Sunday, 21 September 2014

Ground 239: Tynedale Athletics Park, Hexham

"It was," they reckoned, "the finest team Hexham had ever seen."  The near invincible Hearts side of 1946-47 won 25 and drew six of 34 league games, playing 11 times in eight days as they pipped Newcastle United 'A' to the Northern Alliance championship by a single point.

Formed only three years previously, Hexham Hearts had played in the Ryton & District League before moving upwards to the Alliance, their side stacked with talent from front to back. Goalkeeper Maurice Edgar and inside right Steve Howdon had played wartime football for Newcastle United,  Bob Batey was in the winning side in the first televised FA Cup final, Walter Atkinson would be taken on by Norwich City, while Sunderland, Bury and Darlington had all cast admiring glances at midfielder Norman Menzies only to be deterred by the £1,000 fee the Tynedale club demanded for the move.

In the same era that Second Division Newcastle United smashed records as Britain's best supported team - their average attendance of 56,299 in 1947-8 only narrowly overtaken by Manchester United in the year the Old Trafford club won the European Cup - Hearts regularly drew four-figure crowds to their Tyne Mills ground.  In 1949, 4,000 watched an Aged Miners Cup win at Ashington, 14,000 turning out at St James' Park when Howdon's hat-trick beat Blyth Spartans in the Northumberland Senior Cup final.  Five seasons later, 2,000 were present at Hexham to see Hearts - conquerors of Cramlington, Alnwick Town and Newburn - play Horden Colliery Welfare for a place in the first round proper of the 1953-54 FA Cup.  They lost 2-0 in a replay and would never come close again. 

League success and supporters were both dribbling away, gate receipts down to "a few shillings" when Hearts dropped out of the Alliance in 1956.  In 1960, they went out of existence, their committee down to the last three men. "The players we had our eyes on have gone elsewhere," lamented secretary W. Hepplewhite, "and I cannot see the club starting up again."

My bus trundles west out of Newcastle and into the old Reiver lands. 'Welcome to England's Border Country' reads a sign in front of aged miners' cottages in Heddon-on-the-Wall; a burger van on the A69 has a St George's Cross flapping either side of the serving hatch.  "I'd have let them go, me," a woman says, effortlessly switching between TV talk and the Scottish referendum.  "They'd soon stop complaining when they have to pay their own way." "I don't know," her friend says less truculently.  "I wish they'd have gone and taken us with them." Their conversation brings back memories of my grandad, who went from the Normandy landings to United Buses.  "The north-east's biggest problem," he used to say, "is that England doesn't need us and Scotland doesn't want us."

Through Ovingham and Corbridge - birthplace of Steve Bruce and, incongruous as it therefore may seem, once labelled "the snobbiest village in Britain" - to Hexham, a prosperous market town with an Anglo-Saxon abbey and a football pitch tucked between a Waitrose, a swimming pool and its railway station.  Nowadays only Hearts' green-and-white hoops remain, sported by a neoteric Northern Alliance side that has its origins in the 2002 merger of two junior teams, and whose 2011-12 Second Division title success was the first in the town since their long-defunct predecessors packed up half a century before.

This afternoon's Bay Plastics Combination Cup visitors are Bedlington Terriers Reserves.  There's a crowd of twelve, the picnic benches left unattended but an elderly couple occupying two of the blue plastic seats. "A Stanley knife went in sideways," one of the spectators says.  "Ah rammed it in, pulled it oot.  Mind, me hand was sopping by the time wu got to Kwik Fit." There's a respectful silence. "First ten minutes, stay alive," yells a Bedlington centre-half.

"Hoy another ball on.  That one's shit," Hexham's keeper grumbles to the dug-out. "There's nowt the matter with it, man," comes the indignant reply. "It's just been blown up."  His opposite number has a voice as sonorous as a newspaper seller.  "Work," he rasps.  "Keep yer shape." Midway through the half he clutches a header from the Hexham number 11 that's vaguely reminiscent of Alan Shearer's against Germany in Charleroi. "Tremendous!" admires the Terriers left back. "Divvent push it. If there's nothing on, gan back," Hexham's coach tells his team at the break.

In the end, it's not as if they have any choice.  We've barely kicked off when Bedlington's burly number 10 heads down into the clarts, accelerates through a gap and toe-pokes under the goalkeeper for the game's opening goal. The number 9 sweeps a second home with the side of his foot, the third comes when the keeper flaps at a corner and 11 nods in at the post. "Howay lads, keep yer legs moving," claps a Hexham centre-half.

