There are games that leave some of us wondering whether we’ve gone completely mad just by attending. But there are fans who cannot get enough. Pete Sixsmith was in that latter category until he finally joined the Club of 92. Now he’s done it all. Where does he go from there? …
Thanks to the demands of TV companies, the Europa League and the third international break, I am able to follow my footballing enthusiasms without the inevitable disappointments that accompany SAFC.
Last week, I missed the Arsenal game due to following Shildon in their FA Cup 4th. Qualifying Round trip to Norton United. They play about a mile away from Vale Park, home of Port Vale (bet you guessed that) and it was an opportunity to tick off a ground I had not or was never likely to visit.
I was also ticked off with Sunderland after the shambles at St Mary’s (the wounds are still raw)and I had low expectations of last Saturday – feelings that were entirely justified. Joan’s text announcing Arsenal’s opening goal came as no surprise as did the rider “dreadful mistake by Brown.”
Shildon drew 1-1 against 10 men, should have won and then pulled Gateshead out of the hat in the First Round draw – provided they beat Norton in the replay. They didn’t, losing 2-1 in front of the kind of crowd that M Salut’s late father – a former Shildon club secretary – would have seen as nothing special in the 50’s but which was regarded as rather splendid in the 10’s.
It was not a great week for Sunderland and Shildon fans and there are a few who support both. The renaissance up the road and the hailing of Pontius Pardew as a tactical genius (mostly by him) did nothing to assuage the black clouds that hung around us.
Combine that with half term, when town centres are to be avoided at all costs and Halloween, when the mini extortionists of the village descend on the Big House hoping for sweeties or pennies (they get neither; Pardew sets the dogs on the little blighters), it’s enough to make one feel like a vegan at a pie and sausage eating contest.
This Saturday, I was distinctly non-partisan, making the lengthy trip to Colchester to tick off the Western Homes Community Stadium, United’s new home, thus completing the 92. It has taken me since 1958, when I went to Elland Road with my maternal grandfather and spent the game wondering why there were no scrums or tries. I was neither impressed nor bitten by the bug.
That came when I moved to the North East and discovered that rugby was not played in the region, other than “kick and clap” so I took up football and, after having served my apprenticeship at Dean Street and Feethams (a ground I miss very much), I graduated at Roker Park as a fully-fledged ground hopper.
Most of the 92 have been done with SAFC, with that season in the Third Division being the one that broke the back of my quest. But seasons in the second tier also allow you to do grounds that are quite obscure; it allowed me to tick off the likes of Bootham Crescent, Blundell Park and Gay Meadow (even more evocative than Feethams) while itching to get back to Highbury, Old Trafford and Villa Park.
The Weston Homes Community Stadium replaced Layer Road, a real wreck of a stadium and a dangerous one for visiting fans. Those of us who perched on the steps as we lost there in 2008 will vouch for that. It was as unpleasant as York in 1988 where I was genuinely frightened as stewards and police shoved people into an end that was bursting at the seams. Hillsborough came as little surprise to those of us there that day.
The WHCS locks like a smaller version of The Liberty Stadium without the corners being filled in. The new rugby league ground at Leigh is also out of the same box as are most of the new grounds in Scotland – Hamilton, Airdrie, and Stirling Albion F.C. which is hardly surprising as they were all built by the same company. Save, comfortable and oh so anaemic – bring back Hilton Park, Broomfield and Douglas Park.
The trip down was a good one. The train from Peterborough to Stowmarket trundled across The Fens and its fertile soil, with views of big skies, hundreds of wind turbines (destined to disappear when Nigel and his UKIP johnnies take over the country) and Ely Cathedral.
This is a fine building, third in my Great Cathedrals Viewed from the Train list. Durham walks it, Lincoln is second and Ely a very close third. The line circles this small city and the cathedral follows you round like those eyes in the painting of The Laughing Cavalier, which is most inappropriate seeing as Oliver Cromwell was a resident of Ely. Cavaliers didn’t have much to laugh about under the English Republic – and a good thing too.
I had a wander round Colchester, billed as England’s oldest town and the one time home of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni before the new Roman landlords evicted her and called it Camulodunum. She fought back but was vanquished by the foreign invaders and is probably high on the list of Mr Farage’s plucky girlie heroes.
Port Vale were the visitors with their newly appointed manager Rob Page taking charge for the first time after a short stint as caretaker. For the U’s (terrible nickname – what about the Camulodunums or the Chariot Boys?), Blyth born and former Ipswich and Wrexham defender Tony Humes was taking his 13th game and it proved to be unlucky for him as Vale won by the odd goal in three.
It was a typical lower division game; some quality and lots of honest endeavour. Vale just about deserved it, scoring twice in three second half minutes. Both goals were low shots at the near post; Colchester keeper Sam Williamson had a touch of The Giant Pantilimon’s.
Freddie Sears, once a West Ham prospect, pulled one back late on but it was not enough. He had earlier had a penalty saved by the impressive Chris Neal, so not a good day for one of the few current league footballers to be named after an American store chain. I can find a Macy and a Penney but there are no Piggly Wiggly’s to be seen.
The Vale fans – and they had a good following; anything to get away from Burslem- went home happy , the U’s fans less so.
And so, my odyssey is over. There was no large wooden equine figures, no lethargic flower eaters (although the Sunderland defence has done a passable impression over the years), no female voices tempting me on to the rocks of a normal life where ticking off football grounds is seen as a little bit odd.
It is a bit like painting the Forth Rail Bridge in that it never stops. New teams will come into the league or a new ground will be opened (York and Scunthorpe are close to moving) but they can be done at any time. For the moment though, I am proud to be a member of the Good Old 92.
Still time if you think we’re worth it …
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