We’re men of the world here at popular STAND, and so we realise that on occasion, there comes a time when you feel the need to seek alternate pleasure. Football sadly is not solely a game played by men (or women) in red and white hoops and so sometimes circumstances dictate that we must watch other people play. Rather than see this practice go underground we’ve taken steps to ensure it can be controlled and so have come up with a feature in which it can exist in small doses. In Playing Away we recount our tales of watching others play, starting with Editor Glen Wilson‘s trip to the seaside.
“Do we have to go back to Hull dad?” asks a child at Bridlington station, “Why can’t everybody live at the seaside?” It’s summer on the Yorkshire coast, at least that’s what we’ve been told. After a week of cloud the sun has outwitted the sea breeze long enough to pack out the beach. Dads battling with windbreaks, ice-cream stained toddlers, and unnecessary amounts of ochre-coloured middle-age cleavage as far as the eye can see. It’s hardly paradise, but you can sense its appeal over Hull.
If the beach is to be believed then London 2012’s legacy is already in full effect. A mass game of volleyball takes place near the Spa, badminton, football and cricket fill the other spaces on the sand; young boys smashing their little brothers through the covers for 17. On the promenade two Goths are playing crazy golf. The feel-good holiday vibe continues through the old town, passing a pub I get a hit of an entire bar belting out House of Fun on the karaoke. Its 2:15pm.
Away from the front things are a little more leisurely, but it remains unmistakably summer as I find myself fielding a boundary during a shortcut across Duke’s Park. Beyond the cricket square, above the pavilion I can see the floodlights of my destination; Bridlington Town’s Queensgate Stadium, and their FA Cup Extra Preliminary round tie with Whitley Bay. The FA Cup is synonymous with upsets and surprises, and as I cut through the Park I sense I’m set to witness the biggest shock of the opening round; Bridlington has a Pétanque Club.
Bridlington Town experienced their highest and lowest ebbs in the 1990s, and as a Doncaster Rovers supporter I’m well versed on the main protagonist in their rise and fall. Prior to setting fire to the Main Stand at Doncaster Ken Richardson took Bridlington on two adventures within the space of a year, firstly to Wembley in the FA Vase and then to the wall in a huff. Thanks to Uncle Ken’s bungling presidency Town briefly ceased to exist in 1994, reforming from scratch that September. Thankfully Queensgate was spared by Ken’s fondness for matches and it survives as a neatly kept non-league ground capable of handling much greater attendances than it currently entertains in the North Counties East League Premier Division.
Next to the turnstile there’s a large sign stating No Alcohol Taken Into the Ground, beneath it a Whitley Bay fan is reluctantly battling through a pint he’s just carried from The Seasiders Bar. To his relief the friendly committee man on the gate beckons him through anyway, before greeting the following home fans by name; “Hello Mr Hopkins, how are you? …Good to see you Bill”. Having won the FA Vase in three of the last four seasons visitors Whitley Bay arrive here with a strong reputation and a sizable support. A large number of those down from the North East are posing for a picture just inside the gate; a clutch of blue shirts and half drunk pints, chanting “Howay the Bay!” to the amusement of the kids sitting outside the Snack Bar.
“Are you local?” asks the programme seller from his hut as I purchase one. “I’m neutral” I reply, unnecessarily cryptically. As I turn away, leaving him to wonder why a bloke would come from Switzerland for this, a vintage Match of the Day theme crackles through the PA, the Bay fans break from their photo shoot to join in, and the teams take to the field. Bridlington are in bright red, Whitley Bay an equally vibrant blue, the pitch is unrelentingly green; it’s a child’s painting of a football match.
“Lets meek it ooer dee!” yells a Whitley Bay centre-half, clapping his hands, as the sides line-up for kick-off. A home substitute, somewhat less pumped for the occasion, takes his place in the dugout whilst sipping tea from a club mug. There appears to be as many Bay fans present as home supporters with the noisiest of their bunch taking up position behind the far goal, complete with a bell and, perhaps pre-empting the judgement of the home fans, a flag daubed with the words The Bell End Choir.
Five minutes in the Town manager is already painfully hoarse, yet still audible from the far end of the ground. You get the sense that if his voice were not worn down he’d be simultaneously bollocking his left-back and warding ships from the rocks at Flamborough Head. Bay appear likely to find joy down the home side’s right, with the quick feet of winger Denver Morris catching the eye, though it’s defender Chris Fawcett who has the first effort, cutting inside to fire off a shot, but to groans from the Bay fans it trundles well wide.
