Sunday, 29 March 2015

Ground 258: Oifuto Central Seaside Park

Three and a bit months later, it feels as if I've never been away. A day after landing at Narita and two hours since waking up jetlagged in my Yokohama flat, I'm at Oifuto Central Seaside Park, north of Haneda Airport, east of Shinagawa's aquarium - "Oishi!" ("Delicious!") visitors were exclaiming, pointing upwards at the sealife from the walk-through glass tunnel - and Ohi Racecourse, where nightly, illuminated 'Twinkle Races' and Sunday morning flea markets take place.   An artificial pitch, towering floodlight pylons, around 200 spectators and the final morning of the 2015 Tokyo Society Soccer Championship, played out over 11 days by 60 teams on eight pitches all around the Japanese capital city.

Repeat finalists and current trophy holders Tokyo 23FC are, to quote one afficionado of the Japanese non-league game, "an ambitious, J.League-focused regional league club." Powerhouses of the fifth-tier Kanto Soccer League Division One, where they face off against the likes of VONDS Ichihara, Hitachi Building Systems and Joyful Honda Tsukuba FC, the team is named after the number of municipalities in Tokyo City, have 'Tokyo Pride' as their motto and play their home fixtures a rainbow away from Tokyo Disneyland at the 7,000-capacity Edogawa Stadium, Tokyo Bay.  Their opponents, LB-BRB Tokyo, are not, as you might assume, an inelegant piece of text speak but rather a recent amalgamation of two university football sides that have Kentaro Hayashi, the twice-capped veteran of over 300 appearances for Tokyo Verdy, Kobe and Kofu as sports director and head coach.  While Tokyo 23FC were besting Waseda United in one semi-final, Hayashi's team - who start at the seventh-tier but are shooting for the skies of full J.League membership within the next five years - were putting the finishing touches to a 6-5 penalty shoot-out giantkilling of Kanto Leaguers FC Korea.

Although capital city bragging rights, silverware and a place in the Tokyo qualifiers of the Emperor's Cup are simultaneously up for grabs, the game progresses at somnambulistic speed, park baseball fixtures and cherry blossom parties in the background as the players stroll about the artificial turf, which is confusingly marked out for hockey, lacrosse and American football too. The single stand is just under half full,  eight Tokyo 23FC ultras and a drum providing the bulk of the noise. I sip my Kirin beer ('Brewed for good times' promises the side of the can) while seven of the ultras chant "Give us goal" and the other greedily demolishes a supermarket bento box with a pair of disposable chopsticks.  A cameraman leaves the video running unattended as he scrolls through messages on his phone, looking up just in time to see a 23FC forward punt a dipping volley off the trunk of a tree.  The most entertaining moment of the half comes when a home run clears the walls of two stadiums, rolls off the roof and drops on an empty seat halfway down the stand. "Amazing!" says a spectator, looking at the sky.  Behind him an LBB player does two stepovers and then runs the ball out for a throw.

The second half starts unpromisingly and without a hint of a threat on goal until 23FC's Ryota Shingai apologetically places a much delayed free kick straight through the goalkeeper's hands.  A teammate studs wide with no defender in sight and the LBB keeper despairing on his knees, then Singai dinks a shot off a concrete wall with Keita Tsuchiya, once of Bohemians Prague and 1.FC Reimsbach, already off the bench in expectation of a goal.  His keeper has little to do, spectacularly one-handing a header away as LBB finally mount an attack of note.  The holders settle the game with a second goal just before full-time, Daiki Suzuki racing clear as the opposition push desperately upfield.  "Tokyo, Tokyo, Tokyo," the victorious supporters rumble as club officials trade business cards and jet planes dip through the thickening cloud.  The winners collect their trophy,  a defiant LBB fan waving a picnic bag with 'Hug', 'Me' and 'Kiss' written garishly in three hearts as the losing eleven line-up to applaud.  Her shoes have two-inch platforms, 'Cup of tea my doll' printed out in luminous gold on each side.  The last bits of sun disappear, cherry blossom picnickers fold up their mats and head off towards the monorail home.  "Let's go Tokyo," shout the ultras, holding their scarves aloft through the first drops of rain.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday March 29th 2015

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Ground 257: Oakford Park, Wallington FC

It's blustery, dank and there's a hint of drizzle as we plough through fish and chips by the beach huts and gun batteries of Blyth's South Beach.  Dog walkers in waterproof jackets and tightly-drawn hoods struggle up the coast from Seaton Sluice, where Ray Kennedy transferred from the production line of a sweet factory to six league titles and five European trophies in 14 years at Highbury and Anfield Road.  Driving inland, we pass by the field where Blyth Town play their home games, the Northern League aspirants currently battling again residents' objections and promotion deadlines as they plan out a ground with floodlight poles and 300 seats.  On through the local non-league aristocracy of Bedlington and Morpeth, then ten miles along a B-road to Scots Gap, an old Border Reiver crossing point of 125 people snuggled deep in the Northumberland countryside.

