Saturday, 27 February 2016

HE WAS NOT RAGING BUT FROWNING




Next week I shall be away in Zurich. Sadly my enjoyment of that trip has already been compromised by the discovery that SC Young Fellows Juventus are away.

Last week it was my birthday. So here's a short thing I wrote when I was still relatively young about what it means to get older as a fan. The last two paragraphs perhaps explain why us neutrals are so excited about Leicester.



A few years ago a friend of mine took his six-year-old son to his first match. It was at the Stadium of Light during a fractious period for the home side. They conceded early. As all around him fans shook their fists and vented their fury with the players, the manager, the owner, my friend looked across at his son. The boy was weeping uncontrollably. “What’s the matter?” his father asked. “I don’t like it. I don’t like it,” his son sobbed. “Why are the men so angry?” They left at half time.

My friend’s son was a sensitive child, admittedly.Why the men are so angry is a good question, though. Recently a letter in WSC raised the topic of the vengeful faces seen in modern goal celebrations contrasted with the more cheery chops of yesteryear. Looking back on my early days as a supporter in the late-1960s I recall neither rage nor happiness at Ayresome Park, just the smell of fried onions and a sense of seething resentment. But maybe that was just because I was sitting next to my granddad.




Rage is all the rage these days. At least it is in most places.

With the passing of the shortest day we enter the season of renewal. Or not in the case of a friend of mine who yesterday announced that he is to give up his Middlesbrough season ticket. He has been going to watch the Boro since he was seven.






"You know how they talk about 'compassion fatigue'?" he says when I ask him to explain this radical scheme, "well I've got frustration fatigue. I reckon every man is born with a finite reservoir of bitter, teeth-grinding rage and for the past 18 months the pumps have been bringing up mud from mine. There was a time when I could spend 90 minutes seething about Paul Kerr, but these days I can't even get vexed about Fabio Rochemback and he's 10 times as annoying as Nookie ever was. I'm jaded. I just can't raise myself to get angry anymore


My friend says that his Dad gave up going to Ayresome Park when he turned 44 and now he has turned 44 himself he is doing the same. He says when you can't work up a head of steam about a feckless Brazilian get in a headband it is nature's way of telling you it is time to quit.

Part of the problem, my friend says, is the Premiership itself, or rather the new business-like approach to it of many clubs including our own. "Outside the top four nobody actually seems to consider trying to win it," he says. "The ambition of most of them is surviving in the Premiership, so that they can receive all the TV money they need to survive in the Premiership. Keep going to earn money to keep going: that's not sport it's everyday reality for most of us."

I know exactly what he means. When I listen to most Premiership managers and chairmen droning on these days about the need for realism, fiscal constraints, the limited size of their squads and keeping their fingers crossed that, with a bit of luck and freedom from injuries we just might be good for a top ten finish, I am reminded of the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek's political organisation The Party of Moderate Progress within the Bounds of the Law. The only difference is that Hasek was joking.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

CAST OUT OF EDEN STREET




Since their formation in 1908 Horden Colliery Welfare have played over 2,500 matches at Welfare Park. Today's game against Jarrow may be the last.

This week, after a five day court hearing in Newcastle, the ground owners, Horden Parish Council were given right to serve an eviction notice and awarded £82,500 in legal costs. The football club must be gone by next Thursday.

Hopefully this is just a temporary measure and the club can return to its historic home soon.

There is a petition you can sign in support of Horden CW here:

http://www.thepetitionsite.com/en-gb/136/708/231/save-horden-cw-football-club/






In 2009, photographer Colin McPherson and I went to Horden for a When Saturday Comes Match of the Month feature. The images are Colin's and he holds copyright on them. You can see more of Colin's fine work on his website. There's a link over on the right.


Horden Colliery Welfare v Billingham Synthonia

Skilltrainingltd Northern League Division One, 24th November, 2009


Saturday afternoon in the North-East and its raining. It’s not a heavy rain. It’s the sort of fine rain that hangs in the air, all-enveloping like an unfinished argument. The bus from Peterlee to Horden drops me off at a stop next to a spiritualist church. Down the road towards the porridge-coloured North Sea there’s a medical centre named after radical Labour MP Manny Shinwell. Outside the Comrades Club a mother and a ten-year old girl in a party frock unload a chocolate fountain from the back of a Renault Clio and scurry indoors. A poster in the window advertises a night of entertainment featuring “Donna, Promising Young Vocal Artiste”.


