Saturday, 17 August 2013

Bacup & Rossendale Borough 1 Formby 4

FA Cup, extra preliminary round
Attendance: 45

You barely need a stadium name when you play down Cowtoot Lane, a fitting address for this splendid, characterful rural enclosure. (It’s actually called the Brian Boys West View Stadium). Talking of names, from this season the resident club is calling itself Bacup & Rossendale Borough (sometimes acronym-ed rather clumsily to BARB) to try and absorb support of the erstwhile Rossendale United from down the road who’s 113-year history tragically came to an end when they folded and their main stand was arsoned in January 2012 (see end of post).

The nickname of the visitors is also worth a mention too: The Squirrels. In the pantheon of non-intimidatory monickers that’s right up there with the Knitters(Hinckley), The Daisies (Daisy Hill) and Gingerbreads (Market Drayton). And why ‘squirrels’? The dunes near the Merseyside town are famed for their red nut nibblers.

Last season Formby won the first division of the North West Counties League “with an abacus-shattering haul of goals” (according to the programme) but were denied promotion to the premier division because their ground was deemed sub-standard. In fact, is was considered so poor they’re having to ground share with Burscough just to say in the first division. They clearly had a point to prove today against premier opposition.

The first thing you notice about Bacup’s ground (other than the street sign for Cowtoot Lane, of course) is the smart new display of archive photos, displayed mural-style, which adorn the wall beside the turnstile. Stepping inside I soon appreciated that the club is as steeped in history as it is deeply embedded within the West Pennine Moors.

The Pennine theme extends to the pronounced slope of the pitch, each fence panel at either end at a different height to the next. Cattle and sheep have good vantage points – and can graze right up to the castellated stone walls to which the leaky shelter at one end is attached like a sort of barn lean-to. Underneath is all weeds and barriers and on the roof is a scaffold and netting arrangement. A tiny walled corner which you expect to lead to a dunny in these parts actually houses a Portaloo. Concrete posts supporting the roof of the covered terrace on the far side look like the corners of a boxing ring and as if they’re made of Plasticine.

Moving round clockwise, next up come two long abandoned shipping containers that don’t appear ever to have been put to any particular purpose, two building site cabins and the Martin Peter’s Sports Bar. No, not that Martin Peters but the brother of Bacup manager Brent. According to its sign the bar is “the place to be seen” in Bacup.

Then, past the turnstile block, there is the seated stand with even less leg room that you’re likely to find at a Premier League ground. (Thankfully, that’s where the similarity ends). Beyond are the changing rooms linked to pitchside by a chicken wire arrangement topped with razor wire. In this context the sign for ‘visitors’ doesn’t look too welcoming.
Before the kick-off I loitered outside, ear wigging the team talk (at least, what I could understand of it, being delivered in broad Scouse) while inhaling the deep heat wafting through the open door. Even if Sky invent smellivision they won’t come near replicating this matchday experience. The  culmination of the movitation was a rallying cry by the Formby manager that the lads were on a win bonus: £25.

The crowd was little more than twice the size of the teams and the smallest I’ve been in for an FA Cup tie. It was so quiet that I could hear someone from the Formby bench having a “shut your gob” conversation from his dugout involving the lino even though I was behind one of the goal lines. The only disturbance (and it was considerable) came from a band rehearsing Teenage Kicks, Jilted John and Happy Hour and other numbers in the the adjacent cricket club.

Bacup were effectively in the Cup for just 12 mins during which time Formby scored two well worked goals and looked very tidy with it. The Squirrels’ tails were up. (Sorry: it was either that or a nuts joke). Straight after the re-start Bacup struck back immediately but Formby quickly reinstated their lead with a neat header from a cross and sealed the contest with 12 mins to go. A fifth goal was ruled out for offside. By this stage the players were enduring a cinematic tempest and I was loving it. The aura and setting simply couldn’t have become any more Lancastrian. Good game, too. The sports bar will have benefitted from those Formby bonuses. No squirrelling away in that respect, I suspect.

Programme notes: Marvin Molyneux was on the Formby team sheet. Who’s his brother? Hank Hawthorns.

