Saturday, 23 July 2016

Ground 305: Keepmoat Stadium, Doncaster

Northern cities which prospered on the back of their heavy industrial hinterlands, Newcastle and Doncaster are divided by almost 200 kilometres but indelibly linked through the footballing exploits of a single man.  Raised in a house that had no electricty, inside toilet or bathroom,  Joseph Kevin Keegan grew up using his younger brother's pram as a goalpost, washed cars to make some extra money and got his first pair of  boots when his dad won a bet on the horses. Overlooked by his hometown team, the diminutive teenager flunked a six-week trial with Coventry City and was only finally spotted by Scunthorpe United playing Sunday football while earning £6 a week as an errand boy at Pegler's Brass Works.  Signing as an apprentice with the Division Four team meant a 25% drop in pay, 6am starts and a two-bus commute from the family home to training; when he retired as a player 17 years later, Keegan  had won three Football League titles, four European trophies, one FA Cup, a Bundesliga title, been twice named European Footballer of the Year and scored 21 times for his country in 63 games, captaining England for six years until the 1982 World Cup. "He never stopped working, never stopped trying to improve both himself and his team," one admirer wrote of his impact on the Reds. "Without him, Liverpool wouldn't have made the step up from perennial challengers for domestic honours to a team capable of dominating across the continent.  Because Kevin Keegan really was that good."

While the boyhood Rovers fan never made it off the terraces at Doncaster's old Belle Vue ground, he would twice utterly transform the fortunes of the side his father supported.   The elder Keegan first left Hetton-le-Hole to fight in Burma and then moved his family south when mining work got scarcer on the County Durham seams.  The Keegans didn't stay in the north-east but the north-east stayed in them.  "Without ever being to Newcastle I felt this thing inside my genes," he told the writer Martin Hardy after a third spell at St James' ended acrimoniously in 2008.  "I played football for dad," he confided to an earlier biographer. "Your roots are your roots, and there was a tremendous pull, an inevitability about me coming at some stage to Newcastle United."

Keegan was in the dugout for the Magpies' only other pre-season visit to Rovers' Keepmoat Stadium, 18 months after the 15,000-seat stadium opened its doors in January 2007.  Two years later, an Andy Carroll goal moved the visitors three points closer to promotion from the Championship, the fatal undermining of the manager having ended in a dispiriting, self-inflicted relegation the summer before.  "The club can never go anywhere under Mike Ashley," Keegan insisted.  In the six years that have followed, the owner has yet to prove him wrong, though five new signings and the retention of Rafa Benitez have engendered rare feelings of optimism in a fanbase which had grown disillusioned to the point of near apathy under Pardew, Carver and Steve McClaren.

Red brick and utilitarian, Doncaster Station faces out over the back end of a supermarket and the side of a main road; the visual equivalent of one of Pardew's latter team selections. "Bit of a shithole, isn't it?" says a Newcastle fan lugging four cans of lager in search of a bus. I walk through a concrete underpass and emerge next to the grim vista of a high rise building with tattered England bunting blowing limply in the wind.  There's a bloke in a Doncaster shirt with 'Cardiff '07' written on the back, an industrial estate and then the ground itself, floodlights angled from each corner and lines of black and white shirted away fans already queueing to get in.

The Newcastle team stroll out to the sound of New Order's 'True Faith'.  "I feel so extraordinary, something's got a hold on me," sings Bernard Sumner.  It feels prophetic.  The sun shines down and the away end keeps filling.  "Toon! Toon!" a voice foghorns from a corner. "Black and white army!" two thousand voices reply. The visitors start with two new signings; three of the home side are "without number" and one doesn't even get a name.  It doesn't take long for the first tentative judgements of the new season to be made.  Matz Sels - Belgian title winner with Gent in 2015 and the Pro League's current Goalkeeper of the Year - only half clears a backpass with his first touch of the game: "Fucking hell! He's shocking him," the bloke behind me wails.  "Told you he was garbage,"  he nods knowingly when the keeper barges into John Marquis 15 minutes later.  "Five point five million from somewhere in Belgium and how many kicks has he fluffed already?" he asks as Sels picks Andy Williams' penalty out of the net.  "Five and a half million quid," he repeats despairingly during a later lull in play.  "What a waste, what a waste."

If Selz is nervy, Adam Armstrong is a livewire, stretching defenders with his pace and twice stinging the Doncaster keeper's hands.  Shelvey tries to push things forward but loses patience and blasts into the stand, Anita and Colback buzz into tackles but there's very little to get excited about until a simple corner routine brings a pair of unopposed headers and Williams' second goal of the game.  "Shite again," the voice behind barks.  "He's just flapping, man."