The fourth is scored by number 5, jabbing home from six yards; the fifth comes when number 8 feints, steps over and then delicately curls the ball into the top corner, the sixth when the goalkeeper parries in the direction of yet another red shirt. "Got to be off," groans a home defender.  The linesman - a Hexham substitute - looks up at the sky and shakes his head.  Right on the whistle, number 5 scores again, running off laughing as his teammates turn back towards halfway.  "Seven-nil," mutters a spectator, wrapping his tongue around each syllable.  "Seven bloody nil."

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday September 20th

Monday, 15 September 2014

Football Art: Joe Harvey

Bertie Mee said to Joe Harvey
Have you heard of the North Bank at Highbury?
No says Joe, I don't think so
But I've heard of the Leazes aggro!
(Traditional, various)

"Newcastle should have the finest team in the world. God willing, I will live to see the day they do."

If Stan Seymour hadn't already bagged the name, Joe Harvey would have made a fitting candidate for the title of Mr Newcastle. "A devoted Magpie for over thirty years," begins his entry in a Complete Who's Who of Newcastle United. "He led from the front - captain supreme and manager of distinction.  His life was all about Newcastle United," wrote veteran correspondent John Gibson in his selection of the club's greatest names. "He relinquished his Yorkshire background for a life in which everything was black and white."

Born in Edlington on the outskirts of Doncaster, Harvey pitched up at St James' by way of Edlington Rangers, Wolves, Bournemouth, wartime service with the British Army - where he'd been a Royal Artillery Company Sergeant Major - and Bradford City, his 17 goals for the Bantams in 1943-44 including two against Newcastle in one of Jackie Milburn's first games for the club.  It was a performance Stan Seymour kept in mind, paying £4,250 in a Darlington pub for the right-half's signature in the autumn of 1945. 

A colossus of a half-back, he combined a Desperate Dan diet - 12 eggs and six bacon rashers for breakfast, two pints of Guinness before kick-off and a cigarette at half-time - with the steely resolve of a champion boxer. "Piss off and let me get on with my job," he would bark at interfering full-backs. "Come on, you lot," he growled before leading his team out to the pitch. "Essentially a man of iron and pride," wrote Gibson. "We all thought the world of him," Jackie Milburn said.

 Harvey and Milburn United Again

Made captain in only his second game, he skippered the club for eight years, driving the black and whites to promotion in 1947-48 and FA Cups in 1951 and 1952. "The perfect football machine," one observer called them.  Jackie Milburn always rated the 1951 as the finest he played in.  Collecting the trophy, Harvey clattered down the Royal Box steps and across to the Newcastle support, shouting "It's yours!  It's yours!" as he ran.

Trainer to the 1955 side - the 35-year-old displaced in the team by Jimmy Scoular in the summer of '53 -  Harvey moved on to coach Crook Town and manage Barrow and Workington before returning to Tyneside in 1962 on a 12-month contract and a salary the Evening Chronicle reported as "probably £3,000 per year." "It's good to know the reins will be in the hands of a man who has already done much for the club, and burns to do more," said Norman Smith, a stalwart at St James' since 1938. Harvey took a down-at-heel side that had just finished 11th in Division Two to a championship in three years.  "The capacity crowd of 59,000 roared its delight," reported the Daily Mirror after the Magpies made sure of promotion with a 2-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers.  "The sound of bells, bugles and rattles rang out over the city."

But it's for the Fairs Cup - "it remains Newcastle United's most recent piece of major silverware," the club's official website laconically notes -  that Harvey the manager will always be remembered. The tenth-placed Magpies had only qualified for Europe after Everton, Spurs and Arsenal had struck out on the one club, one city rule. On June 11th 1969 they defeated the mighty Ujpest Dosza, conquerors of league champions Leeds, 6-2 on aggregate in United's most glorious evening since the mid-1950s. "I have not seen any cup final that matched this game for excitement and fighting courage," the manager beamed.  Picking up scouting tips from journalists and taxi drivers, Harvey's sides outbattled Rangers and terrified their way past the likes of Inter Milan, Sporting Lisbon, Feyenoord and Porto in three seasons of European competition. "We were a team in the best sense of the word," thought outside-right Jim Scott.  Harvey always knew how to knit one of those together.  "You have got to have a mixture of big names and home grown talent.  Finance necessitates that," he once said.