Dark, Dark Lane: Before the match I visited what remains of Rossendale United’s old ground on Dark Lane in Newchurch.What a very poignant, sad experience. The goal posts still stand, the frayed remains of nets blowing in the breeze. The pitch was strewn with beer cans and knee-high with weeds (a space had been cleared for the centre spot). Graffiti and rubbish are everywhere and charred timbers are all that remain of the grandstand. Bloody sad. My final destination was little cheerier; for Bacup read boarded up. I don’t expect the tourist information centre gets busy. Click here for all my pics and see video below. Finally, here are some pics from a game in the club’s final season.

Further reading: I had the pleasure of meeting Jerry, writer of the recommended Onion Bag blog, at the match. Click here for his take on the match. He also visited Rossendale’s ground at an early stage of decay. See here for pics.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Three false starts and my search for the Europa League

Visits to Bala Town, Estoril and Boroughbridge

For me the qualifying rounds of the Europa League are starting to take on the appeal of the FA Cup qualifiers. Both feature teams from tiny towns, sometimes with funny – and in the Europa League, unpronouncable – names and the vast majority with no real chance of making the proper rounds. The competitions are also similar in that their quirky appeal ends when the bigger sides join in. 

Few Europa League entrants come from smaller settlements than Bala Town of the League of Wales. It’s population is just 2,000 and only a decade ago the team played in a parks league. I called at their ground en route to a work assignment five days before their first qualifying round tie against Levadia Tallinn. Tragically, the match was actually played at Rhyl for ground grading reasons, robbing the occasion of most of its allure and novelty.
A member of staff spotted me lurking (I felt like such a groundhopper) and kindly invited me to have a look around inside. Maes Tegid is a very trim arena with a Scandinavian feel on account of the pine trees behind one goal and a timber clubhouse that looks like a forest lodge. A tower that at first appears half-finished is actually complete and designed with an open top for cameras. Behind it you can see another tower which belongs to a former Presbyterian college and now church youth centre.

Bala won the first leg 1-0 but their “great European journey” (love that cliché) came to an abrupt end on July 11 weeks before the start of the league season when they lost the return in Estonia, 1-3.

I had another Bisto kid-like whiff of European football while on holiday in Portugal. Seredipitously, Groupo Desportivo Estoril Praia (the town once hosted Grand Prixs) was playing a third qualifying round tie of the Europa League against Hapoel Ramat Gan. My brother and nephew turned up at the ground 40 mins before kick-off. As we approached we remarked on the lack of traffic and parked with ease a couple of hundreds of yards away. (You know what’s coming). The turnstiles had polythene bags over them and the gates were barricaded. Mmmm. Not exactly a warm welcome, we agreed, but we could see what looked like Israelis warming up on the turf (see below). Making our way to the main entrance we at last found an open door. “Is there a game on tonight?” I asked. “No. Tomorrow,” said a man. Bollocks. The website had supplied the wrong date and has a lot to answer for. We were unable to go the following night. The fact that the match ended in a goalless draw did little to ease my pain. 

Travel to the third of my false starts to the season (although I knew I wasn’t going to get a match at Bala) was at Boroughbridge just 10 mins up the road from home. The club from the (unofficial) step 7 West Yorkshire League was hosting a prestige friendly against a Carlisle United XI following a similar fixtures against a representative side from Doncaster Rovers a few years ago. The third division visitors fielded a youth team which was hardly surprising as the senior side was playing Blackburn in the League Cup the following night having opened the season with a 1-5 drubbing at home to Orient on Saturday. 

Aldborough Road, home of Boroughbridge, is such a small ground that even I’ve played here – albeit on the secondary pitch. The grandstand is a little hard to tell apart from the adjacent dugout and the only other structures are a second dugout and a clubhouse. To my delight and surprise, though, there was a programme for the match which was sponsored by the London branch of the Carlisle United Supporters’ Club. The attendance was over 100. The Carlisle lads looked smart – in terms of their playing style, haircuts and strip (sponsored by Eddie Stobart for the last 18 years). Unlike the hosts, I don’t expect they take it in turns to wash the kit. Carlisle won 3-2.

At half-time as the mower on the cricket pitch started up I got ready to play myself – by walking to the side of the bowling green and behind the hedge to my tennis club. My unusual double-header  was a delightful way to spend a summer’s evening. Might even get to watch a full 90 mins next time I visit a football club …

More holiday hopping: I cycled around Anglesey in June and was wondering about the football club in Holyhead. Didn’t have time to investigate but another hopper has done so on his holiday travels. The club is the wonderfully named Holyhead Hotspur. Click here for the report and pics.