with Heijmans at a training session: “We play the Dutch way, from the back. We have conceded 63 goals this season, and 50 were from individual mistakes. But we are young, and that will improve.” Among the onlookers that “cold Thursday night” was the Argentine Gus Di Lella, recently sacked as manager by Horden Colliery Welfare. Di Lella is now coaching at Seaham Red Star, who've also recently had a Bulgarian and a New Zealander on their books. Bedlington, of course, have close ties with the USA through president and Buffalo Bisons owner Bob Rich, while Durham City are owned by Olivier Bernard, once of Lyon, Newcastle United and the Champions League.

So next time someone writes disparagingly about the Northern League's insularity and isolationism, remember Heijmans and Wharton, Crook Town playing to 100,000 people in Calcutta, Suzuki, Uchida and the nomadic Jack Greenwell, born in Peases West in 1884 and buried, by way of Italy, Spain, Turkey and Peru, in a Bogota grave that is forever south-west Durham. 

As the rain swept on from York, Roofing's game with West Allotment Celtic was called off with most of the club's volunteer matchday staff midway through a 12-mile charity walk. "Some good stories, anyway," messaged the club's media manager and goalkeeper coach. "Bird shat on me, the secretary slipped on dog shit and we spent 30 minutes in a bus stop sorting out the postponement." The full programme, plus insert, will be on sale for £1.50 at the re-arranged fixture, or via email for whatever you want to pay.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Ground 282: The Outgang, Heslington

Since moving south in mid-September, almost all of my non-league exploration has taken place in the York Minster Engineering League, a five-division 57-team competition whose top-flight has recently been lifted to Step 7A of the National League System.  "I'm still not convinced there's anything below Step 6," someone joked when I told him I was off to Osbaldwick last weekend. "I always thought it was just something parents said to naughty children."

This afternoon I'm one division lower: despite a 100% league record and six wins on the bounce in all competitions, Heslington are still 11 promotions and a few hundred million in ground improvements from ever making it on to Match of the Day. While they head the Minster's second-flight by three points, their opponents, Easingwold Town, were relegated with just a single point last season and have lost all three of their league matches so far, throwing into some doubt their status as "the highest ranked team within the Easingwold area".

A few hundred metres south of the University of York, the Outgang's pitch is at one end of Heslington Village - where I find ivy-clad cottages, bank branches and a rotund bloke in a red jumper with Cremonese Football Club sewn across the front - at the top of a leafy turn-off from the main road.  Shared with, amongst others, the city's Civil Service Cricket Club, there's a brick clubhouse, plastic wheelbarrow and children's playground behind the near side goal.  "Come on Heso, from the off," claps the goalkeeper.  "I've managed to get that direct debit sorted," says one Easingwold midfielder to another.  "Our pace, our pace," the manager screams over from halfway.  A dozen or so spectators look on from between ropes; one linesman's wearing a manager's coat and dress shoes, the other, in jeans and a baseball cap, keeps his arms folded as he reluctantly inches up and down the line.  "Hit it!" shouts one player. "Keep the ball," urges another.  An Easingwold player goes down easily as he attempts to hold off a challenge. "Do that in the area and I'll caution you," admonishes the referee, who's handling the game in the manner of a mildly exasperated parent.

Despite their lowly position, the visitors start off marginally the better side. "Listen up, gentlemen," says the referee as they prepare to take a corner.  "No pushing, no pulling and no backing in."  There's a pause.  "That goes for you as well, number nine."  Heslington twice go close to opening the scoring, prompting an enraged "Switch on and get control" from the Easingwold side of the pitch.  The home team are no happier, a defender angrily contesting a throw-in on halfway.  "Are you looking down the line?" asks the ref.  "Eh?" says the player.  "Are you looking down the line?" "Eh?" "Are you looking down the line?" "No." "Then," concludes the ref, in a tone every bit as world-weary as one of Graham Greene's protagonists, "you have no business telling me whether or not it's gone out of play."

The only goal comes after 35 minutes, Easingwold finding the net at the second attempt after a shot comes back off the goalkeeper's stomach.  "Next time get it into row Z," says a player, pointing towards a climbing frame and two plastic horses on springs.  "Right! Everyone fight," rages a defender as he boots the ball angrily back in the air.

"They've earned the right to be ahead," the Heslington manager tells his team at half-time. "It's the first time you've been behind this season.  Now you've got to show them why you're top of the league." "Character," adds a player somewhat unnecessarily.  "Character." Easingwold almost grab a second before Heslington get going, the away keeper juggling a shot which is destined for the top corner before a head knocks it away.  Moments later, the home team smack the crossbar; the next effort, a bit further out, is deflected off a slide.  An Easingwold player drops to the ground. "Get him off," advises a Heslington defender, suspecting a ploy to slow down the game.  "Are you a doctor?" starts the referee.  "Aw come on ref, it gets dark early nowadays," Easingwold's captain intervenes.  Heslington finally bring on a substitute warmed up by 20 minutes of hitting a ball against a fence.  "What's happening?" asks a confused midfielder. "Where are we playing now?"

