Saturday, 13 December 2014

Ramsbottom United 0 Stockport County 3

FA Trophy, first round
Attendance: 907

I’ve been waiting for a good opportunity to visit Ramsbottom for ages – and not just because of its name. I’d read that the club has a great setting and it’s currently very much on the up having had two promotions to the giddy heights of step 3 Northern Premier League since I first saw them in the Cup at Barnoldswick three years ago. Stockport, of course, have gone in the other direction at roughly the same pace and now languish in the Conference North, an exceptionally low ranking for an ex-League club. I haven’t seen the Hatters since c 1982 when, as a student in Manchester, I caught the bus with a friend and County fan to Edgeley Park for a Friday night match featuring the wonderfully named Tommy Sword.

It’s fair to say that my companion and nephew, Toby, and I did not see Ramsbottom at its best. We left the sunshine behind on the other side of the Pennines and descended into a cold, damp, foggy murk, various forms of precipitation taking it in turns to sweep across the arena. The Rammy staff and volunteers – some of whom had been preparing the ground since 8am with heaters, brushes and flamethrowers – had done very well to get the game on.

Not canoeing weather, you might have thought, but we passed a group that had just got out of the River Irwell on our way to the ground alongside the East Lancashire Steam Railway. The Santa Special was packed and about to depart while O Come all ye Faithful played on the tinny tannoy. Canoeing or a packed train with steamed up windows? Mmm: tricky one. We’d have gone with the canoeing if forced to make a choice.

We passed a cabin that’s home to the Ramsbottom Homing (as in pigeons) Society and bought programmes from a lady wearing a blue and white santa hat with “Rammy United” written in blue pen along a stripe of white. We resisted the temptation to buy an “Up the ram’s bottom” mug. Turnstiles were accessed through ornate iron, garden-style gates set within arches in brickwork.

The traditional, homely ambience (which reminded me of Matlock) was reinforced inside the ground by the names of some of the clubs stalwarts adoring the pre-fabricated hospitality suite and three basic stands viz Frank Rothwell, Jack Wolfenden, Harry Williams (after whom the ground is also named) and Ellis Timlin. Some of the seats came from Maine Road and the floodlights and sponsor’s lounge from Boundary Park, Oldham.

The black scoring tower of the adjacent cricket club was barely discernable through the fog and the views over the trees up at the surrounding hills were similarly obscured. The video cameraman sheltered under a plastic sheet arrangement suspended over an aluminium frame like a toddler under  a pushchair rain shield. Sleet and hailstones on the turf glistened under the floodlights providing the only Christmas sparkle while slide tackles carved soft furrows and the ball hit the grass with slap.

Full credit to the Stockport fans. An FA Trophy tie against a small club might have been insignificant but they turned out in number and were in good voice. They soon had plenty of cheer about. The visitors took the lead through a penalty after just two minutes. Hardly, the ideal start to a David/Goliath battle for us and the home fans but one that set the tone for the afternoon. Rammy rallied, kept battling throughout (not helped by some dubious refereeing) and had several great chances before Stockport extended the lead on 25 mins following a free kick. Any match highlights would’ve consisted of action from the first half and just Stockport’s third goal (a free header from a cross) from the second half which seemed to go on forever. Soon after the decisive strike we heard another mournful, haunting whistle of the steam train returning to the station. (Echoes, literally, of the North York Moors Railway at Pickering back in August.)

Many fans had left the ground by the final whistle and we came very close to following them as the players went through the motions. A Christmas cracker had turned into a damp squib but one that I still enjoyed in a gritty, northern, “God, isn’t this grim?” sort of way. I will return on a sunny day and linger longer.

Star turn: Stockport’s line-up included the son of Remi Moses (ex-Man U in the 80s), Tunji, whom I last saw playing for Hyde at Staveley. Brothers Grant and Scott Spencer were in opposition today.

Programme notes: Rammy News evokes the spirit of the club (in this case, proud and cheery) as every good programme should. Some quotes, first from a Tony Cunningham: “Let’s be honest. Not too long ago the prospect of little ol’ Rammy playing the might of County would have had us all being carted off!” Fan Darren Comer writes about the previous round at Banbury: “I found myself boarding the coach armed only with a rucksack containing the [Rammy] Ultras flag, a latex ram’s head, vuvuzela, a four-pack of beers and a couple of the wife’s lovingly prepared sausage and brown sauce muffins.” Meanwhile, the supporters’ club rallies fans over Christmas thus: “When folks find themselves pacing the streets, bored silly after a day of mercilessly troughing their way through all manner of Christmas junk what better than to shake off the cobwebs and come down to watch Rammy.” All this and a retro ‘face in the crowd’ that looked like Scary Spice, notably absent from tonight’s X Factor final. Perhaps she was making a return trip to the Riverside Stadium ...

