Sunday, 18 September 2016

Ground 315: Temple Park, Whitburn Athletic

Likeable Whitburn Athletic are a busy groundhopper's dream.  In the past three seasons they've played at three different grounds, all within walking distance of my parents' home.  From a school playing field in their home village to a wind-blown municipal pitch formerly used by South Shields,  the Northern Alliance Second Division side have now moved to a 4G surface at Temple Park, a dual carriageway's distance from Wearside League neighbours Harton & Westoe Colliery Welfare FC.   As with a higher-profile set of summer stadium switchers, the South Tynesiders have struggled for form at their new base, failing to win in three home league games before tonking Wolsingham in a Durham Minor Cup tie played in front of a not quite record crowd of zero. "It's becoming a regular theme with us that we have shocking first halves, fix it at half time, then say we'll start how we finish from then on," wrote Andy Smith, striker, secretary and club founder when Athletic first entered a team in the 2010-11 Wearside Combination League.

The fifth visitors of the season are Prudhoe Youth Club Seniors for a game in the Bluefin Sport Amateur Cup.  The away side are waiting for kick off when I arrive, the home team traversing the hundred or so metres from the leisure centre changing rooms accompanied by a pair of cyclists, a woman out walking her dog and a group of kids heading to the adjacent skateboard park.  Seating is provided on some flat-topped rocks; the only shade comes from a shipping container placed next to a sign announcing the facilities were funded by the Premier League and FA. "Pogba," yells a player, warming up by attempting volleys into the net.  "Jonjo Shelvey," says another as he tries to replicate the top-corner goal at QPR.  Someone jokingly whistles the Champions League theme as the referee does a head count.  "Howay lads," a Prudhoe player shouts.  "Challenge!"

Whitburn start falteringly once again.  "Where's the shape?" a defender enquires. "Drop in, drop in," says the substitute tasked with carrying the linesman's flag.  Prudhoe miss with two one-on-ones in the space of five seconds before the home side undeservedly go ahead from a corner kick, though the scores are back level when a left-wing foray beats an attempt to play two attackers offside and the cross is turned smartly past the helpless home keeper.  "We've gone back in our shells again," a Whitburn player grumbles.  "Well on top now," the goalscorer says. Prudhoe's manager is certainly happier at half time. "Just need to put these chances away," he tells his team.  On the other side of halfway, a frustrated Ryan Shave is less complimentary.  "We need someone, anyone to start organising," he emphasises.

The attendance climbs to seven at the start of the second half, though it immediately falls back when a Prudhoe substitute dumps the assistant's flag on his dad.  "It's just I can't really come on if I'm the liner," he apologises as his replacement slightly unwillingly takes up position wearing sandals and denim shorts. The visitors score a second, Whitburn lose captain and club treasurer Kieren Laverick to injury and then concede a third, Prudhoe stroking the ball around for close on a minute before lashing it into the net from 25 yards. "No pressure," moans a home player. "Been the same from the start."  Two goals for the home side sandwich the Northumbrians' fourth.  "When are we going to put this to bed, lads?" asks the visiting manager before his team finally kill the tie with two late goals.  "West Brom three nowt against West Ham" a spectator is reading off his phone as the players shake hands. "So disjointed, so disharmonious, and absolutely our own worst enemy," is Smith's diagnosis of his team's early season displays, proving there's at least one thing South Tyneside's Temple Park has in common with London's Olympic Stadium.

Admission: Free
Date: Saturday September 17th 2016

Monday, 12 September 2016

Ground 314: Nethermoor Park, Guiseley

And then we came to the end.  Almost a year to the day since relocating to York from Yokohama, eight months after my spectatorial debut in the Northern Counties East League and nearly two dozen other Yorkshire non-league grounds later, I'm departing once more, this time to help sell academic textbooks in Kyiv and eastern Ukraine.  "It'll be different, anyway," as someone recently observed.

