Saturday, 13 December 2014

Ramsbottom United 0 Stockport County 3

FA Trophy, first round
Attendance: 907

I’ve been waiting for a good opportunity to visit Ramsbottom for ages – and not just because of its name. I’d read that the club has a great setting and it’s currently very much on the up having had two promotions to the giddy heights of step 3 Northern Premier League since I first saw them in the Cup at Barnoldswick three years ago. Stockport, of course, have gone in the other direction at roughly the same pace and now languish in the Conference North, an exceptionally low ranking for an ex-League club. I haven’t seen the Hatters since c 1982 when, as a student in Manchester, I caught the bus with a friend and County fan to Edgeley Park for a Friday night match featuring the wonderfully named Tommy Sword.

It’s fair to say that my companion and nephew, Toby, and I did not see Ramsbottom at its best. We left the sunshine behind on the other side of the Pennines and descended into a cold, damp, foggy murk, various forms of precipitation taking it in turns to sweep across the arena. The Rammy staff and volunteers – some of whom had been preparing the ground since 8am with heaters, brushes and flamethrowers – had done very well to get the game on.

Not canoeing weather, you might have thought, but we passed a group that had just got out of the River Irwell on our way to the ground alongside the East Lancashire Steam Railway. The Santa Special was packed and about to depart while O Come all ye Faithful played on the tinny tannoy. Canoeing or a packed train with steamed up windows? Mmm: tricky one. We’d have gone with the canoeing if forced to make a choice.

We passed a cabin that’s home to the Ramsbottom Homing (as in pigeons) Society and bought programmes from a lady wearing a blue and white santa hat with “Rammy United” written in blue pen along a stripe of white. We resisted the temptation to buy an “Up the ram’s bottom” mug. Turnstiles were accessed through ornate iron, garden-style gates set within arches in brickwork.

The traditional, homely ambience (which reminded me of Matlock) was reinforced inside the ground by the names of some of the clubs stalwarts adoring the pre-fabricated hospitality suite and three basic stands viz Frank Rothwell, Jack Wolfenden, Harry Williams (after whom the ground is also named) and Ellis Timlin. Some of the seats came from Maine Road and the floodlights and sponsor’s lounge from Boundary Park, Oldham.

The black scoring tower of the adjacent cricket club was barely discernable through the fog and the views over the trees up at the surrounding hills were similarly obscured. The video cameraman sheltered under a plastic sheet arrangement suspended over an aluminium frame like a toddler under a pushchair rain shield. Sleet and hailstones on the turf glistened under the floodlights providing the only Christmas sparkle while slide tackles carved soft furrows and the ball hit the grass with slap.

Full credit to the Stockport fans. An FA Trophy tie against a small club might have been insignificant but they turned out in number and were in good voice. They soon had plenty of cheer about. The visitors took the lead through a penalty after just two minutes. Hardly, the ideal start to a David/Goliath battle for us and the home fans but one that set the tone for the afternoon. Rammy rallied, kept battling throughout (not helped by some dubious refereeing) and had several great chances before Stockport extended the lead on 25 mins following a free kick. Any match highlights would’ve consisted of action from the first half and just Stockport’s third goal (a free header from a cross) from the second half which seemed to go on forever. Soon after the decisive strike we heard another mournful, haunting whistle of the steam train returning to the station. (Echoes, literally, of the North York Moors Railway at Pickering back in August.)

Many fans had left the ground by the final whistle and we came very close to following them as the players went through the motions. A Christmas cracker had turned into a damp squib but one that I still enjoyed in a gritty, northern, “God, isn’t this grim?” sort of way. I will return on a sunny day and linger longer.

Star turn: Stockport’s line-up included the son of Remi Moses (ex-Man U in the 80s), Tunji, whom I last saw playing for Hyde at Staveley. Brothers Grant and Scott Spencer were in opposition today.

