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.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Newton Aycliffe 3 West Auckland 1 (aet)

Durham County FA Challenge Cup final
Attendance: 604

Setting off for a cup final after breakfast on a Friday seemed somehow wrong but on arrival at the Eppleton Colliery Welfare ground in Hetton le Hole for an 11am kick-off everything suddenly seemed right and any reservations I had about going to the match were dispelled.

Bathed in spring sunshine the setting was supreme. What better way to start the Bank Holiday weekend? A couple of other spectators were already discussing a potential double-header at Crook and Spennymoor the following day. Another had more immediate, food concerns. “Burgers?” asked his companion. “It’s Good Friday. You canna have burgers! Fish and chips on the way ho-um!” Children played games pushing sticks into the ground, lots of people were in t-shirts and one chap had even broken out the deckchair in honour of the occasion. The scene reminded me of another bank holiday cup final at Thornaby last May. Today was just the tonic for the endless, grey, wet winter. I set the camera to ISO50 for the first time for months and memories of that sodden afternoon at Penistone Church were soon banished.

The ground used to be home to Eppleton Colliery Welfare. In 1999 Sunderland City Council announced the investment of £2.2m in the redevelopment of the ground, a move heralded by then chairman as “the most exciting thing every to have happened to us.” His dreams didn’t last long. Eppleton, Durham County Cup winners in 1990, dropped out of the Northern League after an 11-season spell in 2003, having won just 23 matches in their last six seasons. They folded two years later since when Sunderland under 21s and Sunderland Ladies (Twitter hashtag: ‘howaythelasses’) have taken up tenancy.

Eppleton’s loss is most certainly Sunderland’s gain. Today the stadium looks fantastic and the pitch pristine, although slightly sloping. Only the corner entrance (see above) through a tall wall gives the hint of its origins, a little reminiscent of the entry to Tow Law Town. There is just one stand, built in 1992. The other elevated viewpoint is the balcony of the Bob Paisley Bar (see below) within the Hetton Centre behind one of the goals which was constructed for the community as part of the ground’s redevelopment. Access to the balcony – more the sort of feature you get at rugby grounds – isn’t obvious as your correspondent found out. A gate in the fence below the balcony leads to an enclosed grassed area and directions from the lads watching from above just led me to another blind corner much to their mirth. You have to exit the ground completely then enter the Hetton Centre.

From a quick check of the semi-final results I expected Whickham to be opposing Newton Aycliffe, having defeated West Auckland 3-0 but they were subsequently expelled from the competition having fielded an ineligible player. West Auckland progressed in similar fashion when Darlington 1883 were thrown out ahead of their first round clash. In fact, West had only won twice in the five rounds to the final having been exempt from the first round.

Newton Aycliffe, competing in their first ever County Cup final, are managed by Peter Dixon who left West Auckland following a fall-out with the board in October 2014 taking most of the team with him (eight of Newton’s starters today had previously played for West), all of which gave an extra edge to today’s encounter.

West Auckland took the lead after just four minutes when a drive by Hudson took a couple of deflections on its way into the net. Newton Aycliffe, having had the lion’s share of possession for most of the match, deservedley levelled on 54 minutes with a chest down and volley into the top corner by Campbell. They won the cup with two goals in the first half of extra-time, one a freekick bent around the wall by Knight and the other coming at the end of a solo 30-yard run by Garthwaite. Both lads sprinted over to the balcony to peel their shirts off below their squad mates on the balcony and get booked as a result. There was more leaping around and high japes at the trophy presentation. County Cup? Felt like the FA Cup! What a good Friday.

Highlights: For 20 mins of highlights courtesy of North Shields FC TV click here. I don’t have room for all the pics this time but click here for the full album.

Famous sons: Hetton le Hole’s most famous footballing son is ex-Liverpool manager Bob Paisley who died just over 20 years ago. It’s surprising the whole ground or community centre isn’t named after him although perhaps fitting that Eppleton are still remembered in the name. The town has a memorial to the man rather than a statue and he was never knighted.  Bob’s father worked down the pit and Bob played for Hetton Juniors at the Eppleton ground as a teenager. “It all started when young Robert got his hands on a pig’s bladder from his uncle’s butchers shop,” says a feature about Bob’s origins framed on the wall of the Hetton Centre. Nearby is a brass memorial plaque to the seven men who died in a pit explosion in 1951. Bob described Hetton as “a close-knit community where coal was king and football was religion”.

