Tuesday, 27 December 2016
BATTLE OF THE BIRDS
I’ve attended many local derbies at various levels of football over the years. From the massive – Barcelona v Espanyol with over 80,000 inside the Camp Nou – to the passionately local – Dulwich Hamlet v Tooting & Mitcham where South London pride is at stake – to the dismissive – Middlesbrough v Newcastle United or Sunderland where the Teessiders take it very seriously whereas those from the Tyne or the Wear give it a condescending surrogate derby status only when Geordies and Mackems are in different divisions – to the fierce – Kilmarnock v Ayr United, where blood, bones, muck and snotters are the order of the day and life and limbs can be at risk (sometimes this involves the players as well) – but one of the oddest – and most endearing – is to be found in the Penwith peninsula at the most westerly and southerly part of the British mainland each Boxing Day.
Think Magpies v Seagulls and the Championship promotion battle between Newcastle and Brighton most likely springs to mind but this particular pair of birds can be found in West Cornwall when Penzance AFC (est. 1888) – the Magpies - & Mousehole AFC (est. 1923) – the Seagulls - clash. Both operate in the eleventh level of English football, in the South West Peninsula League Division One West (and that’s enough of a mouthful without adding the sponsor’s name, though if they care to extend their generosity to this blog I’ll happily give them a mention), seven tiers beneath the lowest rung in the English League.
The two grounds – Penzance’s Penlee Park and Trungle Parc, Mousehole’s home - lie just over two miles apart, tailor-made for a local derby. Yet until comparatively recently rarely did the twain meet. When I first lived in Cornwall in the late 1990s, Truro City were more likely local rivals for the Magpies. Both clubs played in tier ten at that time. It’s a mark of the rise of one and decline of the other that Truro City now play in the National League South (tier six) and were almost promoted to the highest echelon of non-league, the National League, in 2015-16, losing in the play-offs. Penzance by contrast have fallen down a step.
To put it in sharp perspective the gulf in divisions now between Truro City and Penzance is the same as between Truro City and the Premier League.
Penlee Park, home of Penzance AFC - click to enlarge
As in any case such as this new rivalries are needed and quickly formed. The enmity between Dunfermline Athletic and Falkirk for example was established out of necessity. Two teams, which from the 1970s onwards found themselves without local rivals in the same sphere, formed their own ‘derby.’ For almost seventy years the more obvious local foes Ayr United and Morton rarely intruded on the annual New Year’s Day affair between Kilmarnock and St Mirren, these clubs usually operating at the highest level in Scotland.
As recently as 2013 the Magpies of Penzance played at a higher stage while Mousehole’s Seagulls floundered at the foot of Division One West regularly shipping over 100 goals per season and saved from the drop only by the unwillingness/inability of teams from the feeder Cornwall Combination and East Cornwall Leagues to gain or accept promotion.
But in 2013-14 it all changed. Penzance’s ignominious ejection from the Premier Division (just two points gained all season) was followed by a poor showing at the lower level while the Seagulls flew high and on Boxing Day did to their lowly neighbours what seagulls like to do to the humans they soar over. Their 2-0 win drew an impressive (at this level) crowd of 268 to Trungle Parc (and yes that is the correct spelling of Parc) as they went on to finish runners-up while the Magpies ended up fourteenth of sixteen. Any notions that Penzance would return to their ‘rightful’ level turning a deaf ear to the newly noisy neighbours as they did so were quickly disabused.
Although Mousehole slipped back into the pack in 2014-15 they maintained their Boxing Day dominance with a 3-0 win at Penlee Park before 181 spectators, as Penzance remained rooted to third bottom that season.
While the Magpies managed to haul themselves up to mid-table in 2015-16, Mousehole enjoyed a season they’re unlikely to repeat for many years, if ever. They ran away with the league, winning thirty and drawing one of their thirty-two games, amassing a total of 91 points, and taking the title ten ahead of runners-up Plymouth Argyle Reserves. They scored 131 goals – an average of over four per game – and conceded just seventeen. They won all sixteen home matches, inflicting a 7-0 humiliation on the Magpies on Boxing Day 2015 before a crowd of 289. That was their eighth derby win in ten games since the formation of the SWPL in 2007.
