Sunday, 2 December 2007

Harrogate Railway Athletic 2 Mansfield Town 3

FA Cup, Second Round proper
Attendance: 1,486
Talk about déjà vu. Not many once in a lifetime experiences actually happen twice but watching Harrogate Railway in the second round of the FA Cup is one of them. Five years ago I saw them against Bristol City and today they were up against Mansfield. These days Rail are a division higher and Mansfield languish a level lower than Bristol were at the time - at the foot of the Fourth Division (can’t stand that ‘League Two’ nonesense). Played on a sloping pitch in great slide-tackle weather, the tie had upset written all over it.

I paddled in the quagmire between the Portacabins in my walking boots and overtrousers. The bird next to me insisted on keeping her umbrella up for the first 20 mins of the match. “Mary Poppins” she was dubbed by someone stuck behind her. Good gag. The best waterproofs were sported by the cameramen on scaffold towers around the pitch. Yes – again just like last time – the match was on telly but this time BBC rather than Sky. Commentator Jonathan Pearce and Mark Bright were accommodated in a bird hide-type cabin which sadly obscured Rail’s smart new stand while the pundits – “Lawro”, Ray Stubbs and Carlton Palmer – shelted under a blue gazebo (see top pic).

Rail had a storming opening 15 mins creating several chances and hitting the bar. Mansfield gradually got into the game, though, and took the lead shortly before half-time. When they added to it after the re-start we expected a Rail collapse but it didn’t happen. In fact the lads twice came from two goals down to narrow the gap showing tremendous resilience and stamina. How we bayed for a last minute equaliser.

At the end a bare-chested Rail player flung his arms round his girlfriend standing behind the advertising hoardings as if he was a returning soldier, muddied but unbowed (and from “’Arrogate Railway's barmy army …”, I guess). Neither she, I suspect, nor we will be back for the next match: a West Riding County Cup tie against Tadcaster Albion on Wednesday night. The same probably goes for Barmy, the Beaver, Rail’s mascot, who was making what will surely be his only appearance before going back to the costume hire shop.

And so, my FA Cup trail sadly comes to an end for another year. It practically started with Rail back in the sunshine in September and finishes with them in the rain in December. “There aren’t any interesting teams left now,” mused my nephew Toby (over again from uni in west Wales for the match). My thoughts entirely.

Now that’s what I call a “journeyman":. The 39-year-old Mansfield goalie, Carl ‘Mugs’ Muggleton, clearly can’t settle. He has turned out for 16 different clubs. Just count ‘em by clicking on his name.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Altrincham 1 Millwall 2

FA Cup, first round proper
Attendance: 2,457

The first round took me back to where it all began. My fascination with non-league football, that is. I was at university in Manchester in the early eighties and, while the other students were heading off for Old Trafford or Maine Road, I was was pedalling off in the opposite direction to Moss Lane. Always was a bit of an odd kid.

Reassuringly, the ground is pretty much the same as I left it other than one new small stand, a giant mobile phone mast and a new turnstile block that was built by the Alty left-half only last week. The most notable addition to the groundscape was the TV cameras. A gantry was hung from the roof of the main stand with a ladder leading up to it and a lone cameraman stood on a scaffold tower behind the Millwall end. What crap away fans, incidentally. Hardly any of them and very unvocal. "Where's ya famous Bushwackers?" indeed.

Millwall started brightly but Alty took the lead against the run of play on the stroke of half-time with a Goal of the Month-contending volley from Senior (cue "Senior Service" headlines) which fully merited the Romario baby-rocking celebration. Was Alty about to add to its record-breaking tally of 16 League scalps?

Sadly, no. Millwall equalised from a penalty when an Alty defender accidentally handled on the line trying to keep a shot out and was sent off. It was the turning point of the tie and, even more significantly, the point when I made my long-awaited debut on MOTD. I was the man lurking behind the goal to the right of the red card as the ref held it up. When I saw the clip I was beside myself with excitement. It almost beats appearing on Top of the Pops next to Kid Jensen as he introduced Billy Ocean c. 1980.

