Saturday, 22 March 2014

Tow Law Town 1 South Shields 1

Northern League, second division
Attendance: 170

There are many interesting grounds at the lower levels of the non-league pyramid but I still need a reason, however slim, to visit them or else I just end up feeling like anorak (which, of course, I'm not). The problem is that smaller clubs seldom have notable matches and never last long in the FA Cup.

Tow Law Town, in rural Durham, has long been on my hit list. As soon as I heard they were playing their 3,000th match I was programming the sat nav. Chris Waddle, their illustrious allumni, wouldn’t be there but, heh, it sounded like an event of sorts and there was free admission to boot, all of which roughly trebled the average home gate. Community spirit was positively oozing out of the packed sports bar, above, named after Steve Howard (ex-Luton and Leicester and Tow Law’s second greatest ex-player). Inside people played dominoes and there was a display of the club’s history including the scrapbooks and programmes of late superfan Lily Craggs. The scene was set for a vintage afternoon in many respects. The Northern League is as close as you can get to sporting time travel and I absolutely love it.

Bob and Elsie
The occasion started with a pitch invasion. It couldn’t have been more benign or more fully authorised: the League chairman beckoned us over to join him and the dignitaries for a photocall. This year the League celebrates its 125th anniversary and guest of honour today was Bob Rogers, grandson of its founder who has flown over from Hong Kong for the various celebrations including Tow Law’s 3,000th match. He said that Tow Law reminded him of small town outback Australia where, as a young man, he had worked as a farm hand. Also present was the widow of His Royal Sir Bobby Robsonness who is Tow Law’s president. (Bobby was merely vice-president and both of them will have appreciated the home side’s black and white strip).

Everything I’d read about Ironworks Road Ground had remarked on how cold it gets up there at the second highest football ground in England (behind Buxton). I’d always had in mind a midwinter visit to experience full Pennine exposure and thought I was wimping out going in spring. Not a bit of it: I needed each of my five layers.

As you’d expect at such a high altitude, the views beyond the main stand are superb stretching across Weardale. And also as you might expect, the ground includes a wind turbine that I expect seldom stops for long. It’s sited on the top of six terraces along the back of which a railway line used to run. A train driver once stopped to ask the score.

I don’t normally like the club name or nickname picked out in their main stand but when the letters aren’t printed on seats but handpainted on a brickwall as is the case of ‘The Lawyers’ I’m willing to make an exception. The mural at the back of the stand is nothing short of a masterpiece, the figure of a judge picked out in meticulous detail. The art reminded me of well dressing in Derbyshire and, appropriately in these parts, the banners of mining unions.

You could argue that the murals should show someone from the old ironworks or mines as Tow Law is much more associated with that type of employment than the legal profession;  the nickname is purely a play on words, Tow Law being the Old English for ‘look-out mound’. The words ‘home’ and ‘away’ on the dugouts and the ‘litter’ on the bin are handpainted and there’s another superb enamel on wood artwork, above, behind one of the goals. Someone is a dab hand with a paintbrush to say the very least.

Either side of the second painting are two single rows of 13 flip-up seats (in black and white like the grandstand) with a notice above saying that no standing is allowed in front of them in compliance with FA rules. I can’t think that has been much of an issue in recent years. Tow Law have had their big moments, though, most notably a run to the final of the FA Vase run in 1998 and a 5-1 FA Cup thrashing of then third division Mansfield in 1967 in front of 5,500 spectators. Just beyond one of the rows of seats in a corner is what looks like a escape hatch in the perimeter wall or, from the outside, the entrance to a burial chamber.

The first half was pretty uneventful but the match improved after the interval. The Lawyers took the lead on 68 mins with a deflected shot only for Shields to spoil the party 12 mins later with a similar blaster from the edge of the box. The Mariners could’ve won it, hitting the bar and missing an open goal from five yards out in the lively closing minutes.

So: P 3,000, W 1,246, D 565, L 1,189, F 5,701, A 5,680. A draw only today, perhaps, but Tow Law’s 3,000th was a darn sight more successful than Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th!

Programme notes: The ref was Mr P Osgood. No relation, surely? The Tow Law reserve goalie’s claim to fame is appearing in Status Quo’s video for Jam Side Down filmed on HMS Ark Royal. Great story too about a Tow Law fan from Italy who comes over for a match at least once a season and it’s always nice to see an ad from the milkman in a programme.

Golden oldie: It’s been a gala weekend of nostalgia for the Chris Waddle Fan Club. Members could’ve been part of his original club’s history today then, tomorrow, watch the great man in action with his All Stars team in a charity match at Hallam in Sheffield.

Second best (not really): Dulwich Hamlet of the Isthmian League are the only club in the national league system who’ve played more games than Tow Law in the same competition.

