Saturday, 23 January 2016

Ground 286: Fairfax Plant Hire Stadium, Selby Town

"I look back on Wembley with a mixture of pride and sadness," Selby's best known player told the Independent 13 years after the event.   Steve Sherwood turned out in "a few games" for Selby BRSC, spent half a decade as third choice keeper at Stamford Bridge and was loaned to Millwall, Brentford and the NASL before switching to a "badly struggling" Watford side in 1976.  Promoted three times in the next six years, by 1983 the Hornets were second only to Liverpool in the Football League; the following year they lost out to Everton in the final of the FA Cup, Andy Gray opportunistically heading a crucial second goal from out of the Yorkshireman's grasp.  "One poor decision killed the game," he remembered.  "There was still a long way to go but it died a death after that."

The club where Sherwood got his break suffered its own demise in 2013, the first and reserve team managers resigning, committee members stepping down and players drifting off elsewhere.  "We were so close to our 50th anniversary. It's a massive shame," chairman, secretary and ex-player Steve O'Mahoney lamented in the York Press. "A sad loss to local football," agreed Selby Town, who, with BRSC gone and Selby Olympia in the 14th-tier York Minster League Division Three, survive as the ex-coal mining town's senior team.

Formed in 1919, the Robins won five Yorkshire League championships either side of the Second World War, four times made the proper rounds of the FA Cup and flogged striker Ken Green to Grimsby for enough money to build a new home ground at Flaxley Road before joining the Northern Counties East League as founder members in 1982.  Relegated from the top division in 2012 after going through three managers and winning the same number of league games, the team have since been stuck to the middle reaches of the NCEL's second-tier.  "We're learning game by game," said manager Dave Ricardo, who was one of 14 different goalkeepers the club fielded last year. "I've played there about ten times before to help out friends," he reckoned.  "Sometimes when you're a manager at this level you have to do things you don't really want to do."

Ricardo's new-look side won 4-0 at Winterton on the season's opening day, scored 12 against Askern in the Vase and set an NCEL record when putting 14 goals past Lincoln Moorlands Railway, who arrived with no manager, eight players and another three who claimed they were stuck in traffic on the way to the ground.  Left waterlogged and without a competitive game for more than a month until the midweek win over Rossington Main, they'd dropped to 12th in the table, one place and 15 goals ahead of Derbyshire's Dronfield Town. "We will have to go game by game," Ricardo told the local paper. "A lot of hard work has gone on to get the pitch in a playable state."

The programme cover, appropriately, had a picture of a roller, the teams chalked to a board by the turnstile and a crowd of around 100 in for Selby's first Saturday home game since November 28th.  There were paved steps down one touchline, a portakabin club shop promising "Low, low prices" and a kit stand behind the far goal with strips of artificial turf piled up at the side.  Advertising hoardings had been tacked to the front of the clubhouse, which had  handfuls of Quality Street laid out on its tables and photographs of Paul Scholes and David Beckham - the latter in his first game since the Champions League final in Barcelona - taken during a friendly arranged to mark the Robins' 80th anniversary in 1999.  I made my way towards the main stand, which had Selby Town FC written out in capitals, three rows of wooden bench seats and a rickety corrugated roof.

The home side started quickly, missing two early chances and forcing half a dozen corners.  "He's on for a blinder," said a bloke with a tartan rug draped over his knees after Dronfield's keeper blocked a third shot with his legs.  Inevitably, it was the visitors who opened the scoring, a diagonal free-kick sidefooted back across goal and turned in on the line.  "Never a free kick," a Selby fan spluttered. "Cheating monkeys," another clapped furiously.  "Come on Selby! They've got 12 men on the pitch, you know."  From besting the game, Selby's composure dropped as precipitously as their supporters' mood.  "Everything fucking quicker," screamed a midfielder. "Heads on," the goalkeeper demanded.  "They're just kicking it anywhere," a spectator grumbled.  "What do you think of the game so far?" asked a passing club official.  "Rubbish," said a fan.  "Missed three at yon end and the one down here should never have stood.  A right bloody cock up."  As he spoke Selby broke down the right, hit an early ball into the centre and Danny Bunch shot across the keeper and into the net. "There you are," said the bloke with the rug.  "We want two," his mate shouted at the pitch.

