Saturday, 26 March 2016

Ground 296: Mille Crux, York St John's

Nestle Rowntrees FC had got through 116 years, the acquisition of its sponsor, five leagues and a pair of name changes, lifting the York League title on ten occasions and playing out almost a decade in the rarefied heights of the NCEL.  Goalkeeper Andy Leaning, arguably the club's most storied old boy, swapped Rowntree Mackintosh for York City Reserves, starring in a 1985-86  FA Cup fifth round tie at Anfield within months of turning pro.  In 1990, with future City, Northampton Town and Cheltenham striker Neil Grayson banging in the goals, the amateurs cantered to the Northern Counties East League Division One championship but were relegated instead, their Mille Crux ground falling foul of new grading rules.  By 2013 they had disappeared altogether,  withdrawing from the York League "due to a lack of players and continuing financial pressures".  The death knell, it was said, was the loss of their home ground, Rowntree's, the world's fourth largest confectionary maker when Nestle paid £2.5billion for it in 1988, cutting all ties and selling off Mille Crux - where the reformed York City had played their first ever home games in 1922 - to York St John University. "When we start the new season, we'll be without our most historic and well-known club," rued a York League press release.

Since the departure of its longstanding tenants - Rowntrees unable to raise the £30 per game to play on their old pitch - Mille Crux has been converted into a £7 million sport and teaching facility formally opened by honorary graduate Howard Webb in 2015. St John's best-known actual alumni, PE student Matt Messias, followed Rowntree's route through the York and NCEL Leagues, eventually making the FIFA list and national headlines when he owned up to letting Paul Ince and Dennis Wise "kick shit out of each other" during a game between Millwall and Wolves.  "Against my better judgment, I opted to go with the players and they did exactly what they said they were going to do," he admitted after retiring - "by mutual consent" - as a referee. "Every time there was a crunch, I got told to leave my yellow card in my pocket. The crowd were chanting 'off, off, off' and didn't realise what was going on. They must have thought I was the worst ref in the world".

This afternoon's sole official has other problems to contend with, not least the fact there are no assistants in the 12th-tier York League Division One.  As the teams pass the three available balls around, Andy McEvoy is trying to find a spot where his jacket and the tupperware box he's stored the teamsheets in won't be blown away in the wind. A home player keeps warm in a parka while he finishes off a pre-match pie, the crowd edging up to 20 if you count the occupant of a pushchair and a bloke who stays sitting inside his car.  The game's being staged on one of the floodlit 3G pitches, Sporting Knavesmire - formed six years ago as an offshoot of the successful Hamilton Panthers youth sides and unbeaten in league football for 22 months and 39 games before October's home defeat to Hemingbrough United - clad in Fiorentina purple with fluorescent stripe and taxi firm logo, while St John go for two shades of blue with the student union's Twitter account splashed across the back.  The away team provide both linesmen, St John still waiting for their sub to turn up.  "If nobody knows, we go with defence," McEvoy explains to an aggrieved Knavesmire player when he contests the award of a throw.  "There were three of you blocking my view."

The purples take an early lead with a shot that hits both posts before trickling over the line. "Good stuff," claps their manager, the linesman's flag wedged under an armpit.  "We go again," yells an enthusiastic centre half.  Some errant Knavesmire finishing keeps the gap at a single goal, allowing St John to level midway through the half from a position the visitors complain is "a yard offside". Sporting edge back ahead when a cross is intercepted on the six-yard line by a St John defender, who attempts a clearance from the wrong direction and just whacks the ball in off his own crossbar, but the home side hit back almost immediately.  "You have to deal with that better," the away boss admonishes his team.  "That's too easy!" shrieks a defender. "Fucking hell!" St John clatter the inside of the post at one end, Knavesmire breaking to slide in a shot at the opposite goal.  "I couldn't see if yours was over the line," the ref says to a home player.  "That's half time."

"Let's play as a team, eh?" asks the visiting manager, puffing away like Enzo Bearzot on an e-cigarette.  "We look good with the ball," one of St John's 12 men tells his teammates. "Can I just get a drink, lads?" the ref apologises, retrieving his holdall from the fence. Sporting stick a volley through the rugby posts before knocking in a fourth with the ref pointing to the St John defender playing everyone onside. The fifth goal follows with 25 minutes left, the wind so strong the corner flags have been flattened and the home keeper's kicks no longer reach halfway.  Back come St John, heeling in from a corner, before a Knavesmire player dances through four challenges and sidefoots home a sixth.  It's seven moments later and should be eight but for a dreadful attempt at a penalty, the home side looking spent with ten minutes still to play.  St John hold out, grab a late fourth goal themselves and then retreat to the warmth of the portakabin changing block.  "Best get off before the rain," a spectator says, looking at the darkening sky.  "Typical bloody Easter."

