Friday, 28 July 2017

Lincoln '96

When I tell people I've been to places like Bristol, Norwich, Lincoln and Oxford, I usually mean I've seen them in the way teenage football fans do, which is to say that rather than the Bodleian, the Ashmolean Museum or Christ Church Cathedral I had an open terrace at the Manor Ground, a black-and-white santa hat and the unwanted present of a 4-2 defeat three days after Christmas 1992. While I might not have any photos of Cabot Tower or the Clifton Suspension Bridge, I did watch Harry Palmer make a memorable early contribution to the Bristol Sound in a pub by Ashton Gate.  Norwich Cathedral was an attempted short cut between beers; in Lincoln, I missed England's oldest inland harbour and what Ruskin called "the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles" and saw instead a football stand sponsored by the Co-op and a backstreet boozer filled with black and white shirts.  Back in the city 21 years later, the road to Sincil Bank had a Polish barber's, a Wetherspoons and a Chinese restaurant called 'Legal Food'.  I crossed Scorer Street, birthplace of Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday striker Lee Chapman, and followed a sign pointing left between two rows of terraces to a familiar cantilevered stand...

It's not every day you get to see the world's most expensive footballer make his debut for your team.  We were due a bit of a pick-me-up: in the past few months Newcastle United had let slip a 12-point lead to lose the Premier League title to Manchester United and Germany had beaten England on penalties (again) in the semi-final of Euro '96.  Football wasn't coming home but the bloke who'd just won the Golden Boot was.

"This signing  shows you the ambition of Newcastle United," Kevin Keegan told the assembled media in Bangkok. "We are the biggest thinking team in Europe now."  Back home in Newcastle, shops had already run out of letters to put Shearer on the back of black and white shirts. "Can you imagine being Alan Shearer?" posed a disbelieving presenter on Lincolnshire local news.  "You're a 25-year-old son of a sheet metal worker and not only are you set to pick up around £1.5 million as your cut of the £15 million paid by Newcastle but apparently if you're Alan Shearer you'll be on £30,000 each and every week."  It was just five days after the Magpies had been thrashed in Japan by Gamba Osaka and three since Shearer was presented to a 15,000 crowd in a rain drenched car park outside St James'. "This is your day,"  Kevin Keegan told the delirious masses.  "You've bought the shirts and the tickets and put the money in and I've invested it so we can have the very best on the pitch."

Around 2,000 more were at Lincoln City's Sincil Bank, with the same number again trying to get inside.  Outside the ground, tickets were changing hands for four times their face value.  "Every seat in the 11,000 capacity stadium has been sold," Peter Sissons told the nation on the Six O'Clock News. "Lincoln had probably not seen an invasion of its like since the city's castle was stormed in 1644," the Independent reckoned the following day.  The game had been arranged as part of Darren Huckerby's £400,000 move to St James' Park; the Imps were losing £10,000 a week and were struggling to find three times that amount to sign Kevin Austin from Leyton Orient.  "We'll probably make £80,000 from tonight," Lincoln's grateful managing director told the BBC.

It took 18 minutes for Shearer to get his opening shot on target and 15 more for his first Newcastle goal, slamming a penalty one way while ex-Cramlington Juniors teammate Barry Richardson leapt the other.  "Shearer! Shearer!" we roared unimaginatively as he shook hands with Robert Lee and Peter Beardsley and ambled back to halfway.  On the hour, Tino Asprilla played in Philippe Albert for a second.  "Ye kna," the bloke in front told his mate, "we'll win the league with Shearer in this team."  Veni.  Vidi.  Vici. 

Two days later we got thumped 4-0 in the Charity Shield at Wembley.  World's most expensive player or not, some things never change.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Ground 317: Druids Park, West Allotment Celtic

Sometimes it pays to stay where you are.  Newcastle Blue Star were among the venerable names of north-east non-league football.  FA Vase winners in 1978 and Northern League champions in 2006, they had once had the financial clout to fly Trevor Brooking up from London on a £500 fee to play against Wearside League title rivals Coundon Three Tuns. Just to be on the safe side, they'd tried for George Best too.