Five years later he took a team including Malcolm Macdonald,  Alan Kennedy, Frank Clark and Terry McDermott to an FA Cup final. "From the moment I got the manager's job 12 years ago, I have wanted to lead out a Newcastle team at Wembley," he said.  Long before the end of the 3-0 undressing - "Newcastle should today be prosecuted under the Trades Descriptions Act for masquerading as a first-class football side," wrote one post-match critic - pride had turned to embarrassment. "I felt sick. We never got started and I can't understand it." Emotions were different when the team returned to Tyneside, many of the players crying as they toured the city on an open-top bus.  "Our supporters have moved me to tears on many occasions, most of them winning ones," the manager said.  "But this time I knew they were entitled to show their anger, even disgust. They did no such thing. They gave us a heartwarming return which staggered me. I have never felt so humble."

Harvey signed a new contract in October 1974 - "The manager shall receive by way of salary the sum of ten thousand pounds per annum and be entitled to three weeks holiday with pay" -  but it wasn't to last.  A poor season - United winning just one of their last eleven games - led to unease on the terraces, the board responding to "Harvey Out" chants by demanding his resignation in May 1975.  "We Want Success" said a banner draped plaintively on the new East Stand.  "Any manager is vulnerable if he's been there a long time," thought John Gibson. "In hindsight, it was a desperate decision but, at the time, some people thought it was a good idea.  Not Malcolm Macdonald: "We were horrified...Joe was no tactician but he knew how to build a club, put together a side and work the transfer market.  He was sacked by directors who should've known better."  "It was very sad the way it finished," remembered Frank Clark, released on a free transfer at the same time coach Keith Burkinshaw was sacked and Harvey forced upstairs.  Clark won a First Division title, two League Cups and was champion of Europe in four seasons at Nottingham Forest;  Burkinshaw managed Spurs to two Wembley victories and the 1984 UEFA Cup.  By August 1980, when Harvey briefly returned as caretaker manager, Newcastle were bottom of the second division and had won only two league games in seven months. 

On February 24th 1989, still employed as a scout by the club, Joe Harvey died of a heart attack while chatting to his FA Cup winning teammate Bobby Cowell.  A memorial plaque - joining a St James' Park suite named in his honour - was finally unveiled a quarter of a century later in front of his son, grandchildren and 20 of his former players.  £10,000 had been raised by the fan-organised Fairs Cup Club, Wyn Davies sending his first Wales shirt and Vic Keeble the shorts he'd worn when winning the 1955 FA Cup.  Newcastle United added "a substantial donation" and paid for the plaque's installation on the back of the Gallowgate, just yards from the statue of his old teammate Milburn.

"He was a gem," reckoned Malcolm Macdonald. "He knew how to treat players and get the best out of them." “Joe was a real man-manager," said Bobby Moncur. "He might not have been the greatest tactician in the world, but when he spoke we listened. He liked entertainers and knew what the punters wanted. Joe was good at that." "A great man," said Wyn Davies.  For Bill Gibbs, chairman of the Fairs Club, it was "the best day of my life...We have had a long-standing ambition to see Joe Harvey rightfully remembered with a permanent memorial at St. James' Park and we are delighted to see it come to fruition with this plaque. We are very proud to see it in its glory as a lasting reminder of Joe's immense contribution to the club."

Joe Harvey: captain, coach, manager, chief scout, and always one of us.

'United - the First 100 Years' by Paul Joannou
'Newcastle United Greats' by John Gibson
'The Footballer Who Could Fly' by Duncan Hamilton
'Fifty Years of Hurt' by Ged Grebby
'A Complete Who's Who of Newcastle United' by Paul Joannou

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Ground 238: Earls Orchard, Richmond Town

If you thought it had been an eventful summer for Leeds United and Blackpool fans, try keeping track of the comings and goings at little Richmond Town.

Scoring over 100 goals in each of their first two seasons meant players were always vulnerable to the relative big boys of the Northern League, the teams that finished third and then fifth disappearing over the summer when manager Chris Lax and all but one of the squad departed only months after they'd taken on Middlesbrough Reserves in the semi-final of the North Riding Senior Cup. Unsurprisingly, this season hasn't started so well, Town fielding only ten players during a 7-0 hammering at Horden Colliery Welfare and fifth from bottom of the Wearside League table with five points from their opening nine games. Last weekend Lax's replacement quit and the club were unable to raise a team to travel to Cleator Moor Celtic. "It all appears to have gone tits up," as one online observer delicately put it.

Lax took charge at Northern League Stokesley for two matches, but left the club along with its chairman due to what the Northern Echo described as "internal politics".  Days after the Cleator Moor debacle, and after "a great deal of consideration", he returned to Earls Orchard to "try and steady the ship for the next few games".  The first of those was a 2-2 draw away at Harton & Westoe, the second this afternoon's Monkwearmouth Charity Cup tie with Jarrow FC.

