Saturday, 23 January 2016

Sunderland RCA 3 Sleaford Town 2

FA Vase, fourth round
Attendance: 109

It’s funny how often the most hidden grounds are in the smallest settlements. I recalled Parkgate, Emley and Barton in my approach to Meadow Park, home of Sunderland RCA. I’d been there on Google Earth, of course (but not too much for fearing of spoiling the surprise) and I recalled that access was via a modern close but I still couldn’t quite believe that Beechbrooke would lead to my journey’s end. Remarkably, though, after several wiggles, it did. There was no signage at the top of the close when I arrived at 12.20pm which didn’t help although by kick-off there was a small red sandwich board with an A4 sheet slid into a plastic sleeve indicating ‘Sunderland RCA’. No beckoning Wembley arch here, to be sure.

I’d arrived early for a bike ride. Ryhope (the initials stand for Ryhope Community Association) is a former pit village on the coast between Sunderland and Seaham. It also lies on route 1 of the National Cycle Network and the Walney to Wear coast to coast route. The match was a a good opportunity to ride the routes and get a feel for the area at the same time. I ended my tour by checking out the ‘view from the cemetary’ (see bottom pic) since this is the name of a blog-like section of the club’s website and programme.

The view is expansive and unhindered. If you like to watch your football surrounded by gravestones Ryhope is the unquestionably the place to come. The church provides one of the ground’s main backdrops, the other being the chimney belonging to a Victorian pumping station. Deciduous and evergreen trees add a little extra appeal. This place would be nice on a summer’s day. The accommodation consists of a battered, bomb-proof main stand and lean-to with corrugated roof and posts made from what looks like rusting Meccano. What I initially thought was the kazi is actually the dressing rooms which are connected to the pitch via a path bounded by a faded, red rope.

“So how do you play this game, then?” the old bloke behind me (they’re all old blokes at Northern League grounds) jested with his companion. He, like me, probably hadn’t seen a match for weeks. The lawnmower patterns and a sanded area of the pitch told the sorry tale of our mild and relentlessly wet mid-winter. Boy, it was good to be back. My long wait had perhaps over-raised my expectations about a sense of occasion. We’re just talking the last 32 of the Vase here, after all, although this was the furthest either side had been in the competition.

Including Old Salty, last encountered at Newton Aycliffe in September, the crowd only just surpassed three figures. Sunderland were playing at home and Ryhope Colliery Welfare (amazingly this village is home to two Northern League clubs) were hosting South Shields both of which will have knocked a few off the gate. I was one of the very few to be sporting club colours (and I’d bought my black and red scarf primarily to wear at Knaresborough Town) while the sound of the seagulls and an ice cream van (what?) rose above the murmur of conversation. All the talk was about that the classic Vase tie between South Shields and Morpeth on Wednesday. Such a pity that the Shields derby in the next round today was not to be but RCA served up an absorbing alternative.

RCA have been scoring goals for fun in this competition, all curiously against Yorkshire opposition. They put three past Bridlington, four past Silsden, five past Hemsworth Miners Welfare and four past high-flying Tadcaster Albion. More were to follow today although the opposition came from Lincolnshire.

Sleaford took an early lead but RCA fought back to go in 2-1 up at half-time. After the break Sleaford regained the initiative and deservedly levelled on 70 mins albeit following a defender’s error. I really, really didn’t want extra time not least because I’d have to miss it to be home by 6.15pm for a meal out. To my relief six minutes from time RCA settled the tie when Charlton spotted the Sleaford keeper off his line and lobbed him in style from 30 yards out, leaving the goalie backpedalling and pawing at nothing. (Click here for the goal within the highlights). How I cheered. Right at the end a player from either side was left sprawled on turf following two fouls in the space of a few seconds which triggered a melee and Sleaford sending off. For me, a great day out could not have had a more satisfactory conclusion.

Further reading: One of RCA’s former players, Joe Dixon, has a hugely detailed and beautifully curated website about this playing days in the 60 and 70s. Full of newspaper clippings, it’s like an open scrapbook and so evocative of the era. All of his career was spent in the regional leagues. An average Joe in the broader scheme of things but all the more interesting because of it.

Programme notes: A line from the aforementioned View from the Cemetary in the programme made me laugh out loud: “This Vase run is fairy tale stuff. Most exciting thing to happen in Ryhope since the chip shop caught fire.”