We pull up by the only signpost to get our bearings to the ground.  There's a small cluster of houses, a National Trust office, village shop and garage, a bus shelter listing two services in the afternoon, and a red-brick Methodist chapel.  "Don't think they'll get much of a crowd here, do you?" the driver asks.  We track down Oakford Park at the far end of a cul-de-sac, through a cut between wooden garages with a hut on one side and players' cars parked up along the touchline.  There are signs asking spectators to keep their dogs off the playing surface, the dugouts are marked out with motor registration plates, one of the goalnets is tied down to two traffic cones and a handful of  sheep are lazily grazing between the back of the pitch and the road north to Rothbury.  "Should've played this yesterday," says a spectator, stamping his feet on the grass, "when it was warm."

The teams trot out, ducking under a railing to get onto the pitch.  A substitute jumps from the back of a car while the Shankhouse manager bites chunks off a bar of chocolate. Although it's hard to imagine now, his club were once among the pre-eminent football teams in the north.  One of 17 sides in a pit village of just 1,000 people, the colliers were established by members of a Primitive Methodist bible class in 1883, played Aston Villa in an FA Cup fourth round tie, moved to a purpose-built stadium and won six of the first 11 Northumberland Senior Cups before, hauled back from the brink of extinction by a public fundraising drive, they dropped into the Blyth and District League in 1906.

The home side are even older than their opponents, formed in 1877 by workers on the nearby Wallington Hall estate who changed before games in a disused henhouse and travelled away in a horse and cart.  The club won its first trophy at the Longwitton Flower Show, ditched their blue kits for green-and-white in homage to Hibernian's Famous Five,  and clinched their only Northern Alliance championship on the final afternoon of their centenary year.  Current holders of the Clayton and Bay Plastics Cups, the "fiercely amateur side is enjoying probably its most successful period ever," reads an announcement tacked to the village noticeboard alongside signs for dog fouling and an Easter fayre. "We have the finance, we have the facilities, we certainly have the players. All we need is a little extra help off the field."   What they lack this afternoon is a crowd, the dozen or so spectators made up of club officials, substitutes and a middle-aged bloke in overalls who stays for twenty minutes of the first half. "We  used to get a few locals along to watch," Wallington's captain told a Newcastle paper, "but it's a bit like one man and his dog nowadays."

The home side are sponsored by the parish council, Shankhouse by a label manufacturer.  Wallington kick towards a hedge, winning a corner off a Shankhouse shin with their first attack.  "Touch tight," shouts a visiting coach.  "Goalkeeper's toes," instructs a Wallington centre-half. Shankhouse's keeper springs to his left and palms a shot out.  "With his wrang hand an' all," a spectator nods appreciatively.  A Wallington player goes down injured, the physio jogging over with a plastic bucket. "Just roll 'im ower," somebody suggests.  The referee takes a noticeably lenient approach to fouls, playing on through five in a row as the ball shunts around midfield.  "No, no," he says, bending at the knees and keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the ground.  "Do you reckon he's lost his whistle?" someone asks.  Shankhouse get a free-kick. The taker looks to the dugouts;  "If you fancy it, you fancy it," the coach replies.  His kick dips past the wall and in at the near post, squeaking past the goalkeeper's fall. "I'd text the score if I had any signal," a spectator complains. "If in doubt, give it a welly," someone advises the Wallington defence.