The Millwall winger with bandy legs and red boots (Simpson, an Arsenal loanee) was causing havoc with his in-cutting runs. The Lions were threatening to eat up and spit out the Robins and they soon got a second goal from Hoskins, a good East End name. At the end the Alty goalkeeper went up for two late corners. "Go on, Stu!" we all urged as he checked the clock with the bench.

The final whistle blew. "Oh, well. We won the first half," said the bloke next to me, as we turned and headed towards the smell of Barney's fish and chips. Not quite the same though, is it?

How not to report the Cup: Refer to Harrogate Railway as "Harrogate Motors" as Talk Sport did.

How to report the Cup: "Sixteen of Non League's finest fought their way into the second round draw to keep our flags flying high - and the League's big boys sweating" - from the front page lead of the Non League Paper. That's more like it.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Harrogate Railway Athletic 2 Harrogate Town 1

FA Cup, Fourth Qualifying Round
Attendance: 1,286

This was a home fixture in more ways than one. Home for me since I only live nine miles away, home for Town since their ground is a a mile away and most definitely home for Railway who hosted the occasion. In fact, it was all a bit too homely. The local paper tried to bull up the match as "The Battle of Harrogate" but it was more like a cordial meeting of two old friends at the famous Betty's Tea Rooms down the road. I've seen greater passion displayed by a Betty's diner complaining about the late arrival of a Fat Rascal. The fact was that most supporters of whichever team was to lose were going to be back to cheer on their vanquishers in the First Round proper in the event of a home draw. We're like that in Harrogate. This wasn't City v. United.

A few things had changed from my last visit to Station View. The ground has a couple of flags, a tiny new stand (easily mistaken for a large dugout, see pic above) and a "media centre" (that will be the cabin with the phone, then). Town have changed too. Their shirts now have names on their backs. "That Danwood is all over the place", said my nephew before we realised than Danwood was the sponsor. The Town fans also have a new identity, TITS, which stands for Town Independent Travelling Supporters. Ha, ha, ha. Standing in shredded Yellow Pages (handy tickertape substitute when your team ordinarily plays in yellow and black), they hung their banner over the advertising hoardings. At Premiership grounds these days the hoardings are electronic; at Station View some need another lick of paint just to make them visible.

The match started with Town hitting the bar and Railway narrowly heading over. Railway took the lead against the run of play with a header from a corner. Soon after Town replied with a goal from a free kick (see above). They had bossed the game (to use pundit speak) but had also played cultured football to the point of being arrogant and profligate, taking pot shots when they should have worked the ball closer to the target.

Just as we all thought it was back to our place (or was it 'their 'place?) for a replay a Town defender shinned in an own goal from a cross. The 10-men of Railway (someone had been sent off) were in front with minutes to go. Deep into injury time Town equalised only for it to be disallowed. And so it was that Railway knocked out the team 53 sides above them and became the lowest ranked side still in the competition.

The Railway lads clenched their fists and shook hands with the younger fans from the opened windows of their Portacabin changing room (not a scene you're likely to see at Old Trafford two rounds hence). Their delight will have been tempered by the draw made minutes later. Railway are at home ... to Droylesden. Should they and we cheer or not? It was a feeling that had persisted throughout the afternoon.

Men of the match: My nephews and ertswhile FA Cup Trail companions, Toby and Duncan Stirke. They came back from the game from the university in Aberystywyth and Oxford respectively. Commendable insanity, I call it. It was like old times: we were all together for the Bristol City match at Railway five years ago.

