Monday, 2 March 2015

Peterborough Away 1992

I had an hour to kill between connections and Peterborough's railway station didn't seem a particularly inviting place to stay.  "Aren't football grounds boring when there's nobody there?" my girlfriend asked, uncomprehendingly.  The week before, on a bus that twisted and turned through the streets of Salzburg, I got talking to a Queen of the South fan who was at Peterborough v Newcastle United on 26th September 1992. "I was on a course in Corby with a Geordie mate.  Boiling under that tin roof.  Manic support, but.  There was a guy in the pub with a guitar belting out songs beforehand. Don't think the locals had ever seen anything like it."  Back in Britain, it was 15 minutes with my bags from the station, walking the same direction John Hall had been serenaded along by hundreds of jubilant Newcastle fans 22 years before...

You are there, 7,000 Newcastle, late-summer sun beating on your heads. The pubs are closed by one o'clock.  Straight off the supporters' bus and into the shortest queue. Black and white everywhere you look.  Spilling off coaches and trains and transit vans.  Scarves in car windows. "Newcastle United will never be defeated!" you chant, nudging through the turnstile. "The biggest game in our history," the home manager says in a programme you read over shoulders as you wait for the teams to run out. 

The terrace is rammed, each and every movement dicatated by the surge of the crowd.  Seeing and not seeing.  Robert Lee stumbles through a tackle, Kevin Sheedy collects the pass and sand-wedges his shot over the goalkeeper's head.  You land four steps down. "Sheedy! You beautiful Welsh-Irish bastard, you," screeches a wiry bloke with no top on swinging backwards from the fence.  Delirium. The momentum unstoppable.  "And now you're gonna believe us," the entire stand bellows, "we're gonna win the league."  And you do.

It's the most exhilarating season you'll ever have.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Ground 254: Longbenton Sports Ground

There can't be many 11th-tier football teams who've had a book written about them, but then Percy Main Amateurs are anything but an ordinary side.  "A wonderful club," wrote Ian Cusack in his account of their triumphant 2009-10 season, when the claret-and-blues won both promotion and a Combination Cup.  Re-established by demobbed soldiers in 1919, the village team's pitch formed the middle of the oblong of pitmen's cottages where Jackie Rutherford, son of a coal trimmer and schoolboy football prodigy,  had been born three decades previously.  Spotted in the Northern Alliance, the 'Newcastle Flier' became the St James' Park club's youngest ever player, scoring on his First Division debut against Bolton Wanderers aged 17 years and 139 days.  At 19 he was capped by England; before he turned 30 he'd won three championships, played in five FA Cup Finals, fallen out with the directors over benefit payments and been sold on to Second Division Arsenal for £800.  The Highbury board hoped to get two or three seasons out of Rutherford; they got 13, the winger still holding the record as the oldest player to represent the club despite recent appearances to the contrary at the centre of their defence.  Rutherford's son and two of his 11 siblings also played professional football with Arsenal, Portsmouth and Newcastle United.  In 2012, his great-grandson (a Manchester United fan, naturally) won Olympic gold in the long jump.

Former club of Jack Colback's brother - "the most intelligent, incisive and lethal finisher in the division," wrote Cusack -  these days Rutherford's hometown side are the biggest attraction in the middle-tier of the Alliance, a league where games are always enthusiastically contested,  usually free to watch and habitually only thinly populated by substitutes, injured players, relatives, members of the committee and men out walking their dogs. Unbeaten in the Nike First Division since the third weekend of November, Percy Main are 17 points clear of a trailing pack which includes the likes of AFC Newbiggin, Gosforth Bohemians and Wallsend Boys Club, amassing 64 goals in a mere 19 games. Eight of those were netted at home to Newcastle University - "a student club run by students," if that wasn't already clear from the name - when the visitors were thoroughly schooled in mid-September.

Last time I watched the scholars in action they were playing on a muddy pitch at Cochrane Park and I was forking over the best part of £5,000 to do an MA.  We've both moved on, though the undergrads only as far as a 3G pitch in Longbenton, where I once played spectacularly badly in a Thursday evening kickabout with the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences. With the increasingly wretched Metro service back at stage one of its modernise-breakdown-repair cycle, the nearest station which doesn't require me to switch to a bus is at Walkergate, twenty-minutes and the length of Coach Lane (or, in the geographical parlance of the Northern League, from Newcastle Benfield to West Allotment Celtic, with a turn off for Team Northumbria) away. The leaders haven't dropped a point in seven games, the students have picked up four wins out of five. As is so often the case with Tyne & Wear's transport infrastructure, you get the distinct impression that something is about to give. 