"Dig in" and "Winners" shout Easingwold's back four as Heslington keep pushing.  "We need a goal," says a player, but for all the home team's industry it just never comes. 

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday October 31st 2015

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Ground 281: The Leyes, Osbaldwick

From cup ties on North Tyneside back to the eastern outskirts of York. Osbaldwick, named after a 27-day king of anarchic Northumbria, spent considerably longer on top of the York Minster League under the princely management of the late Dave Taylor.  In the decade splitting 1984 and 1993, the club carried all before them, lifting ten consecutive championships, two trebles, three doubles, and becoming to the city's non-league scene what Liverpool were to England as a whole pre-Premier League, Alex Ferguson and the return of the managerial miasma otherwise known as Graeme Souness.  "We were pretty much the most hated team in York," Taylor's son recalled.  "Everyone wanted to beat us but we were the best."

The new boss arrived to take over the champions in 1985, stepping down after 12 years and one last title success.  "He used to say it was the players who made it, but it was down to his dedication," another former player remembered. "We played for the man not the club."  It's a club that's fallen a long way since, needing three promotions in four years just to reclaim their place in the Minster League's Premier Division, and winless this season with only two points from the opening five games.  The sixth is at home to Tadcaster Magnets, the green-and-whites another side who've recently risen from the depths but are yet to win in the league, drawing one of four but knocked into minus by a three-point deduction; only the sporting misnomer that are Terrington Glory have been less successful so far.

Osbaldwick's The Leyes is probably the only football ground I can walk to from home via a set of medieval city walls, the remains of a Norman castle and a city centre branch of Greggs.   It has a cricket net behind one goalpost, a pair of pop-up dugouts on the side nearest the scoreboard and bar, and a starting crowd of eight adults, one alsatian and a kid with a kickboard.  "Come on," clap the Magnets. "Get it right from the start," shouts the goalkeeper, his studs clattering repeatedly against a post.

Tadcaster have the first shot, a 30-yard conversion which curves unerringly over the crossbar and straight into a hedge.  I catch fragments of conversation beneath the cliched chatter of players' shouts.  "I'll drop that pizza off for you,"  one bloke says.  "Hold it!  Six there. Six!" screeches a midfielder. "...and it's 1.7 miles from there to Helmsley," the spectator continues, unpreturbed.   The visitors take the lead when a shot cannons off the post, smacks a leg and goes over the line. "We go again," someone yells. "Switch on, sort it out."  Osbaldwick strike back with a shot that clears the bar and heads down the wicket like a fastball from Steven Finn.  "All a bit average," a spectator sniffs.  A minute later, the home side put a penalty against the outside of the post after the goalkeeper crumples an attacker just inside the box.  "Who was playing him onside, liner?" a defender moans.  "You and two others," says a bloke on the touchline. "It's a pity your feet don't go as fast as your mouth."

With the other linesman backed by fallen leaves and garden gates, it's the dugout-side official who bears the brunt of the complaints.  "Why aren't you giving that?" a player asks when the referee correctly signals a free-kick.  "That's three you've got wrong.  Three!" says a Magnets defender only seconds after he again plays a forward onside.  When the embattled official does make a mistake, another player yells "What the fuck are you doing?  What the fucking fuck was that?" from halfway across the pitch.  "There's children here, you know," a spectator tuts aloud.  In between, Osbaldwick have a shot tipped over and the Magnets rattle the bar.  "We're much the better footballing side," the home side's half-time teamtalk begins.  "The keeper's shitting himself.  Up the workrate."

The black-and-whites find the inside of the post and the goalkeeper's arms as they dominate the start of the second half.  "We've got to get on the ball," a Tadcaster player explains, as if his teammates haven't yet grasped the point of the whole game.  With 15 minutes left the home side finally get their leveller. "Bunch of fucking wank," the Tadcaster manager shouts, appealing for a foul.  His team come close to taking an immediate lead, Osbaldwick's keeper turning away a palm-stinger and then watching helplessly as the next attack ends in a shot that crashes off the bar.  The sun comes out for the last ten minutes with Tadcaster playing most of the game in the home team's half.  "Come on, force a mistake," an Osbaldwick fan pleads just before a Magnets player hits the ground.  The free kick goes out wide, is chipped on to a balding player's forehead and ruffles the net like a sea breeze on a windshield.  "Game management," says a spectator, hauling his dog towards the exit. "That's the difference here."

