Monday, 17 March 2014

Tussling with the Tykes

Saturday 8th March. Off to Barnsley. They play at Oakwell in Barnsley and have done since 1888. The club used to own the stadium and land around it, but because of financial problems earlier this century the stadium was purchased by the council which enabled Barnsley FC to continue their footballing commitments.The club play in red shirts and white shorts and are nicknamed the Tykes, a common appellation for anyone born and bred in Yorkshire. I parked near the top of Oakwell Lane and my first view of Oakwell was a fine panorama

of the ground from a used car lot. I made my apologies to the salesman who approached me thinking he had a prospect, but he was happy to chat for a minute about football. I had another longer chat in the car park of the ground as I was taking a photo of the C K Beckett stand. One of the car park attendants came over and asked if I wanted him to take one of me with the stadium as backdrop. I explained that I didn't go in for those photos because I tend to look even more gormless than usual in snaps. This started us chatting and eventually they had to leave me as cars were piling up around us!

The redevelopment of Oakwell was well under way by the turn of this century, but stalled when Barnsley fell into financial straits. Consequently, three sides of the ground have been developed, but the original West Stand remains.

This stand has been made all-seater, but looks it's age. Only the top half of the stand is covered. There is another of these odd media gantries on the roof, cantilevered out from an old gable (reminiscent of that at Sheffield Wednesday, amongst others), which is apparently reached by ladder from the back of the stand. Hardy types these cameramen.

The opposite stand, unsurprisingly called the East Stand, is a splendid structure, looking much more imposing from outside the ground, I thought. Architecturally it matches the Pontefract Road End ( or C K Beckett Stand). The East Stand is a two tier stand with executive boxes running along between the tiers. The C K Beckett stand is single tier, though giving, at first glance the impression of two tiers as the spectator entrances are on the mid-line and the ascending and descending steps are set slightly askew. In the corner between these two stands is a three tier boxy structure called the (wait for it) Corner Stand which houses executive and disabled facilities.

Away fans are housed in the North Stand which is similar to the C K Beckett stand in appearance. In the corner of the stand between this and the West Stand is the present players tunnel running out below the control post and a large video screen. In fact, Oakwell is unusual in having two players tunnels, the old and now unused one coming onto the ground in the traditional spot in the middle of the West Stand between the dugouts. The old tunnel is still used as an entrance to the offices and other facilities in the stand. The position of the new tunnel requires that a member of staff is detailed to remove the corner flag whilst the players and officials troop out of the tunnel at the start of the game and to replace it when the procession has passed that spot.

Behind the North Stand is the car parking for the players and officials and beyond that several fine training pitches for the various teams of the  club.

There were two changes to our team. Kevin Gomis came in at centre back with Halford moving to right back in place of the injured Eric Lichaj, who is to have an operation for a double hernia. Greening moved to the bench to make room for Abdoun. The match itself is another one of those games which are becoming common in our present run. We have the majority of the play, miss a few chances when , quite frankly it would seem easier to score, allow the opposition a goal and then try to score ourselves. The first half was notable for a fine shot by Abdoun which hit the base of the post and a glaring miss by Mackie who headed wide from about six yards from a centre by Abdoun, who looked our best player on the pitch today. We were not having it all our own way by any means, Darlow having to make one fine save.

At half time it was 0-0, but a lively nil-nil. Second half we started off as if in a dream, allowing their left winger to cut in onto his right foot and drive a strong shot past Darlow and into the corner of the goal. After that Forest stepped up the pressure which became quite frantic towards the end, but Barnsley held out to record a precious win. As we were situated close to the players tunnel, I could quite clearly see, from the players demeanour, that they were dismayed at the result. Another three points gone.

I trudged wearily up Oakwell Lane to the car and left for Wakefield. I went to Wakefield purely because I had found a cheaper hotel up there, but it was a useful jumping off spot for my journey next day to Carlisle, being right on the M1.

Sunday dawned bright and clear. In fact, the weather had turned right around and we were having a beautiful spell of weather in contrast to the awful winter up to that point. I had a picture perfect drive over the
Pennines to Carlisle United FC and their Brunton Park ground. It was a Sunday morning and I didn't expect to gain access to the stadium. I always wonder as I approach a new ground if I'm going to be able to gain access or just peer at bleak stands from the outside like "Billy No Mates". As usual I went into the wrong entrance to be faced by a locked gate. Eventually I found the right entrance and parked the car. Wandering round the ground I found the place firmly locked and bolted, but there were enough holes for me to poke my cameras through and a convenient earth bank to climb for a pretty comprehensive view of the ground.  Mind you, I can't see much through these holes; I just poke the camera through, waggle it about and hope something comes out.

