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.