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday October 24th 2015

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Ground 280: West Moor Community Association, Killingworth

Starts don't get any better than consecutive titles in your first two years.  Established in 2007 - a couple of centuries after an engineman at the local colliery started messing around with locomotives - Killingworth steamed straight through the lower echelons of the Northern Football Alliance, collected two Benevolent Bowls and rocketed to a high of third upon arrival in the top-flight. "We've already climbed a few mountains in a short space of time," the club's chairman wrote soon after the blue-and-blacks upscaled from Amberley Park to the West Moor Residents' Association, took the name of a local boozer and hired player-coach Richie Latimer, who brought along the core of a Washington team that had just finished midtable in the second tier of the Northern League, which, league and ground grading points permitting, the Alliance feeds into at the end of each year.

As the afternoons shorten, kick-off times are forced forward in a league where barely any of the clubs have access to floodlights,  making it a 1.30 start for the Northumberland Senior Benevolent Bowl tie against the world-renowned Wallsend Boys.  An early finish isn't all that's guaranteed with the home team's three cup ties this season producing even more goals than Newcastle United's second-half defending.  "We're going to have the tap water tested as I think it's causing a few of our players to go mad," thought chairman Colin Dunn after Killingworth and Birtley St Josephs traded six strikes, three red cards and nine successful penalty kicks last weekend.

I get off the Metro at Palmersville (gratefully leaving behind a bloke in a neighbouring seat who got on at South Jesmond and started brushing his teeth), passing the pitch used by Forest Hall, a "quality award winning" chippy and a stone cottage the Stephensons once lived in before turning left off the Great Lime Road.  The ground's half hidden by a playground and the community centre building, a trestle table at the entrance manned by someone with a Killingworth windcheater and a printed sign.  "A quid in with a programme," he says, which is 50p cheaper than it used to be but without the half-time cup of tea.  Advertising hoardings are hooked over the metal perimeter railing, a blue five-a-side pitch marked out between the white lines.  There's a minute's applause, a flurry of howays, the first of the afternoon's planes rising over the far goal and the clink of a shot on the metal netting shielding the carpark from wayward strikes before Killingworth sidefoot an early first goal calmly inside the post.  "Argh, fucking hell," a Boys Club defender exclaims.

"Up the line," screams one player, "Switch on," another.  "It's a watcher," advises a centre back as a Wallsend winger hares vainly after a crossfield ball.  The Boys Club keeper has a playing style somewhere between Billy Whitehurst and Manuel Neuer, wears canary yellow shorts and possesses a voice twice as deep as the Dogger Bank.  "Time, time," he booms.  "Get out, get out."  Gradually, the game settles:  Wallsend prod and slide to feet, Killingworth hit the channels and charge upfield with intent.  "Can we get it?  Can we get it? Can we play?" asks a home defender, his teammates  distracted by an argument about who should track back.  "It's workrate," someone hollers.  "Not good enough," the people in front of the dugout say.  Fortunately for the out-of-sorts home side, Wallsend prove as potent in front of goal as the 2015 version of Emmanuel Riviere, coming no closer to an equaliser than a dinked free kick that bounces out off the edge of the post.  Right on half time Killingworth double their lead when a set-piece rebounds, veers upwards on the six-yard line and is hammered high into the net.  "Howay man, it's been all us," a Wallsend player moans.

"Switch on," foghorns the Boys Club keeper at the start of the second half.  "Switch on," shouts a defender.  "Switch on," says someone in midfield.  What the away team can't switch are chances into goals until a midfielder finally manages to both time a run and find a forward, the cross slid in while four Killingworth defenders chorus "He's off!"  "Big last 20," comes the inevitable clap but the home team stroke a swift third goal and comfortably see out the rest of a game, scoring a late fourth after the net is reattached to the crossbar by a Boys Club defender teetering on his goalkeeper's shoulders.  Clouds stretch, an express train whizzes by,  "Howay ref, mate," someone pleads as the whistle sounds for yet another free-kick.  Programme or no programme, it's a cracking day out for a pound and the Metro fare.

Admission:  £1 (including eight-page programme)
Date:  Saturday October 17th 2015

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Ground 279: Fitzwilliam Sports Field, Old Malton

Another Non-League Day, and the first I'd been in England for since the whole thing kicked off five years ago on a sunny September day at Birtley Town.   This time I'd traded views of Komatsu diggers, used caravans and the East Coast Main Line for the affluent surroundings of Ryedale Council's HQ,  where 2013-14 York Minster League title winners Old Malton St Marys - "We have been established over 100 years and have a proud history" their website succinctly states - were taking on the Teesside League's Nunthorpe Athletic in the early rounds of the North Riding County Cup.