"In the first half, we didn't play at the level I was expecting," Benitez later says.  He responds to his team's pedestrian performance with a slew of substitutions for the second, Isaac Hayden - one of seven changes - looping a goal back within five minutes and almost adding another just 20 seconds later.  Armstrong smacks the keeper instead of the net, Dwight Gayle - all deft touches and sudden darts - is just inches away from tapping in before the otherwise impressive Shelvey treads on the ball and almost gifts Doncaster a third goal.  "Gini Wijnaldum, we want you to stay," the far corner choruses, swiftly followed by a less complimentary rendering of the same song for the wantaway Moussa Sissoko.  Wijnaldum comes on to muted boos and mopes around to little effect for the rest of the game.   A smoke bomb goes off in the away end; a boisterous cluster of Rovers fans bounce along to a drum.  Newcastle get closer and closer, Gayle, Gouffran and Thauvin all narrowly missing the target before Ayoze Perez finally squares the game in the first of seven minutes of time added on. "The feeling from the second half was much better and that is what we have to do," Benitez says.  Pre-season doesn't tell you much about a team, but for Rafa's Newcastle there's still work to be done.  

Admission: £10
Date: Wednesday July 20th 2016

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Ground 304: The Ings, Wetherby Athletic

Nine and a half months into a season that started all the way back on August 15th the West Yorkshire League Premier Division has finally reached its penultimate round of games.  "It's been a good one for us but I think we've all had enough now," Wetherby Athletic boss Mark Forster writes in his pre-match notes.  "Football wasn't meant to be played in late-May (and) I'm looking forward to playing a bit of golf and watching some cricket."

Forster recently completed his 100th game in charge of the eleventh-tier side, his players already guaranteed a best ever league finish to add to victory in the Barkston Ash FA Challenge Cup.  Both came despite the club spending four months in exile after their home pitches were submerged under one and a half metres of the swollen River Wharfe. "We've had records broken, cup wins, floods, stunning goals and cup heartbreak," the club's online programme enthuses before their final home game against Oxenhope Recreation.  "It's been a campaign we'll look back on and marvel at what happened."

Formed at a 1949 public meeting called when Wetherby United withdrew from the Harrogate and District League, Athletic were promoted into the West Yorks League in 1997 and now run four senior men's teams, a women's side and a thriving junior section for boys and girls aged five to 18. "There is an amazing focus to get it right,” press officer, photographer and programme editor Pete Arnett told a profile piece in the Yorkshire Evening Post.  "We have a very strong core of dedicated people behind the scenes."  Arnett, who started doing media work for Conference North side Harrogate Town in 2007, is also behind for the club's prolific and innovative online presence, which includes a Twitter feed, website and more recently a digital programme for each home game.  The three-division, 44-team West Yorkshire League itself, in contrast, last maintained a site in 2008, doesn't have a single media account and instead relies on the FA for basic table and fixture listings.

A short walk along the riverbank from Wetherby's bus station and 17th century bridge, the Ings has a dozen or so pitches, though only the one used by Athletic is marked out with a metal rail. There's a bloke sitting on a roller, another in a car with the sports news on and the door wide open.  A third stands by a notice asking spectators to keep off the pitch, a fourth under a tree and two more, with deckchairs and newspapers, have their backs to the town centre and a set of rugby posts. A bigger group is lingering on the terrace of the Sports Association bar.  A few groundhoppers are attempting to track down a programme. "I've seen it on the internet," one reckons, "but if you asked me how to print it off I wouldn't have a clue." His mate's equally perplexed.  "Apparently if you go on the website," he says, "and email the programme editor he'll send you something called a PDF."

"Oxenhope look a bit livelier here," says a hopper a few minutes after the start.  "Bit end of season, isn't it?" another sniffs just before James Bailey, formerly of Crosshills and Bronte Wanderers, opens the scoring for the visitors a quarter of an hour in.  The match soon sparks to life, Wetherby's defence standing still while they wait for an offside flag, an Oxenhope player running through unchallenged until he's felled by the keeper on the edge of the box.  The ref gives a free kick and the everyone braces for the inevitable red card.  "He hasn't given one," someone shouts.  "Embarrassing," reckons an Oxenhope midfielder. "Eh?" the visiting keeper laughs. "You've caused yourself a problem with that diabolical decision,"a spectator helpfully advises the ref.  Harry Marshall scores a second with Oxenhope's next attack.  "This is probably my last Saturday," sighs a hopper from Birmingham. "I'm on to Rugby League next week."

Matt Forster pulls a goal back for Wetherby.  "Three of you stood off," moans the keeper.  "We haven't come back out," the Oxenhope manager shouts.  His central defenders are still apportioning blame when Marshall hits a third. "We've fannied that," says an Athletic player.   Midway through the half, a more flowing move ends with Dan Moriarty jinking past the keeper to slot in a fourth.  ""Big last 20!" screams a defender in the traditional non-league call to arms.  "Good pass from Bailey," a hopper adds more thoughtfully after consulting his spiral-bound notebook.

The West Yorkshire League season ends on May 31st when Forster's team lose 5-4 at treble winners Beeston St Anthony's, though work carries on for volunteers at the West Riding FA's 2015 Community Club of the Year.  There are open trials for Wetherby Ladies to plan, the hosting of a charity game for the British Heart Foundation and a 166-team junior football tournament being held over a single weekend.  Small wonder the Evening Postchose the club as its team of the week. "Working wonders on a shoestring budget," they wrote.  "The Tangerines are bearing fruit." 

