Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The other St-Étienne and the real cod army

 I love the holiday snaps pages of the esteemed Groundtastic. “Sun, sea, sand? Where are the stadiums?”, asks the sub-headline of the feature. Previously it ran: “Why go to the beach when there are stadiums to be seen?” Why, indeed? There then follows photographic studies of such footballing outposts as the Cape Verde Islands (in the current edition) and, most memorably, a group of men packing into a two-tiered tiny rickety hut beside a dust bowl in Ethiopia looking more like they’re seeking to set an obscure world record than watch a football match. This is what we want.

I don’t prioritise stadium visits on holiday but I’m certainly not averse to a little diversion while on my travels especially if I’m travelling solo by bike which is often the way. While cycling in Provence in May you can only begin to imagine when my excitement when I found myself unwittingly on ‘Av Du Stade’ in the village of St-Étienne.
It led to the idyllic, Stade Municipal Joseph Veran, home of Football Club Saint-Étienne-du-Grès. A pumping station appeared to be part of the ground which also included a changing block and was surrounded by a rail and plane trees. The club competes in the Rhone-Durance Deuxieme Division pool D which I believe is the 14th level of French football.

The following month I pedalled down the Lofoten Islands in the Norwegian Arctic Circle and was even more surprised to come across two more football grounds. The first of them is in old fishing village of Henningsvær. It was completed only last year and has a pristine 3G playing surface. On top of the rocks surrounding the pitch are numerous racks for drying cod – or ‘stockfish’ as it’s known in this form (see lead pic and below). Heads and bodies are dried separately making for a slightly macabre sight to say nothing of the pong that practically pervades Lofoten.

Further down the archipelago I scrambled up the 448m Reinebringen peak for the spectacular view (below), probably the finest I’ve ever seen – and not just because of the football pitch that I spotted in Reine. A closer inspection was in order. Again the pitch is surrounding by stockfish racks. Built in 2008, it also boasts a substantial clubhouse with the club badge and ‘REINE IL 1939’ adorning one end of it.

Spectator accommodation is provided by two small wooden shelters and benches like those ordinarily used by subs et al, their backboards mimicking rorbu, the traditional fishermen’s cabins synonymous with the region. Throughout Lofoten the
mountains are extraordinary.

Just when I was about to declare the most spectacular mountain backdrop in European football I spotted this pic – taken at the first ever UEFA competition qualifying tie to take place in Gibraltar between Lincoln Red Imps and HB Tórshavn of the Faroe Islands. Possibly worth going on holiday to ‘The Rock’ for this alone. Whoops: nearly became a nerd again …
I finish with a pic of a quirky announcer’s box at an obscure non-league ground near Gothenburg. Paint a couple of eyes on the front window and I expect it would come alive. Blogger Peter Miles likes his grounds on holiday too.

Holiday reading: Here are a couple of Guardian articles left over from last season that I like because they reflect my point of view. One is about the manufactured rah-rah of places like Wembley and the other is about how the top Premier League clubs buy success rather than develop young players.

PS I wish that Blogger displayed pics to a larger size. To see them in their full glory click on any pic or alternatively click here for the full album.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Eccleshill United 2 Knaresborough Town 2 (aet, Knaresborough win 4-2 on pens)

Northern Counties East League Cup final
Attendance: 390

“What’s it like to not see a crowd?” I’ve often wondered. I’d been planning for the novel experience of watching a football match in a near empty stadium at the Wakefield Wildcats’ rugby league ground used by Wakefield FC but they’ve recently announced they’re dropping a division and moving back in with the missus at AFC Emley, a village club. Knaresborough Town, the non-league team nearest to home, presented another opportunity to rattle around in a big ground by virtue of an exceptional cup run.

Admitted to the Northern Counties East League for the first time only last season, Town were drawn away in all five rounds in the League Cup and won the lot, three of them against higher division opposition, to find themselves in the final at Valley Parade, Bradford. The opposition was Bradford-based and also first division (i.e. step 6) Eccleshill United. They went into the match hoping for an unlikely cup double following their shock victory against step 2 Harrogate Town (Harrogate is conjoined to Knaresborough) in the West Riding County Cup final at the same venue only last month. So this, Knaresborough’s biggest match of all-time, was my biggest little match of the season and, in the absence of any tasty Northern Premier League play-offs and on a pleasant spring day, I was rather looking forward to it. All I needed was a black and red scarf …

