In 2008, the UK national daily newspaper, The Telegraph, ran a feature listing ’50 Reasons to Love Britain. Featured in the list were expected entries, including author P.G. Wodehouse, the Brunel Railway Bridge and the Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh; all examples of cultural and engineering icons synonymous to Britain and everything it stands for.
However, look a little closer and you will find, sandwiched between number 15: the ferry from Fowey to Polruan (which has been known to provide travellers with sightings of dolphins), and number 17: The Brontë Parsonage (home to the world famous authors, the Brontë sisters), lies a far much less-known entity: Frickley Athletic Football Club.
Football is thoroughly ingrained in British culture and a related entry in the list is hardly surprising, but for anyone with anything less than a hardened knowledge of the league system in England, Frickley Athletic might generate some puzzled looks and shrugged shoulders. The Telegraph describes the club as, “renowned for having the bleakest football ground in the country. It’s overlooked by a slag-heap which dominates the ground much as Mount Vesuvius does Naples – albeit rather less picturesquely.” Hardly a ringing endorsement.
The newspaper goes on to justify the club’s inclusion in this illustrious list by saying: “In the depths of winter, though, with snow dusting its summit, it’s a remarkable sight. Visiting fans are often found taking more photographs of the slag-heap than of the football.” Case closed, then. Such romantic words would appear to have put paid to any lingering question mark, wouldn’t they?
It’s Saturday 1st March 2014 and Frickley are at home to Barwell in the EvoStik Premier Division, the 7th tier of English football. Both clubs are embroiled in a relegation scrap and, going into the match, Frickley sit 19th out of 24 teams, two places and six points above the relegation zone, but having played more games than all of the teams around them.
Barwell lie just a place below them, two points in arrears but with two games in hand. The match is billed as ‘a 6-pointer’ with the result having a huge bearing on the league table.
Frickley have gained a reputation amongst their fans as being a ‘last day survival’ team over the past few seasons and this season looks to be no different. Having one of the league’s smallest budgets, volunteer pools and with ageing facilities that are in dire need of upgrading, it’s a constant battle to keep the club afloat, and relegation would be hugely detrimental for a club that has overcome huge economic problems in its history.
Situated in South Elmsall on the edge of West Yorkshire, in the metropolitan borough of Wakefield, the club was founded in 1910 as Frickley Colliery Football Club, named after the colliery next to which it was built and operated by. In fact, colliery workers used to pay a part of their salary to the club when the pit was operational.
The club changed to its current name in 1974, 11 years before their best ever performance in the English F.A. Cup, reaching the 3rd round following a second round win away at league club Hartlepool. Frickley have competed in numerous regional and national lower league competitions in their various guises since their foundation and, as well as their best ever cup run, the 1984-85 season saw the club’s best ever league finish, when they were runners-up in the Alliance Premier League, the 5th tier of English football at the time, one league below league football.
The club now plies its trade two leagues lower in the Evo-stik Premier League, and faces a constant battle to stay afloat amidst a healthy choice of league football in the local area and a hangover from local and national developments of the past 30 years.
Frickley Colliery closed in 1993, following its role as one of the key collieries in union radicalism in the 1980’s, and the area was one of the most depressed in the whole of the European Union. Things have improved a little since then and a recent regeneration scheme surrounding, and including, the football club has provided hope. The project’s continuous financial failures and political barriers have hindered progress, but recent developments appear to be pushing the project closer to realisation, with plans to transform the old colliery site into a country park, the building of new housing estates around the football ground and new sporting facilities that would be available for use by the club.
Fundraising efforts by many of the club volunteers are ongoing as Frickley Athletic must contribute a significant amount towards the project, but they are hopeful that they can achieve their goal and that the project will finally get underway in the next two years.
The walk to the stadium takes you through a now-demolished housing estate that was torn down a few years ago when the regeneration project began. It has detached the club from the local community but plans are afoot to redevelop the area as part of the project.
On the pitch, the teams line-up at the Westfield Lane Stadium, a ground reminiscent of years gone by with a brick perimeter wall surrounding the pitch, one crumbling stand with rotting wooden benches and a standing area adjacent to it covered by a ramshackle wooden frame.
There is no pretence here, and it really is a unique experience for those fans making their first visit. The aforementioned slag-heap is now covered in grass and, from the stand, you can see a training pitch built into the side of the hill as a sign of things to come.
