Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Tadcaster Albion 2 Hemsworth Miners Welfare 1

Northern Counties East League Division One
Attendance: 452

Tadcaster Albion is about as unfamiliar with promotion as Rochdale. Taddy have been the the lower of the two divisions of the Northern Counties East League since its formation in 1983. They last went up – from Yorkshire Division 2 to 1 in 1977 – and haven’t won anything of note since their formation in 1892 as the football team of the John Smith’s brewery. What better way to round off the season, then, than a trip to watch potential history in the making? A win tonight would see them not only promoted but also as champions. Anything less and it’s yet more of the same.

Taddy – aka The Brewers – are managed by Paul Marshall (PM, top pic) and with the backing of business coaching guru Rob Northfield. The pair was behind Harrogate Railway’s first great FA Cup run in 2002. I once hailed a taxi from York station to find PM behind the wheel. I was pathetically beside myself with excitement and felt like pretending I lived further away to prolong the conversation. I knew his brother when we both worked at Nestle Rowntree (he was a security man) and my nephew’s friend once played in goal for Taddy. If you get the impression this is a villagey level of football you’d be about right. Tadcaster (population 7,000) play in the sixth of the seven levels of the non-league pyramid. Two rungs lower and you’re in the park. PM remarked in the local paper that his skipper had been “immense on and off the field even going home and washing the kit after the games”.

Hemsworth is a town betwixt Barnsley and Pontefract and had something to play for in that win would secure a top six finish and a place on the starting grid for next season’s FA Cup.

The atmosphere inside the stadium before kick-off was, to say the least, muted. Middle-aged blokes murmured over their pints. “Thought I’d see you here” and “Me? Regular, mate!” They were nearly drowned out by the birdsong at dusk. The only clues that a big match was imminent were the fact that programmes were sold out long before kick-off (a familiar scenario at these big little matches) and the sight of an old man in a blazer and tie nursing a black bin-liner in which, one assumed, was the championship trophy.

The smoke from the barbecue rose to half the height of the chimneys of the brewery that looms over the main stand. The opposite touchline is backed by a perimeter fence which is actually a flood prevention wall. Waterlogging from the Wharfe has been been frequent.

The sprightly lady referee (Jane Simms, warming up to run the line at next week's FA Women’s Cup final) led the teams out. PM flicked on the floodlights, pulled the dressing room door to and we were off. Well, Hemsworth were certainly off. They scored a goal after 90 secs when Liddle lobbed the keeper on the break. “That’ll liven things up a bit,” the lino turned to say to us. The away side saw another shot curl over the bar and one of their strikers missed a half-volley from yards out. Taddy were living dangerously and – despite having the lion’s share of possession – not creating many chances.

The second half picked up where the first left-off. Taddy’s fortunes were fading as the sky turned inky blue and dew descended creating a pitchside smell like inside a marquee at an agricultural show. The squib was getting damp in more ways than one. Taddy had scored in every league game this season and tonight wasn’t a good time for a first duck. Then, on 65 mins, a Taddy cross from the left was headed in at the far post by Pitts. At the other end Hemsworth had a shot cleared off the line and then, with five minutes on the clock came salvation. The Hemsworth keeper flapped at a long range shot and sub Brathwaite hacked in the dropped ball. PM swung for joy on the dug-out and then said “I’ve got some defending to do” before sprinting off to behind the Taddy goal from where he watched the remainder of the contest alone leaning on the rail. Technical areas? Pah: you can’t stop a manager from mingling with the crowd even when one isn’t there.

After an endless four minutes of injury time it was all over. There wasn’t so much a pitch invasion as a few lads taking a leisurely short-cut to the bar. I took my place alongside the press photographer to get some snaps. I was so close to the action I could smell – and, if I’d opened my mouth ¬– taste the champagne. Sport doesn’t get much more inclusive than this. After some slightly sheepish “champee-oh-neh!” jigging (let’s face it – they haven’t had much practice) Taddy filed up to an occasional table placed on the turf to collect their medals and the trophy. (I was right about the bin bag man). No stage, no sponsors logos, no fireworks, no deafening “We are the Champions”. This is as far away as you can get from the foreign millionnaire’s league and that’s the way I like it. Completely Corinthian.

Thereafter players, friends and fans mingled on the pitch creating an atmosphere like a wedding reception. The whole evening was so cordial. The party was just beginning but for me – as I set off on the 20-minute drive home along dark country lanes – it felt like the party was over. Until next season, at least.

Wot? No Gary Mac? Last month Taddy announced that they’d “signed” Gary McAllister to make a possible star turn at the end of the season. PM had met him in the bar after a veterans game. “I’ve signed Gary Mac for a pint of John Smith’s and a bottle of Lucozade!” he quipped. Nothing came of it. “Since the stuff went in the paper he hasn't answered his phone to me,” said PM last week. Oh, well. We didn’t need a star in the end. From beer to Lucozade to champagne in the space of a month.