"What are you going there for?" a bloke in York had asked.  "All they've got are horses and people who like horses, Tories, a market place and a butcher's you can't get parked next to." More promisingly, the Guardian had it down as the food capital of Yorkshire, I found a brewery that promises to let you in for free, there was a book festival and market, and a town sturdily built of brick and stone, banks and independent traders intermingled with the more usual chain stores and charity shops. It's the kind of place given to understatement and conservative values:  "It's mild today," said a bloke outside a stationer's and hobby shop. "Well," cautioned his mate, "I wouldn't say it's cold."

Old Malton's pitch is just past the site of a Roman fort and the Fitzwilliam Estate, separated from the main road by a cricket field, a rehabilitation centre for injured jockeys and a row of chestnut trees.  The far side had a stone path, a rope and a bloke picking up dogshit with a spade, while the seated end was a long bench along the clubhouse wall which had already been monopolised by a pair of flatcapped locals.  The home side were taking turns to piss in the undergrowth as Nunthorpe lined up for a photo.  "Handshakes, please," the referee bellowed.  "Bloody hell, he must be getting assessed," observed one of the flatcaps.

Nunthorpe began with some slick passing and lengthy slides across the grass, the strings being pulled by a player whose midriff was reminiscent of Middlesbrough-era Branco.  "Squeeze up!", "Winner" and "Good man," the home keeper shouted as his team advanced upfield.  Old Malton clanked the post, scooped the ball over with the goal gaping - "He couldn't do that again if he tried," someone laughed - and shanked wide with only the keeper to beat before Nunthorpe took the lead.  "You have to take your chances at this level," a spectator joked.  The home side finally got their goal via the side of a head and threatened a second when a winger cut inside, did two stepovers then unleashed a shot to the dugout side of the corner flag.  "Mark up, back post, know your man early," screamed a defender with pause for neither breath nor punctuation.

At half-time we retreated inside while the Nunthorpe team opted to sit out on the grass.  "We don't do tea," said the barman so I settled on a pint instead, which I was still finishing off when Old Malton St Marys finally took the lead. "On your toes, get it out, game on," breathless urged.  The home side scored a third from a header and a fourth when the entire Nunthorpe defence stopped waiting for a flag. "Could get a bit tasty," a spectator judged, though the closest the away side came to their naughty epithet - "In the 70s the place was famous for wife swapping parties.  They should have a goldfish bowl and a set of car keys on their badge," Harry Pearson reckoned - was a bit of histrionic hand waving from an overweight substitute and a mild rebuke from the goalkeeper for the referee which reminded Harry of a story about a female pitch invader at an Under-11s game in South Shields.  "The bloke who told me about it said she tried to attack the ref.  'Did she catch him?' I asked.  'Nah, she was a bit pregnant'".   As the visitors tired, the home team played through the ever widening gaps in their defence. "They're running but not tracking," a spectator told his mate as a substitute in luminous boots squared the ball to nobody.  When the whistle blew, St Marys headed indoors and Nunthorpe went back to the grass.  "Like naughty schoolboys," someone said as we set off back for the pub.

Admission:  Free
Date: October 10th 2015

Thanks to @MaltonTom for the marvellous hospitality, Harry (@camsell59) for the talk on North Yorkshire Sporting Heroes in the excellent Ryedale Book Festival and @pibarrister & @TillerPop for the company in the first half.  

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Ground 278: New Lane Sports Ground, York Railway Institute

After three months getting ready to move to Oman, a protracted break-up unluckily combined with a recruitment process that managed to be even less proficient than Joe Kinnear  during his ill-starred tenure as Newcastle's director of football. The upshot was I took a job in York.  "Less cash but better beer and more grounds to visit," a mate said consolingly.

In the process, my neighbourhood stadium changed from Yokohama's Nissan International to Acomb's New Lane, home to the 129-year-old York Railway Institute since 1926. The step 11 side were having a summer every bit as turbulent as mine.  "Sporting Life and Strife," reported the York Press following an aborted AGM that attracted 400 of the club's 2,800 members instead of the more usual 20.  Hit with a change on rates relief for Community Amateur Sports Clubs, the directors had voted 7-6 to split the RI into five sections, reducing its overall turnover by enough to avoid a £70,000 annual tax bill. When the members got involved it was soon apparent that many disagreed.  "I'm gratified by the strength of feeling shown," said the club president, "but we must get a solution.  Doing nothing is not an option."

The RI's players had been doing plenty on the pitch, the 11-time York Football League champions winning four and drawing one of their opening half-dozen games.  Their seventh opponents were one of the few with an even better points total, Huntington Rovers the early pacesetters with five wins from eight. Even so, there wasn't much of a build-up: New Lane's gates had notices for a slimming club and a league match played three weeks previously, there was a bouncy castle by an empty rugby pitch and, more promisingly, round balls being skied over  a couple of heaped trestle tables in the clubhouse car park.  "It's a charity thing, innit?" said a bloke, gesturing towards a stack of used toys.

