Thursday, 16 June 2016

The last post: Building bridges

It never rained but it poured in Tadcaster last winter but the town and its club emerged triumphant. (I entered this article into the When Saturday Comes writing competition).

The 2014-15 season had been full of promise. Tadcaster Albion reached the quarter-final of the FA Vase (the furthest they’ve ever been in the competition) but it all ended in tears and an unsavoury fracas at the final whistle with visitors from Highworth Town (see below). A three-horse race for the step five North Counties East League title with Worksop and Shaw Lane Aquaforce finished with similar disappointment, the momentum of Tadcaster’s campaign having suffered in the face of the Vase run.

The manager, Paul Marshall, who had guided the club to its first ever promotion in 2010 and is best known for taking Harrogate Railway to the second round of FA Cup in 2002, surprisingly parted company with the club in summer to be replaced by Billy Miller, who had just led Railway to its highest ever finish in the step four Evo-Stik Northern Premier League first division north.

Since the club’s purchase by ambitious i2i Sports Ltd in summer 2013 the ground had been smartened up and, relatively unusually at this level, a vocal knot of supporters had become established under the cheer leadership of Captain Chickers (left) who comes to matches dressed in full white naval captain uniform. “I’m feeling Tad all over” sung to the tune of the Dave Clark Five’s Glad all Over had become their signature tune. Now regularly attracting gates of 250 plus, there was a buzz about the club and the scene was set for another memorable season – and so if proved in more ways than one.

Tadcaster soon picked up where they’d left off and all was going well until the rains came. Sited just a wayward clearance away from the River Wharfe, the i2i Stadium had long been vulnerable to heavy rain, suffering regular postponements for waterlogging but the club never encountered anything like the water levels of last Christmas. The pitch, clubhouse, car park and surrounds were submerged in the several feet of water which had also pushed flat the sheetpiled perimeter fence. The cost of the damage was estimated at £300,000.

Storm Eva’s impact on the town made national news when the swollen Wharfe dramatically washed away part of the Grade II-listed Georgian bridge that binds the halves of Tadcaster together causing the bridge’s immediate closure and months of ongoing reconstruction.  A temporary footbridge was suggested a short distance downstream from the damaged bridge with one abutment on land owned by the Samuel Smith’s brewery. (Nicknamed The Brewers, Albion were formed in 1892 as the club of the rival John Smith’s brewery also located in Tadcaster). Samuel Smiths, a huge employer in town, has had a sometimes strained, quasi-feudal relationship with the locals, a situation which was exacerbated when the brewery refused to grant permission for the bridge on its land amidst concerns that it would become permanent and demands to influence design of the reconstructed road bridge.

Step forward Albion. The club offered land adjoining their car park from which bridge could connect to the bus station. The temporary structure was opened on 12 February, the same week as Tadcaster’s first home match for 73 days and the passing of one of the side’s biggest fans and club barmaid, 23-year-old Sonny Lang (right), who had lost her battle with cystic fibrosis. Following a minute’s silence before the match each player hugged Sonny’s mother at pitchside. The club had raised £5,000 for Sonny’s fund in a charity match in October. Sonny’s Bridge, as the crossing was named, also proved to be a springboard.

Tadcaster re-joined battle with Handsworth Parramore (which sounds more like a character from a Noel Coward play than a football club) at the top of the table, the clubs exchanging first and second place on an almost weekly basis. They met at Tadcaster on 9 April (see lead pic) with the home side securing a crucial 3-1 victory which set them up for the run-in.

