Sunday, 8 May 2016

AFC Fylde 1 Harrogate Town 1 (2-1 on agg)

National League North, play-off semi-final (second leg)
Attendance: 1,384

AFC Fylde’s smart ground is peculiarly located in more ways than one. You find it down a country lane surrounded by fields, round the back of a pub just outside Warton, a village between Preston and Lytham St Annes. What’s more it’s confusing that the club, nicknamed The Coasters and styling itself as “the football club of the Fylde coast”, isn’t actually located on the coast while longer established Blackpool and Fleetwood are. But probably best not to mention them in these parts ...

As a modern ground I wasn’t expecting to like Kellamergh Park but what an understated little gem it is. It’s easy to imagine Fylde playing here in the North West Counties League just seven years ago. Despite being purpose-built the ground still has quirky features including a slightly retro LED scoreboard, bird hide-style video gantry on a roof and two VIP lounges housed in the poshest converted shipping containers I’ve ever seen both within a yard or two of the touchline. The pitch was as immaculate as a golf course and, in keeping with the comparison, had two sanded areas. The ground is so small and open you can see the visiting club’s coach in the car park and sheep grazing behind the dug-outs. It’s as bucolic as Esh Winning or Thackley and also in part reminiscent of some of those pristine Premier League training pitches you get hidden out in the sticks.

Today’s match was the last at Kellamergh. Just a decade after building it Fylde will move to the new Mill Farm venue for next season. The current stadium was always going to be a means to an end for the club’s ambitious millionaire chairman David Haythornwaite (who owns an animal feeds business). I wonder what will happen to Kellamergh after the move. Perhaps the land will revert to agricultural use as though a football club never played here at all, the temporary encampment having served its purpose on the club’s march towards bigger battles.

On a sunny day with the temperature soaring to 25C Kellamergh was a fantastic setting for a match. There’s a good family feel to the place too a bit like at Guiseley while the 200 or so Harrogate fans, who chanted and drummed from start to finish, also contributed to a crackling atmosphere. They sung “I’m feeling Town all over” (an unlikely appropriation of little Tadcaster’s signature song, “Tad all over”) and “We’re just a town full of tea shops” standing shoulder to shoulder with the Fylde chanters and sometimes joining with them for a song. No need for segregation here at all. The occasion was a wonderful advertisement for the conviviality of non-league football.

Fylde took the lead with a rasping, goal of the season contender on 11 mins. Being 1-0 down from the previous leg you might have thought the visitors would’ve crumbled. But no, they hit back within minutes with a far post stroke-in from a low cross and maintained the pressure during a tense second half, having the lion’s share of possession but rarely converting it into clear-cut chances against a resolute home defence. Fylde won a penalty with 15 mins only for it be to saved keeping Harrogate’s dreams alive. In the fourth minute of injury time a cross flashed across the Fylde box only for a flying Cooper to miss connection by inches. We held our heads and howled. It was like Gazza in the Euro ’96 semi-final all over again. That was the moment – or should’ve been.

You could acuse Harrogate of being chokers in big matches from the past but not today. They fought valiantly and tirelessly but paid the price for the first leg defeat. Great day out. Pity about the result.

Make a day of it: If you go to see Fylde next season I recommend a 21-mile largely off-road bike ride around Preston called the Guild Wheel. The well signed route is full of variety and interest and includes the Brockholes nature reserve. I also came across Preston docks (never knew they existed) and a railed football pitch with two rusty old dug out shelters idyllically located on the banks of the Ribble.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Northallerton Town 0 South Shields 1

Northern League, second division
Attendance: 185

A lot’s been happening in Shields. To the north of the Tyne FA Vase holders, North Shields, are drawing 350+ spectators a week, the first division’s highest average while on the other side of the estuary and a division lower South Shields are drawing crowds of 600+, surely unprecedented for a non-phoenix, step six club. Why? Well, in the south it’s down the support of local businessman, Gary Thompson, who owns a utility management company. He bought the club last summer and relocated it back to the South Shields after a period in exile in Peterlee. The Shields ground had been closed due to disputes with the then landlord.

Thompson has since invested in the club by, for instance, substantially improving the  clubhouse and signing ex-Middlesbrough and Sunderland star Julio Arca. (He didn’t play today but still came along). Certainly, the club’s profile has changed hugely since I last saw them two years ago. Backed by a large town with a population of 80,000, The Mariners sailed away at the top of the table. Where and when will it all end? Who knows – the owner is targeting the National League and a new stadium – but, for the moment at least, all aboard to enjoy the ride.

I’d been planning to jump on the bandwagon last December at the Vase tie against Morpeth Town but when the match was finally played at Consett after umpteen postponements I couldn’t make it. Subsequent opportunities past me by and so it was I finally got to see Shields in their last match of the season against my most local Northern League side and their first opponents back in August.

Last week I watched Tadcaster Albion win the Northern Counties East League wrapped up in the five layers, a hat and gloves. “I should’ve worn pyjamas under my trousers,” said one spectator. “What?” replied his mate. “Do you fancy a nap at half-time?”. Thankfully today conditions were just as you’d expect them to be when contemplating fixtures in late April or early May. Spring is here.

The talk on the terraces was about that team beginning with ‘L’. In truth whichever match fans chose following the thrilling weekend Premier League double-header it was going to be something of an anti-climax and so it proved. Furthermore, Shields, starting the match following seven straight wins, had secured promotion five games ago and Northallerton had lifted the Ernest Armstrong Memorial Trophy two days earlier. Accordingly, the attendance was lower than it would’ve been had the fixture been played on the original date in January.

Having nothing to play for didn’t stop a vocal knot of about 20 Northallerton teenagers chanting for most of the match, a rare sound at step six. They call their side just “’Allerton” which is what you might have thought was the full name of the club judging from the sign on the grandstand when I visited previously in 2004 (see above). The ground remains unremarkable. “If you all hate Geordies hold a shoe,” jested the fans, footwear in hand. The Shields fans replied when their side scored the only goal with 12 minutes to go: “Get your shoes off for the lads”.

As the sky turned orange at sunset the Shields manager urged his players on for the last time this season: “Come on. Just half an hour then you can have a rest.” At the end the Shields fans jokingly booed the ref as he approached the tunnel. He responded with a theatrical bow, smiling. The gesture was fitting. I’d caught up with Shields in time only for their curtain call. I shall have to take my seat earlier next season for the Shields first division derby perhaps. Now that will be a tasty encounter.

Programme notes: A ‘thought for the day’ was a passage from the gospel of John and it’s always useful to be reminded when a game (or, at least, it’s original date) coincides with the Cambodian New Year.