Sunday, 18 January 2015

Ground 252: Dean Street, Shildon

Even on a frosty afternoon in the middle of January there's something special about a Northern League trip to Shildon.  "Durham's Wild West," penned a recent repeat visitor in When Saturday Comes. Pinned in by red brick-and-pebblesdash terraced houses, Dean Street's covered grandstand and spindly floodlight pylons are right up among the quintessential tableaux of the world's second oldest football league.

The stand went up in 1923, the team's fortunes rising just as dramatically in the eight and a bit years which separated  the club rejoining the Northern League in 1932 and half the championship resigning "on account of the difficulties of playing war-time football" in December 1939.  Dean Street's golden generation - Harry Nicholson, Bill Bushby, George Hope, Jack Downing and Alf 'Wacker' Wild, "a defender of such belligerence that to this day those who saw him play wince and clutch their shins at the very mention of his name," wrote The Guardian's Harry Pearson in 2008 - cantered to five titles, finished second three times and third once, lifted five League Cups, reached an Amateur Cup quarter-final and made the second round proper of the FA Cup. "The Railwaymen," one historian reflected, "really were on the right track".

Derailed all too often afterwards (the first club to be relegated from the Northern League's top-flight three times and just weeks from folding in 2004), the last half-decade has brought a first Durham Challenge Cup since 1972, a Northern League runners-up spot and a semi-final in the FA Vase, the Railwaymen halted six minutes short of a stop at Wembley to take on neighbours Spennymoor Town. "The greatest disappointment of my life," thought Northern League chairman Mike Amos, a Shildon supporter of six decades' standing.   With Spennymoor taking promotion in the summer, many viewed this as Dean Street's season, but after playing nine ties in five rounds of the FA Cup, exiting the Vase in a third round replay and enduring a middling run of pre-Christmas form, the title favourites were 13 points behind leaders North Shields with five games in hand and six teams - including Jarrow Roofing Boldon Community Association - wedged between them.

Roofing's chairman, owner, manager, groundsman and chief sponsor Richie McLoughlin was the driver for the day, the motorway talk of transfer targets, sponsorship deals and midfielder Shaun Vipond, last week's matchwinner ruled out with a broken wrist diagnosed on a Friday night visit to his local A&E.  The visitors' cars pulled in at Primitive Street,  the manager carting the team's water bottles out of his car boot while player-coach Peter Leven - formerly of Rangers, Kilmarnock, Chesterfield, MK Dons, Oxford United and Scotland U21s - carried a holdall past a fish bar, a handwritten sign in its window advertising Shildon footballers' curry sauce and chips.  The home team had already arrived, the spectators entering gradually through the turnstile block in groups of two and three, heads covered and buttoned up against the chill.   An ice cream van circled the surrounding estate.  "Five degrees," a Roofing player reckoned. "Lukewarm, not even cold."

The ground's open behind both goals, a burger van parked up by a corner flag, the hospitality suite and club shop in adjoining portakabins, and the teams emerging from the main stand tunnel to the theme from Match of the Day.  The spectators were middle aged going on elderly; once the music had finished the atmosphere was more akin to a country auctioneers than a football stadium.  In a thunderous, evenly matched opening half, Shildon had plenty of shots but not enough invention, the away side first to score when a Wayne Phillips cross was nudged down by Malky Morien and Paul Gardiner prodded past the flailing Kyle Hayes.  "Come on Shildon," a lone voice shouted plaintively across the ground, a rumble of discontent rolling out from the main stand paddock when Billy Gruelich-Smith raced across a defender and went sprawling in the box.  "Howay man, referee.  Do your job.  Gerrum off!  Bloodly useless.  He's allergic to his cards, man."  Perceived injustice managed what forty minutes of play couldn't, only three saves from a previously unworried Andy Hunter preserving the lead either side of half time.  "A terrific game," thought The Roofing's Twitter feed.

