Saturday, 24 October 2020

The Forgotten Team of Chernobyl: The Football Club Put to an End by the World's Worst Nuclear Disaster

9 May 1986 was supposed to be the beginning of a new era for FC Stroitel Pripyat but the club never lived to see it. That day in early summer the club were supposed to play FC Shakhtar Oleksandriya in a Ukrainian league match, what was the fourth tier of Soviet football, and it would be their first ever match in their brand new stadium. But unfortunately, the match never took place and the new stadium lay empty in fact so did the whole town. Nearby events that took place just under two weeks earlier shook the world and brought an end to life in this treelined town of Pripyat. But whereas people still well remember the now more than 30 years empty town that was home to the workers of the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant very few remember its football club.

Considered the worst nuclear disaster in the history of the world, events on 26 April 1986 left large parts of Ukraine and Belarus uninhabitable due to high radiation levels. This was caused by events at the VI Lenin Memorial Nuclear Power Plant, otherwise known as Chernobyl, during which reactor number four was completely destroyed. This affected the now infamous nearby town of Pripyat which was evacuated just days after the incident and has remained all but empty ever since. The excellent Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham gives a blow by blow account of the event, the aftermath, and the lives of those involved. I could rave on all day about his brilliant book but of course one of thing he does not tell us is the story of FC Stroitel Pripyat.

Formed in the mid 1970s, according to Belarusian football blog A Ya Vse Chashche Zamechayu initially most of Stroitel's line up came from the nearby village of Chistogalovk although others claim the club originally consisted of construction workers working in the local Chernobyl nuclear plant and this would explain the club's name because Stroitel translates into English as 'builder'. Regardless of the club's beginnings, however, and more on that shortly, it does seem that for much of its existence the club's playing squad consisted of workers from the nuclear plant along with the odd player brought in from Kiev. 

Playing in the fourth tier, in 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1985 Stroitel were champions of the Kiev region qualifying for the Ukrainian championship that completed the season and for which the winners were granted a place in the third tier Soviet Second League that sat below the First league and the Top League. In 1985 the club ended the season just four points behind top position and what would have been a promotion in what was the clubs most successful season of all whilst in contrast in 1982, however, they had finished bottom of the eight team Ukrainian championship and in all other years not mentioned did not qualify for it. Playing in the lower echelons of Soviet football the club naturally was not a team of big name stars but one name of note was Anatoly Shepel a former Soviet International who had two League titles and one cup triumph to his name as a player with Dynamo Kyiv. Shepel never actually played for Stroitel on the pitch but for a short while did take up the role as manager of the club during this period of success in the eighties.

It was Vasili Kizima Trofimovich, a man heavily involved in the building of Chernobyl's nuclear plant and the creation of the town of Pripyat, who was the man behind the formation of the town's football club. “We have people in four shifts and nowhere for them to go and rest," he explained. "Let them go and watch football and drink beer." The rest, as they say, was history as many did take up his offer of watching football with home crowds averaging at 2,000 for much of the club's existence. Considering construction of the town did not begin until 1970 and at its height it had a population of barely 50,000 such support was actually fairly impressive. 

With only the most basic of stadiums, however, it was eventually decided that a new one would be needed for the club and so one was constructed. The new Avanhard Stadion was built complete with an athletics track and a 5,000 seat grandstand. It was a stadium the town could be proud of or at least they would have been if the whole area had not have been evacuated shortly before it was due to open.

The week before the grand opening of Pripyat's new stadium, Stroitel were to play in a Kiev regional cup semi-final against a team called Mashinostroitel Borodyanka. However, as the story goes, in their final training session before the match the Borodyanka players were interrupted by an army helicopter which landed on the pitch. Out of helicopter came two military officials who told them that the following day's match was postponed. In the early hours of that day, the now infamous incident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant had happened. 

We all know what happened next for the town of Pripyat, contaminated with radiation leaking from the nuclear plant's destroyed reactor, it would be evacuated with its residents never to return and its shiny new football stadium would lay empty never to be used. But as for the football, well Borodyanka actually went on to win the cup that year and FC Stroitel Pripyat would eventually return as FC Stroitel Slavutych with Slavutych being the name of a new town created for many of the displaced residents of Pripyat to reside. This new side, however, would be dissolved after only a few seasons. Their hearts were not in it. 

The end of FC Stroitel started on that day in April 1986 and their story is one rarely told. In the midst of such a horrifying disaster, one that shook the whole world, the story of the local football club, just one of many subplots to a far bigger tale, was never deemed overly important. But for many of those who lived in Pripyat, FC Stroitel had probably been a significant part of a former life that they would soon come to mourn.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Football Book Review: The Farther Corner by Harry Pearson

A brilliant book from start to finish.

In The Farther Corner Harry Pearson returns to North East football which is the scene of a previous book of some 25 years ago called The Far Corner. His first book saw him visit many North East grounds from top flight right through to non-league although this latest book is set mostly amongst the delights of the Northern League. However, regardless of the matches he takes in, Pearson still manages to fill the pages with many witty observations akin to what we saw in the first book whilst even more so than in that first offering they are interwoven with many tales from North East football's past across the professional and amateur game.

Pearson's interest in the history of North East football brings up some fascinating tales from the game and also paints a vivid picture of the hard life amongst the coalfields of County Durham and Northumberland, as well as the steelworks of Teesside, that were an existence for many in the region across large parts of the twentieth century. With memories from friends, family, and others with a history in the local football scene to draw upon the book is rich in detail of the inner workings of North East football's past and its importance within its local communities. The book particularly immerses itself in some of the great non-league teams of the past, particularly the great (perhaps not so) amateur sides such as Bishop Auckland who won a record ten FA Amateur Cup's for example whilst also covering the ups and downs of the regions three main professional clubs.

Whilst the book includes many tales from the past it also covers the more recent era of not just football but Pearson's life in general with many anecdotes bordering on the peculiar. All of this is set around a season of non-league football and the specific games he attends where he has a sharp-witted awareness of his surroundings and the people present. This comes with the ability to poke fun at some of the inane habits and characteristics of some of the supporters he comes across as well as football fans in general.

This is a brilliant book from start to finish that involves lots of chuckling to yourself at Pearson's humorous observations as well as getting engrossed in his fascinating stories from North East football's past. On a scale of 1 to an absolute belter, I'd say it is an absolute belter.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

The Day When Borussia Mönchengladbach Almost Pulled Off the Impossible: The Story of the Incredible End to the 1977-78 Bundesliga Title Race

Borussia Mönchengladbach were defending champions having won the Bundesliga title each of the previous three seasons. But despite going into the final day of the 1977-78 season in second behind 1. FC Köln on goal difference there was seemingly no chance of Gladbach making it four in a row. Gladbach's goal difference of +30 put them 10 goals behind Köln on +40 and with Köln playing bottom of the league and already relegated FC St Pauli the title was, therefore, this time surely out of reach or so everyone thought. But a routine afternoon of Köln winning the title turned out to be not so routine after all thanks to one of the craziest games in Bundesliga history.

In 1978 Borussia Mönchengladbach were not just a top side in Germany but one of the best in Europe and had reached the previous season's European Cup final in Rome although they lost to an all conquering Liverpool side. Gladbach were managed by Udo Lattek who would go on to eventually become considered an all-time great by winning 15 major trophies as manager of Gladbach, FC Bayern München, and FC Barcelona. He already had three Bundesliga titles to his name and had won the European Cup with FC Bayern in 1974. Gladbach also had big names on the pitch and their squad included West German internationals such as Bertie Vogts, Rainer Bonhof, and Jupp Heynckes as well as then European Footballer of the Year Allan Simonsen, a Danish international.

Whilst Gladbach went into the final day of the 1977-78 season hoping to pip 1. FC Köln to the title Köln were hoping to clinch their first Bundesliga title since 1964. Their squad also included some star names in Toni Schumacher, Herbert Zimmermann, Heinz Flohe, and Dieter Müller, all fellow West German internationals. Köln's manager Hennes Weisweiler had himself been in charge of Gladbach just three years earlier and like Lattek would also end up classed as an all-time great. Retiring with 11 major trophies to his name he also just like Lattek had three Bundesliga titles to his name by this point as well as having won the UEFA Cup in 1975.

In the penultimate weekend of the season, Köln laboured to a 2-1 win at fourth placed VfB Stuttgart whilst Gladbach defeated Hamburger SV 6-2. Although they both entered the final weekend challenging for the title, neither sides campaign's had been out of this world. Gladbach had lost four times in the opening half of the season, Köln five. But with eight defeats in total compared to Gladbach's six Köln just edged in front of their rivals by virtue of having drawn fewer games. It was a competitive era, however, and winning it at a canter like Bayern often do these days very much uncommon. Besides, the league table still showed they were the two best sides in the country and the pair had numerous big name stars that many other clubs just did not have.

