Wednesday 26 September 2018

Sun, Sea, and Football: Adventures in Alicante

Perched high above the city's coastline and dating back to the 9th century, Alicante's castle of Santa Bárbara was once upon a time surely a fearsome sight for anyone sailing into the city. But as it currently stands, partly obscured by the large apartment type buildings that adorn the said coastline of tourist filled sandy beaches below, one can't help but feel that it doesn't look half as menacing as it might once have.

But if the castle has lost some of it's bravado since it's heyday then the same can probably be said about the town's football team Hércules de Alicante. For a period in the 1970's and 80's they were an established La Liga side spending 10 seasons in the top division of Spanish football over a 12 year period. Even when those top flight appearances became far more infrequent they still had their moments, including memorable victories against some of the country's top sides and in particular three famous La Liga wins over Catalan giants FC Barcelona. Nowadays however mid table finishes in the third tier Segunda B division are more common, whilst the club plays in a 30,000 seater stadium that is usually less than a third full for most home games. To further emphasise their decline, when they last faced Barcelona in a 2016 cup tie they lost 7-0.

Back to the city itself and leaving the castle behind a walk further along the shore and you will find people admiring the many pristine yachts moored up in the harbour, stroll further inland you will come across the old town thronging with people sat outside it's many bars, cafes, and restaurants. You have found yourself in a vibrant, multicultural, cosmopolitan, historic city.

It's a hot sunny afternoon at the end of the summer when I myself arrive in Alicante, or Alicant as it's called in the regional Valencian dialect. When on holiday this is the sort of day when you should be lounging by the pool with a drink or swimming in the sea. But I've left the holiday resort of Benidorm and our hotel pool behind, and taken the local light rail type train service known as 'TRAM' up the coast for an afternoon of live fútbol, having been unable to tempt the rest of my crew to join me.

Despite the hustle and bustle in the centre of town, once you head out towards the suburbs it's a much quieter affair. I am in search of a football ground, the Estadio José Rico Pérez to be precise, home of the aforementioned Hércules. As I walk through the backstreets of the city, I find the place mostly deserted with little more than parked cars to keep me company.

Used on occasion by the Spanish national team, the stadium which hosted England in an international friendly in 2015 is a little over a 20 minute up hill walk from the city centre. When I arrive I find a ground that from the outside definitely looks like it needs some TLC with graffiti scrawled all over it's shabby looking concrete walls. I walk around the dusty track outside and notice the place is almost as deserted as the streets I passed through on the way here. Having said that it is well over an hour until kick-off and there doesn't look much around to occupy the fans pre match. I soon arrive at several hatches that serve as the main ticket office where I find a small group of fans milling about. I purchase a ticket for today's game then nose around the club shop next door before heading further round outside where I find a stall selling scarves and various other trinkets. By now things are beginning to look a bit more lively.

Currently playing in the third tier Hércules last played in the top flight of Spanish football in 2011 where relegation was followed by three seasons in the second tier Segunda División before a second relegation to Segunda B where they have now entered their fifth campaign at this level.

The 2010/11 season was a lone season in the top flight and although it culminated in immediate relegation back down to the second level it will fondly be remembered for one very special afternoon in Barcelona. Hércules visited the Camp Nou stadium and came away with an astonishing 2-0 victory over an all conquering FC Barcelona side who at the time had not lost at home for one year, three months, and eighteen days.
Beating the giants of FC Barcelona however was nothing new, in their previous season in the top flight some thirteen years earlier they beat Barcelona both home and away, coming from behind on both occasions. Six points lost that saw Barcelona lose out to arch rivals Real Madrid in the title race.

Today's match is a Segunda B Group 3 clash with a side called CD Teruel, a small club who after promotion last season are back in third tier after a seven year absence, having never played higher than this level. For Hércules, they are hoping to continue their excellent start to the season and keep alive the 100% record they possess having played four games so far.