The pitch had a metal rail on three sides and a try line on the other. "Any person caught urinating against this fence will be prosectuted" read a sign while players took turns to piss against a nearby tree.  "Do you want to kick off early?" an RI official shouted across.  "Ref says we can start at five to and it's a few more minutes in the pub."

"Big first 20," clapped RI's manager. "The first 20 minutes are really important so communicate and get stuck in."  "Bit of talking," echoed the keeper before letting off a prolonged burp.  Huntington put the kick-off out for a throw-in then attacked the next time they got the ball.  The home keeper misread the bounce and two seconds later his team were one behind with three minutes played.  "Sorry lads," he said, more quietly this  time.  "We're half asleep," roared a voice from halfway.  We were still inside the "big first 20" when RI's captain rolled the ball to  Huntington player, failed to cut out a pass with his hand, and then watched from the ground as a second goal went in off the post.  "It's alright talking but we're not listening," the keeper pointed out.  Just before half-time, Huntington played all the way through midfield, a forward looping the ball over the goalkeeper and nodding in to the empty net at the other side.  "We go again, don't we?" an RI player said.  "We've got no-one to blame but ourselves."

"We can still win this if we stop arguing and belive," the RI manager said at half-time.  Four minutes later a Huntington forward strolled through the defence and rolled a fourth into the corner of the goal. It briefly spurred the railwaymen on, the number 9 firing a shot in before doing enough to put the keeper off as RI scored a quick second. "The ref's missed three offsides in nine seconds and a clear foul there," a spectator tutted. "The problem is that they come from different areas like the West Riding and they don't...look at that marking at the back!"  He broke off as Huntington cheered their fifth goal. There was a pause.  "Shocking," he finally said.

With time running out and the RI rugby union team seven points to the good on the next-door pitch, the home footballers managed to reduce the gap to two once more.  "Big 10," shouted their manager.  But this time it wasn't.

Date:  Saturday September 26th 2015
Admission:  Free

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Ground 277: Stokesley Sports Ground

As starts to a new season go, it hasn't been ideal: seven league matches, seven league defeats and a goal difference that's already hit -29.  But Stokesley have been through all this before; in 2011, a year since they'd strolled to the second division championship while winning 14 games in a row, the club lost their manager, two officials and all 38 registered players. "Internal politics," reported the Northern Echo.  "Stability is the aim," Peter Grainge, a fixture at the club since the mid-1960s, told the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette. A whole new squad included Luke Allen, once of York City, and Nathan Porritt, who arrived via Middlesbrough, Chelsea and Belenenses, but a 15-0 hammering at Bedlington in early September was indicative of a forlorn struggle which ended with four points, zero wins and a negative goal difference of 145. "I can't fault their effort," manager Monty Alexander said.  "My head wasn't in the game when I went there and I was overweight," Porritt confided to the local paper, "but I started enjoying football again, getting on with the lads and just having a laugh."

Porritt left for Marske United but Spanish striker  Asenjo Bravo arrived from Atletico Madrid. "He's looking to work his way up to the Championship," assistant manager Chris Lax explainedLax briefly replaced Alexander, who then returned as number two to another of his former assistants after just two games. "Internal politics," wrote the Echo, living up to its name. "I've just told the lads to keep their heads up," new manager Nicky Ward told the Evening Gazette.  When Ward resigned in the summer, his eventual successor was Craig Winter, son of the ex-Premier League referee.  He arrived at a club whose budget stretches to win and draw bonuses and petrol money for away games.  "It's a challenge," he said, with more understatement than his dad ever managed.

Today's opponents were Tow Law, first club of Chris Waddle and from a town a defeated Mansfield manager once likened to "playing at the North Pole".  Down on the edge of the North York Moors, Broughton Park was thankfully more autumnal than arctic, the chill in the air redolent of the one in my relationship the only other time I'd visited the town.  It was as peaceful as I remembered it: a farmers' market was packing up in the main square; there were signs for the Stokesley Agricultural Society, ducks crossing a river, and the thwack of cricket bat on leather just before I arrived at the ground.

The teams came out through a gate in the fence, Kirsty MacColl playing over the applause of the 40 or so people who were already inside. "Graft for it!" shouted a Stokesley defender, but Tow Law were up within five minutes - the keeper only able to palm a shot backwards into his own net - and could have added another three or four before they'd played ten.  "We've got to get organised 'ere," screamed a voice from midfield.  "Together!"

The second goal came after quarter of an hour, the manager dispossessed while trying to play out from defence. "Come on Stokesley, we're flat," someone clapped.  "We go again," announced Tow Law's captain to no-one in particular.  A few away fans were doing a slow lap of the touchline; another kept up a commentary in the monotone imperatives of a man auctioning sheep. "Go back, go back.  Turn.  Behind.  Who wants it?  That's good, that's good."  The home players started stringing passes together but then placed one straight at the feet of a Tow Law forward, who poked in a third at the keeper's near post.  "Piss poor," said the manager.  "It's hard enough as it is without doing that."  It soon got harder, Tow Law's fourth going in by way of the crossbar, a post and two appeals for offside.  "They're not going to come back from this," a spectator said to his mate.   And as hard as Stokesley kept battling, they never did. 

