Saturday, 20 February 2016

Ground 290: Wetherby Road, Harrogate Town

A lot had happened since I last saw FC United.  After seven long seasons in the Northern Premier, the fan-owned club finally went up while celebrating a decade since starting out in the second division of the North West Counties League.  They'd reached the last-eight in the FA Trophy, the first round proper of the FA Cup and raised half of the £6.5 million needed to build a home of their own,  Benfica providing the opposition in a first game watched by a crowd of 4,200.  Impressive feats for a club Alex Ferguson spitefully derided as "a bit sad" and who one misinformed pundit declared would be over by Christmas when it was founded in opposition to the Glazers in 2005.  "Since we started this Christmas comes every Saturday," one fan memorably retorted on the baking hot April afternoon I watched them celebrate a second promotion in just two years.  "Our club, our rules. I've never had a feeling like it."

While the English spa  is slightly down at heel - the busiest shop in the Victoria Centre is a Poundworld and the massive Wetherspoons is crammed to bursting  - it's more visibly well-to-do than backstreet Moston.  Hometown of smashed-nosed Champions League clogger Andy O'Brien, Spice Boy John Scales and Donald Simpson Bell, the first professional footballer to sign up for the Great War, it's still more often associated with cream cakes and conference hotels than centre halves, though the pub at the station is already rammed with travelling supporters when I get off the train from York.  "I forgot there was a game on today," the barman confides as I attempt to ease life into limbs cramped by the sort of legroom that Dennis Wise would baulk at.  "I saw the first wave coming off the platform and thought 'Oh fuck'"  Outside, the rain hasn't dampened the perma-queue outside Bettys Tea Rooms, where Harrogate Town were reformed in 1919, five years after losing their first team to the trenches and three since Bell - a school teacher who played as an amateur with Newcastle and Crystal Palace before turning pro at Bradford Park Avenue - got the Victoria Cross for knocking out a machine gun at the Battle of the Somme. Almost a century later, a club that's spent much of its existence in the Yorkshire League could conceivably soon be in the same division as York City, semi-finalists in the 1955 FA Cup.  Second in Conference North, just four points behind leaders Solihull Moors, Town are financially supported by a multi-millionaire housebuilder and purportedly have the second biggest budget in the league.  "The owner's thrown a lot of money into the ground and team," one fan tells me, "but this year's the first time we've really looked like doing anything on the pitch.  The manager would have probably been sacked if his dad didn't run the club."  The PA's advertising an Abba tribute night - "Tickets going fast" - as I get into the ground.  There's a garden shed above the main stand for media use and cover on all four sides.  "Bit plush this," someone reckons.  "They've even got a choice of soaps in the bogs."

Harrogate have won three in a row since surrendering a three-goal lead at FC United in January, where they eventually went down by the odd goal in seven. “When you lose in that nature, the pain carries on," Town manager Simon Weaver told the local paper.  Down in 16th, United haven't taken a point since and have lost their last three away games by a combined total of 12 goals to two. "All set up for them to win," a sceptical local reckons.  "These are the games that Harrogate always manage to mess up."  I'm starting to think he might be right when the nervy home side are gifted an opening goal, Brendon Daniels' cross eluding everything but the corner of the net.  "Poor," says one spectator as the visiting players hold their heads in their hands.  "All we care about is watching FC," chorus the unbowed away supporters, who make up at least half of the 1,300 crowd.  "See United away, see United away."