A horse on the pitch: While in the Durham fells I visited two former Northern League grounds. The home of Stanley United (which left the league in 1974) is now a field for horses, sheep and cattle and an old stand is a barn. The much-loved ‘little house on the prairie’ which once provided the changing rooms and clubhouse has long gone but an advertising hoarding for British Coal poignantly remains.

The other ground was Hazel Grove in Cockfield, the “wonder village” as it was dubbed after reaching the final of the FA Amateur Cup in 1928. The pitch is still railed and a new clubhouse is under construction. Players will continue to enter the pitch between two dugouts that have survived for at least 20 years according to old pictures. Either side of them are the stumps of two wooden poles that used to support a canopy connecting to the old clubhouse. For more on these two grounds see their guides on the excellent Pyramid Passion.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Padiham 0 Darlington 1883 2

Northern Premier League, First Division (North)
Attendance: 340

For once I neither needed to check for a postponement nor leave the house in full expedition gear. Crocuses were even peeping out in the strays of Harrogate. As I continued east past Skipton and into Lancashire almost every turn had a fond football memory: Barnoldswick, Clitheroe, Colne then dear old Nelson. At the roundabout from the motorway I briefly got caught up in match traffic - heading for Burnley/Derby rather than Padiham, I should add. My journey ended by turning right at an inviting, authentic neighbourhood pub and up a short, very narrow lane to The Arbories Memorial Sports Ground.

Its only structures are three basic covered terraces and modern, trim clubhouse. You get the best elevated view from a grassy bank. (Notices prohibiting standing here were commendably ignored by fans and officials). And what a view especially in today’s low sun: a peerless Pennine panorama, in fact. In the town below you can see a church tower, two church steeples, a picturesque chapel, the red and white Shuttleworth College and, beyond, the equally eye-catching and modern Park Hill Business Centre. Looming above the seated stand on the far side of the Calder valley are six wind turbines and, further in the distance, another windfarm then pylons marching over the horizon. The view must extend at least four miles in all. The northern touchline is backed by a row of tall trees and over one corner you can see the extended chimneys of a folly (see footnote). Absolute bliss. Bring your binoculars.

Just outside the ground is a large sign proclaiming Padiham’s treble last season, an achievement further commemorated by a stone plaque presented by the town council and positioned beside the clubhouse door. Having spent all their footballing history in county leagues Padiham won promotion to the Northern Premier League last season. Opposition from as far afield as Darlington is quite a novelty which is probably why the PA announcer twice introduced today’s visitors “from the north-east” as though it was another country.

Six years ago the chances of clubs from these two towns ever meeting one another even for an FA Cup tie were remote. Padiham were mid-table in the North West Counties League second division (step 6) while Darlington were heading for the Football League fourth division play-offs. Where once there were five divisions separating the clubs today, remarkably, Padiham and Darlington (albeit in reincarnated 1883 guise) are level. Well, almost level. There’s always bound to be a bit of slope at a ground hereabouts …

You have to feel sorry for Darlington given what they’ve gone through and, earlier this season, I’d previously enjoyed the sense of occasion they’d brought to matches at Clitheroe and Harrogate Railway. I’m almost becoming a temporary and unofficial member of the away supporters’ club. But I like to back the underdog too which is why I wore Padiham’s colours today. (They were Reading’s colours actually but I’m a great believer in multi-scarfing).

Darlo controlled the match for long periods and looked much the stronger side as if they were playing at home which, with their away following, is how matches like this must feel. They took the lead on 14 mins when a long pass found Dowson who shrugged off a Padiham challenge to fire home. Padiham had a purple patch early in the second half and forced two super saves from the Darlo goalie. The Quakers wrapped things up on 68 mins when a free-kick from deep on the right was played back across the six-yard box and stroked home by Fisher. The visitors thus recorded their 1oth consecutive away League win going back to October while for Padiham it’s their straight fifth defeat. On this form these two sides will be a division apart next season.

After the final whistle I went for a closer look at the folly by crossing the adjacent cricket pitch (built, like the football ground in 1949). The clock on the pavillion showed five to six. Hardly worth turning it back now especially as its for cricketers. Thank God: we’ve made it to March. Spring is here, meteorologically at least.

Programme notes: Padiham’s nickname is The Storks. Don’t know why – but perhaps it’s something to do with the victory in the NHS Bird Cup in 2011 …

Folly footnote: Built in 1794, the folly close to the ground is Arbory Lodge. It was once the entrance to Huntroyde Hall, the drive to which is now bisected by the A6068. For me follies have much the same appeal as non-league football grounds because of their individuality, novelty and the fact that few people know about them. The only other folly I’ve seen from a ground was Culloden Tower at Richmond.