In 2007, Star took up the FA's offer to be one of the founder members of the Unibond First Division North.  To meet the Unibond's stadium requirements, new Blue Star chairman Dave Thompson arranged to share the 10,000-capacity Kingston Park with his Newcastle Falcons rugby union team. "My vision for Blue Star is for it to be a community club for the people of Newcastle," Thompson loftily informed the local press. "Today's announcement comes after a huge amount of planning, and represents a significant day for North East sport."  Two years later, Blue Star thrashed Curzon Ashton 4-1 in the First Division North play off final and were promoted to within three divisions of the Football League.  It was the final game they ever played.

A decade of patient work on the club's Wheatsheaf Ground had failed to meet Unibond standards but had left it with a state-of-the-art 4G surface paid out of a Football Stadia Improvement Fund grant.  When Blue Star moved to Kingston Park, their former home was used as a training ground for the Falcons and for first team games by Gosforth RFC. The FSIF cited breach of contract as the football club were no longer using the facilities and demanded its grant be repaid. Thompson responded by pulling his funding and the 69-year-old club folded without kicking another ball. “This is a long saga without a simple solution, but you cannot sustain a team on 80 fans turning up every week," Blue Star's former benefactor complained to the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. 

With Blue Star just a memory, the Wheatsheaf was used by rugby players and the Newcastle Vikings American Football team, joining the ever lengthening list of lost Northern League grounds. This summer alone Billingham Synthonia's sumptious 2,000-capacity cantilevered stand closed owing to "unsustainable maintenance and running costs" and West Allotment Celtic moved out of Blue Flames  when the Northumberland FA hiked the rent up by £3,000 a season with £300 more on top for every home game over 25.  For a while it looked like West Allotment  - just a year short of their 90th anniversary - might go the same way as Blue Star, the club tendering their resignation from the Northern League.  "It's a disaster," secretary Ted Ilderton thought. “The people who run the club are all getting old. We don’t want to be standing around in open fields.”  By May, the club had been relegated from the Northern League's top-flight but had managed to secure their existence with a move to the Wheatsheaf, now known as Druids Park. Tonight they were preparing for life in Division Two with a friendly against Blyth Spartans Reserves, formed out of a link up with New Hartley FC and newly admitted to the Northern Football Alliance, three divisions lower than their hosts.  

The artificial surface was flanked by rugby posts, the back end of a Premier Inn, wheelie bins, a conifer hedge, two metal-roofed stands and a car park, where most of the few dozen spectators were congregated within a few metres of their cars.  Spartans seized an early lead with an uncontested header.  "What did we say before the game?" the Celtic keeper asked rhetorically three times. "Let's learn from it," a defender shouted back.  "Fucking hell," said the keeper.

The visitors played the tidier first half football, clipping the crossbar with an identikit header and several conifer branches with a shot that needed shaking down from the tree.  Allotment deservedly levelled with a strike that curved around the goalkeeper's dive, the swish of ball on net lost to the roar of an aeroplane engine at the other end of the ground.  "Pick it up again," demanded a Spartan as the floodlights blinked on and two blokes on a picnic bench demolished the last of their half-time chips.  With ten minutes left, a crossfield ball was played first time back across the centre and turned in by Peter Murray. "Great goal," the bloke next to me clapped, looking up from his phone. "Quality," someone shouted.  "We go again," screamed the beaten keeper, hoofing the ball upfield.  Whatever the result, for West Allotment going again is a triumph in itself.

Admission:  Free
Date: Monday July 24th 2017

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Ground 316: Lobanovskyi Stadium, Olimpik Donetsk

"Ukrainian football's just like Ukraine," a cynical Dynamo Kyiv grumbled in one of my classes. "There's no money, it's run by fools and anybody with sense just wants to get out."  The European exploits of Shakhtar Donetsk, Dynamo and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk have managed to keep the Ukrainian Premier League above the likes of Belgium, Turkey and the Netherlands in the UEFA rankings, but a truer reflection of the competition's curent state was a regular season average attendance of 4,361 in 2016-17 - a 13% decrease on the already dismal turn out during the previous campaign.

