Archive for the ‘Travels in the UK’ Category

Friday Night on the A55, and other North Welsh Comments

Friday, September 30th, 2011

The Key road in North Wales is the A55, a dual carriageway that takes the traffic from the end of the M56 and winds it past the coast, quite spectacularly in some cases, before joining with the old A5 if one crosses the Menai Straits to Anglesey. Working south of Manchester, and finishing around lunchtime on a Friday, and fixtures down this road are easy to get to. Friday night football is not rare in Wales, but most of the grounds staging it are floodlit and return again and again. It is only at the start and end of season that there is some variety. And so I found myself running down the road two Fridays in a row, at the end of August. Despite supporting many resorts, the traffic was not overtly heavy on either date, and so my runs were simple in themselves.

On the North Welsh coast, the jewel is Llandudno, a resort made popular in Victorian times, and with the imposing hotel frontages along the bay. If you look on the internet, many of these hotels still charge quite high rates despite a tiredness and lack of recent investment. If you go beyond the room rates to the reviews, the words “Don’t stay here!” turn up with alarming frequency.

Coming from England, the seaside towns between the border and Llandudno are brasher, dependent more on the working class shilling brought in by the railways. None more so than Rhyl, which does its best to be a mini-Blackpool on the North Welsh coast even if its equivalent of the golden mile appears to be no more than 400 metres, and then in nickel, flashing glaringly at those driving along the coast road.

There is still a lot of business here – over two million visitors a year, although as most of them are day trippers or staying for a single night, the local economy is always has one eye on the weather forecast in an area where the weather can change (and never for the better) at the drop of a hat.

Missing the grandeur of Llandudno and the brashness of Rhyl, I ended up in Prestatyn. This is a more comfortable town, but with little except a beach to welcome the visitors. The Halcyon Quest Hotel is in the Good Beer Guide, but would never make a good hotel guide. Still, it was not overpriced, the landlord (when he arrived) was welcoming, the beer and the breakfast were both good and I slept well.

My first game of the weekend was Kinmel Bay Sports, formerly known as Abergele Rovers, but now based (playing wise) at the local leisure centre, and (socially) at the Kinmel Bay sports and social club. Unusually the change in name and venue marks a merger with a local Girls team! They have benefited from recent changes in the Welsh Pyramid and have found a place in the second division of the Welsh Alliance. They may not have to finish particularly high to get promoted this season. The Cymru Alliance, which covers the Northern two thirds of the principality, wants to expand from one division to two, while the FA of Wales wants to re-arrange the borders between the Welsh Alliance, and the Welsh National League (Wrexham), with the latter taking on those Welsh Alliance clubs in the North East Wales area. I am not sure exactly what this means, but I am told the line between the two leagues will be drawn just east of Prestatyn, and will take a small number of teams out of the Welsh Alliance.

On arriving at the ground, the first thing I saw was a couple of the other groundhoppers attracted by the Friday night game here. A slightly odd choice as rather than avoiding a clash, they were now playing at the same time as both Rhyl and Prestatyn. We also had the dubious pleasure of being able to hear the sounds of a nearby funfare. To be honest, this is not one of the more interesting grounds on my trips. The dressing rooms were built into the leisure centre, with the referee and his assistants changing somewhere inside, and then locking their bags into their car, demonstrating a lack of confidence in the security provided.

Three officials are not always provided in this league, but Liam Gray showed some initiative in this respect, bringing both his father and grandfather along to run the lines. I cannot recall ever seeing three generations of the same family officiating at a single game. Liam is a young referee, quite recently called to officiate in the Welsh Alliance. Not surprisingly he also has an older brother, currently refereeing in the Cymru Alliance.

The Referee’s Grandfather is in the foreground

Most of the surrounds to the playing surface were closed to the public, no spectators at either end, and the far side was used only for the team benches. Near to the centre, there was a wooden barrier, where the majority of the crowd (counted at 34) gathered. From about a third of the way town, the pitch-side became a cage enclosing floodlit tennis courts. There were a couple of more open pitches further away and beyond the tennis courts.

A strong wind blew across the pitch throughout the game, making the evening very cool, but at least we did not suffer rain, as there was no shelter to be had. I thought the home side had the better of most of the game, but they went behind to a first half penalty and only levelled when an on the line clearance was adjudged just over by the well placed linesman. We were charged £1 for a programme, but no admission charges for what does not get above being a public park. The only refreshments were a vending machine within the centre, offering a 50p coffee. I needed the warmth, as the match itself was doing little to raise the temperature.

Llandyrnog United led at half time, thanks to a penalty shortly before the break, Kinmel Bay levelled with 15 minutes to play and that is how the game finished. Dropping one other hopper near a railway station, I found my way back to the hotel and had a couple of pints before turning in. Another of the hoppers actually stayed at the same place, but I did not see him again until morning.

On a greyish morn, where the threat of rain was always made, but never quite delivered, I made my way to Penrhyncoch. This is a small village not far from Aberystwyth in the centre of the country. The distance is not much over 80 miles, but as an indication of the difficulties that Welsh football suffers, it took me around two and a half hours to complete. This is similar to the journey Llandudno had to make for the game I saw, and trips that Penryncoch make on a pretty regular basis. I only counted 50 people at the game, (the official attendance figure was 70), and I can be sure that not all of them paid the full £4 admission, and a further pound for a programme. It is hard to see how this club is surviving, and to create a second division can do nothing to improve the standard of football in this part of Wales, it is surely more of a bid by league officials to make the own competition seem more important.

Cae Baker is a smallish ground, quite tidy with a two separate covered areas, one providing around 50 seats, the other had standing for a similar number of people. On that side, there is plenty of space, but when I wandered around the other side for the second period, I was amazed how tight the space was, with a small area where there was no spectator space at all and then a very narrow grassway. The biggest thing that this club has is a very good clubhouse, just across the road from the ground, (this may be the main road, but there are no busy roads in Penryhncoch).

Note the club name on the stand, CPD Penrhyncoch FC, CPD being the Welsh equivalent of FC. The same dual usage is a feature in the programme and elsewhere at the club

As the match started, we finally got the heavy shower we had expected, and I went to the back of the seated area to view the game. I thought Llandudno edged the first period which ended scoreless, and seeing how they allowed the ball to run away from them, I was expecting better after the break when they were to play up the slight incline. In the first four minutes, Llandudno had two chances, and I thought I was right, but then Penrhyncoch scored – a long shot from Josh Shaw. This completely changed the complexion of the game, and the homesters will count themselves unlucky not to have added two or three more, while the visitors never threatened again. As it was, 1-0 was the final result.