Admission:  Free
Date: March 26th 2016

Monday, 21 March 2016

"The Most Northern Looking Bloke in Football History"

Inspired by a talk from Harry Pearson, here's a piece from the programme for tonight's Jarrow Roofing v Morpeth Town game, which the FA Vase finalists currently lead by a goal to nil.  Northern League programme of the year in its debut season, the Roofer - designed in Serbia and written by volunteers in South Tyneside, York and Japan - was runner-up behind West Allotment Celtic in 2014-15. 

Non-League Day 2015 came and went with defending Northern League champions Marske United between matches and Roofing going down 3-1 at Morpeth Town, a side many still fancy as the next title holders of the world's second oldest football league.

While the Roofers were at Craik Park, I was in Malton, North Yorks, where Harry Pearson, Northern League chronicler and Great Ayton native, was giving a talk at the Ryedale Book Festival on the sporting heroes of the North Riding. Extensively covered elsewhere, Clough and Revie were only briefly touched upon, the main footballing focus the likes of South Bank – three-time Northern League champions before their Normanton Road ground became so blighted by theft and vandalism that someone even stole the guard dog - Wilf Mannion, the irascible golden boy, and Bobby Smith, who Pearson described as “the most Northern looking bloke in football history”.

Born in Lingdale, just a few miles from the modern Northern League heavyweights of Marske United and Guisborough Town, Smith was working as an apprentice blacksmith when Chelsea spotted him playing for a Redcar youth team. The 15-year-old arrived in London in 1948, turned professional two years later, and scored 18 goals in 48 league appearances before Spurs paid out a £16,000 transfer fee in December 1955. Team captain at White Hart Lane from 1958 to March 1959, the miner's son equalled Tottenham's scoring record with 36 strikes during the 1957-58 season and won renown for what was euphemistically described as “a robust style of play”, Jimmy Greaves recalling how his forward partner would scream "You're going to f***ing get it, mate'' at opposition defenders before the start of each game.

Double-winners in 1961 as Smith contributed another 33 goals, the following March Spurs were closing in on what would have been Europe's first ever treble, topping the Football League and through to the semi-finals of both FA and European Cups. Drawn against eventual winners Benfica, the Londoners came within a crossbar's width of taking the tie to extra-time, Smith scoring in both legs of the 4-3 aggregate defeat. Weeks later, he netted the crucial second goal in the 3-1 FA Cup Final victory over a Burnley side which included five more players from the Northern League's hinterland, including Ashington's Jimmy Adamson and John Angus, once of Alnwick Town. Burnley's manager, Harry Potts, hailed from Hetton-le-Hole, while his counterpart, Bill Nicholson, came from Scarborough. In May 1963,  Smith, Nicholson and Malton's Terry Dyson were all present as Tottenham picked up England's first European trophy with a 5-1 Cup Winners' Cup thrashing of Atletico Madrid. In all, Smith scored 208 goals in just 317 games for Spurs and 13 in 15 caps for England before, angered by a series of newspaper articles he'd written, the White Hart Lane board sold him off to fourth division Brighton for a mere £5,000 in 1964.  A year and 19 goals later he was off again, released from his contract after reporting for pre-season training two-stone overweight. 

By 1968, the double winner, now out of football altogether, was working as a taxi driver and painter and decorator, his gambling addiction frequently forcing him into penury. “If he'd been playing today,” thought his biographer Norman Giller, “he would have been revered as a player in the Alan Shearer class, and rewarded with the riches that his ability warranted. But he played in the soccer slave era. His rewards were pain in the limbs and – much of it self-inflicted – poverty in the pocket.”