Horden Welfare Park – with its football, cricket and rugby grounds, its bowling green and flowerbeds  - is an enduring monument to community spirit. Paid for by the miners through subscription back before the Great War it’s as neat and tidy as a front parlour when the vicar’s due. On the backs of the benches that line the paths are little plaques telling the history of the community – how many cinemas the town once had, when the railway station closed, the tonnage of coal the pit once produced and the number of men who died digging it.

In Horden 80% of the workforce was once employed in the mining industry. The colliery closed in 1986. Since then the population has dropped by several thousand and local business seems almost entirely devoted to the North East’s new boom areas – tattoos, tanning and taxis.

Today’s visitors, Billingham Synthonia, are another relic of heavy industry. Synthonia was founded in 1945, part of the social and sporting side of Imperial Chemical Industries’ vast Teesside operation. Like the NUM, ICI was a paternalistic organisation. It looked after its 30,000 strong Teesside workforce and their families, providing them with a whole network of support from pensions to hockey fields to medical care and subsidised beer. But ICI gradually shed its holdings in the region and in 2006 it left for good. The big HQ at Billingham is now empty, the windows smashed, the insides ransacked by vandals. Like Horden Colliery Welfare, Billingham Synthonia are a tiny reminder of what once was, like the hat of a dead man hanging behind the door in a widow’s bungalow.

There was more like them too, at one time. In recent times though the Northern League has seen many of the clubs from its traditional heartland, the Durham Coalfield, disappear – Eppleton CW, Easington Colliery, Langley Park, Evenwood Town, and Willington have all dropped out, replaced by sides from the Tyneside and Teesside commuter belts. Places like Morpeth and Stokesley where there’s more money and fewer folk whose idea of a good evening’s entertainment is to set fire to the dug-outs.


Not that there’s any evidence of that sort of thing at Horden’s ground. It’s recently been revamped using lottery money. The old stand – opened by local celebrity ref George Courtney back in the 1980s – now has indoor toilets and facilities for female match officials. Horden won the Northern League second division title last season. Now they are struggling to come to terms with life in the top flight. They lie fourth from bottom. Synthonia are a few places above them.

When I arrive at the Welfare Ground a bloke in a Horden warm-up coat is removing a couple of dog turds from the pitch, carrying them away on a shovel. There’s a catholic social club over the west wall and the Horden social welfare centre over the fence to the east. Everything in sight is made of red brick. The streets run up from the headlands above the sea to the green hill where the colliery once stood, as if that was the only direction the population would ever expect, or need, to go in.

In the tea bar friendly middle-aged women who seem purpose built for a role as aunties are frying chips and doling out cups of tea in Princess Diana commemorative mugs. I take mine into the main stand, which is, as it happens, the only stand. It’s a big old-fashioned shed, with a red corrugated roof, a press box and a bit of worn away graffiti pledging allegiance to the Horden Shed Army. I take a seat in the Stan Anderson enclosure. Anderson – the only man to captain Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough – is the Horden’s most illustrious former player (Colin Bell played for the juniors). Synners can trump that, though. They once had Brian Clough and Frank Bough on the books.


Behind me a group of Synthonia fans talk in Teesside accidents so finely adapted to expressing scorn and contempt even their complements sound like an invitation to a punch up. When three elderly Horden fans saunter into the ground from the nearby social club at ten to three one of the Synners fans booms, “Oh look. Here comes the Barmy Army”. The rest of the talk is of flu jabs and hip replacement operations.

Synners have rejected their old-style green-and-white quartered shirts in a favour of a wild mess of blue and yellow. Horden’s shirts are rather nice, a red-and-white striped body with plain white sleeves. They carry the logo of sponsors Tweddle Children’s Animal Farm inviting jokes about rustic tackles. The left-back wears a white polo neck under his that, combined with his thinning, slicked back hair and lean face gives him the vague look of the seventies comedy actor Patrick Cargill.

The first period is played out in the swirling drizzle. After ten minutes the players’ shirts are soaked. Water drips from hair, ears and the tips of noses. On the skiddy surface it’s a struggle to stay upright. At one point four players and the referee are all sprawled on the turf. “Has somebody up there got a rifle?” one of Horden’s subs yells up at the supporters in the stand. It’s too wet for anybody to laugh.

Thanks to the conditions, the play is not so much disjointed as completely and utterly devoid of any joint whatsoever – the football equivalent of a tapeworm. Occasionally there are outbreaks of coherence, but they never last long. Synners are kicking up the slight slope towards the ex-colliery and into the sort of breeze that sets the corner flags flapping. Occasionally they succeed in lumping a ball over the top to the swift number 11, Danny Earl, who looks the most likely to player to score, but never quite manages to get a shot away. When it gets to the break I look down at my rain spotted notebook and find the only entry in it is “Jack Pounder (H’den) sounds like character from Catherine Cookson mini-series”.