The small cover which sheltered me from first half rain is to the right, with the main stand out of shot

This was not my final match of the day, as there is a regular evening fixture in the Mid-Wales League (South). The match is St. Harmon & District v Rhayader Town (reserves). I had seen this fixture in 2009, and said I would not bother to return in poor weather, (no cover at the ground), but it had brightened up as I drove east along the A44, and so I went along. On arriving at St. Harmon, I noted the figure on my odometer as I passed the Sun Inn, used for dressing rooms. One then drives for over a mile, past the showgrounds, (it is the local show that causes the late kick off time), and left for about a quarter of a mile along a narrow drive (hoping no one is coming the other way). A mere 1.8 miles from the dressing rooms, you arrive at the playing fields. Parking is in the farmer’s yard opposite the ground entrance. I know of no ground further from its dressing rooms than this one. Some people I know have seen St Harmon on a different ground, closer to the main road, but this too was over a mile from the Sun Inn.

Despite only offering a roped off field, this match had the largest of the three attendances for my games over this two day period, based at least on my own head counts. Both the Cymru and Welsh Alliance websites official showed figures well in excess of my numbers, whereas there is no official figure for St. Harmon. For the record, I put the number down as 68 hardy souls paying £2 to view this game on an unsettled evening, which at least stayed dry.

St Harmon – the joys of fields in Wales

When I came two years ago to the same match, it was level (2-2) at half time, but then Rhayader scored three without reply in the second period. This time the difference was the game was scoreless on turning around. Rhayader still scored their three goals after the break.

A week later, I was back in the principality, but this time travelling further along the North Coast before dropping down to avoid reaching the Menai straits, and ending up in Caernarfon. I had visited Caernarfon Town in the mid 1980s, when the club were at the top of the game. They had entered the Lancashire Combination in 1980, and as 1982 Champions, they became founder members of the North West Counties League, initially in Division Two, but winning promotion after only one season. Two seasons later, they won a further promotion and were in the Northern Premier League. I visited them in 1986, the first of two seasons when they finished third in the league, and they may have believed a place in the Alliance (now Football Conference) awaited. To make the matters of their best season better, my visit was for a second round FA Cup match. Stockport County had been beaten in Round 1, and despite the fact I saw a scoreless draw, Caernarfon then won the replay at York to reach the 3rd Round, (they drew 0-0 to Barnsley, and lost 1-0 in the replay this time).

The decline of the club has been almost as rapid. They were relegated in 1990, to the Northern Premier’s first division. They came close to returning after one season, but then the FA Wales threw the spanner into the works, insisting that Welsh clubs were no longer permitted in the English pyramid. Caernarfon were one of the clubs that resisted the change, and spent three seasons as exiles, with home match being played on English soil. When the Welsh clubs finally won their court case in 1995, it was too late for Caernarfon, and instead of returning home in the NPL, they instead joined the League of Wales. Except for one season in the Cymru Alliance they stayed in the League of Wales (later Welsh Premier League) until 2009. They then again spent only one season in the Cymru Alliance, but this time left through the wrong door, and so now find themselves at the third level, the Welsh Alliance.

But not everyone has suffered from the vagrancies of Welsh Football Politics. Caernarfon Wanderers gained a place in the Welsh Alliance’s second division, founded a season ago and partly offsetting the FA of Wales’ demands for smaller divisions. After a single promotion they are in a position to challenge their neighbours, with the first ever Caernarfon derby at League level.

With its well preserved castle, and city walls, Caernarfon is a fine city to visit on a Sunny afternoon. However, if one climbs less than a mile outside the walls, one comes across a dismal housing estate. On the edge of this estate is Cae Top. It seems to me that there is a habit of mixing English and Welsh words in the naming of football grounds in these parts. Certainly the words Top (Caernarfon Wanderers) and Baker (Penryncoch) do not sound very Welsh, so should I presume to semi-translate them as Baker’s Field and Top Field? If so, I could remember I have already been to a ground called the Top Field, to see Hitchin – a team playing in Yellow and Green and nicknamed the Canaries. Familiar ground maybe for the Caernarfon Town fans.

Anyway, Cae Top is a simple, railed off pitch, and not fully enclosed. Slightly down the hill, new School buildings are in the process of construction, and this has led to a freshly tarmacked driveway down one side of the pitch which leads to a new car park, currently fenced off behind one goal. This is destined to become a staff car park for the School, but with few matches on school days, and especially not during school hours, one hopes the Football Club will also be permitted to use it.

The club currently has a small stony car park, and it was clearly going to fill quickly, I settled for street parking just outside, making sure to leave plenty of space for the frequent bus service around the corner. The officials of both clubs were very friendly and helpful. One of the visiting officials explained the Caernarfon Town club was being rebuilt on a more financially sustainable basis and with a more local accent. All but one of the players are now Welsh speakers. This contrasts greatly with the old style for some of the bigger clubs in this part of Wales, were a Liverpudlian accent was more common than a Welsh one. Indeed, while the costs of renting grounds and losing spectators did not help the club during their exile, players’ expenses may well have been lower!

As for the game, Wanderers may have pulled level in terms of status, but they were still behind on playing strength. For thirty minutes, some wasteful finishing kept the visitors out, but then they pushed on and eventually won by four goals to none. It will still go down as a good day for the home side, with a crowd of around 500, easily the best seen at Cae Top. For me, the biggest downside of travelling this far from home for a Friday night game, is the drive home, so I welcomed a the fact that Steve Munday, who I had met in the town earlier travelled back as far as Birmingham

 

Island Games

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

The Olympic Ideal is alive and well. Whether or not any of the original ideals still cling to the expensive and overbearing presence due in London next summer is certainly open to debate, but the ideal has been replicated across the world in many smaller contexts. The best known alternative games here is the Commonwealth games, and I believe French speakers have an equivalent in the Francophone games. The format is popular in Asia, with the Asian games provided a continent wide tournament, and others such as the South East Asian Games providing a more local competition for fewer nations. Even at national level, the provinces of Indonesia come together for their own national games.

But you do not have to be nations to compete. The concept is open to any group to combine together for competition and friendship, with a linked theme connecting the various competing groups. The concept of Island Games therefore would not be a surprise in areas where many Islands. And so we have such combinations at the Central American and Caribbean games, and the South Pacific Games. The latter includes a football competition that was used as part of the qualification procedure for the 2010 World Cup. It was intended that this year’s South Pacific Games would again be part of the World Cup qualifying competition, until it fell foul of FIFA regulations. While it was alright to have places not affiliated to FIFA playing in a competition that formed part of the World Cup, as happened with Tuvalu (their games were simply ignored by FIFA), it is not acceptable to have a FIFA member of the Asian Football Confederation (Guam), playing in Oceania qualifying. Even though Guam are one of only four FIFA members who have not entered for the 2014 World Cup, FIFA are not prepared to simply ignore their results.

One has to wonder though about the International Island Games Association though, simply as it does not specify any geographical limitation. One should not wonder though, as this is in fact one of the most successful games around. Commencing in 1985, the Island games have been run every two years, and regular increased in size. The initial games involved 15 islands, and some 700 competitors. In fact the games, which were started in the Isle of Man, have always been dominated by islands with some connection to Britain. The fifteen included the Isles of Man and Wight, Shetland and the Orkneys, Guernsey, Jersey and Ynys Mon. The other mainstays were Scandinavians, Froya, Hitra, Gotland, Åland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Two came in from further afield, the mid-Atlantic British territory of St. Helena, and the Mediterranean Island of Malta. Only Iceland and Malta have not remained as members, both leaving after 1997 and both now giving their attention to the European Small Countries Games (the smallest nine countries in Europe).

