Sunday, 9 November 2014

Blyth Spartans 4 Altrincham 1

FA Cup, first round
Attendance: 1,763

Clash of the giantkillers, I suppose you’d call this one. Between them Spartans and Altrincham have knocked out more League clubs from the Cup than I’ve had hot dinners. Most famously Spartans came within a dodgy corner and replay of reaching the quarter-final in 1977/78 and the following season Alty took Tottenham to a replay in the third round among other Cup exploits. Heady days, indeed.

Stewards spot two dubious-looking youths in the queue for the turnstile. “Get ah-we-ah ho-arm with you!” instructs a steward before the lads skulk off, one of them later gaining admission nonetheless. The steward opens a gate to increase the rate of admission, taking tenners as spectators enter. “Chee-uzz,” we all say as the note changes hands. (Love the Northumbrian accent.)

Inside the place is buzzing. Awards are made to a fella who’s watched 1,500 Spartans matches and the club for winning last month’s fair play award. The occasion and ground have a Conference feel although the hosts play in the step 3 Northern Premier League. A turbine and cranes from the Port of Blyth poke above the stands. Reassuringly fans change ends to be behind the goals their side is attacking and an old gent wearing a home-knit, plain green and white scarf sells raffle tickets.

Green and white engenders a strength of pride that you don’t get for other, more common team colours. One of the few other clubs to play in such stripes (as opposed to hoops), Real Betis, is twinned with the Spartans as indicated by one of the banners (above). The roof of the main stand – which looks like the lid of a toolbox – is green as is the retro picket fence that fully encloses the pitch. Spartans have one of the great names of world football too – and some fans make the most of it by sporting ancient Greek headgear. The noseplate on what looks like a papier-mâché creation (below) is so large it must have obscured the view as much as the TV scaffold tower within the main terraced stand.

Spartans come flying out of the traps, putting the gimmicky pink FA Cup ball into the net with a penalty on three mins and, in so doing, become the first side to get a live goal flash on the BBC’s new Final Score programme. A little piece of history for Blyth, not that they really need any ...

Altrincham hit the post with a bending, long range effort just before half-time but Spartans extend their lead on the hour mins when nippy little Maguire (reminiscent of Robbie Keane) somehow squeezes the ball inside the left post after a neat one-two with Dale. Altrincham get one back when an up and under is walloped home with feeling by Perry and for a few minutes Spartans fans feel edgy. Nerves are soon eased when Dale (like Peter Crouch in height and playing style) calmly evades Alty tackles in the box to stroke home a third for the hosts. Man of the match Dale has now scored in each of the Spartans’ five FA Cup ties this season. Maguire completes the rout with a brave flick over the onrushing Alty goalie. It all becomes a bit too easy; I almost want an Alty fight back to make for an edge of the seat finale.

When I got back to the beach (always seem to park miles away) the lighthouse on the end of the pier was blinking and the tide was in. I have a feeling that this year’s FA Cup trail may have reached its high water mark but what a trail it’s been. #getcarriedaway? In the words of The Four Tops: I can’t help myself.
TV highlights: Wasn’t the Warrington/Exeter tie thrilling? I can scarcely remember a match that’s atmosphere has come over so strongly on the telly. Loved all the interviews on the pitch especially at the end when all the fans were bouncing and chanting away behind the presenters. Warrington manager Shaun Reid is a great Scouse FA Cup character. Whenever he’s asked a question he pauses for a moment, takes a sharp intake of breath, makes a brief ironic or jokey remark, addressing the interviewer as “mate”, and then gives a fuller response. The BBC highlights of today’s game are here.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Shildon 1 Norton United 2

FA Cup, fourth qualifying round replay
Attendance: 936

My FA Cup overfloweth. I witnessed one of the upsets of the fourth qualifying round at Warrington on Saturday and tonight ventured to darkest, deepest Durham for the replay between the two lowest ranked sides still in the competition. Shildon was seeking to become the first Northern League club to reach the first round since 2003 (when it was they who made it) while Norton (a village within Stoke-on-Trent) has never been beyond the first qualifying round.

Dean Street is a proper football ground through and through. It is embedded in its community both in terms of its feel and location, tightly hemmed in and overlooked by narrow streets of terraced houses and the sense of enclosure all the greater after dark. Residents watched from bedroom windows as did a boy up a tree. The bonhomie of the queue for the turnstile was replaced by a hushed intensity from the crowd inside. In keeping for a match between step 4 and 5 sides calls on the pitch matched the volume of the occasional cheers and jeers off it and all were heard against the continual drone of the generator for the burger van.

Norton took the lead against the run of play when a Shildon defender slipped on the dewy grass on the edge of his box and Cropper swooped to swiftly fire home. The visitors upped their game thereafter and then extended their lead on 53 minutes when Diskin lashed a loose ball into the top corner. Another fortuitous if well taken goal. Shildon battled well, maintaining a very brisk pace, and got one back with a drive by Connor from the edge of the area (above) but they then missed three or four good chances which ultimately cost them the match.

It was an exciting game for the neutrals and away fans not that there was many of either group. The final whistle was greeted by silence apart from a manic roar from the blur of Norton bibs in the centre circle. The Shildon lads collapsed to their knees and hung their heads. They know the feeling. They lost an FA Vase quarter-final here in 2010 then a semi-final to a goal six minutes from the end of extra time in March last year. A desperate hat-trick to be sure – and no home first round derby against Gateshead. Next up for me: Blyth/Alty.

Further reading: For a more comprehensive description and daylight pics of the ground see my previous blog post from Shildon. The action pics in this post are by Thomas Clegg. His full set is here.
Fixtures and fittings: Shildon’s distinctive main stand was built in 1923 and Alex Ferguson switched on the floodlights prior to a friendly against Man United in 1987. The ground has many ornate, domestic banisters and balustrades because the president is part of a family staircase business.