At the break I'd skipped the burger van queue and moved in alongside the paddock partisans.  "The referee would've gone to that Specsavers place," mused an old bloke in a hunting cap and knee-length coat, "but he walked right past it." "A pound's a bit expensive for a Bovril," thought his mate, "but the Boro's one up and Durham's beating West."   A Shildon official came round with the leftovers of the halftime spread from the boardroom portakabin.  "Pork pie, Alan?  Help yourself to a sandwich if you want."  The home side were simultaneously helping themselves in midfield.  "You're backing off," McLoughlin rallied.  "Get up and in their faces."   A dog made a sudden dart across the Shildon backline.  "Will the owner of the Jack Russell," the tannoy asked, "please report to the supporters' club shop?"

Roofing's lead disappeared shortly after the last of the food, Corey Barns miskicking and Mark Donninger, once of Sligo Rovers, Perth Glory and the Icelandic top-flight, eventually levelling the scores.  "I thought we'd buggered it up there," said the bloke in the hunting cap between satisfied drags on his cigarette.  In the 70th minute, with the visitors still ruing a Morien miss at the other end of the pitch, Lee Chapman's cross deceived the otherwise faultless Hunter and Shildon, despite a late Roofing rally, had their three points.  "I bent down expecting it to bounce," Hunter lamented in the social club as his teammates tucked into a post-match meal of sausage, beans and chips. "And it didn't.  Went in off my knee."  "North Shields next Saturday," said a fan, his back to a signed Premier League shirt and the Durham Challenge Cup.  "That'll be some game."

Admission:  £6
Date:  Saturday 17th January 2015

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

From World Champions to Broken Dreams: The Sorry State of Gypsies Green

"Are those harbour lights on the near horizon?" Northern League chairman Mike Amos asked in a weekend blogpost alluding to the chances of South Shields FC - based in Peterlee since "circumstances compelled their exile" in June 2013 - returning to the town to play at Gypsies Green.   When the periapetic Mariners first turned out at the seafront ground in the late-1940s it was "little more than a hollow in the hillside"; by 1963 an athletics track and velodrome had been added, 10,000 attending the central events of a Sports Week comprising a dizzyingly eclectic programme of pram races, homing pigeons, the Scottish Pipe Band Association,  five-a-side-football,  jazz parades, judo, a former world record holder in the Men's Mile and cycling's Hugh Porter, a competitor at the following year's Tokyo Olympic Games.

An even more improbable visitor turned up in July 1977, world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (in town to have his wedding blessed at the local mosque) taking on and defeating Alan 'The Rhondda Legend' Evans at darts after parading through South Tyneside on an open-top bus.  The rules limited Welsh champion Evans to only scoring on trebles, Ali finishing the contest with a bullseye and proclaiming himself the greatest darts player in the world.

In the early-1980s, when youth football tournaments and car rallies were regular events and the Great North Run marked out its finish line a few hundred metres up the road, the revamped stadium had its own brick changing block, floodlight poles and a ring of stone steps neatly cut into the grass banking above a cycling track used by Joe Waugh, two-time Olympian and Commonwealth gold medallist in 1982.   “I used to cycle there when I was a teenager and that's where my passion for the sport was founded," he told the Shields Gazette in 2012, "so you could say I owe my career to Gypsies Green."

Today, the stadium - still used by youth football teams and as a training venue for the South Shields Harriers Athletics Club  - is forlorn and semi-decrepit, weeds sprouting through what remains of the velodrome, black bin liners covering the sandpit and an abandoned traffic cone squatting on top of the changing block roof. The floodlights are smashed out, their coverings left hanging above an athletics oval formed of mud, small stones and puddles.

Things had deteriorated in 2004, when South Tyneside Council began public consultations into how the site could be regenerated. "Whatever goes on the site must be paid for as we don't have significant resources to develop and run any major proposal by itself," deputy council leader Iain Malcolm warned. A new running track or "attracting a high profile visitor centre such as the History Experience Park" were two ideas, "using the ground as a new base for South Shields FC" a third, though the eventual choice was to sell the land to Tavistock Leisure, councillors supporting the construction of a 104-bed hotel and conference centre.  Protesters raised more than 9,000 signatures in opposition and ran a coordinated campaign to preserve the stadium's recreational use. "Gypsies Green is an asset to the town.  It is synonymous with South Shields," a member of the Save Our Seafront group explained.  "We can't just throw that away".  When the hotel scheme was dropped in 2009 development plans stalled along with it.  Three years on, with an eye on Olympic legacy funds, councillors were still "examining a range of options to maximise its potential" while admitting they were "unlikely" to find the private financing needed to renovate a velodrome whose size made it "unsuitable for any competition activity".  The Gazette lamented "another false dawn (for the) run-down stadium".  "To save it would be brilliant,"  Joe Waugh told the paper, "but you have to be pragmatic. The only option would be to start completely from scratch." 