On on April 29, 1978, that final day, Gladbach were at home to Borussia Dortmund (BVB) though with their home stadium being renovated the match was played at Fortuna Düsseldorf's Rheinstadion. Köln meanwhile were away from home in Hamburg where opponents FC St Pauli were based. Both matches kicked off at 15:30 and it did not take long for goals to go in, at least not in Düsseldorf... 

By 15:52 Gladbach were 4-0 up after a stunning opening period and were really going for it but with Köln taking the lead after 28 minutes in their match they would need plenty more goals. Gladbach had gone 1-0 up within a minute thanks to Jupp Heynckes who had been part of West Germany's 1974 World Cup winning squad. He scored with a looping header. Twelve minutes later Heynckes grabbed his second with a low drive whilst a minute later Carsten Nielsen headed home to make it 3-0, one of 23 goals the Dane would score in a Gladbach shirt. Then on 22 minutes 22-year-old winger Karl Del’Haye, signed from Alemannia Aachen three years earlier, made it four by running with the ball from just inside his own half before confusing several defenders then firing the ball into the net from almost 15yds out. Some brilliant football but Gladbach weren't done there - they would be 6-0 up by half-time. Heynckes completed his hat-trick nipping in to slot the ball home on the line before later a through ball saw Herbert Wimmer hit the ball over a sliding out keeper and into the BVB net.

With Köln 1-0 up Gladbach would need to score plenty more goals in the second-half and in what was turning out to be an incredible game did exactly that. For their next goal, Heyneckes looked like he barely touched the ball but just about got a head onto it and the 'keeper who'd rushed out had no chance. 59 minutes gone Gladbach were 7-0 up and It did not take long for 7-0 to become 8 and then 9-0. Nielson turned and fired home before Del’Haye grabbed his second by knocking the ball home after his initial shot was saved. As noted by supporters in the stands who were following events in Hamburg via portable radios, by this point Köln had grabbed a second in their match, however, and were still firm favourites for the title but, nonetheless, Gladbach were really giving it a go.

Heyneckes then grabbed his fifth of the match as the keeper who blocked his first effort didn't quite manage to keep the ball in front of the line from the rebound. Köln scored goals either side that Gladbach tenth, one before and two after, they were 5-0 up and the title was all but theirs but still Gladbach were not done yet. Ewald Lienen, in his first of two spells at the club, made it eleven by controlling then firing the ball home on the half volley before in injury time a through ball saw Christian Kulik, seven years into a ten-year spell at the club, run from just outside the box before firing home from almost 15yds out to finish off the rout and give a final score of Borussia Mönchengladbach 12-0 Borussia Dortmund. 12-0, but trying to overturn a ten goal deficit in the goal difference column they had, however, came up three goals short thanks to Köln's 5-0 win. "We'd rather score a dozen goals than Cologne lose at St. Pauli," said the Gladbach striker on the morning of the match. They did exactly that but on unfortunately in this instance, it was still not enough.

Despite losing out in the title race, Gladbach's supporters headed home very impressed with their team's performance but others less so. Accusations of match-fixing would unsurprisingly be voiced after such a performance and even as it unfolded live many were suspicious. As the goal updates filtered through to Hamburg some St Pauli fans feeling something wasn't quite right even started cheering on their opponents Köln. Of course, everyone involved denied this especially the BVB players themselves. They did not do it on purpose they had everyone believe and right back Amand Theis admitted regarding the poor performance that: "The shame has accompanied us for years." Nothing has ever been proven and it's generally accepted these days that the match was played fairly. 

If the match was embarrassing for BVB then none more so than their goalkeeper Peter Endrulat. Playing in place of injured first choice keeper Horst Bertram the game was most definitely the beginning of the end for the 23-year-old at the club as the as the following day he was told his contract would not be renewed. A short lived career saw him go on to make 60 appearances for 2. Bundesliga Nord club Tennis Borussia Berlin.

Endrulat was not the only departure at BVB post the 12-0 debacle as manager Otto Rehhagel was also fired the day after the match. He would go on to manage various other clubs across Germany before coaching the Greek national team to shock European Championship glory when as rank outsiders they unexpectedly won the Euro 2004 tournament held in Portugal.

Others not sacked by BVB did not get off scot free, however, as their poor performance was rewarded with a DM2000 fine for each player. 

For Gladbach's five goal star of the show it was also the end as Heynckes had announced he was retiring after a distinguished career that saw two spells at the club and 39 caps for West Germany. He would go on to have a managerial career almost as successful as his mentor Lattek starting at none other than Gladbach a year later when Lattek quit to join unbeliebably BVB having just won the UEFA Cup with Gladbach. Gladbach won five league titles over the course of the seventies, three with Lattek in charge, and twice finished runners up but have yet to win a Bundesliga title since or indeed even finished second again. As for the team that pipped them to the title on that final day, Köln have also yet to the title again though dd twice finish runners up at the end of eighties. Manager Hennes Weisweiler left at the end of 1979-80 season and moved to America to briefly manage the New York Cosmos.

Considering, as mentioned, neither side would win another title, in some ways that April afternoon in 1978 was the last hurrah for both Borussia Mönchengladbach and 1. FC Köln. And as for that 12-0 win well it was and still is the biggest ever winning margin in Bundesliga history. The match was also listed 43rd in 11 Freunde magazine's greatest matches of all-time. A truly crazy scoreline that saw one of the most surreal final day title races in football history - Even if the final outcome was the one everyone had predicted beforehand!

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

More Amateur Cup Stories: Pegasus, the post-war Oxbridge side that became stars of amateur football

'Maybe a university degree is the perfect passport to soccer success' wrote Bob Rodney in the Daily Mirror the Monday after the 1953 FA Amateur Cup final and this was certainly true for the students of Oxford and Cambridge who had battled together on the pitch. Pegasus Association Football Club, a joint venture between Oxford and Cambridge Universities had just won their second Amateur Cup in three seasons. A year before Bishop Auckland and Crook Town battled it out in that mammoth final I wrote about recently it was a rather more unique side who put their name on the trophy for a second time - This is a brief look at their story.

Although in much later years the players of Pegasus were not solely university students, the side included a lot of ex-servicemen, when the club was originally set up its players were either Oxbridge students or ex-students who had left university the previous year and this was generally the case during their two FA Amateur Cup wins. Formed in 1948, the club was an amalgamation of the Oxford and Cambridge University football teams. Harold Warris Thompson, a professor at St. John's College, Oxford, who would later become chairman of the Football Association was the main man behind the creation of the club along with Ken Shearwood who would later write a book about the team. The name Pegasus came from the winged horse of the same name in Greek mythology and symbolised the union of the Centaur horse on the Oxford crest and the Falcon on the Cambridge crest.

Vic Buckingham, Joe Mercer, Bill Nicholson, and Arthur Rowe all famous names in the footballing world were involved in coaching the Oxford and Cambridge University teams at one point or another with all three having all previously played for Tottenham Hotspur and Rowe also going on to manage them. Unsurprisingly then Pegasus often tended to play with the same push-and-run style football that eventually helped Spurs win the league championship in 1951 under that man Rowe. Indeed playing that same style of football actually brought Pegasus Amateur Cup success in that same year with none other than Buckingham at the helm.

Pegasus would fold in 1963 when they decided to no longer play matches but interestingly during their 15 years of existence they did not play in a league of any sort. Alongside friendlies and tours, the only competitive matches they played in came in varying cup competition's which, of course, included the Amateur Cup. They entered the competition in their very first season with regular Amateur Cup followers wondering quite who this new team were. 'Pegasus are the mystery club of the F A. Amateur Cup competition,' wrote David Williams in the Daily Herald before continuing 'As a club they have not kicked a ball, so there's a mystery in why they have been exempted until the final qualifying round,' The Football Association were seemingly not forthcoming with an answer to this question but Pegasus proved their worth by reaching the quarter finals before losing 4-3 at home to Bromley.

In 1949-50 Willington defeated Bishop Auckland 4-0 in the Amateur Cup final with Pegasus knocked out early on but the following year, however, it was Pegasus who won the competition. With the team being based in Oxford there was a bumper crowd in attendance when they faced city neighbours Oxford City in the quarter finals where they ran out 3-0 winners to set up a semi-final tie with Hendon. In the semis, a 1-1 draw at Highbury was followed by a 3-2 replay win at Selhurst Park. 

In the 1951 FA Amateur Cup final, Pegasus would face Bishop Auckland, that great amateur side who would go on to win in total a record ten Amateur Cups having won several already, but pre-match some in the media were already talking about a potential Pegasus victory and the historic nature of it. 'Who outside the writers of cheap fiction, could visualise such a romance as a club winning on of the games chief trophies in its third year of existence thus fulfilling one of the very objects for which the club was formed,' wrote Eric Stanger for the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, for example.