Pen pictures: The Qs & As with the Taddy players on their website are LOL funny. Pitts’s “favourite place visited” is his girlfriend’s knickers and Farthing’s favourite newspaper is “the one that keeps the fish and chips warm”. Also check out Elliker’s answers to the “most embarrassing” and “dislikes” questions ...

Click here for the BBC report on the match complete with interview with PM conducted by Barry Parker, Radio York football correspondent, whom I spotted sneaking in at half-time without paying and wearing a huge rucksack as if he'd just come off the hills.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Rochdale 1 Northampton Town 0

Coca Cola League Two
Attendance: 5,025

Spotland. When football fans quiz each other about ground names the home of Rochdale invariably springs first to mind but in most other respects the club comes near the bottom. It’s been in the fourth division continually since 1974 (usually in the lower echelons) and, from a personal point of view, it’s practically the only ground in the north I’d not visited – not even when a student in Manchester in the early 80s. Keen to correct this woeful omisson, the spring sun shining and the bunting out for Rochdale’s first promotion party since 1969, I set off to gatecrash.

Dale should’ve secured promotion weeks ago. They started today’s match having got no goals and just one point from the last four matches. They weren’t so much stumbling at the finish line but lying face down in the mud, arms and legs flailing. Requiring only a draw last Saturday they got tonked 5-0 at Torquay and then faced bottom-placed Darlington at home on Tuesday. A home banker, to be sure, you’d have thought. There was a victory and a club changed divisions – but it was Darlo who scored the only goal and were relegated to the Conference because of other results while Dale were ignominiously knocked off top spot for the first time since Dec 1. The Dale fans are used to the agony having missed out on promotion via the play-offs for the last two seasons. So was it to be third time lucky, twice over?

Expecting queues I got to the ground at 2.15pm – spotting the Mark ‘Clem’ Clemitt (right) of the BBC Football League Show outside – and walked straight in. Even at kick-off there was plenty of space given that the capacity is over 10,000. Half of one of the side stands was closed and the other half was about 30% occupied by away fans.

Disappointingly, Spotland isn’t half as singular as its name (which derives from its neighbourhood). In fact, the ground is so plain it could almost be complete new build. Three of the stands are very similar, each with a facia in blue (but not the shade of the team colours) and, equally curiously, no club name emblazoned on them. The only feature which reflects tradition are the tower floodlights (dating back merely to 1992, as it happens) in each corner which reminded me of those halcyon days at Elm Park. The feel of the place is similar to Bootham Crescent.

The Cobblers (as good a name as Spotland, has to be said) got off to a lively start and Davis nearly scored a sensational solo goal after a 50-yard mazey run. Dale took the lead midway through the half when a corner wasn’t cleared and O’Grady woofed in the loose ball. It was end-to-end stuff with lots of chances and some tidy football. Dale nearly settled it in the second half when a header spun up from the bar and then Thompson's half-volley was charged down. At the other end Northampton continued to do their best to spoil the party as the match edged to an edgy conclusion.

The four minutes of injury time seemed to last forever. By this stage we’d all amassed at the front of the stands, some even being allowed to encroach onto the pitch. Such a sensible approach by the stewards. Why spoil the fun – and just postpone the inevitable?

And on we rushed. As I’ve said before in this blog, there is something extraordinarily exciting and privileged about going onto the pitch. It’s like you’re seeing the place from the inside out. We waited for the lads to emerge in the directors box and sung along to “Wonderwall” on the PA. I stood beside a shaven-headed, bare-chested fella wearing a gold chain around his neck. He sported an equally bare-chested lady tattoeed on one pec and a full Rochdale crest on the other and dabbed at his eyes with his replica shirt.

“Dale are going up! Dale are going up! And now are you going to believe us?” Well, OK then.

Programme notes: Great programme especially the fans tales from the Dale invasion of Torquay. An impromptu match between rival fans was likened to the kickabout between the trenches on Christmas Day 1914 which I thought was stretching things just a tad. There was also a great Q&A with the ultimate non-glory hunting fan. Step forward one Jarle Gunstad from Norway who took to supporting Dale when they narrowly missed being voted out of the league in 1978. Daresay he’s disappointed they’ve now gone up. The Norwegian branch of the Rochdale supporters club has 25-30 members, Jarle reports.

Fashion notes: The goalies looked like highlighter pens. Dale’s sported fluorescent orange and Northampton’s a similarly gaudy hue of green.

Optional extras: Well observed story here (from The Guardian) about Rochdale’s season. And below is  a good film of the pitch invasion from the opposite end to where I stood. Start watching from about 2:15.