Selby carried their momentum through the break, Dronfield trying to break up the flow with a substitution which ended with an aggrieved player chucking his shirt against the dugout wall.  The Robins edged closer, the away keeper scrambling to tip a deflected cross on to his bar before a shot smacked against the same spot following a poor kick out of goal.  Dronfield scored from a corner, Selby struck back with one effort the keeper turned away and a second he could only stand and watch admiringly as it smashed off Bunch's boot and into the corner of the net.  The visitors slid a shot inches wide, Bunch thrashed a hat-trick chance straight on to the corrugated roof. "Nine left," said the linesman.  Dronfield hit the bar, tapped a third in on the counter and then struck a last-minute fourth that bounced just over the line.  "Geoff Hurst," said two men simultaneously. "Like a charity match," reckoned a visiting Leyton Orient fan, unfairly.  "Very disappointing," the bloke with the rug said, packing it carefully away into a vacuum storage bag.

Admission: £5
Date:  Saturday January 23rd 2016

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Ground 285: University of York Sports Centre, Harrison Signs

I had an advance return ticket to Garforth, the club where Socrates, past 50, pot-bellied and wearing five layers, a hat, a scarf and a pair of leather gloves, had made his final competitive appearance in November 2004.  By Friday night the chances of play were a bit slimmer than the chainsmoking ex-captain of Brazil had been for his 12-minute, four-touch cameo against Tadcaster Albion in England's 11th-tier.  "The soft ground had a battering during Tuesday night's game," Town's website said, "then had heavy rain and three days of frost."

The expected postponement left me scrambling for alternatives. Just three games had beaten the cold snap in the top-flight of the Minster Engineering League and only one of them was in the city itself.  Riccall United, members of the York League since 1919 and its current defending champions - April's 7-1 whacking of Dringhouses ending a 37-year wait since the green-and-whites topped the division six times from eight in the mid to late-1970s - were at the University of York to play Harrison Signs, who'd won only one game all season and had already leaked 74 goals in the league alone.

Much like Chelsea Riccall's title defence hadn't gone exactly as planned, with early fixtures falling to "cricket commitments" and a pair of defeats to Huntington Rovers leaving the village team nine points behind the pacesetters with over half the season played.  The big game attracted a pair of spectators who huddled on a bench by a footpath and a third who picked a spot next to a lamppost.  Some rope, two canvas dugouts and four yellow and black corner flags marked out the confines of the pitch.  "Heads on it, lads," Harrison's captain encouraged.  "Has anyone got a ball?" asked the referee.  "Let it do the work," shouted the home goalkeeper when one was eventually hoofed across.

The champions had the first chance, a curler that was touched around the post and brought a groan of dismay from the player who had to splash through the mud to retrieve the ball.  "Make the next one count," urged a Riccall player, but 25 minutes had elapsed and a pair of free headers had been deftly positioned over the crossbar before one of his teammates could get the ball in the net.  A header hit a post, the rebound smacked an ankle and the resulting cross was eventually nodded in.  "Yard on," complained the scorer when the linesman raised his flag.  "Bust a gut," demanded the relieved Harrison's goalkeeper.  "That's a let off, isn't it?  Plenty of chat."

Riccall's next attack ended with a player being chairlifted to the touchline and the keeper palming a penalty away from his goal.  "It's gone," muttered a striker, while the bloke who'd won the kick slowly removed a boot and hobbled off alone to the changing block.  The home team almost managed a shot on target and then stuck the ball in the net from offside before the visitors scored the game's first goal with an hour already gone.  Moments later, a deflected free kick left the Riccall keeper flapping at air and the scores were level again.  The attendance was swelled by a couple of Koreans, tempted to linger as they cut past the pitch from the campus over the road, and a bored kid who was swinging on a gate.  United had a corner sidefooted off the line and a free kick clawed away, but Harrison Signs, heroically, held them at bay. "Get in," yelled their keeper when the whistle finally sounded, a Riccall attack ending with a player booting the ball over his bar. For the home club it was only their third point since beating Brooklyn FC all the way back on September 12th.     

