Sunday, August 06, 2006

Football Crazy, Football Mad

Retired people are often seen as trying to recapture their youth. I am no exception.

When I was a youngster, I used to watch a great deal of football. At 15, I clocked up over 40 top flight League and Cup games involving teams from the old First Division of the Football League, the equivalent of today’s Premier League. This was in 1951.

Half of these were at Roker Park, watching my team Sunderland in the days of the great Len Shackleton. When Sunderland played away from home, I divided my time between watching matches at Newcastle and Middlesbrough.

As Wor Jackie Milburn played for Newcastle and the highly skilled Wilf Mannion played for the Boro, you will see why I feel that I shall never see their likes again.

I was much younger when I started going to local Wearside League matches at the ground of Easington Colliery Welfare. Sometimes dashing up after the end of a junior school day to catch the end of a mid-week match (there were no floodlights in those days).

When I was 12, I managed to be at 4 matches in 2 days. The first, was a footy knock about as a physical education lesson. I then met my father for a visit to an evening kick off at Roker Park for the final of the Shipowners Cup between Sunderland Reserves and the locals, Easington Colliery Welfare. It was now light nights near the end of the season.

It is the only time I ever went to Roker Park to support anyone but the home team.
Easington had just won the Wearside League and had two star players at inside and outside left: Drake and Wake. This was long before these positions began to be called that of an attacking mid-field player and a left-side striker.

Easington were awarded a penalty at the Fulwell end of the ground. Drake moved up to take the shot. He was on the verge of the peak of his career. All he had to do to put the ball in the back of the net and score the match winner, in order to capture the top local trophy for the Colliery. On what was then, one of the nation’s top grounds.

But as his foot dug into the ground, the ball trickled into the goalkeeper’s hands. Sunderland then scored, and won the cup 1-0.

The next morning, I went back to my Secondary School ground to see our school lose to Eppleton’s 4-3. I then dashed with my mates to see Sunderland draw 1-1 with Birmingham City at the last game of the season. Our goal was scored by Jackie Stelling from the same penalty spot where Drake had drawn a duck.

Whilst I haven’t recently equalled this record of 4 games in 2 days, I have just made it to three games on three consecutive evenings. All of these games, were at a ground which is 15 minutes walk from my home.

It is the ground of Sheffield FC who are the oldest team in the world, founded in 1857 and reach their 150th Anniversary next year.

When I was the local M.P. I was rather jealous of those M.P.s who were lucky enough to have a League team’s ground in their Constituency, none more so than Bill Etherington who first of all had Roker Park in his constituency, then Sunderland’s
new modern ground called the ‘Stadium of Light’ (which is next door to where my wife used to work at Edward Thompson’s up to our marriage.)

Then in 2001, Sheffield FC moved into the old Coach and Horses ground near me in Dronfield. They even took over the Coach and Horses pub. Under a sponsorship deal, the ground’s name changed to the ‘Bright Finance Stadium’. Which is known to some of us as ’The Stadium of Bright’ !

Although Sheffield FC only play in the Premier Division of the Northern Counties East League (which is at Step 5 of the Non League Pyramid, with more than 200 other Non League Clubs playing in higher divisions), they are the originals. Where else could you have an FA Cup game between the oldest team in the world and the original winners of the World Cup ? It happened when Sheffield FC played West Auckland Town 4 years ago.

What World Cup was that ? It was the first international trophy ever. Supplied by Sir Thomas Lipton and won twice by West Auckland in 1909 and 1911. The second time they defeated Juventus 6-1 in the final.

It is often asked; if Sheffield FC were the first team in the world, then who did they play against, before Hallam FC broke away from them and formed the second team in the world? This is to misunderstand what a football club was in those days.

It was initially a Club where the members could play football. So games were organised between married and unmarried men and between those in professional occupations and the rest. Above all it codified the rules, which form the basis for the modern game.

As other Clubs were established they began to play each other . So Sheffield FC vs. Hallam FC isn’t only the oldest derby in the world, for when the match is played at Hallam (who still operate on their original site) it is the oldest derby in the world on the oldest ground in the world.

