Saturday, 23 January 2016

Sunderland RCA 3 Sleaford Town 2

FA Vase, fourth round
Attendance: 109

It’s funny how often the most hidden grounds are in the smallest settlements. I recalled Parkgate, Emley and Barton in my approach to Meadow Park, home of Sunderland RCA. I’d been there on Google Earth, of course (but not too much for fearing of spoiling the surprise) and I recalled that access was via a modern close but I still couldn’t quite believe that Beechbrooke would lead to my journey’s end. Remarkably, though, after several wiggles, it did. There was no signage at the top of the close when I arrived at 12.20pm which didn’t help although by kick-off there was a small red sandwich board with an A4 sheet slid into a plastic sleeve indicating ‘Sunderland RCA’. No beckoning Wembley arch here, to be sure.

I’d arrived early for a bike ride. Ryhope (the initials stand for Ryhope Community Association) is a former pit village on the coast between Sunderland and Seaham. It also lies on route 1 of the National Cycle Network and the Walney to Wear coast to coast route. The match was a a good opportunity to ride the routes and get a feel for the area at the same time. I ended my tour by checking out the ‘view from the cemetary’ (see bottom pic) since this is the name of a blog-like section of the club’s website and programme.

The view is expansive and unhindered. If you like to watch your football surrounded by gravestones Ryhope is the unquestionably the place to come. The church provides one of the ground’s main backdrops, the other being the chimney belonging to a Victorian pumping station. Deciduous and evergreen trees add a little extra appeal. This place would be nice on a summer’s day. The accommodation consists of a battered, bomb-proof main stand and lean-to with corrugated roof and posts made from what looks like rusting Meccano. What I initially thought was the kazi is actually the dressing rooms which are connected to the pitch via a path bounded by a faded, red rope.

“So how do you play this game, then?” the old bloke behind me (they’re all old blokes at Northern League grounds) jested with his companion. He, like me, probably hadn’t seen a match for weeks. The lawnmower patterns and a sanded area of the pitch told the sorry tale of our mild and relentlessly wet mid-winter. Boy, it was good to be back. My long wait had perhaps over-raised my expectations about a sense of occasion. We’re just talking the last 32 of the Vase here, after all, although this was the furthest either side had been in the competition.

Including Old Salty, last encountered at Newton Aycliffe in September, the crowd only just surpassed three figures. Sunderland were playing at home and Ryhope Colliery Welfare (amazingly this village is home to two Northern League clubs) were hosting South Shields both of which will have knocked a few off the gate. I was one of the very few to be sporting club colours (and I’d bought my black and red scarf primarily to wear at Knaresborough Town) while the sound of the seagulls and an ice cream van (what?) rose above the murmur of conversation. All the talk was about that the classic Vase tie between South Shields and Morpeth on Wednesday. Such a pity that the Shields derby in the next round today was not to be but RCA served up an absorbing alternative.

RCA have been scoring goals for fun in this competition, all curiously against Yorkshire opposition. They put three past Bridlington, four past Silsden, five past Hemsworth Miners Welfare and four past high-flying Tadcaster Albion. More were to follow today although the opposition came from Lincolnshire.

Sleaford took an early lead but RCA fought back to go in 2-1 up at half-time. After the break Sleaford regained the initiative and deservedly levelled on 70 mins albeit following a defender’s error. I really, really didn’t want extra time not least because I’d have to miss it to be home by 6.15pm for a meal out. To my relief six minutes from time RCA settled the tie when Charlton spotted the Sleaford keeper off his line and lobbed him in style from 30 yards out, leaving the goalie backpedalling and pawing at nothing. (Click here for the goal within the highlights). How I cheered. Right at the end a player from either side was left sprawled on turf following two fouls in the space of a few seconds which triggered a melee and Sleaford sending off. For me, a great day out could not have had a more satisfactory conclusion.

Further reading: One of RCA’s former players, Joe Dixon, has a hugely detailed and beautifully curated website about this playing days in the 60 and 70s. Full of newspaper clippings, it’s like an open scrapbook and so evocative of the era. All of his career was spent in the regional leagues. An average Joe in the broader scheme of things but all the more interesting because of it.

Programme notes: A line from the aforementioned View from the Cemetary in the programme made me laugh out loud: “This Vase run is fairy tale stuff. Most exciting thing to happen in Ryhope since the chip shop caught fire.”

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Penistone Church 3 Knaresborough Town 0

Northern Counties East League, first division
Attendance: 80

Peering up to the floodlights in the gloom my son and I could see the rain sheeting down cinematically and it barely abated the whole match. Showers rattled the roof of the stand where we cowered and  the subs and the lino squelched in front of us in the touchline mud. The conditions when you visit new grounds have a great bearing on the experience and that was certainly so today. The weather was grim.

Pity because Penistone’s ground (near Barnsley) would make for a good trip on a sunny day with a bike ride along the nearby Transpennine route into the bargain, perhaps. (Click here for pics by a chap who had the sense to go to Penistone on such a day last August for the club’s debut in the FA Cup). There is a Pennine backdrop to the far touchline while the church tower appears behind the near touchline with roofs of terraced houses visible behind the single stand. It has just two rows of seats and PCFC painted white on black on the wall at the back.

A smart, proud club sporting Juventus livery, Penistone is enjoying only its second season in the pyramid. I was confused on arrival. A sign in one direction said pay kiosk’ and, in the other, over 35 spectators and players’. I thought that the Church may have instigated an admission scale according to age and I might be in for a sort of pre-pensioner discount. But it transpired that the latter sign led round to a veterans match on the pitch behind the ground.