Programme notes: Rammy News evokes the spirit of the club (in this case, proud and cheery) as every good programme should. Some quotes, first from a Tony Cunningham: “Let’s be honest. Not too long ago the prospect of little ol’ Rammy playing the might of County would have had us all being carted off!” Fan Darren Comer writes about the previous round at Banbury: “I found myself boarding the coach armed only with a rucksack containing the [Rammy] Ultras flag, a latex ram’s head, vuvuzela, a four-pack of beers and a couple of the wife’s lovingly prepared sausage and brown sauce muffins.”
Meanwhile, the supporters’ club rallies fans over Christmas thus: “When folks find themselves pacing the streets, bored silly after a day of mercilessly troughing their way through all manner of Christmas junk what better than to shake off the cobwebs and come down to watch Rammy.” All this and a retro ‘face in the crowd’ that looked like Scary Spice, notably absent from tonight’s X Factor final. Perhaps she was making a return trip to the Riverside Stadium ...

Photo credits: Bit murky for my camera today so thanks to Andy Nunn and the Onion Bag blog for letting me pinch their shots of the steam train and turnstile block respectively. Click on the links to see the full sets.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Hall Rd Rangers 0 Knaresborough Town 6

Northern Counties East League, Division One
Attendance: 38 (my lowest ever)

Hall Road Rangers play in the village of Dunswell on the northern fringe of Hull. Getting there looks to be a synch: first turn right on the ‘A’ road off the main York-Hull road. Ah: that turn is signed to just Ciao, an Italian restaurant. I drive by again and it appears to be a choice between that and a farm. I ask at a petrol station. “Dene Park?” the cashier asks. “Yes!”. “Oh, you need the sign for Ciao”. (I haven’t had such trouble finding a ground since Parkgate.)

I edge down a track to reach a playing field on the far side of which is, indeed, a restaurant next to a football ground with shared, full car park. Hard to tell whether it’s with diners taking advantage of a half-price pizza offer or something or football fans. (Bet I know where Hall Road are going for their Christmas do). After all, this is hardly a big match. In fact, it’s a throughly run of the mill fixture that appeals to me mainly as a way of getting out of the house on a very soggy, grey day (slide tackle weather, I call it) and only just worth going to because my local lads, Knaresborough Town are visiting.

There are an no turnstiles here; a jovial fella at the gap into the ground simply relieves me of a fiver. I turn right and into the grandstand. A stand of any sort is something of a bonus at step 6 of the non-league pyramid and this is a substantial one, consisting of four tiers of bench seating populated by a hardy knot of about 10 Rangers supporters. All that’s missing a ‘Hall Road Rangers’ on the fascia.

Positioned behind one of the goals, the grandstand reminds me of Whickham. Beside it is another seated stand. There are also two small shelters and, curiously, two pairs of dugouts either side of the pitch. Elm trees behind the wonky rail at the far end (see lead pic) outnumber spectators and there is the customary escape hatch in the perimeter fence and one or two unofficial ones besides. All in all, a pretty impressive set-up for this level of the pyramid.

Knaresborough take the lead on five minutes when a shot is parried and then woofed in by an on-rushing striker. They then proceed to dominate the match, showing far greater speed and composure, and go in two up at half-time.

During the interval an almost ghostly voice announces the result of the raffle. It’s the only time the PA is used unless something was said before 2.54pm when I arrived. The generator that presumably powers the floodlights starts up, droning like the engine of a ship. The semi-rural location also means that the club isn’t connected to the main drains but uses a cesspit. As Knaresborough emerge the lads joke about the home subs taking pot shots at manager Brian Davey as he moves across the penalty area nursing a mug of tea. Hall Road are somewhat tardy in returning to the pitch, the result, no doubt, of a substantial dressing room dressing down. Sadly for them, things aren’t going to get any better.

Knaresborough continue to dominate with ex-Man U and Leeds junior Colin Heath completing his hat-trick. “The cheeky buggers have had a shot on goal!” remarks our Brian after a rare foray forward by Hall Road. A bloke in the rival dug-out isn’t quite so lightly flippant in his summation of the lino’s performance. “You’re a cocky, arrogant c***,” he snarls. God, I’d hate be a lino, as I’ve said many times before.