Yet it was the reserves from Devon who were promoted, not the Seagulls. When you start to look at the location and facilities of Mousehole it comes as no surprise. It also shows just how impressive recent seasons have been for this little club when compared to their neighbours.
Mousehole didn’t want promotion. The expense involved would have been ruinous. Apart from the inevitable higher wage bill there would have been no away game involving less than a sixty miles round journey and some by as much as 250 or 260 miles. There are still extensive journeys to be made in their present division – some games involve 170 miles or so of travelling – but five of their seventeen away games are return trips of sixty miles or less with a hop of twenty minutes there and back to Penzance shortest of all.
The rather modest cover and seating at Trungle Parc - click to enlarge
Even if they had wanted to go up, Mousehole couldn’t have been promoted. Trungle Parc fails to meet at least two of the basic standards for the SWPL Premier Division. Clause 2.1 of The National Ground Grading’s Category H – which is applicable to this level - specifies a minimum covered accommodation requirement for fifty spectators. Mousehole’s cover can cater for twenty at most. Nor do they have as much as a single turnstile – another requirement. Though they do possess that most necessary of facilities for any aspiring non-league club, a clubhouse and bar. They are also an enterprising club, putting all match programmes online - something far far bigger clubs don't manage to do. The population of Mousehole is just shy of 700, barely enough to sustain a team at all. Their success is all the more remarkable when you consider Trungle Parc isn’t actually in Mousehole itself but a mile away in the even smaller village of Paul.
In comparison Penzance, from a town with a population close to 20,000, are the fallen giants of West Cornwall football. Formed the same year as the Football League itself, their history dwarfs that of their neighbours. Three times champions of the South Western League and Cornwall Senior Cup winners on ten occasions. Luton Town, Swansea City, Stoke City, West Ham United and Burnley are among the luminaries of the game to have made the trip down to Penlee Park. Both Liverpool and Celtic sent teams here in the club’s centenary season. Phil Thompson, Jim Beglin, Tommy Burns, Mark McGhee, Peter Grant, Tommy Coyne and Andy Walker have all trod the Penlee Park turf.
Penlee Park was built to mark the Festival of Britain in 1951 and was officially opened a year later by none other than Sir Stanley Rous, then Secretary of the FA and later President of FIFA. Where Trungle Parc’s seating consists of a park bench and a few plastic chairs, Penlee Park boasts a covered stand capable of holding 200-300 (as it’s bench seating it’s difficult to be precise but it’s certainly nowhere near the 550 I’ve seen cited online). In its time the ground’s held as many as 5,000 and even now with the modern emphasis on spectator safety, it can comfortably hold a four-figure crowd.
Sir Stanley Rous officially opened Penlee Park in 1952 - click to enlarge
Nowadays though the average attendance is just sixty. During my first stint in Cornwall it was different. Around 150 used to gather every second Saturday and I once saw a crowd of 479 there. That though was when around 300 ‘Groundhoppers’ descended on West Cornwall at Easter 2002, intent on spending the holiday weekend adding nine of the most obscure football grounds in Britain to the hundreds already notched onto their anoraks.
The 2016 Boxing Day derby at Penlee Park was watched by 182 fans, the biggest crowd of the season. Both teams have fallen back from the previous term. It was probably asking too much of Mousehole to repeat their annus mirabilis but at fourth in the table they’re still a handy side as I can verify from trips there this season. Penzance, alas, have slumped right to the bottom of the league. Again, from this season’s experiences I can say with certainty this is no false position. Included among their home defeats this season are 9-3 and 8-0 thrashings.
Mousehole (green) have overtaken Penzance (black and white) in recent seasons - click to enlarge
The man responsible for Mousehole’s success is player-manager Wayne Quinn, who recently turned forty but who still turns out in almost every match. Quinn – who also played for and coached Penzance – is a rare figure of class at this level. Formerly of Sheffield United, then the more famous Magpies of Newcastle United, with whom he played in the Premier League as an £800,000 signing, and West Ham United, injury put paid to his pro career at the age of 28. It’s a mark of his dedication that he still appears week in week out for the Seagulls and even at his advanced age he is still the player to watch. Four days after this match came the surprise news that Quinn had resigned.