Crowds aren't all that's going down.  Dnipro - Europa League finalists in 2015 - started the 2017-18 season in the third-tier after owner Igor Kolomoyskyi pulled his funding from the club.  Metalist Kharkiv made the top-three in eight successive seasons between 2008 and 2014 but finished last season bottom of a regional amateur league, their owner having fled to Russia charged with stealing $180 million from bank investors whole owing another $130 million in unpaid tax. Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk, the twin behemoths of Ukrainian football, continue to dominate but have also been shrunk by economic reality, the shelling of Shakhtar's 52,000-seater stadium forcing them to play in Lviv and Kharkiv, and Dynamo beset by money troubles stemming from the nationalisation of Kolomoyskyi's Privat Bank.

The big two are still doing better than anybody else in the 12-team UPL.  Shakhtar's erstwhile city rivals Metalurh fielded Yaya Touré, Henrikh MkhitaryanJordi Cruyff and Darren O'Dea at various points in their nineteen year history but went bankrupt in 2015 and re-emerged in Dnipro, where they now play to meagre crowds as Stal Kamianske.  Donetsk's third side, Olimpik, left their home ground behind for a training pitch belonging to the Ukrainian Football Federation and then moved across the capital city to the small but perfectly formed Lobanovskyi Stadium, named in tribute to the legendary coach of Dynamo Kyiv.

Formed in 2001, Olimpik reached the Premier League in the same year the war forced them out of Donetsk, staying afloat on attendances that barely scrape into four figures thanks to a no-frills recruitment policy, loan signings, academy products and Roman Sanzhar, an Eddie Howe-esque figure who played over 200 times for the club before taking over as manager in 2013.  Promoted at the end of Sanzhar's first season, Olimpik made a Ukrainian Cup semi-final in his second and the Europa League at the end of his fourth, the top-flight neophytes bested in the final standings only by the big two and Zorya Luhansk, yet another team playing hundreds of kilometres outside their hometown.

The third of four meetings between Zorya and Olimpik was played on a April afternoon in central Kyiv "Easily my favourite ground in Ukraine," Adrian Colley reckoned as we walked up to the white-columned entry gates, passing blokes flogging Zorya scraves, wizened babushkas hawking newspaper cones packed with sunflower seeds and a statue of Lobanovskiy leaning forward off a bench with his feet on a giant football.  At the ticket window we plumped for the posh seats - the extra 30p getting us armrests and a place in front of the press box while the 16 Zorya ultras slummed it above a spare set of goalposts and a corner flag.  The beer was 75p wherever you sat and the programme came free along with a five-minute lecture on Russian incursions into eastern Ukraine. "It's a war no matter what Putin tries to tell you," an Olimpik fan confided.  Behind him, a man strolled past in a t-shirt with a picture of a gun and the slogan 'It's an Uzi Life'.

Olimpik cracked the bar before Zorya took the lead,  Ivan Petryak lumbering unopposed down the left and the Brazilian Paulinho (no, not that one) heading into the corner of the net.  Almost the entire main stand clapped the scorer back to the halfway line while the ultras stripped to the waist and twirled scarves around their heads.  "Black and whites to victory," they chanted but Zorya missed out on a second goal when a striker shot against his own foot and conceded an equaliser from a looping header that prompted celebrations from a few scattered handfuls of the 1,138 crowd.  A lone Olimpik fan blew into a vuvuzela, the announcement of the attendance garnered a polite round of applause and Zorya ended up a player short, Artem Gordienko dismissed for protesting about the non-award of a penalty kick in the last minute of the game. "We understood they had more skill and we had to beat them for effort," Sanzhar said later. "It's hard," admitted Zorya's Yuri Koval.  "The general trend is that the quality is going down and the financial situation makes it hard for us to attract players."

The TV cameras packed up and the exiles drifted back towards Kreshchatyk, where thousands of people were going about their Sunday afternoon oblivious to the game next door. "That was alright for a quid," said Liverpool fan Jim, taking one last look at the semi-deserted ground. 

Admission:  40UAH (£1.10)
Date: Sunday April  30th 2017