Sunday, 18 September 2016

Ground 315: Temple Park, Whitburn Athletic

Likeable Whitburn Athletic are a busy groundhopper's dream.  In the past three seasons they've played at three different grounds, all within walking distance of my parents' home.  From a school playing field in their home village to a wind-blown municipal pitch formerly used by South Shields,  the Northern Alliance Second Division side have now moved to a 4G surface at Temple Park, a dual carriageway's distance from Wearside League neighbours Harton & Westoe Colliery Welfare FC.   As with a higher-profile set of summer stadium switchers, the South Tynesiders have struggled for form at their new base, failing to win in three home league games before tonking Wolsingham in a Durham Minor Cup tie played in front of a not quite record crowd of zero. "It's becoming a regular theme with us that we have shocking first halves, fix it at half time, then say we'll start how we finish from then on," wrote Andy Smith, striker, secretary and club founder when Athletic first entered a team in the 2010-11 Wearside Combination League.


The fifth visitors of the season are Prudhoe Youth Club Seniors for a game in the Bluefin Sport Amateur Cup.  The away side are waiting for kick off when I arrive, the home team traversing the hundred or so metres from the leisure centre changing rooms accompanied by a pair of cyclists, a woman out walking her dog and a group of kids heading to the adjacent skateboard park.  Seating is provided on some flat-topped rocks; the only shade comes from a shipping container placed next to a sign announcing the facilities were funded by the Premier League and FA. "Pogba," yells a player, warming up by attempting volleys into the net.  "Jonjo Shelvey," says another as he tries to replicate the top-corner goal at QPR.  Someone jokingly whistles the Champions League theme as the referee does a head count.  "Howay lads," a Prudhoe player shouts.  "Challenge!"


Whitburn start falteringly once again.  "Where's the shape?" a defender enquires. "Drop in, drop in," says the substitute tasked with carrying the linesman's flag.  Prudhoe miss with two one-on-ones in the space of five seconds before the home side undeservedly go ahead from a corner kick, though the scores are back level when a left-wing foray beats an attempt to play two attackers offside and the cross is turned smartly past the helpless home keeper.  "We've gone back in our shells again," a Whitburn player grumbles.  "Well on top now," the goalscorer says. Prudhoe's manager is certainly happier at half time. "Just need to put these chances away," he tells his team.  On the other side of halfway, a frustrated Ryan Shave is less complimentary.  "We need someone, anyone to start organising," he emphasises.


The attendance climbs to seven at the start of the second half, though it immediately falls back when a Prudhoe substitute dumps the assistant's flag on his dad.  "It's just I can't really come on if I'm the liner," he apologises as his replacement slightly unwillingly takes up position wearing sandals and denim shorts. The visitors score a second, Whitburn lose captain and club treasurer Kieren Laverick to injury and then concede a third, Prudhoe stroking the ball around for close on a minute before lashing it into the net from 25 yards. "No pressure," moans a home player. "Been the same from the start."  Two goals for the home side sandwich the Northumbrians' fourth.  "When are we going to put this to bed, lads?" asks the visiting manager before his team finally kill the tie with two late goals.  "West Brom three nowt against West Ham" a spectator is reading off his phone as the players shake hands. "So disjointed, so disharmonious, and absolutely our own worst enemy," is Smith's diagnosis of his team's early season displays, proving there's at least one thing South Tyneside's Temple Park has in common with London's Olympic Stadium.

Admission: Free
Date: Saturday September 17th 2016

Monday, 12 September 2016

Ground 314: Nethermoor Park, Guiseley

And then we came to the end.  Almost a year to the day since relocating to York from Yokohama, eight months after my spectatorial debut in the Northern Counties East League and nearly two dozen other Yorkshire non-league grounds later, I'm departing once more, this time to help sell academic textbooks in Kyiv and eastern Ukraine.  "It'll be different, anyway," as someone recently observed.