At half-time something surprising happens. There’s a brief flicker of lightning somewhere to the south over Blackhall and then the rain stops and the sun emerges shyly from amidst the grey. By the time the two teams return to the field its genuinely warm and steam is start to rise from the concrete terracing The change in climate seems to inspire the two sets of players and the next 45 minutes, while in no way samba soccer, certainly has a bit more rhythm to it.

We get an inkling that a change has come when Horden come close to scoring in the first minute after the restart, Pounder’s volley from the edge of the box almost worming it’s way under Chris Porter in the Synners’ goal. The visitors break away from the resulting clearance and win a free kick on the edge of the area. Horden’s defenders seem to have cleared the danger, but the ball drops to skipper Andy Harbron twenty-five yards out and he strikes a volley with real venom and accuracy, sending it flashing into the right hand corner of the net. The celebrations that follow are testament to the quality of the strike and to the fact that Harbron is making a bit of a habit of scoring wonder goals - he’d blasted one in from even further out a few weeks back against Consett.

Once they are in front Synthonia start to knock the ball around with newfound confidence. The shaven-headed David Yale in the midfield pulls the strings and up front Nathan Jameson, a big fair-haired striker with the look of John Belushi about him, always seems to have space and time to control the ball and bring others into play. They get their second in the 60th minute. It’s another beauty, the ball moving via a series of crisp short passes from the halfway line, down the left and finally into the path of Colin Iley coming in from the right wing. He takes one touch before dinking it past the advancing James Winter.



Horden bring on an extra forward, Keith Devine, a huge man with the body of a cartoon strongman and an impressive goal scoring record. He’s all hustle and bustle, sprinting forward and banging defenders about at every opportunity. His introduction brings new urgency to the Colliers. The ball bumps around the penalty box, cannoning off knees and thighs. There’s a big shout for a penalty when Stephenson tumbles over in the box and for a few minutes it seems as if sheer physical endeavour might be enough to rescue the situation.

It isn’t. The visitors continue to look the more likely side to score, moving the ball about with a purpose and accuracy Horden lack. Substitute James Magowan, who seems to be nicknamed Bimbo, almost adds the third, turning neatly on the left of the box and firing in a fierce, curving shot that Winter does really well to tip over the bar.

Throughout it all, good and bad, the Teessiders behind me remain resolutely unimpressed “First touch like a bloody elephant” one snorts as a ball bounces off a Synners’ shin. Another is listening to the Boro match commentary on headphones. "Johnson’s scored a second” he bellows at one point. “He’ll be away in January” his mate growls. The pits, the shipyards, the steelworks and the chemical plants may have gone, but the region’s pessimism endures.




Saturday, 13 February 2016

IMPROVE YOUR WORD POWER

Last Saturday I arrived at Dunston UTS after a tortuous journey on the number 10 bus. Only one other passenger on the top deck was over 15 and not singing along to One Direction - the man who sat behind me and coughed down the back of my neck from Branch End Garage to Blaydon.

At the gate I found that the admission charge for the FA Vase replay had been raised from £6 to £7. In solidarity with fans on Merseyide I considered walking out in protest after seven minutes, but decided that - on balance - £7 still represented pretty good value. My reward was a cracking game on a pitch that in the current age would likely be characterised as 'vintage' and have an outrageous price tag slapped on it by a young man dressed as a Victorian poacher. I also saw my 100th goal of the season. Sadly it was an injury time winner for visitors Ashford United - my second NL 2-3 Vase defeat on the trot. I ll stay away from Morpeth next week.





The latest issue of The Blizzard podcast features a reading of my piece about Adam Boyd. You can listen to it here:

https://soundcloud.com/blizzard-podcasts/the-van-basten-of-Hartlepool




Today I am walking to Ryton and Crawcrook Albion with Mike Amos as part of his Last Legs Challenge. The last time we walked anywhere together was in Bishop Auckland when we covered the distance from The Stanley Jefferson to the station in record time. Here's something I wrote for WSC about that evening.




Emmott Robinson played cricket for Yorkshire in the inter-War years. Late in life the all-rounder complained that the general public’s perception of him came entirely through the writing of Guardian cricket correspondent Neville Cardus. ‘I reckon Mr Cardus invented me,’ Robinson said wearily.

Though he played over 400 times for his county, Robinson never got an international cap. No film of him exists. His doughty manner, his gruff, unruly style, his mad devotion to the game he loved, lives on almost exclusively in Cardus’ prose. 