Carlisle United were founded in 1904 and have played at Brunton Park since 1909. The stadium has the four traditional stands, with seating and terracing. The Main Stand runs along the West side of the pitch and
seems to consist of three sections with three sponsorship names. Only the back of the stand contains seating, along the whole of the front of the stand is an uncovered terrace
. The centre section of the seating areas is named the Stand and contains the usual directors box, media area etc. Also included is the Pirelli Family Stand. The larger of the two wing areas is prominently signed Edinburgh Woollen Mill. This stand, between the upper seats and lower terrace seems to have a glassed in viewing area, possibly used as executive boxes or (as at the CG) a restaurant/hospitality section. In fact, at the rear of this stand is Foxy's Restaurant. At the Southern end of the Main stand is the smallest wing section, the Cumberland Building Society Community Stand. All these areas of seating have a mixed range of seats and I understand that some seating was obtained from Doncaster Rovers in 2006 when that club relocated to the Keepmoat Stadium.

An interesting facet of the ground is the arrangement of lights on the floodlight pylons.
Instead of the usual solid bank of  lights at the top of the pylons the lights here are arranged down the supporting legs. I surmised that the ground is fairly exposed and it is a way of preventing damage by the wind, but I have no idea of the real reason.

The newest stand in the ground is the East Stand or The Pioneer Stand. This is a plain modern stand (though with a most impressive exterior fa├žade) extending slightly beyond the end of the pitch at the Northern end of the ground. Apparently there were plans in place to adjust the playing surface to match the siting of the stand, but these never came to pass. The visiting fans are in the Northern section of the Pioneer Stand and immediately adjacent to them and almost encroaching onto the pitch is the large building housing the Neil Sports Centre.

The small terrace at the North end is the Waterworks or Petteril End, used only if large sections of away fans are expected. Behind this end is a practice pitch. Also along this end of the ground is what looks like the police control boxes in the corner adjacent to the Main Stand.

Opposite the Petteril is the Warwick Road End which has the roof segmented into three parts presenting
three diamond gable ends towards the pitch instead of the usual practice of running the roof parallel to the pitch. I think this is an attractive and rather traditional way of building. At one time, most grounds had these either ornate or individual rooflines. Anyone of my age will remember the instantly recognisable roof at Molyneux, for instance. The Warwick Road End is a covered terrace.

At the entrance of the ground is the club shop and next to this is a statue of former club favourite Hughie McIlmoyle, who played for a large number of clubs during a 20 year professional career, but played for Carlisle United in three separate spells, totalling 174 appearances, scoring 76 goals in the process.

There was no way I could get into the ground, but I had managed to see quite a bit of it from my several vantage points. I thought it most attractively sited and a fine old ground kept in pretty good order. So I left Brunton Park and the several enthusiastically supported games of rugby going on next door and headed off to Newcastle.

I had booked a hotel close by St James Park, home of Newcastle United, but not as close as I had hoped. Cost is always a consideration and I just went for the cheapest. However, it had the bonus of being close to the Quayside and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge and only a short walk to the famous Tyne Bridge.
I had the afternoon free so wandered along the riverside, by the several bridges, past the thriving market all the while basking in the warmest day of the year. What a change in the weather!! Exactly a month ago I was ploughing through the rain and wind at Blackpool and the snow at Huddersfield.

The sightseeing had another useful purpose. It gave me valuable reconnaissance time for my visit next day to St James Park. This ground, although a monster, is situated right in the city so was in easy walking distance of all the sights and my hotel. It saved me a drive through unfamiliar streets. Something I have done enough of this season; the number of times I have had to double-back or take the wrong road because I'm in the wrong lane or simply give up and stop in a quiet spot to either study the map or ask a pedestrian must now be in the hundreds. This time I picked the brains of the staff in the hotel. I must mention that I usually stay at a well-known brand of budget hotels (Premier Inns) and I find the staff unfailingly polite and helpful. The hotels are clean, the bathrooms work and the beds are comfortable. And on this occasion they were not found wanting. The young man on the desk produced a map (having declared mine unsuitable) annotated it comprehensively and explained other points in answer to my questions.