“A wonderful footballer but also one of the hardest men ever to lace up a pair of boots, a prolific gambler and a bloody good friend,” wrote Jimmy Greaves when Smith, aged 77, died following a lengthy battle with cancer in 2010.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Ground 295: Leeds Road, Glasshoughton Welfare

Bruce Grobelaar won six English titles, three FA Cups, three League Cups, a European Cup and five Charity Shields during 440 games for Liverpool but couldn't keep a clean sheet at Glasshoughton Welfare FC.   The 49-year-old was living in Wakefield and had a job selling golf holidays when he made a one-off appearance for the ninth-tier side.  "The reason I'm here," he explained to The Telegraph's Jim White, "is that the club secretary sent me a letter asking me to play.  I kick a ball around at the sports centre near here for a five-a-side team we call the Brothers of Judea and he'd seen me there. He said that they were in such financial difficulties they were about to fold and wondered if I could help." "Bruce has saved us," admitted Welfare secretary Lee Bradshaw. "It costs us about £15-20,000 a year to run the club and we're hoping to make three quarters of that on the day. His last club was in South Africa and we had to get international clearance for him.  When I rang the FA they said: 'Bruce Grobbelaar play for Glasshoughton? You've got no chance.' Well, I wasn't going to take that. Not with the future of the club at stake. We finally got his registration through with an hour to spare."

Eight-tiers below Grobelaar's First Division heyday, Glasshoughton's attendances had dwindled to around 50 but well over 400 turned out to see him take on Maltby Main. There was a bouncy castle and souvenir stall, the ground's naming rights had been sold for the day to a children's fun park and a banner was slung across a fence inviting passers-by to 'Come and watch Bruce Grobelaar make his debut'.  The European Cup winner arrived in an Astra and did enough to coax his struggling team to a 2-1 win. "It's been great playing the full 90 minutes," he told the man The Guardian despatched to cover the afternoon's entertainment, "though I reckon I'll be needing to rest for a week."

When Glasshoughton were formed as Aston Sports in 1964, they were a works team for a steel foundry and played on park pitches in the Castleford Sunday League.  A decade or so later, the Miners' Welfare provided a permanent ground in return for taking on the name of the defunct colliery side, a move which enabled the club to move through the West Yorkshire and Yorkshire Leagues and into the Northern Counties East Division Three in the year Grobelaar started his second successive European Cup Final.  When the Zimbabwean pitched up for his 2007 rescue mission, Welfare, a fixture in the NCEL's top-flight for 16 seasons, had lost almost all their committee to retirement and were about to endure a catastrophic pair of seasons in which they were relegated, went through four different managers and failed to win a single time in 52 matches between February 2008 and September 2009.  "We had to pull in 16 and 17 year olds to play," the club's chairman reflected.  "At times it really was men against boys."

Glasshoughton had already lost its Colliery and Coke Works, a pit wheel on a roundabout all that remains of a mine that employed almost 4,000 people and produced 1.2 million tons of coal a year.   The miners have been replaced by diners at an Asian buffet, an outlet shopping village and an Asda; an indoor ski slope and cinema have been built over where the spoil heaps used to be.  Described by one visiting hopper, a tad unfairly, as "very, very basic", the nearby football ground has half a dozen steps of covered terracing directly behind one goal, four rows of bucket seats and benches straddling halfway and a brick clubhouse - shared with the bowls and cricket clubs - all the way down one side. Bare trees loom out of grass banking, dead leaves poke through the bottom of the net and the goalmouths already have an end-of-season look with hundreds of stud imprints spotting the dried-out mud.  "We've played more than most on it," an old bloke says, inspecting what's left of the grass.  "There'll be a few clubs with a backlog of home matches after all that rain."

The Knaresborough support is already in the bar, where signed shirts from a pair of Welfare old boys hang side-by-side between the optics and bags of salted nuts.  "If Chelsea win and Stoke lose," a young lad starts reading off his smartphone screen.  "Who are our reserves playing today?" asks a second fan, while a third announces that Wetherby Athletic have scored and a fourth is telling his mate that the away team have only been able to name three subs, including a spare goalkeeper and their manager, Paul Stansfield. "They've lost a few players to Pontefract Colls recently and another two have just pulled out of the squad."

"Straight in from the off," half the visiting team holler.  "Be positive," encourages assistant manager Mark Smitheringale. "Win today and you never know," says one of their fans.  Only promoted into the league in 2012, Town are once more looking upwards, seven points off fifth-placed Hull United but with three games in hand.  Glasshoughton - who came back down last season after a three-year stay in the top-flight - glance a header wide and have a set piece scrambled away, but it's Knaresborough who score first,  a free-kick nodded down, kicked across goal and struck by Fraser Lancaster into the bottom corner of the net. "Don't go soft now," Stansfield warns. "No gaps. Stay switched on." The second goal, fifteen minutes later, follows a similar routine, Lancaster again with the first time finish. "Don't stop," says Stansfield. "Stay in the game."

