Continuing our series of sneaking off whilst Rovers’ back is turned for a bit on the side popular STAND Editor Glen Wilson hops up the North Yorkshire coast to the Turnbull Ground for Whitby Town vs Blyth Spartans.
Just along from the station, there’s a board on the harbour wall encouraging people to enjoy The Captain Cook Experience. Must be some boat trip. No wonder the next one doesn’t leave until Tuesday. Cook isn’t the only great traveller synonymous with Whitby, the explorer William Scoresby discovered his sea-legs here too. Perhaps due to the fact that it’s most famous residents earned their notoriety by trying to get as far away from the place as possible, Whitby retains a somewhat modest, humble air to this day.
Along the harbour holiday makers and day-trippers are queuing down the street for fish and chips from the Magpie cafe. There isn’t a Yorkshire saying about never trusting a chippy with a wine list, but you feel there should be. As if spoiling for a fight a seagull swoops down takes a chip right out of the hand of a particularly large guy and drops it to the floor whilst looking straight at him. Perhaps seagulls are the answer to the nation’s obesity crisis. Perhaps they’re just vicious flying bastards. Its Bank Holiday Monday and the many Blyth fans dotted around the town are already confusing the tourists. Enough for folk to determine a pattern, but not quite enough to cause alarm. “What’s with the old guys in green all over town?” I hear a Canadian ask whilst I’m sat having a coffee in a cafe window. In hindsight my response of “Spartans are in town,” probably raised more questions than it answered.
The weather has already plotted a course for Autumn, and its been spattering with rain since lunchtime. The West Cliff is full of holidaying families who did all they came to do in the morning – went up the Abbey, counted the steps, embarrassed their kids with a Transylvanian accent – and are now just killing time. They’re staring out at the sea. Hacking pitch and put balls wildly through the drizzle. And in the case of one family standing defiantly in the paddling pool. No such meaningless pursuits for me; I have a first date with the Evo-Stick Northern Premier, and as I walk up the North Promenade I can already hear the pre-match tannoy announcements being carried out to sea on the breeze, and spy the floodlight pylons above the rooftops.
At the turnstile there’s a bit of a hold up. Two Blyth fans wearing Ant and Dec masks are asking the old fella on the gate to choose between red and black. Blyth fans have travelled in numbers for this game, and understandably so. As their only league away game which requires less than a 200 mile round trip this is their big derby day out. And so they arrive here in good spirits with flag, and Roman helmet, and mask in hand.
Once inside, with no programme seller in sight I spy the club shop, or rather the proprietor locking it up for the first half. “Any idea where I can find a programme?” I ask. “In there at half time,” he replies, then after a quick look round he grabs my arm and says quieter, “be here early mind, I’ve only a few left.” I’m not sure whether I’ve just been given advice or a coded message. “Sure,” I reply, trying to gage if he’ll be disappointed if I return without reinforcements.
Meanwhile, out on the field the game has begun. Whitby’s blue kit is flush with a red, black and white Sampdoria-esque stripe down one side, although any aspirations for continental flair are suitably reigned in by the sponsor; The Hart Inn, a local pub. The entire Whitby outfield also appear to have the same haircut; shaved back and sides, slick on top, it’s like an ambush marketing campaign for Brylcream. Blyth wear yellow, a choice presumably dictated by the kitman having the Bank Holiday weekend off rather than any fear of a kit clash.
It’s the home side who have the first shot on goal, a speculative effort from distance that rebounds with a satisfying thud off first the roof, and secondly the conservatory of the house behind the goal. Had it been a bungalow a club official would have been tasked with commandeering a trawler for it’s retrieval. Barely have I managed to climb the steep Main Stand steps and pick out a seat not covered in seagull shit, when the visitors take a sixth minute lead. A through-ball finds Whitby’s back-line to be less a bank of four, more a market place of two and a bit, as it releases Phil Airey in on goal to slot home in front of the more boisterous of the travelling support..
Any doom this set-back had laden on the home fans in the Main Stand is quickly lifted as to the amusement of all bar one in the ground Blyth’s Lee Mason takes a ball from close range right in his Spartans. The merriment increases as Blyth’s female physio comes on to treat him. “The ricochet got me in the same place pet if you want to check me next,” being perhaps the most repeatable of the calls from the stand. Whilst Mason receives much treatment and little sympathy the Blyth fans behind the goal entertain themselves by releasing inflatable bananas onto the field and then serenading the steward who comes to retrieve them with the Laurel & Hardy theme. Deflated bananas suitably removed, and in Mason’s case treated, its back on with the game
Whitby’s Nathan Mulligan looks a tidy player, and holds the ball up well in attack killing the often interminable wait for support with some neat close control. When Whitby finally get some support in Mulligan’s vicinity they have their first telling chance; Shane Henry getting to the byline on the left before delivering a low cross for Graeme Armstrong who connects well, but is denied by a great save by Conor Grant.
