Monday, 4 May 2015

Billingham Tn 1 Norton & Stockton Ancients 2 (aet)

Ernest Armstrong Memorial Cup final
Attendance: 350

I’d considered going for a walk on this fine Bank Holiday Monday and it felt like I was after I’d parked and began a woodland wander with my nephew Toby to the cup final. The approach reminded me of my trip to Shelley last September. Located deep in a large park beside a cricket pitch and golf course and with hoardings hung on the perimeter fence, the ground is so secreted that we heard it (i.e. the PA) before we saw it. That’s if you exclude sightings of floodlights extending above the tree tops like saplings emerging from the undergrowth in spring.

The analogy is fitting. For years Teesdale Park, today’s venue and home of Thornaby, was in a very poor state suffering badly at the hands of vandals partly because of its isolation. Now it’s practically been re-born and is the most improved ground in the Northern League. Bedding plants beside the turnstile hut made me wonder if I should’ve got mine in earlier. Next to them were two giant owls carved from wood. Garden features abound in another corner of the ground and outside the tea container while old tree trunks with ferns mark out the parking bays. It was all a bit –  dare I say it – National Trust.

Trees surround the ground on all sides. “Non-league nirvana” is how Toby described it. A steep grassy bank (reminiscent of Padiham) gives a superb vantage point from which to admire the Peter Morris stand and, to the left, a wonderfully rickety simple cover made from corrugated iron. Other sheets of it form part of the barrier. To the right is a small seated stand without a roof (but it looks like it once had one) which is so close to the goal that spectators are protected from errant shots by a large net. The white and light blue painted concrete steps look like something from a lido. Some seats for the stands have come from old grounds at Scarborough and Darlington, paint came courtesy of Dulux and labour for the improvements was provided via the probation service. Oh and then there are the bus shelters ...

An early chance sent a ripple of applause around the ground which was bathed in sunshine. We felt like we were the cricket match next door than watching a football cup final. It was an afternoon for sitting on your jacket rather than wearing it while chatting to chum, a sporting contest providing ambience and diversion while pooches pottered and toddlers tottered around the pitch. Bliss. Toby lay back to sunbathe on the bank, only thinking to work out which team was which some way into the match.

I last saw Billingham during their nightmare season in February 2014 as they were on their way to breaking ‘goals conceded’ records. Things have looked up since – and continued to do so during the early exchanges of the game. They took the lead in the first half when a cross was flicked on then volleyed home from the edge of the box.

Promoted from the Northern League second division nine days previously, Norton were Billy’s equals in the main and grew in strength as the match unfolded. They missed two great chances in the dying minutes but then, deep into injury time they deservedly drew level with a volley from sub Nicky Martin playing his first match for two months. Toby and I had enjoyed the game but, as neutrals, didn’t really need an extra helping but, as is always the way in these situations, that’s what we got. Norton now had the impetus and sealed victory with another goal from Martin just before half-time of extra-time (see below). It was a highly competitive and passionate match in the best of Northern League traditions right until the final whistle.

The daughter of Ernest Armstrong gave a speech and then presented the trophy, her brother dishing out the medals. The afternoon had been a great advert for “community football” as Baroness Armstrong described it. The mood at the presentations was like the end of the village fete; you almost expected the cup to go to the grower of the biggest marrow than the winner of a football competition. A lovely scene in a sylvan setting to end the season.

The important Ernest: Ernest Armstrong was president of the Northern League from 1981-96, a Durham MP for 23 years and a former deputy speaker of the House of Commons. The knock-out competition named after him is played between teams in the second division.

Programme notes: Lambert and Jamieson of Norton both have “great feet” and Mitchell “knows where the goal is.” Love it. Great quiz question too: “Who is the ex-Aberdeen star who appeared on Top of the Pops twice on the same night?” Answer: Steve Archibald, singing for Scotland and Tottenham.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Esh Winning 4 Seaham Red Star 3

Northern League, second division
Attendance: 34

I’ve wanted to visit Esh Winning in Co Durham for years ever since reading a description in the Northern League guide: “Ground is in a picturesque setting (bring your bird book and binoculars).” A paean in the Northern League 125th anniversary book is equally enticing: “For the view, for the welcome, there are few better places to watch football in the north-east”.

