Monday, 18 October 2021

Football by the Seaside as Marske United's Unforgettable FA Cup Journey Continues

Marske United's run to the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup has been nothing short of spectacular. A thumping 7-0 win over league rivals Pickering Town was followed by an almost as impressive 6-0 win over lower tier Seaham Red Star before two astounding wins against higher league opposition.

First up were South Shields of the Northern Premier League Premier Division (level 3 in the non-league pyramid) who sit one tier above Marske from Division One East of the Northern Premier League. South Shields are backed by a wealthy businessman, rich by non-league standards at least, and have recently turned professional. Their meteoric rise was halted by COVID but the club are favourites for the title this season and were top of the league at the time of facing Marske. Despite being heavy favourites, however, the visitors were dispatched of 3-0 to set up a home tie with National League North side Chester in the third qualifying round.

Two divisions above Marske, Chester did well to come away with a 0-0 draw and were totally outclassed during a replay in which Marske hammered them 4-0 on a night when the visitors could have easily had 5 or 6 if not more. Absolutely incredible stuff.

Marske-by-the-Sea is a fairly uneventful place and "Where's that?" is a not uncommon response when this coastal village just a few miles south of Middlesbrough and 25 miles north of Whitby comes up in conversation. Thankfully for them, their football club is just about beginning to put them on the map because, and I don't want to seem disrespectful, probably nothing else will.

I have nothing against Markse it is in parts a quaint little village but in reality, probably not a lot happens there. Indeed, for a seaside town/village it is, quite honestly, a little bit boring. It may be beside the seaside but you can hardly call it a seaside resort. It has a beach but there is no pier and the seafront certainly isn't lined with hotels, amusements, bars and restaurants. I had a little walk down myself when I visited and before I'd even reached the seafront, the hustle and bustle of the village centre had completely disappeared and I found myself completely on my own in a windswept scene of nothingness. But maybe Marske beach is good for dog walking, who knows?

Yes, I know I'm not really selling the place to you but the football should win you over and for anyone visiting the Teesside area I would definitely find time for a visit to Marske United. Also, to be fair, although Marske may not have the charm of Whitby down the coast or razzmatazz of other places by the sea it is, nonetheless, definitely a world away from the smog and grime industrial Teesside stereotype which other parts of the area more than live up to. It does, as well, have a beautiful looking old church and, also, I managed to get some excellent Fish & Chips from a takeaway called Sea Mist in the Village centre. So there you go people of Marske, I have at least said a few very nice things about your humble abode because all in all, it ain't too bad really.

Having defeated Chester, Marske, who sit near the top of their division, would have to face Gateshead FC in the fourth and final qualifying round of the Emirates FA Cup with the Tynesiders making the 50 mile drive south for another all North East affair. The all-ticket match would be a complete sell-out with a well above average 1,320 in attendance and a few pre-match arrivals who had not realised this finding they could not enter. Having myself paid in advance £10 for a ticket online, however, I was all good to go.

Marske United's home ground is called Mount Pleasent and is only a few minutes walk from the village railway station. From said station, you can hop on a train to Middlesbrough a few stops up the line or stay on until Darlington slightly further afield on the east coast mainline that runs from London to Edinburgh.

The ground itself is a fairly basic affair but does have one main seated stand and some covered terracing. Other facilities include hot food catering serving burgers and pies, teas and coffees, and a can bar at one end of the ground as well as the main bar outside. Getting your hand stamped on entry allows you back into the stadium if you decided to head back out again to the main bar which is essentially nothing more than an extra-large Portakabin. But in said bar, you can, at least, sit down and watch the half-time scores come in on the telly. Nonetheless, the ground has a unique charm that only a non-league ground of such standing can have and besides as for alcohol, there are also several pubs in the centre of Marske and another one next to the train station.

The match was a huge occasion for the hosts with a place in the first round proper of the cup at stake and there was a raucous atmosphere well before kick-off as I sat reading my copy of the excellent £2 Seasider matchday programme.

At kick-off, I was standing near most of the large contingent of unsegregated Gateshead fans who were stood behind the goal. From all sides, the crowd were just as vociferous as earlier with drums and horns evident from one small group of home supporters at the opposite end. The Tyne-Tees rivalry was also evident too, particularly from the home followers who chanted 'soft Geordie b***tard' every time a Gateshead player went down. 

Both goalkeepers were in action early on as there was chances at both ends but as the first-half wore on it was Gateshead who began to take control. The match was goalless at half-time, however, and although Marske were probably the better side in the second-half, as the game wore on it looked increasingly like the match would end in a goalless draw. Unsurprisingly, despite the Gateshead 'keeper being forced to make a brilliant save in stoppage time, 0-0 was ultimately how it ended. Back to Gateshead for a replay.

I immediately left at full-time and was able to make it onto the station platform several minutes before my train arrived. As far as matchday experiences go this had been a cracking afternoon, albeit no doubt enhanced by the nature of the occasion. This was all set in a village that ain't so bad after all and maybe one day I'll be back for another 90 minutes of on pitch action.

Finally, of course, as I said earlier, not many people have heard of Marske and indeed the Peterborough United fans who jumped on my train at Middlesbrough after a 2-0 defeat at the nearby Riverside Stadium had themselves no clue. But whilst the people of Marske-by-the-Sea will, I'm sure, sometimes claim to live 'near Middlesbrough' hopefully continued success for their football club will mean the village of Marske-by-the-Sea can get a mention in its own right! After all, as football trips go you could do a lot worse than a game in this village by the sea!