One side presses, the other passes, both trying their best to keep things moving on the ground. "Close in, plenty of talk, first and second," Percy Main's goalkeeper cajoles.  "Wake up!" comes a shout from the adjoining pitch, where a game of hockey is underway.  "Runners," scream the footballers.  "Too much space," say the men with sticks.  The students score first, number 9 clanking in off the post at the second attempt, though the crosser looks suspiciously offside.  Percy Main level with a shot that curls over the goalkeeper's head, but the pink-booted number 9 first shimmies and smacks in a second, then turns a defender and whacks the ball into the top of the net.  The University's Greek right-winger is roughly hacked to the artificial turf then clatters the bar as the game, evenly matched in the first forty-five minutes, takes a decisive swing from claret to navy blue.  "We don't stop, big last five," yells Percy Main's manager Richard Nugent, once of Cullercoats, Lindisfarne and New York.  By the time he's finished his sentence, the students are celebrating their fourth. 

Back down Coach Lane on the final whistle, I catch up with Ian Cusack, Harry Pearson and assorted members of the Popular Side fanzine litterati at the second-half of Benfield's game with Jarrow Roofing.  The visitors have travelled with a Scottish Under-21 international and a debutant Italian previously of Roma, Brescia and the Azzuri U19s, but are already down to nine men with one off for "a hard tackle" and another for some pushing and shoving in the aftermath.  The referee preens, Benfield win 3-0, and Roofing are left to check footage on a video camera while eating curry and chips in the clubhouse after the game.  "I bet the bugger sent himself a card this morning," says a spectator, shaking his head as the officials depart. 

Admission:  Free
Date:  February 14th 2015

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Thessaloniki Football Weekend

The Greek economy isn't the only thing suffering, the country's professional football leagues suspended when a refereeing official was beaten up outside his own home and whacked by a match-fixing scandal in which nearly two-thirds of players believed results were determined in advance. Plus ça change, you could say:  Christos Michas, referee for the 1973 European Cup Winners' Cup Final, arrived by plane before the match with the AC Milan squad, dismissed Norman Hunter and two Leeds United penalty appeals and later received a lifetime ban from UEFA.  "A diabolical travesty," Peter Lorimer says. "It was wholly, indisputably and wretchedly bent".  The game ended with Milan collecting their medals to a cascade of boos, their team bus stoned and spat at as it left the ground. "A disaster from beginning to end," wrote the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, "a night of rain and rage".

 Sneaking in at Iraklis 1908's Kaftanzoglio Stadium

The final took place at the home of Iraklis Thessaloniki, formed in 1908 out of a Macedonian music and literature club and Greek Cup winners in 1976 with the sublimely gifted Vasilis Hatzipanagis in their side.  In 2011, Iraklis - ironically the one top-flight team not mentioned in a UEFA file listing 54 suspect results - were demoted from the Super League over "various alleged misdemeanours", failed to get a ruling from the Court of Arbitration for Sport and started the next season in the fourth-tier Delta Ethniki while negotiating a merger with second division Pontioi Katerinis. The new club kept hold of the Iraklis name, badge, colours, history and stadium, took over Pontioi's place in the league and are currently unbeaten since September, through to the Greek Cup quarter-final and six points clear at the top of the Football League.

Part of the graffiti wall in Kalamarias.

"The only thing they deserve is contempt," says a supporter of Apollon Kalamarias.  "Iraklis is the shame of Thessaloniki.  They sold out their history when they bought Pontioi."  Formed in March 1926 by Pontic Greek immigrants from the Greco-Turkish War (the club colours mix red for the blood of those massacred in Turkey and black for the eternal mourning of a community for whom every game is played several hundred miles from home),  Kalamarias have spent much of their history shuffling between the first and second flights. In 2009, unable to pay debts of €5 million, Apollon was stripped of its professional licence and forcibly demoted to the amateur divisions.  "We did not change," the fan says.  "We did not erase our debts by extinguishing the name of our club."  While Iraklis prosper, Apollon languish in the Football League's relegation places, their single-sided Kalamaria Stadium a thirty-minute ride on the number 5 bus in a seafront suburb between the city centre and Thessaloniki's airport.

View from the Ano Poli (Upper Town). 