This was clearly a place to save for a sunny day. I’m normally preoccupied with the FA qualifiers in August and September and Esh seldom stay in the competition long enough for me to catch them. Other big matches for the lesser Northern League clubs are in short supply. So I selected the last home match of the season which is how this humdrum fixture has been in my diary since last summer.

Paradoxically, the smaller the settlement the more I struggle to locate the ground which was the case with Esh Winning who actually play at Waterhouses a mile down the road in a wooded valley. As settlements go this is pretty tiddly and the smallest to provide a home to a Northern League club. We’re talking a rural village here without exaggeration. I passed through it and just as I was starting to curse and look for a place to turn I saw an Esh Winning sign, its stag logo accurately reflecting the setting.

The ground is an absolute delight. You enter up steps in the corner for the arena to be revealed in all its quirky, home-made, higgledy-piddledgy glory. Where to start? The main stand catches the eye if only for the precipitous pitch of its roof reminiscent of nearby Crook and just as likely to catch the wind and let in sweeping rain, you’d think. Inside it are some weathered old seats, numbered, that I think came from a church. The benches they’re positioned on, the adjacent standing shelter and wonky rail around the pitch are painted (now flaking) in green and yellow.

Even more inviting and novel accommodation is provided by two small wooden shelters on a bank behind one of the goals. Nail a few planks to the front of them and they could be bird hides. In between are four park benches, two of which could’ve come from the Deerness Valley path which I’d cycled along in the morning (see notes at the end). Access up the incline is provided by paving slab steps with a steel rail, all painted green and yellow, of course. Wonderful.

Opposite the main stand and linked by a strip of astroturf  are four spaced out bus shelters which I don’t suppose are often populated. A blustery wind whistled through them as they creeked from side to side. The soundscape was like a square rigger out at sea, the players calling out like sailors. One of the floodlights lay flat on the ground (blown down, I guess) and nearby turbines were earning their keep. Judging from the robustness of the dugouts gales are commonplace hereabouts.

As I was absorbing the surroundings the goals were raining in. Esh, sitting two off bottom, hit the bar in the first two minutes and forced a great save from the Seaham goalie before streaking into an extraordinary 3-0 lead. It seemed that after sealing the title three weeks ago Seaham hadn’t so much taken their foot of the gas but stuck both feet out of the window having parked up in a lay-by for a snooze. They got one back then Esh, immediately and somehow cheekily, nabbed another. “Embarrassing” was the word I picked out among the expletives as the visitors stomped off at half-time.

Somewhat predictably it was all change after the interval. Now kicking down the slope, Seaham found their pride and got into their stride to dominate, getting two further goals back to set up a cracking finale. You’d have thought this was a cup-tie judging from the visitors’ passion and keenness not to waste a second. I’d have loved extra-time too. A super save by the Esh goalie preserved his side’s lead.

So Esh Winning won - and got revenge for a 12-1 spanking at home to Seaham in the Vase last October. The afternoon was a winner all round, as far as I was concerned. One of the my favourite grounds of all-time and second best outing of the season (after Warrington).

Not in the news: Esh aren’t big in the media. Their website appears moribund, they haven’t tweeted since last October and today there was no programme nor PA. In fact, the only announcement was when a fella wandered around the perimeter to say that the winning lottery number was 78. I rather like this old fashioned understatedness. Esh Winning are as discrete electronically as they are geographically.

Pub name games: Esh Winning Pineapple beat Liverpool Fantail in the FA Sunday Cup in 1978 in front of 1,500 spectators, the ground record. What a match that must have been – for the names of the teams alone. The Pineapple was the name of a local pub. By the way, the Red Star in Seaham is also the name of a pub in the town. Esh Winning is a name that could’ve been included in the Two Ronnies’ football results sketch. As well as the immortal East Fife 5 Forfar 4 they could’ve had “... and Esh Winning ... are losing.”