Harrogate double their lead when a simple ball dissects the United defence and Jordan Thewlis slides in past the unprotected keeper, then score a third within a minute of being reduced to ten men,  Warren Burrell sent-off for a studs-up challenge but Jack Emmett bursting through on goal with the away fans still hammering their displeasure at the tackle on the home team's dugout roof. "We're the yellow black army" starts up from behind the net.  "We all hate Leeds scum" rumbles from halfway in reply.  The fourth, from Paul Clayton, is almost apologetic, the visitors still without a shot on target despite pushing five men up front.  "Worst performance I've seen at this level," someone says of the FC team. "There's no fight to them, is there?  Watching this, you'd think they'd had a player sent off and were just going through the motions trying to keep the score down."  "Attack! Attack!" urge the fans in red and black scarves.  "All that's missing is a sour-faced Dutchman with Ryan Giggs whispering in his ear," a bloke reckons.  Harrogate rub in their superiority with a late fifth from substitute Joe Colbeck, a veteran of over 200 Football League appearances with Bradford City, Oldham and Hereford United. "Don't worry about a thing," the away support sings on, "cos we're FC and we'll be alright".  As we leave, one of the fans is a bit more succinct.  "Bobbins," he mutters. "Keep playing like this and we'll be going straight back down."

Admission:  £14 (standing)
Date:  Saturday February 20th 2016

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Ground 289: Poezelhoek, FC Gullegem

A long weekend of drinking was beginning to take its toll.  It'd been two full days, many beers and at least one portion of meat and chips too far since we'd last had a proper meal.  "Nice this," said James, shoving the grated carrot and lettuce leaves firmly away from his peppercorn steak.

Gullegem had been an afterthought, a lower-league fixture chosen to plug a Sunday afternoon gap.  Defunct for six years since backing away from a two-club merger, the red-and-whites had dragged themselves up from the basement level of West Flanders football, taking five titles in six years after starting all over in 2008.  In their second attempt to get out of the third division, Gullegem were unbeaten in nine games, though they'd failed to win any of their last four and trailed visitors Sparta Petegem by five places and the same number of points.

An unplanned late morning meant we started out late from Kortrijk's bus station, passing the town's first division football ground before getting off at a roundabout by a closed-up Carrefour supermarket that had looked much bigger on the map.  Rain dripped relentlessly out of the slate grey sky.  "Doesn't look too promising," said James as we walked up a sidestreet to the ground.  The woman at the ticket hatch mimed standing up and sitting down before we acted out standing and passed over our eight euro.  "Is there a bar inside?" I tentatively asked.  "Yes," said a steward, beaming as he ushered us inside. "Good beer!"  There was a terrace with concrete banking and a sloping corrugated roof facing a smart all-seater affair, hard standing, a corner bar and several dozen signboards making up what remained of the ground.  "Mike Ashley's dream," James reckoned. "There are more advertisements than seats."  The away fans had already grabbed a table overlooking the pitch, a bloke in a green-and-black scarf swigging bottles of cola as he leaned across the bar.  League ladders were pasted to a wall and a handful of trophies had been half obscured by crisp packets on a shelf above the fridge.  "Beer?" James tried.  "English!" said the barmaid, pouring out a half of Stella that cost €1.70 a glass.  

As the ground started filling, the away support dragged a drum behind the goal their team were attacking, draping a Green Army flag over a hoarding before chucking a single pyro onto the pitch as the players came out to Europop dance.  A bloke to our left started tuning in a transistor.  Bang, bang, bang went the drum.  "I don't think they've bothered with lessons," thought James.  Both teams had logos on every inch of kit space, Petegem winning out with Donky's Taverne filling both shoulders and the back.  Players had to hop over the hoardings to chase down stray balls, though passes invariably stayed on the grass and arrived at the feet of the intended recipient.  With Petergem's number 10 the slow-moving epicentre of almost every attack, the away side were better on every count than the only one that mattered. By the break it was still goalless and half the crowd had disappeared into the bar where a Belgian racer was leading a cycling race live on TV. 

The teams came back out to a loud roar as one bike overtook another somewhere in a forest.  "Penalty!" screamed a pissed-up away fan everytime a player touched the ball.  The drum rattled tunelessly, and Sparta managed not to score from just six yards out only moments before Gullegem's Pieter Vangheluwe headed in the only goal of the game to a loud burst of Scooter. Petegem's players slammed hands against their thighs and stomped their feet against the ground.  "It should be three-one here at least," thought James. "Penalty," spluttered the drunk as a shot dribbled harmlessly out of play.   We chugged half-pints right through to the final whistle, then walked off the booze on the three miles back to Kortrijk Station.  Later that night, in a Lille pub recommended to us on Twitter, we half watch St Etienne lose to PSG while working our way down a menu of 18 beers each at €5 a pint.  "Been a decent weekend," James reckoned.  "Cheap tickets, great beer and plenty of chips."