Admission:  £5
Date:  Saturday September 5th 2015 (Northern League ground 44/44)

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Ground 277 (Abandoned): High Flatworth, Wallsend Labour Club

I should have been packing for the Middle East, but paperwork delays at the Ministry of Manpower meant I was by a municipal pitch at High Flatworth instead.  For a third weekend in a row I was watching a game in the basement division of the Northern Football Alliance; and like the previous Saturday it involved the black and white shirts of Wallsend Labour Club FC.  The footballing arm of the town's "finest CIU affiliated club" was formed to play in the Tyneside Amateur League, promoted at the first time of asking, and had been in the Alliance's Second Division since 2012-13. Undefeated so far, their game with Whitburn matched second against third bottom in a reversal of a fixture I'd watched when the black and whites were still known as High Howdon SC.

Newcastle were limping to defeat against Arsenal in a game spoilt by a 16th-minute sending-off as the match got underway, wind whipping back the corner flags and precisely nine people looking on.  Six minutes in, a Labour Club corner smacked a knee, rebounded from a boot and bounced back off the line.  The ball was cleared upfield, there was a crash of heads and neither player moved from the ground.  A Whitburn defender got on his mobile for an ambulance.  "I can't look, mate," another told.  "His cheekbone's gone into his face.  If this gans on we'll be two down 'cos his best mate's gannin with him to the hospital and there's another lad whose wife could gan into labour anytime now." "He's just asked me how he looked," said a third Whitburn player.  "I didn't know what to say. Not good, like."

Before the medics arrived a bloke turned up with two golf clubs and a bag of balls, whacking shots against a bank behind the far goal.  One player nipped off for a cigarette while the injured Labour Club defender was taken to a garden chair.  "I divvent kna if I can gan on here," a Whitburn player reckoned.  "How do you get your head right after seeing all that?"  It was forty minutes before the game was called off.  Five minutes down the main road, I saw the ambulance going the other way.

Back across the river, South Shields were at home to Ryhope Colliery Welfare with a crowd of over 300, a free post-game barbecue and happy hour in the bar.  I got there just in time for what I thought would be the second half.  "It's been abandoned, mate," said the bloke on the door.  "Player went down after four minutes."  He was still there, sheltered by a golf umbrella, an hour and three quarters after colliding with Ryhope's keeper. "A suspected dislocated shoulder," Shields tweeted as he left for hospital.  "He was also knocked out cold for 10 seconds."

Two games, six minutes.  Even Aleksandar Mitrovic couldn't come close to that.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Ground 276: Black Lane, Wrekenton (Birtley St Joseph's FC)

What's Europe's biggest cup competition against a sunlit evening of north-east non-league?  The previous night, while Ronny Deila's Celtic capitulated in Malmo, I was enjoying eight goals and bespoke stadium fittings as Jarrow Roofing saw off Seaham Red Star.  24 hours later,  Manchester United were bludgeoning their way past Club Brugge and I was back to the Alliance, Birtley St Joseph's hosting Newcastle Chemfica in the 12th-tier Bay Plastics Division One.

Disillusioned with life at Step 14, Birtley St Joseph's had been on the brink of folding the club entirely when they were voted into the Northern Alliance in May 2012. "We needed a new challenge," secretary Colin Beal told the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. " We took the decision if we couldn't transfer to another league we'd wrap things up". Promoted in their first season, the new boys had since finished fifth, set up a development team and left the Birtley Welfare Ground - where one of the first three Northern League games was contested in September 1889 - to share "for the forseeable future" with Wrekenton Blue Star,  the current champions of the Gateshead and District Premier League.

Entrance to the ground was through a rusting gate opposite the village hall, the pitch railed off and encircled by trees, with retractable dugouts placed on the touchline and three metal portakabins behind a spiked fence.  There were 15 other spectators when we arrived just after kick-off, including three men with dogs, one on his way home from the shops and another who left his car engine running and drove off at half-time.  The visitors, a team I'd last seen up against Heddon-on-the-Wall, were defending the goal in shadow, the linesmen and home keeper shielding their eyes as they tried to follow the play.  "Work! Work!" and "Seconds!" shouted the managers, pacing the pitch as the ball careered around midfield and the defence strung out in a line.  "You're not marking space," Chemfica's keeper told his right back.  "Goalside at all times," warned a centre-half.  "Where do you want to be?" the manager asked. "You're not helping there."  When the ball did hit the net a flag was already up for offside.  "Borderline, that," said a spectator, her tone as confident as Gary Neville with a slow-motion replay and computer-generated line.