Subjectively, it’s hard to see quite why this particular view was sufficient enough to warrant a place in a list of 50 reasons to love Britain, but for football fans, the whole place bleeds football of an almost forgotten era.
The ground boasts a small snack bar, which serves hot food and refreshments at very reasonable prices, a small club shop homed in an old portacabin and a relatively new bar serving alcohol, providing the club with a function room of its own.
In keeping with the years of struggle that Frickley has endured, however, a recent break-in at the club saw the club house damaged, with the TV and a large amount of stock stolen. This is one in a line of similar events that has plagued the stadium in recent years and is just one of many obstacles they need to overcome.
Back on the pitch, as the match begins, Frickley make an uninspiring start. Hopeful long balls forward to their target man, a stereotypical tactic of this level, see them concede possession on a number of occasions as the visitors show more signs of making the breakthrough.
Following a Gordon Banks-esque save from the Frickley goalkeeper, it is indeed Barwell who break the deadlock two minutes before half time; a defensive error seeing the ball bundled in at the far post and the familiar gloomy hands of relegation begin to work their way around the club’s neck. In the terraces, fans are not shy in voicing their opinions, with the player’s commitment and their understanding of the club’s plight questioned as they trudge through the wire tunnel towards the changing rooms.
Music crackles from the speaker system in the main stand, giving a handful of fans something to listen to as they make their way towards the snack bar and contemplate the effects of a repeat performance in the second half. The odd late supporter clambers through the metal gates next to the turnstiles, avoiding the £9 entry fee but not the bucket collection that makes its way around the ground.
As the half time 50-50 draw winner is announced, the manager rallies his players underneath the main stand and, fortunately for the Blues, they come out of their shells in the second half. The direct balls of the first half have become more controlled and the Barwell defence starts to creak.
The fans, continuously at the referee’s neck, get behind their side and go apoplectic when talismanic striker Gavin Allott is bundled over on the edge of the box. The referee deems the outcome to be a free kick and a yellow card; the abuse he receives for denying the hosts a penalty and not showing a red card to the opposing defender borders on the disgraceful, but this is nothing out of the ordinary for fans who pay their money and say what they like, in true Yorkshire fashion.
Minutes later, another free kick for Frickley on the left hand side is whipped in to the box and defender Sam Denton leaps highest to head home. The fans are quick to deride the opposition goalkeeper and, as if through sheer habit, the referee, who puts up with the constant abuse admirably.
Heartened by the goal, the game bears on and Frickley continue to threaten. Tensions in the crowd fail to improve, however, and they reach boiling point when a Barwell player dares to go down injured, with the Frickley goalkeeping coach leading the furore by making his way directly to the Barwell technical area to discuss the issue. The referee orders him back into his own area, making him tread a familiar path having built himself a reputation for being on the end of disciplinary action in previous years.
As the injured Barwell defender continues to receive treatment on the field, a saliva-laden cry of “Just spit on it and get on!” rings out from the crowd, perfectly typifying the general feeling in an area well used to hardship, and hard work as a tonic.
As the game enters its final minutes, and the 208-strong crowd prepare to go lynching, Frickley grab a winner through attacker Luke Hinsley, and some of the tension inside the stadium finally lifts. After a toothless first half, Frickley are the deserved winners following their second half revival and marginally ease their relegation fears for another day.
Following a final barrage of abuse thrown at the opposition for their apparent underhand tactics and the referee for seemingly ‘buying’ it, the fans shuffle out of the stadium to their cars, leaving behind a ground just barely fit for purpose. Perversely, for all its wear, tear and lack of modernity, it retains a certain wistful charm and a hugely nostalgic atmosphere. The standing terraces, the rotting wood pillars keeping the place upright, and the creaky metal turnstiles that may never have been replaced since their initial installation, make it one of the last remaining examples of a sport we once knew.
If the club do stay up, anything more than another season fighting for survival at this level would be gladly taken by almost anyone involved with the club, as realism takes precedence over ambition. Finances are tight and resources limited, but if the regeneration scheme goes ahead as planned the club might be able to start dreaming of a more prosperous future.