The village was also once home to Harry Potts, who managed Burnley during a successful period in the 60s; Ralph Coates (bizarrely my favourite footballer when I was a boy), ex-Tottenham in the 70s; and Kevin Keegan’s granddad.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Morpeth Town 2 Bristol Manor Farm 0

FA Vase quarter final
Attendance: 718

We’d all been on a journey to reach this match. Bristol Manor Farm had driven 314 miles having come a similar distance for the previous round at Sunderland RCA. The hosts, meanwhile, had taken 108 days to get to this point. Astonishingly, that’s how long it had been since their last home match (on November 11), the intervening fixtures having been postponed due to a waterlogged pitch. They last played at home on a Saturday the weekend the clocks went back.

Before the monsoon they began their Vase campaign with a 5-4 win with the last touch of the game at West Didsbury & Chorlton having been 4-0 up at half-time. They had a walkover in the second round when 1874 Northwich were unable to field a team for tie rearranged for midweek. The next match due to take place at South Shields was postponed eight times before being staged on Consett's 3G pitch, Morpeth winning a thriller 10-9 on penalties. Morpeth surrendered home advantage to get the fourth round tie played at Vase holders North Shields in a gale. Then came a long trip to Hertfordshire to beat Berkhamsted and so to today. My journey was a bike ride along Druridge Bay in the morning (see last pic). Always nice to make a full day out of a fixture if you can. This was the furthest north I’d ever watched a match.

I approached the ground on a country lane. “Prepare to navigate off-road,” instructed the sat nav. Ah. The “off road” bit was actually the track to the car park. That was full so drivers were told to return the way we came and take the first right. This led towards a farmhouse and again I thought I’d gone wrong but, no, an expected dog leg led to pitchside. I parked right behind one of the goals. All this for £6. What a bargain. That would barely buy you a cuppa in the Millionnaire League.

As soon as I stepped out of the car I knew I was going to enjoy this one. Craik Park boasts a superb, secluded, sylvan setting that would be heaven on a summer’s day. Tall trees surround the pitch, conifers (or is it a giant hedge?) on two sides and deciduous on another in a style that brings to mind Guisborough’s ground. The clubhouse and changing rooms are half-hidden in the woods (see below). The whole place has the feel of a Scout campsite than a football ground. As modern grounds go (Craik was purpose-built in 1994) the scene takes some beating.

The main stand is set back from pitchside, the gap to the touchline denoting where a running track used to run. Opposite is a new barn-like cover (see below) but the eye is caught by a peculiar small, temporary stand just 10-seats wide that is positioned behind one of the goals as if mimicking it (see first pic). You feel that just by removing a couple of strategically placed steel rods the whole thing could collapse in an instant. There is a similar structure at Tadcaster Albion. The club had had heaters on the pitch all week to get the game on. Across large swathes the surface was as soft as putty.

Considering this was what the club described as “the most important match in our long 132-year history” they may have been a little disappointed that the gate didn’t reach four figures. The only sound was the shrill shreiks from the young lads behind the goal that brought to mind those England schoolboy internationals at old Wembley. (Always great to see so many youngsters enthusiastically supporting their local, non-league team).

In an exciting, end-to-end game Morpeth took an early lead when Swailes (see ‘Old warhorse’ below) scored with a flying header from a corner. They pretty much bossed the rest of the half and should’ve put the tie to bed by half-time given the number of good chances they had. Bristol, who came into the match off the back of 13 straight wins, had the better of the second half and richly deserved an equaliser. I felt sorry for them when, in the dying seconds, Morpeth sealed victory – and that with a tap-in following a mis-hit.
So the journey continues for The Highwaymen (see below). They will be travelling precisely the same distance as Bristol did today – to Bowers & Pitsea in darkest Essex for the semi-final first leg. Assuming the tie is still alive for the second I highly recommended going along. There will be a good craic at Craik, to be sure.

Names that stand and deliver: I always like nicknames that both reflect a club’s location and have an air of menace. The Highwaymen, the nickname for Morpeth, a town located on the old Great North Road, is a cracker.

Old warhorse: You wouldn’t pick a fight with 45-year-old Chris Swailes of Morpeth. He looks as hard as nails. Click here for an interesting profile on the ex-Ipswich, Bury and Rotherham defender. He’s described as having a “love affair with the Vase”. Ooh, err, missus.

Pics and clips: Bristol Manor Farm went to Craik from their home ground, The Creek. Click here for pics of a match there in 2011. The club is the only one in steps 1-6 with ‘farm’ in its title which relates to the city’s Manor Farm estate. Highlights of today’s game are here.