At half-time the teams retreat to the clubhouse and the spectators back to their cars.  "Toon two-nowt down," says a Shankhouse official, pulling a holdall out of his boot.  "Fella on the radio says it could have been five," adds a bloke in a manager's coat, pressing an earphone in with his finger. "They've only been playing half an hour as well."  Wallington start the second period attempting to play patiently through midfield.  A centre-half strolls up the pitch, picks his pass and watches as it bounces back off a knee and dribbles out for a throw.  "I telt them to welly it," comes an all-knowing comment from behind. A Shankhouse corner is scrambled away by the goalkeeper, a defender booting the ball clear before the whistle belatedly sounds.  "I wasn't sure if it was in the D," apologises the linesman from halfway.  "Yer kidding, son!  It's the same size as the centre circle, man," a spectator laughs. "Do you want to come down and check this time?" the referee asks.  "It was on the line," he says to a Shankhouse official.  "You've got the wrang bench, ref.  I'm not fussed if we take it again."

A Shankhouse player drops a shoulder, cuts inside and shoots into the top of a hedge, a home defender racing back with a wooden plank to retrieve it when it falls into the neighbouring field. "Can we pack in with these short corners?" the Wallington keeper says to no-one in particular. "Angles," a player shouts. "Space," yells someone else. Chasing the game, the greens throw all three substitutes on, and a midfielder takes a quick free kick off a retreating Shankhouse player's ankle before falling to the ground.  The visitors bring their manager off the bench - "If your warm-up doesn't end soon, the game will be ower, man," a coach tells him - clatter the crossbar then turn in a second goal with four minutes to play.  "We played better last week than we have today, mind," a Shankhouse spectator says.  "Are Newcastle still getting beat?"

Next week I start a new job in Japan, where I'm living a ten-minute walk from the stadium that hosted the final of the 2002 World Cup. A Saturday afternoon in Wallington is a wonderful way to bow out.  Get there if you can.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday March 21st 2015

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Ground 256: Belle View Stadium, Consett

"If a child of the 1950s had been asked to paint a perfect non-league football ground," wrote the Northern Echo, "it would have looked, externally at least, like the gloriously haphazard Belle Vue." Predominantly volunteer-built and part-funded by Tommy Lumley's transfer to First Division Charlton Athletic, Consett's red-brick stadium was unveiled in August 1950 with 7,000 people there for the North Eastern League visit of Sunderland Reserves. "A dream come true," proclaimed a four-page feature in the following year's FA Book for Boys.

The surviving stand was a magnificent, disintegrating wreck when I first saw it half a century later. "The roof's hanging on by a thread, water's pouring through, the terraces are crumbling and the cement's porous," the club's treasurer commented.  "If they ever want to film men queuing for a shower at a prisoner of war camp they could use our dressing rooms," said manager Kenny Lindoe, who steered his team to three second-placed finishes in the space of four years while the ground fell to bits around them. Much loved by casual visitors but increasingly nightmarish to maintain, when Belle Vue hosted its final competitive fixture the toilet lights blew at 11am and a deep fat fryer exploded twenty minutes into the first half.  "It has a wonderful atmosphere, but atmosphere can't give you comfort and it can't keep you dry," chairman and benefactor Frank Bell explained to Northern Ventures Northern Gains.

The new build was a decade and over £2.5 million in the making, has a 3G pitch and supports nearly 40 teams and ten full-time jobs.  When it formally opened with a friendly against a Newcastle United XI almost 3,000 turned up, the kick-off delayed by half an hour while they all got inside.  "A beautiful facility," Bell told reporters. "The main problem at the old ground was that it could only be used once a fortnight," Northern League chairman Mike Amos thought.  "Now the club has something that can be used all the time."  While some bemoan the lack of individuality in the design - goals-on-wheels, two flatpack stands, perspex dugouts and picnic tables set out by the food hatch - the club are more concerned with the extra revenue an all-weather surface, floodlit six-a-side courts and new clubhouse provide.  "This place is always full for Sunday dinner," a fan says in the bar.  "They must make a packet on it." "We're from Consett we used to make steel" states the lettering on the back of one replica shirt.  "We've got two Tescos" reads another. "Three inches of snow here yesterday," a Roofing official tells us. "I hope our lot can cope with the climate."

While Consett made strides off the pitch, their first-team were falling back into the middle reaches of Northern League Division One, Lindoe stepping down after a decade in charge to concentrate on finding players for the club's new reserve and academy sides.  In October the Steelmen were hammered 5-0 at Jarrow Roofing, John Campbell making headlines on Sky Sports News and a move to League Two soon after. "We can't afford let our standards slip," warns visiting manager Richie McLoughlin, who's lost Campbell's replacement and three-time FA Vase winner Paul Chow to a wedding.  "We need to be switched on from the very first minute."