Lancaster's hat-trick comes just before the hour, two defenders eschewing chances to clear before the youth team product smashes in.  "How are you doing this, Fras?" laughs an incredulous teammate as the Glasshoughton keeper hoofs the net in despair.  The rampant Lancaster soon adds a fourth before Ben Joyce, on as a substitute, really rubs things in with a late, late fifth, the otherwise blameless home keeper left disconsolately on his knees after racing out of goal.  "Come on Town," yaps a bloke in a red manager's coat from the corner of the main stand.  "Keep scrapping."

Admission: £4
Date:  Saturday March 19th 2016

Grobelaar's single appearance at Glasshoughton was captured by non-league blogger Paul Kirkwood, who was also present when Brazil's 1982 World Cup captain Socrates played for Garforth Town. The signed shirts in the bar belong to Sheffield United's Martyn Woolford, who started out at Welfare before his decade-long career in the Football League, and Nick Hegarty, picked up after his release from Sheffield Wednesday's Academy and later a professional with Grimsby, St Mirren and Mansfield Town.  

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Ground 294: J.S. White & Co Community Stadium, Garforth Town

Founded by Miners Arms pubgoers in 1964, Yorkshire's Garforth Town was an improbable final stop for Brazil's 1982 World Cup captain.  Socrates was past his 50th birthday, pot-bellied and clad in borrowed boots,  five layers, a scarf, a hat and  a pair of gloves as he readied himself for one last appearance against Tadcaster Albion in November 2004.  "It was so cold I had this incredible headache from the moment I got out on to the pitch,"the 60 times capped midfielder recollected after a 12-minute cameo in which he had just four touches of the ball. "I decided not to play him in the next game because his warm-up had consisted of drinking two bottles of Budweiser and three cigarettes which we had in the changing rooms," owner-manager Simon Clifford explained.

The tenth-tier side had racked up debts of £100,000 when Clifford took over in 2003 and had lost both its opening games by the time he appointed himself manager the following year.  Their first geriatric galactico was Lee Sharpe, of Leeds, Manchester United and Dancing on Ice fame.  "I was with Simon in the studio talking about a Brazil match," the ex-England winger told the Guardian, "and he said: 'Do you fancy a game?'"  Careca, aged 45 and almost a decade into retirement, briefly donned the number nine shirt at a club that had added the words  'Possum si Volo' (I can and I will) to its badge and taken to styling itself as the most famous non-league football team in the world.  Romario, Juninho and Cafu were rumoured to be coming.  "Zico's going to try his best to get here," promised Clifford, who'd previously set up the Brazilian Soccer School,  spent two months coaching Southampton and claimed he could turn Scotland into one of the three best national teams in the world. "Energetic, charasmatic and talkative," one interviewer called him.  "Forget anybody else, Simon Clifford might just be the most important person in British football," wrote The Times.  There were two promotions, record crowds,  a West Riding County Cup, an attempt to make Paul Gascoigne manager - "I will give commitment to the club," he told the News of the World a week before news leaked that he'd had a change of heart - and an unlikely reunion with Rupert Lowe, the Cellini of the Solent, who took over a majority stake with the side bottom of the Northern Premier League, banned from playing at home, and fielding what Clifford claimed was "the worst team this standard of football has ever seen".  "Confusion, mystery and lots of public relations calamities," was how one observer summarised the abject state of the club.

By 2014 the only thing left from Clifford's 20-year project to take Garforth to the Premier League was a battered yellow van with 'Brazilian Soccer Schools' painted on the side.  Twelve months later Lowe was gone too, selling up to a local consortium.  "It's going to be tough," the new chairman admitted. "Rupert could have shut it down in 2012. He's been the custodian of the club for the last two years".  Without their financial saviour, not even relegation back to the ninth-tier Northern Counties East League has done anything to improve the Miners' on-the-field fortunes, the team stuck in the lower-midtable of a division whose leading clubs are  reputed to be spending over £100,000 on player wages alone. 