Two mentions in dispatches: Firstly, to the red nosed, holdall-carrying and Railway-baseball-cap-wearing old boy who I recognised from the Railway tie at Chester-le-Street in the First Qualifying. It wasn't difficult: there were only 1oo of us there. Secondly, to the lino who I recognised from the Dinnington tie in the previous round. I really felt among old friends at this one.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Dinnington Town 1 Bradford (Park Avenue) 7

FA Cup, Third Qualifying Round
Attendance: 518

As I entered the ground I wondered if I'd entered a timewarp too and and was heading backwards on my FA Cup trail. Just a round after being among a bumper crowd at the splendid Stalybridge Celtic stadium I had arrived at diddy Dinnington Town in South Yorkshire. They're from the lowest division that affords entry to the competition and it showed. The modern ground was more of just a pitch enclosed by a concrete fence with three small corrugated iron sheds as stands. The only thing that made me think of Celtic were the green and white hoops of the opposition.

If, by some miracle Dinnington (let's call them The Dinners) were to win two more matches and reach the first round proper to play Leeds at home then the match would have to be switched. It's a miracle, in fact, that they were at the third qualifying round given their lowly status. Their FA Cup journey started a day before everyone else - at a Friday evening kick-off in the Extra Preliminary Round against Maltby Main. It was broadcast live on Sky partly because of the local rivalry but also, I presume, because it was the Dinners' first ever FA Cup tie. Now this was the biggest game in their short history.

Avenue, in contrast, have a rich heritage, their shorts proudly proclaiming their centenary. They were a League side until 1970 and peaked in the Cup with a quarter-final replay against Birmingham in 1946, reaching the later rounds many times in subsequent years. Current day riches stretch to a pair of liveried minibuses with "Mark 'em tighter!" on the side and "Ahhhh!" on the back.

Avenue are only two divisions higher than Dinnington but it seemed like much more. They soon exerted their superiority. "England are three up," said the girl next to me to her friend. "Same as here". With 10 mins until half-time I was starting to wish I was at home watching the international and the photographer from the Dinnington Times was already editing his pics on the laptop (see below).

The Dinners team half-time team talk didn't work. Straight from the kick-off the nippy Avenue No 7 curled in a corker to make it 0-5. Worse was to come when a second Dinner was sent off in a baffling Graham Poll-ian card trick. The home side got a deserved consolation before Avenue concluded with a seventh. "Bradford Park Sevenue!" was the headline in the Non League Paper.

So: 7-1. Not bad for an afternoon's entertainment, you might think. But, given the totally unremarkable ground, only the magic 10 or, better still, a single goal victory for the underdogs would've made this a vintage FA Cup experience.

One for the boys: What makes a moderately attractive young woman want to spend an afternoon jigging up and down, pony-tail swinging this way and that, in front of a bunch of wolf-whistling reprobates in a former mining village on a drizzly Saturday afternoon? A lino was a lady.

Programme note: The Avenue goalie "has been at Huddersfield". Probably just passed through there on the train.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Stalybridge Celtic 1 Hyde United 0

Attendance: 790

FA Cup, Second Qualifying Round

Goodness gracious. Only three ties into the FA Cup trail - and fully three wins from the first round proper - and I think I've come across a big match. I can actually identify where the game is taking place from the people milling around; the ground has stands on all four sides; fans wear replica shirts; and, horror of horrors, there's a foreign name on the team sheet: Celtic's No 11 is Carlos Roca.

Only the gents (an open air, painted wall and trough job), the clicking of the turnstile beside it as I widdle and a goalkeeper called Paddy Gamble assure me that I'm not going to be suffering altitude sickness from having gone too far up too soon.

The crowd soon disperses - or rather changes end as happens at non-league games. The Hyde fans leave the Joe Jackson stand (surely not named after the eighties pop star) and head past the Lord Tom Pendry stand to the other end. Their journey isn't much further than their trip to ground - a mere four miles. I am at the other Manchester derby - or, more strictly speaking, the Tameside derby. Celtic are, according to their fans' scarves, "the pride of Tameside" after all.

