Saturday, 25 August 2012

Crook Town 4 Holker Old Boys 4

FA Cup preliminary round
Attendance: 98

August 11th was just too early for the football season to start – even if it is the FA Cup and certainly while the Olympics are on. A match at the same time as all those running races was like contemplating dessert before you’ve finished the main course: too much to even think about let alone digest. So I bypassed the extra preliminary round a fortnight ago. Pleasingly, the club I’d planned to visit, Crook (in Co Durham), won their tie and were drawn at home in the following round. This is likely to be their final season or two at their ground – the most highly rated in the Northern League – and I wanted to visit in the Cup while I could.

The Millfield does not disappoint. For a start it has two tunnels. The away team snake down a passageway that looks more likely to lead to a sheep dip than football pitch while the hosts step out through a pair of upside down garden gates. The ground’s record attendance is an astonishing 17,000 who packed in for an Amateur Cup quarter-final in 1952 (see ‘Recommended bedtime reading’, below). It would’ve been a squeeze but it’s relatively easy to imagine how the ground could’ve held such a number. I suspect that the two sides that are now grassy banks were once terraces and the area behind one goal still is - and with robust-looking crash barriers to boot. There are nine terraces too in a bizarre stand around the corner that’s roof is so high and upward pointing that it looks like it was specifically designed to catch the wind and allow rain to sweep under it. Huge painted arrows on the back of the stand direct navigationally challenged spectators to … well, the tea hut, I suppose. Pride of place goes to the 1925 grandstand astride the half-way line with painted wooden bench seats and a floodlight pylon sprouting through the roof like a weed through matting.

Crook were the stronger team and, when they took a two-goal lead after about 20 mins, you felt that the tie was over. The Old Boys (great name, by the way, and they’re from Barrow) then struck back to score with two goals from their first two chances. Crook nudged ahead again to make it 3-2 and spent most of the second half failing to take the opportunity to put the tie to bed.

Meanwhile, they left themselves open at the back and paid the price when the Old Boys scored twice as they’d been promising to do. The goal of the match was Crook’s equaliser: a spectacular overhead volley by hat-trick man Byrne from a cross after which he again revealed his undershirt which bore a message about chips. (I couldn’t read all of it). My man of the match was Kev Devine. Barrell-chested and getting on a bit, Kev writhed and rolled his way around the pitch like an angry bull. All we needed was the winner from him – but, sadly, it never came.

“We don’t want to go to Holker,” bawled a fan. “They’ve got outside netties!” Later someone said to the Crook manager: “Here. Gary. Get that left back off!”. Gary replied: “He’s coming off in a minute.” The fan/club contact couldn’t be closer at this level. Another fella was recalling a cup tie in 1952, when he was five and among a 4,000 crowd around a snowy pitch. He won’t have been the only spectator with such memories given that the average age of the attendance was about 75. Several had stoops, wore wooly hats (in August) and looked like they should be called Tommy. You can always rely on the good ole Northern League for a really retro experience.

What a way to start this season’s FA Cup trail. I doubt I will see a more entertaining and passionate contest. Just a fortnight after the Olympics my faith in football (at least, non-league) is restored. I was originally saving Crook for a grim, slate grey winter’s day to give me the full feel of one of those vintage black and white photographs. Towards the end of today’s match the drizzle and mist thickened and I zipped my cagoule right up. My afternoon was complete. (Holker won the replay 3-1).

Recommended bedtime reading: I’ve bought the Crook AFC Chronicle. The club’s history is extraordinary. It includes 10 matches against Barcelona; a former player whom went on to manager Barce and Peru; regular five figure crowds during a run of Amateur Cup triumphs in the 1950s and 60s; a tour of India in 1976; and recent £50k donation out of the blue by local boy and former president of Arriva group, Sir Tom Cowie, after whom the ground was partially re-named. Click here for a brief online history. Love this pic – of the 1962-63 side with a game dame.

Recommended online reading: Alderney played Sealand, a principality that is a former World War fortress in the North Sea, in an international friendly today. Click here for report and pics.

Stars in their eyes: Wembley has signed five ex-pros viz Ray Parlour, Martin Keown, Brian McBride, David Seaman, Graham Le Saux and Claudio Caniggia and appointed Terry Venables as advisor for their FA Cup campaign. It’s base a ruse conjured up by competition sponsors, Budweiser. All that was missing was a couple of EastEnders and an X-Factor reject. Dunno if this is really what the spirit of the Cup is all about but it certainly added considerable interest to their opening match. In this video clip their manager says that only Parlour and Keown are hanging around for the next tie.

Mad hop: A groundhop in Wales this bank holiday weekend took in 11 clubs (most with unpronounceable names) in three days. They do say that groundhopping has a lot in common with trainspotting …