Admission: Free
Date: Saturday May 28th 2016

Friday, 27 May 2016

Ground 303: Etihad Stadium, Manchester

The last time I paid to see an England team play was in November 1994 when Kevin Keegan - top of the league with Newcastle United - had temporary charge of the U21s. Nicky Butt, Sol Campbell, Steve Watson, Shay Given and Steven Carr all started the game at St James' Park. Sunderland's Martin Smith - to the manager's later fury - had his every touch of the ball noisily booed by many of the 25,000 crowd. While the ordinarily sure footed Keegan was rightly embarrassed, he was for once out of step with the public mood; club sides trumped all.  If England  didn't leave you indifferent, it was probably because it was another source of the multifarious slights inflicted by outsiders on your region, your city and your team. "Watching England's for lower division fans that don't have any decent away trips to look forward to,"  a bloke in a black and white shirt had opined between songs about European qualification and Andy Cole, whose 41-goal season had mystifyingly failed to earn him a call up, during a 'B' international at Hillsborough earlier the same year. "That and southerners. If there wasn't anyone from Newcastle playing, I wouldn't be here." "It's always felt secondary," a Leeds fan elaborated in Tom Gibbons' English National Identity and Football Fan Culture.  "International games drift in and out of your life and England's never felt like my team."  Manchester United's support sang for Argentina in response to the barracking of David Beckham after the 1998 World Cup. "Why should I feel a connection to a country that is arrogant and detestable when it comes to football?" a Liverpool fan wondered.  England, increasingly, was the other: the 'No Surrender' thugs; the coach who never picked your players until they'd transferred somewhere else; the kind of people who give you Tory governments, pay to fly banners from planes or willingly appear on Arsenal Fan TV; Ashley Cole's wage demands; London culturally and economically stomping on your face forever. "Fuck England," a Newcastle season ticket holder once put it. "They don't care about us and I don't give a stuff about them."

Some things hadn't changed. "If Daniel Sturridge played for us and Jermain Defoe for Liverpool, then Defoe would be going to France and Sturridge staying at home," a Sunderland fan raged when Roy Hodgson announced his provisional squad for Euro 2016.  The sole north-east presence among the 26 players was Andros Townsend, though that felt more a consequence of the hapless state of the region's two biggest clubs  - Sunderland flatlining while Newcastle, fatally holed by incompetent recruitment and the risible Steve McClaren, contrived to relegate themselves for the second time in a decade - than any bias on the part of the England coach.  In Manchester city centre, the songs were all about the Second World War. "There were ten German bombers," fans chorused to the bemusement of the Sunday afternoon passersby. "And the RAF from England shot them down."

The new England was more evident at the ground itself, a thirty-minute walk from Piccadilly Station. There were slickly produced videos and marketing speak, messages from corporate parterns ("Celebrate Responsibly") and fans wearing jester hats and half-and-half scarves.  "If we see you on the big screen, we want to hear you as well," the PA droned with all the vacuous excitement of children's TV.  "Who. Are. You. Here. To. Support?" Red and white t-shirts had been handed out at one end of the ground, supporters forming a St George's Cross as they took their places behind the goal.  A Three Lions flag was passed down the touchline, and while there were muted boos at the start and end of the Turkish national anthem, there were much louder cheers for Vardy and Kane.  Such was the depth of confidence in England's attack, not even the opposition's 13-match unbeaten run could dampen the crowd's optimism. "I put a quid on 4-0," said a bloke to his mates.  "Easy 2-0 win," another reckoned.

Vardy had already gone close to opening the scoring when Kane put England ahead with just three minutes played.  "Who are ya? Who are ya?" asked the home fans, gleefully anticipating a rout.  But then the visitors settled, the hosts began to flounder in defence and the crowd got edgier and edgier once Hakan Calhanoglu had deservedly levelled with the first goal Turkey had ever scored against England.  A shoe was hurled from the top of the stand and shouts of "Pass it" alternated with pleas to "Just get it in the box."   "Vardy's not been involved," the bloke next to me said to no-one in particular.  "He's had a crap game, Rose," he added a few seconds later.  "What does Sterling think he's doing?"

"Stand up if you hate the Turks" a group of fans demanded. The visitors started to boo as the chant half-spread to different sections of the ground.  My neighbour was averaging a "That's rubbish" every five seconds as England struggled to re-impose themselves in midfield.  "Go back to your kee-bab shops," slurred a bloke with a red and white stetson, tattooed cheeks and a Pompey OK patch on his shirt.  Hodgson switched formation, moving the previously ineffective Vardy into the centre of the field.  A few minutes later the Leicester forward was felled in the area, but Kane put the penalty wide. "Rubbish," thought the now familiar voice. "The money he's on he should at least be able to get it on target." The miss infuriated the Pompey fan too. "No surrender to the IRA! Scum!" he raged, apropos of nothing that was happening down below.  There was an embarrassed silence.  "And ISIS scum too!" he finished, swaying alone in the aisle.  The minutes ticked by and then, with just seven left and the 44,000 crowd beginning to move towards the exits, Gary Cahill headed a corner at the keeper, a defender prevented anyone from gathering the loose ball and Vardy sidefooted in the winning goal by way of the keeper's nose.  "Sunderland 'ere we come," celebrated the bloke in the stetson.  At the final whistle a few pissed Manchester United fans were doing their best to smash a soap dispenser. "We're wrecking your toilets," one chanted as he tried and failed to dropkick a door.  "Your cubicles are terrified."

