Saturday, 31 July 2010

Ashington AFC (England)

You're pretty sure you know most of the teams who have been in the English Football League down the years, right? You remember clubs like Halifax, York City and Kidderminster playing the the big 92, and have vague recollections of clubs like Barrow, Southport and Workington gracing the top four divisions. You've even got half an idea that names from the past like Nelson, Bootle and Bradford Park Avenue had a few brief season back in the day. But did any of you know that a team called Ashington Community AFC were once a third division club? I must admit that I didn't.

Despite having the year 1888 featured on their club crest for no reason that anyone is sure of, they were formed in 1883 in the Northumbrian mining town of Ashington, they moved around Northern-Eastern leagues like the east-Northumberland League, the North-Eastern League and the Northern Alliance until the historic day in 1921 when they were elected to the Football League, to become founder members of the new Third Division North. And there they stayed for eight seasons, seven of them rather reasonable, finishing as high as ninth in 1926. But 1929 saw them finish plum last, and they were voted out of the league by FA members, to be replaced by York City.

Since then they've been playing in a variety of local leagues, these days plying their trade in the Northern League Division One, the ninth tier of the English game, and the second oldest league in the country, after the main Football League itself. They play their home games in the 2000 capacity Woodhorn Lane, where they moved in 2008 after many years at their famous old home of Portland Park. The last game there, against Seaham Red Star attracted a massive crowd of 1954 nostalgic locals, while the first game at their new home drew a slightly less respectable 341.

Backroom spotters may be interested to know that the team known as The Colliers to their fans are led on the board by a chap called Ian Lavery, president of the National Union of Mineworkers. They've also had an England international playing in their ranks in recent years - although it was the double-Ashes winning cricketer Steve Harmison rather than a footballer, who played for them briefly as a teenager before he decided to change sports and become an international bowling superstar.

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Melhus IL (Norway)

Melhus Idrettslag are a general sports club from the village of the same name in the middle of Norway. They formed in 1898, and as well as the football, are notable for their handball, skiing, powerflifting, volleyball and orienteering. They currently play in 3. divisjon herrer, the fourth tier of the Norwegian game, which consists of 288 teams divided into 24 regional leagues.

The village itself is in the middle of a massive grain farming area, some 20 minutes from the city of Trondheim. The village's coat of arms features the legendary local archer Einar Tambarskjelve from the 11th century.

They play at the cute Gruva Stadium, a ground in the woods so small that it doesn't have an official capacity. Despite their long history, their senior team has very little but dust in the trophy cabinet. Instead, like many Norwegian teams, they have an extensive youth set up, with teams at all age groups, and work very closely with the local community. To Melhus, success is measured in the fitness and well-being of their local youth rather than the amount of silverware the first team has lifted - and tnhey seem quite happy plaodding along like that. What a thoroughly civilised place that Norway is.

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Stafford Rangers FC (England)

Rangers are a Conference North team - the sixth tier of English football - from the county town of Staffordshire. It's unclear as to when they were actually formed, as all their records got destroyed during the First World war, but there are two schools of thought. One that they were started by a bible class in 1877, and another that suggests that newspaper records prove they were formed a year earlier. Either way, this would make them one of the oldest clubs in England.

They were perhaps most successful in the 1970s, when they won the FA Trophy twice in 1972 and 1979, and took another visit to Wembley as losing finalists in 1976. Then in 1975 they beat three league clubs - Stockport, Halifax and Rotherham - on their way to the fourth round of the FA Cup, where they lost to Peterborough in front of 31,160 fans after electing to shift their home game to Stoke City's Victoria Ground. Their biggest proper home gate though was when 8536 saw the third round defeat of Rotherham. These days though their Marston Road ground is only allowed to hold a slightly safer 3000. They were also founder members of the first united top flight of non-league football, the Alliance Premier League.

