Sunday, 8 May 2016

AFC Fylde 1 Harrogate Town 1 (2-1 on agg)

National League North, play-off semi-final (second leg)
Attendance: 1,384

AFC Fylde’s smart ground is peculiarly located in more ways than one. You find it down a country lane surrounded by fields, round the back of a pub just outside Warton, a village between Preston and Lytham St Annes. What’s more it’s confusing that the club, nicknamed The Coasters and styling itself as “the football club of the Fylde coast”, isn’t actually located on the coast while longer established Blackpool and Fleetwood are. But probably best not to mention them in these parts ...

As a modern ground I wasn’t expecting to like Kellamergh Park but what an understated little gem it is. It’s easy to imagine Fylde playing here in the North West Counties League just seven years ago. Despite being purpose-built the ground still has quirky features including a slightly retro LED scoreboard, bird hide-style video gantry on a roof and two VIP lounges housed in the poshest converted shipping containers I’ve ever seen both within a yard or two of the touchline. The pitch was as immaculate as a golf course and, in keeping with the comparison, had two sanded areas. The ground is so small and open you can see the visiting club’s coach in the car park and sheep grazing behind the dug-outs. It’s as bucolic as Esh Winning or Thackley and also in part reminiscent of some of those pristine Premier League training pitches you get hidden out in the sticks.

Today’s match was the last at Kellamergh. Just a decade after building it Fylde will move to the new Mill Farm venue for next season. The current stadium was always going to be a means to an end for the club’s ambitious millionaire chairman David Haythornwaite (who owns an animal feeds business). I wonder what will happen to Kellamergh after the move. Perhaps the land will revert to agricultural use as though a football club never played here at all, the temporary encampment having served its purpose on the club’s march towards bigger battles.

On a sunny day with the temperature soaring to 25C Kellamergh was a fantastic setting for a match. There’s a good family feel to the place too a bit like at Guiseley while the 200 or so Harrogate fans, who chanted and drummed from start to finish, also contributed to a crackling atmosphere. They sung “I’m feeling Town all over” (an unlikely appropriation of little Tadcaster’s signature song, “Tad all over”) and “We’re just a town full of tea shops” standing shoulder to shoulder with the Fylde chanters and sometimes joining with them for a song. No need for segregation here at all. The occasion was a wonderful advertisement for the conviviality of non-league football.

Fylde took the lead with a rasping, goal of the season contender on 11 mins. Being 1-0 down from the previous leg you might have thought the visitors would’ve crumbled. But no, they hit back within minutes with a far post stroke-in from a low cross and maintained the pressure during a tense second half, having the lion’s share of possession but rarely converting it into clear-cut chances against a resolute home defence. Fylde won a penalty with 15 mins only for it be to saved keeping Harrogate’s dreams alive. In the fourth minute of injury time a cross flashed across the Fylde box only for a flying Cooper to miss connection by inches. We held our heads and howled. It was like Gazza in the Euro ’96 semi-final all over again. That was the moment – or should’ve been.

You could acuse Harrogate of being chokers in big matches from the past but not today. They fought valiantly and tirelessly but paid the price for the first leg defeat. Great day out. Pity about the result.

Make a day of it: If you go to see Fylde next season I recommend a 21-mile largely off-road bike ride around Preston called the Guild Wheel. The well signed route is full of variety and interest and includes the Brockholes nature reserve. I also came across Preston docks (never knew they existed) and a railed football pitch with two rusty old dug out shelters idyllically located on the banks of the Ribble.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Northallerton Town 0 South Shields 1

Northern League, second division
Attendance: 185

A lot’s been happening in Shields. To the north of the Tyne FA Vase holders, North Shields, are drawing 350+ spectators a week, the first division’s highest average while on the other side of the estuary and a division lower South Shields are drawing crowds of 600+, surely unprecedented for a non-phoenix, step six club. Why? Well, in the south it’s down the support of local businessman, Gary Thompson, who owns a utility management company. He bought the club last summer and relocated it back to the South Shields after a period in exile in Peterlee. The Shields ground had been closed due to disputes with the then landlord.

Thompson has since invested in the club by, for instance, substantially improving the  clubhouse and signing ex-Middlesbrough and Sunderland star Julio Arca. (He didn’t play today but still came along). Certainly, the club’s profile has changed hugely since I last saw them two years ago. Backed by a large town with a population of 80,000, The Mariners sailed away at the top of the table. Where and when will it all end? Who knows – the owner is targeting the National League and a new stadium – but, for the moment at least, all aboard to enjoy the ride.

I’d been planning to jump on the bandwagon last December at the Vase tie against Morpeth Town but when the match was finally played at Consett after umpteen postponements I couldn’t make it. Subsequent opportunities past me by and so it was I finally got to see Shields in their last match of the season against my most local Northern League side and their first opponents back in August.