Earls Orchard had long featured on my to-do list, not least with its current tennants looking to move away.  Jack Charlton opened the clubhouse in 1975 and a perimeter rail and corrugated steel dugouts have since been added, but with further development restricted by the ground's picture postcard setting and the Northern League requiring floodlights, fifty seats and covered standing for promotion, the club have been scouting for a home capable of sustaining higher-level football.

Richmond's round ball team was founded in 1945, called itself the Young Conservatives for a time in the otherwise swinging 60s, and lifted a quadruple of Teesside League trophies -  the championship, Macmillan Bowl, Lou Moore Trophy and Saturday County Cup - in 2012 without garnering much of an interest in even the local newspaper.  Never traditional footballing territory - Rob Andrew, Cambridge and England fly-half, is easily the most famous of the town's sporting sons - there are, nonetheless, signs of burgeoning interest: I spot a Richmond Town tracksuit in a queue at Greggs the Baker and a scarf in a shop window next to signed Middlesbrough and York City shirts.

Earls Orchard is five minutes downhill out of the cobbled Market Square,  overlooked by the ramparts of the 11th century castle, and fringed by rabbit holes, the Coast to Coast walking trail, stone houses and the Swale, purportedly the fastest-flowing river in England. As I arrive, the teams are held up by last minute alterations, the officials pacing out the distance from penalty spot to goal-line while the man on the entrance gate scurries across with a stepladder. "Has anyone mentioned the nets, mate?" nods a spectator knowingly.  "Big hole in the left-hand side.  You'll see it."  The referee is already there.  "If you tip one over, you might get your hand stuck in the gap," she warns the Richmond keeper.  "It'd be the first one he's reached this season," one of the assembled crowd jokes.  A substitute arrives to repaint the penalty spot.  "All this to go two nowt down in the first few minutes again," says a Richmond fan. "I just don't want you to lose a keeper," the referee is telling Chris Lax.  "We've only got one," he replies, balancing someone on his shoulders as the net is pulled slowly over the crossbar. "What a female referee does," reveals a spectator, "is make you concentrate more instead of gobbing off at the officials."

The game begins ten minutes behind schedule but quickly makes up for the delay.  Jarrow push forward, Richmond counter and the ball breaks down their left.  "He's in there," says a local as the ball arcs off the number 9's boot. "Bloody hell, that's some start!" "Did that last season too," adds the Richmond keeper, pointing towards the bulging net. "Quality."  Jarrow respond by digging in and pinging the crossbar.  "Don't tell me to fuck off," the linesman suddenly complains to the visting dug-out.  "Just you be quiet," responds a man with a walrus moustache and blue bib over his jacket. "Get back over there and do your job.  Good lad."

"I'll tell you what," says a Richmond fan in slacks and a jumper, "I went to Manchester the other day and they've got a new area called Salford Quays with the BBC sports centre.  I went downstairs and there was a dalek."  He pauses and surveys the pitch. "They've been the better team."  "Aim for the cock-eyed post," yells the Jarrow assistant as his left back lines up a free-kick.  "What a lovely afternoon," says jumper and slacks."One more like that and you're off," the referee admonishes a visiting player who's just loudly questioned her ability to control the game. "Is he alright, ref?" one of the visitors asks of a player who's been thwacked by the ball.  "Just a bit dizzy," she shouts.  "Aye, that's two of you then," he mutters in reply. 

Both teams have goals disallowed, Richmond beginning the second half with three good chances to extend the lead before Jarrow squander a pair of their own.  "He looks good when he's running," a spectator explains after a forward shoots into the goalkeeper's body.  "It's when he gets the ball the problem starts."  I leave the ground with the full-time whistle in my ears and the words of J.B. Priestly playing on my mind.  "Another and altogether more splendid kind of life," he'd written about his experiences at Bradford's Valley Parade. Splendid indeed.  Earls Orchard on a late-summer afternoon is something that every football lover should experience at least once.  

Admission:  £2
Date:  September 13th 2014

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Ground 237: Deva Stadium, Chester

Little did either of us realise it at the time, but Chester City Football Club were about to have a small but potentially pivotal role in a three year old's childhood.  On Saturday January 5th 1980 Pink Floyd topped the charts and Newcastle United topped the league.  Beaten once in two months, the black-and-whites opened the new decade by smashing Sunderland 3-1, prompting one or two of the more exciteable football pundits to make Bill McGarry's team an outside bet for the FA Cup.  It was a viewpoint which sadly neglected both United's propensity for self-destruction and the adverse effect of Mick 'Zico' Martin's pre-Christmas injury on the centre of their midfield.