Alternative internationals: The Essex Senior League is positively cosmopolitan, as I became aware while scanning the back pages of the NLP as you do. Among the clubs are Sporting Bengal United (comprised of Bangladeshis), London Bari (another Asian side), FC Romania (made up of Romanian immigrants) and Greenhouse London (formed in 2000 as Mauritius Sports and now linked to a sports development charity). Somewhat fittingly the league also includes two clubs based very close to an international airport: Stansted and Takeley. Bengal play Romania on March 23. What a great novelty fixture. Equally appealing up north is Matlock Town v. Minnesota United on March 10. The alliteration adds to the quirkiness. It’s a pre-season match for the US visitors, their previous opponents being LA Galaxy.

Lots of scope for good pics today. Too many to fit in the blog, in fact. For the full album click here. Below are the highlights courtesy of the Darlington website, these days among my favourites.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Billingham Town 1 Crook Town 4

Northern League first division
Attendance: c 100 tbc

When I read that Billingham Town were in danger of recording the highest number of goals conceded by a Northern League club in a season (see footnotes) I immediately consulted their fixture list hoping either to witness a rare fist-pumping win (they’ve only won once all season) or a goal feast. Town’s new manager was in charge for the first time so perhaps the former outcome was more likely. Either way a trip to the Teesside would get me out of the house on another of those miserable, grey February afternoons.

Billy was, indeed, chilly. I stepped out of the car straight into a giant puddle and the match started in spitting rain. Just inside the turnstile my son asked quite reasonably: “What’s that bus shelter doing there?” There were two in fact: on their backs, taped off and with the timetable for the service between Stockton High Street and Peterlee still attached. They will provide cover for spectators in wheelchairs.

Bedford Terrace (as the ground is humbly named) has two stands: one basic, modern steel shelter on the far side and a cantilever grandstand clad in blue corrugated steel and with a peculiar shape when viewed from either end. I also liked the way that the respective directors’ boxes are accessed either side of the tunnel. Above them in the middle is the announcer’s box which, with its veneer panelling and stark single striplight looks like the accounts office in a garage. Curiously, you can’t access one side of the stand from the other without exiting and going right around the back and you have to leave the ground to enter the clubhouse via the car park.
The ground sits within a cleft of railway lines. Trainspotters get a great view from the grandstand of passing traffic which today included two coal trains, Arriva trains and Grand Central trains. Three cooling towers of the town’s chemical works loom at a distance over another corner of the ground.

Predictably, the match was a very one-sided affair in favour of the visitors right from the start. Billy held on for the first 32 mins though until a defender sliced a clearance into his own net. It never rains but it pours, to be use a topical metaphor. Crook doubled the lead and would have gone in at the break five or six goals ahead had it not been for their proligacy in front of goal.

In the second half Billy got one back, a neat move and wall pass in the penalty area resulting in a tap in. The scorer, his team and the home support seemed equally surprised as if waiting for an offside whistle. But no they had actually scored. “What’s it like to score a goal?” one Crook fan meanly yelled. The announcer followed up with: “The scorer of Billingham’s first goal of the year is Matthew Dixon!”. The side’s duck stretches back over 12 hours of football to Dec 21.

The goal gave Billy something to build on – for the rest of the season if not this match since, after a brief purple patch when an equaliser briefly seemed conceivable, they went 3-1 down to a header. Crook ended the match by reasserting their dominance and with the best goal of the afternoon. Nicholls burst through the home defence and angled a drive into the top corner. Next up: a friendly against a York City XI on Tuesday which gives the new gaffer (love that lingo) another chance to shape his team.

The weather had cleared up considerably in the second half and what I think is called the sun started shining. The floodlights remained off and I drove home on the A19 under a prawn pink sky. Smidgeons of spring at the end of a wild, wintery week. For me that was the best result of all.

Record breakers: The record for the most goals conceded by a Northern League club in a season is 177 by the now defunct Ferryhill Athletic in 1996/97 when eight fewer matches were played. Today’s match puts Billy on 163 in the ‘A’ column, just 15 goals away from ignomony with 10 games remaining. Hmmm. Their nadir this season was the 14-0 pasting against Stockton Town in the Durham Challenge Cup in November followed by an 11-0 defeat by Celtic Nation just three weeks later.

Players, please: Billy have registered 85 players in total this season which was nearly as high as today’s attendance. Six lads made debuts today. The club’s most celebrated ex-player is Garry Pallister of Middlesbrough, Man United and England.

Old and new media: To find out if today’s match was on I rang the Northern League’s postponement line. Almost as quaint as the League still operating a Clubcall service (currently suspended). Whatever next? Teletext?

True colours: Here are some impressively liveried Crook supporters. I don’t know which is more impressive: the black and gold of the dog’s jacket or the umbrella.