Faced with a fixture backlog, manager Miller recruited – and in style. He brought in Jonathan Greening (above, left), 37, brother of Tadcaster striker Josh, but much better known as the former Man United, Middlesbrough and West Brom midfielder. (He still feels sheepish about receiving a Champions League winners’ medal at United when he didn’t play a moment of the 1998-99 European campaign and only sat on the bench on “that night in Barcelona”.) Greening had played for Albion the previous season then briefly re-joined his first club, York,  at the start of 2015-16 campaign. He left in December when he and Richard Cresswell (below, right), 38, another returning York alumni who made his name at Leeds and the Sheffield clubs, were surprisingly overlooked for the vacant post of manager. Cresswell also signed for Tadcaster as cover along with Seb Carole, who had also played for Leeds and boasted bona fide Champions League experience with Monaco. Another ex-pro on the club’s books is assistant manager Matt Heath who has turned out for Leicester. All four ex-Premier League players took to the pitch together for a victorious League Cup quarter-final against neighbours Knaresborough Town the week after the big Handsworth clash.

Thereafter the wheels briefly threatened to come off the wagon. An away match at Pickering, now managed by Marshall, was pivotal. Albion were a goal  down with three minutes to go but came back to win 3-1. A heavy defeat at Maltby Main, one of 10 games in April, followed but proved to be the last hiccup. Tadcaster finally secured promotion and the title with a game to spare by defeating Armthorpe Welfare on a bitterly cold, stormy, hailing evening. (Five layers were only just enough). Not that the weather phased the denizens of the town given what they’d gone through. Captain Chickers was singing in a rain of champagne.

The next day the Tour de Yorkshire passed through Tadcaster, another prompt for the town to look forward. For a final flourish Albion came from 0-3 down at half-time in their last league match at home to Athersley to win 4-3. Taddy finally came into dock at the end of the season with defeat to Cleethorpes in the League Cup final on 14 May. But, heh, in the circumstances no-one cared too much. Bigger battles had been won.

The club now anticipates its first ever season at step four in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League. The i2i Stadium is being upgraded over the summer too with a new 240-seater stand and, to follow, a two-storey clubhouse with plenty of other flood proofing features in the plan, it’s safe to assume.

I think this will be my final post. When I started this blog 10 years ago reading a report about your little club online was quite novel. Now the point of such postings and interest in them has been washed away by a tsunami of social media. Who wants to read 500 words about a match a day or two after it's happened when you get can endless snippets and pics about it as it happens? Well, I do but judging from the declining view counts for my posts I'm the minority.

I'm also finding it a little harder to find interesting grounds I havent already visited and say new things about matches without being patronising. Increasingly I also feel like a nerd with a camera at matches. So, with three blasts of the whistle, that's it.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Grand stands

Here’s an end of season round up of grounds and stands that I’ve mainly stumbled across on my travels in recent weeks.

Driving to a work meeting I passed this grandstand just to the side of the main road leading into Lincoln from the west. It was once part of a Georgian racecourse sited on the other side of the road until its closure in 1964. The structure was built in 1892 and restored for use as a community centre in 2012. From a quick snoop around I guess it’s still something of a white elephant.

After another meeting at Alnwick in Northumberland I couldn’t resist checking out the town’s Northern League football ground, the second most northerly senior ground in England after Berwick (and I feel like discounting them since they play in Scotland). The clubhouse looks like it should belong to a cricket club and the stand opposite has “has some great grubby seats worth photographing” according to a groundhopper I met at Eppleton.

On a walk in the Yorkshire Dales I stumbled across the home of Settle United of the step 7 Craven & District League. What a backdrop. I will return one sunny match day and perhaps see if there is a good vantage point on the fells.

I started my season back in August at Barton Town Old Boys and ended it at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light on May 27 for England v. Australia (2-1). Quite an entertaining game as friendlies go and a very rare chance for my lad to watch his national team. We took our seats as the anthems were playing and only just in time, therefore, to see the Rashford debut goal. Phew!

Windmill? Flag with horizontal red, white and blue stripes? Yup: no mistaking where this ground is. I came across it on a cycle tour of Zeeland in the southern Netherlands in June. The club is called Racing Club Souberg and, from what I can google, plays in the sixth tier of Dutch football. Its great claim to fame is that former players include Danny Blind, current manager of the Dutch national team. Through his connections he brought Ajax sides to the ground for friendlies in the 90s.