It made a change for my destination ground to be big enough for listing on the sat nav. Ecclehill wouldn’t have needed such technical assistance; their home is just 2½ miles away and is used by Bradford for reserve fixtures. An obvious venue, then, what with the Bantams playing away today. Parking predictably wasn’t a problem. In fact, only the sight of the Knaresborough coach outside the ground confirmed there was a game on. As my son and I approached what I thought was the PA music turned out to be the jingle of an ice cream van and, once inside the outer perimeter, I had to ask a steward where the turnstile was. Inside the 390 spectators (1% of capacity) were liberally spread over the one stand open for the occasion. It must feel a bit like this if you break into a stadium.
The fella from the Knaresborough Post had the press box to himself (above). There did appear to be another scribe but he preferred to have his own block of seats. “I paid £3 for this seat and I’ve only seen a quarter of the match”, whinged an OAP at some of the Knaresborough blazers who were blocking his view by watching standing up. Full admission was only £2 more. Cheapest ticket of the season – and for a cup final at a League ground to boot.

Claps echoed. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any quieter we had a minute’s silence – for the murdered Leeds school teacher. Once the game was under way the volume increased. Fans mostly called out to players by their first names not through over-familiarity but, I suspect, because many of the supporters were friends and family.

Refreshingly, the teams wore shirts simply numbered from 1-11. As it happens, the names were so unusual (Tyler Tanango among them) they were worthy of sartorial display. Bizarrely, 18 out of the 28 Eccleshill squad members listed in the programme were American. Why? The club has an unlikely link with the Leeds-based Richmond International Academic and Soccer Academy which gives US students competitive football experience with Eccleshill. Other players are from Canada, Palestine, Ghana and Slovakia with only three local lads.

I did wonder if the Eccleshill juniors in the crowd, proudly sporting full blue and white kit, will ever have the chance to progress to the senior teams. The club comes across as an odd blend of community club and, well, franchise although I may be wrong. Knaresborough had a continental too in the form of Weston Murau from Zimbabwe. He originally turned up at the club at the start of the season to watch this brother play. The Knaresborough goalie didn’t show so Weston took his place.

His side came bursting out of the traps and took an early lead when a cross was struck in at the near post. Eccleshill soon got into the match, though, and took the lead with two headers in three minutes (one of them, above). The match ebbed and flowed and the chances came thick and fast until Knaresborough equalised at the start of the second half with another header from a fine cross.

Ee-eye-addy-oh, he's won the cup!
I overheard that their Reserves had taken the lead and were on course for the West Yorkshire League. Frankly, does it get any better? Well, actually, yes. The match deteriorated. I’m no football connoisseur but even I know woeful defending the shooting when I see it – and I saw a lot of it. There was still plenty of cut and thrust and chances at both ends, though, to maintain the entertainment value.

The additional 30 mins also ended in stalemate so we went to penalties. While they were being organised the cup was brought out by the same old geezer who was silverware custodian on that unforgettable night at Tadcaster four years ago. I daresay the black bag from whence the cup came was the same too – and possibly the small table it stood on. No fancy podiums and fireworks at this level, thanks goodness.
Knaresborough won the shoot-out 4-2. For Weston (above), who saved one of the penalties and was named Knaresborough’s man of the match, these are the things the things that dreams are made of. (It probably wasn't an outcome he was expecting when he arrived at the ground without his gloves and had to borrow some from the reserve keeper.) There will be dancing on streets of Knaresborough – and Harare – tonight. For me the afternoon had been an unexpected birthday treat.

Star turn: Coming on as sub for Knaresborough in extra-time was Frenchman Seb Carole, formerly of Monaco (including Champions League appearances), Leeds (41 games)… and the wonderfully named village side, Burton Leonard Squirrel.

Video clip: Click here for some footage of Knaresborough's celebration following the winning penalty complete with my lad roaring his delight despite this being the first time he's even seen the team.

Harrogate’s other big match: Some ex-pros including Nigel Martyn, Bruce Grobbelaar and Danny Mills played in a five-a-side match on a pitch somehow shoehorned into Harrogate’s grand Edwardian Royal Hall on Monday. Wonderfully quirky occasion from the look of it. Here is the full story.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Tow Law Town 1 South Shields 1

Northern League, second division
Attendance: 170

There are many interesting grounds at the lower levels of the non-league pyramid but I still need a reason, however slim, to visit them or else I just end up feeling like anorak (which, of course, I'm not). The problem is that smaller clubs seldom have notable matches nor last long in the FA Cup.

Tow Law Town, in rural Durham, has long been on my hit list. As soon as I heard they were playing their 3,000th match I was programming the sat nav. Chris Waddle, their illustrious allumni, wouldn’t be there but, heh, it sounded like an event of sorts and there was free admission to boot, all of which roughly trebled the average home gate. Community spirit was positively oozing out of the packed sports bar, above, named after Steve Howard (ex-Luton and Leicester and Tow Law’s second greatest ex-player). Inside people played dominoes and there was a display of the club’s history including the scrapbooks and programmes of late superfan Lily Craggs. The scene was set for a vintage afternoon in many respects. The Northern League is as close as you can get to sporting time travel and I absolutely love it.