They've got a pretty good roster of notable - and in some cases notorious - former players. Stan Collymore started his career here, and earned the club a substantial six-figure fee when he was bough by Crystal Palace - and that was a lot of money back in 1990. New Birmingham City keeper and brief England custodian Ben Foster stood between the sticks for a spell early on in his career, and old pros like Forest legend Kenny Burns, Villa defender Des Bremner and West Brom and Wolves charmer Don Goodman had brief stays late on in their careers.

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SC Corinthians Paulista (Brazil)

We've spoken about their interlopers from up country Corinthians Paranaense elsewhere on this list, but now it's time for the real deal - the one true Corinthians of Brazilian football - Sports Club Corinthians Paulista. Known variously as Big Team, The Almighty and The Bunch of Crazies, they are one of the most successful clubs in all Brazil, and the second  best supported team in the country, bested only by the enormous Flamengo. They the team that practically every one else wants to emulate, but it all started from very inauspicious beginnings.

Formed in 1910 by a bunch of European ex-pat labourers in São Paulo to take on the existing elite of local football, they named themselves after the English amateur gentleman's football team Corinthians FC, who had recently done a tour of exhibition matches in the area - and that Corinthian spirit has statyed with them through the ages, both in the way they play and the way they carry themselves off the pitch.

In 1982 the club took part in what came to be known as The Corinthians Democracy, a move that was to help steer the country away from military dictatorship. Led by the noted intellectuals Socrates and Wladimir, the players took elements of control away from the management and decided to make some major decisions on behalf of the club. Their suggestion to print Vote On The 15th on the back of their shirts to urge the people to vote in the elections that eventually rid the Brazil of their dictatorship once and for all is seen as one of the most important moments in their country's move to democracy.

And if that wasn't enough, they're pretty good at football too. They've won the Brazilian Série A four times, the Brazilian Cup three times, the São Paulo State Championship a record 26 times (three of them unbeaten), and were the very first winners of the FIFA World Club Tournament. They've made record in other unexpected ways too. In 1976 their fans descended on the Maracanã in Rio during the championship semi-final game against Fluminense in what became known as the Corinthian Invasion. Over 70,000 Paulista's took over the stadium in what is said to be the biggest human displacement in peacetime.

Like many Brazilian teams, they've got a couple of home stadiums - the 40,199 Estádio do Pacaembu for the big games, and the 17,900 Estádio Alfredo Schürig for the more meat and spuds matches. And like their many imitators their relationship with the black and white stripes is patchy at best. Their current first strip features the tiniest of black pinstripes in a field of white, although they also play in a shirt of mainly black with broad white bands - but of course being Brazil this can change at any time.

Their list of notable old boys reads like a hall of fame of football. Just listen to this little list... Rivelino, Garrincha, Dunga, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Sócrates, Dida, Freddy Rincón, Rivaldo and more recently Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tévez. There's also a slightly chunky buck-toothed marvel called Ronaldo who's just made the move there to see out his career. And believe me there's another couple of dozen names that would make you gasp just as much. They really are one of the greatest club sides in world football.

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Friday, 30 July 2010

Heybridge Swifts (England)

The Swifts have got a long history, having been formed in 1880, but for the first 90 years of their existence they played happily in the local leagues around Heybridge, Malden before they worked their way up to become founder members of the Essex Senior League in 1970. They pottered about mid-table for a few seasons, before three consecutive league wins saw them finally accepted to the Isthmian League in 1984, where they've played their football ever since.

Their best ever league finish was when they came second in the Isthmian Premier Division in 2006, when they narrowly missed out on promotion to the Blue Square South after they lost a penalty shoot-out to the now-defunct Fisher Athletic in the divisional play-off final. Sadly this defeat knocked them off their stride a little and they've since slipped back to Division One North.

They've reached the first round of the FA Cup three times, in 1994, 1997 and 2003, where they met up with Gillingham, Bournemouth and Bristol City respectively - the latter rather impolitely beating them 7-0 in a live televised match. They've also got a half-decent track record in the non-league cups, reaching the last 16 of the FA Vase in 1987, and the quarter-finals of the FA Trophy ten years later, where a well-fought defeat to Woking saw them squeeze in a record 2477 punters into their 3000 capacity Scraley Road ground.

