The Roof is on fire

Once a year I treat Northern Steve to a proper Non-League day out.  None of this Conference Premier malarkey that we had at Lincoln City a few weeks ago.  Proper Non-League.  The trip is essentially a thank you to our respective wives (The Current Mrs Fuller and The Current Sister of Mrs Fuller aka CMF and CSMF) for our absence in the past year when we should have been doing stuff around the house on a Saturday.  So what do we do – we take them somewhere far away from home, take them to a bar, buy them a bottle of Rose and we go to football.  They are so busy chatting they don’t even notice we’ve gone…

11907990933_4e9d58a327_bIn the past few years we have taken in the cultural delights of Hucknall Town, had a tour of the top ten things to see and do in Farsley expertly led by David Hartrick and last year went to the Home of Football, Sheffield FC.  This year it was my turn to choose, so I reached deep into the cash reserves to give them one special weekend away.  “Ladies…we are off to the market.” Squeals of delight follow as they start thinking of The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or the Spice Markets of Marrakesh.  Squeals of horror follow when I tell them it’s the Bigg Market, Newcastle Upon Tyne.  I tried to sell the advantages to them – “You wont have to take any clothes with you – just a short T-shirt for a night out”, “You don’t have to stagger far from hotel to bar and back again”, “It’s far enough away from the children that our mobile network might not hope”.  Slowly they came around to the idea although the deal clincher was the fact the football on offer was a Northern League Division Two local derby.  We had them at Jarrow Roofing Boldon Community Association Football Club.

What more could a girl want?  A top of the table local Tyne and Wear Derby in the 10th tier of English football on a cold Winter’s afternoon in a former pit village? Continue reading

The Future of Non League Football – Time to rethink the FA Vase?

Wembley Stadium will host a number of massive games in May. The FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Liverpool will be played out in front of a capacity crowd early in the month before the attention turns to the nPower Championship sell out between West Ham United and Blackpool in the “World’s Richest Club Game” as well as the FA Trophy final. Just a few days after the end of the month the stadium will be full again as we say goodbye and good luck to Roy Hodgson’s England squad as they play Belgium before departing for the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine.

But in the middle of all those mouth watering games Wembley will host a bizarre game that still defies reason as to why a stadium that costs literally hundreds of thousands of pounds just to unlock the doors would deem viable. The FA Carlsberg Vase Final (ironic name given you cannot drink beer and watch the game at the same time) typically gets crowds of less than 10,000 and apart from a “day out” for the clubs involved, it is a strange game to justify being played at such a huge stadium. This years final is all the more baffling as it involves two teams who have already played each other four times this season, play in the same league and are barely 30 miles apart in one of the furthest leagues away from Wembley Stadium.

On Sunday 13th May West Auckland Town will take on Dunston UTS not in front of the 140-odd who saw their last meeting this season but a figure of close to 5,000 (10,000 at a push). They met early in the season in the FA Cup twice as well as in the league with the scores on the door at one win each and two draws.

Is there any real need to expect the fans to make the 600 mile round trip for this game? Couldn’t some sensibility be used here? Surely if the FA deemed the final should be at Wembley then play it on the Saturday as part of a double header with York City and Newport County, who will be competing for the FA Trophy in front of around 25,000. Alternatively, why not play the game at St James’ Park or the Stadium of Light which would undoubtably provoke more local interest and a significantly bigger crowd.  During the “Inbetween” years of 2000 and 2006 the final was played around the country at Villa Park, White Hart Lane, St Andrews and Upton Park. Continue reading

Onwards towards Whitehaven

We are not shy about extolling the virtues and pleasures about Non League football, and our merry band of writers are plucked from like minded people.  One such star is Andy Hudson, the editor of ganninaway and a champion of the Northern League.  Andy approached me a couple of weeks ago with an idea.  “Stu….what about I ask to travel to an away game on a team coach…will that make a good read?”  We, of course, said yes and below is the story of a day on the road with Hebburn Town.  Over to you Andy.

The bus pulls into the Hebburn Sports and Social Ground to be met by the committee team of chairman Billy Laffy; secretary Tom Derrick; treasurer John Bolam, who is off to the Sunderland game later but helping to sort the kits out first; Paul Hill; and “kit man, press officer, floodlight operator and rubbish picker-upper” Alan Armstrong. There are no players in sight as the clock ticks past the scheduled departure time, only for John Toomey, Liam McBryde and Calum Charlton to hurry on board offering apologies for the delay: “I’ve had to work with me da this morning,” pants Charlton, “and I’ve had me tracksuit on since half six!” A large bag of Haribo mix emerges from Toomey’s pocket as McBryde, scorer of 35 goals in 33 appearances already this season talks about “how bloody lucky Newcastle were you to get a point against us last week”. With three quarters of the Sunderland based contingent on board, Lee Harrison is still at work and having to follow the team bus over once he finishes his post round, the bus heads off through the Tyne Tunnel for the next pick-up spot.

