Sunday, 31 July 2016

Ground 307: Mallorie Park, Ripon City

When you travel the bowels of the football pyramid, bemusement is a familiar refrain.  "Do Ripon even have a team?" asked an incredulous workmate.  "I lived there for six months and all I ever saw noticed was the racecourse," wondered another.  You could be forgiven for not knowing much about a club that have suffered back-to-back relegations and recently finished rock bottom of a 12th-tier league, but Ripon City have been based at their Mallorie Park ground since the end of the Great War, have a stand that dates back to 1920 and celebrated their one hundredth year in 1998 with a World Cup scorer as their guest of honour.

Demoted from the West Yorkshire League Division One after winning just three of their 30 league games, City also lost half a first team to neighbours Boroughbridge Athletic and three committee members plus chairwoman Sue Dennison - selected as one of 150 grassroots heroes by the FA in 2013 - who'd been involved with local football for 47 years and done everything at the club from washing to kit to refereeing games. "I feel like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I can leave knowing I have done my best and I’ve given everything that I could have given. We wish the new regime well. They have a very hard task in front of them,” she told the Harrogate Advertiser.

Things were finally looking brighter after last season's upheaval, City reinstating their reserve team after a half-season break, earning community club status and sprucing up their ground, the main stand painted white with Ripon City AFC neatly printed in red capital letters across the front.  The club's second warm-up fixture is against  Dringhouses in a game shifted to 11am to avoid a clash with the city's St Wilfred's Day parade.

The bus takes over an hour to travel the 27 miles between the cathedral cities, the journey only enlivened when a bloke with four remaining teeth and a 1993-94 vintage Newcastle United training jacket gets on by the Roman ruins at Boroughbridge.  I do a quick lap of the Cathedral and Spa Gardens, recce a handful of pubs and then walk the 10 minutes from the market place to Mallorie Park. Dringhouses are going through their pre-match teamtalk when I arrive, their manager pointing down the wings.  The pitch is railed off, nets behind each goal kept upright by scaffolding poles and a whitewashed clubhouse by the entrance with a handwritten sign promising hot and cold drinks.  The stand has its back to the rugby club, its corrugated roof sloping upwards over five rows of blistered wooden bench seats.  Ripon's subs perch on the front, a pair of spectators sit alone at either end and there are 12 other onlookers dotted around the far side of  the pitch.

"Let's play the ball when we get the chance," claps a Ripon defender.  "Good lad," the Dringhouses manager says to each of his players in turn.  "Enjoy it, pal." "Pieces," somebody urges.  "Runners," another warns."Switch on early," Ripon's manager keeps on telling his team. "Stay tight, stay tight. PRESS 'EM!"  City ping one of the scaffolding poles, a coach having to scurry up a stepladder to reattach the net. A few minutes later they go even closer, clattering the crossbar from close range.  "I'd have gone low," says the man with the ladder.  With half an hour gone everyone comes off for a drink break.  "We're playing too fast," a home player diagnoses.  "We need to take a few seconds to see what's what."  The Dringhouses boss spends much of the remainder of the half making calls, breaking off once in a while to shout "Good touch"  and "To feet, to feet."  When the whistle blows, he doles out instructions under the trees behind the main stand. "Get in the shade, lads," he orders as a substitute wanders off to refill the water bottles.

Ripon score soon after the restart and then send a spectator jogging across the carpark to retrieve their next effort on goal. "We've stopped playing, haven't we?" a Dringhouses centre back asks rhetorically. "Do some magic," someone shouts and a home player takes a bouncing ball on his chest and hits in at the keeper's near post. Dringhouses pull a goal back, the home side have a 3-1 lead, and then the visitors score twice in a few minutes either side of having a third attempt smack an ankle on the line.  "That Ripon keeper keeps coming out," a fan observes.  "They've just signed him," a hopper says.  "The secretary had to play there last year."  A couple of early floats pass by on the road behind. "They can't really develop this place with the houses over there," the hopper says. "There was talk of them moving to the barracks when it closes next year but I don't think that's imminent."  The players hang back to take down the goalnets as I set off on the four-mile walk to Fountains Abbey.  "Cracking game," someone says.  If you haven't been yet, get there while you can. 