There were 25,000 people at St James' Park on third round day, most expecting the second division leaders to tramp all over their Division Three opponents. Instead it took only three minutes for Peter Henderson to give Chester the lead; with a quarter of an hour to play a gawky teenager from Flintshire ran through to score a second. "I'll never forget the noise, the bustle, the excitement as we neared the ground.  I'd never seen that many people at a game before and it was incredible.  It was the most amazing day of my life up to then," Ian Rush recalled in an interview he gave three decades, almost 400 goals and 15  major honours later. 

While Rush went on to bigger things, McGarry's team disintegrated, winning only once more in the league as they plummeted from four points clear in January to ninth at the start of May.  Sunderland were promoted, McGarry sacked and Peter Withe departed for Aston Villa, where he swiftly won a league title, England caps and the European Cup while his former side were exiting the FA Cup to Exeter City and committing to "stringent economies wherever possible".

And then he arrived.  "Keegan! We've signed Kevin Keegan!" my dad announced through an all-day massive grin.  It was a coup made possible by the club's first ever sponsorship deal - Scottish and Newcastle Breweries stumping up for a promotional job which heavily supplemented the England captain's wages - and the continued inability of the club to make it back into the top flight.  "I need a new challenge and I think I'll find it here," said Keegan after rebuffing Manchester United and 30 other clubs.  Had Newcastle not been in the post-Chester doldrums, we would almost certainly have figured as number 31.  It rests entirely on a work of childhood supposition, but Chester City gave me Kevin Keegan; I've always remained grateful to those eleven men in blue. 

Non-League Day and a late-summer job at the city's university seemed the perfect opportunity to pay them back.  A noon meeting with Chester fanzine editor Richard Bellis revealed a plethora of watering holes - the Brewery Tap on Lower Bridge Street my personal favourite - and a dearth of pre-match optimism.  "We've let in eight goals in our first two games.  Don't expect to be entertained."

Relegated on the final afternoon of last season, reprieved in the summer and with one of the smallest budgets in the division,  Chester's goal for this season is merely to survive.  "I think we'll get smashed today," the middle-aged man behind me says.  "Look at him," his neighbour replies. "He's not aware of what's going on around him. When he brings the ball forward, he always makes the wrong choice."  "We are CFC, we're the blue army," crescendo the Harry McNally Terrace.  From somewhere behind: "He's not a right-back but then our other right-backs are crap."

Chris Iwelumo - "of international miss fame" - starts and remains on the bench for Chester, leaving John Rooney the most recognisable face on show.  Wayne's brother bustles about like an aggrieved bull but is sloppy in possession, compensating for the number of time he loses the ball by the one time he strikes it into the net.  His goal comes in the 13th minute, a free-kick smacked unerringly round the wall and into the corner of the Macclesfield goal. "That was good!" says Neil Bellis, the intonation reflecting his surprise.  "If you're going to wait three games to score at home, it might as well be one like that."

The pessimism in the stands leaves me expecting a Macclesfield counterstrike that never really materialises.  They create one chance - Joe Worsnop springing at the feet of Arthur Gnahoua with the striker poised to score - and have another gifted immediately afterwards, but it's Chester who come closest to another goal, Rooney's cross eluding both Kingsley James's head and the Macclesfield net by no more than two inches.

Half-time conversation centres on the quality of matchday catering, the likelihood of Macclesfield scoring twice in two minutes towards the end of the game, and the qualities of the Deva Stadium. "A tidy little ground," one visitor thought.  "The first to meet the specifications of the Taylor Report," Neil Bellis tells me, "and it might be the only one to straddle a border."  The club offices, behind me, are in England, the pitch and three of the stands in Wales, though cross-border fraternity is in short supply on the Harry McNally, an increasing number of their songs referencing Wrexham in terms which are significantly less than complimentary.

The travelling Macclefield contingent, in contrast, have very little to get excited about, Chester's defence restricting their attack to a few half-chances.  When they do get through - a striker stumbling, turning and finally shooting towards goal - Worsnop flings himself full-length to beat the strike away. "What a save!" someone shouts. "Complete fluke."

The whistle blows after a nervy four minutes of added-on time, James - built like a Roman legionnaire - celebrates with a leap, and 2,500 relieved fans file out of the ground and into the surrounding industrial estate.  "Really pleased with that," says Richard Bellis as we head back to the station. "Yes, really pleased."

My soft spot for Chester remains intact.