The crowd of around 100.000 in attendance was a record for the competition and saw a Pegasus performance that 'smacked of the old Corinthian spirit and Spurs' skill combined,' at least according to Stan Halsey of the Sunday Mirror. Halsey, however, was not the only man to compare Pegasus to the old Corinthians amateur side that promoted sportsmanship and fair play as many others also romanticised the Pegasus story, his comments were just one of many examples. 

In the final itself, Pegasus' Henry Potts who also played first class cricket with Oxford University saw a tame effort saved just before the break as the sides went in 0-0 at half-time. Just five minutes into the second-half and Pegasus were in front, however, and it was that man Potts who got the goal with a powerful header. Nine minutes from time great link up play saw John Tanner put Pegasus two up. Tanner went on to make 305 appearances for Huddersfield Town playing First and Second Division football and also made seven first-class appearances for the Oxford University cricket team. Bishop Auckland would pull one back but Pegasus held on to win their first FA Amateur Cup trophy just three years after their formation - an incredible story.

Pegasus spent much of their time playing against representative sides such as the Coventry Football Combination and the Leeds and District FA for example, two teams they played in 1951 and 52 respectively. There was even a match against a team of Dutch players that took place in Hull. Inbetween touring the country, however, Pegasus would twice win the Oxfordshire Senior Cup with those two Amateur Cup triumphs inbetween the second of which came in the 1952-53 season. 

The club had failed early on in the previous season's competition but this time around coached by George Ainsley, an ex-Leeds United and Bradford Park Avenue forward, they had no such problems as they made it all the way to Wembley once again. In the earlier rounds, their third round tie was considered by some easily the tie of the tournament as they faced Corinthian Casuals in what Laurie Burills of the Daily Herald said 'could well be the greatest amateur game of the past 25 years.' Corinthian Casuals, a team formed thanks to a merger between the two great amateur teams Casuals FC and that earlier mentioned Corinthians FC side, were favourites to win the competition whilst Pegasus were not far behind. Burills considered them evenly matched, however, claiming there was 'nothing distinguishable in strength or stamina' and that 'a clear cut result seems unlikely,' In the end, it was, as predicted, a close run thing but Pegasus ran out 1-0 winners. Slough Town were beaten next in the quarter finals before in the semis a 1-1 Highbury draw with Southall was followed by a 2-1 replay win at Craven Cottage.

In front of another 100,000 crowd, Harwich & Parkeston of the Eastern Counties Football League would be Pegasus' opponents in the final and Pegasus produced what Bob Rodney of the Daily Mirror described as 'the most devastating show seen in a cup final for twenty-one years since Dulwich Hamlet beat Marine 7-1'. Winning by the same margin as Dulwich Hamlet had done, Pegasus ran out 6-0 winners scoring three in each half. There were five different scorers for Pegasus with the pick of the goals coming from Donald Carr who controlled the ball expertly before firing a low drive into the corner of the net. 

That sublime performance would be the high point of Pegasus' 15-year existence, however. In the following season's Amateur Cup Pegasus lost in quarter finals which was followed by a semi final defeat a year later. But after in the few years that followed during their short existence, they never came anywhere near close to winning the cup again.

"Pegasus came and went like a shooting star. But in their short life they shed a light on the game as a whole. They were something different," wrote Geoffrey Green of The Times in his forward to Shearwood's earlier mentioned book on the club. Just like the FA Amateur Cup, which as mentioned in my earlier piece on the 1954 final is no longer in existence, Pegasus are also long gone. Gone is the era of amateur football, and the idea of a team such as Pegasus gaining such prominence would nowadays seem a little far fetched. Those were definitely different times!

This article was written with information obtained from the British Newspaper Archive ( and the British Library Board. 

These services are not free and incur a fee. For said fee I was allowed to view a set number of newspaper pages and have almost used up my quota. For more articles like this that will involve me paying more money to view further newspaper pages please contribute by donating/supporting me via my Patreon page

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Der Pokal Hat Seine Eigenen Gesetze: Stories from the DFB-Pokal

The great thing about the DFB-Pokal is that all teams enter at the same point. No mammoth qualifying runs for the minnows just to get a glimpse of a semi big name side when you can draw a top flight team right from the word go! Of course, with only sixty four teams entering what is Germany's premier cup competition places for amateur or semi-professional sides are limited. But for those who are allocated a place a dream tie against a big name professional side is a real possibility, especially as the draw is seeded. At the beginning of the year, I wrote a feature about the fascinating Coupe de France and, perhaps a little slow off the mark, having followed with interest the opening round of cup fixtures in Germany just the other weekend I thought I'd take a look at another interesting domestic cup competition where as the saying goes, Der Pokal hat seine eigenen Gesetze (the cup has its own rules).

I've actually written about the DFB-Pokal before, or should I say in particular the 1983 competition and the exciting run of underdogs Fortuna Köln who made it all the way to the final where they faced big time neighbours 1. FC Köln in an all-Cologne final. The DFB-Pokal is definitely worth revisiting, however, as like the FA Cup in England in and the Coupe de France in well er France, Germany's knockout competition also has many other intriguing stories to tell. It may not quite have the same tradition of FA Cup or the sheer number entrants that the Coupe de France has but it is still, nonetheless, a pretty special animal with an exciting history.

This season’s DFB-Pokal got underway the weekend before last with the sixty four entrants comprising of last seasons Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga sides, the top four teams from last season’s 3.Liga, and other selected teams including mostly the winners of Germany’s Verbandspokal the various regional cup competitions which are usually open to teams from the third tier and below. As well as the draws being seeded the lower-ranked teams in each tie are given home advantage as they vie for a place in the cup final played at Berlin's Olympiastadion each year. In this year's first round the most entertaining tie was newly promoted 2. Bundesliga side Eintracht Braunschweig's 5-4 win over Bundesliga team Hertha BSC whilst the biggest shock of the round came when fourth tier Regionalliga West club Rot-Weiss Essen defeated newly promoted Bundesliga side Arminia Bielefeld 1-0.

Teams from the Regionalliga and below, who are in many cases semi-professional or even amateur, defeating a top flight side as Essen did is nothing new. For many of these clubs just being in the competition is a big deal as many rarely get to enter. So when they do enter they have to savour the moment and this has brought over the years some shocks that even the FA Cup and Coupe de France, both famed for their upsets, would struggle to produce. 

In the 1990s FC Bayern München, the country's most successful side of all-time, twice lost to amateur sides in the Pokal. On 4 August 1990, Just over 8,000 spectators crammed into FV Weinheim's Sepp-Herberger Stadion to see the minnows from the Baden-Württemberg region face the might of FC Bayern and, hoping for an upset, they weren't to be disappointed. The home side took the lead from the penalty spot on 26 minutes after a rash challenge saw Bayern down to ten men but even the most optimistic of supporters would not have expected them to hold on for the win. Hold on the did though and Weinheim were through to the next round where they would sadly lose to Rot-Weiss Essen whilst four years later there was an even bigger shock in store for the Bavarian giants of Bayern.

On 14 August 1994, TSV Vestenbergsgreuth were the opposition when Bayern suffered another humiliating defeat against amateur opposition in what goalscorer Roland Stein called "the perfect day". The team from a village with a population of at the time just 350 were live on primetime terrestrial television channel ZDF with almost 7.5m people watching and they would soon be the talk of the nation. Lothar Matthäus, Oliver Kahn, Thomas Helmer, the Brazilian world champion Jorginho and the striker Jean-Pierre Papin, these were just some of the star names in the Bayern line-up. Managed by Franz Beckenbauer they were a formidable side but in this cup tie they were well and truly shown up. 

"And there is the goal. There is the goal" was the cry the commentator on ZDF when on 43 minutes Wolfgang Hüttner found Stein who headed home to put the hosts into dreamland. 1-0 up at the break, Vestenbergsgreuth still had to survive the second-half and at times they were clinging on for dear life in the match that had been moved Nuremberg to allow more spectators in. They did hold on, however, although late stoppage time drama where Bayern hit the post nearly saw an equaliser. Hearts in mouths. Vestenbergsgreuth and Stein had their moment in the sun but after defeating FC Homburg in the next round lost to VfL Wolfsburg on penalties and such is the glamour of amateur football that Stein nowadays works as an elevator fitter.