There was no getting away from the fact that today’s match was a very run-of-the-mill league fixture. The interest for us was visiting a new ground, getting out of the house on a dull day and seeing our local lads into the bargain. (I last saw them at Hall Road Rangers). Town went one down in seconds and were played off the park thereafter. A woeful performance by Knaresborough, in fact. My son joined me in anticipation of an away the lads vibe but it seemed that we were the lads’ and we weren't exuding much vibe come the final whistle. I like to go to church at Christmas but the village chapel on Christmas Eve will probably be easier to enjoy.

Programme notes: Among the pen pictures was reference to Alvyn Riley who has a wand of left foot and James Young who has a cultured left foot. They’d go well in that Daniel Day-Lewis film ...

Off the rails: Lincoln Moorlands Railway, also in the NCEL first division, are taking some tonkings. They’ve conceded 11, 12 and 14 goals in matches so far this season and are only one defeat or so away from a minus 100 goal difference. An end of season trip to see them trounced at Yorkshire Amateur (long wanted an excuse to go there) is in order. New Mills are struggling too having lost all 19 matches to date in the Northern Premier League first division and scored only 11 goals in the process.

Rub-a-dub-dub: Great write-up and pic, below, in The Guardian about when Bournemouth played Man U in 1984. Ah, those were the days ...

Cup runners: I've come across a couple of blogs of lads on FA Cup trails, both southern based. One blog is here and the other here.

A spot of egg chasing: I experienced another new ground in vile weather last month: Harrogate RUFC’s new enclosure with clubhouse. I watched the match against Preston Grasshoppers (15-5) in the fourth tier of English rugby.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Rochdale Town 2 1874 Northwich 4

FA Vase, first round
Attendance: 142

For the first time in 11 years I don’t have an FA Cup first round tie to go to. No ties within striking distance tickled my fancy. In fact I’ve pretty much done all the clubs that are ever likely to reach the proper rounds which led me to look further down the pyramid for an alternative fixture a week in advance. Today’s Vase tie caught the eye even though it was at a stage of the competition that’s so premature it’s hardly ejaculated. Why? I’ve long wanted to visit Rochdale Town having seen pics and 1874 Northwich are well supported (as I found out at Nelson two years ago) which meant the match would have the semblance of an occasion.

As soon as I arrived at the Mayfield Sports Centre I knew I was going to enjoy myself more than, frankly, as a neutral I ought. This is a cracking little ground, oozing character, and right up there with the manifold delights of its league rivals from other Lancashire mill towns, Nelson, Padiham, Bacup and Colne.

The ramshackle main stand, with painted wooden benches and an assortment of individual backs, is a gem. It comes in two parts that are held together in a linked arms sort of way by an uncovered new steel frame. Perched precariously on top and looking decidedly decommissioned is what looks like the upper saloon deck of a steamer and a static caravan. (There was one of those overlooking a corner). The stand is flanked on either side by giant dugouts easily mistaken for further spectator accommodation.

The smaller stand opposite follows suite being surmounted by a sort of bird hide shed, similarly unpopulated. The fragility of the structure is belied by the grandeur of its name: the Rochdale Fusiliers Association Galipoli (sic) Stand. Marvellous. Town used to have an equally fabulous monicker: Castleton Gabriels, which dates back to when players had to belong to the nearby St Gabriels Catholic church.

Behind the stand stretch the Pennine hills, today shrouded in a mist penetrated by a church spire and electricity pylons. The sole colour in the backdrop belonged to the red coat of a grazing horse which had been dulled by a very damp week. Later a sub warming up squelched with every step. One of the ends is covered and the other has three open terraces, hinting, as they always do, at bigger crowds in bygone days.

The khazi at the terraced end has a smirksome slogan inside and a great view to boot meaning you need not miss a moment of the action as you widdle. Judging from the stench and leaves clogging the drain this isn’t one of those conveniences that is inspected on the hour with the results recorded on a log.

“Problems with the lights?” I asked a geezer in an orange tabard in the gathering gloom as he investigated the interior of a steel cabinet immediately to my right. “Yes,” he replied, before explaining that the rugby league side that shares the ground hadn’t left the gadget that’s needed to open the cabinet to access the floodlight switch. “All they’re thinking about is their big semi-final today,” he griped. He found a solution a little later, though, although the lights behind one goal remained off throughout. As my gaze returned to the action, I put my hand onto a barrier and into contact with the remains of a meat pie merging with the rust.

What about the action? Well, “’74” (as the away fans addressed them) went in deservedly two up at the interval, in keeping with their status a step higher than their hosts in the North West Counties League. Town rallied earlier the second half and got one back only for ’74 to reinstate their leading margin soon after and seal victory with the best goal of the lot, a mazy run and drive from the edge of the box. Town got a consolation with the last but two kick of the match. (Click here for 25 mins of highlights).

Last season ’74 reached the third round of the Vase and this time I can see them sticking around until after Christmas when the competition really hots up and I hope to return for the main course. As for today I can’t think how I could’ve got better value from a fiver. Loved it.

Not up for the cup: Had I waited to see Rochdale Town in the FA Cup I may have been waiting a long time. They’ve qualified for the competition just once in the last 14 years and lost that tie, last season, 0-6 to Runcorn Linnets. (I had planned to go to the match before it was switched). They lost all six preceding ties between 1994 and 2001. Northwich Victoria, 1874’s parent club, contest the first round proper of the FA Cup against Boreham Wood on Saturday. For more about the internecine recent history of clubs from Northwich see this feature from When Saturday Comes.