Friday, December 29, 2006

When Is Second Best?

Anniversary Time

Whilst early forms of football were played in China 2000 years ago and in many other places subsequently, the two existing soccer teams which have the longest continuous existence are Sheffield FC (founded in 1857) and Hallam FC (founded in 1860).

As both Clubs are in the Sheffield area, they played each other in an initial challenge match on Boxing Day 1860 on Hallam's ground. Both teams now play in the Northern Counties East League, so where better to play each other in 2006 than on boxing day at Hallam itself? This splendid 146th annivery game was even played on the ground where the teams first met, for this has been Hallam's home ever since their inception.

Thanks to fellow Sheffield FC supporter Tom giving me a lift in his car, I went to see this historic contest. It was our first visit to Hallam's ground, although I used to live within a couple of miles of it at a time when I never even knew of the teams' existence.

I am now lucky enough to live only a 15 minute walk away from the ground which Sheffield FC moved into in 2001. In contrast to Hallam, Sheffield's Bright Finance Stadium (formerly the Coach and Horses Ground named after the neighbouring pub) is the first ground which Sheffield FC have ever completely owned.

Whilst 8 of my past posted items have covered reports of this season's Sheffield FC home games the game at Hallam is my first ever away visit. And what a venue.

The Perfect Setting

The ground is beautifully situated, surrounded by stone walls and with stone built houses nearbye which blend into the green of the neighbouring countryside.

The pitch is what can kindly be called "undulating" and has a significant slope from one goal to the other. You can imagine the gentlemen of 1860 trying out their newly acquired football skills on the hallowed turf. There would have been a rope for a cross bar, with the players in trousers which looked rather like the Long Johns I had put on to keep out the cold; plus at least a sprinkling of fine handlebar moustaches.

Soccer was not then what it is now - mainly a spectator sport. It was for the privileged few who could afford the fees to join a Club at which they could arrange to play football. So matches took on the form of the married man playing the single men. The 1860 challenge match (the first Club contest and the first ever derby) would set up a pattern elsewhere that would transform their initial objectives, ushering in mass working class crowds and teams of professional players normally from the same background and restricted to being paid at a maximum wage ceiling.

Today we have moved to a further stage and are dominated by Murdoch and Sky TV and (at the top end) with the millions shelled out by Abramovich and company. Unless, of course, we also discover as I have by accident, the living roots of the game.

Hallam's ground is certainly a stark contrast to Old Trafford and the like. It even has a little hillock which runs down sharply to a corner flag. The corner taker has to run down it and try to propel the ball into the danger area. It was an art which Sheffield FC (and I imagine all other away teams) have not mastered.

Hallam FC's fine web site is worth visiting here. See the link to two videos of extracts from games, which show the classic setting which I have attempted to describe.

Hitting The Bulldozer for Six

Yeovil (when a non-league team) had a famous slope on their ground as if the pitch had been tipped up sideways. Although it gave them a great home advantage and they captured some famous League scalps in the FA Cup, they eventually brought in the bulldozers to flatten it. So why don't Hallam do the same?

First, it would be an act of vandalism, for the ground is living history. Secondly, they probably can't afford it and would have to demolish high stone walls for access. Finally, it wouldn't just mess up ye olde football, there is a longer history at stake.

Hallam was first founded as a Cricket Club way back in 1804 and the ground doubles as a cricket pitch. There is a batting area neatly rolled out just past one of the football touch lines. Further over there is a score board and a pavillion. When the football season is over, the area of the football field doubles as part of the cricket outfield.

Its cricket status also accounts for the netting round the outsides of the ground. For it is much more problematic in a game if a cricket ball disappears, then if the same happens to a football.

Sheffield United's ground at Bramall Lane used to have similar characteristics. When I first saw them play in a mid-week match against Arsenal in the 1965-66 season, Bramall Lane had spectators on three sides of the ground only. There was a Hallam style score board and pavilion in the distance, but all on a grander scale. Yorkshire County Cricket Club played matches there and it had even hosted some test matches. It was only if the three sides of the ground were full, that latecomers (in the days of standing) were forced into the pavilion side of the ground.

Appropriately, George Eastham was playing for Arsenal on my first visit. He was the player whose legal action helped to smash the maximum wage provision and lead us into the modern era of the game, with sky high wages for some.

When Sheffield United modernised, they sent in the bulldozers and built their main stand on top of the wicket. I much preferred games in the atmosphere of the three sided ground at Bramall Lane and now only tend to go there if my beloved Sunderland are playing.

Sunderland's first choice strip is basically the same as Sheffield United's . Whilst when Sunderland were in the old Division 1 (then the top level of English football) they went down 2-1 on Yeovil's slope in the FA Cup in 1949. When I watched them the week before defeat Derby 2-1, (with another magical display from Shackleton) I never dreamt that a humiliation was only 7 days away. So perhaps Yeovil was a place where the bulldozers arrived too late!

The Game

350 spectators turned up for the game. This was the second largest crowd of the season so far for a Northern Counties match. The top crowd being at the equivalent fixture on Sheffield FC's ground, when 575 turned up. For my report on that one see my post of 18 October entitled "Ye Olde Footy Derby".

It was a large attendance partly because Boxing Day is a good day for crowds anywhere. Partly because Sheffield FC's leading position is adding to their following. And partly because some of us are suckers for history.

Hot drinks and food sold well, whilst the bar in the Club House was full before the kick-off and at half-time.

Tom and I tucked in overlooking the Sheffield FC dug-out near the half way line and had a fine view of proceedings. After 6 minutes James Tevendale, who played for Sheffield FC last season, broke down the slope and the left wing to put in a dangerous cross which Pete Davey turned into his own net. But Sheffield soon started to control the game.

Our Manager, Dave McCarthy played his three main strikers. Gary Townsend (as an attacking left side midfielder), David Wilkins (our recent signing, whom we all know as Wilko) and Vill Powell (an earlier signing from our rivals, Retford Town). It was Powell who had the chances. Two of them were sent wide, but he scored with a fine header and a powerful penalty.

The goal of the game, however, came from Chris Dolby. His skyward lob dropping exactly behind the goalkeeper who had only moved a few yards from his line.

A 3-1 win was was fine for Sheffield who have now won 7 League games in a row. Tom has seen the last 4 of these, his first ever Sheffield FC games.

Post Mortem

The kick off had been at noon and as Tom drove us back after the game we travelled directly past Bramall Lane where the crowd was moving in for the 3 pm kick off against Manchester City. I thought poor souls, not only did they experience a 1-0 defeat but they missed out on a chuck of the real history of their game.

For whilst Hallam are only the second oldest team in the world, they do have something that the oldest team can't brag about - the oldest ground. So they aren't only second best.

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