There have been numerous other upsets in the pokal down the years. When Hamburger SV lost 2-1 at amateur side VfB Eppingen in 1974 it was called Die Mutter aller Pokalsensationen (the mother of all cup sensations). With amateur and semi professionals clubs having only been allowed to enter the competition for the first time that season it was easily the biggest shock in the history of the competition up to that point. A little over four years later another amateur side called TuS Langerwehe beat Hertha BSC 2-1. In those days the lower ranked sides were not given home advantage, that rule came into force a few years later, and Langerwehe drew 0-0 (aet) away at Hertha with that 2-1 win actually coming in a replay, something that is no longer used with all ties now settled on the day. Hamburg were on the wrong end of a shock again in 1984-85 some ten years after that 'mother of all cup sensations' when they lost 2-0 to SC Geislingen of the Amateur-Oberliga Baden-Württemberg. Fastforward to 2000-01 and 1. FC Magdeburg versus FC Bayern is also worth a mention as the former East German side who won the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1974 were playing fourth tier football when they defeated Bayern on penalties. Also of interest is Berliner AK 07 setting a new scoring record for a fourth tier side against a Bundesliga club when they defeated 1899 Hoffenheim 4-0 in the opening round of 2012-13. There are too many other upsets to mention them all but before we finish we must look at 1. FC Saarbrücken's run to the semi finals last season and then the curious tale of Hertha BSC Amateure which is a story definitely worth telling.

Four years after then third tier side Energie Cottbus lost to VfB Stuttgart in the final another third tier side in unfancied 1. FC Union Berlin defeated two Bundesliga sides en route to the final in 2001. 1. FC Union lost to FC Schalke 04 in the final, but arguably more remarkable was fourth tier Saarbrücken's run to the semis last season. Round two saw Saarbrücken defeat Bundesliga club FC Köln 3-2 in what was a pulsating match with Köln coming back to draw level from 2-0 down before Saarbrücken hit back with a 90th minute winner. Fortuna Düsseldorf, another top flight side, were defeated on penalties in the quarter finals before the dream ended at the semi final stage where diluted home advantage thanks to a post-COVID lockdown behind closed doors match did not help as they lost 3-0 to Bayer Leverkusen. En route to that semi final loss, Saarbrücken had also defeated two second tier sides along the way.

Another fascinating tale from the Pokal, perhaps the most captivating of all, comes from the 1992-93 season and involves Hertha BSC Amateure, who are nowadays known as Hertha BSC II, the reserve side of Hertha BSC. Rule changes in the 2000s mean reserve sides can no longer enter the pokal but once upon a time lower league reserve sides of top flight clubs were a regular feature in the pokal. Whilst Hertha BSC were knocked out just before the quarter finals their reserve side managed to progress all the way to the final something the first team have yet to manage. Second tier Lokomotive Leipzig, then known as VfB Leipzig were defeated in a seven goal thriller before Hertha Amateure beat second tier Hannover 96 who only a year earlier had become the first side outside the top flight to win the cup. Victory over Hannover set up a quarter final tie with Bundesliga outfit 1. FC Nürnberg. 

1-0 up after a first-half goal, Hertha BSC Amateure saw their visitors from Nuremberg draw level in the 89th minute but responded by immediately going up the other end and retaking the lead to win 2-1. Things were now getting serious and Hertha Amateure's part-time coach Jochem Ziegert quit his day job as a tax officer to concentrate on Hertha with the big semi final looming. Second tier side Chemitzer FC would be the opposition. The star of this Hertha Amateure side was a young  Carsten Ramelow who would later go on to play for the German national team at the 2002 World Cup and it was he who opened the scoring after just five minutes. Hertha Amateure were soon 2-0 up and leading 2-1 at the break ended up winning the match by that same scoreline to reach the final. It was an excellent performance that impressed many including Kicker magazine who wrote: "The success of the amateurs was well deserved against the higher-class guests who appeared without ideas." For the final there was a sell-out crowd at Berlin's Olympiastadion most of whom were supporting local side Hertha but, unfortunately, the fairytale ended and they lost 1-0 to Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen.

Above are some of the intriguing stories the DFB-Pokal brings to life each season. The unique structure of the competition means only a handful of clubs that might be considered 'minnows' get to enter each year. But the ones that do well they have a decent chance of drawing one of the big guns in their very first match and with David v Goliath ties extremely common and David always getting home advantage a famous cup upset is, as we've seen, never far away. As they say in Germany, the cup has its own rules.

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Saturday, 12 September 2020

Three Matches, 330 minutes, and Only One Goal To Separate Them: The Mammoth Amateur Cup Final of 1954 That Saw Almost 200,000 Through the Turnstiles

Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

It took a mammoth 330 minutes but eventually, a victor was found. In scenes that would seem incredulous today, almost 200,000 spectators over the course of three matches saw two Northern League amateur sides from County Durham battle it out for glory in a tale that gripped the region and indeed much of the nation. Bishop Auckland v Crook Town in the 1954 FA Amateur Cup final had a script that even the greatest of movie writers could not have come up with up but, having said that, if similar drama had occurred in America's favourite past time of baseball then Hollywood would have surely made the story into a feature-length film.

Those of the younger generation may not be familiar with the FA Amateur Cup, after all, the 1974 final was the competitions last. With many non-league clubs no longer strictly amateur and more accurately semi-professional, and many past winners having arguably been not as amateur as they seemed, the competition's eventual demise was hardly surprising. In 1969 the FA Trophy was introduced as a new competition aimed at those non-league clubs who could no longer class themselves as amateur and although it did not have the prestige of the Amateur Cup it would essentially soon replace it. When five years later the Football Association abolished the distinction between amateur and professional or semi-professional status the Amateur Cup was finally discontinued. The Trophy and a new competition for smaller clubs known as the FA Vase would together take on the mantle as the national cup competitions specifically for non-league sides, a position they both still hold today.

In the 1954 Amateur Cup Bishop Auckland scored 26 goals in their five games en route to the final and this included a 5-0 win over Hallam, and a 5-1 semi-final victory over now defunct Briggs Sports of Essex that took place in front of 54,000 spectators at St. James' Park, Newcastle. Their final opponents Crook Town were not far behind in the scoring charts, however. Crook had defeated Hitchin Town 10-1 in the quarter finals having also won 5-0 at home to Walton & Hersham earlier in the competition but needed a replay at Roker Park, Sunderland, in front of another bumper crowd, to beat Walthamstow Avenue in the other semi-final.

Based five miles apart in County Durham, Bishop Auckland and Crook were very much part of the Durham coalfield. Crook was a pit village whilst Bishop Auckland also saw many employed in the many collieries dotted about the surrounding areas. There was also large scale employment in the local ironworks. Life was tough but a work hard play hard attitude saw football play a key role for many locals in their spare time. Amateur football in the region was big and the local Northern Football League regularly drew four figure crowds that its clubs could nowadays scarcely dream of. 

Despite their amateur status, however, it was believed that players at some of these clubs actually earned more money than some at professional sides. This had been particularly noticeable at both Bishops and Crook over the years and brought with it a bitter rivalry that stemmed back to what was known as the 'Crook Town Affair'. In 1928 Bishop Auckland reported Crook Town to the Durham FA for the illegal payment of players. This started a chain of events that saw Crook booted out of the league and a widespread investigation that saw in total 341 players from numerous clubs suspended. By 1954 things were not always so obvious and as Harry Pearson notes in his excellent book The Farther Corner players at supposedly amateur clubs might have the club foot the bill when their wives or mothers went to the butchers to buy meat for the Sunday roast or have them help out financially when they needed a new suit. Having said that, some players still did, however, privately take illicit payments often referred to as boot money. In his book Up There - The North East Football Boom & Bust, Michael Walker also tells the story of a goalkeeper playing for Bishop Auckland who was offered the going rate of £15 a week to sign for Middlesbrough only for said 'keeper to laugh and say he was getting £20 a week at supposedly amateur Bishops. Yes, despite the Crook town affair, almost thirty years later such practices were still seemingly rife and, indeed, a colleague of mine recently suggested to me that BIshop Auckland and Crook used to be the two most corrupt football clubs in the country. Who knows...

Bishop Auckland were seemingly favourites for the 1954 final and after Crook's semi final win the verdict from the Sunderland Echo was that it 'will take a more skilful, harder fighting Crook Town to stand a chance against Bishop Auckland.' Another local newspaper the Shields Evening News, meanwhile, were also predicting a Bishops win and when previewing the local football for the weekend of the final they ran with the headline 'It's Bishop Auckland to win the FA Amateur Cup at Wembley, Newcastle and Sunderland in desperate league struggles,' With Bishops having beaten Crook 3-1 and 4-1 in the pairs two Northern League meetings earlier that season their favourites tag was probably justified and the Evening News continued by saying 'The Bishops are in an all conquering mood this season and the way they have disposed of previous Amateur Cup opponents this year suggests Crook's visit to Wembley will be in vain.'

Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.
When the Amateur Cup final of 1954 finally came around, 20 special trains and 250 coaches would take fans from the North East down to Wembley and a crowd of 100.000 would be in attendance. Whilst for those who couldn't attend, there were BBC radio updates from Raymond Glendenning in-between commentary on that afternoons France v England rugby union match on the Home Service and live second-half BBC television coverage with a young Kenneth Wolstenholme behind the microphone. An electrical shop in Bishop Auckland, meanwhile, won permission show the match via 'projection tv' in what was basically an early version of the beam-back.