Since beating Brigg Town on December 5th, the injury-hit side have drawn twice, lost 12 times and conceded 42 goals, their only win of 2016 by a narrow margin against bottom-placed Liversedge.  “It's been incredibly frustrating recently,” manager Adrian Costello told Non-League Yorkshire.  "I'm hoping the corner will be turned soon."  Maltby Main, also from mining stock and marking their centenary year with nine league wins from ten, are six places, 17 points and 30 goals better off.  We’ve made massive progress this season,” reckons joint-manager Spencer Fearn.  “I think this is the best Maltby team there has been for a few years.”

Set in a triangle between main roads, Garforth's major landmarks comprise a Tesco, a bloke dressed as Spiderman heading into Leeds, an industrial unit with Miami written - with what you suspect was a heavy dose of wishful thinking - on the side, a handful of pubs and the the football club's peculiar main stand, its roof expertly tipped upwards to let in the worst of the Yorkshire weather.  Up out of town on the crest of a hill, even on a mild spring day you begin to understand why Socrates needed all that clobber. Entering the stand, there are proper turnstile blocks, separate vans for burgers and drinks, two video cameras set up to record the game, around 100 supporters and, on the other three sides of the pitch, not much more than a garden fence and a bit of corrugated metal.  Not quite the Pacaembu.

"Come on Garforth," encourages one fan. "Come on Maltby," counter four or five more.  "We're the yellow blue army," chant a handful of adolescenets I first noticed in town hurling insults at passing cars.  "We are staying up, say we are staying up."  They've no sooner finished than Sam Forster whacks an opening goal for the visiting team.  "What do you think of Maltby?" the teenagers ask, the question shedding decibels like Steve McClaren does managerial posts.  Jordan Poole stabs in a second.  "Loy-al supporters," the kids clap behind the opposite net.  "We go again," shouts co-manager Mark Askwith.  Garforth, passing smartly through the middle, manage a couple of half-chances.  "Too easy," moans a spectator.  "We've got to wake up," Askwith rages from the bench.

To his audible irritation Garforth shade the next half hour, Greg Kidd halving the deficit with a header five minutes before the break and one after the neophyte ultra group have wandered off towards the burger van.  The home side have the ball in the net with their next foray forward, the linesman's flag curtailing the celebrations.  "What's the score?" asks one of the kids, reappearing in the stand.  "Is it still 2-0?"  The ball breaks back into the Maltby box, Tim Robertson curling a left-footed shot around the keeper's dive that wouldn't look out of place in the Maracana.  "GTFC, GTFC," crow the ultras between mouthfuls of bread and boiled onion.   Askwith and Fearn mutter darkly behind their hands then storm down the tunnel as a a pensioner yells "You're a disgrace!" at the ref and the PA announces a pay-what-you-want special on charity Easter eggs.

The teams re-enter the pitch to a Paul McCartney Bond theme and those shouted non-league staples "Better line", "Seconds" and "Switch on." Three children have a race around the touchline.  "Come on Maltby," cajoles a bloke in a tweed cap.  The away team shoot into legs and the goalkeeper's palms, Garforth have an effort saved low beside the post, sling lofted passes off defender's heads and, faced with a gap in the Maltby defence as wide as the one dividing Donald Trump and the truth, strike out of the ground and into some conifers.  Main try a bicycle kick.  "You've got to gamble," says a bloke down below.  Neither side's content with a point, Maltby going closest when they miss a free header.  "No more," yells the impressive Mick Jones, Garforth coach and ex-Main midfielder, "I've told you three times, just do your jobs." One last shot runs away across the face of goal, there are three peeps on the whistle and the appreciative clatter of applause.  "Cracking game," says one of the old blokes.  "Just cracking."

Admission: £5
Date: Saturday March 12th 2016

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Ground 293: Estádio D. Afonso Henriques,Vitoria Sport Clube

Reputed birthpace of Alfonso Henriques and capital of the nascent Portuguese state as the man who would eventually be its first king fought off  his own family and reconquered the lands to the south, Guimaraes has never been shy about reminding visitors of its central place in the national story. Aqui Nasceu Portugal (Portugal was born here) proclaims the lettering on the road between the railway station and the home ground of Vitoria Sport Clube; in a nearby square a national team scarf takes pride of place among a ceiling stacked with global sporting neckwear - somewhat incongruously including Reading and Brighton and Hove Albion - in the Cervejaria Martins.  It's a lineage the local football club take equally seriously: their badge, stadium, nickname and sword-wielding mascot all pay homage to the city's most famous son.