Admission:  £18
Date:  September 6th 2014 

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Ground 236: Grainger Park Boys Club

It was July 1977, in the middle of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, that the king came to Tyneside. Muhammad Ali, heavyweight boxing champion of the world, toured the streets on an open-top bus, had his wedding blessed at South Shields Mosque, played darts at Gypsies Green Stadium and sparred with young hopefuls at Newcastle's Grainger Park Boys Club. "A fantastic experience," thought 16-year-old Kenny Wharton, who turned professional with Newcastle United just a year after meeting Ali.  "The feeling I had at being in his presence has never left me." Wharton went on to make 335 appearances in eleven seasons at St James' Park, where he played alongside Kevin Keegan, Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley and Paul Gascoigne, won promotion to the first division and memorably applied the coup de grace to a 4-0 revenge humbling of Luton by sitting on the ball in the middle of the pitch. "Grainger Park was a big part of my young life, helping me develop as a player and get the opportunity to play for my hometown club."

Grainger Park Boys Club has been providing chances for young footballers like Wharton since it opened in in a room of the Toc H Hostel in 1928.  A more recent graduate, Rotherham midfielder Conor Newton, joined Newcastle United's academy and won a Scottish League Cup medal while on loan at St Mirren in 2013. Earlier in the year Papiss Demba Cissé had been at the club's Denton Road home to hand out sponsored shirts. “We’ve got nothing,” secretary Nicola McCabe told George Caulkin of The Times. “Most kids struggle to pay their £2-a-week subs. But we would never stop a child from playing football if they can’t afford it.”  With over 200 members and 13 different teams, it costs £10,000 just to keep going every year.  "Grainger Park is one of the forgotten clubs," said McCabe.  "It's massive to get someone to come here to Scotswood."

"A road to nowhere," The Independent headlined an article on the Scotswood Road.
It was once the "workshop of the world", ringing to the sounds of shipyards and armament factories - during the First World War up to 78,000 people, or a quarter of the city's entire workforce, were employed at the giant Armstrong-Vickers plant - but Scotswood's jobless rate had edged past 25%  by the time Wharton made Newcastle's first team.  Today, after four decades of demolition ball regeneration, the munitions, battleship and locomotive works are all but gone,  replaced by business parks, enterprise centres and car showrooms.

There have been changes at Grainger Park Boys, too, the club entering a senior side in the Tyneside Amateur League for the 2007-08 season and since placing twelfth and fifth in their two seasons in the Northern Football Alliance's second division.  Three years younger, Whitburn Athletic come from a South Tyneside village with a footballing heritage of its own, but are fortunate not to be more than a single goal behind at the end of a first half in which Grainger Park have the build-up play but not the finish, the visiting keeper making a smart one-handed stop when a green shirt does get a shot on goal.  Thirty minutes in, with Whitburn outpassed but not outbattled in midfield, a low cross evades several pairs of feet and is turned in at the post.  "About time," a spectator says.

The away team manage a handful of long-range attempts but can't find a way past a defence marshalled by the impeccable Dale Robson, Grainger Park having a goal wrongly flagged offside before killing the game with a second in the 74th minute.  The sun beats down, dog walkers pause by the railed off pitch and Hadrian's Wall hikers walk west towards Carlisle.  "Canny game," one says, rightly. "Everything on the ground."

Date: August 9th 2014
Admission:  Free

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Ground 235: Beira-Rio, Porto Alegre

My World Cup started in the third week of May with two flights and a taxi, the latter from Buenos Aires' Ezeiza International Airport to the Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti (El Monumental for short), the home of Club Atlético River Plate. I was met by Andrew Aris - last seen outside the turnstile block at the Daejeon World Cup Stadium in 2002 - Aldo Baccaro and Juan Cruiz La Banca, whose nine-hour tour of the stadium took in a first-team training session, the club museum, a theatre, cinema, subsidised cafeteria, gymnasium and primary school, all located on the underside of the terracing where Argentina fans celebrated the 3-1 win over the Netherlands in the final of the 1978 World Cup.

El Monumental

Omar Larossa played 64 minutes of that final. "I wish I could tell you, to put into words," he said to an audience at Boca's La Bombonera, his voice creaking with emotion, "how it felt to kiss the Cup". Larossa was flanked by three of the 1966 quarter-finalists branded "animals" by Sir Alf Ramsey, Antonio Rattin - "an outstanding player," thought England's George Cohen - a genial figure at 77 years old. "Bobby Charlton was a wonderful midfielder,"  the ex-politician remembered after hearing where I was from.  "Bobby Moore," rhapsodied Silvio Marzolini, once rated the finest left-back in world football and later Diego Maradona's coach. "A great man."