Starting all over is a far from unfamiliar concept for South Shields FC.  The town supported a Football League team between 1919 and 1930 but has twice had its club uprooted to Gateshead, the third and current incarnation spending 17 years on a council-owned pitch it shared with a local cricket club before relocating to an industrial estate in neighbouring Jarrow.  In 2013, the Mariners left the borough altogether after failing to raise enough cash to buy Filtrona Park, its home ground since 1992.  Now based twenty miles down the coast at Peterlee, a club which once sold an English international for a world record transfer fee attracts average crowds of just 70 people.

"It's imperative that the club returns to the town," supporters' chairman Stephen Ramsey told the Shields Gazette a year ago. "I'm not saying it's the council's responsibility to find the club a new home but it's in their power to save us".  If a move to Gypsies Green is eventually agreed, the stadium's junior-sized pitch would have to be extended over the current running track and the decaying facilities significantly upgraded to match the ground grading requirements of the Northern League.  If not, a club which once finished above Leeds, Leicester City, Sheffield Wednesday and Crystal Palace could soon be staring at oblivion. 

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Ground 251: Jack Clark Park, Whitburn Athletic

Seaton Burn was a pit village six miles north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the birthplace and first club of John 'Jack' Carr.  Newcastle United's third England international, the left-back was in the squads that lifted three Football League championships and reached five FA Cup finals, winning only one.  "If United can't win the cup they ought to be given it for good attendance," joked a supporter before the Magpies finally broke their hoodoo in a replay held at Goodison Park - 70,000 inside, 15,000 more locked-out - in 1910.  Seven years earlier, Carr had been one of three players approached by chairman James Telford in the aftermath of a seven-goal defeat to Aston Villa. "We seem to be making a mess of things. Will you go into the boardroom, lock yourselves in, and choose what you consider to be our best team?"

It was, reflected journalist Ivan Sharpe, "the birth pains of one of the most brilliant teams in the history of the game". "Each man was an artist," wrote another correspondent. "They had a rhythmic beauty," Sharpe recalled.  "(That team) would give any modern side a two goal start and beat them," thought Scottish left-half Peter McWilliam, Spurs boss when they won the 1921 FA Cup.  Herbert Chapman, speaking before his move to Arsenal, told the press his ambition was "to build a Newcastle United there."  Carr - "A gentlemanly defender," the club's centenary history describes him, "the ball always being his objective rather than the man" - played 279 times with his only professional club then joined the St James' Park coaching staff when he retired in 1912. A year later the Magpies went on one of their regular playing tours of Denmark and returned with two Olympic finalists, defender Nils Middelboe and Anthon Olsen, a forward who'd scored seven times at the Stockholm Games.  Neither trialist made the grade, though Middelboe - an accomplished tennis player and Danish record holder in the triple jump and 800 metres - moved on to London, captaining Chelsea as an amateur while working in a bank.

When war broke out in 1914, the Royal Field Artillery was billeted at St James' and training sessions ended with rifle practice at the Gallowgate goal.  Carr served in the Motor Transport Army Service Corps, then made use of his Copenhagen connection to bring about a temporary appointment as Denmark coach at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Middelboe among the side defeated 1-0 in Spain's first ever international fixture.  The Seaton Burn miner's son left Newcastle's staff in February 1922, managing Blackburn Rovers until December 1926 and later working as a Tyneside publican before his death in 1948. In 2012, his two full England caps and a third won at a trial game were sold at auction. "One of the most celebrated locals to play for United," the club's Who's Who recalls.

