Saturday, 14 February 2015

Ground 254: Longbenton Sports Ground

There can't be many 11th-tier football teams who've had a book written about them, but then Percy Main Amateurs are anything but an ordinary side.  "A wonderful club," wrote Ian Cusack in his account of their triumphant 2009-10 season, when the claret-and-blues won both promotion and a Combination Cup.  Re-established by demobbed soldiers in 1919, the village team's pitch formed the middle of the oblong of pitmen's cottages where Jackie Rutherford, son of a coal trimmer and schoolboy football prodigy,  had been born three decades previously.  Spotted in the Northern Alliance, the 'Newcastle Flier' became the St James' Park club's youngest ever player, scoring on his First Division debut against Bolton Wanderers aged 17 years and 139 days.  At 19 he was capped by England; before he turned 30 he'd won three championships, played in five FA Cup Finals, fallen out with the directors over benefit payments and been sold on to Second Division Arsenal for £800.  The Highbury board hoped to get two or three seasons out of Rutherford; they got 13, the winger still holding the record as the oldest player to represent the club despite recent appearances to the contrary at the centre of their defence.  Rutherford's son and two of his 11 siblings also played professional football with Arsenal, Portsmouth and Newcastle United.  In 2012, his great-grandson (a Manchester United fan, naturally) won Olympic gold in the long jump.

Former club of Jack Colback's brother - "the most intelligent, incisive and lethal finisher in the division," wrote Cusack -  these days Rutherford's hometown side are the biggest attraction in the middle-tier of the Alliance, a league where games are always enthusiastically contested,  usually free to watch and habitually only thinly populated by substitutes, injured players, relatives, members of the committee and men out walking their dogs. Unbeaten in the Nike First Division since the third weekend of November, Percy Main are 17 points clear of a trailing pack which includes the likes of AFC Newbiggin, Gosforth Bohemians and Wallsend Boys Club, amassing 64 goals in a mere 19 games. Eight of those were netted at home to Newcastle University - "a student club run by students," if that wasn't already clear from the name - when the visitors were thoroughly schooled in mid-September.

Last time I watched the scholars in action they were playing on a muddy pitch at Cochrane Park and I was forking over the best part of £5,000 to do an MA.  We've both moved on, though the undergrads only as far as a 3G pitch in Longbenton, where I once played spectacularly badly in a Thursday evening kickabout with the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences. With the increasingly wretched Metro service back at stage one of its modernise-breakdown-repair cycle, the nearest station which doesn't require me to switch to a bus is at Walkergate, twenty-minutes and the length of Coach Lane (or, in the geographical parlance of the Northern League, from Newcastle Benfield to West Allotment Celtic, with a turn off for Team Northumbria) away. The leaders haven't dropped a point in seven games, the students have picked up four wins out of five. As is so often the case with Tyne & Wear's transport infrastructure, you get the distinct impression that something is about to give. 

One side presses, the other passes, both trying their best to keep things moving on the ground. "Close in, plenty of talk, first and second," Percy Main's goalkeeper cajoles.  "Wake up!" comes a shout from the adjoining pitch, where a game of hockey is underway.  "Runners," scream the footballers.  "Too much space," say the men with sticks.  The students score first, number 9 clanking in off the post at the second attempt, though the crosser looks suspiciously offside.  Percy Main level with a shot that curls over the goalkeeper's head, but the pink-booted number 9 first shimmies and smacks in a second, then turns a defender and whacks the ball into the top of the net.  The University's Greek right-winger is roughly hacked to the artificial turf then clatters the bar as the game, evenly matched in the first forty-five minutes, takes a decisive swing from claret to navy blue.  "We don't stop, big last five," yells Percy Main's manager Richard Nugent, once of Cullercoats, Lindisfarne and New York.  By the time he's finished his sentence, the students are celebrating their fourth. 

Back down Coach Lane on the final whistle, I catch up with Ian Cusack, Harry Pearson and assorted members of the Popular Side fanzine litterati at the second-half of Benfield's game with Jarrow Roofing.  The visitors have travelled with a Scottish Under-21 international and a debutant Italian previously of Roma, Brescia and the Azzuri U19s, but are already down to nine men with one off for "a hard tackle" and another for some pushing and shoving in the aftermath.  The referee preens, Benfield win 3-0, and Roofing are left to check footage on a video camera while eating curry and chips in the clubhouse after the game.  "I bet the bugger sent himself a card this morning," says a spectator, shaking his head as the officials depart. 