Flying the Flag – the Red and White of Greenland.

The Island games added three more of the British in 1987, Alderney, Sark and Gibraltar, (the only member of the Island games which is not an Island). In 1989, Greenland joined – Greenland has similar status to the Faroe as an autonomous Danish territory, although they timed an application to FIFA at the wrong time, and won’t be trying for the World Cup any time soon. 1991 saw two more join, the Canadian Island Province of Prince Edward Island, (who have now resigned due to lack of funding), and the Estonian Island of Saaremaa. In 1993, the games reached the South Atlantic with the Falklands joining, and the next additions also added to the scope, the Cayman Islands and Rhodes in 1999, followed by Bermuda in 2003. In 2005, one more British Island group, the Western Isles joined, while the most recent member (2007) is Menorca from the Balearics.

So the organisation is dominated by the British, with 15 members being connected to Britain. These are five overseas territories, (Bermuda, Falklands Islands, Cayman Islands, St Helena and Gibraltar), five crown dependencies, (Alderney, Sark, Guernsey, Isle of Man and Jersey) and five which are parts of the British Isles, (Isle of Wight, Western Isles, Shetlands, Orkney and Ynys Mon). With the exceptions of the two Mediterranean islands, all the rest are Scandinavian.

In terms of population, the Islands vary from just 600 on Alderney, to 140,000 on the Isle of Wight. I took a brief look at the association rules, and they recommend that any new members should not exceed 125,000 in population, and must be true Islands (i.e. no more like Gibraltar). They also say a maximum of 25 members. I am not certain that maximum is strict, but the games cannot easily expand more. Around 4000 people are on the Isle of Wight for the games, (3500 contestants, plus officials, and supporters). At least half the Islands are not potential hosts as they could not cope with this influx, and an increase in the number of islands would reduce further the potential to rotate the tournament.

It is worth considering the number 4000 people for the games, widely publicised, and the official count of athletes which sat just short of 3500. The last winter Olympic games brought just 2566 competitors to Vancouver.

So far there have been 14 editions of the Island games, with 10 of the Islands having taken their turn to be hosts. In 2013, Bermuda will be the 11th, while Jersey have their second games confirmed for 2015, and it is expected that Gotland will again be hosts in 2017.

The games covers 15 sports from Archery to Windsurfing, but with around 500 of the competitors in 25 teams (15 men’s, 10 women’s) football is the biggest of the sports here. For the record, three of the members of the Island games association members are also members of FIFA, although none of the three are countries in their own right. Bermuda and the Cayman Islands both send their own teams to the Olympics, while the Faroe Island’s international recognition is limited to FIFA.

Jersey take on Menorca in Cowes

Nine different football grounds were in use, as the games spread across the island. The Isle of Wight is home to four members of the Wessex League, steps five and six in the English pyramid, which means the grounds are enclosed, with some covered accommodation and floodlights. The rest are used for Island League matches. Most of these are somewhat more open, with the pitches merely roped off, rather than a permanent rail. The ground at Oakfield was exceptionally tight, with just a small bank on one side for most of the spectators. The one thing that all the grounds selected do appear to have in common is a good club house.

In most of the sports of the games, the spectators consist of friends, family, a few competitors watching on their free time, and maybe the occasional local. There were two casual “supporters”, one from the Isle of Man, the other from the Falklands who were staying at the same B&B as me, but both were former officials with their teams. The one sport that attracted a significant outside crowd was football. There were a good number of groundhoppers who made the trip from various parts of England, who while being interested in the football, were also trying to maximise the number of grounds visited on the trip. I would also hazard a guess the locals were more prominent in watching the football than most of the other sports, with the home team naturally attracting more locals than other teams.

I could not justify a full week off work for the trip, although after three days on the Island, I was regretting this. I instead chose to stay for three days starting on the Sunday, (the opening day for football). The plan was for seven games, four on Island league grounds which would be new to me, and three on Wessex League grounds not visited for over 25 years. The only two grounds that I did not visit had both been on my itinerary when the games were held on the Isle of Wight in 1993, and a day trip allowed me to go to West Wight, East Cowes and Ventnor. As it turned out, I added an eighth game to my list, the only one to be played on the Monday morning, and for me a rare viewing of the ladies game.

I had to leave home for the trip around 8 in the morning, but this allowed my drive down to Southampton to be comfortable, arriving over 30 minutes before the 11 O’clock Red Funnel ferry. This drops one at East Cowes around an hour later, and I easily had time to check into my Bed & Breakfast (in Shanklin) and then drive back up to Brading for a 3 O’Clock start. Admission for the game, (individually for all games) was set at £3, but I was fortunate in being able to obtain a season ticket for £20. A small saving over an eight game trip.

The Ladies in Action – Jersey v Hitra at Oakfield

Brading is a neat and tidy ground, that has added a small stand and floodlights since my earlier visit. At the entrance, I obtained a tournament brochure (£3) and a matchday programme (20p). The latter contained the names and squad numbers for the two teams involved, and was printed on green card folded over to four pages, A5 size. The squad numbers turned out to be generally accurate at all the games I saw, except this first one. The game was Rhodes against Greenland, and provided an entertaining start to the trip, with a sting in its tail. It was played in very hot sunshine, the highest temperatures we were to enjoy on the trip. Much of the rest of the time, it was more traditional “Football Weather”, with us giving thanks not to get too much rain at those grounds without covered accommodation. Greenland played a very open and entertaining game, and had a fair support, most of which appeared to be their own Women’s team. They also came with a match commentator who had to watch from the clubhouse, about 30 yards behind the goal as this was the only place where he could get the connections allowing him to broadcast the details to his homeland. Still, the Greek side were too strong for Greenland, and spurning an early chance by missing a penalty, Rhodes were 1-0 at half time and increased the lead soon after the break. Greenland brought on their third substitute, Steve Broberg with seven minutes to play, and he scored within a minute of entering the play.

This caused the Rhodes team some anxious moments, which were really not necessary, and were compounded by their own foul play. As injury time started, and with the ball as far away from their own goal was possible, a stupid but violent tackle earned a red card. This meant five minutes of injury time with ten players for Rhodes, but with this almost up, the goalkeeper, already booked for time wasting collected a ball just outside the penalty area and hence picked up his second card. Rhodes therefore finished with nine men, although they did take all the points.

Greenland had a fair modicum of support at the game, even if most were from their other teams, such as the Ladies Football team, they also had a radio commentator, who had to watch from the clubhouse somewhat too far behind the goal, as it was the only place he could get a connection allowing him to broadcast direct to Greenland. The Channel Islands had a TV crew at the games, giving some delayed coverage on the following morning’s news. I did not notice much else in terms of media coverage.