A pair of older gentlemen in fading blue club caps enter the stand. “Raffle tickets” announces the first, “Ahhh no” replies a pensioner along the row from me, attempting to slide into his chair. Others choose to stare fixedly out at the field, hoping the sellers won’t notice the ball hasn’t been in play for the best part of a minute. “Pound a strip,” calls out the second seller, despite the fact his tickets are wound on one continuous strip. A lad heading down the steps buys £2 worth and leaves with a streamer of tickets trailing behind him like a cartoon dog stealing sausages.
On 19 minutes Whitby get the chance to draw level as former Blyth man Armstrong turns in the area and is clumsily bundled over for a penalty. As the players get to their feet a flock of seagulls on the stand roof kick up an almighty din. “The birds are letting the ref know what they thought of that decision at least” observes the Spartans fan behind me, but its a clear spot-kick. Mulligan tucks it home and Baby Give It Up blasts out through the PA to fairly non-plussed locals. A minute later the Blyth fans perform their own acapella version to much more positive acclaim.
The Blyth support have been good value, filling the game’s emptier spaces, the midfield slogs when I’ve found myself looking out between the houses to the sea. Whitby’s support, though out of sight and out of mind beneath the roof of the terrace opposite, give as good as they get, and as a gust of wind has Blyth banners whipping free of their tethering they chant “Shall we tie your flags for you?” toward their visitors.
Like their support Whitby have grown in confidence since their equaliser and are now offering more support to Mulligan. The result is some impressive neat football, a lot of short passes, the odd back-heel, but chances remain fleeting. Tom Portas fires a shot into the catch-fencing behind the goal. David McTiernan comes closer having been released in the right channel; his low drive across goal well saved by Grant down to his right. The effort brings applause from the home faithful, but there’s a bigger cheer to follow as a wayward clearance hits the roof of the terrace opposite sending a sheet of water out of the guttering and down onto the poor couple leaning on the wall below.
Blyth have been on the back foot for some time but they get a rare chance from a throw in the final third; Shaun Litterson chipping a cross to the far post that finds Craig Farrell in space, but the striker opts for ambitious over control and scissor kicks the ball straight into the turf. In Robert Dale Spartans have one of the tallest wingers I’ve ever seen, and its he who gives the visitors another chance as his long limbs intercept in midfield before feeding Farrell, but again the forward is off target.
As I make my way for Operation Programme’s 15:45 rendezvous at Club Shop Point, Blyth’s Shaun Vipond clatters through his man with a challenge that, thankfully, sounds much more horrific than its effects. “Get him back to Blyth, and bloody quickly” yells a woman in the disabled section as the referee calles Vipond over, but it’s just a caution. “Which way’s the bar?” asks a Blyth fan of a home club official. He gives them directions and then turns to the fella next to him “Not very good drinkers them lads if they haven’t already sussed the bar… I can sniff one out anywhere”.
I’m first in the club shop, after the proprietor, enabling me to purchase both the penultimate programme and the penultimate team-sheet to hefty sighs from those who follow me in. I stay in the shop, effectively a windowed cupboard beneath the stand for a nose around. It boasts three times as much stock as it capacity should allow, including an array of replica shirts for £7.95. Not Whitby replica shirts, but a range of oddities on a rack, from Derry City away, Newtown, Hertha Berlin, Anderlecht, Loughborough Students. They’re all here, and you sense they always will be.
The Main Stand is a high perch with a roof at an obtuse angle that only really offers protection from wind and rain coming in one direction. As it’s not coming from that direction today I choose to watch the second half from the more resolute cover of the terrace. The terrace is less a piece of architecture, more a living organism adapting to its surroundings. It has two rows of seating at its front, an inexplicable window in its back wall, the floodlights go up through holes cut in its roof, and it is shaped in a dogleg to allow for the gardens behind. It’s perfect.
The second half begins as the first ended with a Blyth player cautioned for a daft challenge, this time a wrestling hold to stop Henry from breaking. The resulting free-kick is lifted perfectly into the corridor of uncertainty between the 6 yard box and the penalty spot, but amongst a crowd of heads it’s an acrobatic boot from Jordan Mellish that hooks it clear. In a sign of things to come play shifts swiftly to the other end where Mason makes the byline before cutting a low cross which reaches Airey at the far-post, but his shot is blocked on the line by player-manager Darren Williams.
