Friday, 31 October 2014

Ground 241: Musashino Municipal Athletics Stadium

It's the last weekend of October, 23 degrees and still shirtsleeves weather in Kichijoji, where I've come to escape the madding crowds of central Tokyo and watch Japan Football League high-flyers Yogokawa Musashino take on MIO Biwako Shiga, near-namesakes of a team I'd seen walloping all-comers on a daytrip from Kyoto in 2011. Although Musashino, formed in 1939 as the club side of Yokogawa Electric Corp, don't have much to show for their history besides a smattering of prefectural honours and a handful of youth team graduates - notably ex-Japan and Southampton striker Tadanari Lee - Kichijoji is one of the capital's hippest suburban hang-outs; I pass Dutch flowermarkets, Italian trattorias, German bakeries, a faux-Thai backpacker cafe, university campus and, finally, two floors of a leisure centre before exiting at the entrance to the ground.

 In a display of synchronised efficiency, one person takes my 1,000 yen, another hands out a free photocopied programme sheet and a third - with a bow - a flyer for a women's game before I'm through into a concourse with merchandise stands, food concessions, volunteer sellers carrying alcohol down to the terraces in boxes, and a Brazilian restaurant stall flogging ice cold lager and meat-on-sticks.  A few dozen spectators sprawl across a grass bank opposite the only stand, which is around a half full, shaded by a metal roof and overhanging trees and awash with the noise of the Boys Musashino being comprehensively outsung by six Shiga fans belting out a clap-and-stomp number to the familiar tune of We Love You Conrad. They break off in a collective shriek as a Musashino shot spins backwards off the keeper's hand, cheer the agricultural clearance which prevents a goal, then pick up with a chant that sounds so disconcertingly like a paean to Newcastle United's Gabriel Obertan that I almost splutter my beer.

Rhythmic clapping and the drone of a helicopter soundtrack most of the half, Shiga probing intelligently down the sides of the pitch while Musashino storm and bully their way through the centre. It's not much of a surprise when the visitors take the lead,  Tatsuya Saito played through, drawing the keeper and sending the ball into the net and the celebrating Shiga fans into choruses of Go West and When Skies Are Grey.  Ever polite, the substitutes line-up to clap the starters off the pitch at the interval, two ranks of cheerleaders simultaneously breaking out into an acrobatics routine which ends in a human pyramid and the closing bars of the theme from Sesame Street. 

Whatever they were listening to inside the changing rooms, Musashino - beaten only once in ten league games but without a home win since March - come back out reinvigorated, levelling the scores when a set-piece is only cleared as far as half-time replacement Daisuke Eiro.   The home support bounce up and down a bit, briefly return their attention to cup noodles and smartphones, and then start bawling out 'Musashino' as the previously unruffled Shiga defence starts gifting up chances.  Blue shirts swarm around the goalmouth but studs and shots miss by inches and the game soon drifts towards torpor despite the boisterous efforts of the Shiga fans, who attempt to rouse their team's attacking intent with bursts of Twisted Sister's We're Not Gonna Take It Anymore.

There are nine minutes left when a harmless ball down the left is centred along the ground and flicked in by Tsuyoshi Kaneko, the third of Musashino's second-half substitutions. Kaneko's marker looks at the goalkeeper, the goalkeeper looks back at him.  Musashino flags twirl in the windless air.  The stunned away fans, defiant to the last, launch into Popeye the Sailor Man.

Admission:  1,000 yen (about £6)
Date:  Saturday 25th October 2014

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Grounds 240 & 242: Niijuku Future Park and Katsushika Sports Centre, Nankatsu SC

Tsubasa Ōzora. Captain, Flash Kicker, global phenomenon.

Aged 11 when the series began in 1981 and still a Roy Raceish 21 three decades later, Tsubasa was brought up in Nankatsu City, where he played in all-star elementary and middle school teams and harboured dreams of becoming the greatest footballer in the world.  His adventures, first serialised in the Weekly Shōnen Jump magazine, have been followed avidly by hundreds of millions on TV and game consoles; in his home country, Tsubasa's triumphs played "a crucial role in Japanese football's exponential growth from relative obscurity" in the early-1980s to World Cup host in 2002 and, to the eventual detriment of the national team, inspired a whole generation to become attacking midfielders.

Captain Tsubasa statue near Katsushika's Yotsugi Station.