"I'm here to win things," Lindoe's replacement Colin Myers announced when he arrived from Blyth Spartans.  His improving team make the brighter start, Andy Hunter turning over one-handed when Chris Moore dinks an effort on his goal.  Roofing rarely threaten but keep Consett at bay until the 38th minute, when Danny Craggs rolls a free kick over the wall and into the corner.  A minute later and Michael Mackay - 39 goals this season and 244 in two spells bridged by four years with Hartlepool United - strikes against Hunter's post.  "The Mackems are four down, half the crowd's gone home and people are hoying tickets at Gus Poyet's head," a spectator shouts, scrolling gleefully down his phone. "He's lost the plot," says his mate, "and they'll still beat us in the derby."

Half-time gives Roofing respite and the clubs' committee members hot drinks, mini chocolate rolls and sandwiches "with two kinds of meat".  Big screens in the bar show home supporters fleeing the Stadium of Light in their thousands.  "Glad I came here instead," says one bloke.  "Haven't been to Newcastle all season," says another.  "I'm done with it now."  The visitors are still going, Lewie Teasdale rounding the goalkeeper before Dan Madden darts in to clear, but when they make a mess of a throw Craggs strokes in a second and the game is all but done. "Nobody's on it," says McLoughlin, whose afternoon gets worse when striker Malky Morien is red carded after petulantly bumping foreheads with the Consett goalkeeper.  "Yer moved yer heed, bonny lad," a spectator shouts with evident relish. "There's no use crying aboot it now."

Consett score a third, Calvin Smith gathering Hunter's attempted clearance and chipping back over the goalkeeper's head, though Roofing end the game as aggrieved with the referee as themselves after Scott Martindale escapes with a yellow for a two-footed lunge in front of the main stand.  Nobody disputes that Consett are the better side.  "Worst we've played in a while," McLoughlin admits.  "We  were never in it."

Admission: £6
Date: Saturday March 14th 2015

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Ground 255: Longbenton Community College, West Allotment Celtic.

Peter Beardsley was the first real hero I ever loved and lost.  An impish, skittish genius of a footballer - picture Andres Iniesta born two decades earlier on a north Tyneside housing estate and dress him in a pudding-bowl haircut, black and white stripes and a pair of Puma Kings - he blazed, swayed, shimmied, chipped and dribbled his way through four seasons, 147 games and 61 goals of my childhood.  And then, like Chris Waddle before and Paul Gascoigne later, he was gone. "I'm happy," he told manager Willie McFaul just a year after playing for England at the 1986 World Cup. "All I want is for the club to show me the ambition of what they are planning."  "If you're not going to sign now, we're going to sell you," McFaul, pressured by an inept board of directors, replied. "I kept asking myself, "Did Peter really want to leave? And if so, why?" the Irishman pondered later.  Beardsley got a British-record transfer to Liverpool, two league titles and an FA Cup, McFaul the sack, and Newcastle a part-payment on their new main stand and the slow pull of relegation.

The Merseysiders' first approach to the player was made by Alex Smailes, who'd graduated from a hobby taking photographs of local matches into management before Bob Paisley made him Liverpool's north-east scout. Smailes had been an assiduous fixer and talent spotter during two decades of service with West Allotment Celtic, a pit club whose players once changed in a stable and cowshed before matches in the North Shields and District Churches League.  In 1983, Newcastle United brought Peter Beardsley home from Vancouver Whitecaps and West Allotment moved upwards to the Northern Football Alliance. Eight titles, six cups and 21 years later, they made the Northern League.

Allotment reappeared in the Alliance in 2013, their A team emerging out of a summer tie-up with Whitley Bay Boys Club.  The youthful reserve side survived an occasionally turbulent debut season in which they lost 20 out of 28 league games and "endured," as the excellent club magazine Three Miles West summarised, "a worrying decline in form, dressing room bust-ups, a change of manager and a small-scale squad overhaul".  Since then they've relocated from Churchill Playing Fields to Longbenton Community College, in whose classrooms, corridors and playing fields Beardsley once honed his skills, but have fared little better on the pitch, shipping 80 goals and losing 16 of 24 games. When I tried to watch them earlier in the season, I arrived to the disconcerting sight of a convoy of cars streaming back the way I'd just come. "Aye, somebody's left the changing rooms locked," a caretaker was telling the only two spectators with studied indeterminateness, "so they've all cleared off somewhere else."