I travelled on to Cowes Sports, where the only stand was still there as a memory of my previous visit. Here the game was Jersey v Menorca, in the same group as the Rhodes v Greenland game. To be honest, this game was not as entertaining as the previous one, but it was of a higher general quality. All of these who had watched the pair seemed in agreement that the evening game would settle the group, and the other pair were liable to suffer two further defeats. As it was, Jersey who became stronger as the match went on, scored a goal in each half against their Spanish opponents. Despite the match being played in good spirits, we again had an injury time sending off, and it was a Menorca player who saw red.

Up bright and early the next morning, I started my tour at Oakfield, which was to be the first of the Island League clubs I visited. Indeed, I was to go there twice, first for this Ladies game, (the only match being played on Monday Morning), and then the next day for a men’s game. The ground is in a residential (and slightly run down) part of Ryde, and is the tightest of the grounds, with most of the spectators settling on one side, where there is a slight grass bank. The spectators mixed somewhat with an overflow of players and officials on this side. Behind the goal were two buildings, a bar which incorporated a small area with tables, and a dressing room block which also provides a minimal covered area. The game was Jersey against Hitra. Hitra is a small island off the coast of Norway. Both sides had played the day before, Hitra losing 3-0 to Isle of Wight, while Jersey had gone down 5-0 to Åland. I am not a great fan of Ladies’ football, and this was not a game to change my prejudices. It was just played at too slow a pace. Some of the Jersey ladies showed a little skill on the ball, but this was spoilt by a failure to master teamwork, or to support the player with the ball. Jersey’s Jodie Botterill frequently found herself alone up front, and uncertain what to do. Greater support would have resulted in the final score being much more than the six goals to one that Jersey eventually won by, and Botterill could well have done more than score a hat-trick. The biggest cheer of the day from a crowd that exceeded 100, must have been for the Hitra goal, a fine long distance effort.

The Western Isles and Åland at Newport

From Oakfield, I went on to Newport, where St Georges Park, despite now being over 20 years old, still has a feel of being a new ground about it. It is very square and while it has a good main stand, the three other pieces of cover still look as if they are there to meet some foolish piece of ground grading, and a single, larger area would have looked better. Still, it is a good functional ground, and the tea bar was inviting. The match was the Western Isles and Åland. The Western Isles are the Hebrides, off the western coast of Scotland, where most of the local football is an amateur summer league. I noticed that with these games in mind, the Highland Amateur Cup quarter finals involving Back and Carloway were postponed for a week. The general feeling on the Western Isles is still very much against any sport on a Sunday, and it had been agreed in advance that they would not play on the opening day, but could use the rest day (Wednesday) instead. As it happened, they were conveniently drawn in the three team group of a 15 team competition, and hence were only asked to play on Monday and Tuesday. Åland is an island betwixt Finland and Sweden. It is governed by Finland and speaks the language of Sweden. It has a football team, IFK Mariehamn in the top division of the Finnish League, but players from this team were not used in the Island games. The game was hard fought, the Western Islanders are a resilient team, strong in defence but eventually Åland took control, and two second half goals settled the game. Åland had of course already played on the Sunday, when they had drawn 3-3 with Saaremaa

Lining up for the anthems at Rookley

The third game of the day was at Rookley. Being the only game scheduled at this venue, it brought in a flood tide of groundhoppers who had varied their choice of games earlier in the day. It may have been thought of as an odd venue. The club here had picked up only one point from 20 Island League third division games in the season past, and ended with a goal difference of -202. Perhaps it was a reward for not giving up. It is a very pleasant set up, with a fine club house, and a lot of space around a roped off pitch. The Sun came out to great us again, after dull weather earlier in the day. Still, this was not the biggest game in the tournament. The Falkland Isles had already lost to Guernsey 5-0, while the Isle of Man would be clear favourites after a 4-2 win over Gotland. There was no doubt that the Manx would be looking for goals as well, as holding a goal difference advantage would clearly help them out when facing Guernsey in their third game. In the first half this was the way of things, with the Isle of Man starting the scoring on ten minutes, and reaching 5-0 by half time. The second half was somewhat different, and only one more was goal was added, just five minutes before the end. As it turned out, Guernsey were in the process of beating Gotland by 5-2, so the two were to go head to head level with the same goal difference and each having scored ten goals.

I had met Steve Munday earlier in the day, and he was eager to persuade me to drive around some of the good beer guide pubs on the Island, while I preferred the idea of getting back to Shanklin before drinking much. Steve’s plans carried the evening, but driving back to Shanklin we attracted the notice of the local police. Fortunately, I had not over indulged, and comfortably passed the breathalyser test – but because the stop came within minutes of leaving the pub, we had to wait around for fifteen minutes before I could be tested, (this reduces the chance of a false positive). Fortunately, this did not prevent me from having a couple more pints in Shanklin, after the car was parked. Steve actually disappeared part way through this to try out another pub.

Although what would happen if the Isle of Man’s game against Guernsey was a subject of conversation at the Tuesday morning game, it was not the only subject. I had already seen Rhodes having two players sent off at the end of their victory over Greenland. In defeat to Jersey, the story was worse and they had three more sent off (two in an elongated injury time period). Events after the game did not help matters, and another red card was reported as being shown after the final whistle. Rhodes have previous as well, famously having five men sent off in a game in a previous tournament. A disciplinary committee was quickly set up to look into the matter, and we soon heard that Rhodes were not only out of the football tournament this time, but would not be allowed into games football tournaments in 2013 and 2015.

The only game on the Tuesday morning was at the Isle of Wight Community Centre, just a couple of hundred yards from the Cowes Sports ground. The venue was similar to Rookley, in having a large field, roped off pitch and a good clubhouse. Most teams in the games were playing three games in successive days, the sort of schedule that would have Premier League managers tearing their hair out. Not quite the attitude for these teams. Alderney and the Falklands were planning an extra game if they did not meet each other, with a special trophy, “The Small Islands Cup” available for the better of the two footballing Islands with the lowest population.

The Tuesday morning was a little more relaxed, in so far as the two teams involved had only played once each in the only three team group. I had already seen the Western Isles lose 2-0 to Åland, so Saaremaa who drawn 3-3 with Åland in their first game knew that a better result would see them top the group. All the advantages should have been with the Estonian side, who of course had taken a day’s rest while the Western Isles were playing. While most sides in the tournament were made up of players from different clubs, and wore kits showing Island badges, Saaremaa wore the kit of FC Kuressaare – a first division side that plays on the Island. Their entire squad was made up of players from this club, although not all the first team regulars could play. The rules did not ban those from being with a professional club, but only those players either born on the Island, or who had passed the residency qualifications could play. One of the features of this was that the players’ shirts had names as well as numbers on their backs, but not every player was a member of the first team squad, and so the others had other players names on their backs. Still the game turned out similar to the Western Isles game the previous day, as they defended well, but showed little promise going forward. Scoreless at half time, Saaremaa scored early in the second period, but only hit a second with five minutes to play, ending up with the same record as their rivals.

