Saturday, 25 September 2010

Norton & Stockton Ancients 2 Leigh Genesis 1

FA Cup, Second Qualifying Round
Attendance: 127

Sometimes deciding which cup tie to go to is a bit like choosing a winner for the Grand National. Just pick a good name or two - which is partly how I came to head for this encounter. In addition, the Ancients were already further than they’d ever gone in the Cup. They rarely make it through the preliminary rounds. In fact, these are heady days all round for the lads. They achieved their first promotion from the Northern League second division two seasons ago and, last season, made the quarter-final of the FA Vase.

For a man permanently infected by cup fever, though, Norton (on Teesside) felt like entering a quarantine zone. There was certainly no throng guiding me to the ground. First I turned into the cricket club and then into a car park which had signs for tennis, squash and bowls. “Is this the right place for the Ancients?” I asked a fella. “Dunno,” he said. “Come here for the rugby”. Then, 50 yards away, I spotted a small sign for the football club. For reference, head towards the garden shed (the entrance) below the tree. Parking was free and admission for the two kids and I (who contributed 2½% of the crowd) plus a programme cost a tenner. You’d barely get a couple of rounds of prawn sandwiches for that in the foreign millionnaire’s league.

The ground is diddy to say the least. It consists simply of one small grandstand and one equally trim, modern shelter around an immaculate pitch. The toilets are outside the gate while the new clubhouse - which currently  looks like a modern art installation - is under construction. Houses surround the pitch and one even has a garden with arched gate that leads to the pitchside. A season ticket comes with the property, in effect. Bedrooms could easily double-up as boxes if the need arises in later rounds. I soon spotted some familiar faces from the previous round: Father Christmas among the spectators and a lino.

I hadn’t been to such a small venue since Knaresborough Town and hadn’t encountered such a muted cup mood since Newcastle Benfield. When the players trotted out I clapped but stopped after three claps feeling a bit embarrassed as I was the only one applauding. The atmosphere reminded me of playing than watching – and playing was what a group of boys was doing behind the dug-outs. Always a nice feature of the early rounds, that. Next to them was a microphone and ISDN kit of the BBC Radio Tees reporter plugged into a transmitter attached to a floodlight as far as I could tell.

There was little for him to report Рor to take our minds off the hat and gloves weather Рin the first half-hour but as half-time approached it all flared up. The Ancients were awarded a penalty but it was saved. Moments afterwards there was a mass brawl. I think it was all handbags (love that football clich̩) but it resulted in the dismissal of a player from each side.
Leigh – who play one level higher than Norton – looked the more solid team but the Ancients gradually grew in confidence and had most chances even if they kept fluffing them. Finally, on 67 mins, they went ahead with a thumping header by Bishop from a corner. Two mins later Leigh struck back when Gleave burst through and the keeper deflected but couldn’t keep out his shot. The home side was crest-fallen but, to their credit kept at it, and were rewarded four mins from time when a cross from the right was headed in by Clarke. He stripped his shirt off but thankfully and sensibly didn’t get booked.

That was about the only exuberance of the afternoon. At the final whistle the crowd clapped for literally five seconds (I participated, gingerly) and swiftly cleared off. Perhaps they’re saving themselves for the next round: FC United of Manchester at home. I arrived a round too early.

Pre-match entertainment: I highly recommend Hardwick Park near Sedgefield. It’s a recently restored Georgian pleasure park with lots of follies. We loved it.

Sing when you’re winning: If the Ancients need a chant in a later round then what better than the refrain from Justified and Ancient by The KLF? “Alll-llll bound for Wember-ley, Wember-ley”?

Programme notes: Leigh’s no 4 was Kieran Molyneux. With a name like that shouldn’t he have been playing in the gold and black (of the Ancients). Some good pen pictures of the Ancients. David Alderson: “By his own admission is the thickest man at the club”. Richard Gaston: “Cuts his own hair to save money”. Nathan Mulligan: “Has a great engine and is a set piece expert”.

West Auckland postscript: Auckland proudly announced that they were to travel to today’s tie at Workington “in style” … on the Darlington team coach. To rekindle the spirit of their world cup wins a hundred years ago perhaps they should’ve gone in a charabanc. Sadly, they lost 2-1. Mossley are still hanging on in there, though.

For some match action click here.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

West Auckland Town 3 Bradford (Park Avenue) 1

FA Cup, First Qualifying Round
Attendance: 180
I love the claims to fame of small towns. As you enter Horbury near Wakefield a sign proclaims “home to the Onward Christian Soldiers” (the chap who wrote the hymn came from there) and I recently stayed in Wirksworth, Derbyshire, where government red tape was made. But those claims cannot compare with that of West Auckland. “Home of football’s first world cup” it declares on the signs that welcome you to this corner of Co Durham.