Admission:  Free
Date: Saturday July 30th

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Ground 306: Wheatridge Park, Seaton Delaval Amateurs

Seaton Delaval was never the prettiest place on earth.  "A freezing, ugly, uncomfortable Hell of a Hole," the poet Ivor Gurney, posted to a signalling course there after he was gassed in battle at Passchendaele.  Built on the coal seams of south-east Northumberland, the village boomed from a population of just 240 in 1820 to a place that employed over 3,000 miners during Gurney's dysphoric stay in the winter of 1917.

The miners of Seaton Delaval were famously militant, striking twice in the 1840s and rioting when Welsh colliers were brought in to take their place.  "At Delaval lines of cable were stretched across underground roadways and the tools of the blacklegs were hurled down the shafts," one contemporary report noted.  In 1862, 199 miners at the neighbouring New Hartley pit were buried alive when a fallen beam blocked their only route back to the surface.  After a six-day rescue attempt, it took almost 18 hours to winch their bodies up the 600-foot shaft.  Conditions improved above and below ground, the colliery owners providing better housing and land for leisure pursuits.  The first football pitch in Seaton Delaval was laid out in 1893, the Moor Edge ground described as "splendidly appointed" in a newspaper article of 1906.  Ashington's Portland Park opened in 1908, Blyth Spartans' Croft Park a year later and Wheatridge Park became the home ground of the newly formed Seaton Delaval Amateurs when they joined the Northern Alliance for a season in 1920-21.  Spectators turned out in their thousands to watch clashes against Carlisle United and the reserve sides of Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Sunderland when the Amateurs switched to the North Eastern League in their second year. "Games at Wheatridge Park relieved tedium. Those who lived in Seaton Delaval worked in it too, and football alone occasionally took them elsewhere. Those miners unable to afford the fare or the entrance admission to St James' or Roker Park went to Wheatridge Park instead," Duncan Hamilton wrote in The Footballer Who Could Fly. "Without a match, most people had nothing to do."

While the colliers struggled, finishing bottom of the division in 1926 and 1927, the village's footballers were prospering elsewhere.  Clem Stephenson lifted three FA Cups with Aston Villa before transferring to Huddersfield, where he won a single England cap, another FA Cup and three successive championships as Herbert Chapman's "general" on the field.  Ten years his brother's junior, George Stephenson was capped three times for his country, scoring twice on debut against France in 1928.  A third Stephenson, Jimmy, played 195 times for Watford and a spent a season apiece at Sunderland and QPR.  The siblings' hometown team joined the Northern Alliance in 1955, folded thirteen years later and were only resurrected in 1983, at the same Swansea City's Ray Kennedy began showing the first symptoms of Parkinson's disease.  Rejected by Port Vale, Kennedy had worked in a sweet factory before leaving Seaton Delaval for  Arsenal, won a double before he was 20 and then added five titles, three European Cups, a UEFA Cup and an FA Cup during eight seasons at Anfield.  "The player of the '70s," Jimmy Greaves called him.  "One of Liverpool's greatest players and probably the most under-rated," thought Bob Paisley, a man never given to exaggeration. "Things were built around him and we played according to his abilities, which were recognised throughout Europe."

Kennedy never played for Seaton Delaval Amateurs, but the 11th-tier side got another ex-Liverpool midfielder when David Thompson, named in two England squads and once signed by Blackburn for £1.5 million joined up to play in the Northern Alliance Premier Division.  "He's doing this purely to get involved with the club and because of his friendship with our manager Graeme Redpath," said chairman Dave Holmes. "We’re looking at potentially applying for Northern League promotion for the 2017-18 season...Him being associated with us can only be good for the club and its profile".