The city's third Football League team, Agrotikos Asteras, are one place lower and six years younger than Kalamarias, formed by refugees from Izmir in 1932.  Semi-finalists in the 2005-06 Greek Cup, where they lost 3-1 over two legs to AEK Athens, the green-and-whites play at the 2,200-capacity Evosmos Stadium, its seats donated by Iraklis when their Kaftanzoglio Stadium was refurbished for the 2004 Olympic Games.  The ground is in a western suburb, north of the port and Ampelokipoi (where Thessaloniki's other Iraklis, a Football League Two side, are based); the club's ultras, the Green Ghetto, are fiercely anti-fascist but number no more than 50 people in a city dominated by the big two of Aris and PAOK.

Tying banners at Aris.

PAOK are another of Thessaloniki's immigrant clubs, their black and white stripes symbolising mourning for a lost home and the hope of a brighter future.  Founded in Istanbul, PAOK relocated during the population transfers that followed the Greco-Turkish War and have always viewed themselves as outsiders.  "The orginal fans were Greeks but were badly welcomed here because the local communities thought that they were Turks," one member of the Gate 4 Ultras explains.  "We are the only club in Greece against the rotten system of Olympiacos, the team of the state.  We don't care about championships and cups, but what PAOK represents.  Everything we won, we deserved. We are PAOK because of the history, the struggle, the idea beyond this team."  Twice national champions and four-time winners of the Greek Cup, the club were banned from European competitions in 2006 after building up debts of over €30 million, but have since stabilised under the presidencies of Euro 2004 champion Theo Zagorakis and Ivan Savvidis.  Their Toumba Stadium, built by supporters in the late-1950s,  is within walking distance of Aris, Iraklis and the centre of Thessaloniki; with Aris marking their 100th anniversary by dropping two divisions, it's also currently the only ground in the city where you can watch top-flight and Europa League football.  Ticket booths are open from around four hours before kick-off on matchdays or you can print-at-home from the club's website. 

Outside the Toumba

Thessaloniki's Macedonia International Airport is linked to Stansted, Gatwick and Manchester by Ryanair and easyJet flights.  It's a 40-minute ride into the city centre on the number 78 bus (ticket machines onboard), which runs 24 hours and stops directly outside arrivals, on the main shopping street, Tsimiski, and at both the train and intercity bus stations.  Most of the city's best bars (try Pulp or Beer Store) are either facing the promenade between the White Tower and the port buildings or in Ladadika, a narrow tangle of cobbled streets two blocks west and one inland from the start of the port and the Holocaust Memorial at Eleftharias Square, where you'll also find the most central stop for the bus back to the airport. A five-minute walk along Ionos Dragoumi,  the Pella Hotel is a good budget hotel option, though the beds are even harder than the defence in that 1973 Leeds team.  If you want to splash out, the Electra Palace is the best in town, while the The Bristol, a five-star boutique hotel, is in the middle of the action in Ladadika.  There's also a hostel, Little Big House, uphill from the centre between Kaftanzoglio Stadium and the UNESCO-listed old town, the Ano Poli.  The tourist information centre keeps irregular hours, so download a map before you go from here or here. 

Finally, there's a separate post on Aris FC here.

Sun, sea, beer, football and anti-fascist ultras: there's a lot to like about Thessaloniki.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Ground 253: Kleanthis Vikelidis Stadium, Aris Thessaloniki

Going down two divisions in the year their club turned 100 didn't stop Aris Thessaloniki from throwing a party.  A giant yellow-and-black banner was draped from the top of the Byzantine White Tower and more than a thousand red flares set the night sky aglow as supporters paraded noisily around the streets of the city. Majority owners of the club, Aris' avowedly left-wing fanbase is famed for the frenzied, unrelenting backing it gives to a side which last won the national championship in 1946 and has no major honours since the 1970 Greek Cup.  "Are these the best fans in Europe?" asked EFW's Danny Last after Manchester City's visit in the 2010-11 Europa League. "There can't be a single football fan that has come away from watching a game at Aris, either on television or in the flesh, and not talked about their support."

Those foundations are absolutely vital.  After finishing fourteen points adrift at the foot of the Greek Super League, the cash-crunched club followed AEK Athens in relinquishing professional status and starting over in the third-tier Football League Two, their supporters successfully agitating against an investment offer from a Canadian mining company accused of causing environmental damage to the nearby Halkidiki peninsula.  "We have difficult moments," one member of the Super3 fans' group says, "but we are still proud and determined to make the club strong again as it always used to be."