People mixed more happily back in the city centre, where the souvenir scarves had dropped from a fiver to £3 and the songs were all about Vardy's parties and Hodgson's trip to France. "My first England game," said a Leeds supporter on the train back to York.  "Way they played today," his mate laughed, "it's probably your last one too."

Admission: £25
Date:  Sunday May 22nd 2016

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Ground 302: Eon Visual Media Stadium, North Ferriby United

"Incredible when you think about it," a North Ferriby United fan ponders. "There aren't even 4,000 people in this place, other clubs reckon we're just a glorified pub team and yet we've won a cup at Wembley and are ninety minutes away from a place in the fifth division of English football."  It's been a remarkable journey: from humble beginnings in the East Riding Church League, the village team had already been to Wembley once - losing 3-0 to Whitby Town in the 1997 FA Vase - when they ended an 18-year stay in the Northern Counties East by lifting the championship in 2000.  It took five years to add another title, eight more to make it out of the seventh-tier Northern Premier League.  Just one season later they lost top spot in the Conference North on the final afternoon of the 42-game season and were beaten in the play-offs by Guiseley without scoring a goal.  Wembley was the unlikeliest of fillips, the fairtyale story that made North Ferriby headline news: two-nil down to the relative giants of Wrexham with just 14 minutes to play, the Villagers roared back to take the FA Trophy on penalties in front of a 15,000 crowd.  "It’s all a bit of a blur," said boss Billy Heath, whose previous visit to the national stadium had been as a ball boy when England played Yugoslavia in 1986.  "I never dreamt I'd have a chance to manage team here."

The victory came at a cost, fixture congestion leaving the team in midtable and Steve and Eman Forster, son-in-law and daughter of Hull City owner Assem Allam, deciding to sell up after two years in charge.  "Early talk was of reduced budgets and voluntary relegation to a more sustainable level," wrote Darren Norton, editor of the  View from the Allotment End fanzine. "With crowds around the 300 mark on a good day, that level would probably have been back in the Northern Premier League or below."  Finances were tightened but the the owners stayed on,  United winning one and drawing five of their first seven league games. "We expected just to make up the numbers," Darren Norton recalled. Instead, the Villagers pipped Fylde to second place and then overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit against Boston United in the play off semi-final.  "Another Sunday afternoon comeback," the Hull Daily Mail reported. "They had two thirds of the crowd," a North Ferriby fan says, "but they turned up thinking they'd already won."

Much like the home team's season, my morning gets off to a bumpy start.  Still recovering from a week in Montenegro and a Friday night house party,  I'm unexpectedly forced to navigate two barriers to collect a ticket from York Station and a third to reach the platform my train's just pulling away from. I consider going home, head out of the station in search of another route and the very first bus I see has North Ferriby written along the side.  "There's one every two hours," the driver says.  "Must be your lucky day." An hour and a half later I belatedly reach the north bank of the Humber just as two coaches from Preston are disgorging orange-shirted Fylde fans into the village pub.  "The play off should be on a neutral ground," complains a bloke hauling a drum and five balloons.  "Their pitch is awful for a final." His mate nods sagely.  "The next one up's at Wembley, isn't it?"  "Duh, duh, duh, duh," chant a moody gang of teenagers dressed in Stone Island leisurewear.  "Just look for the floodlights," a pair of stragglers tell each other as they walk the wrong way past a church.  'Horses, dogs and golf prohibited on the grass' says the sign at the turn off for the ground. "This is it," says an elderly woman with a white Fylde scarf and two orange balloons. "Next stop the National League."

The ground is hemmed in on three sides, allotments restricting further development at one end and a children's playground and railway line marking the boundary of two others.  The carpark is cramped,  the club shop's in a portakabin and there's a train trundling past the top of the main stand.  The clubhouse isn't selling alcohol after a pitch invasion by Boston fans but is still packed with a couple of hundred people celebrating Hull's second goal at Derby.  "It's really mainly people from Hull who come to watch Ferriby," one confides.  "The villagers are a bit sniffy about what's  going on here. It's not really a football kind of place."   The talk outside is of prospective new owners  and Hull City scrapping concessionary pricing.  "It's like Allam just wants to piss people off," a bloke in a City baseball cap says.  "People my age will save a bit of money but he's asking kids and pensioners to pay more. There'll be loads of bad publicity if Premier League teams are visiting next year."  

Unlike disillusionment, money's an issue wherever you go.  "We've cut the budget by half this season," a home supporter tells me.  "A couple of high earners went and we've only used 18 or 19 players all year.  We've been really lucky with injuries because three of those have only come on as subs." The Fylde support begin to fill the space behind the Humber Bridge end of the ground.  "Lancashire, Lancashire," they chant, territorially marking out their space with flags and a banner that reads 'In Chally We Trust'.  As kick off approaches, nerves set in and the atmosphere's more reflective.  "I think Challinor might get the sack at Fylde if they don't win today," someone reckons. "Some of these players will be going up even if the club doesn't." says Darren Norton as his team begin their warm up for the game.  "Anyone for a golden goal?" a raffle seller asks.