Apart from me I reckon there are probably only two people inside the stadium (one of my all-time scenic favourites - see pinched pic above) that have come from the other side of the Pennines. They are Neil Tolson and Chris Brass, both formerly of York City. The programme's reference to Brass is euphemistic. "Has managerial experience with York" it says. More precisely, in his one and only full season as player-manager the then 27-year-old presided over a spectacular post-Christmas collapse in form that saw York drop out of the league on the final day of the season. And so to Harrogate Town, Southport, Bury and Hyde United ...

Five years on you can't fault Brass's application. He was kicked around the park all afternoon and required three visits from the physio. In fact, the whole match was played in a highly competitive spirit and was nip and tuck from start to finish, Gaby. Celtic took an early lead with a slick header from a cross and, surprisingly, that's the way it stays despite loads of chances and a late rally from Hyde.

I ended the match with the smells from the ground's Indian restaurant wafting past while standing on the terrace with spaces for those in wheelchairs. The only user today was a young father sat next to his son in a pushchair.

After the final whistle the Celtic players punched the air and came over to clap their supporters. Outside the Hyde fans spat out "Oh, Stalybridge is full of SHIT!" with such venom that I thought that a most enjoyable afternoon was going to be capped with a punch-up. (It wasn't).

The result, even at this early stage of the competition, clearly mattered. Second Qualifying Round? Second Round Proper, more like.

Historical footnote: Hyde's ignominious claim to fame is that the town's former club was on the wrong end of the biggest thrashing in English football history - 0-26 against Preston North End in an FA Cup tie in 1887.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Chester-le-Street Town 1 Harrogate Railway Athletic 1

Attendance: 100
FA Cup, First Qualifying Round

I wasn't the only Reading fan travelling up the A1 in Co Durham this afternoon. I didn't turn right to Sunderland, though, but left to Moor Park, home of Chester-le-Street Town.

Had it not been for the website directions referring to how the ground was behind a pub I'd still be searching for it now. It was actually behind the pub and hidden by some allotments down a stoney track. This is a long way from Wembley Way in more ways than one. A sign beside the pay hut said "Keep dogs off the pitch" which seemed a little churlish. Surely, a dog on the pitch makes a match.

Surrounded by trees, the ground is decrepit. A wall behind one side is made from sheets of corrugated iron roughly attached to a home-made metal frame and the one stand rusts. A shelter behind one of the goals looks like it came from a railway platform and has weeds growing out of the roof and, above it, is a derelict Portacabin. Executive boxes of the future, perhaps. (Perhaps not).

The PA crackles into life (all that's missing is a
"one, two" test) and then The Eye of the Tiger comes out of the speaker as the teams trot out. No tittering now, please. The Cestrians are sporting blue and white hoops! Did Reading turn left too, I wonder. Things become all the more confusing as I watch some of the match listening to the commentary from the Stadium of Light from the radio in the burger van. My loyalties are divided: should I support the hoops or the team from just down the road from where I live?

The match starts dramatically with a converted penalty for Railway in the second minute. No-one knows what it's for but the ref tells us afterwards (you get that sort of personal service at these games) that it was for shirt-pulling. Then, five mins later, Chester burst through to equalise. We're now starting to wonder if we're in for a repeat of the 19-goal FA Cup Second Qualifying Round tie between the two sides from 2002. The first match ended 5-5 and, in the replay, Railway came from two goals down to win 7-2 and so unknowingly pave the way to the fabled Bristol City tie four rounds later. I was one of the hoards of fair weather supporters at that match so it felt like I was really earning my spurs this time by watching Rail at such an early stage of the Cup and away to boot.

Chester has little Cup pedigree. The programme describes the club's success in the competition as "limited" and, in the absence of victories to report, includes in its round-up of "memorable" matches a "draw at Ossett Albion on a beautiful summer's afternoon in 1987" and "5-0 trouncing at Gretna in 1988". Whatever happened to them, eh?