My final weekend trip was to National League Guiseley, who've been around the area a good bit longer than me.  Formed in 1909 and based at Nethermoor Park ever since, the 1913 Wharfedale League champions made the 1990 FA Vase semi-final with Frank Worthington in their side, won it in a replay the following season and lost a second Wembley final, 5-3 to Wimborne, two years later.  Having gone out in the Conference North play-offs four times in a row, the Lions finally made the fifth-tier in 2015 but only barely survived their first term in the National League - in the end just a single point splitting them and relegated Halifax - and started this campaign with six defeats and one sacked manager. "We have to take responsibility for what's happening," temporary boss Adam Lockwood told his former teammates before a goalless draw with Braintree delivered the much needed fillip of a first point of the season.  The visit of Woking - three points and two places better off but without a single clean sheet in 2016 - raised the prospect of an opening win, Lockwood snapping up Simon Walton, a 28-year-old veteran of 13 professional clubs, to add experience to a team which also includes Alex Purver and Reece Webb-Foster, recently borrowed from neighbours Leeds and Bradford City.  "It looked like we'd strengthened in the summer and many people were expecting a more comfortable season this time out," says one concerned Nethermoor regular, "but we seem to have got progressively worse with each game so far.  It wasn't entirely surprising that we lost our first three matches, but North Ferriby beating us was a real watershed. A lot of people thought the club were right to sack Mark Bower but personally I was in two minds.  He'd taken us into a play-off final, got us promoted and then kept us up last season.  For me, we need an experienced Conference manager as soon as possible.  It's only September and we're already odds on to go down."


A few minutes' walk from the train station, on the same street as the most famous fish and chip shop in the world, Nethermoor's entrance is shared with a cricket club, the few steps of open terracing behind each goal a reminder of days further down the pyramid.  An assortment of covered stands - the impressive main one built in the club's centenary year to replace a rickety structure burnt out by arsonists - some portakabins, a  burger van and a pebbledashed toilet block complete the ensemble.  "I'll be going mad if we score today," a young Guiseley fan promises. "1-0 to you," predicts a Woking supporter.  "Not a chance," a home regular responds.


"We could win this," the same bloke reckons half an hour in as Woking's Michael Poke flips a shot around the post.  The keeper saves from Purver; "Guiseley well on top" tweets the home club's account.  Two minutes into the second period, Nicky Clee feeds Adam Boyd, who leathers a shot past Poke from twenty yards.  "Told you," the Woking fan says.  "He gets the ball and scores a goal," celebrate the home support, prematurely following up with the theme from the Great Escape.  Poke denies Jordan Preston before Woking slowly edge their way back into the match. "There's another goal in this," a home fan predicts pessimistically as the visitors move forward down the right. Fabio Saraiva misdirects a header, the ball hits Dennon Lewis' shoulder and leaves Jonny Maxted clawing at thin air. "Still bottom," someone mournfully reflects as the travelling support leap around in front of a breezeblock wall at the other end of the ground. "Two games unbeaten," Lockwood says at full-time, grasping one of the few  positives of the day. "It'll be a mountain to stay up from here," a home fan reckons. "We're nine games in and haven't won  yet.  You don't make that up when you're a part-time team in a league where most of the competition are full-time or part-timers in name only."  The Woking supporter is equally doleful about his side's prospects for the rest of the year.  "We used to be the best part-time team in the country," he rues, "but even teams with 5,000 crowds don't automatically get out of this division nowadays.  It's going to be a struggle."


Back in Leeds, there are more glum faces after Huddersfield's win at Elland Road leaves the three-time English champions just two places off the bottom of the Championship. The immediate future looks every bit as bleak for the county's National League clubs, North Ferriby United a point outside the relegation places and York City only four places better off.  For Guiseley a midweek trip to fellow strugglers Chester provides another opportunity for an overdue first win.  "We fought so hard to get into this division," a Lions fan reckons.  "If we go down, I can't see us getting back anytime soon."


Admission: £15
Date:  Saturday September 10th

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Ground 313: Churchill Playing Fields, Monkseaton FC

Named after a Wallsend social club and a firm that sticks company logos on polo shirts, Lindisfarne Custom Planet blasted out of the Tyneside Amateur League with the 2013-14 title and the Bill Gardner Cup, got a second promotion at the first time of asking and settled into the midtable orbit of the 12th-tier Northern Alliance Division One.  And then they were gone.