This was to be the highlight of the day, all four of the other teams I was to see would go into their games with two defeats each from their earlier games. First it was a rather hurried ride back to Oakfield to see the Falkland Islands again, this time against Gotland. Both may have lost twice, but there was never any chance this game would be close fought. The Falkland Isles were 3-0 down at half time, and 6-0 down on the hour mark. They pulled one back, and ended up on the wrong end of a 6-1 defeat.

After this, I had plenty of time before the final game. With Steve again as passenger, we headed towards St Helens and Bembridge, for no other reason than I had been here on family holidays near enough forty years before. I remembered very little of the villages as I sat on the green and ate fish and chips. Steve, unsurprisingly was again checking out the good beer guide pubs. I do know we used to stay in static caravans, (we did not have a car, so we certainly could not tow one). It was good to hear similar accommodation was used by many of the games competitors.

Then it was onto Shanklin – this was the best of the Island League grounds we visited, with low banking each side of the pitch. In the same way as there was no surprise when the Falklands had lost in the afternoon, it was also a straight forward victory as went down 5-0 to Ynys Mon, (the Welsh Island better known as Anglesey).

And so ended my trip – a rushed drive across the Island meant I was on the Ferry around 45 minutes after the match finished, along with several other car loads of hoppers who had also rushed across from Shanklin.

The tournament of course carried on. The Wednesday was a rest day, but there was still one feature – a penalty shoot out between Åland and Saaremaa, which decided that the Finnish side could play in the semi-finals. They were joined at this stage by Jersey, Guernsey and the hosts. The other sides with the exception of expelled Rhodes would play again in placing matches, The Falklands 3-1 win over Alderney have them 13th place overall and the “Small Islands Cup”. The other placings were Westen Isles 12th, Greenland 11th, Gotland 10th, Ynys Mon 9th, Isle of Man 8th, Menorca 7th, Saaremaa 6thand Gibraltar 5th.

In the semi-finals, 816 saw the Isle of Wight beat Jersey, while Guernsey defeated Åland3-2. The following day, and the fifth game of the week for the final four. Jersey beat Åland by 5-1, and over 2000 saw the hosts win 4-2 over Guernsey to take the title. On the same day, Åland took the Women’s title with a 5-1 win over the Isle of Man, Greenland took the Bronze with a 1-0 win over the Western Isles.

The official crowd figures, not finally published until two weeks after the event, showed a total of 11,000 spectators at the games. (Some of the figures must be taken with a pinch of salt, as with the majority of the spectators having passes, counting was a little loose – still, I think the total will not be far out). Most of the spectators did not pay on the day. There was a £20 football season ticket available, or a £25 games pass (which allowed the purchaser to use the bus services as well as enter any games event). All competitors also had a games pass, (indeed, a lot of the time, they were expected to use the local bus service to get from their accommodation to the venues).

There were a few other items to report from the organisation of the games, such as the opening days games were started without National or Island anthems, they were not delivered to the grounds in time. The rest of the time they were played. Some of the groundhoppers that stayed until the Thursday were annoyed when the 7th/8th placing match was switched at short notice from 11.30 to 10.00 kick off, to allow the Manx players to go on to support their ladies team afterwards. The support for other teams within your island is a feature of the Island games, but football benefits most from this, as the matches are relatively short, and of course the timing is known, as opposed to sports that just book the venue for the morning. Still, in helping out one group by changing a fixture, the organisers antagonised others who thought they knew the location and kick off of the match. Future organisers should consider setting the dates and venues, and allocating matches to them later – this will mean that one can be certain of a match by just turning up, while services such as the internet and twitter could inform people of the actual fixtures.

Within the multi-sport environment, football does tend to grab the headlines, plus more than its fair share of resources. I remember my first trip to China, and skipping through some of the sports pages of old copies of the English Language China Daily. There was an editorial commending the Chinese on a record number of medals at the Asian games, held in Beijing earlier that year. But, the editorial added, the average Chinese citizen would swap them all for just taking the Football Gold. There is enough dissent in the Islands game circuit, that football could miss out on some future games. This would not be the end of football at the games, other sports miss out from time to time, (there were no gymnastics on the Isle of Wight for example, but seven of the Islands instead held a gymnastics competition in Jersey soon after the games finished). Football could miss a games, and then return for the next one.

In the meantime, and as a possible prelude to an amicable divorce, with a football competition separate from the games, it has been announced that a four team tournament will be held next summer in Gibraltar. Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man will take up the challenge. This new competition will be called the “International Challenge Shield”, and the organisers hope some of the other islands will join later.

Only the Lonely.

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

At some of its edges, the countryside of England gives away meekly to the sea, without dramatic cliffs, or sandy beaches, the land just rolls away. The line between land and sea is obscured, but the sea is winning. It is estimated that since roman times, the boundary has retreated inland by some three miles, with no less than 23 villages disappearing into the gray waters of the North Sea.

The advice therefore is not to buy a holiday cottage here. If you like the area, take out a lease – but keep it short!

I arrived in Easington after driving for some thirty minutes on smaller roads, after the finish of the dual carriageway that cuts a swathe between Hull and the Humber. There was no sign of activity at the football ground, but this was not surprising, over two hours before kick-off. And so I drove on to Spurn point. This is a narrow spit of land that reaches down to enclose nearly half of the mouth of the Humber. Generally it is sand dunes, bound together by rough grasses, with a narrow paved road on the inland side. In places this is only a few yards wide, and the effects of wind and wave mean that it can move over the years. As well as the roadway, there were a few signs of ancient tram lines (first laid down during the first World War, and used somewhat unusually, by bogies with sails). The routing shows the changes over the years, as the rail line, used until around 1950 disappears under the dunes, and may in places be lost to the sea. Certainly the terminus at Kilnsea (the land end) has been lost to the waters.

Spurn Point, Beach and Lighthouse.

The projection into the river mouth, which is formed from some of the materials worn away from further north along the Holderness coast, goes on for around three miles. At the end, there is a more substantial hill, which is used as a base for lifeboats and harbour pilots. The whole area is a nature reserve, and the beaches are free for walkers. From the car park at the end of the road, I walked around the point from the Humber side, and then clambered over the sand dunes to return to my car. A walk that consumed a little under an hour of my time. The contrast between the two sides of the peninsular is impressive. On the Humber side, one is sheltered from the winds, and being a low tide, there is a stillness about the place, and long, low mudflats. As one rounds the point, you are walking into the storm, (and this was a relatively nice day). The wind cuts into you and the waves of the North sea angrily proclaim that they will soon consume the beach, and possibly the whole of the headland. Apart from the natural splendours, and the now ruined wooden breakwaters, that display a vain effort to work, Canute like against the forces of the sea, it is remarkable how much human debris is to be found washed up on this side. Plastics, old fishing nets and even a calor gas cylinder litter the area.

For a football team in this area, it is always going to be about the journey – even in the local, Humber Premier League, a team out near the cost will have to travel over 20 miles to play most of their opponents, grouped around the city of Hull. When it was formed back in 2000, merging the best of local leagues, there may have been a dream that the Humber Premier League could take a position as a Step 7 league, and promote to the Northern Counties (East). It quickly became clear that this was not going to be the case – the lack of facilities in this league meant there were few candidates, even when the teams felt they could make the step.

