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

Friday, 14 August 2015

Ground 273: Caledonian Stadium, Inverness

From free of charge to £26, I'd moved significantly higher up both the country and the football food chain to Inverness Caledonian Thistle, a club whose season had begun with a Europa League qualifier in the middle of July and who had, according to a preview in The Guardian, "enjoyed the finest season of their short history and lost one of their star players, Marley Watkins, to Barnsley for a 400% salary increase".   Not that much higher, then.

The Caledonian Stadium is a functional ground with a gorgeous, windswept setting, though on a previous visit the view had been severely marred by the numerous shots of then-manager Terry Butcher.  The ex-England man spent the halcyon years of his stuttering managerial career by the Moray Firth, reverting to more customary form in the half season it took to further demoralise and then implausibly relegate the hapless Hibs side he inherited from Pat Fenton.  The gap at Thistle was filled by a more succesful former Hibee,  John Hughes topping a penalty shoot-out defeat in the 2014 League Cup Final by leading a team some were touting as potential relegation fodder to third place in the SPL and a 2-1 Scottish Cup victory over Falkirk, the club's first major honour since its founding with the merger of two Highland League sides in August 1994.

Tickets bought over the phone - "You'd be better off in the top tier where the roof will keep you dry," the woman said optimistically - we walk the 20 minutes or so from the city centre to the club shop portakabin to pick them up, passing an industrial estate, a main road and then, with the stadium so close you could drop kick a ball into it, a long bend along the southern bank of the Moray Firth.  The ground is squat and open cornered, with a low-ceilinged, double-tiered main stand, identical covered areas behind either goal and a couple of rows of seating beneath a gantry on the side in front of the A9 road.  The other Thistle have travelled from Glasgow with about 100 fans but there's no sign of their "sinister" mascot or, even more disappointingly,  Christie Elliott, signed from Northern League Whitley Bay after a spell playing on an old school field in Jarrow. We spend two minutes flicking through a programme littered with typos, the last of the 3,000 crowd filing in under the Kessock Bridge like figures from a Lowry sketchbook.

"Caley!" screech a phalanx of kids, clattering their hands against a family enclosure hoarding.  "And it's Partick Thistle, Partick Thistle FC" the away end responds before the atmosphere dies back to a muted commentary on the game down below.  "More conversation, lads!", "He seems to be fast but his footballing skills might be lacking" and, more urgently, "Wake up!"  Caley start brightly then swiftly fade, the most eventful moment in the Partick goalmouth occurring when the sprinkler turns itself back on and almost douses the goalkeeper. "What's going on?" shouts one home fan. "We need half time," says another.

The break doesn't do much for the home side's cohesion.  Partick whack the crossbar, but for all their nice moves look no more likely to score than a tongue-tied teenager.  The home crowd grows increasingly restless.  "He needs to bring some fresh legs on or some fresh ideas on or something," a fan loudly diagnoses.  Caley belatedly produce a few moments of excitement, runners driving at the hitherto unharried Partick defence, but neither side commits enough to getting the win and the goalless draw seems inevitable long before the whistle blows.  "Grim," says a fan, edging along the row two minutes before the end. "Grim, grim, grim."

Admission:  £26
Date:  Wednesday August 12th 2015

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Ground 272: Wardley Welfare, Felling Magpies FC

Less than 24 hours after arriving home from Japan and I'm already on to my second game of the English 2015-16 football season.  The first was opening night in the Northern League, almost 250 people turning out to watch Hebburn Town put three goals past Ryton and Crawcrook Albion on the kind of undulating surface you'd expect to see a Ryder Cup golfer running a match-winning putt up and down on.  "It's like when you stick down a carpet without any underlay," a more exact observer put it. "Lovely little ground, though."  The following afternoon I'm part of a smaller gathering of 30 or so people and five dogs as Felling Magpies host Hexham FC in the Northern Football Alliance, a 125-year-old, 47-team competition in which only a handful of clubs charge any admission and one spectator recalls being greeted with the words "What are you doing here?" by a surprised chairman of the league.

One of the two eponymously-named senior Saturday sides to be spawned by Gateshead Leam Rangers, the Magpies have moved up a division, broken away from their parent club and changed both their home ground and nomenclature in the five months since I saw them ease to victory at West Allotment Cetic.  "Same lads and management but a difference of opinion forced the split," a forum poster reckons, though another hints at dark forces within the FA.  The club's new base is an old colliery welfare pitch a short walk from the backstreets where the 8-year-old Chris Waddle honed skills that took him from a sausage seasoning factory to Newcastle, Tottenham, Marseille and Turin in kickabouts that numbered up to 40 a side - "Everyone from age six to 26 would be playing. If you didn't show, you didn't get a pass" - and Ronnie Starling, of "fluttering feet and butterfly nimbleness", began a playing career which peaked with two England appearances and an FA Cup win with Sheffield Wednesday. "A great strategist," went his profile on a 1935 Wills Cigarettes card, "his superb play will long be remembered."

As with Jimmy Hagan, a later idol to the other half of Sheffield, Starling started out in the colliery teams at Usworth and Washington, both within a few miles of Wardley's smaller pit.  Closed in 1974, there's little to remember a mine that employed 850 people as recently as the mid-1960s, the area better known today for its golf course bar and a Travelodge by a roundabout on the way to South Shields.  Getting off the metro, I see a pair of sights that remind me I'm no longer in Japan: discarded tracksuit bottoms spread across a grass verge and a topless cyclist lugging a six-pack of Foster's as he goes full pelt down the high street to keep ahead of a bus.  It's another ten minutes before I get the more familiar glimpse of floodlight poles and the muffled thud of leather boot on football, a metal gate opening to a view of a pitch with rails on three sides and some yellow tape and a graffitied changing block on the other.  "A few bobbles, like," says the Felling keeper, prodding his grassless goalmouth like a minor counties tailender about to face Mitchell Starc.  There's more growth behind the net, the first shot of the game going two metres wide and straight into some bushes.  "Have we got another ball or not?" moans Hexham's goalkeeper as he hacks his way through the branches.  "Switch", "Squeeze" and "Get at him, man!" the players shout, the more organised of the spectators looking on from camping stools while swigging beer out of cans.  I make do with a jacket on some weeds in a spot I'm not likely to be bothered by chasing down stray balls.

The Magpies have the better of the opening exchanges, shading both possession and the Greek chorus of dissent. "Howay referee," call one side; "What was that ref?" counter the other.  "Just wind it in, fella," the official tells an aggrieved home player after one disputed offside. "You say that one more time and we'll see where we both are." The ball goes up and down but neither side, for all their application, threatens much in front of goal.  "Let's have a bit of quality," laments one player as a free kick sails high and wide.  Felling take the lead when a cross is placed perfectly on to the number nine's forehead.  "What a ball that was!" claps a spectator.  "Where's the midfield, man?" the beaten goalkeeper ponders aloud.  "Heads up...composure...WILL YOUSE TALK?"

Hexham do most of the pushing in a scrappy second half, though a Felling player whacks a volley narrowly over and on to a grass bank before the green and whites level from a far-post prod with 10 minutes left to play.  "Another one's coming, they're on the ropes here," a Hexham player celebrates.  In the event, he's no more accurate than Liz Kendall's solution to Labour's post-election malaise.  With seconds remaining, Felling's number 9 picks up the ball, slides the winning goal under the keeper's dive and peels away towards the tape on the touchline, first pumping the air.  I might only be in England for as little as a month, but it's good to be back.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday 8th August 2015