Photo credits: Bit murky for my camera today so thanks to Andy Nunn and the Onion Bag blog for letting me pinch their shots of the steam train and turnstile block respectively. Click on the links to see the full sets.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Hall Rd Rangers 0 Knaresborough Town 6

Northern Counties East League, Division One
Attendance: 38 (my lowest ever)

Hall Road Rangers play in the village of Dunswell on the northern fringe of Hull. Getting there looks to be a synch: first turn right on the ‘A’ road off the main York-Hull road. Ah: that turn is signed to just Ciao, an Italian restaurant. I drive by again and it appears to be a choice between that and a farm. I ask at a petrol station. “Dene Park?” the cashier asks. “Yes!”. “Oh, you need the sign for Ciao”. (I haven’t had such trouble finding a ground since Parkgate.)

I edge down a track to reach a playing field on the far side of which is, indeed, a restaurant next to a football ground with shared, full car park. Hard to tell whether it’s with diners taking advantage of a half-price pizza offer or something or football fans. (Bet I know where Hall Road are going for their Christmas do). After all, this is hardly a big match. In fact, it’s a throughly run of the mill fixture that appeals to me mainly as a way of getting out of the house on a very soggy, grey day (slide tackle weather, I call it) and only just worth going to because my local lads, Knaresborough Town are visiting.

There are an no turnstiles here; a jovial fella at the gap into the ground simply relieves me of a fiver. I turn right and into the grandstand. A stand of any sort is something of a bonus at step 6 of the non-league pyramid and this is a substantial one, consisting of four tiers of bench seating populated by a hardy knot of about 10 Rangers supporters. All that’s missing a ‘Hall Road Rangers’ on the fascia.

Positioned behind one of the goals, the grandstand reminds me of Whickham. Beside it is another seated stand. There are also two small shelters and, curiously, two pairs of dugouts either side of the pitch. Elm trees behind the wonky rail at the far end (see lead pic) outnumber spectators and there is the customary escape hatch in the perimeter fence and one or two unofficial ones besides. All in all, a pretty impressive set-up for this level of the pyramid.

Knaresborough take the lead on five minutes when a shot is parried and then woofed in by an on-rushing striker. They then proceed to dominate the match, showing far greater speed and composure, and go in two up at half-time.

During the interval an almost ghostly voice announces the result of the raffle. It’s the only time the PA is used unless something was said before 2.54pm when I arrived. The generator that presumably powers the floodlights starts up, droning like the engine of a ship. The semi-rural location also means that the club isn’t connected to the main drains but uses a cesspit. As Knaresborough emerge the lads joke about the home subs taking pot shots at manager Brian Davey as he moves across the penalty area nursing a mug of tea. Hall Road are somewhat tardy in returning to the pitch, the result, no doubt, of a substantial dressing room dressing down. Sadly for them, things aren’t going to get any better.

Knaresborough continue to dominate with ex-Man U and Leeds junior Colin Heath completing his hat-trick. “The cheeky buggers have had a shot on goal!” remarks our Brian after a rare foray forward by Hall Road. A bloke in the rival dug-out isn’t quite so lightly flippant in his summation of the lino’s performance. “You’re a cocky, arrogant c***,” he snarls. God, I’d hate be a lino, as I’ve said many times before.

When Knaresborough go five up with 13 mins to go I suddenly begin to wonder if we could be heading for eight or nine. Another goal goes in right at the end and Town squander two injury time chances but can hardly be disappointed with the final result. They’ve now won seven out of 11 away matches this season compared to two out of ten at home and have scored twice as many goals on their travels. This victory was also their second biggest league win since ascending to the NCEL in 2012. Arrivedercis don’t come sweeter than that.

Programme notes: Hall Road’s next home match is billed as Knaresborough on Dec 27. Um, err ... think that’s an error.

Some action: Here is four minutes of random action sadly not including any goals but it gives you a feel for the place as darkness descended.

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.