That's a long-winded way of describing why Whitburn Athletic versus Seaton Burn, a midtable battle which wasn't even the stand out fixture in the basement division of the Northern Alliance, first caught my eye.  I'd already seen Whitburn in their home village before their move up the North Sea coast to Jack Clark Park, a council pitch where South Shields played for 17 years after the club sold its Simonside Hall ground for housing, was beaten to a new site by developers and then upped sticks to Gateshead for a second time in 1974.  There are bowls centre signs and recycling bins at the entrance, the sea a choppy blue strip above the felt and glass roofs of allotment greenhouses.  Used by Marsden CC, the changing rooms for the main ground are in the cricket pavilion and the football pitch is marked out on the boundary, a tape barrier keeping the touchline clear of the wicket.

Whitburn were formed in 2010, which was also when Seaton Burn were relegated back to the second division with only eight points and "a very poor season as far as results go".  Last year the clubs finished 8th and 11th, which is exactly where they remain when the game kicks off in a shower and 30mph gusts of wind.  Four spectators huddle miserably by a pile of picnic benches under the clubhouse roof. "Mind," says one, "it was worse last week.  Freezing, it was.  Absolutely Baltic."  "I was at an under 8s game once," says his mate.  "The subs were crying when they kicked the ball and we had to take the goalkeeper to hospital with suspected hypothermia."

The home side are decked out in easyJet orange, Seaton in yellow and black stripes. Both linesmen keep their coats on and their heads covered.  "I'll gan oot when I have to gan oot," the referee says, appearing in a doorway.  I stand in the minimal shelter provided by a hedge and a waist-high metal fence, which the players have to vault over whenever the ball goes out of play.  "You're mad watching this," a Whitburn substitue says.  "Can you get me jumper out of the changing rooms?" the goalkeeper shouts across.

The game, unsurprisingly, isn't much of a spectacle, most attempts to play football losing out to the wind.  Whitburn have a goal chalked off when a Seaton Burn official flags for a foul throw, their players muttering unhappily as they return from halfway, while the visitors very briefly think they've scored when the ball squirms clear of the goalkeeper but is gathered before it crosses the line.  The break's kept to five minutes, the second half getting increasingly tetchy as the home side venture repeatedly into the opposition's penalty area but can't put the ball in the net.  "Just wait until summer," a spectator says, stamping his feet on the grass. "At least the rain will be warmer."

Admission:  Free
Date:  January 10th 2015

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Ground 250: Millfield, Crook Town

They won five FA Amateur Cups, two of ten games against Barcelona,  played to crowds of 100,000 at both Calcutta and Wembley, and lent their name to a scandal that almost brought down an entire amateur league,  341 footballers, over 1,000 officials and a county FA banned - many indefinitely - after it was discovered clubs were paying their players more than just travel and tea money.  "Sensation after sensation," the Northern Echo wrote. "The darkest day in the history of Durham football."  Whatever else, life has been anything but dull for Crook Town AFC.

Crook was the first club of Jack Greenwell, who spent 11 seasons with his hometown team in the Crook & District and Northern Leagues.  Borrowed by West Auckland Town for a world championship in Turin,  he made 88 appearances as a player for Barcelona, then coached the Blaugrana, Mallorca, Espanyol, Valencia, Gijon and Peru, guiding the latter to a Copa America championship in 1939.  Greenwell died of a heart attack in Bogota while training Independiente Santa Fe.  "At that time," says his profile on Crook's website, "most people found it an adventure going to Bishop Auckland."  It was with Crook that Frank Clark won his first honours, passing up an England youth cap to play in the 1962 final of the FA Amateur Cup. By the time the left-back retired, he'd added two European trophies, a pair of League Cups and a First Division title, and made more than 500 appearances for Newcastle United and Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest.  "It was the camaraderie in the club that made Crook so special," he recalled over half a century later.  "I have so many happy memories of my time here."  Seamus O'Connell, cattle-dealer and Football League champion with Chelsea, played at Wembley for Crook in 1959. Gary Pratt ran Ricky Ponting out in the 2005 Ashes and spent the following year as a striker in the second division of the Northern League.