When Knaresborough go five up with 13 mins to go I suddenly begin to wonder if we could be heading for eight or nine. Another goal goes in right at the end and Town squander two injury time chances but can hardly be disappointed with the final result. They’ve now won seven out of 11 away matches this season compared to two out of ten at home and have scored twice as many goals on their travels. This victory was also their second biggest league win since ascending to the NCEL in 2012. Arrivedercis don’t come sweeter than that.

Programme notes: Hall Road’s next home match is billed as Knaresborough on Dec 27. Um, err ... think that’s an error.

Some action: Here is four minutes of random action sadly not including any goals but it gives you a feel for the place as darkness descended.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Blyth Spartans 4 Altrincham 1

FA Cup, first round
Attendance: 1,763

Clash of the giantkillers, I suppose you’d call this one. Between them Spartans and Altrincham have knocked out more League clubs from the Cup than I’ve had hot dinners. Most famously Spartans came within a dodgy corner and replay of reaching the quarter-final in 1977/78 and the following season Alty took Tottenham to a replay in the third round among other Cup exploits. Heady days, indeed.

Stewards spot two dubious-looking youths in the queue for the turnstile. “Get ah-we-ah ho-arm with you!” instructs a steward before the lads skulk off, one of them later gaining admission nonetheless. The steward opens a gate to increase the rate of admission, taking tenners as spectators enter. “Chee-uzz,” we all say as the note changes hands. (Love the Northumbrian accent.)

Inside the place is buzzing. Awards are made to a fella who’s watched 1,500 Spartans matches and the club for winning last month’s fair play award. The occasion and ground have a Conference feel although the hosts play in the step 3 Northern Premier League. A turbine and cranes from the Port of Blyth poke above the stands. Reassuringly fans change ends to be behind the goals their side is attacking and an old gent wearing a home-knit, plain green and white scarf sells raffle tickets.

Green and white engenders a strength of pride that you don’t get for other, more common team colours. One of the few other clubs to play in such stripes (as opposed to hoops), Real Betis, is twinned with the Spartans as indicated by one of the banners (above). The roof of the main stand – which looks like the lid of a toolbox – is green as is the retro picket fence that fully encloses the pitch. Spartans have one of the great names of world football too – and some fans make the most of it by sporting ancient Greek headgear. The noseplate on what looks like a papier-mâché creation (below) is so large it must have obscured the view as much as the TV scaffold tower within the main terraced stand.

Spartans come flying out of the traps, putting the gimmicky pink FA Cup ball into the net with a penalty on three mins and, in so doing, become the first side to get a live goal flash on the BBC’s new Final Score programme. A little piece of history for Blyth, not that they really need any ...

Altrincham hit the post with a bending, long range effort just before half-time but Spartans extend their lead on the hour mins when nippy little Maguire (reminiscent of Robbie Keane) somehow squeezes the ball inside the left post after a neat one-two with Dale. Altrincham get one back when an up and under is walloped home with feeling by Perry and for a few minutes Spartans fans feel edgy. Nerves are soon eased when Dale (like Peter Crouch in height and playing style) calmly evades Alty tackles in the box to stroke home a third for the hosts. Man of the match Dale has now scored in each of the Spartans’ five FA Cup ties this season. Maguire completes the rout with a brave flick over the onrushing Alty goalie. It all becomes a bit too easy; I almost want an Alty fight back to make for an edge of the seat finale.

When I got back to the beach (always seem to park miles away) the lighthouse on the end of the pier was blinking and the tide was in. I have a feeling that this year’s FA Cup trail may have reached its high water mark but what a trail it’s been. #getcarriedaway? In the words of The Four Tops: I can’t help myself.
TV highlights: Wasn’t the Warrington/Exeter tie thrilling? I can scarcely remember a match that’s atmosphere has come over so strongly on the telly. Loved all the interviews on the pitch especially at the end when all the fans were bouncing and chanting away behind the presenters. Warrington manager Shaun Reid is a great Scouse FA Cup character. Whenever he’s asked a question he pauses for a moment, takes a sharp intake of breath, makes a brief ironic or jokey remark, addressing the interviewer as “mate”, and then gives a fuller response. The BBC highlights of today’s game are here.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Shildon 1 Norton United 2

FA Cup, fourth qualifying round replay
Attendance: 936

My FA Cup overfloweth. I witnessed one of the upsets of the fourth qualifying round at Warrington on Saturday and tonight ventured to darkest, deepest Durham for the replay between the two lowest ranked sides still in the competition. Shildon was seeking to become the first Northern League club to reach the first round since 2003 (when it was they who made it) while Norton (a village within Stoke-on-Trent) has never been beyond the first qualifying round.