The match kicked off at the ungodly hour of 11am but that’s not the only thing that’s out of kilter. For the temperature was so mild fans could – if they were so inclined – have left hats, scarves, gloves and raincoats behind and if they’d over-indulged on Christmas Day, feel relieved that they didn’t have to do battle between bulging waistlines and straining buttons or zips because jackets could be left open for the full 90 minutes.
Eleven in the morning and we’re under way with Mousehole (green) on the ball - click to enlarge
A tentative opening period with the Seagulls slightly ahead on points was followed by a goal for the visitors just before the quarter-hour mark. Penzance created few chances as Mousehole began to assert control after that. Nevertheless the home team managed to keep the score down till the final ten minutes of the first half when the roof caved in. From forty yards out Mousehole's Kevin Lawrence instantly trapped a clearance and lobbed over the keeper into the net. It was no fluke. It wasn’t a hopeful punt. Lawrence looked up and picked his spot before sending the ball sailing into the net. Three minutes later Mousehole scored again then the keeper was beaten at his near post as the visitors went in at the break four goals to the good.
Half-time with some dejected looking Magpies leaving the field - click to enlarge
Memories of those earlier awful home defeats were to the fore among the home support as the teams retook the field. Those home fans were almost rivalled in number by the Mousehole support (with an average of 75 so far this season they’re now better supported than Penzance). That’s another of the beauties of football seven degrees removed from the league. There’s no segregation and the rivalry among supporters is good-natured. You’re more likely to see the players fighting (which as the clock approached 90 minutes they duly did) than the fans.
The guy who stood - (standing, another joy of football the top levels no longer provide) - next to me epitomises the sports lover from this neck of the woods. He’s local born and bred but lives in London. He told me he spends most weekends looking to see if a Cornish football or rugby team has a fixture in the capital or surrounds. Doesn’t matter which one. The Cornish Pirates in the RU Championship, Truro City in the National League South, even Redruth in Rugby’s National League Two South, he gets to see a Cornish team of one kind or another in action most weekends and he’s taken the chance to see the Magpies on his trip back home for a family Xmas. All he wants to see, he says, is the home team score.
That turned out to be too much to ask for as Mousehole scored twice in the second half to run out easy and deserved winners 6-0. It was an entertaining enough match, spoiled only by the gulf in class that became growingly apparent as the game progressed, an overly pedantic referee and a linesman (or assistant referee as I should describe him) whose manic gesticulations with his flag wouldn’t have been out of place at the Last Night of the Proms.
As the match finishes shortly before 1pm, elsewhere in the country things are just beginning to stir. There are a few games with 12.30 starts now midway through the first half. Some fans will have the “luxury” of an afternoon at the sales before making their way to an evening kick-off. But for the vast majority of supporters it’s time to start getting ready for the 3pm kick-off or make arrangements for a bite to eat and a toilet stop for those travelling. But here, in this oft-forgotten little corner at the furthest edge of the country, it’s over for now. Victorious Mousehole will set their sights on second place which will be theirs should they win their games in hand. Leaders Sticker are doing this season what Mousehole did last and are out of sight at the top. Penzance, meanwhile, now face the very real prospect of relegation or clinging to the hope that no team from the feeder leagues is eligible for, or wants to claim, promotion.
No segregation. No need. No bother. - click to enlarge
For Penzance the drop would be disastrous. The past few years have seen them lose 60% of their support. One wonders how many of the hardy still faithful few who turn up on rain-swept Tuesday evenings in February will stick it out if some of their opponents are reserve sides of teams in their current division. Plymouth Argyle Reserves are one thing (Scottish international David Goodwillie has turned out for them this season), those of Illogan Royal British Legion FC quite another. Let us hope manager John Dent - a veteran of Cornish football who once pulled on the keeper's gloves in an emergency at the age of 57 - can steer his team to safety.
Watch this space.
Posted by scotleag at Tuesday, December 27, 2016