Six months later it's Celtic v Rangers, fourth bottom against top, and green and white on white and yellow. Tyneside's Old Firm of the suffixes is contested on a windswept school playing field, buffeted by North Sea gusts and hidden by a plywood fence.  I count nine non-paying spectators taking refuge in their cars.  "Are you staying in here?" a Gateshead Leam Rangers player asks.  "I would if I could see owt," says a spectator, slapping his paper on the dashboard before setting off across bulldozer tracks in the direction of the pitch. A substitute pisses unhurriedly against a tree, his back to a playground allotment.  In the distance are call centre windows and what must count as one of the less scenic stretches of the East Coast Main Line.

Leam Rangers began in 1993, the year Beardsley came back for a second spell at St James' Park.  "I started one team for my bairns to play in," founder Rob Houghton told Andy Hudson,  "and then it just snowballed."  They score with their first attack and clank the metal crossbar with their second.  "Get on their toes, divvent gan to ground," the trainer shouts, patrolling the touchline with a spare ball and a scrunched-up physio's bag.  "Feet, feet" and "Squeeze, squeeze," players shout to each other. "Liner, howay man, watch the game."  The visitors sidefoot a second goal on the half hour and add a third, after lots of tidy but fruitless Celtic passing play, with the referee checking his watch for the break.

The teams retreat to opposite touchlines. "We start now, Celtic.  Get our heads on," claps an optimistic player.  "We've lost touch," says another. "We need to talk."  But the wind carries their best chance wide of the wheeled goalpost and the away side are soon cracking in their fourth.  "Move the ball into space," booms the Rangers keeper in case the concept hadn't already occurred to the rest of his team. "Concentrate, keep yer heeds and divvent bunch up."  A Rangers forward hits the bar with an overhead kick then cues up the fifth when the Celtic keeper tries to pass the ball out of defence.  Leam, daringly, switch to three centre backs. "Tell us what yer deein," their captain shouts.  "We cannut until we kna ourselves, man," the sweeper replies.  A sixth goal follows regardless.  "Still make an effort, Celtic," says a spectator from the shelter of a tree.  In the last minute of play the home side finally manage a response.  "I telt you to give that extra fifteen percent," the Rangers keeper screams when he finishes giving his goalpost a kicking.  Deprived of his clean sheet, he's still muttering abuse when the final whistle blows. 

I walk the ten minutes to Blue Flames, where a considerably larger crowd is gathered on the banking overlooking a pristine surface shared by West Allotment's first team and the Northumberland FA.  Floodlight pylons sway, North Shields huff and puff, and a handful of spectators are beginning to drift home. Struggling Allotment hold firm for a valuable point. "We've lost our form," a Shields fan says, "but so has everybody else at the top."

Admission:  Free
Date: Saturday March 7th 2015.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Peterborough Away 1992

I had an hour to kill between connections and Peterborough's railway station didn't seem a particularly inviting place to stay.  "Aren't football grounds boring when there's nobody there?" my girlfriend asked, uncomprehendingly.  The week before, on a bus that twisted and turned through the streets of Salzburg, I got talking to a Queen of the South fan who was at Peterborough v Newcastle United on 26th September 1992. "I was on a course in Corby with a Geordie mate.  Boiling under that tin roof.  Manic support, but.  There was a guy in the pub with a guitar belting out songs beforehand. Don't think the locals had ever seen anything like it."  Back in Britain, it was 15 minutes with my bags from the station, walking the same direction John Hall had been serenaded along by hundreds of jubilant Newcastle fans 22 years before...

You are there, 7,000 Newcastle, late-summer sun beating on your heads. The pubs are closed by one o'clock.  Straight off the supporters' bus and into the shortest queue. Black and white everywhere you look.  Spilling off coaches and trains and transit vans.  Scarves in car windows. "Newcastle United will never be defeated!" you chant, nudging through the turnstile. "The biggest game in our history," the home manager says in a programme you read over shoulders as you wait for the teams to run out. 

The terrace is rammed, each and every movement dicatated by the surge of the crowd.  Seeing and not seeing.  Robert Lee stumbles through a tackle, Kevin Sheedy collects the pass and sand-wedges his shot over the goalkeeper's head.  You land four steps down. "Sheedy! You beautiful Welsh-Irish bastard, you," screeches a wiry bloke with no top on swinging backwards from the fence.  Delirium. The momentum unstoppable.  "And now you're gonna believe us," the entire stand bellows, "we're gonna win the league."  And you do.

It's the most exhilarating season you'll ever have.