Next day dawned fine and sunny. I set out for the ground. I had decided on one route out and a different one back. The route out was one which gained me height very quickly and once up I could contour round to the ground, a useful point from my SAS days in the hills of Brecon Beacons and Scotland. After a twenty minute walk I found myself gazing up at the giant Gallowgate End of St James Park, home of Newcastle United.

I haven't been to this ground before so I don't know if, in the past the ground just had four stands. Now, although it is not a modern "bowl", the stands are all joined round the corners and the pitch is completely surrounded by tiers of seats towering above it. As in other grounds completely surrounded by city streets or residential housing, space is at a premium, so if you want a large crowd in your ground, the answer is to go upwards.All notes for away fans mention the great climb up to the away fans eyrie at the top of the Leazes Stand.

Newcastle United was formed in 1892 by the amalgamation of two local clubs and has played at St James' Park since that time. In common with other clubs playing in black and white striped shirts the club nickname is The Magpies or, probably more commonly now, the Toon. I walked around outside the ground marvelling at it's size. Although it has much less room for spectators than Old Trafford, I suppose the location gives it a more imposing air. I walked around, past the restored gates and the entrance steps, to the Milburn Stand

which houses the main reception area.  Here I asked if it was possible to see inside the ground. I was directed upstairs to the tours desk. Here I again made my request, not for a long official tour, but just a quick peek inside the ground.

To my delight, after a short interrogation as to my motives, one of the young ladies acceded to my request. I then got a whistle stop tour of the ground. During our walk she confided that she was a fan of Brian Clough and always looked for the results of my team during his tenure as manager. Delighted to find a kindred spirit, I thoroughly enjoyed our 'tour', chatting about a variety of subjects from my attempt to visit all 92 grounds in the single season to Bobby Robson's funeral.  What a nice lady.

The Gallowgate Stand, or rather the area it stands in, was once strawberry fields from which the local nuns would use the fruit to make strawberry wine to sell. Now just the street name, Strawberry Place, and a pub remain.Together with the East Stand, The Gallowgate End is lower than the other two stands with a single tier of seating and executive boxes round the top of the seating at the Milburn corner of the stand.
Outside one corner of this stand, on Strawberry Place, is a statue of Wor Jackie or more officially, Jackie Milburn, one of the 'Number Nine' heroes of Newcastle United.

At the other end of the stand is a statue of Sir Bobby Robson, a beloved son of the area and childhood fan who came back to manage the club at the end of his playing days.
Inside the entrance lobby to the Milburn stand there are also busts of Bobby and Jackie. On the pavement beside the road running under the Milburn Stand, the road which divides the main reception area and offices from the actual stand, are rows of commemorative plaques to absent friends, gone but not forgotten fans.

The players tunnel is a narrow tiled affair which dips down a few steps as one proceeds towards the playing area. Along the artificial turf to more steps going upwards to the sunlight and the very edge of the pitch. The dugouts are hard by the tunnel and occupy a very small area, just two rows of well-upholstered seats for the manager, staff and subs of each team.

The Milburn Stand itself towers above you once on the pitch side.

Together with the Leazes End it forms one half of the stadium with a large lower tier of seating on each stand separating an upper tier of seating with a row of executive boxes. The roof panels extend right out above the stands to pitch side level, but this doesn't create an oppressive atmosphere as the roof panels are translucent, presumably to aid the growth of the grass on the pitch. The Leazes End is separated from Leazes Park by a small car park, but is also somewhat unique in having a multi-story car park built into the stand.

Although the ground is hard by bustling city streets (there are electric gates on Strawberry Place and Barrack Road which can be closed to aid the passage of the crowd after games)  this is only evident on the Gallowgate and Milburn side of the ground. On the other side of St James Park there is an air of calm, with peace and tranquillity  in Leazes Park and a quiet, dignified atmosphere amid the handsome architecture on Leazes Terrace.

I enjoyed my walk around Newcastle and St James' Park (there is debate as to whether the apostrophe is used correctly, but the club use it thus), but found I was quite tired on returning to the hotel, so I spent the rest of the day relaxing prior to moving down the coast on the morrow to Sunderland, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough, the scene of our next match.

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