Harry Pearson, in his aforementioned book, describes the Bishop Auckland side of the 1950s as the Real Madrid of amateur football and indeed such was the stature of the club there was even a Bishop Auckland Subbuteo set. Many of the club's star players during that decade actually joined after the 1954 final, however, but they still had a few notable names that year. Wing-Half Bob Hardisty had captained the Great Britain side coached by Matt Busby at the 1948 London Olympics and 1952 edition in Helsinki and was by many considered the finest amateur player of his generation whilst Corbett Cresswell was the son Warney Cresswell a star player in the 1920s and 30s who was previously the world's most expensive player when Sunderland signed him from South Shields for £5,500 in 1922. Carlisle born inside left Seamus O'Connell was another Bishops star in 1954 but whilst others stars would soon join he would be on his way out leaving to play professionally with Chelsea shortly after the final.

In charge of Crook Town was a young manager called Joe Harvey an ex-Newcastle United player who would famously go on to manage his former club to European glory in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1969. Arguably their best player was Jimmy McMillan a winger who had previously turned down offers from Chelsea and Newcastle United to play professionally so he could train to be a government planning officer.

There's always a genuine excitement around Wembley Way on the day of a cup final and those expectant fans from Bishop Auckland and Crook Town would not be disappointed. Ken Wolstenholme described it as the best two hours sport of 1954, 'Thrill packed toughest ever Wembley final' was how the Sunderland Echo described it, and 'as thrilling and hard thought a match as could be desired' was the view of the Journal & North Mail. The Northern Echo, meanwhile, said that if the North East's top clubs, Newcastle, Sunderland, and Middlesbrough, had shown the same courage and never-say-die spirit throughout the season as Bishops and Crook did in the final then all three might not be in danger of relegation (In the end it was only Boro who went down).

The match had drama right from the off when just minutes into game Bishops half back Jimmy Nimmins slid into a tackle and never got up. Nimmins was stretchered off having fractured his leg. In the days before substitutions Bishops would have to face the remainder of the game with only ten men, a tough ask. Bishops fans had seen their side lose on each of their previous three Wembley appearances but this time the disadvantage of being one man short did not seem to bother their team and they soon found themselves in front. Picking up the ball after a free-kick was crossed into the box, Les Dixon smashed the ball past Fred Jarrie in the Crook goal and the Bishops lead 1-0. Crook responded almost immediately, however, and in the blink of an eye the match was all square when Ronnie Thompson fired a low drive past 'keeper Harry Sharratt and into the bottom lefthand corner.

Despite Crook's one man advantage, it was the Bishops who scored next to retake the lead whilst for Crook an injury to Ken Williamson soon saw him hobbling around the pitch for the rest of the match so really their advantage was arguably at best half a man anyway. Bob Watson, a railway worker by day, found Ray Oliver on the edge of the box and the ex Whitley Bay Athletic forward from Cullercoats darted past several players before blasting the ball into the top corner. Bishop Auckland back in front.

2-1 Bishops at the break and by all accounts they had been the better side but in the second-half Crook equalised on 55 minutes when a Bill Jeffs cross saw Eddie Appleby smash the ball home. That equaliser was the final goal of the 90 minutes so the match would head to extra-time.

The match report in the Sunderland Echo heavily emphasised Crook's man advantage and the writer referred to only as D.W. claimed that 'Bishop Auckland even with a man short, held their own for most of the normal playing time and were still able, in the last five minutes extra time, to give the Crook goal such a pounding that they might have had three more goals,' They did not, however, get three more goals, in fact, they did not get any. Extra-time came and went with no further goals and in the days before penalty shoot-outs, of course, there would have to be a replay.

There had been plenty more praise for Bishops in the following day's papers. Laurie Burills of the Daily Herald wrote: "Bishop Auckland's tremendous fighting spirit against their Northern League rivals, Crook Town, in the FA Amateur Cup final at Wembley, was one of the greatest displays I have ever seen,' Meanwhile, Bobby Rodney of the Daily Mirror who suggested 18-year-old wing-half Barry Wilkinson would replace the injured Nimmins for the replay was impressed enough by Bishops performance to say Wilkinson 'will probably end his year by winning the Amateur Cup.'

There would be a nine day wait for the replay. April 19, an Easter Monday evening, would see the pair battle it out again this time at St James' Park, Newcastle. A few days before said replay both clubs suffered league defeats but their minds were set firmly on the Amateur Cup. It was a 25-30 mile trip up the road from County Durham and 56,008 spectators made the short journey - a record attendance for an amateur match outside the capital. Supporters paid between 2/6d and 12/6d for a ticket it which I work out to be roughly between 10p and 60p in modern currency though probably a lot more with inflation.

Despite being considered favourites by most once again, it was a horrendous start by Bishop Auckland who found themselves 2-0 down within four minutes. Both goals came from Ken Harrison, a schoolmaster from Annfield Plain, a small village north west of Durham city, who'd scored a hat-trick in Crook's semi final replay win. The first goal came just 15 seconds into the match when Wilkinson was robbed of the ball by Ronnie Thompson who then passed it to Harrison and the goalkeeper was left helpless. His second came when the ball fell to him after the Bishops defence were unable to properly clear it. The drama continued in the early stages that followed with sitters missed at both ends in what had been a pulsating opening salvo.

Crook Town defended well and Bishops struggled to break them down but, 2-0 behind at the break, Bishops did eventually find their way back into the game with a goal on 79 minutes. Oliver eventually bundled the ball home to make it 2-1 after a free-kick was hit into the box. The match did not stay a 2-1 for long either as within minutes Bishops were level. It seemed these two sides could just not be separated. Oliver fired the ball home to grab his second and the replay, like the first match, was heading for extra-time. In the extra two periods, O'Connell headed over for Bishops from six yards out and this was the closest we came to a winner as like the first match the replay also finished 2-2. 

It was a match that the Shields Evening News reckoned 'could have gone either way' although they were particularly impressed by Bishops goalkeeper Sharratt. The Northern Echo meanwhile were getting accusations of favouritism with a small number of readers writing in to complain of bias towards Bishop Auckland in their coverage of the first two matches. 

The outcome Amateur Cup final could not be settled by a replay so a second one would be needed. It was decided, however, that if a third draw occurred then the trophy would be shared. The two sides would hold the cup for six months each and who held it first would be decided by the toss of the coin. When the pair were to meet again at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough, three days later it would be the final act of what had been so far a thrilling drama.

Kicking off at 6pm on a Thursday one can assume that many supporters might have found it difficult getting out of work early enough to have made the match but that did not stop some 36,727 from getting into the ground. Those who did not make it would have to make do with second-half radio commentary. With BBC reporters having already sat through 240 minutes of the football and commentated on large parts of it the Shields Evening News suggested that 'The BBC must be wondering when the final is really going to end,' before adding 'Never in the history of broadcasting has so much been said about two amateur football teams.'

In this second replay, Oliver rose to head home from a Jack Major corner midway through the first-half and Bishop Auckland thought they had the lead. Referee Alf Bond, a one-armed man who Bishops supporters would refer to as the 'one armed bandit', had other ideas, however, penalising the centre forward for a foul in the build-up. Shortly afterwards Oliver should have found the net again but fired over, a chance he would especially rue missing when Crook Town took the lead four minutes before half-time. It was Harrison who scored and as described in the Sunderland Echo he 'used the sole of his boot to guide the ball past the advancing Sharrott,'

It was 1-0 at the interval but could there be one final twist? After what had happened in the two previous matches surely there would be more drama in store? Or maybe not? Those watching would soon find out. In the second-half Bishops played with a more direct style of play but it was an attack minded Crook side who were the better of the two teams. Bishops did force Jarrie to make what was the save of the match, however, punching away an Oliver header. In the end, though, Crook held on and after a mammoth 330 minutes, they had won the FA Amateur Cup final of 1954. 

At full-time jubilant Crook Town fans ran onto the pitch to celebrate before their captain Bobby Davison, himself a former Bishops player, was handed the trophy by the Mayor of Middlesbrough. Ken Williamson whose leg was in a plaster having hobbled around injured for most of the first match was helped onto the pitch to join in the celebrations. Joe Harvey's men would then board a special train back home where 15,000 people from Crook and the surrounding pit villages were there to greet them. There was not much time to celebrate, however, as many of the players had work the next day followed by a league match at West Auckland Town in the evening before a rearranged Northern League Challange Cup semi final with Shildon the day after.