Dean Street is a proper football ground through and through. It is embedded in its community both in terms of its feel and location, tightly hemmed in and overlooked by narrow streets of terraced houses and the sense of enclosure all the greater after dark. Residents watched from bedroom windows as did a boy up a tree. The bonhomie of the queue for the turnstile was replaced by a hushed intensity from the crowd inside. In keeping for a match between step 4 and 5 sides calls on the pitch matched the volume of the occasional cheers and jeers off it and all were heard against the continual drone of the generator for the burger van.

Norton took the lead against the run of play when a Shildon defender slipped on the dewy grass on the edge of his box and Cropper swooped to swiftly fire home. The visitors upped their game thereafter and then extended their lead on 53 minutes when Diskin lashed a loose ball into the top corner. Another fortuitous if well taken goal. Shildon battled well, maintaining a very brisk pace, and got one back with a drive by Connor from the edge of the area (above) but they then missed three or four good chances which ultimately cost them the match.

It was an exciting game for the neutrals and away fans not that there was many of either group. The final whistle was greeted by silence apart from a manic roar from the blur of Norton bibs in the centre circle. The Shildon lads collapsed to their knees and hung their heads. They know the feeling. They lost an FA Vase quarter-final here in 2010 then a semi-final to a goal six minutes from the end of extra time in March last year. A desperate hat-trick to be sure – and no home first round derby against Gateshead. Next up for me: Blyth/Alty.

Further reading: For a more comprehensive description and daylight pics of the ground see my previous blog post from Shildon. The action pics in this post are by Thomas Clegg. His full set is here.
Fixtures and fittings: Shildon’s distinctive main stand was built in 1923 and Alex Ferguson switched on the floodlights prior to a friendly against Man United in 1987. The ground has many ornate, domestic banisters and balustrades because the president is part of a family staircase business.

Caught (out) on film: As I watched the first round draw on Monday night I was reminded how the competition is approaching the point where it loses its innocence. The programme included often blurry, amateur footage of fourth qualifying round matches lifted from YouTube. No chance of that now particularly for Warrington who’s tie with Exeter has been selected as the live match on BBC2. The cameraman at Warrington v. North Ferriby (shooting on his phone from the look of it) missed the Wire’s historic winner and the club has put out a plea on Twitter to anyone who may have captured it. In this internet age when we can see everything without going anywhere I rather like the quaint, exclusive notion of an incident that was seen only by those who were there. Erik Lamela’s (frankly not that exciting) ramona goal for Tottenham last week has been seen over five million times, the Warrington strike just 691 times. Talking of blurry footage from YouTube below is my humble attempt to capture the mood of the match.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Warrington Town 1 North Ferriby United 0

FA Cup, fourth qualifying round
Attendance: 691

‘Welcome to Warrington. Home of the Warrington Wolves’ read the sign after my turn off the M62. Well, blow me. Always thought the Wolves played in St Helens. A rather unnecessary sign, perhaps, but one that underlines that Warrington is very much a rugby league rather football town. The step 4 football club hasn’t shared the Wolves’s fortunes but they do have the same nickname of The Wire in recognition of Warrington’s history of steel wire manufacture which explains the steel sculptures on the roundabouts approaching the town centre.
The club should really be The Wire Men or something similar. Just calling them The Wire is a bit like referring to Northampton not as The Cobblers but The Shoe. Still it works for The Iron (Scunthorpe) and gives endless possibilities for headline writers (more of which later).

