Thursday, 16 June 2016

The last post: Building bridges

It never rained but it poured in Tadcaster last winter but the town and its club emerged triumphant. (I entered this article into the When Saturday Comes writing competition).

The 2014-15 season had been full of promise. Tadcaster Albion reached the quarter-final of the FA Vase (the furthest they’ve ever been in the competition) but it all ended in tears and an unsavoury fracas at the final whistle with visitors from Highworth Town (see below). A three-horse race for the step five North Counties East League title with Worksop and Shaw Lane Aquaforce finished with similar disappointment, the momentum of Tadcaster’s campaign having suffered in the face of the Vase run.

The manager, Paul Marshall, who had guided the club to its first ever promotion in 2010 and is best known for taking Harrogate Railway to the second round of FA Cup in 2002, surprisingly parted company with the club in summer to be replaced by Billy Miller, who had just led Railway to its highest ever finish in the step four Evo-Stik Northern Premier League first division north.

Since the club’s purchase by ambitious i2i Sports Ltd in summer 2013 the ground had been smartened up and, relatively unusually at this level, a vocal knot of supporters had become established under the cheer leadership of Captain Chickers (left) who comes to matches dressed in full white naval captain uniform. “I’m feeling Tad all over” sung to the tune of the Dave Clark Five’s Glad all Over had become their signature tune. Now regularly attracting gates of 250 plus, there was a buzz about the club and the scene was set for another memorable season – and so if proved in more ways than one.

Tadcaster soon picked up where they’d left off and all was going well until the rains came. Sited just a wayward clearance away from the River Wharfe, the i2i Stadium had long been vulnerable to heavy rain, suffering regular postponements for waterlogging but the club never encountered anything like the water levels of last Christmas. The pitch, clubhouse, car park and surrounds were submerged in the several feet of water which had also pushed flat the sheetpiled perimeter fence. The cost of the damage was estimated at £300,000.

Storm Eva’s impact on the town made national news when the swollen Wharfe dramatically washed away part of the Grade II-listed Georgian bridge that binds the halves of Tadcaster together causing the bridge’s immediate closure and months of ongoing reconstruction.  A temporary footbridge was suggested a short distance downstream from the damaged bridge with one abutment on land owned by the Samuel Smith’s brewery. (Nicknamed The Brewers, Albion were formed in 1892 as the club of the rival John Smith’s brewery also located in Tadcaster). Samuel Smiths, a huge employer in town, has had a sometimes strained, quasi-feudal relationship with the locals, a situation which was exacerbated when the brewery refused to grant permission for the bridge on its land amidst concerns that it would become permanent and demands to influence design of the reconstructed road bridge.

Step forward Albion. The club offered land adjoining their car park from which bridge could connect to the bus station. The temporary structure was opened on 12 February, the same week as Tadcaster’s first home match for 73 days and the passing of one of the side’s biggest fans and club barmaid, 23-year-old Sonny Lang (right), who had lost her battle with cystic fibrosis. Following a minute’s silence before the match each player hugged Sonny’s mother at pitchside. The club had raised £5,000 for Sonny’s fund in a charity match in October. Sonny’s Bridge, as the crossing was named, also proved to be a springboard.

Tadcaster re-joined battle with Handsworth Parramore (which sounds more like a character from a Noel Coward play than a football club) at the top of the table, the clubs exchanging first and second place on an almost weekly basis. They met at Tadcaster on 9 April (see lead pic) with the home side securing a crucial 3-1 victory which set them up for the run-in.

Faced with a fixture backlog, manager Miller recruited – and in style. He brought in Jonathan Greening (above, left), 37, brother of Tadcaster striker Josh, but much better known as the former Man United, Middlesbrough and West Brom midfielder. (He still feels sheepish about receiving a Champions League winners’ medal at United when he didn’t play a moment of the 1998-99 European campaign and only sat on the bench on “that night in Barcelona”.) Greening had played for Albion the previous season then briefly re-joined his first club, York,  at the start of 2015-16 campaign. He left in December when he and Richard Cresswell (below, right), 38, another returning York alumni who made his name at Leeds and the Sheffield clubs, were surprisingly overlooked for the vacant post of manager. Cresswell also signed for Tadcaster as cover along with Seb Carole, who had also played for Leeds and boasted bona fide Champions League experience with Monaco. Another ex-pro on the club’s books is assistant manager Matt Heath who has turned out for Leicester. All four ex-Premier League players took to the pitch together for a victorious League Cup quarter-final against neighbours Knaresborough Town the week after the big Handsworth clash.