Not much happens to get the 1,800 crowd going again until midway through the half, Adam Nicklin opting to come for a cross his defence has covered and  Sam Finley squeezing the opening goal in off a post.  "Shite defending," rues one supporter.  "Haven't got going yet, have we?" says another.  All the noise is from the other end of the ground. "When we get promotion, this is what we'll sing," the Fylde fans chant.  "Plenty of time yet," a single voice responds. It takes a while for the home side to recover, a shot tipped over and another scrambled away from the line.  "Not our day," a fan says despondently.  We're three minutes into time added on when Liam King squares the ball across the Fylde penalty box and Wayne Brooksby gleefully hits the equaliser. "His first touch of the game just about," laughs a celebrating fan.  "They didn't want to go in and face Billy (Heath) losing.  Even the linesman runs away from him."

The home team look the likelier to score in the early stages of the second half. "They're flagging, Ferriby!" encourages a supporter after a goal's disallowed for a push in the back.   He's less confident in the final minutes, Fylde's Dion Charles blasting over with Nicklin exposed once again. "It's not like him," Darren Norton reckons. "He's been brilliant for us in goal.  It's been a long season, though."  Even longer as the game heads into an extra 30 minutes, Ferriby finally edging ahead for the first time when Danny Hone nods in at the other end of the pitch.  "We're the green and white army," a corner of the main stand begins to sing.   "Keep talking, keep talking," Billy Heath urges.  The fourth official raises his board. "Last minute of Conference North football," someone says nervously.  When the whistle blows fans trickle on to the pitch. "Unbelievable," Heath says into an iPhone.  "We have an unbelievable team spirit and an unbelievable desire to win."  "I grew up with Hull City and I'll always say I'm a fan, but I'd feel a bit of a fraud going to Wembley to see them now," a supporter admits as the play-off trophy is hoisted overhead.  "This is my team.  North Ferriby United in the National League! It's close on a miracle what's happened here."

Admission: £12
Date: Saturday May 14th 2016

Many thanks to Andrew Wilson for the lifts around the Ridings and the lads behind the Allotment end goal for the wit, hospitality and background on the club. The first issue of North Ferriby's fanzine is due out at the start of next season, when the Villagers step out in the English fifth tier... 

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Ground 301: Stadion pod Vrmcem, Bokelj Kotor

"Bokelj stadium," the taxi driver told me, jabbing his hand in the direction of a few trees and a cracked breezeblock wall.  "But I like water polo and boxing," he grinned. "Our football is shit."  It was, it appeared, a widely held view: while the national team has drawn three out of four meetings with England, beaten Wales and Switzerland and made it as far as the play-offs for Euro 2012, the Montenegrin First League - the top tier of domestic club football since the country narrowly voted for independence from Serbia in 2006 -  is among the worst supported competitions anywhere in Europe, its average attendance of 555 only very slightly higher than the numbers who regularly watch Workington in the seventh-tier Evostik Premier League.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the First League's international reach is as low as its crowd figures, UEFA currently ranking it between the top-flights of Luxembourg and Lithuania and none of its title holders ever progressing through the second qualifying round of the Champions League. Only Buducnost Podgorica have made any kind of impact elsewhere, twice finishing sixth in the Yugoslav First League, where they played between 1975 and the departure of clubs from four of its member nations in 1991-92. Buducnost supplied three of the 18 players that won the 1987 World Youth Championship for Yugoslavia, Predrag Mijatović going on to win 73 caps and score the only goal of the 1997-98 Champions League Final for Real Madrid.  Another former Buducnost midfielder, the sublimely talented but temperamental Dejan Savicevic, had already won the competition twice with Red Star Belgrade and AC Milan.

Despite the plastic Red Star and Partizan balls hanging outside tourist kiosks and the occasional foreign ultra symbol stickered on a wall, Kotor is no great football city.  Formed in 1922, Bokelj had never been higher than the second tier of Yugoslav football and played in the shadow of a water polo team that won a national league and cup double in 1986.  When Montenegro broke away from Serbia - Savicevic prominent among those who urged an independence vote -  Kotor's footballers were placed in the Second League, winning promotion through a play-off in 2007 and drawing 0-0 at Rudar Pljevlja in their first ever top flight game. Two years later, Primovac Kotor won the Euro League in water polo and Bokelj - relegated after a single season - could only finish sixth in the second flight. "Even the smallest child here knows the rules of the sport," the leader of Petrovac's Bestije 1986 ultras told Water Polo World after watching his team lose another Euro League final in 2010.  Bokelj, meanwhile, played a single season in the First League between 2008 and 2013 and were even outshone by provincial neighbours Grbalj, two-time qualifiers for the UEFA Intertoto Cup.