The Sunderland Echo attributed Crook Town's win to what they called 'H plan', they dubbed it 'Crook Town's secret weapon' and it involved inside left Johny Coxon marking Hardisty out of the game which they claimed worked a treat. The paper was also wowed by the performance of Davison who they said was 'given the ball to keep after the match' before suggesting 'They should have struck a special medal for the number of times he pulled the defence out of trouble,'

Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.
With almost 200,000 spectators in total, 196,727 according to the Yorkshire Post, having passed through the turnstiles over the course of the three games both sides each received £11,650 from the £46,000 gate receipts. This would have been a huge sum of money for the two clubs.

Bishop Auckland would make up for their defeat by winning all of the next three Amateur Cup finals whilst three more Crook Triumphs would follow in the years after. Before 1954 Bishops already had seven Amateur Cup final wins to their name, the first occurring in 1896, the last in 1939. Ten in total for Bishop Auckland was more than anyone else ever managed in the competition's history and five more than Crook Town who were joint second with Clapton in terms of wins. 

1954 may seem a lifetime ago but hopefully, the stories will continue for years to come. Of all the Amateur Cup finals the 1954 one was definitely the longest. Three matches and four halves of extra-time completed a monumental tie that saw huge crowds watching amateur football in scenes the modern football fan would scarcely believe. These scenes came in an era before violence and tragedy paved the way for all-seater stadia and wall to wall Sky Sports coverage and it may at times seem alien to the modern reader. But if there was ever a golden age for football then this was surely it and the 1954 FA Amateur Cup final surely its crowning glory.

This article was written with information obtained from the British Newspaper Archive ( and the British Library Board. These services are not free and incur a fee so for more articles like this please contribute by donating/supporting me via my Patreon page

Friday, 4 September 2020

Jack Greenwell, FC Barcelona, and a 4-2 Loss to Crook Town

FC Barcelona 2-4 Crook Town is probably not a scoreline you've heard before and, to be fair, unless you are a keen follower of North East non-league football then Crook Town are probably not a team you have heard of either. As for FC Barcelona, well they are a world-famous side and as one of the biggest clubs in the world their major trophy haul is seemingly endless - If you haven't heard of them there is clearly something wrong with you. The following story linking the world-renowned Catalan side who describe themselves as més que un club and a little known once amateur nowadays probably just about semi-professional side from County Durham is one rarely told but one that is nonetheless fascinating and worthy of being covered on this here blog.

For those unaware of Crook or its football team, Crook is an ex mining village in County Durham and its football club currently plies its trade in the tenth tier of English football, step six in the non-league pyramid. Nowadays relatively unknown, even by many within the region, Crook Town AFC have had a slightly more illustrious past compared to many non-league sides having five times won the old FA Amateur Cup. Those previous successes are all relative, however, as even in their heyday the club were still small fry in terms of English football. They did, as mentioned, however, play on numerous occasions against one of the biggest names in the world football and even beat then. Ten times they faced FC Barcelona to be precise, with their first tour to Barcelona coming in 1913. Although football was still in its infancy in Spain at the time and Barcelona were not the big force that they are now, anything but, it is still amazing to think that a little known non-league team from the North East once beat them. It is an interesting story and to tell it we must first start with the story of Jack Greenwell.

Jack Greenwell, born 2 January 1884 in Crook, was the son of a miner and would become one himself whilst playing amateur football as a wing half for Crook Town before leaving in 1912 to join FC Barcelona. In an era when travelling to the next town or village along was probably considered an adventure such a move was somewhat astonishing and how it came about is a little unclear. There is, however, one possible explanation and that is the suggestion that Greenwell made contacts in Spain thanks to partaking in a football tournament in Italy. Greenwell made several guest appearances for another local side Weast Auckland Town when they played in a competition held in 1909 and 1911 known as the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy. Held in Turin and considered by many as the original World Cup as it included teams from several different countries, West Auckland won the competition both times it took place. One issue with the theory that his move to Catalunya came about thanks to connections made during his time in Italy, however, is that Barcelona never actually participated in the tournament. Italian giants Juventus did and West Auckland beat them 6-1 in 1911, but not Barcelona.

As a player at FC Barcelona, Greenwell would win two Campionat de Catalunya titles (A national league championship was not introduced in Spain until 1929) before then going on to manage the club. As manager, with his side playing a passing style of football that was very much uncommon at that time, the club won a further five Campionat de Catalunya's as well as two Copa del Rey's. His managerial career, however, extended beyond Barcelona and in fact beyond even Europe. As well as being Barcelona's second longest serving manager of all-time behind Johan Cryuff he also had spells at crosstown rivals RCD Espanyol and then Valencia CF before moving to South America. During his short spell at Espanyol, Greenwell won both the Campionat de Catalunya and the Copa del Rey whilst at Valencia he won the Campeonato de Valencia. In South America, he had spells coaching in a Peru and Colombia and coaching the Peruvian national team he won what is now known as the Copa America, the country's first and to date only one of two such triumphs (the second came in 1975).

In 1913 it was arranged, with the help of Greenwell, for his old side Crook Town to come to Barcelona and play several matches against his new club. Part of the reason for inviting an English side over was that Barcelona at that time wanted to help increase the popularity of the game of football in their homeland. The sport did not have the popularity it nowadays has and it was hoped through bringing across a team from the country that invented the game they could help increase its stature. Being not so popular, however, was perhaps an understatement as in fact the sport was actually despised by many in the middle and upper classes who thought it morally reprehensible. Despised to the point that when King Alfonso XIII announced he would attend some of the matches against Crook there was mass outrage from many and even death threats issued to him. One such death threat came from Sancho Alegre who was a prominent Catalan anarchist at the time. In the end, having weighed up his options, King Alfonso decided not to attend the matches but others did turn up and watch. Three matches took place and although only 2,000 spectators bore witness to the first the second saw that figure increase to 7,000 before reaching 10,000 for the final match of the tour. 

All played at Barcelona's then Camp de la Indústria home, there is little information forthcoming about the actual matches themselves. Although one thing that is noted about the games was the use of substitutions by the hosts. Making substitutions was something that had become common in Spain but was still a long way off in England where the idea of using substitutes was unheard of. Crook won the first match 4-2 and ended the tour unbeaten with draws of 1-1 and 2-2 in the other two matches. To this day a pennant from their trip still hangs in the clubhouse at their Sir Tom Cowie Millfield ground.

There were two further tours to Spain for Crook which involved a further seven matches against FC Barcelona. The tours of 1921 and 1922, however, saw Crook face a much improved Barcelona side that included the legendary goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora who currently lends his name to the La Liga goalkeeper of the year trophy (although it is believed he made a guest appearance for Crook in one of the games). This improved Barça side won four times against Crook with two draws and one sole win the for the visitors. These results included wins of 4-1, 5-1, and 8-1 for the hosts whilst the final match of the 1922 tour saw Crook run out 3-1 victors.

In between and after those three trips to Barcelona, Crook continued back home as a small town amateur non-league side although for a short while in the 1930s they played professionally in the old North Eastern League which included the reserve sides of Middlesbrough, Newcastle United, and Sunderland. In 1931-32 the club reached the third round of the FA Cup but lost 7-0 First Division Leicester City and, of course, there were those aforementioned Amateur Cup wins whilst in 1976 they became the first-ever English side to tour India. Currently, Crook Town play in the Second Division of Northern League which as mentioned earlier in the piece is the tenth tier of English football. Crook's average league attendance last season pre-COVID was 156, FC Barcelona's was 72,472.

Crook Town AFC Tour of Barcelona, 1913

20 April, 1913: FC Barcelona 2-4 Crook Town

24 April, 1913: FC Barcelona 1-1 Crook Town

27 April, 1913: FC Barcelona 2-2 Crook Town

Crook Town AFC Tour of Barcelona, 1921

20 March, 1921: FC Barcelona 5-1 Crook Town

29 March, 1921: FC Barcelona 4-1 Crook Town

02 April, 1921: FC Barcelona 2-1 Crook Town

03 April, 1921: FC Barcelona 1-1 Crook Town

05 April, 1921: Civil Service FC 1-2 Crook Town

Crook Town AFC Tour of Barcelona, 1922

16 April, 1922: FC Barcelona 8-1 Crook Town

17 April, 1922: FC Barcelona 2-2 Crook Town

22 April, 1922: FC Barcelona 1-3 Crook Town

Monday, 31 August 2020

The FA Cup Is Back!

This week the FA Cup returns. With the latter stages of last season's competition delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the knock-on effects have meant a delay in starting the new season's competition. Finally, however, the 2020-21 FA Cup is about to get underway. 

Over the next few days, 184 teams from the lowest echelons of non-league football will participate in the Extra Preliminary Round of the competition with most matches allowed up to 300 spectators present. The winners are joined by a further 136 clubs in the Preliminary before various clubs join along the way as the competition goes through the first, second, third, and fourth qualifying rounds before we reach the First Round proper.

