Saturday, 15 February 2014

Billingham Town 1 Crook Town 4

Northern League first division
Attendance: c 100 tbc

When I read that Billingham Town were in danger of recording the highest number of goals conceded by a Northern League club in a season (see footnotes) I immediately consulted their fixture list hoping either to witness a rare fist-pumping win (they’ve only won once all season) or a goal feast. Town’s new manager was in charge for the first time so perhaps the former outcome was more likely. Either way a trip to the Teesside would get me out of the house on another of those miserable, grey February afternoons.

Billy was, indeed, chilly. I stepped out of the car straight into a giant puddle and the match started in spitting rain. Just inside the turnstile my son asked quite reasonably: “What’s that bus shelter doing there?” There were two in fact: on their backs, taped off and with the timetable for the service between Stockton High Street and Peterlee still attached. They will provide cover for spectators in wheelchairs.

Bedford Terrace (as the ground is humbly named) has two stands: one basic, modern steel shelter on the far side and a cantilever grandstand clad in blue corrugated steel and with a peculiar shape when viewed from either end. I also liked the way that the respective directors’ boxes are accessed either side of the tunnel. Above them in the middle is the announcer’s box which, with its veneer panelling and stark single striplight looks like the accounts office in a garage. Curiously, you can’t access one side of the stand from the other without exiting and going right around the back and you have to leave the ground to enter the clubhouse via the car park.
The ground sits within a cleft of railway lines. Trainspotters get a great view from the grandstand of passing traffic which today included two coal trains, Arriva trains and Grand Central trains. Three cooling towers of the town’s chemical works loom at a distance over another corner of the ground.

Predictably, the match was a very one-sided affair in favour of the visitors right from the start. Billy held on for the first 32 mins though until a defender sliced a clearance into his own net. It never rains but it pours, to be use a topical metaphor. Crook doubled the lead and would have gone in at the break five or six goals ahead had it not been for their proligacy in front of goal.

In the second half Billy got one back, a neat move and wall pass in the penalty area resulting in a tap in. The scorer, his team and the home support seemed equally surprised as if waiting for an offside whistle. But no they had actually scored. “What’s it like to score a goal?” one Crook fan meanly yelled. The announcer followed up with: “The scorer of Billingham’s first goal of the year is Matthew Dixon!”. The side’s duck stretches back over 12 hours of football to Dec 21.

The goal gave Billy something to build on – for the rest of the season if not this match since, after a brief purple patch when an equaliser briefly seemed conceivable, they went 3-1 down to a header. Crook ended the match by reasserting their dominance and with the best goal of the afternoon. Nicholls burst through the home defence and angled a drive into the top corner. Next up: a friendly against a York City XI on Tuesday which gives the new gaffer (love that lingo) another chance to shape his team.

The weather had cleared up considerably in the second half and what I think is called the sun started shining. The floodlights remained off and I drove home on the A19 under a prawn pink sky. Smidgeons of spring at the end of a wild, wintery week. For me that was the best result of all.

Record breakers: The record for the most goals conceded by a Northern League club in a season is 177 by the now defunct Ferryhill Athletic in 1996/97 when eight fewer matches were played. Today’s match puts Billy on 163 in the ‘A’ column, just 15 goals away from ignomony with 10 games remaining. Hmmm. Their nadir this season was the 14-0 pasting against Stockton Town in the Durham Challenge Cup in November followed by an 11-0 defeat by Celtic Nation just three weeks later.

Players, please: Billy have registered 85 players in total this season which was nearly as high as today’s attendance. Six lads made debuts today. The club’s most celebrated ex-player is Garry Pallister of Middlesbrough, Man United and England.

Old and new media: To find out if today’s match was on I rang the Northern League’s postponement line. Almost as quaint as the League still operating a Clubcall service (currently suspended). Whatever next? Teletext?

True colours: Here are some impressively liveried Crook supporters. I don’t know which is more impressive: the black and gold of the dog’s jacket or the umbrella.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Otley 14 Sedgley Park 12

National League, Division Two (North)
Attendance: 302
I rarely watch rugger but the football match I’d planned to see (AFC Darwen v. 1874 Northwich) was postponed and I’d wanted to visit Otley rugby club ever since seeing some pics of its so-called scratching shed which is how I ended up in West Yorkshire rather than the West Pennines and a post about a rugby match ends up on a football blog.

