Friday, 27 May 2016

Ground 303: Etihad Stadium, Manchester

The last time I paid to see an England team play was in November 1994 when Kevin Keegan - top of the league with Newcastle United - had temporary charge of the U21s. Nicky Butt, Sol Campbell, Steve Watson, Shay Given and Steven Carr all started the game at St James' Park. Sunderland's Martin Smith - to the manager's later fury - had his every touch of the ball noisily booed by many of the 25,000 crowd. While the ordinarily sure footed Keegan was rightly embarrassed, he was for once out of step with the public mood; club sides trumped all.  If England  didn't leave you indifferent, it was probably because it was another source of the multifarious slights inflicted by outsiders on your region, your city and your team. "Watching England's for lower division fans that don't have any decent away trips to look forward to,"  a bloke in a black and white shirt had opined between songs about European qualification and Andy Cole, whose 41-goal season had mystifyingly failed to earn him a call up, during a 'B' international at Hillsborough earlier the same year. "That and southerners. If there wasn't anyone from Newcastle playing, I wouldn't be here." "It's always felt secondary," a Leeds fan elaborated in Tom Gibbons' English National Identity and Football Fan Culture.  "International games drift in and out of your life and England's never felt like my team."  Manchester United's support sang for Argentina in response to the barracking of David Beckham after the 1998 World Cup. "Why should I feel a connection to a country that is arrogant and detestable when it comes to football?" a Liverpool fan wondered.  England, increasingly, was the other: the 'No Surrender' thugs; the coach who never picked your players until they'd transferred somewhere else; the kind of people who give you Tory governments, pay to fly banners from planes or willingly appear on Arsenal Fan TV; Ashley Cole's wage demands; London culturally and economically stomping on your face forever. "Fuck England," a Newcastle season ticket holder once put it. "They don't care about us and I don't give a stuff about them."

Some things hadn't changed. "If Daniel Sturridge played for us and Jermain Defoe for Liverpool, then Defoe would be going to France and Sturridge staying at home," a Sunderland fan raged when Roy Hodgson announced his provisional squad for Euro 2016.  The sole north-east presence among the 26 players was Andros Townsend, though that felt more a consequence of the hapless state of the region's two biggest clubs  - Sunderland flatlining while Newcastle, fatally holed by incompetent recruitment and the risible Steve McClaren, contrived to relegate themselves for the second time in a decade - than any bias on the part of the England coach.  In Manchester city centre, the songs were all about the Second World War. "There were ten German bombers," fans chorused to the bemusement of the Sunday afternoon passersby. "And the RAF from England shot them down."

The new England was more evident at the ground itself, a thirty-minute walk from Piccadilly Station. There were slickly produced videos and marketing speak, messages from corporate parterns ("Celebrate Responsibly") and fans wearing jester hats and half-and-half scarves.  "If we see you on the big screen, we want to hear you as well," the PA droned with all the vacuous excitement of children's TV.  "Who. Are. You. Here. To. Support?" Red and white t-shirts had been handed out at one end of the ground, supporters forming a St George's Cross as they took their places behind the goal.  A Three Lions flag was passed down the touchline, and while there were muted boos at the start and end of the Turkish national anthem, there were much louder cheers for Vardy and Kane.  Such was the depth of confidence in England's attack, not even the opposition's 13-match unbeaten run could dampen the crowd's optimism. "I put a quid on 4-0," said a bloke to his mates.  "Easy 2-0 win," another reckoned.

Vardy had already gone close to opening the scoring when Kane put England ahead with just three minutes played.  "Who are ya? Who are ya?" asked the home fans, gleefully anticipating a rout.  But then the visitors settled, the hosts began to flounder in defence and the crowd got edgier and edgier once Hakan Calhanoglu had deservedly levelled with the first goal Turkey had ever scored against England.  A shoe was hurled from the top of the stand and shouts of "Pass it" alternated with pleas to "Just get it in the box."   "Vardy's not been involved," the bloke next to me said to no-one in particular.  "He's had a crap game, Rose," he added a few seconds later.  "What does Sterling think he's doing?"

"Stand up if you hate the Turks" a group of fans demanded. The visitors started to boo as the chant half-spread to different sections of the ground.  My neighbour was averaging a "That's rubbish" every five seconds as England struggled to re-impose themselves in midfield.  "Go back to your kee-bab shops," slurred a bloke with a red and white stetson, tattooed cheeks and a Pompey OK patch on his shirt.  Hodgson switched formation, moving the previously ineffective Vardy into the centre of the field.  A few minutes later the Leicester forward was felled in the area, but Kane put the penalty wide. "Rubbish," thought the now familiar voice. "The money he's on he should at least be able to get it on target." The miss infuriated the Pompey fan too. "No surrender to the IRA! Scum!" he raged, apropos of nothing that was happening down below.  There was an embarrassed silence.  "And ISIS scum too!" he finished, swaying alone in the aisle.  The minutes ticked by and then, with just seven left and the 44,000 crowd beginning to move towards the exits, Gary Cahill headed a corner at the keeper, a defender prevented anyone from gathering the loose ball and Vardy sidefooted in the winning goal by way of the keeper's nose.  "Sunderland 'ere we come," celebrated the bloke in the stetson.  At the final whistle a few pissed Manchester United fans were doing their best to smash a soap dispenser. "We're wrecking your toilets," one chanted as he tried and failed to dropkick a door.  "Your cubicles are terrified."