Admission:  Free
Date:  February 14th 2015

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Thessaloniki Football Weekend

The Greek economy isn't the only thing suffering, the country's professional football leagues suspended when a refereeing official was beaten up outside his own home and whacked by a match-fixing scandal in which nearly two-thirds of players believed results were determined in advance. Plus ça change, you could say:  Christos Michas, referee for the 1973 European Cup Winners' Cup Final, arrived by plane before the match with the AC Milan squad, dismissed Norman Hunter and two Leeds United penalty appeals and later received a lifetime ban from UEFA.  "A diabolical travesty," Peter Lorimer says. "It was wholly, indisputably and wretchedly bent".  The game ended with Milan collecting their medals to a cascade of boos, their team bus stoned and spat at as it left the ground. "A disaster from beginning to end," wrote the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, "a night of rain and rage".

 Sneaking in at Iraklis 1908's Kaftanzoglio Stadium

The final took place at the home of Iraklis Thessaloniki, formed in 1908 out of a Macedonian music and literature club and Greek Cup winners in 1976 with the sublimely gifted Vasilis Hatzipanagis in their side.  In 2011, Iraklis - ironically the one top-flight team not mentioned in a UEFA file listing 54 suspect results - were demoted from the Super League over "various alleged misdemeanours", failed to get a ruling from the Court of Arbitration for Sport and started the next season in the fourth-tier Delta Ethniki while negotiating a merger with second division Pontioi Katerinis. The new club kept hold of the Iraklis name, badge, colours, history and stadium, took over Pontioi's place in the league and are currently unbeaten since September, through to the Greek Cup quarter-final and six points clear at the top of the Football League.

Part of the graffiti wall in Kalamarias.

"The only thing they deserve is contempt," says a supporter of Apollon Kalamarias.  "Iraklis is the shame of Thessaloniki.  They sold out their history when they bought Pontioi."  Formed in March 1926 by Pontic Greek immigrants from the Greco-Turkish War (the club colours mix red for the blood of those massacred in Turkey and black for the eternal mourning of a community for whom every game is played several hundred miles from home),  Kalamarias have spent much of their history shuffling between the first and second flights. In 2009, unable to pay debts of €5 million, Apollon was stripped of its professional licence and forcibly demoted to the amateur divisions.  "We did not change," the fan says.  "We did not erase our debts by extinguishing the name of our club."  While Iraklis prosper, Apollon languish in the Football League's relegation places, their single-sided Kalamaria Stadium a thirty-minute ride on the number 5 bus in a seafront suburb between the city centre and Thessaloniki's airport.

View from the Ano Poli (Upper Town). 

The city's third Football League team, Agrotikos Asteras, are one place lower and six years younger than Kalamarias, formed by refugees from Izmir in 1932.  Semi-finalists in the 2005-06 Greek Cup, where they lost 3-1 over two legs to AEK Athens, the green-and-whites play at the 2,200-capacity Evosmos Stadium, its seats donated by Iraklis when their Kaftanzoglio Stadium was refurbished for the 2004 Olympic Games.  The ground is in a western suburb, north of the port and Ampelokipoi (where Thessaloniki's other Iraklis, a Football League Two side, are based); the club's ultras, the Green Ghetto, are fiercely anti-fascist but number no more than 50 people in a city dominated by the big two of Aris and PAOK.

Tying banners at Aris.

PAOK are another of Thessaloniki's immigrant clubs, their black and white stripes symbolising mourning for a lost home and the hope of a brighter future.  Founded in Istanbul, PAOK relocated during the population transfers that followed the Greco-Turkish War and have always viewed themselves as outsiders.  "The orginal fans were Greeks but were badly welcomed here because the local communities thought that they were Turks," one member of the Gate 4 Ultras explains.  "We are the only club in Greece against the rotten system of Olympiacos, the team of the state.  We don't care about championships and cups, but what PAOK represents.  Everything we won, we deserved. We are PAOK because of the history, the struggle, the idea beyond this team."  Twice national champions and four-time winners of the Greek Cup, the club were banned from European competitions in 2006 after building up debts of over €30 million, but have since stabilised under the presidencies of Euro 2004 champion Theo Zagorakis and Ivan Savvidis.  Their Toumba Stadium, built by supporters in the late-1950s,  is within walking distance of Aris, Iraklis and the centre of Thessaloniki; with Aris marking their 100th anniversary by dropping two divisions, it's also currently the only ground in the city where you can watch top-flight and Europa League football.  Ticket booths are open from around four hours before kick-off on matchdays or you can print-at-home from the club's website. 

Outside the Toumba

Thessaloniki's Macedonia International Airport is linked to Stansted, Gatwick and Manchester by Ryanair and easyJet flights.  It's a 40-minute ride into the city centre on the number 78 bus (ticket machines onboard), which runs 24 hours and stops directly outside arrivals, on the main shopping street, Tsimiski, and at both the train and intercity bus stations.  Most of the city's best bars (try Pulp or Beer Store) are either facing the promenade between the White Tower and the port buildings or in Ladadika, a narrow tangle of cobbled streets two blocks west and one inland from the start of the port and the Holocaust Memorial at Eleftharias Square, where you'll also find the most central stop for the bus back to the airport. A five-minute walk along Ionos Dragoumi,  the Pella Hotel is a good budget hotel option, though the beds are even harder than the defence in that 1973 Leeds team.  If you want to splash out, the Electra Palace is the best in town, while the The Bristol, a five-star boutique hotel, is in the middle of the action in Ladadika.  There's also a hostel, Little Big House, uphill from the centre between Kaftanzoglio Stadium and the UNESCO-listed old town, the Ano Poli.  The tourist information centre keeps irregular hours, so download a map before you go from here or here. 