For the record 555 Marske fans travelled up to Gateshead for the replay but their epic cup run finally came to an end as I witnessed a 3-2 win for the hosts.

Monday, 11 October 2021

Faroes Flashback: When Scotland Suffered What Some Called Their Worst Result Since 1872

Tomorrow night Scotland travel to the Faroe Islands for what should seemingly be a routine World Cup qualifying victory, but just over 19 years ago things weren't so simple. In September 2002 Scotland went to the Faroes to face the side considered one of Europe's minnows and left very much with egg on their faces. Here is the story.

‘Faroe misery for Scots’ was the headline on the BBC website when Scotland drew 1-1 away against one of the minnows of European football in 1999. But that was nothing compared to the uproar after the pair met again three years later when Scotland headed back to the Faroe Islands for what was an even more lacklustre performance. Once again it would be a case of two points dropped for the visitors but if it were not for a second-half fightback it would have been so much worse.

Whilst Scotland participated in the very first international football match against England almost 150 years ago, the Faroe Islands are relative newcomers to the international scene. Having not joined FIFA until 1988, when they faced Scotland at home in a Euro 2004 qualifier on 7 September 2002 it was just ten years since they’d played their first ever competitive match.

The Faroes had stunned the footballing world when they defeated Austria 1-0 in that first ever game in 1992. But for those living on this small rocky outcrop of Islands about 450 miles north of the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, it would be 21 defeats and one draw before they next won a meaningful contest. Even then it was only against the tiny enclave of San Marino, at the time ranked second worst in all of Europe just above Liechtenstein. The Faroes would win just five more times in their first ten years of competitive action, once more against San Marino and twice against both of Luxembourg and Malta, two also very lowly ranked sides. This was a team of part-timers who lost to everyone bar the few most woeful of sides and they went into the Scotland game ranked as low as 123rd in the world.

Scotland had narrowly missed out on a play-off place in World Cup 2002 qualifying and, under the guise of German manager Berti Vogts installed at the beginning of the year, the Faroe Islands match was the first game of what they hoped would be a promising Euro 2004 qualifying campaign. All expectations of a solid start in that opening group match were soon quashed, however, when in front of about 4,000 hardy spectators, Scotland found themselves two down after just 12 minutes thanks to a brace from the Faroes' Jon Petersen. The home fans were left in dreamland as they wildly waved their flags for each goal.

Albeit all friendlies, Vogts had lost four of his first five games in charge and such a disastrous start against the Faroes did nothing to ease the pressure already slowly starting to mount on him. Vogts hadn't done himself any favours in the build up to the game by criticising the choice of venue from the hosts in what some might have considered getting his excuses in early. But surely even he can't have expected such a horrendous beginning from his side. 

Now reachable via a seven mile car tunnel, at the time getting to the host venue of Toftir would have involved a ferry ride from the Faroe Islands' main city of Torshavn to what some might have considered barely more than a hamlet. Whilst consolidating his thoughts on that journey, however, one can't imagine Scotland's main man in the dugout thought anything less than a win was possible. 

2-0 would end up being the half-time scoreline in what was turning out to be one of Scotland's most embarrassing shows. The BBC website stated in their match report that the Faroes had 'looked superior for long periods' in that opening 45 minutes and they weren't wrong. The Independent even went as far as to say it was 'the most ignominious first half in Scotland's history.'

No matter what happened in the second-half nothing would be able to hide what had happened in the first but in the end, Scotland were at least able to save face a little. First, a Paul Lambert strike on 62 minutes gave the visitors hope and then with seven to play Barry Ferguson saved Scotland's blushes by grabbing an equaliser. The captains of Scotland's two Old Firm giants Celtic and Rangers had both united for the cause with the goals that turned a catastrophe into a slightly less disastrous bad day at the office. 

It was still a terrible result, bad enough for Rob McLean on commentary duty for BBC Scotland television to describe it as 'Inept, woeful, pitiful', but it had come very close to being even worse. Nonetheless, it was still, according to The Scotsman at least, 'Scotland’s worst result since 1872.' 

Bert Vogts meanwhile was seemingly perplexed as to how his side had been so abjectly poor. "I can't understand what happened," he exclaimed before agreeing that the performance was "Not good enough for international football."

In a post match poll, conducted by the BBC, 64% of fans said Vogts should lose his job and although he ended up hanging around for another two years before his eventual resignation in 2004 they were not very happy ones. By the end of his tenure Scotland had failed to qualify for the European Championships, only picked up two points from their opening three qualifying matches for the 2006 World Cup, all against lesser opposition, and dropped to a record low of 77 in the FIFA world rankings. His final match in charge was a 1-1 draw in qualifying against Moldova who would end up finishing bottom of the World Cup qualifying group with seven defeats from their 10 games.

Scotland defeated the Faroes 3-1 in the return match and a further three matches against the same opposition in the years since have seen Scotland score a total of 11 goals without reply. Neither side will forget that September 2002 clash, however, and especially not Scotland. For the Scots, the match would come to epitomise probably more than any other what ended up being easily the most impoverished period in their footballing history. Part of an almost 22 year period where, after the 1998 World Cup, they missed out on qualification for no fewer than ten major tournaments, that afternoon in Toftir was arguably the lowest moment of it all.