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.