Admission:  €8 (standing ticket)
Date:  Sunday January 31st 2016

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Ground 288: Schiervelde Stadion, KSV Roeselare

From Friday night in Amiens to a grey Saturday in Belgium, we headed back past Lille to Flemish-speaking Roeselare for the second stop on our three-game weekend tour.  Third top of the second division, the home side are coached by 1990s football trope Franky Van der Elst, whose playing career spanned four World Cups, 86 caps, 500-plus appearances in Club Brugge's midfield, nine domestic trophies and two Footballer of the Year prizes, one pilfered from the boot of his car while he was still out celebrating its award. 

Founded in 1921, Roeselare's football club have rarely been among the country's leading lights, managing a total of just half a decade making up the numbers in the Belgian top-flight.  Promoted through the play-offs in 2005, the black and whites got a Fair Play pass to the UEFA Cup qualifiers - beating Vardar Skopje but going down heavily over two legs to Ethnikos Achna - before a swollen wage bill forced their return to more familiar surroundings at the end of 2009-10.  Since arriving as manager four years later, Van der Elst had been sprinkling bits of stardust around the Shiervelde; beaten only once since October, Roeselare trailed leaders Antwerp by seven points as they attempted to join neighbours Kortrijk back in the 16-team Pro League.

After a boozy afternoon, it was a thirty-minute walk from the Groat Markt pubs to Roeselare's ground.   "Are we the only people on foot again?" James wondered as we looked in vain for another pre-match pint.  "I bet there's nothing but a massive carpark and a bar the size of a warehouse under the main stand."  Unlike our fortuitous night in Amiens, we missed out on any freebies and had to buy our tickets instead, forking out a hefty €15 for the covered terrace on the far side of the ground.  "Not many here," thought James as we made our way across the near-deserted stand behind the goal, the few dozen people only partially obscuring a single one of the nine letters written picked out by the plastic seats.

In a country where clubs routinely cluster just a few kilometres apart and most away trips involve journeys of under ninety minutes, Excelsior Virton really are a club apart.  "Belgium's answer to Carlisle United" one groundhopper had dubbed them, they'd brought 16 fans and half a dozen flags, which they spread out like beach towels along the expanse of empty plastic.  Talking Heads were playing on the tannoy while players warmed up by smacking shots against a post. "A bit basic," James pondered as we queued for plastic cups of Jupiler.  "It's the same routine I had when I played for my pub team."  The obligatory bloke with drum arrived and set up right next to our ears, while a gaggle of cheerleaders shivered their way through a desultory routine to a danced-up version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.  The attendance slowly crept just over a thousand. "Have you noticed the only non-white people are in the Virton team?" James asked as the drum began pounding and I headed off for a second half-pint.  

After a frenetic opening it was Virton who scored first, Raoul Ngadrira, once of Rupel Boom and Lokomotiv Sofia, finishing off a break through midfield. "Come on SV," swelled from the terrace, hands clattering against the hoardings in front.  Virton smashed a shot against the bar and then scored a second just before half time, causing a rush to the bar led by a bloke in a black and white stetson with cow silhouettes around the sides.  "I'm supporting Virton on diversity grounds," reckoned James as the first of the evening's monkey noises accompanied the two teams off the pitch.

Roeselare hit the frame of the goal themselves but were otherwise every bit as basic as their grunting support base, Virton gleefully smacking a deserved third goal late on.  By that time we were already heading out of the ground towards the railway station, where there was only one train to anywhere after 10pm.  The carriage was almost deserted, a group of women halfway down loudly discussing the prospect of a  night out in Kortrijk.  "Sex on the beach, ja?" asked one. "Ja," her mate slurred.  "Sex on the beach." 