When last season's competition begun I visited Whitely Bay FC in the Extra Preliminary Round and you can read my piece, as featured in Football Weekends magazine, here. Also, if you love the magic of the FA Cup then you will love how they do things across the channel and you can read my feature on the Coupe de France, a competition which covers several continents, here.

As for this year's Extra Preliminary Round, you can view the full draw here. (Though it must be pointed out some matches have been moved from Tuesday to Wednesday night, check with individual clubs for exact details especially as spectator numbers are currently limited due to COVID)

Friday, 28 August 2020

Five of the Most Humiliating Exits For Scottish Cubs in Europe

On Wednesday night there were scenes that nowadays seem all too familiar. The new season had barely got underway but Glasgow Celtic had already been knocked out of the Champions League. Struggling to get past the qualify rounds by losing to sides they would hope to have beaten is unfortunately for the Glaswegians nothing new. However, it's not just Celtic who fail before most have event started. Scotland's recent footballing history is littered with early European exits to some of the continents lesser sides, some of these losses quite mortifying. Although this latest defeat was nowhere near as embarrassing as some of the ones we've seen in the past, Ferencvárosi are to be fair at least half decent, playing at home in what because of COVID-19 was a one-off tie, Celtic were still obvious favourites to win. But what about the real humiliating nights? There have been some absolute shockers as far as Scottish sides in Europe are concerned and here are five of the worst.

UEFA Cup Preliminary Round 1994-95

Skonto Riga 0-0 Aberdeen
Aberdeen 1-1 Skonto Riga
1-1 on aggregate, Aberdeen lost on away goals rule

Between 1991 and 1994 Latvian side Skonto Riga won a record breaking 14 domestic Virslīga titles in a row. In 1994 when Aberdeen faced Skonto in the Preliminary Round of the UEFA Cup, however, the Virslīga was, and still is, considered one of the weakest top flight divisions in Europe. Baring this in mind, progression for the Dons seemed a foregone conclusion. 

By rights, Skonto should probably have been participating in the Champions League but for a few seasons during this period the league champions from some of the lower ranked nations were only given UEFA Cup spots. It did not matter which of the then three UEFA competitions they entered, however, they would have always been favourites for an early exit against all but the lowliest of opponents. So when the first leg in Latvia ended in a 0-0 draw it was considered a heroic performance for the minnows.

If the first leg was bad for Aberdeen the second was far worse. That poor first leg showing was followed by the Dons going crashing out after a second leg which the Independent claimed was ‘their most humiliating night in European football’. That same paper also described Aberdeen’s opponents as ‘unknown Latvians’, but after that now infamous night in North East Scotland, they soon became very well known amongst followers of the Scottish game.

Aberdeen were poor on the night but managed to keep the match goalless until 55 minutes when Aleksejs Semjonovs put the visitors into the lead and secure what would end up being a vital away goal. Aberdeen would now need to score twice but quite frankly they never looked capable. The Dons levelled the tie in injury but that was not enough and they were out on the away goals rule.

Skonto Riga lost 3-0 on aggregate to Napoli in the next round, they continued to dominate Latvian football for many years but then hit hard times and went bankrupt and out of existence in 2016. For Aberdeen, that Skonto result was the start of a terrible season that saw the club finish second bottom of the Premiership but stay up by surviving a relegation play-off tie.

UEFA Europa League First Qualifying Round 2017-18

Rangers 1-0 Progrès Niederkorn
Progrès Niederkorn 2-0 Rangers
Rangers lost 2-1 on aggregate

Perhaps the most famous shock European exit for a Scottish side came when Glasgow Rangers lost to Progrès Niederkorn of Luxembourg in 2017. 

At the time, Luxembourg's Nationaldivisioun was among the lowest ranked leagues in terms of their UEFA coefficient and for a team of Rangers' stature defeating a side from Luxembourg was considered a formality. Surprisingly, the first leg did not look that way but, all things considered, an uninspiring 1-0 home win was, nonetheless, expected to be just about enough to see the 'Gers through. The part-time side from Luxembourg, however, had other ideas...

Portuguese manager Pedro Caixinha, who had taken on the role only four months earlier took his side to Luxembourg for the second leg and saw them unable to extend their lead from the first leg despite having most of the possession. The match was goalless at half-time and in the second-half the scoreline did not really look like changing but on 66 minutes, however, there was actually a goal yet it did not come for the Glaswegians. From a free-kick Emmanuel Françoise headed in the opening goal for Progrès and the tie was suddenly all square. The goal was the first Progrès had scored in European competition since they found the net in a 1–1 draw against Northern Irish side Glentoran in 1981, albeit it came in what was only the seventh European match they'd played in the years since.

Rangers suddenly had a fight on their hands and unfortunately, it was they who would end up on the canvas. It was the Luxembourg side who would Progrès to the next round and the goal which won the tie came nine minutes after the first. A Sébastien Thill free-kick curled past everybody and into the net it to send the hosts into dreamland and of course the second qualifying round. Absolute despair for Rangers, however, as they had been knocked out by part-time minnows in scenes that were described by the Daily Record as a 'Horror show' and dubbed 'humiliating' by the BBC.

Progrès lost 3-1 on aggregate to Cypriots AEL Limassol in the next round but following season they progressed one round further defeating Azerbaijani side Gabala FK and then Budapest based Hungarian club Honvéd before losing to FC Ufa or Russia. Then, a year further on again and guess who were opponents in the second qualifying round? Yep, you guessed it, Glasgow Rangers again. This time, however, Rangers won 2-0 on aggregate. Progrès have not been the country's most successful club on the European stage in recent years, however, as football in the country has gone from strength to strength since that famous Progrès win. F91 Dudelange have unbelievably reached the group stages of the Europa League in each of last two seasons beating teams from Poland and Romania along the way. Their group stage record, however, reads played 12, won 0, lost 10, drawn 2.

As for that Rangers side who lost to Progrès, their poor form continued into the Scottish Premiership season and when a 95th equaliser saw bottom of the league Kilmarnock secure a point away at Ibrox on 26 October manager Caixinha was sacked. Rangers ended the season in third place behind arch rivals Celtic, and Aberdeen.

UEFA Europa League First Qualifying Round 2019-20

Connah's Quay Nomads 1-2 Kilmarnock
Kilmarnock 0-2 Connah's Quay Nomads
Kilmarnock lost 3-2 on aggregate

A 2-1 win over Welsh minnows Connah's Quay Nomads was hardly earth shattering but it was a win nonetheless and Kilmarnock would surely have no problem defeating the same opposition at home when the second leg came around, right? Wrong. 

Ryan Wignall gave the part-time visitors the lead at Kilmarnock's Rugby Park home but was later sent off. By that point, however, Kilmarnock were already down to ten men themselves and Connah's Quay had gone 2-0 up from the penalty spot. The Welshmen defended deep for much of the game whilst the hosts had plenty of chances to win the tie but in the end, the visitors held on for the 2-0 win. Kilmarnock had gone crashing out to a part-time side who's last European tie had been a 5-1 aggregate defeat against the might of Belarusian side Shaktyor Soligorsk a year earlier.

The Nomads followed up that historic victory over Kilmarnock with a 4-0 aggregate loss to FK Partizan of Belgrade whilst for Kilmarnock, a mediocre season saw Italian manager Angelo Alessio, who had joined in the summer, last only until December and the Ayrshire club finish 8th in the 12 team Scottish Premiership having finished third the previous campaign.

UEFA Champions League Second Qualifying Round 2005-06 

Artmedia Bratislava 5-0 Celtic
Celtic 4-0 Artmedia Bratislava
Celtic lost 5-4 on aggregate

When Celtic lost 5-0 away to Slovak side Artmeida Bratislava in 2005 it was described by the BBC as 'one of the most embarrassing defeats in their history'. Losing to the club from the Slovak capital was hardly the biggest upset in the history of European football but Celtic were nonetheless still favourites to win and the manner of their defeat was stunning. 

In what was new manager Gordon Strachan's first game in charge Celtic were well and truly slaughtered. The hosts lead only 1-0 at the break but four second-half goals seemingly made progression to the next round all but guaranteed for Artmedia. Chris Sutton went off injured early on for Celtic and from that point on they never really settled. Juraj Halenar was the star of the show for Artmedia and after scoring the opening goal he went onto score a hat-trick. He also turned provider at one point grabbing an assist when Blazej Vascak scored. 

With a 5-0 thumping Celtic left Bratislava with their tail between their legs but they did restore some pride in the second leg, however, defeating their opponents 4-0 and coming close to what would have been a remarkable comeback in front of a 50,000 strong crowd at their Celtic Park home. Close but no cigar, however, as they were knocked out by the Slovaks.