Hence, the Humber Premier League has had to accept that its status is actually at Step 9, but there is a shortage of suitable Step 7 and 8 leagues in this area. The West Riding of Yorkshire has two competing leagues, and Sheffield has another, but for clubs both to the North and South of the Humber, the only solution appears to be the geographically unsuitable Central Midlands League, which has its indistinct centre around Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Still, two clubs made the step in 2008, and Easington United joined them a year later. Westella and Willerby have now been promoted to the oddly named Supreme Division, (the Step 7 division of the CML), while Easington United and Hutton Cranswick United are in the Premier Division (Step 8). It is 44 miles between the two for the “derby” clash, and for Easington’s second shortest trip, to Thorne, they have to travel 58 miles. All the rest are more than 70 miles away, with three over 100 miles.

I returned to the football ground around 45 minutes before the start, and I was immediately worried by how quiet the place was – only a few cars in the car park and no one on the pitch. Still, on wandering in, I found the tea bar open, and willing to sell me a cuppa (50p) and a programme (£2). The referee was also enjoying his tea, but it would be at least 15 minutes before the away side appeared. The fields are enclosed (just), but no admission charge is made, except by programme. Something obviously has to be said about the programme. It is labelled as the league’s programme of the year for 2009/10, and it is hard to imagine that it is not in competition to hold the title. It is both interesting and informative, with surprisingly few of its 24 pages given over to advertising. Sadly, for all the efforts that go into the production, I counted only around 30 people in the crowd to read it.

I asked about how a club like this operates. The players are all amateurs, (I was told that not even expenses are paid), and come from Easington, other local villages and some from Hull itself. A minibus carries them to away matches, and costs £150 each time. There are only 15 teams in the league, but that is partly due to two withdrawals during the season. It is possible that Easington has made one or two wasted trips, for matches now expunged from the table. I also wanted to know if they felt there was a real benefit to playing in the Central Midlands, as opposed to the Humberside League. The reply was that while the best clubs in the Humberside are as good as those they play in the CML, the lesser clubs are far weaker, and by playing in the CML, they are promised a competitive match every week.

Certainly, the game I saw bore this out, but then the visitors, Yorkshire Main are one of the better sides with only one league defeat all season. They are fourth in the league, but a combination of cup successes and worse luck than some with the weather means ‘Main’ have nine games in hand over the league leaders. The ground is very exposed, with two buildings on the south side, providing the dressing rooms and tea bar, and a little shelter part supported from the dressing room building that provides the back wall. A concrete path only extends to the half way line on this side, while permanent railings surround most of the pitch. A sharp East Wind was blowing off the coast, and down the pitch from end to end. Easington attacked into the wind in the first half and took the lead after just 13 minutes when Chris Frost dove to meet a cross from the left wing.

After this, it was end to end stuff, and quite surprising that no more goals were scored. Despite having the league’s leading scorer, Curtis Walker playing behind the front pair at the top of a diamond midfield, Main did not make the most of their midfield domination, while Easington were quick to use the extra width given by the opposition formation with Frost continually catching the eye, and Gavin Thurkettle also impressing.

Chris Frost (7) dives to score the only goal of the game.

Next season, the Central Midlands League will reformat itself into two parallel divisions. This is a move that will give some help to Easington, in so far as a boundary line between North and South divisions will be drawn. Still, all the Yorkshire clubs will be in the Northern section, including those around Sheffield, and possibly some of those in North Derbyshire. There is at least one more Humberside club applying, (AFC Hull), and the changes will also mean that Easington will again play Westella and Willerby, currently in the higher division.

I have heard that Tideswell United have also applied, but at least Easington should be spare travelling high into the peak district to play current members of the Hope Valley League. Most of the other names I have heard as possible new members are in either the Notts Senior, or Midland Regional Alliance, strictly in the south. The question for further ahead is how the FA treats the other leagues in Yorkshire. The FA appears to have promised Step 7 status to both Central Midlands Divisions for next season, with promotion available from the North to the Northern Counties (East), and from the South to the East Midlands League. If the FA gives the same status to the West Riding, West Yorkshire and Sheffield leagues, then the Humberside teams will still need to pass through other leagues areas for some matches, while if the FA tells these leagues that they are to be Step 8, and encourages clubs to step up, the CML’s northern section could be more of a Yorkshire League, strung out along the M62 motorway

More Pictures than Words – 1: Holyhead and Penmaenmawr.

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

I thought that when there is not enough to write a long blog, that a short one with plenty of pictures would be in order.

A two day trip to North Wales to see Holyhead Hotspur and Penmaenmawr Phoenix, in the Welsh Alliance.

I started by heading up to Holyhead via the A5 – in Wales, even on a Friday evening, this is miles away from the traffic that fills the reports on the airwaves. In the late afternoon sunshine, it is possible to stop and enjoy some of the views.

After checking into the hotel, it is of course dark by the time one arrives at the first ground. Still the welcome is bright.

When the FAW forced the leagues to reduce numbers at the end of last season, Holyhead were somewhat unfortunate. Having finished in the top half of the Cymru Alliance last season, they were still “relegated” to the Welsh Alliance. This season they are making a serious effort to regain their place, and currently lie in second place behind Conwy United. A straight forward win over Pwllheli leaves them one point behind Conwy but the leaders have a game in hand. Less than half of the games have been played, so it’s still “all the play for”.

A crowd of 225 for this match, the best of the season at Holyhead, and better than the averages at two of the clubs in the Welsh Premier League.

I stayed in Beaumaris, the other side of Anglesey to Holyhead. The advantage of going to places like this in January is that one can stay at off season rates. Oddly, while more expensive hotels cut their prices, some of the cheaper places do not – meaning the prices are the same at both. I stayed at the Bulkeley Hotel, a grade one listed building, and I only made the booking on the day of the trip.

The Bulkeley Hotel. The “stone circle” in the foreground is not genuine, but installed quite recently when an Eisteddfod was held in the town.

The town boasts a fine castle and views over the Menai straights, and became a resort in Victorian times. Nowadays, it provides a pleasant spot on a touring holiday, or even a base for further travel.

Penmaenmawr is a short distance down coast road, the A55. It too enjoyed some popularity as a resort town, and notes than Benjamin Disraeli used to be a regular guest. The hills slope steeply above the village, and the main business of the area is as a quarry, leading to rows of small cottages on the hillside. It was enough to persuade me to climb slightly.

The ground itself is not a lot to write about. There is a car park off the old Conwy Road, (the new dual carriageway runs parallel and just towards the coast). Dressing rooms are one side of this, with the pitch at the top of the car park and on the other side. It is a railed off pitch, with a concrete path up to the halfway line on one side. Behind the goal there is a small amount of shelter, with the club name written on the back wall. Built into one end of this is a tea hut, ably run by club secretary Cathy Williams.