One of only a handful of teams able to pressure the Big Three's stranglehold on Portuguese football, Vitoria, formed in 1922, first made the Primeira Liga in 1941 and have since won two domestic cups, finished third in the league three times and played out 20 seasons in European competition, reaching the last eight of the UEFA Cup in 1986-87.  Pedro Mendes, later of Spurs and Portsmouth, and Fernando Meira, who skippered Stuttgart to the 2007 Bundesliga, were both hometown youth products.  Bebe had five weeks and six pre-season friendlies in Guimaraes before Manchester United paid out £7.4 million for a free-transfer signing their manager had never set eyes on, while Randolph Galloway, a shipyard boilermaker's son who started out at Sunderland Tramways, spent a year coaching Os Conquistadores at the end of a peripatetic career which took in Gijon, Santander, Valencia, Uruguay, Costa Rica and three successive titles with Sporting Clube. Although the black and whites have never come close to matching the achievements of the Lisbon giants, their 30,000-capacity stadium, rebuilt for the 2004 Euros, is regularly around two thirds full in a city home to just 50,000 people and with the feel of an oversized village.  A statue of Alfonso I, weapons still drawn eight and a half centuries after his death, tops the UNESCO-listed old town, his image on the club badge inside the Pintado de Fresco on Praca Santiago, which has table football, English-speaking staff and a soundtrack straight out of summer 1999.  "It'll be difficult tonight," the barman tells me over Blur's Coffee and TV, "but we haven't lost since Benfica came here at the start of January."

Chasing their first title since 2001-02, Sporting top the league from their Lisbon rivals by three points, having lost only once and drawn four of their 23 games.  The English-speaker at the ticket booth assumes I'm buying for the away end of the ground but a fan sees me queuing up for a black-and-white bobble hat and provides a complimentary seat along the touchline.  "Have a nice game," he says as he heads back into the shop.  The freebie ticket is just two rows from the front, level with the 18-yard line and with unobstructed views of the home ultras, the White Angels, who are readying their displays behind the goal. As the sides come out bags of white confetti rain over strips of black and white plastic, two smoke bombs are set off, toilet rolls unfurl and a ten-minute chant of "Forza Victoria" starts up, the thousand or so visiting fans audible as a constant undertone from the other side of the pitch.

The home team fashion the game's first chance but Sporting - with Sebastian Coates, Bryan Ruiz and William Carvalho in their line-up - soon have the look of the more accomplished side, Vitoria's 20-year-old keeper saving at a forward's feet and then deflecting a prodded shot over the bar.  "Vitoria!" holler the ultras.  "Vitoria!" the other stands punch out in response.  Sporting head over, Vitoria go down to ten when Josue Sa gets a second yellow card but push forward regardless, urged on by the crowd.  "Sporting are like cannabis," a banner announces.  "They're green and cause laughter."  A man in a black and white stetson leans across the hoardings to abuse Jorge Jesus, the linesman and any opposition player he can find. The visitors contrive to miss with the goal gaping, the home keeper makes another stop and the game ends, scoreless, with thousands of black and white scarves held aloft in the night air, their owners twirling them overhead as the Guimaraes players - down to 7th after their fourth successive draw - finally exit the field.

Forza Vitoria indeed.

Admission:  Free ( though would have been €15 for the lower tier behind the goal)
Date:  Monday 29th February 2016 

Trains between Porto's Sao Bento and Guimaraes take about an hour and a quarter and cost just €3.10 each way.  The stadium's a twenty-minute walk away at the opposite end of the Largo do Toural, where you'll also find the wonderful Cervejaria Martins and its hundreds of club scarves.  There are no online ticket sales but booths are open to the right of the club shop on matchdays.  

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Ground 292: Estadio Municipal Prof. Dr Jose Vieira de Carvalho, Salgueiros (2008)

Here's a poser:  name a club from northern Portugal that was set up in 1911 after its three founding members watched a game between Porto and Benfica, took its colours from the Lisbon team, raised enough money to buy a football by going door-to-door singing Christmas carols,  played in the UEFA Cup, had a double Champions League winner plus internationals from the Republic of Ireland, Bulgaria and Hungary among its playing squads, lost its home ground to a metro station and folded just six years short of its centenary season...