Getting more fans through the turnstiles is one of the key aims, as is finding new revenue streams to keep the club afloat. The attendance of 208 is relative to the club’s standing, but the planned housing estate will hopefully provide Frickley with a more accessible target market, helping to integrate the club into the community more easily. New pitches and facilities as part of the project will also help to bring in more money for the club as well as making it a more attractive proposition for fans and potential sponsors.
Club youth teams have recently been launched too, and they are performing well in their local leagues as the club seeks to build for the future and explore new ways of interacting.The impending improvements to the local area are absolutely fundamental to the club’s future. Without it, the question of how long they can keep this up will continue to stare over them far more than the ghost of the former colliery does, but everyone involved has been hardened by the lack of progress thus far.
Commendable fundraising efforts have been made in the past 18 months and the club are on their way to reaching their own financial target, but until then they will tread familiar ground and continue to do what they do best: survive. And by surviving, a truly unique throwback to football of a bygone era survives with it.
The alarm clock is set up for 7.30. It’s Saturday and normally people do not wake up so early unless they have to go to work. I have to go to watch a football game.
RdS goes to…Valga!
The situation in Tamme Staadion has compelled Tammeka to relocate their play-off return game in the furthest point possible: at the border with Latvia in the city of Valga.
It’s an 85km trip that the Tammeka fans have decided to take by the most unusual means of transport to follow football away in Estonia: the train.
It brings me romantic memories about a trip from Bari (my hometown) to Lecce (150km) to go follow an away game of Internazionale at US Lecce.
Now I am embedded with a bunch of white-blue fans on their hope trip to nowhere to preserve the place in Premium Liiga.
The early wake-up was due to avoid missing the only train that could have made me make it to Valga on time for the kick-off (13:00). The Tammeka fans, guided by Martin ‘Mällar’ Kivimäe (the drummer and pyrotechnics expert of the group) reaches the station just upon the train arrival into platform nr.1 . I am just worried as I don’t see my Spanish friend, Nicolas ‘Hispaanlane’ Tamargo. He slept in. And on the day of the most important game. Luckily he manages to take a coach that will bring him in Valga on time for the kick-off whistle.
It would have been a nasty prank for one of the most faithful supporters and the only foreigner of the group.
The train atmosphere is great and makes me think this is the best means of transport to reach an away venue. ”Fans prefer to travel mostly by car or small coaches” explains me ‘Mällar’ ”however this time we opted for the train as it’s cheaper and well connected with Valga”. The group starts soon to sing to grow the atmosphere while a flag hangs on one of the compartment windows to remind at every station that this is the Tammeka train.
Once in Valga, the group thinks first of all to ‘fuel’: food and drinks before starting the parade (rongkäik) to the Valga stadium.
Instead of hitting the usual fancy mall supermarket, we just opt to peacefully invade a small grocery just outside the train station named ‘Doonau’ (Danube). If you travel to Valga by train and feel hungry, don’t miss their deep-fried ‘vineeripirukad’ (meat pies), it’s a must-eat.
Given it’s almost 12 and I have missed my breakfast, I opt for a coffee to accompany the delicious ‘pirukad’ before hitting the road to the stadium.
Erki Tarro, the press officer at Tammeka, is constantly on his smart phone to provide live updates via the club’s official Facebook page to those who will not make it to Valga. He agrees that the meat pies were really delicious and how sometimes it’s nice to find such delicacies in what otherwise would look as a dodgy place.
He then asks me whether I ever done a ‘rongkäik’ with Estonian fans. This is actually my second time as some days earlier I did it for the Estonian national team game in Tallinn.
It is my first time with club fans.
As soon as we reach the center of the small town, chants start and flags are unfolded. I get the impression we are disturbing, instead the locals are not bothered at us at all. Some horn in support from their cars, others send a smile as greeting. Very far from the stereotype of the violent ultras devastating the world around him. We’re taken with sympathy and later on many locals will join Tartu on the stands to support the neighbours in the ‘battle’ against the Northern club from Rakvere (Tarvas).
We reach the stadium with enough time for the fans to set up their flags, banners and prepare the pyro that will accompany the game until the final whistle.
I place myself in the middle of the ‘torcida’, not far from Mällar’s drum and side by side with Nicolas, who finally has reached the stadium.
When everything is ready, the two squads are out on the pitch for the warm-up.