What the terrace lacks in architectural aesthetics it makes up for in token oddballs. One of the old guys in front of me has just one shout, “Spread out!” which he bellows the moment any two Whitby players get within a couple of yards of each other. The person who invented parking sensors was probably stood in my exact spot when he came up with the idea. The guy next to him also has just a solitary call; “They’re playing with you ref!” which he shouts whenever Blyth earn a free-kick. It’s all a bit Pavlovian.
Out on the field Blyth are in the midst of a mini injury crisis. Mellish is already down with a head injury, when the bald Farrell hits the turf holding his head too, much to the chagrin of the crowd;
“What’s up with you nine? Hair in your eyes?”
“Ahh, they’re all tired, bless”
“What are you going to do now ref?” shouts one voice, which comes across as a genuine enquiry more than a heckle, to the extent that the referee turns as if to answer, only to think better of it and restart with a drop ball on halfway.
Having alternated between bright sunshine and sideways rain thus far, the sky gives up trying to decide and presents the Turnbull with both for the remainder of the match. The game too remains in the balance. Blyth have a decent chance as Vipond picks out Airey, but his low shot is turned away by Liversedge in goal. Mulligan, still working tirelessly, earns Whitby a corner, and his near-post delivery is met by the flying Alex White, the centre-half meeting it horizontally five feet off the ground. The cheers from the Main Stand are in vain, it’s flashed the wrong side of the post.
Entering the final ten minutes and things are starting to get tense. “Every time ref!” yells the Blyth manager as Whitby commit a clumsy foul on halfway. “Aye, they’ve picked up bad habits from your lot” responds an old guy down the front. Blyth are starting to have the better of things and have a great chance as Airey gets in between the Town defence, but his shot flies wide. He comes closer a minute later from a much tougher chance; neatly cushioning a bouncing through ball, before volleying just the wrong side of the post to scatter the away following behind the goal.
“Let’s have some wingers!” yells a Whitby fan. “Winners?” inquires his mate. “No, I said wingers” he replies , still at full volume. Despite his appeal it’s Spartans who are finding the space out wide, working the ball over to Mason, all alone on the right side of the area. He takes a touch then shoots, but his effort is brilliantly saved. Mason wins the race to the rebound to cut the ball back across goal but Farrell can only slice it wide. An inflatable banana is whacked on the fence in frustration.
“Stand up, for the special one,” sing the Whitby supporters as the veteran Williams takes himself off. Into the last few minutes and the pace remains frenetic. Farrell drives over at one end. At the other a chipped cross picks out Armstrong, but he heads over. “Don’t let him score, of all people,” cries a Blyth fan. The visitors make a late change of their own. “New record that Lee,” calls out a supporter, earning a wry grin from Mason as he’s withdrawn.
Into the final minute and Whitby work it down the left; Mulligan skips past his man, makes it to the byline, but his low ball back across goal rolls agonisingly between the blur of blue shirts arriving in the box and hands go to heads in the Main Stand like a groaning Mexican Wave. Time then, for one last push from the visitors. Dale collects the ball on the left flank and as he enters the area a blue-socked leg fells one of his long trunks and he falls to the turf like a chimney demolition. The whole ground collectively pauses and turns to the referee. A split second of silence punctured by a shrill whistle and an outstretched arm pointing to the penalty spot.
Blyth’s manager can’t watch. He leans on the wall by the dugout facing into the terrace as the game’s final act plays out over his shoulder. His superstition pays off. The penalty is despatched and the scorer disappears into a scrum behind the goal; half yellow shirted players, half supporters decked in green, inflatable bananas bobbing up and down from somewhere in the middle. On the other side of the goal a man in a Dec mask dances on the fence.
Incredibly there’s still time for an epilogue. Whitby look dumbfounded as Dale nicks the ball and dribbles off to the corner. “Where’s he taking that? Staithes?” asks the bloke to my right. Instead, via a couple of passes, he’s back in the area and hitting a low drive that cannons off the man on the line and into the roof of the net for 3-1. Cue green white and yellow Geordie pandemonium all over again as a second bouncing buoyant scrum forms at the side of the goal.
Whitby’s players look crestfallen, and understandably so, the better side for long periods they never looked like traipsing off the field with nowt. As the supporters file out of the ground they get to hear Whitby’s players getting a bollocking via an open changing room window. The two old fellas in front chat as they file out.
“Are you here next Sunday Bill?”
“Is there a game on like?”
“Aye, the Lifeboat crew against an Emmerdale XI”
Bill stops walking. Turns and looks closely and quizzically at his companion. Then shakes his head and walks off down the hill in the direction of the town centre without saying so much as a goodbye.