People mixed more happily back in the city centre, where the souvenir scarves had dropped from a fiver to £3 and the songs were all about Vardy's parties and Hodgson's trip to France. "My first England game," said a Leeds supporter on the train back to York.  "Way they played today," his mate laughed, "it's probably your last one too."

Admission: £25
Date:  Sunday May 22nd 2016

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Ground 302: Eon Visual Media Stadium, North Ferriby United

"Incredible when you think about it," a North Ferriby United fan ponders. "There aren't even 4,000 people in this place, other clubs reckon we're just a glorified pub team and yet we've won a cup at Wembley and are ninety minutes away from a place in the fifth division of English football."  It's been a remarkable journey: from humble beginnings in the East Riding Church League, the village team had already been to Wembley once - losing 3-0 to Whitby Town in the 1997 FA Vase - when they ended an 18-year stay in the Northern Counties East by lifting the championship in 2000.  It took five years to add another title, eight more to make it out of the seventh-tier Northern Premier League.  Just one season later they lost top spot in the Conference North on the final afternoon of the 42-game season and were beaten in the play-offs by Guiseley without scoring a goal.  Wembley was the unlikeliest of fillips, the fairtyale story that made North Ferriby headline news: two-nil down to the relative giants of Wrexham with just 14 minutes to play, the Villagers roared back to take the FA Trophy on penalties in front of a 15,000 crowd.  "It’s all a bit of a blur," said boss Billy Heath, whose previous visit to the national stadium had been as a ball boy when England played Yugoslavia in 1986.  "I never dreamt I'd have a chance to manage team here."

The victory came at a cost, fixture congestion leaving the team in midtable and Steve and Eman Forster, son-in-law and daughter of Hull City owner Assem Allam, deciding to sell up after two years in charge.  "Early talk was of reduced budgets and voluntary relegation to a more sustainable level," wrote Darren Norton, editor of the  View from the Allotment End fanzine. "With crowds around the 300 mark on a good day, that level would probably have been back in the Northern Premier League or below."  Finances were tightened but the the owners stayed on,  United winning one and drawing five of their first seven league games. "We expected just to make up the numbers," Darren Norton recalled. Instead, the Villagers pipped Fylde to second place and then overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit against Boston United in the play off semi-final.  "Another Sunday afternoon comeback," the Hull Daily Mail reported. "They had two thirds of the crowd," a North Ferriby fan says, "but they turned up thinking they'd already won."

Much like the home team's season, my morning gets off to a bumpy start.  Still recovering from a week in Montenegro and a Friday night house party,  I'm unexpectedly forced to navigate two barriers to collect a ticket from York Station and a third to reach the platform my train's just pulling away from. I consider going home, head out of the station in search of another route and the very first bus I see has North Ferriby written along the side.  "There's one every two hours," the driver says.  "Must be your lucky day." An hour and a half later I belatedly reach the north bank of the Humber just as two coaches from Preston are disgorging orange-shirted Fylde fans into the village pub.  "The play off should be on a neutral ground," complains a bloke hauling a drum and five balloons.  "Their pitch is awful for a final." His mate nods sagely.  "The next one up's at Wembley, isn't it?"  "Duh, duh, duh, duh," chant a moody gang of teenagers dressed in Stone Island leisurewear.  "Just look for the floodlights," a pair of stragglers tell each other as they walk the wrong way past a church.  'Horses, dogs and golf prohibited on the grass' says the sign at the turn off for the ground. "This is it," says an elderly woman with a white Fylde scarf and two orange balloons. "Next stop the National League."

The ground is hemmed in on three sides, allotments restricting further development at one end and a children's playground and railway line marking the boundary of two others.  The carpark is cramped,  the club shop's in a portakabin and there's a train trundling past the top of the main stand.  The clubhouse isn't selling alcohol after a pitch invasion by Boston fans but is still packed with a couple of hundred people celebrating Hull's second goal at Derby.  "It's really mainly people from Hull who come to watch Ferriby," one confides.  "The villagers are a bit sniffy about what's  going on here. It's not really a football kind of place."   The talk outside is of prospective new owners  and Hull City scrapping concessionary pricing.  "It's like Allam just wants to piss people off," a bloke in a City baseball cap says.  "People my age will save a bit of money but he's asking kids and pensioners to pay more. There'll be loads of bad publicity if Premier League teams are visiting next year."  