At Boca

Two days later I was at Racing Club for a press event with the 1967 club world champions.  Juan Carlos Cárdenas, scorer of the decisive goal as six players were sent from the field in Montevideo, prominent among the guests.  "Celtic were a big team," he recalled.  103,000 fans had seen the first leg at Hampden Park, 100,000 more packed El Cilindro for the second.  From there it was a short hop over the river to Uruguay, the same journey made by over 25,000 Racing supporters for the third and final leg almost half a century before. "Where are you from? Which team do you support?" the customs officer asked me at the port town of Colonia del Sacramento. In Monetvideo there was a gate on the main street for the 1930 World Cup winners, though La Celeste's current crop could only labour to a single-goal victory over Northern Ireland on a rain-sodden pitch at the Estadio Centenario. A few days by an Atlantic beach in Punta del Diablo were followed by a second division play-off back in Colonia - the crowd swelling into double figures as a neighbouring school let out for the afternoon - and an overnight cross-border journey to Porto Alegre, killing a morning at the bus station before the 21-hour trip north to Sao Paulo.

Street football in Sao Paulo

I arrived in Latin America's biggest city on day three of a crippling public transport strike. There was a rope drawn across the Metro entrance and a taxi queue that stretched all the way around the concourse.  We edged forward like a defensive wall for an hour and a half, handlers shouting destinations along the line as they tried to whittle it down.  "We are always in favour of football but this tournament is more about money than sport," a fellow passenger said as we finally left Tiete Station in the rear view mirror. "The government doesn't have money for anything except FIFA." There was just as much cynicism at the Arena Corinthians itself, where football photographer and fixer extraordinaire Caio Vilela  took us four days before the tournament got underway.  "When will it be finished?" I asked. "Sometime in the second half," came the now familiar reply.

 Uruguay's Estadio Centenario

Rio de Janeiro on match day one was a very different place.  Chileans mixed with Colombians, Argentina fans played beach football with a combined France and Scotland team, and Brazilians thronged the Copacabana Fan Fest.  "There are different  queues to buy and pay for your beer," moaned one English fan, "and only about fifty toilets for everyone to use."  I chose to watch Spain play the Netherlands from the beach outside, the Atlantic lapping just metres away as Robben turned Ramos, Pique and Casillas into Boumsong, Bramble and John Karelse.  A few days earlier I'd clambered sweatily up Sugarloaf mountain with Paul Finnerty, taken a wrong turn and seen England's oceanside training complex from above.  One half against Italy aside, it would be the only impressive thing about Roy Hodgson's team. 

Brazil vs Croatia on Copacabana Beach

Enough buses. From Rio I decided to fly back to Porto Alegre.  The temperature dropped by ten degrees and the French fans were all congregated in a single city centre bar.  A member of their Football Federation arrived in a sponsored car, supporters lining up to pose for photos.  "If he was one of ours we'd be queueing to throw things at his head," said a bemused waiter.  I watched England lose to a Balotelli header in the company of an Irishman, two customers and a bar owner round the corner then headed back to the hotel.  "Not much of an atmosphere, is there?" mused Laurie Hanna. The next morning a broken door foiled my plan to meet up with the Honduras squad pre-game, leaving my mood no more positive than the graffiti - No Fifa, FIFA Go Home and Sem Copa among the politer messages - lining the Goal Walk on the way to the Beira-Rio ground.  I ducked back out of the cordon to see Laurie in a bar owned by Andre Vieira, a Copa Libertadores winner with Luis Scolari's Gremio in the mid-1990s before a peripatetic career took him to Switzerland, Romania, Moldova and Costa Rica.

Inside the Beira-Rio

Honduras could have done with him in a starting eleven which was reduced to ten when Wilson Palacios was dismissed in the move that led to France's first goal, Karim Benzema coolly converting a penalty awarded when Palacios barged into Paul Pogba.  The Brazilians in the crowd - supporting the underdogs with memories of the 1998 final yet to abate - whistled in derision, the woeful French support countering with a muted 'Allez Les Bleus' before attempting to start yet another Mexican Wave.  Benzema was instrumental in the second strike,  the first ever use of goalline technology at a World Cup sending the BBC's Jonathan Pearce into on-air meltdown. Inside the ground, the boos just got louder.  While Honduras hacked and harried, France - with Matthieu Valbuena buzzing and Yohan Cabaye at his imperious best - controlled, Benzema scoring a third goal with eighteen minutes left.  "I'm sorry," Andre told Laurie, his Honduran flag a souvenir of the 2010 tournament, when we returned to the bar post-match.