To cut a long and extraordinary story short West Auckland won the aforementioned cup representing England in 1909 and 1911. Along the way they beat Juventus 6-1. (Click here for the full story). Ahead of today’s tie a little investigation was called for.

I’d read that a replica of the cup was on display at the working men’s club. On arrival it looked closed down with nothing visible through the windows other than a “CCTV is in operation” sign. This is not a premises easily mistaken for FIFA HQ in Zurich. Phew, I thought. I can go straight to the match. Then I saw a woman enter. Oh, dear. I don’t have an excuse now – so in I go, feeling like I have the words “southern woos” tattooed on my forehead. “Excuse me. Can I see your world cup?” I ask a wrinkly old woman, the only person in an otherwise deserted reception area. “In the lounge,” she abruptly replies. I pace down a corridor and then take a right into what, thankfully, is the lounge. And there it isn’t. A chap having a drink tells me that the cup has gone to Sussex for some sort of promotional turn. What remains is an albeit impressive but notably empty glass cabinet with the words “The Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy” (Lipton Tea sponsored the competition) beneath it. What a disappointment – even though it’s merely a replica cup, the original having been pinched in 1994. I buy a booklet about from it from behind the bar and make a hasty exit.

My quest for memorabilia inside the ground is equally interesting. I ask about a club shop from the programme seller and the chap next to him leads me into and through the club house and to a cupboard which doubles up as club shop and Christmas decorations store. I buy a mug. My very own world cup, I guess. The cup icon is understandably everywhere: on the gates to the club, on the badge on the shirt, programme, etc.

As I take my place on the terraces, I pass a chap announcing the team changes standing on the terraces with a microphone. I daresay that the two lads from Wear Radio (below, right) might let him use their facilities if he needed to. Their studio is more of a booth. They stand, mikes in hand and moving around a bit, behind a window. Entry is via a double-glazed door that looks like it ought to lead to a patio. I wonder if actually they’re practising some sort of Auckland remix of the John Barnes World Cup rap rather than commentating.

The visitors, Bradford (Park Avenue) have some history of their own as well, of course, as a former league club. They are also from three levels higher up the pyramid and only missed out on promotion to the Conference North in last season’s play-offs.

Bradford take the lead after five minutes with a looping header and then, soon after, are awarded a penalty after Facey is pulled down. (He’s brother of 13-club journeyman, Delroy, by the way). “Contest over”, we all think, but the Auckland keeper saves and then, in a remarkable turn of events, his side take the lead – initially after the Bradford keeper fluffs a kick from his hands letting in the lanky Moffat and then, a minute later, when the same player converts a penalty (below).
Still very much against the run of play, Auckland extend their lead early in the second half when Banks breaks through an beats the keeper on a one-on-one. That is the last home chance of the contest until the dying minutes as Bradford pile on unrelenting pressure.

A frustrated octogenarian supporter from Bradford twice suddenly calls out as if in pain. At first I think the old boy’s having a seizure but he’s actually trying to start one of those echo chants. Most obligingly, three of his fellow fans respond, smiling awkwardly like when your grandad farts at Christmas. Another elderly gent in the grandstand (left) looked like he was there at the Sir Thomas Lipton match. Facey clips the bar right at the end which rather sums up his – and Bradford’s – afternoon.

What a cracking little match this turned out to be. You can barely call it a giant-killing as Bradford aren’t exactly giants but the roaring coming from the Auckland dressing room is fully warranted – and underlines what the cup means to non-league players.

So after something of a false start in Mossley my FA Cup trail has now taken off in style and, two months after that tournament in South Africa, I have a world cup experience to savour.
Programme notes:
- “On this day” in 1895 the original FA Cup was stolen from a shop window in Birmingham. Clearly Sept 11 is not a good day for missing cups.
- Lipton, now part of Unilever, is among the shirt sponsors. Nice touch.
- Assistant manager ‘Foss’ penned the half-time quiz. Another nice touch.
- The Auckland goalie was in between the sticks for Blyth Spartans 2008 cup run which culminated in the tie against Blackburn Rovers.

First-rate programme, incidentally, reflective of a tidy little club in my favourite league (the Northern).

Unlikely double header: I overheard a groundhopper saying that the following morning he was catching the early morning flight to Belgium to watch Sporting Lokeren v. Westerlo.

Essential viewing:
The story of the first world cup is re-told in this 1982 film starring Denis Waterman and Nigel Hawthorne. It's a sort of cross between Auf Wiedersehn Pet and an Ealing Comedy. Click here to watch on YouTube (like I did on Saturday night).

Essential reading: Last year West Auckland played Juventus in a re-match to mark the centenary of their world cup win. The lads played the Juve under-19s 40 miles away from the San Siro. Click here for an account of the trip, a postscript to the original tale as sad as the theft of the trophy.