In the decade and a half before they were liquidated in 2005, Salgueiros had been a fixture in the Primeira Divisao, managing a best place of 5th in 1990-91 and aiding in the development of future internationals like Ricardo Sa Pinto, Miklos Feher, Jose Moreira and, most famously,  the 21-year-old Deco,  who scored two goals in 12 appearances between his release from Benfica - "Graeme Souness didn't want me.  I was young and he needed other players" - and arrival at Porto, where he picked up three league titles, one UEFA Cup and the Champions League. One of the club's final signings, current Southampton captain Jose Fonte, arrived from Sporting Lisbon B but swiftly departed when they were forcibly relegated from the second to third tier.  "We were in the top division for ten years," one of the Alma Salgueirista 1885 ultras tells me, "but then we got big dreams about a new stadium, didn't pay the federation what we should have and they made an example of us."

Reformed in the seventh division three years later, the club had already lost their 11,000-capacity stadium to the Metro do Porto - Salgueiros Station built over a pitch that had been in use since 1932 - but still averaged crowds of over 2,200, the fifteenth highest of any side in Portugal.  Four promotions later they are back in  the semi-professional Campeonato de Portugal, playing Cinfaes, a team from a village of just 3,000 people, in the relegation play-off rounds.  "This season has been difficult," the fan says, "but the next one will be better.  We have our old name and badge back and sponsorship from a casino.  With that money we'll be fighting to get back to the second division."

Attendances have been hit by the need to keep moving grounds, the latest, the municipally-owned Estadio Prof. Dr Jose Viera de Carvalho, more than ten miles from their home neighbourhood in the city of Maia.  A running track and sand pit divide the two teams from the four to five hundred spectators in the main stand, which has a corrugated roof, a wooden TV platform and a few thousand mud-spattered seats in several different faded hues.  The other three sides are uncovered and out of use except as a repository for spare hurdles and the parking space for an ambulance. "General public?" asks the woman in the solitary ticket booth as a few elderly socios amble through the entrance gate.  The tannoy runs through the line-ups to a background of chatter and the ripple of applause then blasts out 'Money for Nothing' just before the two sides enter the pitch to a song that sounds a bit like Marlene Dietrich belting out a Disney theme tune.

The Alma Salguerista drum and "Nananana" to a Boney M song as a player smacks a set piece into the hurdles.  Cinfaes ping the crossbar and are three times denied by the goalkeeper's outstretched limbs as they dictate possession with an assurance you'd be hard pushed to find in many Premier League fixtures let alone the foot of League One.  Their 20 travelling supporters - including one bloke viewing the play through a camcorder lens and a second in a fishing hat and manager's coat - occasionally shout their approval but are more often engaged in wild gesticulation towards the referee, whose attempts to impose authority are somewhat underminded by the fact he's dressed in mushy pea green.   With almost the final kick of the half, a Cinfaes forward outstrips the defence, picks his spot and then hits a shot so weak the goalkeeper almost ends up sitting on the ball.  "They're in trouble," says a home fan as the manager keeps his side on the pitch for the first two minutes of the break, the crowd hanging back to applaud before rushing downstairs to sink plastic cups of Sagres for €1 or red wine poured from a carton for a bargain 80 cents.  "Nothing in the middle," I think a bloke tells me, beginning a conversation I'm only able to conduct by repeating "Sim" and smiling benignly in agreement. 

Switching from one side of the stand to the other brings me closer to the dozen or so ultras, who maintain a steady background rumble as the match plays out sedately, both teams increasingly content with the draw on a sodden surface badly cut up in a game played just 24 hours earlier.  "We need to return to Salgueiros," says one of the fans, wistfully.  "We let kids in for free but none of them can remember what the club was like before.  There was a place for a new stadium 100 metres from where we used to play but the developers wouldn't sell it and preferred to leave it empty.  Now it's just the diehards who travel out here, but back there we'll have 4,000 again instead of 400."