A summer link up with Monkseaton Juniors brought a change of identity and a brand new place to play, the rechristened Monkseaton FC moving a couple of miles north from the Rising Sun Sports Ground to Churchill Playing Fields, shared with local league cricketers, a running club and their own reserve team.  Renamed and reinvigorated, the red and blacks had won three and drawn the other of their opening four games, though their 13-goal haul was still just half that of Gateshead's all-conquering U19s.  The Heed fielded four of their first-team squad in a 6-1 opening day crushing of Gosforth Bohemians and were predictably ensconced at the top of the division with maximum points and a goal difference already up to plus 24.  "You've essentially got a league of hairy arsed blokes going up against a squad of kids who've all come through academies, get professional coaching and  train five times a week," one veteran Alliance watcher reckoned. "There's a lot of potential," manager Micky Cummins, a veteran of six professional clubs including Middlesbrough, Port Vale and Rotherham United, admitted after his team pummelled Heaton Stannington's reserves 7-0.  "But we looked lethargic at the start of the second half. We were slow and sloppy and gave up possession quite easily."  Small mercies, you imagine, for the rest of the league.


It was the weekend of theTall Ships Regatta at Blyth, Newcastle against Brighton in a teatime kick-off and Whitley Bay v North Shields - dubbed El Clasicoast by one set of fans, but "obviously El Coastico" to the other - in the Northern League. "A clash of cultures," one Bay supporter says, "Shields were carrying on like it was Green Street Hooligans last time they came here.  Our lot are a bit more Merchant Ivory." A smattering of Bay fans were already out in the town centre pubs, from where I walked the last 15 minutes inland to Monkseaton. Gateshead's team were emerging from a changing block that was doubling as a cricket pavilion, skirting the boundary rope on their way to the pitch.  There were four spectators on park benches, a handful more on the rise beneath some trees and a dozen or so reclining in the sun on the opposite touchline.  "From the start," shouted Monskeaton boss Anthony Fawcett, standing alongside a pile of holdalls and his two subs.  His team gave as good as it got in the first half of the game, discomforting the table-toppers and only denied what looked a clear penalty by the referee's positioning.  "Not my half of the pitch," he explained, his assistant having proved little help.  "Howay ref, are you gonna give us summat or what?" called a bloke from the rise.  It wasn't until the 40th minute that Adam Wrightson - on an 18-month pro contract after playing six times in the Conference last season - laid on Gateshead's 27th goal of the season. "We've done so well up to now," a Monskeaton player moaned.


The 28th followed five minutes into the second period, Wrightson shimmying between challenges before placing the ball into the corner of the net.  "Great goal," said Cummins.  "We've got to keep going," a Monkseaton player urged his team. Wrightson scored his second ten minutes later, the home side by now scarcely able to get out of their own half. "One man show," a Gateshead sub applauded as the red shirts stomped back to midway and their reserve team - beaten 6-1 in the Tyneside Amateur - carted goalposts back from the neighbouring pitch.  The visitors were reduced to ten, a substitute limping off shortly after coming on, Monkseaton rallying to score a deserved goal of their own before Carl Taylor finished it with a late fourth.  "Disappointing day at the office," the home side tweeted but Fawcett's impressive side won't lose many more games this season. 


Admission: Free
Date: Saturday August 27th 2016

Monday, 22 August 2016

Ground 312: Plumpton Park, Bradford City Women's FC

Football,  wrote Sporting Females author Jennifer Hargreaves, "has historically unified men and marginalised and trivialised women".  It had been that way since the very start.  In 1881,  5,000 Glaswegian men turned out to watch what the Nottinghamshire Guardian hoped would be "the first and last exhibition of a female football match in Glasgow",  rushing on to the pitch after 55 minutes and forcing the players to "prematurely take refuge in the omnibus which had conveyed them to the ground".  Games were played more successfully in Bradford and Blackburn, but the Manchester Guardian deemed the "costumes were neither graceful nor very becoming" and the  Leeds Mercury mused that "public feeling has demonstrated against the unseemly exhibition in such a manner that the authorities are now frowning down the innovation" when a second pitch invasion occured at Manchester's Cheetham FC. 


Things began to change in the years during and immediately after the Great War.  With the Football League suspended in 1915,  women's games were staged instead to raise morale and funds for war charities.  22,000 assembled at Middlesbrough's Ayresome Park for the 1918 Munitionette's Cup Final between Blyth Spartans Ladies and a team from Carlisle; on Boxing Day 1920, there were 53,000 inside Goodison Park and 10,000 or more locked out for a game featuring teams from Preston and St Helen's. But the following year, with the male competitions back up and running,  the FA peremptorily decreed that "the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be discouraged". "It came as a shock and we could only put it down to jealousy," one player recalled. "We were more popular then the men."