Last season, back in the top-flight for the first time since 2000-01, the black and ambers were comfortably ensconced in midtable, 114 goals shared between 15 players and Kyle Davis top-scoring with 26 in the league.  Not a single one was still at Millfield on September 24th when nine-man West Allotment Celtic were beaten 3-1 in Crook's first and so far only league win of the season. In May, manager Gary Pearson had resigned after three seasons and a second division title. "I feel at the present time the club itself is not in a position to either progress or sustain its current positioning," he explained.  Paul Bennett arrived with 20 new players including Bruno Pilatos, a European Under-17 champion alongside Saido Berahino and Ross Barkley, but quit for "serious personal reasons" in the middle of August. Nick Harrison had come and gone by November, his final game a 4-0 defeat at West Allotment in which Crook fielded an ineligible player and were later docked three points.  Peter Mulcaster, a Northern League manager since 1973, was persuaded out of retirement - "If there's illness and the money runs out, they send for Mulcaster. I never manage teams who have money," he said during a third spell in charge at Northallerton Town - but his young side began 2015 with only three points from 27 games, a 13-point gap to next-from-bottom and a negative goal difference of 90, having leaked 43 in their last six games alone.  "Not the best way to celebrate 125 years of your club," as one Crook fan put it.

Millfield, bought for £625 from a rugby club in 1898 and built out of colliery waste, is a wonderfully atmospheric setting for football.  Grassed-over on two sides,  it has uncovered terracing at the turnstile block end and a pair of corrugated-roofed stands - "Frank Clark chipped one of those bits at the front fifty years ago" - facing back to the town centre and a lone wind turbine.  The crowd maybe scrapes 100, the merchandise stall is a trestle table and two Makro carrier bags. "Well done, well done, well done," the Crook goalkeeper monotones, in a voice redolent of a handler guiding a sheepdog through a gate. "Well done.  Show for it. Well done, well done."

The black and ambers had conceded 11 in their last home game, but Jarrow Roofing are still adjusting to life without John Campbell, picked up by Oxford United after scoring 24 goals in 19 games.  Though Malcolm Morien, a clever forward signed from Blyth Town, ran on to a pass from midfield to put Roofing ahead with just six minutes played,  Crook harrassed and chased down everything, levelling when captain David Webster controlled a defensive clearance and picked out the top corner of the net.  In front of us, a man in polished brogues and a flat cap broke into applause. "Rarity, that bugger," he said to no-one in particular. "Happens once every six months."  Roofing did almost everything but regain the lead, an elderly Crook supporter getting more and more irate every time they attacked.  "Ah man, howay," he raged as Morien slid a Paul Gardiner cross wide.  "He was offside, ye bugger.  BLOODY OFFSIDE. Get a grip, man, yer almost as bad as them in the Premier League.  Get yer finger oot yer arse, son.  If you cannut dee it, you shouldn't come."  "At least it's only 1-1," his mate clapped at half-time. "Newcastle's gerrun beat, Gateshead's gerrun beat, but Blyth's two-up - Keith's got it on the radio."

"Blyth's 2-2," someone shouted as Lewis Teasdale nodded the visitors back into the lead against his former club.  "2-2?" Roofing's manager asked, turning to the stand as his team headed back to halfway. "Would that suit them, do you reckon?" pondered a man in a Crook Town knitted cap. "Gan back there for a replay, I mean."  But the Spartans had already fallen behind - "3-2 Birmingham," a voice said forlornly - when Teasdale played in Morien for Roofing's third goal.  Crook, tiring, weren't prepared to give in, Jack Errington, who started last summer on the books of Premier League Burnley, slipped while clearing a cross and Wyn Fremlyn gleefully struck the ball past Roofing's Andy Hunter.  "They could win it here," one visiting fan thought. "Campbell's coming on for Oxford," said another.

There were five minutes to play when Shaun Vipond scored the away side's fourth goal.  Two minutes later Morien completed his hat-trick, and five minutes after that Teasdale got his second from a cross by Corey Barnes, once a 16-year-old Football League debutant with Darlington and far and away the afternoon's outstanding player. "Well played, lads," yelled a Crook fan as the teams departed the pitch.  "Best enjoy what we can from the rest of this season."

Admission:  £6
Date: January 3rd 2015