Thompson made his league bow for Liverpool in front of 38,000 fans at Anfield.  His new club finished last season in fourth place, 16 points behind Whitley Bay Reserves and 20 adrift of champions Blyth Town, and play on a pitch tucked between a garden centre, supermarket and Bellway housing estate.  The entrance sign is half hidden by weeds and a heap of grass cuttings and there's a bathtub and shed between the gate and the touchline.  A net shields parked cars from wayward shots; three steps of decayed, broken-up concrete are held in place with metal poles and roped out-of-bounds. "Nice and tight," says a player when the home team get the game underway.  "Plenty of new faces," one of the small group of onlookers reckons.  "What's that number 2's name?" Boldon CA's centre forward yells across to his bench. "This is my fifth game this week," a bloke tells me. "Mind, I used to be able to watch these from my window until the trees grew too high on the other side of the pitch."

The home side get a corner. "Big on big!" Boldon's manager shouts.  "Tell you what, they're no mugs these," a spectator says admiringly as the visitors spray the ball about. His mates trade gossip about Bedlington Terriers, Blyth Town - "their pitch has come on.  It was just a field last season" - and North Shields before we're all interrupted when a Seaton Delaval player clearly punches the ball out of play.  "Liner! You not see that, like?" asks someone on the visiting bench.  "It's credibility," the official tries to explain.  "I'm too far away. I've told them up there already it's all about credibility," he repeats.  "I can only help if he asks me to." "Keep going son," a spectator says sympathetically. "It's only a pre-season friendly."

Delaval prod in the only goal shortly after the break while I'm still halfway through a bacon sandwich and china mug of tea.  "Squeeze on" and "Get your shape" the Boldon bench implore, but not even the tactical assistance of a bloke in sunglasses and a full Newcastle United tracksuit can help them find an equalising goal.  The second half stutters and a few people decide to watch through their windscreens instead, others moving under the slanted roof of the clubhouse as the sky threatens rain.  "The men hugged the touchline or stood in orderly tiers on the bank," Hamilton wrote of games played during his childhood.  Things are quieter at Wheatridge Park today but it remains a classic of its type and well worth a visit.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday July 23rd 2016

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Ground 305: Keepmoat Stadium, Doncaster

Northern cities which prospered on the back of their heavy industrial hinterlands, Newcastle and Doncaster are divided by almost 200 kilometres but indelibly linked through the footballing exploits of a single man.  Raised in a house that had no electricty, inside toilet or bathroom,  Joseph Kevin Keegan grew up using his younger brother's pram as a goalpost, washed cars to make some extra money and got his first pair of  boots when his dad won a bet on the horses. Overlooked by his hometown team, the diminutive teenager flunked a six-week trial with Coventry City and was only finally spotted by Scunthorpe United playing Sunday football while earning £6 a week as an errand boy at Pegler's Brass Works.  Signing as an apprentice with the Division Four team meant a 25% drop in pay, 6am starts and a two-bus commute from the family home to training; when he retired as a player 17 years later, Keegan  had won three Football League titles, four European trophies, one FA Cup, a Bundesliga title, been twice named European Footballer of the Year and scored 21 times for his country in 63 games, captaining England for six years until the 1982 World Cup. "He never stopped working, never stopped trying to improve both himself and his team," one admirer wrote of his impact on the Reds. "Without him, Liverpool wouldn't have made the step up from perennial challengers for domestic honours to a team capable of dominating across the continent.  Because Kevin Keegan really was that good."

While the boyhood Rovers fan never made it off the terraces at Doncaster's old Belle Vue ground, he would twice utterly transform the fortunes of the side his father supported.   The elder Keegan first left Hetton-le-Hole to fight in Burma and then moved his family south when mining work got scarcer on the County Durham seams.  The Keegans didn't stay in the north-east but the north-east stayed in them.  "Without ever being to Newcastle I felt this thing inside my genes," he told the writer Martin Hardy after a third spell at St James' ended acrimoniously in 2008.  "I played football for dad," he confided to an earlier biographer. "Your roots are your roots, and there was a tremendous pull, an inevitability about me coming at some stage to Newcastle United."