Admission:  Free
Date: Saturday January 16th 2016

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Ground 284: Manse Lane, Knaresborough

At 11 o'clock it was looking very much like another blank weekend.  The Northern League hadn't managed a full programme since the end of November, only a pair of FA Vase ties and a single Division Two fixture beating the wet weather.  South Shields against Morpeth was postponed for the sixth time, leading Julio Arca, the winning captain in the 2001 U20 World Cup, to turn out in a friendly on a 3G pitch at a local comprehensive school. The games I'd earmarked for Leeds had already gone the same way as Newcastle United's chances of a trophy this season, and the options nearer York were shrinking with every passing minute.  "Still waiting," tweeted the luckless Tadcaster Albion.  "No game in 28 days," lamented Selby Town. By some miracle Knaresborough had been gifted "clear sky and sunshine", a combination latterly as rare as a ministerial mea culpa or a goal glut at St James' Park*.  "Great pitch drying weather," the town's football club promised.  "Fingers crossed," replied Teversal, their prospective opponents at Manse Lane. "It was on and then it started throwing it down and it could have been called off," Knaresborough boss Paul Stansfield said later. "A lot of effort went in and we had to repay it."

Stuck between semi-detacheds, a petrol station and an industrial estate, the ground - improved to meet grading requirements when the club were promoted into the Northern Counties East League in 2012 -  is neat and tidy but doesn't score much when it comes to aesthetics.  There are a couple of metal stands straight out of a box, a portakabin, pale-brick clubhouse and a corner squeezed off limits by the back wall of a playgroup building.  A bloke in a fluorescent jacket squelches gingerly along the touchline as the teams warm up on some nearby grass.  "Churn that pitch up and there'll be hell to pay," someone jokes as the officials set out on a pre-match jog.  "Is it working?" wonders a voice as the tannoy crackles on.  Postponements elsewhere push the crowd up to 130, the second highest of the day in a step 6 league. "What do you think we'll be watching today?" one spectator says to his mate,  his face turned to a page in the programme recalling previous January fixtures against the likes of Border Regiment, British Railway Nomads and Harold Styans.  "Touch and go," a bystander states in a tone that brooks no prospect of dissent. "It'll be a wonder if any of them can stand up."  Two men in tweed debate the merits of Klopp's gegenpress.  "What do you think of our manager?" asks one. "Well, the players are a lot fitter than last year," muses the other.

The home team whack an early chance against the goalkeeper's legs - "If you want to get out of this division those are the ones you have to stick away," one of the tweeds reckons - and tuts and groans are more and more audible as passes run out, goalkicks drop short and bodies thud to the sodden ground.  "Keep hold of the bloody thing," yells a bloke pessimistically sporting wellies as Teversal dispossess one Knaresborough attacker before gifting it to a second, Brad Walker steering the ball away from the keeper's limbs and into the net. 

The referee swiftly becomes the main object of ire, showing the first of six yellow cards within minutes of the goal.  "You'll have to show one of those for every single tackle," rages one spectator.  "Give yersel' a shake," a second spits out furiously.  "Cloth head!"  "Wooah, woah," cautions a third, "you know what the conditions are like, referee."  A fourth helpfully suggests he should "Grow a pair".  "Dire," thinks a fifth. "He hasn't got a clue."  Somewhere amid the flurry of bookings Walker heads a second goal when the Teversal keeper leaves a cross he assumes is going out only for it to bounce back into play off the top of the bar; with 20 minutes to play the striker thighs in a hat-trick.  "Proper team performance," the man in wellies exclaims as the improving home side wrap up a fifth win in sixth games.  It's a whole lot better than Town managed during their two seasons in the Northern League: their first, in 1909-10, notable mainly for the fact they outdid York City, who propped up the table after registering 746 different players.  Twelve months later Knaresborough had emulated their neighbours with six points from 22 games and dropped back into the Yorkshire Combination. "Could still go up yet on this form," a fan enthuses.  If they do, it'll be the highest level Town have played at since those weekly pre-war hammerings around the pitches of County Durham.

"It's this metal that makes your feet cold," someone moans, banging his heels against the few steps of terracing.  The rain starts falling again, the pitch gets even slippier and two players crash into each other, Knaresborough's Joel Freeston attempting what looks a lot like a leap over a Teversal sliding challenge.  The ref races over and pulls out a red card. "Eh? Eh?" wellies wonders aloud. "Shove it referee," a now familiar voice shouts out.  "You bloody cloth head!"

Admission: £4
Date:  Saturday 9th January 2016

* Except on the very same day I wrote this, obviously...