Barred from using FA-affiliated pitches until 1971, women spectators were often made to feel just as unwelcome too.  In 1985, there was just a single women's toilet in the whole of Bradford City's Valley Parade, though this was at least one more than there had been during the 1950s.  By 1994, three years after the formation of the first national women's league, female fans still made up as little as seven per cent of the crowd at most men's league games and John Williams, of the Centre for Football Research, reported a prevailing view that  "football is men's space and place; where men go to get away from women".

 
Modern football, for all its many faults, is generally more diverse and welcoming, though the women's game suffers from the same kind of sneers it did in 1881.  "Is it even a sport?" a student asked when I told her I was going to watch Bradford City Women's FC.  Formed in 1988, City's fortunes have closely mirrored those of their male counterparts: two seasons in the top-flight, a near miss in the League Cup and back-to-back relegations dropping them as low as the fourth division, though they now play back in the Premier League North (despite the adjective, the third-tier of the women's game). "The ambition is to reach the Super League," chair Sally Thackray told the Bradford Telegraph and Argus. "But that is a whole new ball game. You have to pay players, you need a much different infrastructure.  We need more volunteers to run the club, but also investment. We need to be able to attract better players. You need £175,000 in the bank to get there.”

The opening day pitted City against Derby County, last season's early pacesetters before they faded disappointingly away to seventh.  The Ewes spent the close season overhauling their starting line-up while the home side were trying to adjust to the departure of Steve Winterburn after a decade in charge.  The new boss, Lee Harrison, is partnered by Charlotte Stuart,  who also captains the team from the centre of defence. "We haven't really set any targets for the season as we are mostly rebuilding,"  Harrison reckons before the game. The team are now based at Eccleshill United's Plumpton Park, a ninth-tier stadium with a car park, one previous visitor tells me, "that's like Passchendaele in winter".  A single turnstile opens into a ground of blue corrugated metal, tarpaulin covers, signs for Napoleon's Casino and Restaurant and a slate grey portakabin doling out coffee and pies. A chequered Derby County flag hangs from the main stand, whose randomly numbered blue tip-up seats house 50 or so spectators and a travelling support of one.  "The pitch slopes a bit, doesn't it?" a bloke says to his daughter, the grass dropping as sharply as Chris Hutchings' dismal West Yorks galacticos did in 2000-01.



"Do what we do," encourages a Bradford player.  "Let's win it back, girls," says one of the Derby centre backs. A bloke complains about the quid cost of a programme and two horses potter about in an adjacent field.  The Ewes start brightly, thudding a pair of shots into corrugated perimeter boards.  "Relax girls," says the City skipper as a clearance clangs against the top of the main stand. The visitors are more composed, Samantha Griffiths expertly curling a free kick over the defensive wall for the opening goal on 15 minutes.  The home side respond with a near miss, a shot trundling back off the post.  "We go again," their keeper shouts, borrowing a familiar standard of the male non-league lexicon. Her opposite number limps off, replaced in goal by defender Lorna Abbey, but while City get the ball forward quickly they fail to seriously trouble the stand in. Despite the increasing frustration, there's a noticeable lack of shouting aimed at linesmen and only tame admonishment for the referee.  "Every time," moans the City right back when a Derby player pulls her back on halfway. 


Bradford put a penalty over the crossbar and against the roof a stand before County score a second at the third attempt, Nicole Dale tapping in after the keeper saves twice.  "Big push," Harrison urges his team but the best they can manage are a few corner kicks, the game increasingly niggly as Derby close out the win. "Good game," a bloke claps. "In the first half some very good football was played," County's Facebook page says, "and then the second was a battle."

Admission: £3
Date: Sunday August 21st 2016

There's an excellent overview of the early years of women's football here.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Ground 311: Mill Lane, Wigginton Grasshoppers

And so at last we're off again. Five divisions,  57 teams and over 100 seasons since it was first contested, less than a decade after the founding of the Football League itself, the York and District League gets yet another opening night.   The first round of fixtures pits Huntington Rovers - managed by ex-Huddersfield winger and FA Cup semi-finalist Iain Dunn - against Osbaldwick, has F1 Racing motoring to 2014-15 title winners Riccall United and gifts defending champions Old Malton St Mary's a free evening while their Ryedale neighbours, Brooklyn and Malton and Norton FC, go head to head on an old bacon factory recreation ground.  Back towards York, Wigginton Grasshoppers,  pipped at the last by Old Malton in April, kick off the new seasons against Copmanthorpe.  "I'll be disappointed if we're not challenging again," manager, fixture secretary, match reporter and occasional first-team player Graham Ireton told The York Press.