Unlike disillusionment, money's an issue wherever you go.  "We've cut the budget by half this season," a home supporter tells me.  "A couple of high earners went and we've only used 18 or 19 players all year.  We've been really lucky with injuries because three of those have only come on as subs." The Fylde support begin to fill the space behind the Humber Bridge end of the ground.  "Lancashire, Lancashire," they chant, territorially marking out their space with flags and a banner that reads 'In Chally We Trust'.  As kick off approaches, nerves set in and the atmosphere's more reflective.  "I think Challinor might get the sack at Fylde if they don't win today," someone reckons. "Some of these players will be going up even if the club doesn't." says Darren Norton as his team begin their warm up for the game.  "Anyone for a golden goal?" a raffle seller asks.

Not much happens to get the 1,800 crowd going again until midway through the half, Adam Nicklin opting to come for a cross his defence has covered and  Sam Finley squeezing the opening goal in off a post.  "Shite defending," rues one supporter.  "Haven't got going yet, have we?" says another.  All the noise is from the other end of the ground. "When we get promotion, this is what we'll sing," the Fylde fans chant.  "Plenty of time yet," a single voice responds. It takes a while for the home side to recover, a shot tipped over and another scrambled away from the line.  "Not our day," a fan says despondently.  We're three minutes into time added on when Liam King squares the ball across the Fylde penalty box and Wayne Brooksby gleefully hits the equaliser. "His first touch of the game just about," laughs a celebrating fan.  "They didn't want to go in and face Billy (Heath) losing.  Even the linesman runs away from him."

The home team look the likelier to score in the early stages of the second half. "They're flagging, Ferriby!" encourages a supporter after a goal's disallowed for a push in the back.   He's less confident in the final minutes, Fylde's Dion Charles blasting over with Nicklin exposed once again. "It's not like him," Darren Norton reckons. "He's been brilliant for us in goal.  It's been a long season, though."  Even longer as the game heads into an extra 30 minutes, Ferriby finally edging ahead for the first time when Danny Hone nods in at the other end of the pitch.  "We're the green and white army," a corner of the main stand begins to sing.   "Keep talking, keep talking," Billy Heath urges.  The fourth official raises his board. "Last minute of Conference North football," someone says nervously.  When the whistle blows fans trickle on to the pitch. "Unbelievable," Heath says into an iPhone.  "We have an unbelievable team spirit and an unbelievable desire to win."  "I grew up with Hull City and I'll always say I'm a fan, but I'd feel a bit of a fraud going to Wembley to see them now," a supporter admits as the play-off trophy is hoisted overhead.  "This is my team.  North Ferriby United in the National League! It's close on a miracle what's happened here."

Admission: £12
Date: Saturday May 14th 2016

Many thanks to Andrew Wilson for the lifts around the Ridings and the lads behind the Allotment end goal for the wit, hospitality and background on the club. The first issue of North Ferriby's fanzine is due out at the start of next season, when the Villagers step out in the English fifth tier... 

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Ground 301: Stadion pod Vrmcem, Bokelj Kotor

"Bokelj stadium," the taxi driver told me, jabbing his hand in the direction of a few trees and a cracked breezeblock wall.  "But I like water polo and boxing," he grinned. "Our football is shit."  It was, it appeared, a widely held view: while the national team has drawn three out of four meetings with England, beaten Wales and Switzerland and made it as far as the play-offs for Euro 2012, the Montenegrin First League - the top tier of domestic club football since the country narrowly voted for independence from Serbia in 2006 -  is among the worst supported competitions anywhere in Europe, its average attendance of 555 only very slightly higher than the numbers who regularly watch Workington in the seventh-tier Evostik Premier League.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the First League's international reach is as low as its crowd figures, UEFA currently ranking it between the top-flights of Luxembourg and Lithuania and none of its title holders ever progressing through the second qualifying round of the Champions League. Only Buducnost Podgorica have made any kind of impact elsewhere, twice finishing sixth in the Yugoslav First League, where they played between 1975 and the departure of clubs from four of its member nations in 1991-92. Buducnost supplied three of the 18 players that won the 1987 World Youth Championship for Yugoslavia, Predrag Mijatović going on to win 73 caps and score the only goal of the 1997-98 Champions League Final for Real Madrid.  Another former Buducnost midfielder, the sublimely talented but temperamental Dejan Savicevic, had already won the competition twice with Red Star Belgrade and AC Milan.