The point of writing, William Faulkner said, is to fix movement to the page, so that when the reader comes along it moves again. Back in Cardus’ day that was what sports journalists did, captured action. Writing was a medium of record, often the only medium.

Things have changed. If Emmott Robinson was around nowadays there’d be hours of footage of him on YouTube. Film has superseded writing. Newspaper websites are peppered with video clips. Even editors don’t trust words to do the job anymore. Why read about a  Lionel Messi goal, if you can watch it? Even those of us who make a living from it must occasionally wonder - as we see the bloke beside us filming the goal celebrations on his mobile - what the point of writing is in the age of the smartphone and the tablet.

 

At the start of the summer I gave a talk at Auckland Castle, a tie-in with the excellent exhibition on Bishop Auckland FC - Birth of the Blues - that is currently showing there. Afterwards members of the audience came up to chat. Many had brought with them bags containing mementos of North-East non-League football: winners medals from long-forgotten local cup competitions, Amateur Cup Final programmes, photographs in gilded frames. All the items had tales attached, a memory trail to long dead relatives, to pit villages once lived in.

A lady in her mid-seventies opened her handbag, pulled from it an autograph album covered in tartan cloth. Her parents, she said, had been involved with Stanley United back in the 1950s. ‘When I was a teenage girl,’ she said, ‘I served the players their post-match teas, and I got them all to sign my book.’

Stanley United was one of the oldest clubs in Durham. They won the Northern League title three times. Stanley United played at Mount Pleasant. Like many places in Britain it seemed to have been named by someone of ironic bent. Mount Pleasant was on a freezing crag above Crook, so isolated and windswept the white-washed two-story clubhouse, where the players changed and ate, and the spectators defrosted at half-time in front of coal fire, was nicknamed ‘The Little House of the Prairie’.

 

The lady opened the tartan-covered book. ‘Here, look,’ she said, ‘The Bishops team, 1955.’ She ran a finger under the signatures, the well-practiced autographs of men who were the superstars of the amateur game: Bob Hardisty, Corbett Cresswell, eccentric ‘keeper Harry Sharratt who once built a snowman on his goal line. I pointed at one which had an extra flourish: Seamus O’Connell

Seamus O’Connell was Bishops’ wealthy and glamorous inside-forward. He also played as an amateur for Chelsea and Middlesbrough, rejecting the chance to make a full-time career of the game at Stamford Bridge with the words, ‘It’s no kind of job for a man’. An infamous womaniser, O’Connell was allegedly so well-endowed that, after catching a glimpse of him naked in the shower, one London society hostess remarked, ‘Built like that you really ought to trot.’

The woman with the tartan autograph book grinned. ‘Eee, aye’ she said ‘Seamus O’Connell. He once give me a lift home over the moor top in his sports car,’ and she shivered with delight at the thought of it.

‘So you must have known Geoff Strong, then.’ I said.

Geoff Strong was the centre-forward at Stanley in 1957. Between the start of the season and Christmas he scored 31 goals. Arsenal came looking to sign him. They offered Strong £13 a week. It was a tougher decision than you might think. The amateurs of Stanley were paying him £10 a week ‘boot money’ and he picked up another £4 as an apprentice fitter. In the end he decided to take the pay cut and move to Highbury. He scored 69 goals for the Gunners, then Bill Shankly bought him for Liverpool. He died two years ago.

The woman’s eyes twinkled when I said the name. ‘Ooh Geoff Strong,’ she said, and she placed the autograph book down on the table we were standing beside and ran her hands back and forwards across it. ‘I used to iron his number nine shirt every week,’ she said, looking at the tartan book as if it was the targetman’s red-and-white striped jersey, pressing her palms down on it to smooth out the wrinkles, ‘And, you know, I always ironed that shirt with love.’

 

Stanley United folded in 2003. The Little House on the Prairie was burned down by arsonists. Only the goalposts and the memories now remain. And memories don’t last forever. As Jorge Luis Borges noted, ‘one thing, or an infinite number of things dies in every final agony’ never to return.  

To be recalled is the only afterlife we can be guaranteed. That’s part of the reason we tell strangers stories from our lives. It’s why I write them down. It’s why you should too. If we don’t, one day it will all be gone, YouTube or not.

 


Saturday, 6 February 2016

THE INCESSANT CHATTER OF THE LITTLE MEN

The appointment of Pep Guardiola was presented in the press as being not only a coup for Manchester City, but also for English football as a whole. Yes, doesn't your heart just swell with pride to live in a land where an institution owned by foreign oil barons can afford to pay the lifetime earnings of a small town to secure the services of a man who has been only marginally less successful than Jupp Heynckes? I know mine does.