Sheffield FC are also founder members of the Football Association.

But when they held onto their amateur status, they were outmatched by the professionals, including Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday and even Hartlepool United. These full-time professionals were the three opponents I saw over three evenings at my Stadium of Bright.

A Sheffield United XI including members of their Academy Team and a sprinkling of
Reserves won 6-1. Sheffield FC’s only goal was a fluke. A ball was cleared from a corner and it came out to Darren Holmes (Sheffield FC’s player of last season) who mishit it and it trickled to our striker Rob Ward who was near the goal and only had to prod it into the net.

Tuesday’s match was between Sheffield FC’s under 19s and Sheffield Wednesday’s under 18s. It was a much more even game and it wasn’t until 5 minutes from that end that Wednesday’s best player Todd Wood scored past Sheffield FC’s best player the goalkeeper Will Burkin, to clinch the game 2-1.

Next evening, we were back to another drubbing for the first team, 5-1 against a Hartlepool XI. This was less one sided than the Sheffield United match and three of Hartlepool’s goals came in a rush in the last 20 minutes. The Hartlepool team was again a mixture of Youth and Reserves, with the odd player having first team experience.

I was keen to see Hartlepool, as my father was on their books as a goalkeeper back in the 1932-33 season. He played games in the Reserves and in what used to be termed “Practice Matches”. Teams in the pre-season preparations didn’t play friendly matches, but would play a match or two in public in which (say) their first team defence and their Reserve attack played an opposing mix.

I hold a faded newspaper cutting from the Hartlepool Football Mail saying that “Joseph Barnes, Hartlepool’s new amateur goalkeeper displayed good form in today’s practice match”. Some day it will end up with my grandson, who is also called Joseph.

Hartlepool wanted to sign my father as a professional, but I doubt whether the wage would have been much different from that he earned at the pit. But before he could become a professional, Stanley United (who held his registration) wanted a transfer fee of £20. Hartlepool would not meet this. At today’s prices this would still only be about £800. But if you consider the difference in the transfer fee structures between then and now, then it was as if Stanley United were asking for the equivalent of £40,000.

The game of his life came afterwards when Stanley United played the Army at Catterick. The Army dominated and won 2-1. But my Dad saved two penalties and umpteen shots and was chaired of the field at the end by the troops who packed the ground.

As a boy I once went with my pals to see Easington play the neighbouring Colliery team at Horden in a cup tie. Horden were in a higher league and their goalkeeper (who I have reason to believe was the Jack Dormand, who was later the constituency’s Labour M.P. and then a Peer) had not turned. So my Father was signed up for the game. Who on earth was I supposed to support - our Colliery or my Dad?

I used to watch my Father near the end of his football days playing for Easington Village Rovers. In fact, out of more than 60 years of watching football the most goals I have ever seen a team score is nine. This was Deaf Hill United at home against the Village, with my Dad in goal. Yet he saved a penalty (which was his speciality) and the Hartlepool Football Mail said he had played well ! Heaven knows how many Deaf Hill would have scored otherwise.

When it comes to Sheffield FC, I am concerned about its pre-season programming. Playing friendly matches against full-timers (especially at the start of a season) shows up a fitness gap and the resulting heavy defeats can lead to a loss of confidence. It seemed to happen last season and to lead to a poor start to the League season. We then recovered and just missed out on promotion. A few more early season points would have clinched it.

On the other side of the coin, games against tough opposition provide a big test and these pulled in reasonable total crowds of over 700 for the three games. It also lifts the Club’s profile.

But the proof of the pudding will be seen in its early League performances. I have a season ticket and well normally take that short walk to the ground. The only problem will be the alternative attractions of Sunderland playing in the area at Derby, Leicester, Barnsley, Leeds and Sheffield. After all as much as Sheffield FC help bring back my youth, I can’t avoid the attractions of my first love. I will just have to hope that as with any football philanderers, not too many dates clash.

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