Thessaloniki is a walkable city, wedged against the sea and within striking distance of Skopje, Sofia, Tirana, Mount Athos, Athens and Istanbul.  Just as importantly for the football tourist its fixtures are spread right across the weekend, Iraklis 1908 first up on Friday evening, Apollon Kalamarias and Aris kicking off at Monday teatime, and PAOK, Agrotikos Asteras and Iraklis Ampelokipoi all in action at various points of Sunday afternoon. Simultaneous kick-offs and easyJet's arrival times mean I'm limited to three of the six games, a bum steer from Soccerway leaving me with a choice of two by the time third-placed Aris get underway against Kampaniakos Chalastras, a day and a bit after it was originally scheduled to take place.

You can stroll the four kilometres from the city centre to the Kleanthis Vikelidis and bag a three-for-one by calling in to Iraklis (where Revie's Leeds United were cheated out of the 1973 European Cup Winners' Cup) and PAOK's Toumba Stadium on the way, or €2 gets you there and back on the number 10 bus, the stop a few steps from the cramped stadium front and its shuttered doorways for a wrestling club, mobile phone shop and the does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-entrance Beer FC 1914.  A gap-toothed man hawks tea from a metal urn on wheels, while a few other street vendors try to offload yellow-and-black scarves and slabs of polystyrene, one to cover your neck, the other - with three and a half of the four sides completely open to the elements - to comfort your behind.

None of the four are anywhere near full, a snowy afternoon, the late rescheduling of the game and the club's recent tribulations keeping the attendance to a smattering down the sides and several hundred at the back of each goal.  There's silence until the teams enter, then a red flare is whirled around above a long Aris Super 3 banner, hooded fans clamber up fences, and drums and voices belt out a somnambulistic beat that rises to a hail of boos whenever a Kampaniakos player touches the ball and ratchets up with each slow-moving Aris attack. The fans provide all the early entertainment with several minutes' bouncing and a rumbling chant that repeatedly crescendos in a strident, stress-on-the-second-syllable "Aris!"  The first goal gets another flare, two bangers and a few extra decibels. "Bravo," says the bloke next to me, his eyes a pair of slits between a Napapijri hood and the lower half of a balaclava. "Bravo."

Things go quieter in the second half.  Aris keep giving the ball away, Kampaniakos keep giving it back. I try standing on a seat and shuffling from side to side like a crooner at a working men's club to maintain circulation in my feet, while the Super 3 get their lungs working and a linesman is thoroughly doused in a liquid I hope is just water as he flags for offside, enraged fans emptying plastic cups through the perimeter fence as he inches ever closer to the safety of the pitch.  Aris score again, torn yellow paper is flung in the air  and the Super 3 run through their litany of victory chants. "You came at a bad time," says a spectator through clenched teeth and cigarette smoke. "When we are many it is a wonderful place."

Admission: €5 (Gate 1)
Date: Monday February 9th 2015.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Ground 252: Dean Street, Shildon

Even on a frosty afternoon in the middle of January there's something special about a Northern League trip to Shildon.  "Durham's Wild West," penned a recent repeat visitor in When Saturday Comes. Pinned in by red brick-and-pebblesdash terraced houses, Dean Street's covered grandstand and spindly floodlight pylons are right up among the quintessential tableaux of the world's second oldest football league.

The stand went up in 1923, the team's fortunes rising just as dramatically in the eight and a bit years which separated  the club rejoining the Northern League in 1932 and half the championship resigning "on account of the difficulties of playing war-time football" in December 1939.  Dean Street's golden generation - Harry Nicholson, Bill Bushby, George Hope, Jack Downing and Alf 'Wacker' Wild, "a defender of such belligerence that to this day those who saw him play wince and clutch their shins at the very mention of his name," wrote The Guardian's Harry Pearson in 2008 - cantered to five titles, finished second three times and third once, lifted five League Cups, reached an Amateur Cup quarter-final and made the second round proper of the FA Cup. "The Railwaymen," one historian reflected, "really were on the right track".