Lovers of schoolboy sarcasm fear not, for there is more to come....

 
 
During the course of my researches this week I chanced upon the information that the two models of Selecta vending machines found on British railway station are named the Santa Fe and the St Tropez. And let’s face it, nothing quite says ‘sensual Mediterranean lifestyle’ like scoffing a boost bar at Heworth Interchange on a January afternoon.

I was eating a boost bar at Heworth Interchange on my way to watch Sunderland RCA play Bristol Manor Farm in the FA Vase. The day was bitterly cold, with a wind that defied meteorological laws by blowing in all directions at once.  When I got back to Park Lane metro after the final whistle I felt like someone had ironed my face.

RCA performed gallantly, but were eventually defeated 3-2 by a very good Manor Farm side featuring the game’s outstanding player, strapping centre-forward, Dean Stamp whose deftness and control would likely have caused Barry Davies to descend to his throatiest sob: ‘And you have to say, he has a very delicate touch for such a big man’.
 
 

Bristol Manor Farm are currently top of the Western League. After the game NL chairman Mike Amos wrote this in a blog post on the Northern League website:

‘Like us, the [Western League] and its clubs have been summoned to a meeting with the FA in February – the common ground that we’re geographically peripheral. As with us, the FA didn’t even have the courtesy to say what it was about.

Like us they view that as extraordinary arrogance. Like us they regard what’s likely to happen as a fait accompli diaphanously dressed up as consultation.’

Ah, the FA. As Brian Glanville might say, to think of them is to be reminded of the words of the Italian poet Giosue Carducci : ‘The farce of the infinitely small, the busy little farce of ponderous clowns.’
 

The fear must be that the Football Association is going to make promotion up the league pyramid compulsory. Aside from appeasing an assortment of whingers from across the Pennines who think that NL clubs’ recent domination of the Vase is somehow ‘unfair’, it is hard to see what benefits this change will bring.

Discussing it with an official of an NL club before Christmas I was told, ‘In the Northern Premier League, with a midweek games away at Colwyn Bay and the like, the problem isn’t the travel costs – you could scrabble around and find the extra £10,000 or so for that. No, the trouble is the players. They’d need to take days off work to get to these places and a lot of them can’t. You’d likely lose half your team the minute you won the title.’

Clubs that don’t want that sort of turmoil, will, of course, be able to avoid it simply by not finishing top - a situation which might see the NL season ending with the equivalent of the slow bicycle race. Perhaps, if that should happen the FA will take a leaf out of boxing’s book and withhold the purses of teams that aren't sufficiently aggressive.
 

As to why the FA act in so high-handed a manner, I can only assume it is psychological. It is an undeniable truth that shit rolls downhill. The owner of a swanky restaurant, who fawns over his wealthy and demanding clientele all day, returns home and eases his frustration by kicking the dog.

The FA are in charge of ensuring that football at all levels in England is well run. Yet the notion that they would exercise even a modicum of control over the venal Premier League is now so laughable it would get a chortle out of a stone trough. Better to hope that, like Monty Python’s Mr Creosote, greed will one day so overcome the Premiership’s egregious and self-aggrandizing leaders they explode, spraying their simpering acolytes with blood and offal.

No, the FA can only bow and scrape before the rich, yet once released from their company it is quite a different creature, big and masterful. When I wrote The Far Corner the best example of this was ticket pricing. The blazers of Lancaster Gate insisted on minimum prices of admission for early round FA Cup ties, even when this was higher than price for league matches. Yet while they could force clubs to charge more for admission, they were - apparently -powerless to make them charge less. Like figures from satire, they are people of great courage so long as there is nothing whatsoever to fear.
 

More recently, the FA compelled the Northern League to suspend its ‘secret shopper’ initiative apparently on the grounds that the prospect of the small cash award for receiving the highest marks over the course of the season left it open to corruption. This from an organization whose bigwigs abased themselves before the notorious Jack Warner to secure his vote for their doomed World Cup bid.

I’d laugh, if I wasn’t so nauseated.

To return to the issue of promotion. The league pyramid was originally established for one grand purpose – to make the England national team, which stands at its apex, stronger.

Yes, really.

Compulsory promotion must therefore be another step towards this great aim. So, in the summer as you watch Roy Hodgson’s team lose to the first half-decent side they meet, remember this: as far as the FA is concerned our nation’s defeat is directly related to Marske United refusing to step up a division this season.