Ireton moved to Mill Lane as player-coach in 2008, 26 years after John Jeffery established the club.  "Simply an extraordinary man who has made a real difference to the lives of so many around him,"  Ireton says of a man who still combines the roles of president, groundsman and chief kit washer. Among those Jeffery has helped along the way are West Ham's Sam Byram, a Wigginton youth player before he was picked up by Leeds United, and Alfie Beestin, who recently penned a one-year contract with Doncaster Rovers.  "He's a good player and he's got great potential," Rovers boss Darren Ferguson reckons. "I'm really pleased to get him onboard."

"Success through Endeavour" the club's badge says.  Last season, the Grasshhoppers fielded 20 teams, all funded by donations and match subs. The senior side, who won 21 of their 26 league games and averaged over four goals a game, now chip in £30 a season each plus £4 a start and a quid if they come off the bench.   Twice champions of the York League's second tier and York FA Cup winners in 2004, the green and whites play their home fixtures on a pitch behind the village's squash and sports club. "FA Charter Standard Community Club" announces a sign at the entrance. "Welcome to Wigginton Grasshoppers FC". The pitch is straight ahead, roped off on three sides with a hedge and six advertising hoardings marking out the other.  Aside from the breezeblock dugouts, the only cover comes from a couple of open-fronted corrugated sheds with bench seating for six.  "Winners!" yells a Copmanthorpe defender plaintively as an early goalkick drops out of the sky.  "Let's have a gamble," a midfielder urges.  "Don't have a go at the ref," the Wigginton goalkeeper loudly reminds his team.  "New rules, remember?"


Copmanthorpe clank the bar with a header, the rebound unceremoniously booted out of play for a corner.  The ball comes back into the box, the keeper can only flip it upwards and when it drops back down an away player heads it over the line. "Shit," says the keeper. "Sorry, lads."  A few latecomers turn up with fish and chips, Wigginton boot three shots into the hedge and then turn the game on its head with two goals in a single minute.  "Better two-one than nil-nil," a bloke says knowledgeably, turning to his mate.


There's a five-minute turnaround, the players sitting out on the grass until the officials are beckoned back out of a portakabin.  A cockerel crows in a neighbouring field and a game of crown green bowls starts back by the main road. "Second phase," Copmanthorpe's keeper says to his teammates.  "Turn and face," a defender implores. "On my shout we go." A player goes down claiming he's been elbowed in the face, there's a dive in the penalty area and a Wigginton player gets yellow carded for screaming "How's that not a fucking foul?" a few metres from the referee's face.  An assessor scribbles furiously, propping his clipboard up on the rope.  Copmanthorpe's keeper stops taking goalkicks but saves two shots with his knees.  "Let's keep it going lads, eh?" he shouts to his team.  They do, but the Wigginton - third and second in the last two seasons - score again late on. One game, three points.  Is this the season the Grasshoppers finally break their title duck?

Admission: Free
Date: Tuesday August 16th 2016

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Ground 310: MDC Community Stadium, Hemsworth Miners Welfare

"So you'll stay away from Fitzwilliam, then?"  -  David Peace  '1974'.

Fitzwilliam doesn't get the greatest of press.  It's portrayed in David Peace's Red Riding quartet as a "dirty brown mining town", benighted, cheerless and sinister.  "The crap town of crap towns," reads one unflattering description, "announced by nuclear cooling towers and the last layer of West Yorkshire hell."  Geoffrey Boycott, that epitome of the dour, obdurate Yorkshireman, grew up there in a Coal Board terraced house, as did Larry Lamb, a newspaper editor, The Guardian wrote, "of half-suppressed anger...and defiant character".  Defiance was stamped right through the village's part in one of the more notorious nights of the miners' strike, a mob-handed police raid on a local pub ending with the station in neighbouring Hemsworth under siege and the officers inside run out of town. “The police came over the bridge, swinging truncheons and chanting,” a witness remembered. “They knocked one lad down and kept hitting him. His uncle told them they'd given him enough, then they knocked him down and gave him the same. Then the people all came out of their houses. The whole village just erupted. Whatever they could do to get back, they did it".