From Esh to England: Dating back to the 1930s Esh Winning’s two greatest former players are Raich Carter who went on to play 245 times for Sunderland and George Camsell who turned out 453 times for Middlesbrough. Between them they played 24 times for England.

Make a day of it: Bring your bike like I did and go for a ride around a loop of disused railway lines that passes the ground. I went south to Crook on the Deerness Valley Walk then crossed over to the Bishop Auckland railway path up to Broompark then back along the Deerness line. It’s 22 miles in all. Allow three hours inclusive of rests.

Further viewing: I couldn’t fit all the pics into the narrative. Click here for the full set in all its glory.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Robin Hood Athletic 2 Boroughbridge 2

West Yorkshire League, Premier Division
Attendance: c 40.

Well, it wasn’t supposed to have been like this. For weeks I’d been keenly anticipating an FA Vase semi-final at North Shields but then couldn’t get a ticket, dammit. Plan ‘b’ was going to see Tadcaster at Garforth, a match for which I’d won a hospitality ticket via a competition on Twitter. That game had been re-scheduled and, since my win, the wheels have come off the Taddy wagon so the match wasn’t quite such an attraction. And so to plan ‘c’ ... another pleasant paddle down the backwaters of the West Yorkshire League following similar trips to Shelley and Aberford earlier in the season. This time I followed by local lads, Boroughbridge, to south Leeds for their match against Robin Hood Athletic within the rumble of the M1.

The ground occupies a large, square field bound by traditional terraced houses on one side and new apartment blocks opposite. I soon found it but struggled to gain access. At one point I thought about parking on Middleton Lane and crawling through the hedge. Entry, it transpires, is via the car park of the Coach & Horses pub. I then approached the rail around the pitch and ventured towards what I thought was an official entrance but was actually boarding and fencing protection around the floodlights.

The Coach Ground is a ground rather than just a pitch thanks to its fine stand. It has 10 terraces with four red painted benches at the top and solar panels on the fascia. (Bear with me: I know this bit sounds nerdy). A sign declares it to be the Andy Parker Stand and below the names of club benefactors are displayed. Adjacent is the welcoming tea room (“come in and smell the coffee”) and changing block. All in all it’s a cracking little set-up worthy of higher than step 7 in the pyramid. So clearly embedded in the community, the club has a Northern League feel and I can’t pay a higher compliment than that. Last season Robin Hood won the first division title and they will surely be knocking on the door of the Northern Counties East League before long.

For now they occupy mid-table in comparison to Boroughbridge who have been propping up the league having won only three matches all season. In very windy conditions Robin Hood went two up in 20 minutes but Boroughbridge, sporting bright pink, levelled it and hung on for a point. An enjoyable afternoon out at a club that’s as appealing as its name. Surprisingly large crowd too. Highly recommended whatever the other options.

Some history: Founded in 1952, Robin Hood Athletic took over a fallow field behind the Coach & Horses hotel in 1968. The stand dates from the late 70s. In 2003 the club purchased the whole site under the proviso it was always retained for recreation. Onsite changing facilities were added in 2010 to replace those at the back of the pub and the tea room was extended last December. Further reading about Robin Hood here.

Star connection: Robin Hood’s greatest former player is Huddersfield legend Roy Ellam. Mention of his name instantly brought to mind his pic in my coveted 1970-71 Soccer Star gala collection stamp album. And here he is ...

Starter for 10: I began the afternoon with a visit to Whitkirk Wanderers who are based near Temple Newsam and were playing Thornhill in the division below Robin Hood. To my surprise there was entrance fee but at just £1 including programme I could hardly complain. Sadly what I thought from Google Earth may have been two quaint stands were vandalised shipping containers on a bank. After 10 minutes I made my excuses (almost personally as there were only about a dozen others there) and left.

Mention in dispatches: Three cheers for North Ferriby who beat Wrexham on penalties in the FA Trophy final this weekend. Sounds like a hell of a game.