A shout comes from the front of the bus telling the lads that “there’s nee solids allowed in the toilet; pissing only!” and we swing into a hotel car park where a few players clamber on board. We sit waiting for the Killingworth lads who are running late. The players on board wander off in search of a shop, returning ten minutes later to find Dean Nicholson complaining of having “had no sleep at all last night, man; I’m fuckin’ knackered,” while ‘keeper Dan Regan, who had finished his shift in one of the pubs popular with the Geordie Shore wannabes only a few short hours earlier, looks confused when he’s given a new polo shirt in XXL size: “Are you sure this is mine? It’s massive, man,” he asks, receiving the reply: “Aye, well I think so. Bolam just told me to give it to Dan…does he mean Kirkup?”

Bennett, left, and Nicholson, right, watch their team

“I’m 37-years-old and I’ve been sitting at a bus stop for over half-an-hour,” manager Paul Bennett jokes as he falls back in a seat when we eventually arrive for him. “Benno, have ye seen this picture of Calum when he was five?””Hey, it’s Harry Potter there!” Having dragged ironing boards to Alnwick Town and plants to Gateshead, today every player has to have a childhood photo with them to avoid a £5 fine towards the players’ pool.

The final players are picked-up, including ex-Premier League star Jamie McClen – who acts as mentor towards the younger players in his final season playing football, and has none of the pretensions that you may think would go with a player who made first team appearances for Newcastle United under both Ruud Gullit and Sir Bobby Robson – and ex-professionals Jeff Forsyth, who was once signed to a contract a year early by West Bromwich Albion to ward off reported interest from Arsenal, and ex-Carlisle United player Dan Kirkup, who is waiting outside his local Co-op store in Haydon Bridge and is greeted with the shout of: “How Kirky, are you a local celebrity?” when he takes his seat. Continue reading

Double dipping for charity

“Never go back” they say.  Who exactly are they?  Well let me tell you they are wise people.  Age creeps us on us all and for all you young scamps out there scoffing at us “oldies” just remember in football the good do not die young.  In fact Edwin Van Der Sar is only marginally younger than me and he has just won his millionth league title with Manchester United.  So there is nothing wrong with us putting our bodies on the line as our age.

Two years ago I was tempted out of retirement.  I was seduced by the glamour. Young (himself having seen his 40th year last year) Adam Lloyd won an auction prize to play football against the Chelsea Veterans team down at the Cobham training ground.  Would I like to play?  Too bloody right I would.  So who cares we lost 8-0 in the end.  Who cares that 53 year old Clive Walker bossed the game and who cares that John Terry himself came to watch for all of ten minutes.  Well I bloody did that is for sure.  I had to put up with the whingeing and whining of Richard Keys for ninety minutes.  Yes I fouled him, yes I pulled him back by his (excessive) arm hair, and yes I did give him a little nudge as he chased a ball out of play.  But I did my job – I stopped him scoring, even if it meant I put the ball through my own net rather than him scoring from a tap in.  (more details can be found here). I rolled into bed that night vowing never to pull my Puma Kings on again. Continue reading

Marine corp

Following on from our theme about change in Non League football, Andy Ollerenshaw, author of fabulous From Wick to Wembley and one of the best football photographers in the land, David Bauckham travelled north to visit Marine and understand what they are trying to do differently.

The scene for the first time visitor as you reach the crest of the dunes that protect Crosby from the Irish Sea is both surreal and breathtaking in equal measure. One hundred cast iron men dot the length and breadth of the beach, staring silently away from the mainland and out over the waves. This is Antony Gormley’s acclaimed public art ‘Another Place’, his life size figures cast at foundries in West Yorkshire and West Midlands and transported to a two mile stretch of Sefton sand. Two miles behind and inland, nestled in amongst the houses in Crosby’s College Road sits the football ground of Marine AFC. In the same way that Gormley’s men have their sights focussed on more than just their immediate surroundings, Marine AFC is a football club whose focus is set way beyond the boundaries of its compact Arriva Stadium. This is the tale of a trip north to see and hear at first hand how Marine take pride in their community role and the parallels with another coastal football club some 230 miles south.