The fictional Nankatsu was based on the real-life eastern Tokyo ward of Katsushika, home to Yōichi Takahashi, a baseball fan and manga artist who'd become interested in football while watching televised games from the 1978 World Cup.  "I did some research into soccer and learned that in Europe it was far more popular than baseball.  Soccer was the world's number one sport. I was hoping I could share the excitement of what I had witnessed on television through my drawings and in so doing hope that football would become more popular here in Japan".  At first Takahashi had to educate and not just entertain his readers: "Even 'World Cup' was an unfamiliar term so I had to explain in Captain Tsubasa that it was such and such an event, that it's the world's greatest tournament, held every four years". 

 Crowd forming at Niijuku Future Park

In the following three decades, Tsubasa has guided Japan to World Youth Cup and Olympic-qualifying success, pioneered the flying drive shoot, clip jump and heel lift cyclone kicks, lost only a single game in which he's played, moved to Sao Paulo and then Barcelona, where he was shunned by a coach modelled on on Louis van Gaal before netting three goals in a 6-5 win over Real Madrid, married his childhood sweetheart, and influenced the likes of Zidane, Messi, Hidetoshi Nakata, Alessandro Del Piero, Andrés Iniesta and Fernando Torres. "I remember when I was a kid....everyone in school was talking about this cartoon," the Chelsea striker said when he visited Japan for the 2012 World Club Championship.  "These two young players got into the national team then moved to Europe and played for Barcelona, so it was like a dream. I started playing football because of this." 

 Ryo Ishizaki, Jubilo Iwata defender renowned for blocking footballs with his face. 

While Tsubasa and his contemporaries have long since departed Nankatsu, his creator still lives in suburban Katsushika, where seven bronze statues and an adult football team commemorate the place where Japan's greatest sporting export first honed his skills.  Formed in 2012 and swiftly renamed to mirror Tsubasa's all-conquering school team, Nankatsu SC currently play in the third division of the Tokyo Shakaijin Soccer League, six promotions off their goal of reaching J3, the lowest rung of Japan's nationwide professional league.

Behind the Wire: Niijuku Future Park

Seating at the Niijuku Future Park is in perspex dug-outs or a grass bank, the pitch fully enclosed by wire fencing and a solitary vending machine and smart new changing block behind one goal.  Nankatsu's pre-game preparation includes passing drills, shuttle runs, set-piece routines and an exhaustive series of sprints and stretches; their opponents, Jam FC, make do with half an hour of pinging a ball off the fence followed by a quick burst of attack v defence. Nankatsu finish off with a loud cheer, I'm handed a free match programme in a cellophane bag, and then, accompanied by the click, click, click of a cameraphone from the visiting bench, the first of the evening's double header gets promptly underway. The 100 or so spectators spread out picnic mats or unfold camping chairs, one practising his golf swing with an imaginary club while the nimble-footed Daiki Hatakeyama skips round two challenges and loops a cross which is redirected into the grip of the grateful Jam goalkeeper.  Moments later Hatakeyama skillfully pirouettes between his markers and chips to the far post, where the number nine is lurking to put Nankatsu ahead.  The lead's doubled from a rapid counter before Hatakeyama drifts into space and slams a cross into the top of the net for the third.  "Wooah!" yells an appreciative spectator between mouthfuls of Pocari Sweat, "Action!" claps the Nankatsu coach.   Jam head one back from a free-kick but Nankatsu smash in a fourth before Daisuke Takiguchi twice unpicks the defence to make the final score 6-1, the two teams shaking hands before walking over to bow to each bench. 

Katsushika Sports Centre
The following week I'm at Nankatsu's final league game of the season, the home side needing a series of results worthy of a Captain Tsubasa plot - a four goal win, the leaders to lose and the second-placed team to emerge pointless from their final two games - to snatch the only promotion place.  The game takes place on the opposite bank of the Nakagawa River,  a few hundred fans converging on the Katsushika Sports Centre's single stand. As the first game of the evening draws to a close, Nankatsu volunteers bustle about setting up sponsor logos, giant drums for the pre-match entertainment and a chalkboard on wheels to keep track of the score.  The club's players are every bit as busy, one goal disallowed and another blocked at the last by the goalkeeper's legs before the Recruit FC defence leave the number 34 alone from a corner to nod Nankatsu's opener with 15 minutes played. 

Nankatsu (in white) on the attack

Shota Meguro toepokes wide after managing to outsprint the keeper to a through ball, the number 18 cuts past three challenges but steers his shot the wrong side of the post, the tireless Meguro scoops wastefully over the crossbar and the Recruit keeper fists a free-kick away for a corner.  Time ticks on, Kazato Yamagishi smacks the ball against the keeper when sent through on goal, and the second doesn't come until the game's in its final minute.  By then, promotion is out of reach.

"Captain Tsubasa will keep going," Takashi recently told an interviewer.   So too Nankatsu SC, whose story has just begun.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday 19th and 26th October 2014.

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