Keegan was in the dugout for the Magpies' only other pre-season visit to Rovers' Keepmoat Stadium, 18 months after the 15,000-seat stadium opened its doors in January 2007.  Two years later, an Andy Carroll goal moved the visitors three points closer to promotion from the Championship, the fatal undermining of the manager having ended in a dispiriting, self-inflicted relegation the summer before.  "The club can never go anywhere under Mike Ashley," Keegan insisted.  In the six years that have followed, the owner has yet to prove him wrong, though five new signings and the retention of Rafa Benitez have engendered rare feelings of optimism in a fanbase which had grown disillusioned to the point of near apathy under Pardew, Carver and Steve McClaren.

Red brick and utilitarian, Doncaster Station faces out over the back end of a supermarket and the side of a main road; the visual equivalent of one of Pardew's latter team selections. "Bit of a shithole, isn't it?" says a Newcastle fan lugging four cans of lager in search of a bus. I walk through a concrete underpass and emerge next to the grim vista of a high rise building with tattered England bunting blowing limply in the wind.  There's a bloke in a Doncaster shirt with 'Cardiff '07' written on the back, an industrial estate and then the ground itself, floodlights angled from each corner and lines of black and white shirted away fans already queueing to get in.

The Newcastle team stroll out to the sound of New Order's 'True Faith'.  "I feel so extraordinary, something's got a hold on me," sings Bernard Sumner.  It feels prophetic.  The sun shines down and the away end keeps filling.  "Toon! Toon!" a voice foghorns from a corner. "Black and white army!" two thousand voices reply. The visitors start with two new signings; three of the home side are "without number" and one doesn't even get a name.  It doesn't take long for the first tentative judgements of the new season to be made.  Matz Sels - Belgian title winner with Gent in 2015 and the Pro League's current Goalkeeper of the Year - only half clears a backpass with his first touch of the game: "Fucking hell! He's shocking him," the bloke behind me wails.  "Told you he was garbage,"  he nods knowingly when the keeper barges into John Marquis 15 minutes later.  "Five point five million from somewhere in Belgium and how many kicks has he fluffed already?" he asks as Sels picks Andy Williams' penalty out of the net.  "Five and a half million quid," he repeats despairingly during a later lull in play.  "What a waste, what a waste."

If Selz is nervy, Adam Armstrong is a livewire, stretching defenders with his pace and twice stinging the Doncaster keeper's hands.  Shelvey tries to push things forward but loses patience and blasts into the stand, Anita and Colback buzz into tackles but there's very little to get excited about until a simple corner routine brings a pair of unopposed headers and Williams' second goal of the game.  "Shite again," the voice behind barks.  "He's just flapping, man."

"In the first half, we didn't play at the level I was expecting," Benitez later says.  He responds to his team's pedestrian performance with a slew of substitutions for the second, Isaac Hayden - one of seven changes - looping a goal back within five minutes and almost adding another just 20 seconds later.  Armstrong smacks the keeper instead of the net, Dwight Gayle - all deft touches and sudden darts - is just inches away from tapping in before the otherwise impressive Shelvey treads on the ball and almost gifts Doncaster a third goal.  "Gini Wijnaldum, we want you to stay," the far corner choruses, swiftly followed by a less complimentary rendering of the same song for the wantaway Moussa Sissoko.  Wijnaldum comes on to muted boos and mopes around to little effect for the rest of the game.   A smoke bomb goes off in the away end; a boisterous cluster of Rovers fans bounce along to a drum.  Newcastle get closer and closer, Gayle, Gouffran and Thauvin all narrowly missing the target before Ayoze Perez finally squares the game in the first of seven minutes of time added on. "The feeling from the second half was much better and that is what we have to do," Benitez says.  Pre-season doesn't tell you much about a team, but for Rafa's Newcastle there's still work to be done.  

Admission: £10
Date: Wednesday July 20th 2016