Derailed all too often afterwards (the first club to be relegated from the Northern League's top-flight three times and just weeks from folding in 2004), the last half-decade has brought a first Durham Challenge Cup since 1972, a Northern League runners-up spot and a semi-final in the FA Vase, the Railwaymen halted six minutes short of a stop at Wembley to take on neighbours Spennymoor Town. "The greatest disappointment of my life," thought Northern League chairman Mike Amos, a Shildon supporter of six decades' standing.   With Spennymoor taking promotion in the summer, many viewed this as Dean Street's season, but after playing nine ties in five rounds of the FA Cup, exiting the Vase in a third round replay and enduring a middling run of pre-Christmas form, the title favourites were 13 points behind leaders North Shields with five games in hand and six teams - including Jarrow Roofing Boldon Community Association - wedged between them.

Roofing's chairman, owner, manager, groundsman and chief sponsor Richie McLoughlin was the driver for the day, the motorway talk of transfer targets, sponsorship deals and midfielder Shaun Vipond, last week's matchwinner ruled out with a broken wrist diagnosed on a Friday night visit to his local A&E.  The visitors' cars pulled in at Primitive Street,  the manager carting the team's water bottles out of his car boot while player-coach Peter Leven - formerly of Rangers, Kilmarnock, Chesterfield, MK Dons, Oxford United and Scotland U21s - carried a holdall past a fish bar, a handwritten sign in its window advertising Shildon footballers' curry sauce and chips.  The home team had already arrived, the spectators entering gradually through the turnstile block in groups of two and three, heads covered and buttoned up against the chill.   An ice cream van circled the surrounding estate.  "Five degrees," a Roofing player reckoned. "Lukewarm, not even cold."

The ground's open behind both goals, a burger van parked up by a corner flag, the hospitality suite and club shop in adjoining portakabins, and the teams emerging from the main stand tunnel to the theme from Match of the Day.  The spectators were middle aged going on elderly; once the music had finished the atmosphere was more akin to a country auctioneers than a football stadium.  In a thunderous, evenly matched opening half, Shildon had plenty of shots but not enough invention, the away side first to score when a Wayne Phillips cross was nudged down by Malky Morien and Paul Gardiner prodded past the flailing Kyle Hayes.  "Come on Shildon," a lone voice shouted plaintively across the ground, a rumble of discontent rolling out from the main stand paddock when Billy Gruelich-Smith raced across a defender and went sprawling in the box.  "Howay man, referee.  Do your job.  Gerrum off!  Bloodly useless.  He's allergic to his cards, man."  Perceived injustice managed what forty minutes of play couldn't, only three saves from a previously unworried Andy Hunter preserving the lead either side of half time.  "A terrific game," thought The Roofing's Twitter feed.

At the break I'd skipped the burger van queue and moved in alongside the paddock partisans.  "The referee would've gone to that Specsavers place," mused an old bloke in a hunting cap and knee-length coat, "but he walked right past it." "A pound's a bit expensive for a Bovril," thought his mate, "but the Boro's one up and Durham's beating West."   A Shildon official came round with the leftovers of the halftime spread from the boardroom portakabin.  "Pork pie, Alan?  Help yourself to a sandwich if you want."  The home side were simultaneously helping themselves in midfield.  "You're backing off," McLoughlin rallied.  "Get up and in their faces."   A dog made a sudden dart across the Shildon backline.  "Will the owner of the Jack Russell," the tannoy asked, "please report to the supporters' club shop?"

Roofing's lead disappeared shortly after the last of the food, Corey Barns miskicking and Mark Donninger, once of Sligo Rovers, Perth Glory and the Icelandic top-flight, eventually levelling the scores.  "I thought we'd buggered it up there," said the bloke in the hunting cap between satisfied drags on his cigarette.  In the 70th minute, with the visitors still ruing a Morien miss at the other end of the pitch, Lee Chapman's cross deceived the otherwise faultless Hunter and Shildon, despite a late Roofing rally, had their three points.  "I bent down expecting it to bounce," Hunter lamented in the social club as his teammates tucked into a post-match meal of sausage, beans and chips. "And it didn't.  Went in off my knee."  "North Shields next Saturday," said a fan, his back to a signed Premier League shirt and the Durham Challenge Cup.  "That'll be some game."

Admission:  £6
Date:  Saturday 17th January 2015

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

From World Champions to Broken Dreams: The Sorry State of Gypsies Green

"Are those harbour lights on the near horizon?" Northern League chairman Mike Amos asked in a weekend blogpost alluding to the chances of South Shields FC - based in Peterlee since "circumstances compelled their exile" in June 2013 - returning to the town to play at Gypsies Green.   When the periapetic Mariners first turned out at the seafront ground in the late-1940s it was "little more than a hollow in the hillside"; by 1963 an athletics track and velodrome had been added, 10,000 attending the central events of a Sports Week comprising a dizzyingly eclectic programme of pram races, homing pigeons, the Scottish Pipe Band Association,  five-a-side-football,  jazz parades, judo, a former world record holder in the Men's Mile and cycling's Hugh Porter, a competitor at the following year's Tokyo Olympic Games.