Bridlington are struggling to get a foothold. Their outlet of choice is a ball over the top for Josh Greening. Something they’re struggling to execute, “That’s three now. Do it bigger!” yells Greening as another hopeful punt in his general direction is intercepted. The home full-back looks as perplexed as I am as to how he can make a pass ‘bigger’ rather than say longer, higher or firmer. Despite their failings it is Town who are the first to force a save, a low effort from Billy Logan in the left channel smothered at the second attempt by Bay keeper Kyle Hayes. “Ooooh”theatrically shout a group of kids watching through a gap in the wall behind me, before asking “That was Brid right?”
Bay though look much the stronger team and after seventeen minutes take a deserved lead. Town fail to deal with a long throw from their right and the ball is worked over to Chris Moore on the other flank. Receiving on the corner of the box he grapples with his marker, eventually shrugging him off before jinking past two more Town players and slotting into the far corner to the delight of the travelling fans behind the goal; arms raised, bell ringing. As the sides reconvene for the restart a chorus of “We are Whitley… from the Bay”, to the tune of We Are Sailing, drifts from the self-proclaimed Bell End.
Rather than sit on their lead Bay kick on. Paul Chow, their balding number 10 prolific in the Northern League, is giving the Town centre-halves a particularly torrid time. He comes close to doubling the lead as he picks the ball up in the right channel and drives a shot against the post with a nostalgic clunk. Minutes later he’s back in the thick of it, robbing a Town centre half before dinking a cross for Lee Kerr who’s hooked over-the-shoulder volley goes inches wide of the far post.
Watching the first half you sense Whitley Bay’s reputation has preceded them. Though clearly strong going forward, their midfield and defence are not without gaps which could, and should, be exploited. Yet Bridlington seem nervous on the ball and chances to counter attack disappear as they hesitate or fumble in midfield, and then Bay nab the ball back, the bell rings out from the travelling support, and another chance dissolves into the sea air.
I take a perch in the terraced section of the impressive pitch-length Main Stand for the remainder of the half, a move undertaken not for a better vantage point, but to avoid the token visiting ‘character’; a Bay fan clutching a stack of programmes circling the ground giving unnecessary updates from other games to anyone who happens to meet his glance. Even up here I’m not safe, “Spennymoor are one up… Morpeth are losing” he calls up to me on his twelfth lap, before pausing to admonish the linesman for a supposedly missed handball.
He’s not alone in pursuing spurious miscarriages of justice. The Bell End Choir are adamant Bay have been denied two penalties for handball, though stood at the same end I’ve seen nothing to back up their argument. Oddly, aside from the human vidiprinter, their criticisms of the officials are voiced in a manner I previously thought the sole preserve of speech-bubbles of football comics; “Have they abolished the handball rule referee?” “I believe he’s offside as well linesman”. They’re only an Up for the Cup banner short of full-on Roy of the Rovers.
Back on the field Town have made a rare foray downfield and come close to an unlikely equaliser with a Scott Phillips half-volley from the top of the box flying just beyond what Americans call the upper 90. Reminded that they lead by only a single goal, Bay step up the pressure once again, whipping in a cross from the right which is air-kicked so spectacularly by a home defender he actually shoulders it out for a corner. His embarrassment is heightened by having performed his wild slice right in front of the Bell End Choir and he’s serenaded back to his post by Fucik’s Entry of the Gladiators, aka that Circus tune. Lucky for him the corner comes to nothing but a Town free-kick though; “How can you see that but miss those three handballs ref… you numpty?” yells a Bay fan, the perceived missed handball count continuing to rise steadily.
Throughout the first half the Town back-line has possessed all the aerial capability of Rod Hull and they’re made to pay for it five minutes before the break as Bay find their inevitable second goal. A deep cross from the left finds Lee-Paul Scoggins who doesn’t need to jump to nod it back across goal for Chow to turn home. “Feed the Chow and he will score” sing the Choir.
Bridlington already look like a team resigned to a defeat, so much so that when they have chances to counter, they seem unwilling to take them, treading warily forwards as if fearful the space afforded them on the flanks is part of a cunning trap. Their best opportunity comes a couple of minutes before the break as Phillips slides a presumably big enough pass in for Fleming, but Hayes slides out to save with his feet.
At half-time I head to the snack-bar, the anticipated queue diminished by the number of Bay fans heading instead for the bar. “Coffee Nan, don’t spill it” instructs the young lad operating the till as I order my drink; Nan duly produces a drink for me and a clip round the ear for him as he hands me my change. I get talking to a couple of Sheffield United fans. They’re “in the static up at Filey” and popped along out of interest“because it’s the FA Cup isn’t it”. They say they’re surprised by how quiet it is, which is a shock to me having scribbled the words ‘raucous’ and ‘vociferous’ in my notebook thus far. “I thought there’d be more singing,” says the wife. She ought to get herself down the town; they’ll be high-kicking to New York New York by now.