The first-half went by at a frantic pace, the second delayed while everyone waited for the referee.  "Howay ref, man," a St Joseph's player complained as he finally made the pitch. "Where's he gannin now?" someone else laughed. "Arrgh howay, he's left his whistle inside."  The deadlock was finally broken just before the hour, St Joseph's number 9 sliding a cross which his strike partner knocked in at the far post.  "Mint, that," yelled the keeper from the other end of the pitch.  Chemfield's goalkeeper made a stop with his feet but was beaten from the spot after a forward was tripped just outside the box.  "The ref over-ruled it," said the linesman.  "He wants a boot up the arse," someone muttered as he wandered back to halfway. "These'll start losing their rag now," predicted a spectator. "Always happens."

It took another 60 seconds for Chemfica to lose another goal, St Joseph's adding a fourth from a corner with ten minutes left, and a fifth with the sky darkening and a spectator searching the bushes for a lost ball.  "Nothing changes," shouted the home manager.  "We keep our shape."

Admission:  Free
Date: Wednesday August 26th 2015

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Ground 275: Rising Sun Sports Ground, Wallsend

When football was a religion and Tyneside one of the industrial powerhouses of the world, there were 85 teams in the Wallsend and District League, 19 shipyards on the Tyne, and 1,500 people employed at the town's Rising Sun pit, "probably the most complete coal preparation plant" on the planet when it opened in 1906. The last of Wallsend's collieries closed in 1969, the Swan Hunter cranes were sold off to India 40 years later, ending a century and a half of shipbuilding on the site, and there are a mere handful of men's football teams left playing on Saturday afternoons: the chance to see four of them on old miners' welfare pitches was too good an opportunity to miss.

Think Wallsend and football and it's the Boys Club of Shearer, Beardsley, Bruce and Carrick that invariably springs to mind.  Their senior team were taking on Lindisfarne Custom Planet - the name a combination of a local workingmen's club and a firm that sticks logos on polo shirts - on one half of the Rising Sun Sports Ground, while Willington Quay Saints hosted Wallsend Labour Club on the other.  Scarcely remembered today, a century ago Willington Quay produced footballers with the same kind of regularity as Swan Hunters did ships: Henry Chambers played for Liverpool and England, Joe Clark reached an FA Cup semi-final with Cardiff City and Francis Cuggy, born up the river in Walker but spotted at Willington Athletic in 1909, would go on to win the Football League with Sunderland, two caps for England and back-to-back Galician Championships when Celta Vigo tempted him away from North-Eastern League management at Wallsend.  "The first coach in our history," begins one Spanish profile.  "He was one of the great successes of the Vigo team."

There are seldom any scouts on view in the Northern Alliance second division - 12 below the level at which Cuggy's first professional side comically underperform  -  a smattering of substitutes, team coaches, family members and the bloke with the changing room key present to see the third-bottom Saints take on the newly-christened Labour Club, last season's High Howdon Social currently the closest challengers to Gateshead A's teenagers and their 13th-tier totaal voetbal. At first glance, both seemed to owe more to the Victorians than Rinus Michels.  "Are ye still trying to play?" a Boys Club player joked as the Quay Saints centre-forward stepped over the rope splitting the two games.  "Straight in lads, from the off," bellows a voice from one of the pitches.  "Big five minutes," resounds from the next.  "Stand up, strong!" and "Get in! Get in!"

"Christ's sake referee get involved," Harry Pearson had recently identified as being "the traditional call that heralds the start of the North-East football season." Shortly after kick-off there was an equally familiar call and response, "Don't foul" swiftly followed by a cry of pain and a body hitting the ground.  "Right shoulder, right shoulder," someone urged.  "And after all his -ologies at A-Level he decides to be an actor," a spectator was confiding in an injured player who'd just arrived on his bike.

Willington's number 9 threw up a one-on-one, taking four touches to gather as the Labour Club defence variously tried to claim offside, a foul or handball.  A few spectators wandered out with pint glasses. "Let it go, man," a player shouted to the referee. "Was it fuck," said another, a Quay Saints substitute snapping his flag up for offside.  Willington headed a goal off the crossbar, the celebrations paused while the referee made up his mind. The Labour Club had levelled within a minute, though I was otherwise engaged passing back a stray ball.  I missed the Quay Saints second completely, my attention on Lindisfarne's number 10 as he sidefooted a volley from a yard in front of to three yards wide of the Boys Club goal.  His hands went straight to his head. "Gerrin!" came the cheer from the other side of the rope.

