Saturday, 11 April 2015

Esh Winning 4 Seaham Red Star 3

Northern League, second division
Attendance: c 40

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.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Wembley ways: cup-ties at North Ferriby and Bradford City

How important is getting to Wembley these days? Ahead of a Vase quarter-final last week Paul Marshall, manager of my local lads, Tadcaster Albion, was asked whether he’d prefer to win the Vase or promotion. Promotion, he replied. I’d have thought that leading your side out at Wembley would top anything especially for a club at step five of the pyramid.

“One of the biggest matches in our history,” is how the North Ferriby website billed their Trophy semi-final second leg against Bath last week for which the prize was also a final at the national stadium. OK: they’ve been to Wembley before (in the ’97 Vase final) but perhaps the Conference North play-off final last season was a bigger deal. Triumphant Ferriby’s opponents in the Trophy final will be Wrexham who will be making their third trip to Wembley in just a year. You could hardly blame their fans for letting this one pass them by. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, literally. Nowadays it’s more a matter of who hasn’t played there (any League sides?) rather than who has ...

The Ferriby match ended 1-1 after extra time and 3-3 on aggregate, the hosts winning 4-2 on penalties. The attendance was a 1,871. A gripping cup-tie at one of my favourite non-league venues but I haven’t blogged in full about it as I’ve written about a visit to Ferriby before. Here are three pics, though.

This weekend’s FA Cup quarter-finals also, of course, lead to Wembley and present victorious fans with the poser about whether to go to the semi-final or keep their fingers crossed (and wallet closed) and hope for a visit to the final. A competition with three finals: what a nonesense.

For the first time this year it was warm enough today not to need scarves but my son and I still donned them (and had them flapping from the car windows) in the colours of my home-town team, Reading, for their quarter-final against Bradford. There was a 24,000 full house at Valley Parade, a complete contrast to my previous visit in the Northern Counties East League Cup final last May. I like the ground. It’s not without its quirks such as a higgledy-piggledy corner featuring traffic lights on the legs of the floodlights above the tunnel. Equally singular are the club songs blasted out in the build-up to kick-off: Take me Home Country Roads and Depeche Mode’s Just can’t get Enough. Bradford has a genuine, old fashioned community feel to it. Even the ticket office manager and company accountant are asked for the their FA memories in the (superb smelling) programme.

Reading have hardly blazed a trail to the quarter-finals. I saw them at the start of the run at Huddersfield. Least said about that snooze fest the better. They were then drawn away to similarly distant, unglamorous second division opponents in Cardiff and Derby and, thus, have sneaked almost unnoticed into the latter stages, a stowaway on the great ship FA Cup. With promotion hopes and relegation fears banished Reading have never had a better opportunity to focus on and reach the semi-finals for the first time since 1927 especially given that today’s opponents were a division below. The Bantams’ run couldn’t have contrasted more including those defeats of Chelsea and Sunderland.

Pity the game didn’t live up to the pre-match buzz. The contest was as unsatisfactory as any goalless cup-tie is bound to be and very scrappy with it. There was only one shot on target throughout and pass completion was just 50%, reported Match of the Day. And what about Taddy Albion? They lost today’s Vase quarter final replay 0-1 to Highworth Town (from Swindon). It all ended in tears with a scuffle between players and spectators after the final whistle. Oh, well. Losers in the Vase, Trophy and Cup are probably happy to concentrate on the league. Wembley? Pah!

Faces in the crowd: My son and I were featured momentarily in the TV coverage (top right of still, below) as spotted by my brother watching at home in the US. I later texted him to ask him about an injury that had stopped the game for ages right at the end. “Bloody nose,” he responded. Tele-technology still amazes me ...