Admission:  €8
Date:  Sunday February 28th 2016

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Ground 291: Estadio do Bessa, Boavista

In 2001, Boavista were almost a century old and had just five Portuguese Cups and a pair of league runners-up positions to their name. Only once - Lisbon's Belenenses way back in 1946 - in the 66-year history of the national championship had a team outside the triumverate of Porto, Benfica and Sporting claimed the title. And then, under the influence of president João Loureiro - lawyer, author and ex-lead singer of an electro-dance band  - head coach Jaime Pachecho and the proceeds of a youth programme that had almost simultaneously unearthed Jose Bosingwa, Petit, Raul Meireles and Jorge Silva, something magical took place.  The black and whites not only won the Primeira Liga by a single point from city neighbours Porto, they followed up by coming second to Sporting in 2002, winning through the first group stage of the Champions League and then making the semi-final of the 2003 UEFA Cup, where they lost out to a goal from Henrik Larsson. "The hardest day of my life," rued Pachecho.  "Luck was not on our side."

What happened next was slightly more predictable, the coach lured away to Mallorca and star players soon departing for the big boys his team had so briefly deposed.  With their income severely depleted by a ruinous 45 million ground redevelopment, Boavista slipped back to midtable, not even the return of Pachecho - sacked after just five games in Spain - enough to arrest a slide which left them embroiled in a corruption scandal and marooned to the third division for four seasons from 2009.  Not until Loureiro's return by popular demand in January 2013 did the club's fortunes change, a court overturning their original relegation before they were plucked two divisions into an enlarged, 18-team top-flight.

Thirteenth last season, 50 points adrift of champions Benfica, the re-hiring of Bolivia's Erwin Sanchez, talisman of the title-winning team and briefly Pachecho's replacement when he departed for La Liga, hadn't done much for Boavista's league position, the home side starting just a single place off relegation.  Rio Ave - beaten finalists in both domestic cup competitions in 2014 - had meanwhile accrued 12 more points, ex-Spurs flop Helder Postiga and a 1-0 victory from October's reverse fixture. "Playing against such a strong team gives us extra motivation," Sanchez had promised in his press conference.

Both of Porto's major grounds are on the purple line from the airport, the Estadio do Bessa near Francos or Casa Musica while the eponymous Estadio do Dragao - where I took myself off to as soon as I'd cleared the passport check - is the final stop. There were big Porto club shops at the Dragao and in the city centre, the metallic surfaces of which had been comprehensively stickered yellow and black by travelling Borussia Dortmund fans - but not a single sign of anything Boavista related until I saw a couple of blokes clutching black and white scarves a couple of streets from the ground. "Go in gate 11 or 12," a helpful steward told me as I queued behind a dozen Germans. "Better atmosphere and only 12 euro." There was a panther climbing a post as high as the main stand and a sprinkling of fans amid huge expanses of empty black and white check. "They thought they'd be playing in the Champions League every season," a fan of another of the city's clubs had told me. "But they got a white elephant they'll be trying to pay off for another 40 years.

 Rio Ave had travelled half an hour on the Metro with just a couple of hundred fans, who'd been given a whole two-tiered stand to themselves. The Sector Ultras Panteras Negras were dotted about opposite, their banners almost as numerous as the support. Both might have been outnumbered by Dortmund supporters, the Germans staying on in the city after their Thursday night Europa League tie. "Bo-ah-veesh-te," belted out the PA announcer. "Bo-ah-veesh-te," the home crowd replied, the muffled dissent of the away end drowned out as the tannoy cranked up a cover of 'I Will Survive'. The ultras were marshalled by a bloke with a bomber jacket and microphone, unfazed by either the rain or the fact he had his back to the pitch. "Nananananana," he started, the mike poised like an unsuccessful turn in a working men's club. "Boavista-whey," everyone chanted back. Midway through the half Rio Ave swung a free kick in from the touchline and Postiga equalled his Tottenham goal tally with a simple run and header. The groans were ominous, the home team failing to threaten until the Rio Ave keeper punched the ball into bodies and a header just cleared the bar. It took a sending off for Boavista to level, Pedro Moreira getting a second yellow for a trip from behind and Renato Santos - who'd swapped clubs in the summer - slamming in the free kick. The crowd started pogoing and a pensioner who'd been angrily pacing the front row turned in triumph, flipped up his scarf and showed a giant crucifix to the celebrating fans. Whatever power it wielded worked again shortly afterwards when the home keeper was fortunate to escape with a yellow of his own after upending a forward on the edge of the box. Boavista assailed the Rio Ave goal, the lower tiers rocked and then the visitors broke upfield, a defender couldn't clear the ball and hundreds of seat backs were flipped in anger as Joris Kayembe slotted into the net.

A dismal home defeat for a team in black and white. The story of my footballing life...

Date: Saturday February 27th 2016
Admission: €12