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Hobart Zebras (Australia)

Also known locally as Tilford Zebras, Hobart are one of the most successful teams ever to come from the island of Tasmania. They were founded in 1956 as Hobart Juventus, one of many teams around Australia made up of ex-pat Italians - and nearly every one of them named after the stripy team from Turin. Like many of them, (and more than a few on this list) they changed their name to The Zebras in 1997 when the Australian Football League brought in a law to stop the ethnically affiliated clubs that made up much of the lower leagues of Australian football. But despite that ban, Hobart still have close links to the local Italian community.

They currently play in the Southern Premier League - the highest level on Tasmania, and effectively the second tier of Australian football - although with it being a franchise-based operation they're never likely to invited to join the A-League. They've won the title a tasty ten times, and have been the state champions on a further nine occasions. 2007 was a diamond year for the Zebras, when they cleaned the local board, winning the State Premiership, Southern Championship and the sweetly named Summer Cup.

They play their home games at the tiny KGV ground on, Grove Road in the leafy Hobart suburb of Glenorchy. But back in the early days, when they used to have strong and lively rivalries with the local ethnically-based teams Olympia (Greece) and Croatia (erm Croatia), crowds of over 2000 used to cram into their tiny environs. It is said that their fulsome chants of 'Juve, Juve' could be heard in the neighbouring town of South Hobart.

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Penzance AFC (England)

PZ AFC are possibly the most southerly and westerly English team on our list, based as they are in Penzance, on the very tip of Cornwall. They formed in 1888 - the same year that the the English Football League began. They played their very first game that same year against the splendidly named Eastern Telegraph Company, based in the even more westerly town of Porthcurno. Interestingly, the ETC went on to become Cable and Wireless - one of the biggest communications companies in the world.

The following year they were one fo the founder members of the Cornwall County Football Association, and went on to win the debut Cornwall Senior Cup in 1893, beating Launceston 5-0 in the final. In the first sixteen years of the contest, they made the final ten times, winning it six times - and playing the aforementioned Launceton five times. But they claim vehemently that there were more than just the two cliubs playing in the area at the time. In 1951 they were founder members of the South Western League, where they stayed until it merged with the Devon County League in 2007 to form the South West Peninsula League - the tenth tier of English football, where they have played ever since.

They play at the 1100 capacity Penlee Park, which was opened in 1952 by the English football legend Sir Stanley Rous. The ground's opening game was a friendly against Luton Town, and that wasn't the only time that some of the big names in football made the long trek down to Cornwall. In their centenary year in 1988 they convinced both Liverpool - the current English champions, and Celtic - the Scottish champions of the time, to make the long trek down for a couple of high-profile friendlies. Both teams rather impolitely beat them 6-0, but a combined gate over the two games of 7000 people made it a worthwhile excercise for the club, whatever the score.

Penzance must also be congratulated on their club crest, possibly one of the most detailed, complex and evocative of their local area in all world football. The local kids must have a hell of a game scrawling that on the wall round the back of the chippy on Penzance High Street.

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Wick Academy FC (Scotland)

Wick Academy, known to their fans as The Scorries, were formed in 1893, from the estuary town of Wick in the far north east of Scotland, making them the most northerly club to play in the Highland League. Although a cricket club of the same name had existed on the same site for at least 20 years longer. Before they were accepted in the HFL they had a successful record in the North Caledonian Football League, having won the title five times, and its cup three times.

They play at the Harmsworth Park ground, which can hold 3200 punters. Their best run in the Scottish Cup came in the 2009/10 season when they reached the third round, beating fellow minnows Clachnacuddin and Girvan along the way. The draw dealt them a home tie against Division 2 side Brechin City, and they darned nearly pulled off a giantkilling. But a Brechin equaliser with five minutes left saw the game end in a breathtaking 4-4 draw, with The Scorries losing the replay 4-2.