Uwe Erkenbrecher is following the warm-up drills with attention while holding his famous umbrella to shelter from the rain. In Valga the weather is dull with no hopes for sun as it was a week earlier in Rakvere where Tammeka managed to win 2-1.
Also the Rakvere fans manage to reach the stadium. They are in a smaller figure however their support will warm and constant praise their side also when the achievement (being promoted to Premium Liiga) is clearly off hand. Nicolas receives a scarf from a Rakvere fan for his growing collection and happily stores in his bag, he doesn’t want to be mistaken for a fan sitting in the wrong side.
Ready. Set. Go.
The vocal support is massive and the pyrotechnical choreography helps build the atmosphere in the small facility. After all, Tammeka are playing ‘home’, and the fans want to show that without any kind of misunderstanding.
The game is vibrant. Tammeka are clearly controlling the game and pushing the ‘bulls’ in their half in the attempt of scoring the opener that would put the environment at ease. However, Rakvere have a couple of go’s at Kaido Koppel and almost manage to net the 0-1.
They are dense 10 minutes those that bring to Heiko Tamm’s opener. A bit of luck helps Tammeka three minutes later when Rakvere scores an own goal. With the 3-0 netted by Tomson before the half an hour, Tammeka fans feel at ease to celebrate the success and push away any dramatic end of season.
The second half sees Tammeka controlling the game and trying to score a fourth goal, however, Erkenbrecher’s men feel the fatigue of playing on a wet pitch and don’t push at full throttle. Rakvere’s goal on 51 minutes is enough to make them understand that is better not to wait idly for the final whistle. On 63 minutes Tamm scores his second goal that basically puts the word ‘amen’ on the game and the season.
At final whistle, a peaceful and authorized pitch invasion, makes the fans come together with the squad. ”Üks klubi, üks pere”, one club, one family says Tammeka’s most popular slogan. And there it comes all the Tammeka family: the fans, the players, the club staff and the coach, celebrating in a power circle.
The captain, Kristian Tiirik, has a small speech and soon after, his teammate Siim Tenno is awarded with the fans ‘Best Player’ prize.
Once cleared up the place and taken the ritual memory pictures, it is already time to head back to the station for our return train (the only one available). Obviously no one can resist to have another go at ‘Doonau’s meat pies: the lunch-dinner is done.
On the train back they are all tired, however you can see the satisfaction in their face. Alcol helps to keep the spirit (ops) high and other few chants are thrown before getting into Tartu station.
It is been a long day of a long season, now it’s time for Tammeka fans to rest and prepare for the next one. The ‘family’ needs a holiday.
Erkenbrecher: ”football is better than sex!”
Concentration. Concentration. Concentration.
Uwe Erkenbrecher repeated this word very often during Tammeka’s Friday the 22nd afternoon training. It was the last training session of the season ahead of the important return game with Rakvere Tarvas that took place on the 23rd. Tammeka won 4-1 and managed to stay in Premium Liiga for season 2014.
It was the return game however Tammeka were not be able to play the home tie at ‘Tamme staadion’, as the pitch was not deemed in a decent condition for the clash: squad and fans had to move to Valga, a 14,000 inhabitants town on the border with Latvia.
Obviously, Erkenbrecher was not happy about this, told to RdS very vividly the 59-year-old German coach: ‘‘last week they had four games here, and now we cannot play!’’. He hinted at the fact that Tammeka’s game should have been prioritized by the company controlling the stadium and pitch preserved ahead of a game which he defined as a ‘cup final’ for his side.
Also in a post match interview he did not miss to criticize ‘Tartu Sport’, the company controlling the stadium (check the below video)
Erkenbrecher’s emphatization of concentration during training it is important in a match build-up, he explained us: ‘‘as a coach, you need to have even higher stress conditions during a training than in a game’’ pointed out, ”otherwise, you will not have it later in the game and then you have trained for nothing’’. This is the reason why he was not keeping silent during the session and he was constantly pushing his players into doing more. ”Tomorrow!” kept repeating, as almost reminding his men what they were doing in that moment was needed for the last clash of the season.