Built in 1921, Cross Green is, in my view, the finest traditional sports ground in Yorkshire, woefully off the radar of football groundhoppers (including until recently this one who only lives 20 miles away). Through the turnstiles is a sort of courtyard area with clubhouse to the left and, immediately in front, a passage towards the grandstand, a superb wooden edifice acquired from Preston North End in 1935. Black and white painted bench seating accommodates 499 spectators. The capacity was reduced from 600 to under 500 by painting over some seats to bring it under the threshold for which extra (and expense incurring) regulations apply. A canny Yorkshire move. Access is via one of the three staircases and there’s a picket fence running along the front.

To your right on reaching the pitch is the beleagured scratching shed with the players’ tunnel. It was constructed from materials salvaged from the former grandstand which explains its jerry-built appearance. Now taped off, the shed – or perhaps barn would be a better description – couldn’t look more condemned if it tried. There are gaping holes in the roof and you feel that if you were to as much as gently lean on one of the timber posts the rest of the stand would collapse like a house of cards. Demolition was announced a fortnight ago and won’t be difficult. Catch it while you can - quite literally perhaps if you stray behind the tape. The Chevin (a wooded hill with great walks) looms scenically above.

At the top of the first terraced corner is a tidy bed containing various ferns and alpines and a scoreboard reached by steps like a giant mounting block. The terraces along the side of the pitch opposite the main stand are stone to start with then timber with chicken wire on the top like a walkway at a waterfowl centre.
Continuing the theme there’s a chicken run behind the stand, the angled green timbers here reminiscent of the hull of shipwreck. The terrace is backed by privet hedges and beech trees with the cricket ground and church spire beyond.

 The north end (above) has nine-step concrete terraces and is backed by a row of tall trees with the sewage works and allotments behind. Then we’re back to the grandstand with a lookout post for the cameraman on the near corner. A circuit is complete by more terraces and a small building housing a bar. The combination of a grand old wooden stand, one rather rickety one and lots of terracing hinting of past glories all reminded me of Crook Town.
The ground was full to capacity for its three most notable matches. About 10,000 packed in to see North Division (featuring Bill Beaumont and Roger Uttley) play the All Blacks here in 1979 (see video at end of this post) and Australia in 1988. Remarkably, the ground also hosted the tie between the USA and Italy in the second World Cup in 1991. Part of the reason that a humble Yorkshire market town was chosen as a venue is that Cross Green is one of the few substantial rugby grounds in the north of England. Few others even have terracing.

The vast clubhouse makes a good job of showcasing the history. It contains a display cabinet containing mementos from the club’s greatest matches including a fixture card from 1893/94. Other cabinets contain trophies, faded and tassled caps and items belonging to the Ilkley & District Motor Club.

Otley finished fifth in the second tier of English rugby as recently as 2005. They would’ve turned down promotion as they couldn’t have afforded it. These days the club plays in the regionalised fourth tier. Divisional rivals include Darlington Mowden Park who currently occupy the Darlington Arena vacated by Darlington FC. What a contrast to Cross Green – although the grounds both have a football connection. Today’s opposition was Sedgley Park (aka The Tigers, based in north Manchester).

Cross Green’s days may be numbered. The route of a proposed new road crosses some of the rugby club’s other pitches. In exchange for the land the council will provide additional land with room for a new stadium which could be built from funds from the sale of the current ground in an enviable town centre location. Lovers of old stadia will hope everything stalls. Character, backdrops, ramshackleness, a grandstand that is precisely that, interest in every corner and plenty of support: I can’t recommend a visit to Cross Green enough regardless of which shaped ball you like seeing kicked around on a Saturday afternoon.

Star turns: Famous former Otley players include ex-England skipper Nigel Melville and Luther Burrell, a loanee, who made his debut for England against France last Saturday.

Credits: Thanks to the old fella who told me some of the ground info at half-time. Apologies if some of the facts are inaccurate.

Programme notes: Sedgeley Park’s first ground “was primitive with a cowshed for changing rooms and a farmyard pump for washing”.

Further viewing: Just down the Wharfe valley from Otley is Ilkey rugby club with its magnificent new clubhouse which is also throughly well worth a visit. Click here for my pics and a short write-up. Below are the full Rugby Special highlights of that match at Otley against the All Blacks, bouncy signature tune, people standing everywhere on roofs, Nigel Starmer-Smith and all.