I took in the qualifying rounds of the Aegon Ilkley Trophy on June 11. The competition is part of the ATP Challenger Tour for players outside the top 100. It was like a little Wimbledon (just six courts, all immaculate) and the best free sporting occasion in Yorkshire after the Tour de France. The new clubhouse is striking, reminding me of similarly splendid amateur sporting facilities just down the road at Ilkley rugby club. They do things in style in this corner of the West Riding.

Not so golden oldie?: I love this pic of Everton’s Goodison Park in 1970. Scarves without lettering; fans standing up, cops among them; a grumpy St John Ambulance man; a clock crudely perched on a wall with advertising for a defunct chain store; Scouse urchins in parkas; and, heaven forbid, an ad for cigarettes. It all looks so grubby and grey – from another world let alone another era.

Eighties footballers in showbiz: Here is a clip of Kevin Keegan taking penalties against Placido Domingo in 1980 (see clip 5) and here is a story about George Best playing football with Supergran at North Shields FC in 1984. Frankly surreal, the like of which we will never see again.

Whatever happened to him?: I watched Stocksbridge Park Steels in the FA Cup in 2007 and, a quick check of the programme, suggests that a very young Jamie Vardy may have played that day. Couldn’t spot him in any of my pics, though. Playing for Curzon was Mike Norton who went on to star with FC United of Manchester on their rise through the leagues.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

AFC Fylde 1 Harrogate Town 1 (2-1 on agg)

National League North, play-off semi-final (second leg)
Attendance: 1,384

AFC Fylde’s smart ground is peculiarly located in more ways than one. You find it down a country lane surrounded by fields, round the back of a pub just outside Warton, a village between Preston and Lytham St Annes. What’s more it’s confusing that the club, nicknamed The Coasters and styling itself as “the football club of the Fylde coast”, isn’t actually located on the coast while longer established Blackpool and Fleetwood are. But probably best not to mention them in these parts ...

As a modern ground I wasn’t expecting to like Kellamergh Park but what an understated little gem it is. It’s easy to imagine Fylde playing here in the North West Counties League just seven years ago. Despite being purpose-built the ground still has quirky features including a slightly retro LED scoreboard, bird hide-style video gantry on a roof and two VIP lounges housed in the poshest converted shipping containers I’ve ever seen both within a yard or two of the touchline. The pitch was as immaculate as a golf course and, in keeping with the comparison, had two sanded areas. The ground is so small and open you can see the visiting club’s coach in the car park and sheep grazing behind the dug-outs. It’s as bucolic as Esh Winning or Thackley and also in part reminiscent of some of those pristine Premier League training pitches you get hidden out in the sticks.

Today’s match was the last at Kellamergh. Just a decade after building it Fylde will move to the new Mill Farm venue for next season. The current stadium was always going to be a means to an end for the club’s ambitious millionaire chairman David Haythornwaite (who owns an animal feeds business). I wonder what will happen to Kellamergh after the move. Perhaps the land will revert to agricultural use as though a football club never played here at all, the temporary encampment having served its purpose on the club’s march towards bigger battles.

On a sunny day with the temperature soaring to 25C Kellamergh was a fantastic setting for a match. There’s a good family feel to the place too a bit like at Guiseley while the 200 or so Harrogate fans, who chanted and drummed from start to finish, also contributed to a crackling atmosphere. They sung “I’m feeling Town all over” (an unlikely appropriation of little Tadcaster’s signature song, “Tad all over”) and “We’re just a town full of tea shops” standing shoulder to shoulder with the Fylde chanters and sometimes joining with them for a song. No need for segregation here at all. The occasion was a wonderful advertisement for the conviviality of non-league football.