Surprisingly, there were no further goals in today's match but it remained a tight, keenly fought encounter and a draw was the right result. So we'll do it all again on Tuesday at our place. (I can talk like that now that I've been howay with the lads).

Programme notes: The programme includes a full six pages of pen pictures of Chester players. Andy Armstrong is a "no nonsense defender who takes no prisoners" (a dirty bastard, then) and Shaun Sager is "blessed with two good feet and an abundance of tricks" (in other words often trips over the ball and irritates the hell out of his team-mates). As for Rail, Chris Howarth is "as fit as a butcher's dog ... and a real pain in the backside for any defence to cope with" while Lyle Hillier "knows where the goal is". Always a useful skill for a footballer, that.

Celebrity footnote: Chester-le-Street is the hometown of the king of the comb-over, HRH Ralph Coates.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Guisborough Town 1 Norton & Stockton Ancients 3

Attendance: 144
FA Cup, Extra Preliminary Round

This season I decided to start right at the beginning. Here you’re as many wins from the first round proper as teams in that round are from the semi-finals. Not so much at Everest base camp, then, as hoping to get through customs at Kathmandu airport. Five Live requests texts from players (there are more than 3,600 of them) on their way to these matches rather than fans. For ‘minnows’ read ‘plankton’.

In fact, so many teams enter the Cup that reading the draw takes about as long as driving to a match. In common with picking a winner at the Grand National, I made my selection largely on the basis of name. Oxhey Jeys, Concord Rangers, Coventry Sphinx, Sporting Bengal United, Lincoln Moorlands Railway and, the very silly, Nuneaton Griff, tickled my fancy but were playing too far away. Norton & Stockton Ancients, though, were drawn away to Guisborough Town (near Middlesbrough) which would also allow for sandwiches on the beach beforehand, something of a tradition on these jaunts. So Guisborough – preceded by an hour with Bertie at Salturn-by-the-Sea – it was.

The crowd was surprisingly large. Three figures, in fact. The noise wasn’t exactly deafening but there was a hubbub of conversation in the main stand that was as loud as the wind rustling in the trees. They surround the pitch on all four sides and make for a most attractive enclosure. The occasion was as understated as the ‘Guisborough Town’ sign on the stand, which is formed of seventies-style lettering attached to a beam and all but hidden from view. All those professional teams that emblazon their name across the seats take note. (Actually, Guisborough would barely have enough seats to do that and the Ancients, I daresay, would struggle even more so).

The home side went into the fixture on the back of an 8-1 opening day victory but the confidence that will have given them gradually ebbed away. The Ancients took the lead against the run of play and, as the game progressed, so the tide turned and they ended up worthy winners. For Guisborough, it really had ended before it began.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Glasshoughton Welfare 2 Maltby Main 1

Attendance: 400 approx.
Northern Counties East League, Premier Division

The Diggerland Stadium, home of Glasshoughton Welfare in Castleford, is not a big ground. “It’s over there,” the bloke at the petrol station gesticulated. “Beside the bumpy castle”. Only returning down the main road did I see the banner tied to the fence inviting passers by to ‘Come and watch Bruce Grobbelaar make his debut’. Yes, the 49-year-old local resident has signed for Welfare – cash-strapped and relegation threatened – albeit for a single match.

Anyone unaware of the occasion was clear as to why the attendance exceeded the club’s average of 54 as soon as they passed through the turnstile to see the Grobbelaar commemorative t-shirts and tribute programme and the man himself warming up in front of countless cameras. He was the only player with a name on his shirt but his identity was pretty clear.

The proximity of a bumpy castle was appropriate to the afternoon’s carnival atmosphere. Burgers sizzled on a barbecue and fans dotted around the perimeter rail baked in the pre-season-like heat nursing plastic glasses of beer. The turn-out was a little disappointing, the clash with the Grand National not helping. In fact, more money may have been raised from a Beat the Goalie competition.