With a scarf purchased I find myself at losoe end and think about entering the ground. The turnstiles however are not yet to open leaving spectators standing around looking bored with nothing to do. A quick look at a map on my phone and all I can find nearby is a supermarket 10 minutes away, but with temperatures heading towards 30°C hopefully I may be able to at least get a soft drink to keep me hydrated.

Before reaching supermarket a find a small bar I hadn't spotted on the map and soon find myself sat drinking beer. Alcohol in hand I am accosted by a local who when his suspicions that I am English are confirmed introduces me to his English pal who low and behold comes from my home town of Newcastle Upon Tyne! Well they do say wherever you go in the world you'll always find a Geordie... Eventually I leave my two new friends behind and head back to the ground in anticipation of kick-off.

Inside the stadium the concourse looks as dilapidated inside as the ground does from the outside, but there are some excellent murals on the walls which at least give it some charm. I head up the stairs and into the stands to look for my seat. I find myself behind the goal in large open and roofless stadium with four large floodlight pylons towering over stands whose blue seats are partially filled with expectant supporters. The ground is far from full but with roughly 8500 in attendance it is not a bad turn out for a third tier regional league game.

The match gets underway and the visitors find themselves in front after just two minutes bringing joyous celebrations from a small row of red shirted away supporters at the other end of the ground. Despite the setback on the pitch, in the stands it is very much a vibrant affair with chanting and flag waving to my right, and drumming to my left. Hércules dominate the first half but will have to do better in front of goal during the second as they find themselves still one behind at the break. During the first period there were some rather rash challenges from the visitors who aren't afraid to play dirty, and this continues during the second half. Definitely more Don Revie than Brian Clough from the away side here.

Just as with the first half the home side dominates the second forcing several saves from the opposition keeper whilst also having god knows how many corners and at one point hitting the crossbar, all to no avail. 

With 15 minutes to go Hércules give away a free-kick after a silly foul and the visitors score from it. If that does not prove it's not going to be Hércules day then a guilt edged opportunity they miss soon after definitely does. After excellent build up play one of the Hércummles players shoots straight at the keeper with possibly one the weakest efforts you'll ever see, this after probably taking too long with the ball and helping the opposition keeper get in an excellent position to save.

Even as a neutral I find it all extremely frustrating that the opposition who have had two shots on target the whole game are winning 2-0 in a match they should probably be losing by 3 or 4 when you consider the opportunities the home side have been given. 

As we head towards full-time some of the home fans start to leave but the ones still around at the end applaud their team off the pitch knowing that despite a two goal loss they at least can't fault the players for their effort. It is just one of those days for Hércules but it's still 4 wins out of 5 and they are still top of the league.

With the match over I head out of the stadium and soon leave the crowds behind to find myself once again walking through quiet deserted streets. All is calm and peaceful with nothing but the sound of my feet pacing along concrete as I walk through dimly lit alleyways in what is a rather serene end to the performance of blood and thunder I have just witnessed on the pitch. This gives time for me to ponder over what has been another enjoyable outing to watch the beautiful game.

Clearly the high flying  days of years gone by and the historic victories over the blue and red of Barcelona seem a million miles away after games like this. But in an old stadium that certainly does not lack character, a healthy crowd are still on hand to support their local side for what is despite a lack of facilities around the vicinity still an enjoyable matchday experience, and all set in the backdrop of a beautiful city. As far as football trips go it could definitely have been a lot worse.

As featured in the November 2018 issue of Football Weekends magazine

Tuesday 4 September 2018

Points Deductions and Pitch Invasions: The Fall and Rise Again of Spennymoor

There is usually a pitch invasion on these occasions and this was no different, the Brewery Field faithful in their traditional black and white attire were ecstatic, they could not believe it! It had been a long road back to the Premier Division of what is now known as the Evo-Stick League for Spennymoor, but not only had they made it back, here they were a year on having just gone one better! 

It took eleven years after Spennymoor United were removed from the Unibond League as it was then known for the club - since reborn under the name Spennymoor Town - to find their way back to what is the third level of English non league football, and if their eventual return was the icing on a cake many years in the making, then promotion from the division at the first attempt was obviously the cherry on top. 