One could not help noticing that in three of the four corners, there were mobile phone masks – each equipped with some lighting partway up, providing the club with training lights and some income. The pylons were labelled as O2, Vodaphone and T-Mobile. Orange and 3 seem to be missing out. I suggested that when renewing contracts, they should try and get taller masts. Mobile phone masts are easier to get planning permission for then floodlights!! My mobile reception was good!!

As for the game, Penmaenmawr were outclassed, and Bodedern should have scored more than four they ended up with. Bodedern are in second place and have every chance of promotion. For Phoenix the good news is that there should be no relegation from the division, (which currently has only 11 teams) at the end of the season. There are applicants to join the league from both the Gwynedd and Clwyd Leagues.

Return Trips.

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

My groundhopping trips are not all far flung foreign adventures. I also spend my time trying to keep up with the game at home.

Returning to visit clubs who have moved to new stadiums allows me to see again some significant rivals of old. Two successive days last month not only followed this pattern, but also gave me the satisfaction of once again having completed the visits to all grounds in the top four levels of non-League football in England.

The first club of the trip was Chelmsford City. The old ground in New Writtle Street was in the centre of town. It was especially well known for the atmosphere at night games, which then, as well as now traditionally took place on a Monday night. Cheltenham and Chelmsford had a long rivalry, with Chelmsford joining the Southern League in 1938, just a couple of seasons after us. They were Champions of the Southern League in their second season, and repeated the feat in the first post war season, then again in 1968 and 1972. They have, however always had a reputation for more ambition than their finances permitted. The 1970s was a period when non-League football on the whole lost was finding support hard to come by, with a drastic reduction in gates compared to a decade before. Chelmsford’s directors remained ambitious in this period, but ambition with dropping crowds, and a council set against other means of improving income (they rejected an ambitious bid to add office accommodation to the ground in the early seventies, and also the idea of using the ground for greyhound racing later in the decade) led to inevitable financial problems.

A drop in form through the seventies led to the club being relegated from the Southern League’s Premier Division in 1977, just two years before the formation of the Conference. Hence they were not among those applying for the new national league, and have been playing ‘catch-up’ ever since. The club returned to the Southern Premier when it was reformed in 1982, and almost made it to the Conference (then Alliance Premier League) when finishing second to Welling in 1986. This was a flash in the pan, though and Chelmsford were struggling more than successful over the following years, (and relegated for a singular season, 1988-9). The story almost ended in 1993, when a supporters club buyout saved the club from liquidation. Somehow the club limped along in the Premier Division for another four seasons before relegation. But worse was to befall them in that season. When the club went through administration, the ground was one of the few saleable assets, and with it sold by the official receiver; they finally found themselves without a home at the start of 1997-8 season.

The club found solace ten miles away as tenants of Billericay Town, (they later also shared at Maldon Town), and they should have won promotion within a single season. However their promotion bid fell foul of the Southern League. In what is seen by many people as a political decision as part of long running arguments between the Southern and Isthmian Leagues, the Southern League refused the accept the ground as suitable for Southern League Premier Division, even though it was graded to allow host club Billericay to be promoted that summer. In 1998, the Southern and Isthmian League’s set their own standards for promotion, but the inconsistencies between leagues was still showing last season when the Southern League graders failed the facilities for Evesham United, despite the fact they now share at Worcester City, playing at a higher level. Chelmsford had to wait another three seasons before promotion was again available.

Those here that remember the Southern League will remember a league with a footprint covering most of the Southern part of the country, but with practically no clubs in the London area – that being the domain of the Isthmian League. By the start of this decade, most of Chelmsford’s near neighbours were Isthmian League sides, rather than Southern. Chelmsford were therefore one of the winners when the FA finally managed to bring about a reformation of pyramid. The Southern League Premier area covers much of what we remember, but no longer includes any clubs in London, Sussex, Kent and Essex – the Isthmian League now had all of these, but has lost those clubs to the West and North of London, (some of whom have suffered since, as their travel bills have shot up). So Chelmsford are now one of the former Southern League sides that have moved leagues, and they are again on the up.

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Two Views of Chelmsford’s new Ground

Last season, they returned to playing in their home town, (despite the name, Chelmsford has never been a city). The situation is not ideal, playing on an athletics stadium in a residential area some two miles from the centre of town. The ground consists of a main stand, with around a thousand seats, and raised well above ground level to allow reasonable viewing despite the track. A disabled section to the front of the stand is also raised, which made my viewing better as my friend Chris, who is confined to a wheelchair joined me for this one. Opposite this are a few more rows of seats, covered by a roof hung from an adjoining building – but this would be much poorer to watch from, lacking the height above ground. While most of the pitch surrounds are just level tarmac outside the track, behind both goals there about four steps of metal framed terracing – built up on the curve of grass inside the track – with walkways across the track defined by temporary fencing removed after every game. Apparently the ground has received a grading sufficient to allow it to be promoted to the Conference South, but the ambitions of the club must reach higher, and it is difficult to see how this can be achieved within the current surrounds.

As for the game, visiting Carshalton Athletic are struggling in the lower reaches of the league, and never looked like a challenging opponent for league leaders Chelmsford, who won 3-0. The crowd was just over 1000, following 1190 two days earlier for the visit of Horsham. Since I visited, Chelmsford have consolidated their position at the top of the league, and the big result, a 3-2 win over AFC Wimbledon last Saturday (attendance 3201) means they are 11 points clear of their rivals with just seven games to play.

Another day, another game. After heading East on the Monday, Tuesday was North to Wakefield. Now you may remember at the start of the article that I was visiting old rivals of Cheltenham – but you may also say that Cheltenham have never played Wakefield. This is because of another tale of ground moves and obscure ground grading regulations. While Cheltenham have not played in Wakefield, they have been up on the moors above the town, where they played Emley in the quarter-final of the FA Trophy. Cheltenham won that afternoon, (a fraction short of 9 years ago) with a single goal from Neil Howarth, in front of 1239.
Emley started to make their name in the 1960s, when as a member of the Huddersfield League, they reached the last 16 of the old FA Amateur Cup and squeezed over 5000 into the Welfare ground when losing to Barking. They joined the Yorkshire League the season after that victory and won the title four times before the league became part of the Northern Counties (East) League which was founded in 1982. It took a couple of seasons before Emley found their feet, but by the middle of the decade they were one of the leading lights of the new league. Emley reached the semi-final of the FA Vase in 1987 and then the Wembley final a year later – losing to the well financed Colne Dynamoes by a single extra time goal. Also in 1988, Emley were league champions, but promotion was denied as the ground was considered not up to standard. Retaining the title a year later, they were now promoted to the Northern Premier League’s lower division. Two seasons later they reached the Premier, and also went on a run to the quarter-finals of the FA Trophy, losing to Kidderminster. More success followed, with a run to the third round of the FA Cup in 1998, beating Lincoln City in round 2. When they finished runners-up in the Northern Premier League to Stalybridge in 2001, 3708 people turned up for the final home game, when Stalybridge won 3-2 and ended up taking the title by just one point. Still, knowing that whatever happened, promotion to the Conference would be denied to Emley at the Welfare ground, the following season they moved in to share the Rugby League ground of Wakefield Wildcats. After a year the renamed themselves Wakefield & Emley (and later tried Wakefield-Emley), but this did nothing to help the club out of decline, and crowds have dropped season by season since the move. The club’s reserve team never moved away from the Welfare ground, and in 2005 they divorced themselves from the old club and joined the West Yorkshire League as AFC Emley, gaining election to the Northern Counties (East) a year later. Wakefield-Emley reacted to the change by dropping the Emley part of the name and moving again, from the rather oversized Rugby League ground, to the smaller confines of the what was a Rugby Union ground, until the club had gone bankrupt. They also suffered relegation at the same time. What they have gained is a neat ground, with seating for around 300 and some terracing each side of the stand. The badge on the stand is that of the old Rugby club, and in fact the name Wakefield Football Club is displayed. A small piece of cover has been erected, for no apparent purpose behind the goal furthest from the entrance. This consists of scaffold poles covered by thin plastic above three steps of terrace.