Thereafter the wheels briefly threatened to come off the wagon. An away match at Pickering, now managed by Marshall, was pivotal. Albion were a goal  down with three minutes to go but came back to win 3-1. A heavy defeat at Maltby Main, one of 10 games in April, followed but proved to be the last hiccup. Tadcaster finally secured promotion and the title with a game to spare by defeating Armthorpe Welfare on a bitterly cold, stormy, hailing evening. (Five layers were only just enough). Not that the weather phased the denizens of the town given what they’d gone through. Captain Chickers was singing in a rain of champagne.

The next day the Tour de Yorkshire passed through Tadcaster, another prompt for the town to look forward. For a final flourish Albion came from 0-3 down at half-time in their last league match at home to Athersley to win 4-3. Taddy finally came into dock at the end of the season with defeat to Cleethorpes in the League Cup final on 14 May. But, heh, in the circumstances no-one cared too much. Bigger battles had been won.

The club now anticipates its first ever season at step four in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League. The i2i Stadium is being upgraded over the summer too with a new 240-seater stand and, to follow, a two-storey clubhouse with plenty of other flood proofing features in the plan, it’s safe to assume.

I think this will be my final post. When I started this blog 10 years ago reading a report about your little club online was quite novel. Now the point of such postings and interest in them has been washed away by a tsunami of social media. Who wants to read 500 words about a match a day or two after it's happened when you get can endless snippets and pics about it as it happens? Well, I do but judging from the declining view counts for my posts I'm the minority.

I'm also finding it a little harder to find interesting grounds I havent already visited and say new things about matches without being patronising. Increasingly I also feel like a nerd with a camera at matches. So, with three blasts of the whistle, that's it.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Grand stands

Here’s an end of season round up of grounds and stands that I’ve mainly stumbled across on my travels in recent weeks.

Driving to a work meeting I passed this grandstand just to the side of the main road leading into Lincoln from the west. It was once part of a Georgian racecourse sited on the other side of the road until its closure in 1964. The structure was built in 1892 and restored for use as a community centre in 2012. From a quick snoop around I guess it’s still something of a white elephant.

After another meeting at Alnwick in Northumberland I couldn’t resist checking out the town’s Northern League football ground, the second most northerly senior ground in England after Berwick (and I feel like discounting them since they play in Scotland). The clubhouse looks like it should belong to a cricket club and the stand opposite has “has some great grubby seats worth photographing” according to a groundhopper I met at Eppleton.

On a walk in the Yorkshire Dales I stumbled across the home of Settle United of the step 7 Craven & District League. What a backdrop. I will return one sunny match day and perhaps see if there is a good vantage point on the fells.

I started my season back in August at Barton Town Old Boys and ended it at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light on May 27 for England v. Australia (2-1). Quite an entertaining game as friendlies go and a very rare chance for my lad to watch his national team. We took our seats as the anthems were playing and only just in time, therefore, to see the Rashford debut goal. Phew!

Windmill? Flag with horizontal red, white and blue stripes? Yup: no mistaking where this ground is. I came across it on a cycle tour of Zeeland in the southern Netherlands in June. The club is called Racing Club Souberg and, from what I can google, plays in the sixth tier of Dutch football. Its great claim to fame is that former players include Danny Blind, current manager of the Dutch national team. Through his connections he brought Ajax sides to the ground for friendlies in the 90s.

I took in the qualifying rounds of the Aegon Ilkley Trophy on June 11. The competition is part of the ATP Challenger Tour for players outside the top 100. It was like a little Wimbledon (just six courts, all immaculate) and the best free sporting occasion in Yorkshire after the Tour de France. The new clubhouse is striking, reminding me of similarly splendid amateur sporting facilities just down the road at Ilkley rugby club. They do things in style in this corner of the West Riding.

Not so golden oldie?: I love this pic of Everton’s Goodison Park in 1970. Scarves without lettering; fans standing up, cops among them; a grumpy St John Ambulance man; a clock crudely perched on a wall with advertising for a defunct chain store; Scouse urchins in parkas; and, heaven forbid, an ad for cigarettes. It all looks so grubby and grey – from another world let alone another era.

Eighties footballers in showbiz: Here is a clip of Kevin Keegan taking penalties against Placido Domingo in 1980 (see clip 5) and here is a story about George Best playing football with Supergran at North Shields FC in 1984. Frankly surreal, the like of which we will never see again.

Whatever happened to him?: I watched Stocksbridge Park Steels in the FA Cup in 2007 and, a quick check of the programme, suggests that a very young Jamie Vardy may have played that day. Couldn’t spot him in any of my pics, though. Playing for Curzon was Mike Norton who went on to star with FC United of Manchester on their rise through the leagues.

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.