To get an idea of quite how far north Wick is, it's on a lattitude higher than Moscow, and a mere 20 miles south of John O'Groats - making it over 850 miles north of Land's End. The town was built of the back of the herring trade, and at one point in the 1860s there were 1000 trawlers operating out of the town. This location resulted in giving them the longest journey in Scottish football history, when they played St Cuthbert Wanderers from Kirkcudbright - a Scottish town further south than Carlisle in Cumbria - in the Scottish Cup in 2008.The tie game them a round trip of some 720 miles - a trip roughly equivilent to driving from London to the far side of Munich. Thanks heavens for them that they won the game 3-0. Although to be honest, I'm not sure St Cuthbert fancied a midweek evening replay.

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Shepshed Dynamo (England)

Dynamo come from Shepshed in the North-West of Leicestershire, said to be the largest village in the UK. They were founded in 1994, but follow in a long line of Shepshed clubs playing in black and white stripes at their home ground, called The Dovecote, including Shepshed Albion and Shepshed Charterhouse, so strictly speaking they are all the same club - and most certainly in the eyes of their loyal fans.

They've been playing their football in the Northern Premier League Division One South since 2004, where they moved after many years as the most northerly club in the Southern League. But it was back in their Charterhouse days from the mid-1970s that they first came to national attention. Between 1978 and 1984 they went on a remarkable run, rising from the lower reaches of the Leicestershire Senior League to the heights of the Southern League Premier Division, gaining seven promotions in a row - six of them consecutive titles. But this sudden rise came to an almost as sudden halt as the club, now known as Shepshed Albion again, went out of business in 1984. Which is where Dynamo came in.

Their club badge is a homage to the stylised cyrillic D usually found in the old Soviet Dynamo teams sponsored by the KGB - although there's no suggestion that the club is in any way owned by the Russian secret services. But the main thing that fans who travel to their 2500 capacity ground is its location, down the end of Butthole Lane. It's easy to giggle, but it's an old historic name of which the locals are rightly proud - although it does lead to one or two entertaining terrace chants from time to time, as you can imagine.

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Gimnasia y Esgrima de Mendoza (Argentina)

Gimnasia y Esgrima are from the city of Mendoza in the north-central region of Argentina. The land around the city, the fourth biggest metropolitan area in the country, is perhaps best know as being the largest wine-producing area in the whole of Latin America, and Mendoza itself is the centre of its production.

Formed as a general sports club in 1908 (Gimnasia y Esgrima translates as Gymnastics and Fencing), and have played for most of their history in the lower leagues. Indeed, right now they play in Torneo Argentino B, the regionalised fourth tier in the Argentinian league system. There's hasn't been an entirely unsuccessful career though, as they've had four short spells in the Argentine Primera, the last time for three seasons between 1981-84. In total they've played 121 games in the top flight, amassing 122 points, strangely making them the 36th most successful Primera team in history.

Their fans are known as El Lobo, or The Wolves, and you'll often see their fans dressed as wolves and howling happily. They play at the 11,500 capacity Victor Legrotaglie, that is almost wallpapered with flags and black and white banners every single home game.

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Thursday, 29 July 2010

Dorchester Town FC (England)

Dorchester Town, based in the county town of Dorset play their football in the English sixth tier, The Conference South. Formed in 1880, they're one of the oldest clubs in the south-west of England. Despite being around for so long, they played their first regular competitive football when they joined the second division of the Western League in 1947. They eventually made their way to the first division, and despite winning it in 1954, had to wait until 1972 until they were invited to join the Southern League - but such was the way of things in football in those slightly less sophisticated days.