The pits went soon after, the town's football club had gone just before.  Hemsworth Colliery was the first team of Cyril Knowles, who started as a 15-year-old miner and blossomed into one of the most accomplished full backs of his generation, with more than 500 professional appearances, four England caps and a song in his honour at number 14 in the charts.  His brother, Peter, went to Wolverhampton Wanderers, played for England U23's and quit, aged 24, to become a Jehovah's Witness.  "Bill Shankly wanted to sign him for Liverpool but he turned them down. Of course we all understood why a few weeks later," a teammate recalled. "It's a crying shame. They were saying he might go to Mexico for the World Cup the following summer, but he just gave it all away."


Founded in 1981, the year before Wolves finally ripped up Knowles' registration and accepted he was never coming back, Hemsworth Miners Welfare have progressed from the Doncaster and District Senior League Division Three to the step five Northern Counties East.  Having cantered to  last season's NCEL Division One title by a 12-point margin, the Wells announced themselves to the top-flight with two goals in the first eight minutes of an opening night win at Parkgate, capping a week in which the club got its first contracted player and put Runcorn Linnets out of the FA Cup. "We expect to do well," boss Wayne Benn said before the tie. "The club have never had it as good. We are playing at the highest standard we have ever played at. Attendances are up and there is a massive feel good factor about the place".


Optimism was in short supply when the collieries first closed, an ornamental pit wheel in front of the station ramp and a metal sign for the Fitzwilliam Country Park the only visible reminders of an industry that once gave work to thousands of men. Railway Terrace, where police and miners battled in July '84, runs behind the tracks towards the MDC Community Stadium, reached by a circuitous route at the back of a show home and the cricket club.  A Carlsberg England flag flutters above the entrance. "Want a programme, mate?" floats a voice through a portakabin hatch.  A set of plywood stocks lean incongruously against the clubhouse wall, inside which a framed print of Cyril Knowles in a Spurs shirt faces the bar and kitchen.  I take my food to a deckchair outside, the two teams warming up in opposite corners while a pair of fans tie flags to a fence.  "POEY IS INNOCENT" proclaims one in reference, apparently, to a Leeds fan convicted of chucking a coin at a game against Leicester; the other, more prosaically, states "Hemsworth Miners Welfare FC".   The club's name is also painted across the top of the dugout block, beside a covered stand with three blocks of green seats and one of navy blue.  "Fast start, boys," cajoles a Hemsworth defender.  "From minute one," Garforth echo. The home team hone in on goal from the off, a shot gets deflected and when the corner's played in Nash Connolly leaps unopposed to head his third goal of the season.  "Good start," Benn says laconically.  "Hellfire," groans a Garforth fan. "There are still 89 minutes left."  Seven later, just seconds after the visitors lump a shot on to the cricket outfield, Connolly turns provider, crossing for Del Pollock to fire in a second goal from close range.  "Awful Garforth," the fan shakes his head forlornly.  "Just awful."


The yellows rally, a shot seemingly deflected over the fence but, to much chagrin, a goal kick awarded instead.  "Every fucking time," a defender complains from fifty yards away.  "No point in you coming, linesman," the fan grumbles softly.  "Waste of space, waste of space."  Almost straight from the restart Hemsworth net a third, Brice Tiani lifting a pass over the Garforth defence and Connolly running on to score. "Twenty minute," the fan chuckles, turning to look at the rest of the stand.  "They're a good team. Hemsworth, but you can't be defending like that."


The away side are more resilient thereafter, but the hosts are always that bit sharper and more precise in possession, only some profligate finishing and the Garforth keeper's palms preventing Pollock and Sam Jones from extending the lead.  "Could've been closer but a fair result," Garforth tweet at full-time. "They'll be up there," reckons a travelling fan.  "But it looks like a long season for us."

Admission: £5
Date: Saturday August 13th 2016

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Ground 309: Welfare Ground, AFC Emley

"I hope you've brought a fleece or something," the driver greets me as we pull away from the bus station in Leeds.  "It gets cold up there on Emley Moor."  It's the first weekend in August, the opening, extra-preliminary round of the FA Cup and games are already being shifted from 3 o'clock on Saturday to the following afternoon.  "I wish it was for the telly," someone tells me, "but the cricket season hasn't finished yet and they have first dibs on the pitch."