My final weekend trip was to National League Guiseley, who've been around the area a good bit longer than me.  Formed in 1909 and based at Nethermoor Park ever since, the 1913 Wharfedale League champions made the 1990 FA Vase semi-final with Frank Worthington in their side, won it in a replay the following season and lost a second Wembley final, 5-3 to Wimborne, two years later.  Having gone out in the Conference North play-offs four times in a row, the Lions finally made the fifth-tier in 2015 but only barely survived their first term in the National League - in the end just a single point splitting them and relegated Halifax - and started this campaign with six defeats and one sacked manager. "We have to take responsibility for what's happening," temporary boss Adam Lockwood told his former teammates before a goalless draw with Braintree delivered the much needed fillip of a first point of the season.  The visit of Woking - three points and two places better off but without a single clean sheet in 2016 - raised the prospect of an opening win, Lockwood snapping up Simon Walton, a 28-year-old veteran of 13 professional clubs, to add experience to a team which also includes Alex Purver and Reece Webb-Foster, recently borrowed from neighbours Leeds and Bradford City.  "It looked like we'd strengthened in the summer and many people were expecting a more comfortable season this time out," says one concerned Nethermoor regular, "but we seem to have got progressively worse with each game so far.  It wasn't entirely surprising that we lost our first three matches, but North Ferriby beating us was a real watershed. A lot of people thought the club were right to sack Mark Bower but personally I was in two minds.  He'd taken us into a play-off final, got us promoted and then kept us up last season.  For me, we need an experienced Conference manager as soon as possible.  It's only September and we're already odds on to go down."

A few minutes' walk from the train station, on the same street as the most famous fish and chip shop in the world, Nethermoor's entrance is shared with a cricket club, the few steps of open terracing behind each goal a reminder of days further down the pyramid.  An assortment of covered stands - the impressive main one built in the club's centenary year to replace a rickety structure burnt out by arsonists - some portakabins, a  burger van and a pebbledashed toilet block complete the ensemble.  "I'll be going mad if we score today," a young Guiseley fan promises. "1-0 to you," predicts a Woking supporter.  "Not a chance," a home regular responds.

"We could win this," the same bloke reckons half an hour in as Woking's Michael Poke flips a shot around the post.  The keeper saves from Purver; "Guiseley well on top" tweets the home club's account.  Two minutes into the second period, Nicky Clee feeds Adam Boyd, who leathers a shot past Poke from twenty yards.  "Told you," the Woking fan says.  "He gets the ball and scores a goal," celebrate the home support, prematurely following up with the theme from the Great Escape.  Poke denies Jordan Preston before Woking slowly edge their way back into the match. "There's another goal in this," a home fan predicts pessimistically as the visitors move forward down the right. Fabio Saraiva misdirects a header, the ball hits Dennon Lewis' shoulder and leaves Jonny Maxted clawing at thin air. "Still bottom," someone mournfully reflects as the travelling support leap around in front of a breezeblock wall at the other end of the ground. "Two games unbeaten," Lockwood says at full-time, grasping one of the few  positives of the day. "It'll be a mountain to stay up from here," a home fan reckons. "We're nine games in and haven't won  yet.  You don't make that up when you're a part-time team in a league where most of the competition are full-time or part-timers in name only."  The Woking supporter is equally doleful about his side's prospects for the rest of the year.  "We used to be the best part-time team in the country," he rues, "but even teams with 5,000 crowds don't automatically get out of this division nowadays.  It's going to be a struggle."

Back in Leeds, there are more glum faces after Huddersfield's win at Elland Road leaves the three-time English champions just two places off the bottom of the Championship. The immediate future looks every bit as bleak for the county's National League clubs, North Ferriby United a point outside the relegation places and York City only four places better off.  For Guiseley a midweek trip to fellow strugglers Chester provides another opportunity for an overdue first win.  "We fought so hard to get into this division," a Lions fan reckons.  "If we go down, I can't see us getting back anytime soon."

Admission: £15
Date:  Saturday September 10th