Last week I watched Tadcaster Albion win the Northern Counties East League wrapped up in the five layers, a hat and gloves. “I should’ve worn pyjamas under my trousers,” said one spectator. “What?” replied his mate. “Do you fancy a nap at half-time?”. Thankfully today conditions were just as you’d expect them to be when contemplating fixtures in late April or early May. Spring is here.

The talk on the terraces was about that team beginning with ‘L’. In truth whichever match fans chose following the thrilling weekend Premier League double-header it was going to be something of an anti-climax and so it proved. Furthermore, Shields, starting the match following seven straight wins, had secured promotion five games ago and Northallerton had lifted the Ernest Armstrong Memorial Trophy two days earlier. Accordingly, the attendance was lower than it would’ve been had the fixture been played on the original date in January.

Having nothing to play for didn’t stop a vocal knot of about 20 Northallerton teenagers chanting for most of the match, a rare sound at step six. They call their side just “’Allerton” which is what you might have thought was the full name of the club judging from the sign on the grandstand when I visited previously in 2004 (see above). The ground remains unremarkable. “If you all hate Geordies hold a shoe,” jested the fans, footwear in hand. The Shields fans replied when their side scored the only goal with 12 minutes to go: “Get your shoes off for the lads”.

As the sky turned orange at sunset the Shields manager urged his players on for the last time this season: “Come on. Just half an hour then you can have a rest.” At the end the Shields fans jokingly booed the ref as he approached the tunnel. He responded with a theatrical bow, smiling. The gesture was fitting. I’d caught up with Shields in time only for their curtain call. I shall have to take my seat earlier next season for the Shields first division derby perhaps. Now that will be a tasty encounter.

Programme notes: A ‘thought for the day’ was a passage from the gospel of John and it’s always useful to be reminded when a game (or, at least, it’s original date) coincides with the Cambodian New Year.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Castleford Tigers 16 Hull Kingston Rovers 58

Super League
Attendance: 7,106

God, I felt like a southerner today as if I had “southern softy” tattooed on my forehead. Over 20 years after relocating from London to York I went to my first rugby league match. In fact I felt more foreign in a stadium than I have done since going to the Corsica Cup final four years ago and I was only 20 miles from home.

“I haven’t been here before. Are there open terraces or is it all fixed seating?” I asked a security man outside the ground. After that I didn’t need to disclose my origins again and, with access all areas, set about wandering around this vintage brick and corrugated steel sporting arena. I’d wanted to visit for some years but never got around to it and was conscious that time was starting to run out because ‘Cas’, as all the fans call them, are due to move to a new stadium in two years.

It was unusual to be in a such a large and full ground with terraces on three sides. The open, railway end, reminded me of dear old Elm Park which is no bad thing in my book. The creeky old seated grandstand with its two giant floodlight pylons partly obscuring the view is the main feature and, looming behind the terrace to its right are three chimneys that provide some northern, industrial context.

The spectators provided plenty more. I’d guess that the vast majority of them live within a few miles of the ground and come to every game and there was a refreshing apparent absence of corporatisation, the stadium name apart (see notes at the end). The sense of community, forged in Castleford’s mining days, is extraordinarily strong. Despite drawing large crowds Super League passes by most UK sports fans to the extent that going to a match feels a bit like joining a cult for the afternoon. But there’s nothing out of the ordinary about it in industrial towns across Yorkshire and Lancashire where rugby league seem to provide a regular family outing like baseball in the US. Everyone goes to the game from nippers in pushchairs to youths, parents and grandparents with an even split between the sexes. The older women berate the players like handbag-wielding grannies used to scream at wrestlers in the 70s.

The girls aspire to be in the Castleford Tigers Paws cheerleaders, a formidable platoon of 30 or so pom-pom shaking lasses in their teens and 20s who paraded single-file onto the pitch like Take me Out contestants. You could almost smell the perfume from the touchline. Some will have started in the Paws Dance Academy. I suppose cheerleaders are another unlikely connection with baseball.

The match (highlights here) was as one-sided as the result suggests. KR ran in 11 tries and Cas didn’t score at all in the second half. “The more we went after it, the worst we got,” said Cas coach Daryl Powell. Too true. The Tigers weren’t roaring today and didn’t make the game much of a contest but it was still an enjoyable and unsual occasion for me and a type of northern exposure that all newcomers to this region should experience.

Name games: Cas’s ground name is a bizarre hybrid. Originally built for the town’s short-lived football club in 1926, The Jungle was renamed two seasons ago as the Mend-a-Hose Jungle following a deal with local firm Mend-A-Hose which makes fluid connector products. The Paws cheer leaders danced at half-time to Welcome to the Jungle by Guns and Roses as well as, predictably, Eye of the Tiger. How about Abba’s I am a Tiger and Tiger Feet by Mud?

For full album of pics click here.