Bob and Elsie
The occasion started with a pitch invasion. It couldn’t have been more benign or more fully authorised: the League chairman beckoned us over to join him and the dignitaries for a photocall. This year the League celebrates its 125th anniversary and guest of honour today was Bob Rogers, grandson of its founder who has flown over from Hong Kong for the various celebrations including Tow Law’s 3,000th match. He said that Tow Law reminded him of small town outback Australia where, as a young man, he had worked as a farm hand. Also present was the widow of His Royal Sir Bobby Robsonness who is Tow Law’s president. (Bobby was merely vice-president and both of them will have appreciated the home side’s black and white strip).

Everything I’d read about Ironworks Road Ground had remarked on how cold it gets up there at the second highest football ground in England (behind Buxton). I’d always had in mind a midwinter visit to experience full Pennine exposure and thought I was wimping out going in spring. Not a bit of it: I needed each of my five layers.

As you’d expect at such a high altitude, the views beyond the main stand are superb stretching across Weardale. And also as you might expect, the ground includes a wind turbine that I expect seldom stops for long. It’s sited on the top of six terraces along the back of which a railway line used to run. A train driver once stopped to ask the score.

I don’t normally like the club name or nickname picked out in their main stand but when the letters aren’t printed on seats but handpainted on a brickwall as is the case of ‘The Lawyers’ I’m willing to make an exception. The mural at the back of the stand is nothing short of a masterpiece, the figure of a judge picked out in meticulous detail. The art reminded me of well dressing in Derbyshire and, appropriately in these parts, the banners of mining unions.

You could argue that the murals should show someone from the old ironworks or mines as Tow Law is much more associated with that type of employment than the legal profession;  the nickname is purely a play on words, Tow Law being the Old English for ‘look-out mound’. The words ‘home’ and ‘away’ on the dugouts and the ‘litter’ on the bin are handpainted and there’s another superb enamel on wood artwork, above, behind one of the goals. Someone is a dab hand with a paintbrush to say the very least.

Either side of the second painting are two single rows of 13 flip-up seats (in black and white like the grandstand) with a notice above saying that no standing is allowed in front of them in compliance with FA rules. I can’t think that has been much of an issue in recent years. Tow Law have had their big moments, though, most notably a run to the final of the FA Vase run in 1998 and a 5-1 FA Cup thrashing of then third division Mansfield in 1967 in front of 5,500 spectators. Just beyond one of the rows of seats in a corner is what looks like a escape hatch in the perimeter wall or, from the outside, the entrance to a burial chamber.

The first half was pretty uneventful but the match improved after the interval. The Lawyers took the lead on 68 mins with a deflected shot only for Shields to spoil the party 12 mins later with a similar blaster from the edge of the box. The Mariners could’ve won it, hitting the bar and missing an open goal from five yards out in the lively closing minutes.

So: P 3,000, W 1,246, D 565, L 1,189, F 5,701, A 5,680. A draw only today, perhaps, but Tow Law’s 3,000th was a darn sight more successful than Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th!

Programme notes: The ref was Mr P Osgood. No relation, surely? The Tow Law reserve goalie’s claim to fame is appearing in Status Quo’s video for Jam Side Down filmed on HMS Ark Royal. Great story too about a Tow Law fan from Italy who comes over for a match at least once a season and it’s always nice to see an ad from the milkman in a programme.

Golden oldie: It’s been a gala weekend of nostalgia for the Chris Waddle Fan Club. Members could’ve been part of his original club’s history today then, tomorrow, watch the great man in action with his All Stars team in a charity match at Hallam in Sheffield.

Second best (not really): Dulwich Hamlet of the Isthmian League are the only club in the national league system who’ve played more games than Tow Law in the same competition.

A horse on the pitch: While in the Durham fells I visited two former Northern League grounds. The home of Stanley United (which left the league in 1974) is now a field for horses, sheep and cattle and an old stand is a barn. The much-loved ‘little house on the prairie’ which once provided the changing rooms and clubhouse has long gone but an advertising hoarding for British Coal poignantly remains.

The other ground was Hazel Grove in Cockfield, the “wonder village” as it was dubbed after reaching the final of the FA Amateur Cup in 1928. The pitch is still railed and a new clubhouse is under construction. Players will continue to enter the pitch between two dugouts that have survived for at least 20 years according to old pictures. Either side of them are the stumps of two wooden poles that used to support a canopy connecting to the old clubhouse. For more on these two grounds see their guides on the excellent Pyramid Passion.