It's not the biggest problem the village side have ever had with their three-sided home. In 2000, twelve years after reaching Wembley in the FA Vase and just two since losing by the odd goal in three at West Ham United in the FA Cup third round, new ground regulations left the 97-year-old club with little choice but to relocate to Wakefield's Belle Vue rugby league stadium.  "We'd been losing money at the Welfare and we'd have been chucked out of the Northern Premier League unless we spent a fortune on the ground," a fan remembers.  "The first season it was great.  Chris Waddle came with Worksop and we beat them 5-3,  we got an international player from Lebanon, the crowds doubled to almost 600 a game and we had over 1,700 in when we played Yeovil in the FA Trophy. But then things started going downhill."  The club changed its name to Wakefield & Emley and the reserve team - still based at the old village pitch - was disbanded in 2005, leading to a split in which AFC Emley, formed by disgruntled fans and ex-committee members, entered the West Yorkshire League Division One.  While Wakefield foundered, folding in 2014 after finishing bottom of the NPL North, Emley are prospering once more in the second-tier of the Northern Counties East.  "The team everyone is talking about," opened Non League Yorkshire's preview of their 2016-17 campaign.  "With the players they've got this season, they should walk their division," one spectator confidently predicts.


They weren't ever likely to walk their opening game of the FA Cup, Athersley Recreation making the short trip from Barnsley a division higher after a mini-flurry of late-season victories sent Pontefract Collieries down instead.  While they were staying up, Emley twice lost out to Bottesford Town, a 3-2 home defeat denting their chances of automatic promotion and the second, on penalties in a play-off, consigning the villagers to an 11th season in the NCEL Division One.  "The way the season ended is why neutrals love football," manager Darren Hepworth told the first issue of The Bootiful Game magazine.  "We were just seconds away from going up.  Now we have to move forward going into the new campaign...I can't speak highly enough of the people at the club.  Off the field we are making big strides."


Emley's home - newly christened the Fantastic Media Welfare Ground in a naming rights deal with a marketing agency - is spick and span and freshly painted.  There's a hoarding for 'Supporters Club Scotland', a bloke selling tickets to win a breakfast meat tray and a groundsman of the year award on display in the smartened up clubhouse.  "They used to have loads of stuff about the West Ham game in here," someone tells me as we stand on a club-crested carpet waiting to get served at the bar.   The tea hatch is already running low on steak pie and peas,  hoppers roam the main stand in search of spare programmes while a bloke at the front flicks through a paperback as he finishes off his pint. "About 300 here today, do you think?" the driver asks as the teams run out to the closing bars of The Final Countdown.


Athersley are easily the better side in the opening half of the game. "Hint of pre-season here from Emley," says the fan in the next seat. "The movement's been too good for them," someone else opines.   "They're just hanging on." The visitors miss a penalty, Ryan Smith fluffing his initial kick and then heading the rebound straight back at Gary Stevens in the Emley goal.  With the stand beginning to empty in anticipation of the break, Kai Hancock wriggles through two challenges, chases in after his own shot and leathers in the opening goal after the luckless Stevens saves once again.  "No more than they've deserved," an Emley fan says.  "We've done nowt here."


When the home team do start playing, they find it difficult to break down a stubborn, well-drilled Athersley defence.  "Stop messing around," a dad warns his son."It was you who asked to come." "I didn't know I'd be bored," the kid complains. "Can't we go home?"  He's barely finished the question when Ruben Jerome dribbles past three players and blatters the ball diagonally past the keeper.  "Will that be on YouTube?" the kid excitedly asks.  "What a belter!" shouts a gleeful fan. "Only one winner now."  Ashley Fynn, scorer of 73 goals last season plus another seven that were expunged from the records when Lincoln Moorlands Railway resigned their place in the league, has a shot that spirals wide off a defender's boot.  "It's coming now, at any time," an Emley fan urges his team on. We're almost played out when Flynn takes a pass in his stride and slips a shot past the onrushing keeper with the outside of his boot.  Athersley's dejected players drop to the floor, the goalkeeper mutters insensibly and then hoofs the post on his way off the field.  Whether at Wembley in May or Emley in August, it hurts to lose in the FA Cup.


Admission:  £6
Date: Sunday August 7th 2016