The Stadion pod Vrcem is in the decidedly untouristy Skaljari district, by an abandoned hotel with no windows and bushes sprouting from its roof tiles, a few open-fronted snack stands and a space for coach drivers to park up while their tour groups are busy elsewhere.  The entrance is along an unmarked concrete path which skirts and then crosses a stream.  "Two euro," asks a bloke seated at a plastic garden table.  "Cheap," I say, inanely.  A rusting gate opens on to the single concrete-stepped stand, where a few early arrivals are sitting on chunks of polystyrene and folded up carboard while tipping packets of nuts into their mouths.  There are no floodlights or toilets that I can see and the only cover is a corrugated oblong just about big enough for five people to squeeze under. The terrace ends abruptly by a grassed over rubble heap three-quarters of the way to the corner flag.  'Bokelj Zivi Vjecno' (Bokelj Live Forever), reads a board behind one goal.  At the other end of the pitch, the top deck of a cruise liner protrudes above the tree cover. "Hey Kotor," claps a kid in a Fidel Castro t-shirt before returning to his phone.

Five games into the third and final round of the 33-game season, Bokelj are in an unprecedented fourth position and are just about holding off FK Sutjeska Nikšić for a place in next season's Europa League.  The visitors, Rudar, were bankrolled  to two league titles and three Montenegrin Cups by a family of drug smugglers before Darko Saric, "the cocaine king of the Balkans" was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Serbian court.  This season, perhaps coincidentally, they're well adrift of the leaders in third.  When the two teams clatter down a metal staircase for kick off there are between 4-500 paying spectators, including a smattering of Wags in summer dresses, a family who turn up with house cushions and a dozen or so fans in replica shirts with a drum and four flags that they sellotape to the fence.  "Bravo!" they chorus as a home defender goes in for a tackle and wins his team a throw, though the type of pinged crossfield passes that would leave Steven Gerrard and an English crowd purring go completely unremarked.  The small contingent of police pass round a bottle of water, the drum hangs unaccompanied and its owner leisurely drags on a cigarette as the sides pass the ball around in the sun.  When the PA announces the score at another game there's a half-hearted cheer while the bloke next to me checks his betting slip for the time of the goal.  He's no sooner scrunched it up in disgust than Dejan Đenić, a much travelled Serbian formerly of club sides in Slovenia, Holland, Azerbaijan, Lithuania and Poland, stoops to head in for Bokelj.  "Dobre!" one of the Wags claps enthusiastically.  The next biggest cheer of the half is when the sun finally dips behind the mountains and there's no more need for everyone to screen their eyes.

After the interval I'm flanked by a chain smoker in a Royal Marines Commando hoodie and a bloke decked out in Real Madrid tracksuit top and bottoms.  "Luka Modric has football intelligence," he says, among several other things that aren't quite so similar in English and Serbo-Croat.  I'm more interested in Rudar's Ryota Noma - one of only two players not from Serbia or Montenegro - who wears number 2 but darts and hustles about in attacking midfield, dropping short passes into feet that are rarely if ever returned in the direction of his run. Bokelj have a shot tipped away and several heads pop over a fence dividing the far side of the pitch from what looks like a semi-dilapidated hospital building to see what's going on.  For all the attempted promptings of their Japanese playmaker, the visitors manage little until ten minutes from the end, a goalbound poke kept out by the keeper's legs before a follow up swipe is hacked unceremoniously away.  The fourth official raises a board showing three minutes of time added on; a home player immediately goes down with cramp while a second is substituted off.  The whistle blows, everybody roars and the players come across to salute the packed stand.  "Bravo!" shout a pair of fans in the colours of the water polo team.  With Mladost Podgorica on the brink of a second title, and runners-up Budocnost playing Rudar for the Montenegrin Cup, Bokelj, little Bokelj, are just five games away from a first ever trip to Europe. 

Admission: €2
Date:  Saturday May 7th 2016

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Ground 300: Kimberley Park, Prudhoe

It's not even midday but Newcastle's Central Station is already bustling with pissed off Metro passengers and fans on their way to the match with Crystal Palace.  "Every day, man," moans a bloke in a black and white retro shirt.  "Mind, I think we'll dee these," he says, brightening. "Pardew'll be buffing up his tan for Wembley and none of their lot'll want to get crocked before." "Ah divvent kna, like," his mate demurs, "but if we dee, we'll probably beat Villa an' Spurs an' all an' still gan an' get relegated.  Typical Newcastle, that."

I cross to an outer platform, where an optimistic cluster of promotion-hunting Oxford supporters are waiting to board the next train to Carlisle.  The engine sparks to life like a home stand growling at a mistimed challenge, then we chunter across the Tyne, bend right at a Hilton and slowly pull through the brownfield sites of Gateshead, home of submarine telegraph cables, the incandescent lightbulb, Chris Waddle and Norman 'Bites Yer Legs' Hunter.  Industry and football intertwine all along the early part of the route; where the first blossomed the second later thrived.  Paul Gascoigne was brought up in Dunston, close by the site of the Metro Centre - where former Newcastle United owner Sir John Hall made his knighthood and a large chunk of his cash - and the world's first bit of railway track, constructed to cart coal to the river from County Durham's pits.  The next station, Wylam,  is by the childhood home of George Stephenson, whose Rocket locomotive inspired the black-and-yellow colours of Uruguay's Penarol.  Howard Kendall came from neighbouring Crawcrook, while George Jobey, scorer of Arsenal's first goal at Highbury, grew up a few miles away at Heddon-on-the-Wall.  The railway line skirts Mickley, once home to Bob Stokoe and George Brown, signed out of a colliery strike by Herbert Chapman's Huddersfield Town, where he won a hat-trick of league titles and played nine times for England, and continues to Corbridge, home to an excavated Roman fort and three Sunderland managers, and Hexham, on whose pitches Bob Batey, part of the Preston team that won the first televised FA Cup final, learnt his trade.  Back towards St James' Park, Prudhoe was the birthplace of Crystal Palace custodian Billy Callender and has more recently unearthed a pair of Premier League goalkeepers, which is probably only to be expected from a place so dependent on defence.