Fylde took the lead with a rasping, goal of the season contender on 11 mins. Being 1-0 down from the previous leg you might have thought the visitors would’ve crumbled. But no, they hit back within minutes with a far post stroke-in from a low cross and maintained the pressure during a tense second half, having the lion’s share of possession but rarely converting it into clear-cut chances against a resolute home defence. Fylde won a penalty with 15 mins only for it be to saved keeping Harrogate’s dreams alive. In the fourth minute of injury time a cross flashed across the Fylde box only for a flying Cooper to miss connection by inches. We held our heads and howled. It was like Gazza in the Euro ’96 semi-final all over again. That was the moment – or should’ve been.

You could acuse Harrogate of being chokers in big matches from the past but not today. They fought valiantly and tirelessly but paid the price for the first leg defeat. Great day out. Pity about the result.

Make a day of it: If you go to see Fylde next season I recommend a 21-mile largely off-road bike ride around Preston called the Guild Wheel. The well signed route is full of variety and interest and includes the Brockholes nature reserve. I also came across Preston docks (never knew they existed) and a railed football pitch with two rusty old dug out shelters idyllically located on the banks of the Ribble.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Northallerton Town 0 South Shields 1

Northern League, second division
Attendance: 185

A lot’s been happening in Shields. To the north of the Tyne FA Vase holders, North Shields, are drawing 350+ spectators a week, the first division’s highest average while on the other side of the estuary and a division lower South Shields are drawing crowds of 600+, surely unprecedented for a non-phoenix, step six club. Why? Well, in the south it’s down the support of local businessman, Gary Thompson, who owns a utility management company. He bought the club last summer and relocated it back to the South Shields after a period in exile in Peterlee. The Shields ground had been closed due to disputes with the then landlord.

Thompson has since invested in the club by, for instance, substantially improving the  clubhouse and signing ex-Middlesbrough and Sunderland star Julio Arca. (He didn’t play today but still came along). Certainly, the club’s profile has changed hugely since I last saw them two years ago. Backed by a large town with a population of 80,000, The Mariners sailed away at the top of the table. Where and when will it all end? Who knows – the owner is targeting the National League and a new stadium – but, for the moment at least, all aboard to enjoy the ride.

I’d been planning to jump on the bandwagon last December at the Vase tie against Morpeth Town but when the match was finally played at Consett after umpteen postponements I couldn’t make it. Subsequent opportunities past me by and so it was I finally got to see Shields in their last match of the season against my most local Northern League side and their first opponents back in August.

Last week I watched Tadcaster Albion win the Northern Counties East League wrapped up in the five layers, a hat and gloves. “I should’ve worn pyjamas under my trousers,” said one spectator. “What?” replied his mate. “Do you fancy a nap at half-time?”. Thankfully today conditions were just as you’d expect them to be when contemplating fixtures in late April or early May. Spring is here.

The talk on the terraces was about that team beginning with ‘L’. In truth whichever match fans chose following the thrilling weekend Premier League double-header it was going to be something of an anti-climax and so it proved. Furthermore, Shields, starting the match following seven straight wins, had secured promotion five games ago and Northallerton had lifted the Ernest Armstrong Memorial Trophy two days earlier. Accordingly, the attendance was lower than it would’ve been had the fixture been played on the original date in January.

Having nothing to play for didn’t stop a vocal knot of about 20 Northallerton teenagers chanting for most of the match, a rare sound at step six. They call their side just “’Allerton” which is what you might have thought was the full name of the club judging from the sign on the grandstand when I visited previously in 2004 (see above). The ground remains unremarkable. “If you all hate Geordies hold a shoe,” jested the fans, footwear in hand. The Shields fans replied when their side scored the only goal with 12 minutes to go: “Get your shoes off for the lads”.

As the sky turned orange at sunset the Shields manager urged his players on for the last time this season: “Come on. Just half an hour then you can have a rest.” At the end the Shields fans jokingly booed the ref as he approached the tunnel. He responded with a theatrical bow, smiling. The gesture was fitting. I’d caught up with Shields in time only for their curtain call. I shall have to take my seat earlier next season for the Shields first division derby perhaps. Now that will be a tasty encounter.