I began enjoying the afternoon immediately after I’d paid my tenner admission for my son and I (fantastic value) and entered the ground. The first thing I saw was a garden shed as a programme shop with two animated fellas selling pin badges and programmes as if they were at Petticoat Lane and, beyond that, a B&Q-type gazebo for flogging golden goal tickets. I entered at the same time as a man in a dog collar, a Tweedle Dee-shaped Ferriby superfan who I’d spotted two rounds ago at Cleethorpes, another away supporter in a white pith helmet and geezer in the classic 60s West Ham away shirt.

The clubhouse is what you might call open plan. VIP suite? That will be the table with a plate of biscuits. Press box? That’s the table opposite with the fella on his laptop. Among the early arrivals was George Riley, the sports reporter on 5 Live Breakfast who had also attended the previous round’s replay against Colwyn Bay. (This was Warrington’s seventh match in the competition this season.) At the top of the stairs is a fantastic Romeo and Juliet balcony with club initials on the balustrade.

An understated, characterful ground, Cantilever Park boasts a wonderful mish-mash of stands of differing vintages and, it seems, structural integrity. The backdrops are great too. Overlooking the ground in the same corner as the clubhouse is a chapel and little white villa and behind the goal, a new all-weather pitch where lads played oblivious to the main event just a slide tackle away. The view towards the far end of the ground is framed by the Cantilever Bridge (steel, of course, and from which the ground gets its name) over the Manchester Ship Canal and an apartment block which affords the same sort of free aerial view that Man City fans sought of the CSKA Moscow match behind closed doors last Tuesday.

Moments before the start a drummer struck up the best beat I’d heard since Basingstoke. “Wire on the telly, Wire on the telly,” the lads beside him sang before addressing the Ferriby fans as: “You’re just a bus stop in Grimsby.” The scene was well and truly set for a what was to be a cracking contest between two sides seeking to reach the first round proper for the first time in their histories.

The match was pretty even throughout despite the two division gap between the sides. Warrington had two good chances in the first half and, at the other end, their goalie nearly gifted a goal to the visitors when he spilt a shot. The turning point came mid-way in the second half when the Ferriby skipper was dismissed for pushing over a Warrington player. Facing 10 men and their tails up, Warrington entered their best spell of the match and crowned it when Field (sporting the finest Jesus hairstyle this side of Jonathan Woodgate) burst through the midfield to beat the North Ferriby offside trap and lob the onrushing goalie before tapping home.

As the tension mounted and number of spectators on the balcony of the apartment block swelled from one to three Ferriby surged back and put the hosts under huge pressure especially from a series of corners. Their 6ft 5 inch centre forward Denton looked forever menacing but the Wire goalie kept his side in the match with a string of five saves. So it did go down to the wire (sorry: couldn’t resist it). At the start of the game I told my son that I could smell an upset and, for once, I was right.

At the final whistle someone rushed onto the pitch with a cardboard cut-out of the FA Cup wrapped in tin foil that had been fixed to the shed door and Metcalfe sprinted over to where we were shuffling out to kiss his girlfriend, a length of cotton wool hanging from his left nostril as it had done since an earlier clash of heads (with the oppo, not the girlfriend). A vintage FA Cup occasion in all respects. My El Clasico.

Programme notes: Inexplicably, the programme inclues a review of four other programmes from random minor clubs, each scored out of 10 according to eight criteria. Chew Moor Brook’s four pager wasn’t much of a bedtime read, apparently. The programme also chronicles that in 1994 Warrington drew Darlington at home in the first round proper of the FA Cup before being knocked out in a replay in the final qualifying round. I like the way that a match that never came to pass is still part of club history. The reference reminds me of how Tow Law came within a replay of playing Arsenal at home in the Cup in 1967.