The Northern Premier League encounter between Marine and Matlock Town was the motive for our visit to Merseyside, a journey instigated by Eastbourne based photographer David Bauckham. This late February tie was an important fixture in the quest for a valued play-off place. The League’s top two goal scorers were on view, one from either side, and both teams were in the middle of a good run of form. It was little surprise that we witnessed an entertaining affair, with the Derbyshire visitors ending the afternoon with a 4-2 win and a three point boost. Matlock’s Ross Hannah netted three times to take his season’s total to a quite staggering 42.

If the game was good, the welcome and hospitality we received at Marine was even better. Marine is a community club in every sense and was voted Football Foundation Community Club of the Year in both 2009 and 2010. This is no mean feat as the non-Leaguers rely on the same customer base as their more illustrious red and blue Premiership neighbours. The tangible sense of pride at the club’s place at the heart of Crosby, and the hinterland beyond, was evident from the moment we met lifelong fan and dedicated club man Barry Lenton. Using the word ‘dedicated’ seems rather inadequate. Lenton, who has been involved with Marine since 1963 in a variety of guises and roles, is the club’s Community Officer. He is the quintessential non-League volunteer, of whom there are many throughout the pyramid, but his daily commitment and loyalty to the club over a period spanning six decades is impressive by any measure. As a youth Lenton spent the summers building up the ground’s terracing “laying sleepers for a free shandy”. In 1968 he established Marine’s first supporters’ club and for many seasons ran the coaches to away games. In fact he has turned his hand to most things, whether its painting terrace walls, collecting used football boots for an African charity, overseeing the knitting of team scarves for the club shop or arranging local school penalty shoot-outs on match days. The list appears endless.

In a typical self effacing manner, it is not Lenton’s own contribution to the club that he feels important but Marine’s place in the community and the sense of family. This he cherishes and holds dear, a sentiment echoed by other club committee members including Chairman, Paul Leary, who Lenton cites as playing a significant role in developing the strong community ties. Pressed on why Marine and the community mean so much to Lenton, he keeps it simple: “Marine feels like home, it’s a family, it’s unique.”

The Football Association has a formal scheme that recognises work done by football clubs in the community. An extension to the FA Charter Standard, the FA Community Club award is given to clubs that “offer opportunities for players irrespective of age, gender, religion and ability”. Bauckham, my travelling partner for the day, has strong ties with another community club, Eastbourne Borough. The parallels between the south coast club and Marine are striking. Eastbourne Borough is a relatively new club, founded by youth team members as Langney FC in 1964. The Sussex outfit is an FA Community Club; what’s more they are one of a very small and select band of football clubs who are formally registered as a Community Interest Company (CIC). In 2008 they were the first CIC to be officially recognised by the FA. A CIC is a limited company created for the use of people who want to conduct a business or other activity for community benefit, and not purely for private advantage. This is achieved by a “community interest test” and “asset lock”, which ensures that the CIC is established for community purposes and the assets and profits are dedicated to these purposes. Other CIC clubs in the country are Bishops Lydeard, Canterbury City, Prescot Cables and Stenhousemuir. Bauckham feels that both Marine and Eastbourne have much in common, yet could also learn from each other’s approach; thoughts of a ‘twinning’ opportunity may yet come to fruition.

Bauckham talks discerningly about topophilia, the love of place or location. In the psyche of the committed football fan this connection is manifested through the club’s ground, the permanent feature that provides a stage for supporters to bond with their team. Managers, players and owners may come and go but the terrace where you stand, the tea hut where you buy your Bovril and the clubhouse where your friends gather, they all remain. Marine, Eastbourne Borough and other community clubs in the country not only recognise this but actively manage it as an important facet for survival. Placed at the centre of the community, thriving football clubs understand the value of using the club facilities for more than just the round ball game. Surviving on crowds of a few hundred or less alone makes life unsustainable for many non-League clubs – Leyton and Windsor & Eton recently testify – and there is a view that the community model that anchors a club firmly into its locale, and taps into a rich and vibrant community, is a financially more stable model.

Quite fittingly, within days of our visit, Marine was granted FA Community Club status. I got the impression that the previous lack any official FA recognition didn’t weigh heavy upon Marine but the club has since acknowledged that this latest award has given them “a major boost”. The accolade, which will now sit alongside those from the Football Foundation, will I’m sure be received with a large spoonful of humility. That’s just the way they are at Marine.

David’s pictures from the day can be accessed here.