Thrown up by the Normans to cow rebellious locals, the town's castle switched to harbouring them soon after the Percies took over in 1398.  The new owners proved more adept at picking lawyers than winning causes, their properties forfeited three times before finally passing into public hands in 1966.  The town's senior football club, set up by five friends seven years earlier, has led a similarly precarious existence, as might be expected when your home ground's named after a firm that makes disposable nappies, is built on a levelled out rubbish tip and periodically suffers from problems with rising gas. After joining the Northern League in 1988-89,  Prudhoe twice battled to promotion and twice hurtled straight back down, had a benefactor whose nerves weren't up to watching the team play, and spent £30,000 a year on maintaining the place to step five standards -  "A splendid venue, neat, spick and span, superbly maintained with not a lick of paint needed or a piece of litter out of place," a visitor enthused in 2006 - before quitting after 21 years, several resignation letters and three seasons stuck to the foot of Division Two.

For 12 months the club disappeared altogether, local papers reporting on the "bitter acrimony" and "rancorous legal dispute" between it and the town council, who refused to sell the land the ground stood on and then served a 14-day eviction notice when discovering neighbours Stocksfield were sub-letting the pitch. "Confusion surrounds Prudhoe Town Football Club, as Tynedale folk are unclear as to whether or not it still exists," wrote the Hexham Courant in July 2009.  "We have just basically had enough," explained chairman, secretary and treasurer Chris Lowther.  He was still in situ a year later, expressing a vastly different emotion as the club gained entry to the Wearside League. "I'm over the moon to be back,"  he told the Newcastle Journal, "my wife Susan will again look after the refreshments, while my daughter Rachel will again be physio."

Double cup winners in 2013, Lowther's "small band of helpers" have rarely seen their team climb out of the bottom half of the league.  With three games of the season remaining, they're 14th of 20 clubs,  a whopping 49 points behind probable champions Stockton and 15 adrift of visitors Spennymoor Town Reserves,  who've played in the Wearside since pairing up with Coxhoe Athletic in the summer of 2014.  It's only five days since the two clubs drew in County Durham. "Can we keep the great run going?" Prudhoe's Twitter account asks, the team winning six and losing only one of their last ten games.

There's a dining table and portable barbecue by the turnstile booth, a portakabin clubhouse with blistered wood and a faded sign that still announces the club as members of the Arngrove Northern League. Inside the perimeter fence are floodlight poles, a flatpack all-seater stand and two terraces - the smaller now a dumping ground for advertising boards and dugouts - topped with corrugated metal, more remnants of the two-decade stay at steps five and six, though the only populated cover is a perspex bus stop that has an ashtray, a no smoking sign and three garden chairs. "Howay Pruddah," says a home player.  "Howay, get off the pitch" barks one of the 25 spectators to his dog as a home player hits the floor in the area just a couple of minutes into the game. "Liner, why would he go down there?" the manager shouts as the ref waves play on.  "Gamble," says a player.  "Big win," a spectator mutters by a spare set of posts.  "If there's no contact. why not book him?" the manager continues.  "As stonewall as you'll ever see," Spennymoor's boss agrees.  "I'd be going mad if it'd been at the other end." It's not long until Prudhoe score their first.  "Good goal, that," says one of the three fans in the bus stop.  "Just what they deserved."

The home team knock a second through the keeper's legs.  "Referee," snaps the Spennymoor assistant while a kid whirs behind him on a battery powered motorbike and I attempt to stamp off the mud that's been caked to my shoes since an ill-advised short cut through a wood.  "You kna what it is, he's got a hold of him round the waist.  Clear foul.  Have you ever played football?" he asks the linesman, who's backing nervously along the pitch like a first night eliminee on Strictly Come Dancing.  "Ah divvent think ye have.  Join in when you want, like." The third goal's a lob.  "Can we play like this every week?" laughs a Prudhoe fan laughs.  "Get yer fingers out yer arse and start fucking playing," a Spennymoor defender rages as he blasts the ball upfield.   The visitors break; "Bring him down if you have to," a home player says.   "Help him! Help him!" yell the Spennymoor bench to no avail, the ball cleared and then rolled into the net for a fourth with just 40 minutes played.  "We've been second best to everything," a Spennymoor official laments just before a striker hits a shot into the corner to make it 4-1.  "Canny half," claps a bloke in a high vis jacket.  "Owt yet from Newcastle?"

"Big 20," shouts one Prudhoe player.  "Switch on," a second implores. "0-0, we start again," goes a third.  "Overload right centre, overload right centre," says the Spenny keeper as an orange-shirted player rattles his crossbar drawing half a dozen smokers out of the clubhouse to see what's going on.  "Ten minutes' hard work," the Prudhoe boss demands of his team.  "Get a grip of yersel'," the visiting assistant groans as the referee misses a clear handball.  "Are you running this game, are you?" Prudhoe hit a fifth.  "0-0 again," says a defender. "One more big 15." "Ah kna we've been played off the pitch," the assistant says, "but the ref's a disgrace."