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Wakefield in action on their new ground

Having narrowly avoided relegation last season, Wakefield have done a little better this time, and are currently in mid-table. I saw them lose a disappointing game to promotion challengers Curzon Ashton by 1-0. The crowd was just 98, close on the average for the season of 102 (the lowest in the division). Meanwhile, two divisions lower, AFC Emley are also in mid-table – but have average crowds of 121.

David Beckham and The London Legal League

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

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A Thursday night in South East London. The area around the Millennium Dome (to be more accurate, the O2 Arena is its current designation), is eerily quiet. Most of the area around North Greenwich tube station is given over to car parks, and the only life appears to be those people changing from the tube onto local bus services. The dome itself is lit up, with advertising for coming attractions, and behind the dome, one can see across the river where the towers of Canary Wharf are lit brightly against the night sky.

In the opposite direction, there is an inconspicuous building, what appears to be the curved roofs of two warehouses. As one gets closer, you can see that these are not standard warehouses, the roofs and upper walls are made of a fabric which rustles in the wind, and the logo on the end sections are that of a stylised footballer. The building is, in fact, the David Beckham Academy. A place where the youngsters of today have the chance to get a day’s football training for the not exactly paltry sum of £80. As a business venture, I am sure that it is going to be a success, (there are other similar ventures (without the icons name attached) running in London, and I am sure they will be hitting the rest of the country soon) – but this goes beyond just being a training facility. It provides two full size football pitches, (using the most modern of artificial surfaces) inside tents, and therefore protected from all but the worst that British weather can throw.

When the good people met back in 1863 to form the Football Association, they had in mind the ideals of amateur sport which has not survived the subsequent mixing with the real world. One can mourn the passing of these ideals, but had football not grown up; it would have stayed an elitist sport and something else would be the ‘game of the people’. There was one group of people that would have no truck with the introduction of professionalism, with the result that the Amateur Football Alliance split from the FA just over one hundred years ago. The split did not last long – the AFA returned to the FA fold as a County Football Association, with the ability to run its own competitions. Their game has developed since mainly in London and the South East based on old boys clubs and large sports clubs, (some of which are private, some company owned). It is not co-incidental that AFA members include the sports clubs of large financial institutions, (all the big banks, including the Bank of England and major insurance companies). While there is no absolute model, AFA clubs are typically on large playing fields with many pitches (and often other sports as well as football) and a large club house. The building of spectator facilities are minimal. These clubs do present a style of exclusivity that can make non-members feel unwelcome at first.

The two main leagues are the Southern Amateur League and the Amateur Football Combination. The latter was a merger of two leagues about 10 years ago and includes a large number of Old Boys clubs. The Southern Amateur League is considered to strongest of the leagues – until the FA introduced ground facility regulations, SAL clubs could compete in the FA Vase although they were never over successful.

It is another feature of the Amateur game that made the Amateur game of interest to the groundhoppers. This is their regular representative games. When I was first introduced to these, there was a regular series of games, although always organised on a slightly informal friendly basis – between the various leagues, the AFA itself, and representatives of the major Universities (Oxford, Cambridge and London only), the Civil Service and the Armed forces. Most of these took place on midweek afternoons, allowing the more crazy football supporter to run around and tick additional games. Although the Amateurs themselves may have been in it for fun, and selected their home venues as ones suitable to put on a ‘bit of a do’ for the old boys in blazers who run the AFA and followed these fixtures, some of their opponents had more serious events to build up to. For Oxford and Cambridge University, these matches were all about the build up to the Varsity game, and for the Services, it was in preparation for the inter-services competition each spring. The Civil Service may play games against the services and the AFA, but they never stuck to amateur players – I have seen players from Enfield (then the top non-League side in the country), Liskeard Athletic and Newcastle Blue Star playing together for Civil Service.

Until this week, I had not been to a representative game for 16 years. I think partly this primarily due to changes in my life, meaning I wanted to use my leave for other purposes. More recently, when I might have gone to a few, I have found the pattern of afternoon games has been lost in recent years, replaced by floodlit matches on standard non-League grounds.
But back to the David Beckham Academy. As well as staging its training courses, the Academy hires out its pitches every evening. One of its regular tenants is the London Legal League, which stages matches there most Thursdays. I would not consider the Legal League to be the pinnacle of non-League football, or even of the AFA game. I have never considered going to one of their league matches, and this is not likely to change. What attracted me to this match was the uniqueness of the venue. In this I was not disappointed, and as a bonus I got to see a half decent football match as well. The entrance to the academy is just like any other leisure centre, but one then walks down a corridor displaying mementos of the icon’s career – some of his England shirts, some shirts from illustrious opponents, and a series of boots.

The pitches themselves are below two curved fabric roofs held up by a steel infrastructure. The buildings have the feel of small aircraft hangers. The pitches are full size, and by that I do not mean legal minimum size for football, but suitable for league and international games. The curves of the roof are not very high at the sides (the supports come to the ground between the pitches) and the ball twice hit them during the game. The referee restarted with drop balls. The pitch is surrounded by inflated ‘sausages’ about three foot in diameter, and continually inflated with compressed air, like the outside of a massive bouncy castle. There are no spectator facilities as such, and a cafe area for parents use while their children are on the courses was closed.

The Legal League team are drawn from teams which in turn are drawn from the employees of the various legal firms in the city. The visitors, Cambridge University are students vying for places in the varsity game. The remains of the old amateur ethic is still present in two ways. Some uncompromising tackles, which would have David Beckham himself writhing on the ground for several minutes were not actually treated, and the referee was treated with respect, the only cards given being for fouls, not dissent. The first half was entertaining and even, with a number of chances going begging before the University took the lead from a penalty. The Legal League equalised with a powerful header from Rob Carter just on the stroke of half time, and the same player added a second early in the second half. But as the game progressed, the students were demonstrate ably fitter than their opponents and also appeared to benefit from having played together more. It was no surprise they eventually turned out 4-2 winners.

One final feature, and again one of those of the amateur game – as the crowd of 30 persons (all but one of them groundhoppers) left the ground, the Cambridge side shouted out “Three cheers for the London Legal League!!!”