Programme notes: A ‘thought for the day’ was a passage from the gospel of John and it’s always useful to be reminded when a game (or, at least, it’s original date) coincides with the Cambodian New Year.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Castleford Tigers 16 Hull Kingston Rovers 58

Super League
Attendance: 7,106

God, I felt like a southerner today as if I had “southern softy” tattooed on my forehead. Over 20 years after relocating from London to York I went to my first rugby league match. In fact I felt more foreign in a stadium than I have done since going to the Corsica Cup final four years ago and I was only 20 miles from home.

“I haven’t been here before. Are there open terraces or is it all fixed seating?” I asked a security man outside the ground. After that I didn’t need to disclose my origins again and, with access all areas, set about wandering around this vintage brick and corrugated steel sporting arena. I’d wanted to visit for some years but never got around to it and was conscious that time was starting to run out because ‘Cas’, as all the fans call them, are due to move to a new stadium in two years.

It was unusual to be in a such a large and full ground with terraces on three sides. The open, railway end, reminded me of dear old Elm Park which is no bad thing in my book. The creeky old seated grandstand with its two giant floodlight pylons partly obscuring the view is the main feature and, looming behind the terrace to its right are three chimneys that provide some northern, industrial context.

The spectators provided plenty more. I’d guess that the vast majority of them live within a few miles of the ground and come to every game and there was a refreshing apparent absence of corporatisation, the stadium name apart (see notes at the end). The sense of community, forged in Castleford’s mining days, is extraordinarily strong. Despite drawing large crowds Super League passes by most UK sports fans to the extent that going to a match feels a bit like joining a cult for the afternoon. But there’s nothing out of the ordinary about it in industrial towns across Yorkshire and Lancashire where rugby league seem to provide a regular family outing like baseball in the US. Everyone goes to the game from nippers in pushchairs to youths, parents and grandparents with an even split between the sexes. The older women berate the players like handbag-wielding grannies used to scream at wrestlers in the 70s.

The girls aspire to be in the Castleford Tigers Paws cheerleaders, a formidable platoon of 30 or so pom-pom shaking lasses in their teens and 20s who paraded single-file onto the pitch like Take me Out contestants. You could almost smell the perfume from the touchline. Some will have started in the Paws Dance Academy. I suppose cheerleaders are another unlikely connection with baseball.

The match (highlights here) was as one-sided as the result suggests. KR ran in 11 tries and Cas didn’t score at all in the second half. “The more we went after it, the worst we got,” said Cas coach Daryl Powell. Too true. The Tigers weren’t roaring today and didn’t make the game much of a contest but it was still an enjoyable and unsual occasion for me and a type of northern exposure that all newcomers to this region should experience.

Name games: Cas’s ground name is a bizarre hybrid. Originally built for the town’s short-lived football club in 1926, The Jungle was renamed two seasons ago as the Mend-a-Hose Jungle following a deal with local firm Mend-A-Hose which makes fluid connector products. The Paws cheer leaders danced at half-time to Welcome to the Jungle by Guns and Roses as well as, predictably, Eye of the Tiger. How about Abba’s I am a Tiger and Tiger Feet by Mud?

For full album of pics click here.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Newton Aycliffe 3 West Auckland 1 (aet)

Durham County FA Challenge Cup final
Attendance: 604

Setting off for a cup final after breakfast on a Friday seemed somehow wrong but on arrival at the Eppleton Colliery Welfare ground in Hetton le Hole for an 11am kick-off everything suddenly seemed right and any reservations I had about going to the match were dispelled.

Bathed in spring sunshine the setting was supreme. What better way to start the Bank Holiday weekend? A couple of other spectators were already discussing a potential double-header at Crook and Spennymoor the following day. Another had more immediate, food concerns. “Burgers?” asked his companion. “It’s Good Friday. You canna have burgers! Fish and chips on the way ho-um!” Children played games pushing sticks into the ground, lots of people were in t-shirts and one chap had even broken out the deckchair in honour of the occasion. The scene reminded me of another bank holiday cup final at Thornaby last May. Today was just the tonic for the endless, grey, wet winter. I set the camera to ISO50 for the first time for months and memories of that sodden afternoon at Penistone Church were soon banished.