"Good win, eh?" asks a fan at the turnstile hut.  "Lovely." 

Admission: £2
Date:  Saturday April 30th 2016

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Ground 299: Harratts Nissan Stadium, Pontefract Collieries

It's been an eventful last eight months at "Pontefract's longest established, highest profile and top-ranked football club."  Promoted as runners-up after 16 years outside the North Counties East top-flight, Pontefract Collieries have since lost one manager - the long-serving Nick Handley dismissed just two hours before a training session - one chairman and 24 of their 39 league games, thrashed by six-goal margins three times before the middle of October and by a total of 11 goals to three in their last two games.  The faltering home team have only two league wins since November and start the season's final week next to bottom of the division and with just three games remaining to overhaul two of the sides above. “I’m going to be looking to put the club in a good position so that we can take it into the Evo Stik in the next 18 months," Chris Parry had confidently said when he was tasked with replacing Handley at the end of last year.

Formed in the late-1950s,  the Colls have dropped out of the top-flight twice since joining the NCEL as founder members in 1982, their bleakest season a grim 2007-08 campaign in which they won just one of 32 matches, propped up the table and only escaped dropping out of the league altogether by restructuring in the competitions below.  There have been brighter moments, too: back-to-back promotions in 1983 and '84, two Floodlit Cups, a Wilkinson Sword Trophy and career starts for Dave Penney, who played or managed at nine Football League clubs after being scouted by Arthur Cox's Derby County, ex-Rotherham United striker Andy Hayward and Paul Newlove, a world record transfer signing after giving up football for rugby league.

Pontefract's ground, built up at the time of the 1984-85 Miners' Strike and further improved with hundreds of flip seats from Manchester City's Maine Road, has been blighted by theft, vandalism and subsidence from old mining work.  The only sign is half hidden by a traffic light and there's a dirt track beside a spoil bank left behind when the Prince of Wales Colliery - opened in 1860 and still producing 1.3 million tonnes of coal a year - was closed in 2002.  A train cuts above the opposite side of the ground and the Ferrybridge cooling towers rise up beyond the far goal.  At the turnstile, there's a handwritten sign and smiling volunteers selling raffle tickets ("2nd prize very LARGE basket of spirits and wines, 3rd signed JAMES MILNER football shirt...9th Dulux FLUFFY DOG") and programmes.  The bar's showing the end of the early Premier League game, a kid throwing darts next to trophies piled by a stack of ring binders, and a pair of coach seats are parked under an FA Charter Standard Club sign by the gents.  "I wasn't expecting much," says Andrew, "but this is lovely."  A previous visitor had been just as complimentary: "A gem, full of character but at the same time retaining a certain charm."

"Support your LOCAL club," the Colls Facebook page had implored, but the crowd is small - "Probably not much higher than the late thirties if you take out the committees," Andrew reckons" - as we near kick off.  "Big winners," demands a Pontefract player demands as they finish the warm up.  "Clipstone have left their cones all over the pitch," someone moans as the teams re-enter the pitch through a metal cage at the side of the main stand.  "Let's get organised early," says one Clipstone centre back to another.  "Keep that defence tight," a home fan yells across the ground.

Pontefract miss with two first-half chances, players simultaneously disputing the award of a throw in and a missed handball. "Cut it out, liner," one player advises the official. "Fuck off man," Clipstone's left back shouts. After a bright opening, the visitors fade as an attacking force and it's the home team who look the likelier to edge ahead.  Despite their efforts,  it's still goalless at the break.  "Your raffle's been claimed," says the bloke in the PA box as we greedily head towards a tea hut promising the delights of 'Steak Canadian', 'Spam Sandwiches' and 'Other Items (50p)'  just hours after polishing off a St George's Day Special of beef stew and Yorkshire pudding by a ruined castle in whose dungeons King Richard II once starved to death. "I could have another one of these spam sandwiches," Andrew reckons as the sides run out for the second half. 

Colls have a set piece palmed over the bar and find the outside of the post with the resulting corner kick before Phil Lindley heads in the opening goal.  Another set piece is played wide, crossed back into the centre and Lindley rises highest to nod into the net.  "Not even a free kick,"Clipstone's manager moans as a Pontefract player limps back towards the centre circle and a defender kicks the ball away off the referee's leg.  The home side miss a one-on-one and then shoot into the ground with two players in space on the six-yard line. "We've not done too bad," says a fan behind the goal.  "At least we've scored once."

With only seconds left a Clipstone player's felled by a trailing leg and the referee points to the spot.  "You bent get," shouts a home fan. "He's going to save this," Clipstone's keeper says.  The kick goes left but so does a gloved hand, turning the ball around the post.  "Told you," says the keeper.  The victory - only Pontefract's third since winning at Clipstone in November - keeps the home side level on points with Liversedge and leaves them one behind Brigg Town with a game in hand and two left to play. 

Admission: £5
Date: Saturday April 23rd 2016