Waiting for kick-off

When the French left the Australians arrived.  My final afternoon in Brazil was spent watching Germany demolish Portugal in the company of a few hundred Fanatics dressed in matching hoodies, t-shirts and baseball caps.  I flew back the next day, beating England home by a week. No luxury hotels for me but no contest when it came to who had the better time.

Laurie Hanna's Honduras flag (on the left), the only banner covering a FIFA sign. 

Roll on mid-January and the African Cup of Nations.

Date:  Sunday 15th June 2014
Admission:  $90

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Ground 234: Estadio Profesor Alberto Suppici, Colonia del Sacramento

An hour across the River Plate from  Buenos Aires, the tiny port town of Colonia del Sacramento has sandy beaches, tile-and-stucco colonial architecture, Uruguay's oldest church, a cobblestoned centre and a lower-league football team founded by the brother of a World Cup winning coach. Put it this way, it didn't take much arm twisting to get me there. 

Just over a week until kick-off in Brazil and one day before the national squad plays its final pre-departure friendly, the domestic league resumes with the quarter finals of the second-tier promotion play-offs.  Plaza Colonia - tenth of fourteen clubs in the regular season but still chasing their first top-flight place since 2005 - host Deportivo Maldonado, who finished the 26-game league campaign seven places and six points better off.

Better off in other ways, too.  Since 2011 Maldonado - average crowd roughly 218 -  have earned over $14 million trading players to European clubs.  Willian José, winner of an U20 World Cup with Brazil and a Copa Sudamerica at Sao Paulo, moved from Maldonado to Real Madrid, his national teammate Alex Sandro to Porto and Paraguay's Marcelo Estigarribia to Juventus on a season long loan.  Although none of the three had ever turned out for the Uruguayan club, their status as Maldonado players meant the sales tax dropped by as much as 75% compared to trading directly out of Brazil or Argentina.  "Damaging tax avoidance," the Argentinian authorities call it.  Deportivo operates “in exactly the same way as any professionally run football club,” counters Malcolm Caine, a British businessman who bought out the previously member-owned organisation in 2010 together with Graham Shear, a London-based lawyer who represented Kia Joorabchian's MSI group during the inquiry into Carlos Tevez's move to West Ham. “Our investment includes infrastructure, managerial, technical know-how, medical and other facilities as well as player development, training and player transfers,” Caine told Bloomberg by email.   Uruguay's 'ghost deals' -  over $70 million in transfer fees were routed through nine clubs between 2000 and 2011 - have now attracted FIFA's attention, with four Argentinian sides fined in March for their part in trades with Montevideo's Atletica Sud America "that were not of a sporting nature", while the Uruguayan government raised the tax on player transfers from 4 to 12.5% last year in an attempt to curb the flow of registrations through its domestic league.

 Things are much lower key at the ground itself, with no more than a couple of hundred supporters and a two-man press team inside by the time the sides emerge on to the pitch.  The away side limber up by doing shuttle runs between their team coach and the river, a pair of riot policemen greeting acquintances with kisses as they don shields and helmets nearby.  The home fans drink mate and dress in wooly hats and hoods despite it being the kind of day which would see English supporters don shorts and t-shirts and go topless before half time.  The loudest handful group together behind the goal accompanied by two drums, four flags and a stray dog.

The opening half drones by in a hail of aerial balls and whistles, the fussy refereeing soon attracting the ire of everyone in the crowd.  Moldonado have a couple of set pieces and an offside header turned around a post; Plaza run a lot but get no closer to a goal than the corner flag.  Long before the interval the substitutes are lined up, swapping gossip and high kicking to the right of the bench.

The second forty-five starts with a firecracker and an elderly coach setting off at Fun Run pace to retrieve a lost ball.  He's only halfway back when Moldonado break quickly, 2013 Peruvian league title winner Miguel Ximenez enticing the keeper away from goal before smashing into the corner. "Gol!" comes the throaty roar from the visitors' section. "Get moving," a home fan screams at the substitutes.  Plaza make a double switch, the crowd swells by a dozen or so as a neighbouring school empties, but the linesman's flag denies them twice as Moldonado hold out for a comfortable win. Four days later, Plaza score twice in the away leg to progress to a semi-final with Rampla Juniors.  "An inexplicable defeat," the loser's website says.  It's a word which defines much about Deportivo Moldonado. 

Date: June 3rd 2014
Admission: 150 Uruguayan pesos (under £5)