I find myself at Spennymoor Town's Brewery Field home based in the town of Spennymoor, County Durham in what is former coal mining country. It is a cloudy overcast day with the sun just managing to peep through on occasion. After a brief dip in temperatures during what has been an unusually hot summer it suddenly feels warmer again and I later conclude that I have probably put too many layers on when I find myself stood on the terraces with the sun, albeit only briefly, pounding down on the back of my parka coat.

Today's opponents are FC United of Manchester, a club formed in 2005 by disgruntled Manchester United supporters who were unhappy at the Glazer family buying their club. Spennymoor are several games into their second season of National League North football after a first which saw them miss out of the play-offs thanks to the small matter of goal difference. Considering the club had been promoted via the play-offs in both of the previous two seasons, to miss out on another play-off campaign having come so close must have been thoroughly disappointing. Though when you consider their story and where they have come from, one hopes they were at least proud to have gotten so close.

The history of Spennymoor United predecessor to the current club dated back to 1904 and the club were for many years a prominent feature in North East non league football. Over the years the club was home to various players that would later go on to grace the Football League and the most prominent of these players was Johnny Dixon who captained Aston Villa to FA Cup final glory in 1957, whilst John Collins father of comedian Frank Skinner also performed in Spennymoor's black and white on the pitch here at the Brewery Field. Spennymoor were a successful club and alongside their various regional league and cup successes the club eighteen times reached the first round proper of the FA Cup, along with two second round appearances and a third round defeat at West Bromwich Albion in 1937. All that proud history however came to a rather sad end in 2005 for the then Unibond League Premier Division club. 

United's problems had began on Christmas Day 2003 when their clubhouse which extraordinarily was uninsured burned down thanks to a discarded cigarette. This lost the club a large chunk of its regular income, and the financial problems that followed weren't helped when the clubs main backer and chairman Benny Mottram announced in early 2005 his intention to stand down. Disagreements with the council over the lease on their Brewery Field home, Mottram's arguments with supporters, and problems fulfilling fixtures didn't exactly improve matters either. 

In March of that year the club found themselves without enough players available for a cup fixture and were eventually expelled from the competition. The game was to take place on a Sunday and according to Mottram among other reasons two of the clubs players were Catholic and were unavailable to play on religious grounds. The club continued with a depleted squad but in the league several games also did not take place and these were accompanied by fines and points deductions. Spennymoor were a club in crisis and manager Graham Clark had already walked out after a 5-1 Good Friday defeat at Gateshead. By April it was obvious Spennymoor would not be able to complete their fixture list and they were expunged from the league.

Arguments within the League over how the final 2004/05 table would look and how Spennymoor's fixtures both those completed and those not would fit into this raged on. But that did not concern the Spennymoor faithful, they just needed their team back. Plans by supporters to form a new club were put to one side when local Northern League team Evenwood Town, having various problems of their own, submitted plans for themselves to move into Spennymoor's Brewery Field ground. An independent Spennymoor fans group backed the Evenwood plans with the club set to be renamed Spennymoor Town (The FA twice blocked a name change to United).

The Brewery Field ground as it currently stands consists of a main seated stand on one side of the pitch with a marquee tent sat next to it, and another covered stand with newly installed seating behind the goal to it's right, whilst the other two sides consist of uncovered concrete terracing. In one corner there is mobile catering and bar facilities, and as I await kick-off I find their curry and chips a good hangover cure for the previous nights alcohol. I'm not drinking today but it's worth noting that aside from the limited bar facilities in the ground, the club also help run the Moors Tavern pub in town, an excellent choice for those who like a pre or post match tipple. 

Today's opponents from Manchester started life in step 6 of the non league pyramid and have had to work their way up to where they are today, one division below non league's top tier. When Spennymoor Town came about they also had to start from the bottom and began life in the second division of the Northern League some three divisions below where the clubs predecessors had played during that ill fated final campaign. 