Half-time was just five minutes, the teams in circles on halfway while substitutes, children and a bloke in jeans and trainers kicked spare balls into goal.  Gavin Fell, first-team coach when Whitley Bay swept aside all-comers in the FA Vase, patiently explained what he wanted from his Boys Club team.  "We've started slowly again," said a Lindisfarne player moments later, his goalkeeper spectacularly palming a shot away from the net and into a tree.

The Boys Club hit the tape on the crossbar before slotting in the opening goal. "That's shit, ref," someone shouted.  "Ref! Ref! Foul all day."  Willington were encamped on the Labour Club's 'D', their number four, topknot swinging, sweeping up behind. I looked across just as Lindisfarne's keeper spread himself like Manuel Neuer to deny the Boys Club a second goal they scored anyway with their very next attack.  The Labour Club hit the goalkeeper and the post, drawing back level with a tap-in from a cross. Lindisfarne conceded a third and then a fourth.  "How long left, ref?" shouted a spectator waving a crutch.  "Seven?  Bloody hell, man, you said five just a minute ago."

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday August 22nd

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Ground 274: Gateshead International Stadium 3G, Gateshead 'A'

There were seven clubs in the first year of the Northern Football Alliance, which began in July 1890 and closed "in a harmonious manner" with Sunderland 'A' as champions and "only one protest during the season".  Before the century was out membership had swelled to a high of 24, admission had been fixed at 4d a game, and Sunderland and Newcastle United had jointly staved off a motion to make the competition "purely amateur", their reserve sides limited instead to fielding no more than "two league players in any match".

The professional clubs simultaneously retired their teams in 1901, the Alliance outlasting both a decade as the second division of the North-Eastern League and a year off for lack of entries in 1964-65.   "A proper Geordie football league," as one observer wrote, it begins its 125th year with a club membership of 47 and three divisions, the lowest now home to 'A' sides from West Allotment Celtic and Gateshead, whose under-19 set-up joined as one of five new entrants in May.  "Gateshead's young stars will play in the Youth Alliance in midweek and the Northern Alliance at the weekend. The club  are hopeful at least three or four of their squad will go on to become first-team players," reported the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. "I'm expecting us to finish in the top two," coach Paul Bryson said, "and then go on and be even more competitive next year."  The rest of the division are rather less sanguine about their chances against a youth programme that's already produced over three dozen professional players. "Glad that's out of the way," Prudhoe Youth Club tweeted following their 6-1 opening day defeat. "Next up," announced Hazlerigg Victory after swatting aside Whitburn Athletic on the same afternoon, "is the tonking off Gateshead FC 'A'.  Gets it done early and they'll do it to everyone else too."  In the event, the youngsters scraped a 3-2 midweek triumph after trailing at half-time. "Can't be disheartened when the opposition are on £45 and five training sessions a week," the beaten home side tweeted at the end.

North Northumberland League double winners Alnmouth are fellow newcomers to the Alliance, trotting out on to Gateshead's artificial turf buoyed by an opening day victory of their own. Their players do shuttle runs while the home side form up for a team shot and a handful of spectators unfold camping chairs on an overlooking pitch.  A few Boreham Wood fans file through turnstiles in the background as Alnmouth's manager announces his team.  "Plenty graft, lads," he says. "Drown them out, stop them playing.  Same thing as last week."  The referee jogs over with a flag for each team.  "For throw-ins only, sorry.  I'm the only one who can call offsides," he apologises. "Durham FA rules."

Gateshead have 10 passes and a shot on goal in the first 15 seconds, almost score with their next move and get a corner from the third.  "We're ganna get some fitness done the day," Alnmouth's manager jokes. The visitors go close with their first shot. "It just takes some time to get used to the pitch," a substitute explains. Gateshead weave passes across the plastic grass, seldom missing feet but not able to hit much else thanks to some careless finishing and half a dozen smart stops from the Alnmouth keeper.  The home team hit the post, twice shave the crossbar and have a headed goal ruled out for offside.  "I want to know the stats from this game," says an Alnmouth sub.  "I hope he blows the whistle soon so we can have a 15-minute sit doon," thinks someone else.

Gateshead's number 10 slides the first goal in at the post with a minute to half-time.  "It's hard, like," an Alnmouth player says.  "They're much fitter and faster than us." "We'll gan 4-5-1," says the manager. "You divvent kna where they're gannin," laughs a centre half. "It's move, move, move."  The number 9 gets Gateshead's second and third goals before Alnmouth's 11 swings in a free kick which evades a dozen players and sneaks in at the far post.  Gateshead score again within 30 seconds and then tap in a fifth with quarter of an hour left and Alnmouth running themselves out. "It's getting embarrassing now," shouts one of the players as the sixth flies in.  "We expected it," says the manager, the home side playing through his defence for their team's seventh goal.  By the end it's eight.  "Divvent worry, lads," someone says. "You won't be the last team this lot give a howking to."

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday August 15th 2015