Ahead of the away game in Rakvere, Erkenbrecher was a bit superstitious and did not want to talk too much whether Tammeka would have managed to stay in Premium Liiga or not. After the 2-1 win, we tried to see if he was more relaxed and he told us: ‘‘I am always realist’’ said imperatively ”The realistic situation is that we did not leave anything behind us in Rakvere, it was a matter of very good luck!’’ admitted the German. ”Luckily we did not leave Rakvere with a loss or a draw, we are in a very good position: we just have to win the game, we do not need a 3-0 or 4-0, just a win’’.
They did not need, but it was a nice present for Uwe who has recenlty turned 59, as Tammeka were already leading 3-0 in the first thirty minutes of the game, Premium Liiga was locked in the safe where Rakvere would have not been able to take from.
Here you realize the attitude of the experienced coach and how he knows how to handle pressure and the various psychological facets of a long and consuming season.
He clearly did not want himself and the squad to dwell on the slight advantage and preferred to think that it was a 50-50 situation with maybe a ‘‘small positive package in our pocket’’ as he literally defined the 2-1 earned in Northern Estonia. ”Tomorrow (Saturday the 23rd – A.P.) it is a cup final – I will tell the players: if we win, we go to Europe! Forget the other games, they do not count: just one game, this game!”. He had not lost his sleep over the late goal scored by Tarvas and explained to RdS very well why: ”in any game, you can see which are our strengths and which are our weaknesses, so also this game gave a good picture as we suffered that goal” he admitted very honestly ”actually, I think it was good! It will keep us awaken and focused for tomorrow’s game and not dwell on a 2-0 win” concluded admitting though that, in general, a Premium Liiga side should never concede a goal to a down-to-ten-men Esiliiga one ”that was not good…”.
Considering how Tammeka faced the challenge, the message was delivered very well.
Erkenbrecher’s future at Tammeka of course depended also upon this game (his one-year contract expires on the 31st of December), however it is not the only side of the story. He is well aware of the financial situation affecting him and his players; however, he hopes that it will be fixed in time for next season relying especially on the possibility to work with the same team that he has patiently built up during his first season. He has a 21-points to-do-list for next season, he told RdS; clear ideas about two players that should be there for him all the time and a plan for them to be a role model for the youngest ones: Kristian Tiirik and Siim Tenno. ”My both captains’’ as he calls them ”should always be on field – it is very important for us, as we do not have so many experienced players” explained the German coach. He was not getting tired of stressing their importance on the field since he cannot enjoy having an assistant coach that would help him all the time. A professional role that, according to him, need to be filled at Tammeka and he remarked as ”urgent”.
For the time being, ‘Tirka’ and Tenno have been his field officers reporting to the general how the battle was going. Kristian Tiirik, who won the Estonian FA prize for the best goal of the season along with being acknowlodged so also by RdS readers, is thinking about hanging the shoes to the wall. Spring is far and a lot things will happen till then, still time to change one’s mind, we hope.
It was also a chance to draw a line on Erkenbrecher’s experience in Estonia.
He stressed that, compared to his previous spell in Indonesia where he coached for a short period, here the conditions are much better and approximately as in the rest of Europe. He emphasized on the need for all the Estonian football movement to grow and improve.
Following his last controversy with the referee on the touchline (a penalty granted to Kalju which was given for a foul outside the box – A.P.) we could not avoid asking an opinion about the Estonian referees.
Erkenbrecher did not refrain from commenting: ”if Estonian football has to improve, they have to improve more – I’m older and I am supposed to show more respect, so I will not use the same language used by Martin Vunk, but I can agree with what he wanted to mean”.
He also added that probably 30% of the off-side decisions taken during the season have been wrong.
He also disclosed us the meaning behind the chair he is carrying all the time at the games: ”sometimes benches are not so comfortable, there is not enough space for everyone and I don’t want to sit close to the players: I prefer to keep distant from them, so I bring this chair with me. It is also a way not to make them nervous, I have my own program to follow” explained Uwe admitting that he has had his own chair sometimes also when he was in Germany.
Our long conversation ended with a very philosophical question: what is football according to Uwe Erkenbrecher?
”It is first a game. It is also a fight of course: you need that fighting spirit to play the game, but in the end it is a game” explains Uwe who, in the end, does not delude us and uses one of his colourful metaphors to explain his philosophy ”if you see a three-players combination with one-touch quick passes leading to a goal…this is better than sex!”
Tammeka fans are hoping for multiple orgasms to come next seasons