Inevitably, the match was a bit of a sideshow. “The home side’s one nil up”, said one spectator into his mobile phone. My companion and cousin, Toby, mustered only a little more interest in the contest. “The most we can hope for is a penalty,” he said, thinking that a spot kick could lead to a reprise of Grobbelaar’s famous wobbly knees antics in the European Cup Final of 1984. The most we got was actually a pretty nimble and competent performance with a few maverick moments thrown in. Twice he roamed out of his area to dribble to ball away and he responded to Welfare’s second goal by doing a handstand. Moments later he forfeited his clean sheet when Maltby Main (they were the opposition, by the way) got a consolation goal. Their keeper then nearly upstaged Grobbelaar by coming up for a corner in injury time.

You certainly couldn’t doubt his commitment. He played the full 90 minutes and barked instructions at the defenders in his broad African accent in such a way that predisposed any spectators behind his goal from making cocky remarks about those match fixing allegations. Some of them, devoted to the last, wore Liverpool shirts.

“What occasions do you think I could wear the Grobbelaar t-shirt?” I asked Toby on the way back to her car. (OK. I bought one). “Gardening?” he replied. Indeed. At least when I’m not wearing my t-shirt from Socrates’s sole outing for Garforth Town just down the road from Welfare a couple of years ago. What next? Gordon Banks at Borrowash Victoria?

Click here for The Guardian's account of the afternoon.

Saturday, 31 March 2007

Billingham Synthonia 1 AFC Totton 2

(3-3 on agg, Totton win 5-4 on pens)

Attendance: 2,386

FA Vase semi-final, second leg

The big match comes to Billingham. In the local paper the day before the chairman explained how he was getting in a burger van and printing a programme. He was anticipating a maximum of 1,500 fans but, in the event, 2,386 turned up, the size of the crowd compensating for the atmosphere-free layout of the stadium.

There’s a vast, rusting cantilever stand on one side and nothing but grassed banking on the other sides with a cinder running track around the pitch. The gap between the stand and the perimeter fence has a paddock feel and makes you think that horses will emerge onto the turf rather than footballers.

The away team sprinted out sporting pink and two of them wearing gloves. I was fully expecting a song including the lyric “southern pooftas” but sadly none was forthcoming. The Totton fans weren’t shy of their livery at all, chanting “Pink army, pink army” on more than one occasion. Synthonia were made of tougher stuff. One of their players left the pitch to have his head bandaged at which point all we needed for the makings of a vintage cup tie was a dog on the pitch. Instead we got a hat on the pitch, spinning on its rim like a wheel off a wagon for fully 30 yards. There can’t have been such a big cheer for the loss of an item of clothing since the last strip-o-gram at The Synners Bar. (Pic below shows said hat being removed from the pitch).

The incident was the highlight of a wind-blighted first half but after the break the action improved dramatically. Totton, having taken a lead in the first minute of the match, added a second with only about 10 mins to go. All over, we thought, but then, in injury time, a Synthonia man burst through to a one-on-one with the goalie and poked it home. "We" went wild!

In extra time Synthonia had a penalty saved and we kinda knew from that point what the outcome was going to be. Totton hit the woodwork too. And so to penalties which the away side indeed won 5-4. The winning kicker instinctively raced towards the corner flag but then realised there weren’t any remotely sympathetic fans there and so peeled away and back to his team mates in the centre circle. In fact, the total number of Totton fans, high up in the stand, only outnumbered the players two-to-one.

“Oh, well. That new Wembley’s shite anyway, isn’t it?” scowled a Synner on the way out. Cracking cup-tie - but what an anti-climax.

Celebrity footnote: Synthonia’s full back was Curtis Fleming who played for Middlesbrough against Chelsea in the FA Cup final 10 years ago and former Synners include Brian Clough.

And the name? Synthonia is derived from synthetic ammonia, a product of one-time club sponsors, nearby ICI.