Star turn: Warrington’s manager is Shaun Reid, brother of ex-Everton, Bolton and England star Peter recently appointed manager of Mumbai City. You can see the brotherly likeness in the interview at the end of these brief highlights.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

How low can you go? Desperately seeking pitches at step 7

I’m getting slightly worried. My late father, a retired livestock auctioneer, used to stop when we were driving around on holiday to admire herds of cattle. None of the rest of the family could understand it. We sat in the car and waited for him. Now I’m the father and my wife and kids are similarly silently bemused when I insist on stopping on our holiday travels to take pics of any scenic football pitches I spot. Somewhat eccentric and nerdy interest, I know, but heh, I’m not drowning kittens or anything …

I’m also currently  sufferering from ground envy. Other bloggers have been revealing the delights of pitches in corners of the the South Pennines, Snowdonia and Cornwall while I’ve been making do with a modern sports centre ground at Cleethorpes.  So, after considerable  Googling and today shamefully shunning the FA Cup (actually there were no suitable ties for me which is why I was up for the Sheffield & Hallamshire Cup instead) I threw my anorak in the back of the car (just as rain protection, honest) and set off for on a step 7 southern Yorkshire double-header packed with pictorial promise.

A real find in more ways than one, Shelley’s home is the former sports pitch buried deep within the woodland of the former Storthes Hall psychiatric hospital that operated between 1904 and 1991. You approach the pitch by passing through student halls of residence and proceeding down a lane. Before checking out the pitch I went in search of the old tennis courts (couldn’t find them) and also got a distant view of the clock tower of the main building of the old hospital. The references on the signs on the fence to the guide dogs “not being vegetarian” successfully dissuaded me from further exploration.

The pitch – actually let’s call this a ground  – is an utter delight. If you don’t feel like playing football looking at it then you must have a serious malaise. The playing surface is immaculate (grass routes don’t come much greener) and enclosed by trees which make the ref’s whistle echo. The dug-outs are pristine too even benefiting from guttering. A splendid backdrop is provided by the Emley Moor TV transmitter which I’d previously enjoyed from AFC Emley but the undoubted jewel in this particular crown is the redeveloped and extended, Edwardian cricket pavilion. Inside is a smart café, flat screen TV and small office area with laptop. (The security system for his place must have cost almost as much as the build). There are further tables outside.
Steps lead down between eight rows of bench seating (for up to 400) which have been cut into the embankment, an arrangement and the setting that gives the ground a Scandinavian feel like I’d encountered at Gallstads. Floodlights were recently added and excavations have been made for a pair of cantilever stands that will shelter the back four rows of the two outer blocks of seats. The ground –which includes two other pitches – opened in summer 2013 since when Shelley have hosted pre-season friendlies against a Leeds United XI and FC United of Manchester.

What an absolute gem that’s destined to become a groundhopper’s rite of passage. To experience the ground in its full glory I’d recommend waiting until a golden summer’s evening, late autumn when the leaves are turning or perhaps even until Shelley ascend to the Northern Counties East League which with the impetus provided by this sort of set-up can’t be far away. The club’s president and benefactor is entrepreneur, philanthropist and ex-Huddersfield Town chairman Graham Leslie (his son is chairman) who sourced funding from the Football Foundation. Town used to train at Storthes Hall and its ladies side play there.
I left at half-time with Shelley one up against Bentley Colliery in the aforementioned cup (they went on to win 3-0) and the game about as one-sided as England v. San Marino last Thursday to head to Horbury Town. The least said about that visit the better. Suffice to say that what I judged from Google Earth to be a football pitch with tow-tiered grandstand was, in fact, a bowling green with small pavilion. Easy mistake to make (see below) although, with hindsight, the squareness of the grass is a giveaway.
Furthermore, I hadn’t examined the coutour lines properly and what I thought was a bank that would’ve given an elevated view of the ‘ground’ was actually a downwards slope. And as for the railway lines either side of the ‘ground’ which, I’d imagined, would provide some locos to add to the photographic interest … Well, one line was at the bottom of the aforementioned slope and the other was hidden from view. “D-. Could do better,” is how my old geography would’ve summed me up.
Horbury were, indeed, playing my local lads Boroughbridge (in the West Yorkshire League, 6-2) but on a roped off pitch with dugouts about 150 metres away on the far side of a hockey pitch.  Ho, hum. Such are the hazards of step 7 ground hunting.
Programme notes: The point of note about the Shelley programme was merely that there was one. The attendance was 30-40. Given that entry is free at this level I was more than happy to part with my pound.
Further reading: For more amazing pitches check out this slideshow from The Guardian.