The teams re-emerge and just as I’m telling the holidaying Blades “I can’t see Brid finding a way back into this” they have a golden chance to reduce the deficit. Nathan Cook, played in one-on-one, but he somehow slices his shot wide of the post. Someone screams. It’s that sort of miss.
Metres from the corner flag a white line painted on the wall marks the furthest point you’re allowed to take alcohol. To reiterate the point a steward stands in front of it, leaning against the fence supping a pint. The thoughts of the Bay fans next to him have already drifted towards the Northern League season.
“£250 a man they reckon. How can Bay compete with that?”
“And what about Darlo too?”
“There’ll be fun and games, they’re a mad lot that Darlo crowd, when they play West Auckland it’ll be chaos man”.
Their nonchalance to the game at hand seems merited as Town miss another great chance to get back in the game Fleming meeting a corner at the near-post, but his header is straight at the keeper.
The hour mark ushers in another decent spell for Bay; Moore cuts across the top of the box as Town’s back-line have five or six kicks at him, the referee finally bringing it back for the third of them. “Give us something man!” screams the Bay manager, despite the official having just done exactly that. “Have a go man, this keeper’s a dwarf!” encourages a Bay fan, but the free-kick comes to nothing. Refusing to pause for so much as a Strepsil the exasperated Town manager is still bellowing faint instructions from the sideline as Bay come within inches of a third goal; a high curling cross from the left just tipped onto the bar by Wilberforce the home keeper. “See, I told you he was a dwarf!” yells a voice from behind the net.
In comparison the home crowd is much less vocal save for one old woman in the Main Stand decked out in Bridlington cap and jacket. “Come on Brid! Come on Town! Come on Billy!” she yells at regular intervals, regardless of the pattern of play on the field. Even when the ball has been hoofed over the stand roof and play has stopped she shouts the same words. It’s a little haunting, as if she’s cheering for a long deceased husband. You can’t shake the feeling she’s here shouting it every Saturday afternoon, regardless of whether there’s a game on.
Midway through the half Town break into the box via the right channel. From my vantage point at the back of the Stand, two players run behind a floodlight pole and emerge horizontally on the other side. The Town supporters at that end appeal loudly for a penalty, but the referee signals for a corner. Home dismay proves short-lived as from the corner they find the net; Cook rising unmarked to head home the set-piece from eight yards. At 2-1 Bridlington are now back in a game they’ve shown little desire to be contesting. The goal brings hitherto unseen urgency and decency to their play, finally it seems the home side have realised there is a discernible gap between Bay’s reputation and their actual performance.
In the matchday programme there’s a page titled Five minutes with Craig Hogg in which the striker reveals his dream dinner guests would include “Gaz Shore to pull some whores”. Sadly for Town his forward play this afternoon is as classy as his answers, his only real contribution to the push for an equaliser being a slow meander in from the left to set up Phillips whose shot is turned round the post. As he did for the goal Cook meets the corner, but this time his header goes straight up in the air; he meets the descending ball too, but it is nodded off the line.
The excitement has proved too much for the old fella on the PA; he’s forgotten to turn his mic off following the last substitution and so as a Town attack ends with a misplaced pass a booming groan echoes through the Stand speakers. There’s a Skatepark behind the far goal, so the tension of a last minute Town corner is somewhat dissipated by the site of BMX bikes and skateboarding Yorkshire teens flying above the crossbar. The initial delivery is cleared and with time running out Town fail to take the opportunity to get the ball back into a crowded area, dallying in possession rather than testing Bay, it’s their game in a nutshell.
There’s one last chance for Bay to cement their victory in injury time as Chow tries to round Wilberforce, but the Bridlington ‘keeper manages to get a toe on the ball to clear to preserve the one goal margin. The final whistle sounds just a few seconds later with the referee who’s handled the game very well, letting it flow and not showing a single card is harangued by a section of the home support as he leaves the field.“Bloody biased!” “Rubbish!” It’s hard to see what they’re complaining about, even less so the home chairman who booms “You’ve just cost me £1000!” at the referee’s assessor. Even if that were true you suspect the Bay fans have balanced the books in The Seasiders Bar over the course of the afternoon.
As the players from these two resort towns leave the field a Hammond Organ version of I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside stutters fittingly through the PA system. Heading back into town barbecue smoke and laughter drift from the Rugby club, the clank of Pétanque balls carries on the breeze, the smell of salt and vinegar hangs over the town. Why can’t everybody live by the seaside?