An even more improbable visitor turned up in July 1977, world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (in town to have his wedding blessed at the local mosque) taking on and defeating Alan 'The Rhondda Legend' Evans at darts after parading through South Tyneside on an open-top bus.  The rules limited Welsh champion Evans to only scoring on trebles, Ali finishing the contest with a bullseye and proclaiming himself the greatest darts player in the world.

In the early-1980s, when youth football tournaments and car rallies were regular events and the Great North Run marked out its finish line a few hundred metres up the road, the revamped stadium had its own brick changing block, floodlight poles and a ring of stone steps neatly cut into the grass banking above a cycling track used by Joe Waugh, two-time Olympian and Commonwealth gold medallist in 1982.   “I used to cycle there when I was a teenager and that's where my passion for the sport was founded," he told the Shields Gazette in 2012, "so you could say I owe my career to Gypsies Green."

Today, the stadium - still used by youth football teams and as a training venue for the South Shields Harriers Athletics Club  - is forlorn and semi-decrepit, weeds sprouting through what remains of the velodrome, black bin liners covering the sandpit and an abandoned traffic cone squatting on top of the changing block roof. The floodlights are smashed out, their coverings left hanging above an athletics oval formed of mud, small stones and puddles.

Things had deteriorated in 2004, when South Tyneside Council began public consultations into how the site could be regenerated. "Whatever goes on the site must be paid for as we don't have significant resources to develop and run any major proposal by itself," deputy council leader Iain Malcolm warned. A new running track or "attracting a high profile visitor centre such as the History Experience Park" were two ideas, "using the ground as a new base for South Shields FC" a third, though the eventual choice was to sell the land to Tavistock Leisure, councillors supporting the construction of a 104-bed hotel and conference centre.  Protesters raised more than 9,000 signatures in opposition and ran a coordinated campaign to preserve the stadium's recreational use. "Gypsies Green is an asset to the town.  It is synonymous with South Shields," a member of the Save Our Seafront group explained.  "We can't just throw that away".  When the hotel scheme was dropped in 2009 development plans stalled along with it.  Three years on, with an eye on Olympic legacy funds, councillors were still "examining a range of options to maximise its potential" while admitting they were "unlikely" to find the private financing needed to renovate a velodrome whose size made it "unsuitable for any competition activity".  The Gazette lamented "another false dawn (for the) run-down stadium".  "To save it would be brilliant,"  Joe Waugh told the paper, "but you have to be pragmatic. The only option would be to start completely from scratch." 

Starting all over is a far from unfamiliar concept for South Shields FC.  The town supported a Football League team between 1919 and 1930 but has twice had its club uprooted to Gateshead, the third and current incarnation spending 17 years on a council-owned pitch it shared with a local cricket club before relocating to an industrial estate in neighbouring Jarrow.  In 2013, the Mariners left the borough altogether after failing to raise enough cash to buy Filtrona Park, its home ground since 1992.  Now based twenty miles down the coast at Peterlee, a club which once sold an English international for a world record transfer fee attracts average crowds of just 70 people.

"It's imperative that the club returns to the town," supporters' chairman Stephen Ramsey told the Shields Gazette a year ago. "I'm not saying it's the council's responsibility to find the club a new home but it's in their power to save us".  If a move to Gypsies Green is eventually agreed, the stadium's junior-sized pitch would have to be extended over the current running track and the decaying facilities significantly upgraded to match the ground grading requirements of the Northern League.  If not, a club which once finished above Leeds, Leicester City, Sheffield Wednesday and Crystal Palace could soon be staring at oblivion. 

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Ground 251: Jack Clark Park, Whitburn Athletic

Seaton Burn was a pit village six miles north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the birthplace and first club of John 'Jack' Carr.  Newcastle United's third England international, the left-back was in the squads that lifted three Football League championships and reached five FA Cup finals, winning only one.  "If United can't win the cup they ought to be given it for good attendance," joked a supporter before the Magpies finally broke their hoodoo in a replay held at Goodison Park - 70,000 inside, 15,000 more locked-out - in 1910.  Seven years earlier, Carr had been one of three players approached by chairman James Telford in the aftermath of a seven-goal defeat to Aston Villa. "We seem to be making a mess of things. Will you go into the boardroom, lock yourselves in, and choose what you consider to be our best team?"