Artmedia played out two goalless draws with FK Partizan in the next round and after a goalless period of extra-time time defeated their Serbian opponents on penalties to qualify for the Champions League group stages where they faced Celtic's arch rivals Glasgow Rangers. Three draws plus a victory over FC Porto saw them finish third in the group and qualify for the knockout rounds of the UEFA Cup where they promptly lost to Levski Sofia. Celtic recovered to win the Scottish Premiership finishing 17 points ahead of second placed Heart of Midlothian.

UEFA Cup Qualifying Round 2000-01

Aberdeen 1-2 Bohemians
Bohemians 0-1 Aberdeen
2-2 on aggregate, Aberdeen lost on away goals rule

Having been knocked out by Latvian minnows Skonto Riga in 1994 another horror show six years later saw Dublin based Irish part-timers Bohemians get the better of Aberdeen.

'One of the bleakest results of recent years for Scottish football' was how the BBC match report described the Dons 2-1 first leg loss at home and they were not wrong. Although Aberdeen had various chances and took the lead in the second-half through Robbie Winters things then went completely pear-shaped. A Shawn Maher header after a pinpoint corner soon saw the visitors level before disaster really struck when Bohemians were awarded a last minute penalty and Trevor Molloy was on hand to slot the ball home and secure a massive first leg victory the Irishmen.

Goalless at half-time in the second leg and things were looking grim for the Dons but a 69th minute own goal gave them a way back into the game. Level at 2-2 on aggregate an extra away goal from the first leg for the Dubliners was all that separated the two sides but it was a goal that meant the Dons needed to score again. Problem for Aberdeen was they didn't. Try as they might they couldn't find the net and the match finished 1-1 as the Dons went crashing out again.

Another heroic display in the next round, unfortunately, did not end in victory for Bohemians as they lost 3-2 on aggregate to German side Kaiserslautern. Another disappointing season followed for Aberdeen as they finished 9th in the Premiership but perhaps luckily for them it meant they missed out on a place in Europe for the following campaign and therefore ruling out the possibility of another horrific loss to a part-time side.

Saturday, 22 August 2020

Football to the Left of Me Cricket to the Right Here I Am: Stuck in the Middle at Percy Main for the Return of Spectators to Our National Game

The previous day's heavy winds have died down and at times the sun is peeking out of the clouds on what is a fairly warm day. I don't know if these are perfect conditions for football but you could definitely do a lot worse and besides this is a special day where even a heavy downpour would not have dampened the spirits of those involved. Twenty two men are kicking a ball about on what is a perfectly maintained grass surface with for the first time in months spectators in attendance. This is a picturesque setting for it too. You are surrounded by greenery on three sides with trees along one side of the pitch and a large hedge at one end separating the ground from a charming cricket pitch. Today the cricket ground is complete with players in their whites dotted around the pitch partaking in a local league match. Cricket is a majestic sport, I adore cricket, but my other sporting love football is finally back and that is what I have come to see.

Yes, today is the day that spectators are allowed back into football grounds. The powers that be have decided clubs at step three and below in the non-league pyramid are allowed to admit fans again, albeit in massively reduced numbers. A welcome return after many months away when the COVID-19 virus put a stop to large gatherings. 15% of the minimum required capacity for the level you play at is what the clubs are allowed in and this will rise to 30% in September. Why it is not based on individual ground capacities I don't know but there you go. For a step six club like Heaton Stannington, for example, this means 15% of 1000 or 150 to be precise. Today they are away, however, and their hosts Percy Main Amateurs play at what is essentially step seven where seemingly the same numbers are allowed in. I myself am in attendance too as the first weekend of football with spectators back in attendance finally gets underway. 

Steps one to six of non-league football are officially known as the National League System (NLS) whilst anything below step six is classed as grassroots football. From what I understand grassroots football does not come under the jurisdiction of the FA and leagues are run by the various county football associations around the country. Also, unlike in the NLS above, grassroots clubs do not enter FA competitions such as the FA Cup or the FA Vase competition that clubs directly above them also enter. Facilities in grassroots football are often more basic too. Other than the mandatory changing rooms there are usually some sort of refreshments available for spectators and maybe a toilet block but little else. The small seated grandstands mandatory in the leagues above are often non existent and those refreshments served often do not extend to a full clubhouse bar. Many grounds do not have floodlights either and in the winter this can mean kick-offs earlier than the traditional 3 o'clock. Nonetheless, this is the beating heart of football in England. Towns, villages, and neighbourhoods all over this great land host clubs ran by volunteers who tirelessly keep these pillars of the local community afloat for no financial gain with players playing for love and not for money. Whilst I believe players even at step six might in some cases get a small match fee or part-time wage I very much doubt those in the grassroots game do, and as for Percy Main Amateurs well the clue is in the name!

Percy Main Amateurs FC are based in Percy Main which is an area of North Tyneside sat between North Shields and Wallsend. Just a few minutes walk from a nearby Metro rail station I arrive at their Purvis Park ground a good hour before kick-off unsure how many will be in attendance. There is little attention paid to my arrival but eventually, I find someone so I can pay my entrance fee which twitter stated was £2 with higher donations welcome. I doubt they regularly record attendances at this level but once the game is well underway I count 69 spectators. A large number of those are Heaton Stannington followers including my good friend Imran Mohammed who is there to meet me when I arrive. He will be my company for the afternoon. Based in a suburb of Newcastle Upon Tyne, Heaton Stan or 'The Stan' as they are often referred to play in the EBAC Northern League Division Two. Their supporters are known as the Stan Army and usually number between 150-250 at home games. These are more than healthy numbers for the level they play at. Grassroots club Percy Main, meanwhile, play in the Northern Football Alliance which is under the jurisdiction of the Northumberland FA and although they are a name I've been aware of for many many years this is actually my first ever visit to their humble abode. The club has been in existence for over 100 years and as part of a slightly more illustrious past reached the quarter finals of the old FA Amateur Cup in 1930.

Times have been tough for clubs like Percy Main with COVID-19 stopping what little income streams they had and I do wonder how many of these clubs around the country may with little or no fanfare have disbanded due to the current financial strains. Clubs like Percy Main probably generate barely enough income to cover costs at the best of times so what little money they do make today from the serving hatch inside selling tea, coffee, cans of beer, and hot dogs is no doubt greatly received. Also welcome will be any money made from the bookcase full of donated football books sat opposite. It is a £2 per book suggested minimum donation and my haul includes Malcolm MacDonald's autobiography and a book entitled 'Jack and Bobby' about those two famous footballing brothers from up the road in Ashington. I give generously.

Financial worries seemingly stretch as far as to the loss of footballs with one official agitatedly enquiring about an unaccounted for ball when during the warm-ups many end up on the cricket pitch behind. The hedge at the cricket pitch end leaves enough space either side for you to step down into the cricket ground and before kick-off we get to witness a few sixes from one of the batsmen. Later when taking a few photographs I end up back in the cricket ground and bump into work colleague and Whitley Bay FC (step five) supporter Ian. Although I know Ian is a big cricket fan having spotted him at more high profile cricket surroundings in the past I did not realise he was a Percy Main CC follower.

Being able to attend a football match again after so long feels like a big deal but although I am very much enjoying my tranquil surroundings and the experience of a new ground the match itself, a rather low key pre-season friendly, feels pretty underwhelming. The hosts are 3-0 up at the break with Imran and the rest of the Stan Army anything but pleased with the performance of their side. A rather short half-time break with the players sat on the pitch is followed by a much better performance from the Stan in the second-half. The visitors only manage to pull one goal back, however, and the game ends in a 3-1 win for Percy Main Amateurs.

With the match over it's time to head home and I must say that despite all these supposed COVID related restrictions in place today's experience has seemed no different to normal. Social distancing has seemingly not been high on the agenda amongst most spectators today but having said that the lack of care from fans does not really bother me and I am just happy to have been at a football match on this glorious day. Besides, today's scenes have been nowhere near as extreme as, for example, those we have seen around the nation on some of our seafronts in recent times which have, in particular, seemed dangerously crowded.

It is great Grassroots clubs such as Percy Main Amateurs can have supporters in their grounds again. As suggested earlier, without that support they may well before long fold and, after all, these clubs are a massively important part of football in our country. They are important not just to the amateur players who run around the pitch for 90 minutes or the fans that attend but also important to the local communities they serve. Whilst these clubs run senior sides that give an outlet for those adults who never made the grade when it comes to the professional game many of them also offer opportunities to local children by running youth sides for various age groups. Albeit currently there does not seem to be much of a junior set up Percy Main, elsewhere these youth sides offer the chance for children to play sport and get some valuable exercise when they could instead be at home watching television or playing video games. Many of these clubs could also be helping produce the talent of the future too!

With spectators now allowed back, it is vitally important that we continue to support our local grassroots and non-league football clubs as to lose them would be a terrible shame and I for one would certainly miss days like today. This is football in its purest form and long may it continue!