Who said Belgium was dull? 

Admission: 15 euro (standing)
Date:  Saturday January 30th 2016. 

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Ground 287: Stade de la Licorne, Amiens SC

"I'm planning some international groundhopping," James had mentioned back in mid-November.  "Only €5 to stand at Amiens and their ground looks brilliant."  Artfully lit and seen from the side of a road, the Stade de la Licorne - opened in 1999 and packed to its see-through rafters for a Coupe de France semi with PSG nine years later - looked more botanical garden glasshouse than football ground. "Everything has been designed for the optimal use of players and spectators," the club's website gushed.  "Looks a bit bizarre," thought James.  Closer up, the rust patches and discoloured glass stood out as baldly as our atrocious Gallic accents.  "They're taking it all out soon," James reckoned. "Too expensive to maintain." 

Much like the outside of their stadium, Amiens were a club in palpable decline.  The last trophy they'd picked up was the 1978 Championnat National, the third-tier league they dropped back in to at the end of 2011-12.  After three seasons' failing to keep pace with the promotion pack, the Picardy team were once again treading water, a trio of recent losses leaving them drifting back from leaders Strasbourg, the side who'd also edged them out on penalties in the 2001 final of the Coupe de France. "There'll probably be a decent crowd with it being a derby," I'd optimististically proffered while my head was flopping towards my chest on the afternoon train from Lille, but just an hour before kick off the city centre was fast closing up and the first bar we came to was deserted except for the owner.  "What are you doing here?" he asked after I'd finished stumbling through some rudimentary French. "We came from England this morning.  My friend's wanted to see an Amiens match for a long time."  "Okaaay," he replied, clearly implying he thought we were anything but. "He managed them in a computer game," I tried, but he'd already put our drinks down and was scurrying away to a table in the corner of the bar.

It wasn't until we reached the stadium car park that we found our first groups of fans. "I think everyone else has driven here," said James while I tried to work out what the ticket prices were.  There was a burst of French from over my shoulder.  "Non, merci," I replied.  "Gratis," the bloke said, holding up two tickets. "Eh, oui.  Merci." Inside, it was all open seating and non-alcoholic booze.  "There are two chocolate Santas in that fridge," James pointed out, while we counted up the 21 supporters who'd travelled from Dunkerque.  Their songs were all in diphthongs:  "Ah way ah woah," they chanted, twirling their tops around their heads.  The small turn-out of Amiens ultras was fronted by a panda bear, two blokes in puffa jackets and a third who drummed out the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey as the teams raced onto the pitch.  "Ah way ah woah," went the Dunkerque end.  "Ah way ah woah."

After a few minutes of half-pressure from the home team, Dunkerque snatched the lead with their very first attack, a corner kick bouncing like a skimming stone before Birmingham's Edwin Pindi thwacked it over the line.   As half the crowd seemed to be more engrossed in scoffing baby-sized baguettes packed to the brim with chips, we decided to beat the rush by joining the queue five minutes before the break. Twenty minutes later, the players had come back out and we were still at least a dozen customers away from the front. "Let's ditch it and get something later," I suggested. "I'm starving," said James.  We raced up the stairs, hearing the first shout on the bottom step, a roar in the middle and an outburst of joy the moment we got a view of the pitch, Aboubakar Kamara knocking in the equaliser after the Dunkerque keeper had made two quick saves.  Despite a late burst of pressure and the unexpected appearance of a man in a rabbit costume, that was as good as Amiens got.

At midnight the restaurants were all shuttered and we were among a street of bars by the gargantuan cathedral, downing 8.5% beers while a group of women strutted their stuff to Chaka Khan.  "A bit different to back home," said James, as we polished off the last free pieces of dry French bread. 

Admission:  Free (usually €8)
Date:  Friday January 29th 2016