The ground used to be home to Eppleton Colliery Welfare. In 1999 Sunderland City Council announced the investment of £2.2m in the redevelopment of the ground, a move heralded by then chairman as “the most exciting thing every to have happened to us.” His dreams didn’t last long. Eppleton, Durham County Cup winners in 1990, dropped out of the Northern League after an 11-season spell in 2003, having won just 23 matches in their last six seasons. They folded two years later since when Sunderland under 21s and Sunderland Ladies (Twitter hashtag: ‘howaythelasses’) have taken up tenancy.

Eppleton’s loss is most certainly Sunderland’s gain. Today the stadium looks fantastic and the pitch pristine, although slightly sloping. Only the corner entrance (see above) through a tall wall gives the hint of its origins, a little reminiscent of the entry to Tow Law Town. There is just one stand, built in 1992. The other elevated viewpoint is the balcony of the Bob Paisley Bar (see below) within the Hetton Centre behind one of the goals which was constructed for the community as part of the ground’s redevelopment. Access to the balcony – more the sort of feature you get at rugby grounds – isn’t obvious as your correspondent found out. A gate in the fence below the balcony leads to an enclosed grassed area and directions from the lads watching from above just led me to another blind corner much to their mirth. You have to exit the ground completely then enter the Hetton Centre.

From a quick check of the semi-final results I expected Whickham to be opposing Newton Aycliffe, having defeated West Auckland 3-0 but they were subsequently expelled from the competition having fielded an ineligible player. West Auckland progressed in similar fashion when Darlington 1883 were thrown out ahead of their first round clash. In fact, West had only won twice in the five rounds to the final having been exempt from the first round.

Newton Aycliffe, competing in their first ever County Cup final, are managed by Peter Dixon who left West Auckland following a fall-out with the board in October 2014 taking most of the team with him (eight of Newton’s starters today had previously played for West), all of which gave an extra edge to today’s encounter.

West Auckland took the lead after just four minutes when a drive by Hudson took a couple of deflections on its way into the net. Newton Aycliffe, having had the lion’s share of possession for most of the match, deservedley levelled on 54 minutes with a chest down and volley into the top corner by Campbell. They won the cup with two goals in the first half of extra-time, one a freekick bent around the wall by Knight and the other coming at the end of a solo 30-yard run by Garthwaite. Both lads sprinted over to the balcony to peel their shirts off below their squad mates on the balcony and get booked as a result. There was more leaping around and high japes at the trophy presentation. County Cup? Felt like the FA Cup! What a good Friday.

Highlights: For 20 mins of highlights courtesy of North Shields FC TV click here. I don’t have room for all the pics this time but click here for the full album.

Famous sons: Hetton le Hole’s most famous footballing son is ex-Liverpool manager Bob Paisley who died just over 20 years ago. It’s surprising the whole ground or community centre isn’t named after him although perhaps fitting that Eppleton are still remembered in the name. The town has a memorial to the man rather than a statue and he was never knighted.  Bob’s father worked down the pit and Bob played for Hetton Juniors at the Eppleton ground as a teenager. “It all started when young Robert got his hands on a pig’s bladder from his uncle’s butchers shop,” says a feature about Bob’s origins framed on the wall of the Hetton Centre. Nearby is a brass memorial plaque to the seven men who died in a pit explosion in 1951. Bob described Hetton as “a close-knit community where coal was king and football was religion”.

The village was also once home to Harry Potts, who managed Burnley during a successful period in the 60s; Ralph Coates (bizarrely my favourite footballer when I was a boy), ex-Tottenham in the 70s; and Kevin Keegan’s granddad.