Friday, 4 August 2017

Ground 318: Clandeboye Park, Bangor

"You hoped it couldn't get any worse," a Bangor fan remembered of his club's long descent down the league.  "But it did."  Relegated once on the pitch and twice off it, the Super Seasiders plummeted three divisions from the Northern Irish Premiership to the Ballymena & Provincial District Football League. "It took a while to sink in. Unimaginable. But maybe the shock was what the club needed."

Whatever else it was, dropping out of the Football League formed the catalyst for change elsewhere. "Season ticket sales are up, matches and balls sponsored, Friends of Bangor scheme in full flow,  new management team, clean up days organised, new website and fans returning in numbers," one forum poster celebrated after five new directors took control at Clandeboye Park.  "Bangor is the biggest club I've managed," incoming manager Hugh Sinclair told the club's website.  "We have the same vision for Bangor as we did when we set up the Supporters' Steering Group," pledged the new chairman.  "We want to take the club into the Premiership within five years and ensure Bangor FC is a community based club. We want to move forward in an open and transparent manner."

Half an hour from Belfast Central, Bangor was the end of the line.  "Straight down for Eisenhower Pier," the conductor told a couple of elderly Americans as the first of the day's showers blew in off the Irish Sea.  There was a single fisherman on the concrete, facing inland with his back to a mural of Eishenhower's send off to the fleet in Bangor Bay.  "From here we started the long, hard march to Allied victory," he told cheering crowds in Belfast the following year. Two walkers with golf umbrellas hurried by along the North Down Coastal Path, and a group of kids kicked a football between puddles in a car park nearby.  Bangor once produced players like Gerry Armstrong, Terry Neill, Steve Morrow and the effervescent Tommy Casey, an FA Cup winner with Newcastle United and a man "whose tackles called to mind a speeding bulldozer". "We got into the UEFA Cup one year and the Cup Winners' Cup another two," the fan told me later.  "Finished second in the league and won the Irish Cup and League Cup in the same season. We've been sinking for years, but things feel a lot brighter now."

The quarter hour walk from the train and bus station took in a kebab shop called Doner Trump and the site of the sixth century Bangor Abbey - smashed up by the Vikings in the town's first brush with continental opposition - before cutting up Church Street past a gospel hall and a house-end mural of a cow keeping goal.  There was a wooden table at the entrance and a gloriously quirky ground inside, almost every corner a new and unexpected delight.  The TV gantry was made of planks of wood and scaffolding poles, a stepladder strapped to one side with bits of rope.  Plastic office seats were scattered inside the dugouts and the main stand had four armchairs in the middle of the disabled section.  The curved terrace at the Clandeboye Road end was a reminder of the ground's former use as a go-kart track.  On one side there was a corrugated structure with holes in the roof and a fence tacked to the front to keep spectators out.  On the other, the club shop was in a portakabin between the grandstand and the toilet blocks, whose only sign of opulence was the bar of Imperial Leather stuck on the side of the sink.  A note on the door gave prices for club mugs and bar scarves. Season tickets, sponsored by a fish and chip shop, were just £70.

Sinclair's new-look side had put six goals past Groomsport, seen off Lower Shankill and Crumlin Star and lost 4-0 to Premiership champions Linfield.  Their fifth pre-season opponents, Albert Foundry, were another fourth-tier club, the two matched tackle for tackle and error for error in a full-blooded opening half.  Bangor took the lead half an hour in, the returning Johnny Bowers, the closest thing the Ballymena & Provincial District will see to a genuine trequartista this season, swinging a free kick in from the corner flag that clattered back off the post and past the keeper's flailing hand.  Seven minutes later, Marcus Beattie bundled in a leveller after Foundry broke clear down the left.  The bloke in the next seat sucked air through his teeth while two travelling fans in bobble hats clapped enthusiastically down below. 

The second half was evenly matched but largely uneventful. An unwilling Foundry coach tucked a linesman's flag under his arm, while another ran back to the changing rooms to fetch a substitute a pair of shorts and the right colour socks. The lights came on a lamp at a time. Bangor grazed the crossbar but the game played out at pre-season pace. "Decent workout," the fan next to me reckoned, "but none of this counts for anything if we don't get promoted this year."

Admission: £2
Date:  Tuesday August 1st 2017

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