Despite the plastic Red Star and Partizan balls hanging outside tourist kiosks and the occasional foreign ultra symbol stickered on a wall, Kotor is no great football city.  Formed in 1922, Bokelj had never been higher than the second tier of Yugoslav football and played in the shadow of a water polo team that won a national league and cup double in 1986.  When Montenegro broke away from Serbia - Savicevic prominent among those who urged an independence vote -  Kotor's footballers were placed in the Second League, winning promotion through a play-off in 2007 and drawing 0-0 at Rudar Pljevlja in their first ever top flight game. Two years later, Primovac Kotor won the Euro League in water polo and Bokelj - relegated after a single season - could only finish sixth in the second flight. "Even the smallest child here knows the rules of the sport," the leader of Petrovac's Bestije 1986 ultras told Water Polo World after watching his team lose another Euro League final in 2010.  Bokelj, meanwhile, played a single season in the First League between 2008 and 2013 and were even outshone by provincial neighbours Grbalj, two-time qualifiers for the UEFA Intertoto Cup.

The Stadion pod Vrcem is in the decidedly untouristy Skaljari district, by an abandoned hotel with no windows and bushes sprouting from its roof tiles, a few open-fronted snack stands and a space for coach drivers to park up while their tour groups are busy elsewhere.  The entrance is along an unmarked concrete path which skirts and then crosses a stream.  "Two euro," asks a bloke seated at a plastic garden table.  "Cheap," I say, inanely.  A rusting gate opens on to the single concrete-stepped stand, where a few early arrivals are sitting on chunks of polystyrene and folded up carboard while tipping packets of nuts into their mouths.  There are no floodlights or toilets that I can see and the only cover is a corrugated oblong just about big enough for five people to squeeze under. The terrace ends abruptly by a grassed over rubble heap three-quarters of the way to the corner flag.  'Bokelj Zivi Vjecno' (Bokelj Live Forever), reads a board behind one goal.  At the other end of the pitch, the top deck of a cruise liner protrudes above the tree cover. "Hey Kotor," claps a kid in a Fidel Castro t-shirt before returning to his phone.

Five games into the third and final round of the 33-game season, Bokelj are in an unprecedented fourth position and are just about holding off FK Sutjeska Nikšić for a place in next season's Europa League.  The visitors, Rudar, were bankrolled  to two league titles and three Montenegrin Cups by a family of drug smugglers before Darko Saric, "the cocaine king of the Balkans" was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Serbian court.  This season, perhaps coincidentally, they're well adrift of the leaders in third.  When the two teams clatter down a metal staircase for kick off there are between 4-500 paying spectators, including a smattering of Wags in summer dresses, a family who turn up with house cushions and a dozen or so fans in replica shirts with a drum and four flags that they sellotape to the fence.  "Bravo!" they chorus as a home defender goes in for a tackle and wins his team a throw, though the type of pinged crossfield passes that would leave Steven Gerrard and an English crowd purring go completely unremarked.  The small contingent of police pass round a bottle of water, the drum hangs unaccompanied and its owner leisurely drags on a cigarette as the sides pass the ball around in the sun.  When the PA announces the score at another game there's a half-hearted cheer while the bloke next to me checks his betting slip for the time of the goal.  He's no sooner scrunched it up in disgust than Dejan Đenić, a much travelled Serbian formerly of club sides in Slovenia, Holland, Azerbaijan, Lithuania and Poland, stoops to head in for Bokelj.  "Dobre!" one of the Wags claps enthusiastically.  The next biggest cheer of the half is when the sun finally dips behind the mountains and there's no more need for everyone to screen their eyes.

After the interval I'm flanked by a chain smoker in a Royal Marines Commando hoodie and a bloke decked out in Real Madrid tracksuit top and bottoms.  "Luka Modric has football intelligence," he says, among several other things that aren't quite so similar in English and Serbo-Croat.  I'm more interested in Rudar's Ryota Noma - one of only two players not from Serbia or Montenegro - who wears number 2 but darts and hustles about in attacking midfield, dropping short passes into feet that are rarely if ever returned in the direction of his run. Bokelj have a shot tipped away and several heads pop over a fence dividing the far side of the pitch from what looks like a semi-dilapidated hospital building to see what's going on.  For all the attempted promptings of their Japanese playmaker, the visitors manage little until ten minutes from the end, a goalbound poke kept out by the keeper's legs before a follow up swipe is hacked unceremoniously away.  The fourth official raises a board showing three minutes of time added on; a home player immediately goes down with cramp while a second is substituted off.  The whistle blows, everybody roars and the players come across to salute the packed stand.  "Bravo!" shout a pair of fans in the colours of the water polo team.  With Mladost Podgorica on the brink of a second title, and runners-up Budocnost playing Rudar for the Montenegrin Cup, Bokelj, little Bokelj, are just five games away from a first ever trip to Europe. 

Admission: €2
Date:  Saturday May 7th 2016