Town gained promotion from Northern League Division Two at the second attempt, winning the league in 2006/07 with a record points total. The club stabilised themselves in the First Division before winning three titles in a row between 2009/10 and 2011/12, twice breaking the 100 point mark. Whilst having initial success in Division One the club did not apply for promotion (which until recently was not mandatory between steps 5 and 4) instead aiming to make the club self sufficient. In 2012/13 Spennymoor did eventually apply but missed out finishing behind a reformed Darlington side despite again breaking the 100 point mark. The following year the Moors were once again Champions and this time did secure promotion. 

Alongside their Northern League successes, Spennymoor also had cup success in 2013 when they won the FA Vase at Wembley. The Moors chartered a flight to the Channel islands for the first leg of their semi final with Guernsey, taking players, backroom staff, officials, and  supporters along to witness a 3-1 victory before a second leg at home in front of over 1700 people and a 1-0 victory that set up a Wembley final with Tunbridge Wells from the Kent League. During the build up to the final cup fever hit the town with shops selling merchandise and locals rushing to buy tickets for the big day. 5000 fans travelled down to Wembley from the North East and this included some 24 coaches being filled. Goals from Gavin Cogden and Keith Graydon secured a 2-1 victory and the Moors brought the cup back to the North East, much to the jubilation of the town.

Following promotion from the Northern League, league and cup success continued for Spennymoor. Another cup run in 2014 saw them make it into the draw for the first round proper of the FA Cup. Having beaten,Tadcaster Albion, Bishop Auckland, Dunston UTS, and Ashton United, the Moors faced then National League side AFC Telford United in the final qualifying round. An injury time Telford equaliser saw the Moors then lose a replay and miss out on what would have been a first round clash with Basingstoke Town. In the league Spennymoor took just two seasons to gain another promotion, leaving Division One of the Evo-Stick League via the play-offs, and then doing exactly the same the following year to gain promotion from the Evo-Stick Premier Division. 

Given home advantage due to league placings, a Rob Ramshaw winner in front of 1699 fans sealed a second successive promotion, and place in the National League North, producing in the process that aforementioned pitch invasion. Having worked their way back from the brink, Spennymoor had a team that had surpassed all expectations and now found themselves well and truly into the higher echelons of non league football.

If anyone thought National League North might be a step too far then last seasons eighth place finish proved the doubters wrong, and as I stand on the terraces I see a team that looks at home in their surroundings, competent against their opponents, and seemingly having the better of the chances in the first half. 

At half-time a man in the portakabin cum club shop that I find sat behind the terracing along one side  the pitch tries to sell me a club branded mug, but I politely decline. The travelling support from Manchester were in full voice stood amongst the covered seating behind the goal during the first half and regain the same position for the second period, whilst most the vocal of the home support who had been stood next to them have now moved around to the other end of the pitch to which their team will attack for the second period.

The second half is mostly dominated by the home side and the terraces erupt when the Moors are awarded a penalty on 59 minutes. Sam Baird pulls back Glen Taylor who takes the resulting penalty and beats the keeper smashing the ball right down the middle. Spennymoor are in control now and double their lead with Ryan Hall crossing in for Adam Boyes to tap home late on.

It doesn't matter where you go in the country you will always find football fans desperate to get away from a match early and at Spennymoor it is no different, with some people heading towards the exits even before the second goal goes in. Those that do stay however get to see that second goal and probably head home unnerved by the idea that they may arrive at their destination a few minutes later than those early leavers.

The Spennymoor faithful will be pleased with a second win in three days that puts them comfortably into mid table after seven league games, and who knows, some may even be daring to dream of another promotion. I suppose yet another advancement would be a long shot, but given what they've achieved in recent seasons then anything is possible. Having been through hard times the Moors have returned stronger, and although its been a long road back it's certainly been an exciting journey, and a story that hopefully has many more thrilling chapters to come. Just no more discarded cigarettes please!

As featured in the December 2018 issue of Football Weekends magazine