It was, reflected journalist Ivan Sharpe, "the birth pains of one of the most brilliant teams in the history of the game". "Each man was an artist," wrote another correspondent. "They had a rhythmic beauty," Sharpe recalled.  "(That team) would give any modern side a two goal start and beat them," thought Scottish left-half Peter McWilliam, Spurs boss when they won the 1921 FA Cup.  Herbert Chapman, speaking before his move to Arsenal, told the press his ambition was "to build a Newcastle United there."  Carr - "A gentlemanly defender," the club's centenary history describes him, "the ball always being his objective rather than the man" - played 279 times with his only professional club then joined the St James' Park coaching staff when he retired in 1912. A year later the Magpies went on one of their regular playing tours of Denmark and returned with two Olympic finalists, defender Nils Middelboe and Anthon Olsen, a forward who'd scored seven times at the Stockholm Games.  Neither trialist made the grade, though Middelboe - an accomplished tennis player and Danish record holder in the triple jump and 800 metres - moved on to London, captaining Chelsea as an amateur while working in a bank.

When war broke out in 1914, the Royal Field Artillery was billeted at St James' and training sessions ended with rifle practice at the Gallowgate goal.  Carr served in the Motor Transport Army Service Corps, then made use of his Copenhagen connection to bring about a temporary appointment as Denmark coach at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Middelboe among the side defeated 1-0 in Spain's first ever international fixture.  The Seaton Burn miner's son left Newcastle's staff in February 1922, managing Blackburn Rovers until December 1926 and later working as a Tyneside publican before his death in 1948. In 2012, his two full England caps and a third won at a trial game were sold at auction. "One of the most celebrated locals to play for United," the club's Who's Who recalls.

That's a long-winded way of describing why Whitburn Athletic versus Seaton Burn, a midtable battle which wasn't even the stand out fixture in the basement division of the Northern Alliance, first caught my eye.  I'd already seen Whitburn in their home village before their move up the North Sea coast to Jack Clark Park, a council pitch where South Shields played for 17 years after the club sold its Simonside Hall ground for housing, was beaten to a new site by developers and then upped sticks to Gateshead for a second time in 1974.  There are bowls centre signs and recycling bins at the entrance, the sea a choppy blue strip above the felt and glass roofs of allotment greenhouses.  Used by Marsden CC, the changing rooms for the main ground are in the cricket pavilion and the football pitch is marked out on the boundary, a tape barrier keeping the touchline clear of the wicket.

Whitburn were formed in 2010, which was also when Seaton Burn were relegated back to the second division with only eight points and "a very poor season as far as results go".  Last year the clubs finished 8th and 11th, which is exactly where they remain when the game kicks off in a shower and 30mph gusts of wind.  Four spectators huddle miserably by a pile of picnic benches under the clubhouse roof. "Mind," says one, "it was worse last week.  Freezing, it was.  Absolutely Baltic."  "I was at an under 8s game once," says his mate.  "The subs were crying when they kicked the ball and we had to take the goalkeeper to hospital with suspected hypothermia."

The home side are decked out in easyJet orange, Seaton in yellow and black stripes. Both linesmen keep their coats on and their heads covered.  "I'll gan oot when I have to gan oot," the referee says, appearing in a doorway.  I stand in the minimal shelter provided by a hedge and a waist-high metal fence, which the players have to vault over whenever the ball goes out of play.  "You're mad watching this," a Whitburn substitue says.  "Can you get me jumper out of the changing rooms?" the goalkeeper shouts across.

The game, unsurprisingly, isn't much of a spectacle, most attempts to play football losing out to the wind.  Whitburn have a goal chalked off when a Seaton Burn official flags for a foul throw, their players muttering unhappily as they return from halfway, while the visitors very briefly think they've scored when the ball squirms clear of the goalkeeper but is gathered before it crosses the line.  The break's kept to five minutes, the second half getting increasingly tetchy as the home side venture repeatedly into the opposition's penalty area but can't put the ball in the net.  "Just wait until summer," a spectator says, stamping his feet on the grass. "At least the rain will be warmer."

Admission:  Free
Date:  January 10th 2015