Finally, there's a separate post on Aris FC here.

Sun, sea, beer, football and anti-fascist ultras: there's a lot to like about Thessaloniki.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Ground 253: Kleanthis Vikelidis Stadium, Aris Thessaloniki

Going down two divisions in the year their club turned 100 didn't stop Aris Thessaloniki from throwing a party.  A giant yellow-and-black banner was draped from the top of the Byzantine White Tower and more than a thousand red flares set the night sky aglow as supporters paraded noisily around the streets of the city. Majority owners of the club, Aris' avowedly left-wing fanbase is famed for the frenzied, unrelenting backing it gives to a side which last won the national championship in 1946 and has no major honours since the 1970 Greek Cup.  "Are these the best fans in Europe?" asked EFW's Danny Last after Manchester City's visit in the 2010-11 Europa League. "There can't be a single football fan that has come away from watching a game at Aris, either on television or in the flesh, and not talked about their support."

Those foundations are absolutely vital.  After finishing fourteen points adrift at the foot of the Greek Super League, the cash-crunched club followed AEK Athens in relinquishing professional status and starting over in the third-tier Football League Two, their supporters successfully agitating against an investment offer from a Canadian mining company accused of causing environmental damage to the nearby Halkidiki peninsula.  "We have difficult moments," one member of the Super3 fans' group says, "but we are still proud and determined to make the club strong again as it always used to be."

Thessaloniki is a walkable city, wedged against the sea and within striking distance of Skopje, Sofia, Tirana, Mount Athos, Athens and Istanbul.  Just as importantly for the football tourist its fixtures are spread right across the weekend, Iraklis 1908 first up on Friday evening, Apollon Kalamarias and Aris kicking off at Monday teatime, and PAOK, Agrotikos Asteras and Iraklis Ampelokipoi all in action at various points of Sunday afternoon. Simultaneous kick-offs and easyJet's arrival times mean I'm limited to three of the six games, a bum steer from Soccerway leaving me with a choice of two by the time third-placed Aris get underway against Kampaniakos Chalastras, a day and a bit after it was originally scheduled to take place.

You can stroll the four kilometres from the city centre to the Kleanthis Vikelidis and bag a three-for-one by calling in to Iraklis (where Revie's Leeds United were cheated out of the 1973 European Cup Winners' Cup) and PAOK's Toumba Stadium on the way, or €2 gets you there and back on the number 10 bus, the stop a few steps from the cramped stadium front and its shuttered doorways for a wrestling club, mobile phone shop and the does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-entrance Beer FC 1914.  A gap-toothed man hawks tea from a metal urn on wheels, while a few other street vendors try to offload yellow-and-black scarves and slabs of polystyrene, one to cover your neck, the other - with three and a half of the four sides completely open to the elements - to comfort your behind.

None of the four are anywhere near full, a snowy afternoon, the late rescheduling of the game and the club's recent tribulations keeping the attendance to a smattering down the sides and several hundred at the back of each goal.  There's silence until the teams enter, then a red flare is whirled around above a long Aris Super 3 banner, hooded fans clamber up fences, and drums and voices belt out a somnambulistic beat that rises to a hail of boos whenever a Kampaniakos player touches the ball and ratchets up with each slow-moving Aris attack. The fans provide all the early entertainment with several minutes' bouncing and a rumbling chant that repeatedly crescendos in a strident, stress-on-the-second-syllable "Aris!"  The first goal gets another flare, two bangers and a few extra decibels. "Bravo," says the bloke next to me, his eyes a pair of slits between a Napapijri hood and the lower half of a balaclava. "Bravo."

Things go quieter in the second half.  Aris keep giving the ball away, Kampaniakos keep giving it back. I try standing on a seat and shuffling from side to side like a crooner at a working men's club to maintain circulation in my feet, while the Super 3 get their lungs working and a linesman is thoroughly doused in a liquid I hope is just water as he flags for offside, enraged fans emptying plastic cups through the perimeter fence as he inches ever closer to the safety of the pitch.  Aris score again, torn yellow paper is flung in the air  and the Super 3 run through their litany of victory chants. "You came at a bad time," says a spectator through clenched teeth and cigarette smoke. "When we are many it is a wonderful place."

Admission: €5 (Gate 1)
Date: Monday February 9th 2015.