Caught (out) on film: As I watched the first round draw on Monday night I was reminded how the competition is approaching the point where it loses its innocence. The programme included often blurry, amateur footage of fourth qualifying round matches lifted from YouTube. No chance of that now particularly for Warrington who’s tie with Exeter has been selected as the live match on BBC2. The cameraman at Warrington v. North Ferriby (shooting on his phone from the look of it) missed the Wire’s historic winner and the club has put out a plea on Twitter to anyone who may have captured it. In this internet age when we can see everything without going anywhere I rather like the quaint, exclusive notion of an incident that was seen only by those who were there. Erik Lamela’s (frankly not that exciting) ramona goal for Tottenham last week has been seen over five million times, the Warrington strike just 691 times. Talking of blurry footage from YouTube below is my humble attempt to capture the mood of the match.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Warrington Town 1 North Ferriby United 0

FA Cup, fourth qualifying round
Attendance: 691

‘Welcome to Warrington. Home of the Warrington Wolves’ read the sign after my turn off the M62. Well, blow me. Always thought the Wolves played in St Helens. A rather unnecessary sign, perhaps, but one that underlines that Warrington is very much a rugby league rather football town. The step 4 football club hasn’t shared the Wolves’s fortunes but they do have the same nickname of The Wire in recognition of Warrington’s history of steel wire manufacture which explains the steel sculptures on the roundabouts approaching the town centre.
The club should really be The Wire Men or something similar. Just calling them The Wire is a bit like referring to Northampton not as The Cobblers but The Shoe. Still it works for The Iron (Scunthorpe) and gives endless possibilities for headline writers (more of which later).

I began enjoying the afternoon immediately after I’d paid my tenner admission for my son and I (fantastic value) and entered the ground. The first thing I saw was a garden shed as a programme shop with two animated fellas selling pin badges and programmes as if they were at Petticoat Lane and, beyond that, a B&Q-type gazebo for flogging golden goal tickets. I entered at the same time as a man in a dog collar, a Tweedle Dee-shaped Ferriby superfan who I’d spotted two rounds ago at Cleethorpes, another away supporter in a white pith helmet and geezer in the classic 60s West Ham away shirt.

The clubhouse is what you might call open plan. VIP suite? That will be the table with a plate of biscuits. Press box? That’s the table opposite with the fella on his laptop. Among the early arrivals was George Riley, the sports reporter on 5 Live Breakfast who had also attended the previous round’s replay against Colwyn Bay. (This was Warrington’s seventh match in the competition this season.) At the top of the stairs is a fantastic Romeo and Juliet balcony with club initials on the balustrade.

An understated, characterful ground, Cantilever Park boasts a wonderful mish-mash of stands of differing vintages and, it seems, structural integrity. The backdrops are great too. Overlooking the ground in the same corner as the clubhouse is a chapel and little white villa and behind the goal, a new all-weather pitch where lads played oblivious to the main event just a slide tackle away. The view towards the far end of the ground is framed by the Cantilever Bridge (steel, of course, and from which the ground gets its name) over the Manchester Ship Canal and an apartment block which affords the same sort of free aerial view that Man City fans sought of the CSKA Moscow match behind closed doors last Tuesday.

Moments before the start a drummer struck up the best beat I’d heard since Basingstoke. “Wire on the telly, Wire on the telly,” the lads beside him sang before addressing the Ferriby fans as: “You’re just a bus stop in Grimsby.” The scene was well and truly set for a what was to be a cracking contest between two sides seeking to reach the first round proper for the first time in their histories.

The match was pretty even throughout despite the two division gap between the sides. Warrington had two good chances in the first half and, at the other end, their goalie nearly gifted a goal to the visitors when he spilt a shot. The turning point came mid-way in the second half when the Ferriby skipper was dismissed for pushing over a Warrington player. Facing 10 men and their tails up, Warrington entered their best spell of the match and crowned it when Field (sporting the finest Jesus hairstyle this side of Jonathan Woodgate) burst through the midfield to beat the North Ferriby offside trap and lob the onrushing goalie before tapping home.

As the tension mounted and number of spectators on the balcony of the apartment block swelled from one to three Ferriby surged back and put the hosts under huge pressure especially from a series of corners. Their 6ft 5 inch centre forward Denton looked forever menacing but the Wire goalie kept his side in the match with a string of five saves. So it did go down to the wire (sorry: couldn’t resist it). At the start of the game I told my son that I could smell an upset and, for once, I was right.

At the final whistle someone rushed onto the pitch with a cardboard cut-out of the FA Cup wrapped in tin foil that had been fixed to the shed door and Metcalfe sprinted over to where we were shuffling out to kiss his girlfriend, a length of cotton wool hanging from his left nostril as it had done since an earlier clash of heads (with the oppo, not the girlfriend). A vintage FA Cup occasion in all respects. My El Clasico.

Programme notes: Inexplicably, the programme inclues a review of four other programmes from random minor clubs, each scored out of 10 according to eight criteria. Chew Moor Brook’s four pager wasn’t much of a bedtime read, apparently. The programme also chronicles that in 1994 Warrington drew Darlington at home in the first round proper of the FA Cup before being knocked out in a replay in the final qualifying round. I like the way that a match that never came to pass is still part of club history. The reference reminds me of how Tow Law came within a replay of playing Arsenal at home in the Cup in 1967.

Star turn: Warrington’s manager is Shaun Reid, brother of ex-Everton, Bolton and England star Peter recently appointed manager of Mumbai City. You can see the brotherly likeness in the interview at the end of these brief highlights.