They play in one of the best purpose- built grounds in the league, at the 5009 capacity Avenue Stadium on the outskirts of town. The club were fortunate that their old ground was built on land owned by The Dutchy of Cornwall. Indeed, when Prince Charles discovered that Tesco was to build a new superstore on the site of Town's ground, he insisted that not only should the grocery chain chip into building them a new ground, but that the Dutchy's own architects would design it. Charles himself was a frequent visitor when the building work was going on, and the eventual ground is a fine looking brick-built stadium, designed to look like it has come from a whole different era.

Despite usually attracting crowds of less than a thousand, it is their games with their rivals from down by the seaside Weymouth that really draw in the punters. Games between the pair have frequently broken all Conference records - the biggest then a league record of 4129 in 1999, although the games can usually be relied on to break the 3000 mark. Sadly though, Weymouth's relegation last season has denied The Magpies their banker bumper payday.

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CF Amposta (Spain)

Amposta are a Spanish side from the Catalonian town of the same name a few miles south of Barcelona. Obviously being in the catchment area of a city with two top-flight football teams means that they don't necessarily get all the attention that they deserve, but they still plug away resolutely, nevertheless.

Formed in 1915 by a bunch of builders who enjoyed having a kickabout by the local school after work, they were originally called Club Deportivio Argentino, and were created as much for the after match drinks as they were the games themselves. This tradition continued until they regrouped after the three week hiatus during the Spanish Civil War, when they decided to take the whole thing a lot more seriously.

Playing at the 3000 capacity Municipal Stadium, they've never got any higher that the Tercera División - the fourth tier of national football - where their highest ever finish saw them grab the runners-up slot in 1959. However, from the early sixties through to 2008 they had slipped back into the lower regional leagues. But a good run that season saw them claw their way back to their traditional home, finishing a consistent tenth in both of their seasons back.

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Tooting and Mitcham FC (England)

One of the most famous names in non-league football, London's Tooting and Mitcham United may be playing at the seventh level of the English football pyramid in the Isthmian League Premier Division, but it's in the FA Cup where they have shone the brightest.

Formed in 1932 after a long- touted merger between Tooting Town (1887) and Mitcham Wanderers (1912), The Half-and-Halfs as they became known have reached the first round proper of the FA Cup ten times - most recently in 2009. But it was in 1959 that they had their greatest run. After beating league clubs Bournemouth and Northampton Town along the way, they drew Nottingham Forest at home in the third round. After going 2-0 up on the difficult frozen pitch, Forest managed to scrape a draw with the traditional scrambled own-goal and penalty. The Nottingham club took them 3-0 in the return in front of an enormous gate of 42,362.

But they went one better in the 1975/76 season, when after carving a slightly easier path through Romford and Leatherhead in rounds one and two, they came up against Swindon in the third. Despite finding themselves 2-0, a heroic fighback saw them grab two goals in the last four minutes to force a draw, and bring the Wiltshire team back to Sandy Lane in Tooting, where they won the replay 2-1. The fourth round saw them easily beaten in an away game at Bradford, but their teriffic run marked them down in FA Cup history as one of the great giantkillers of the seventies.

They've had a fair few familiar names on their books over the years, and famous old boys include the perpetual Crewe Alexandra manager Dario Gradi, journeyman Premiership striker Nathan Ellington, legendary Man Utd keeper Alex Stepney and former Charlton manager Steve Gritt. Then moved to their new 3500 capacity Imperial Fields ground in nearby Morden in 2002, although the position of the ground costs them a fortune in lost balls, as many that get kicked over the boundry fence are carried away by the fast moving river that runs alongside it. They ought to do what Shrewsbury used to do and have a little man in a boat poised and ready to hook them out!

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Fremantle United (Australia)

Those of us of a certain age will remember a more innocent time before lottery draws and online gaming, when the only chance you had of having a gamble was either going down the fag encrusted bookies, or filling in the football pools. And what did the pools do in the summer when the English league was off on their holls? It headed for Australia! All through the summer months I'd study the strange names on my old mum's Aussie Pools paper. Exotic sounding places like Geelong, Noarlunga and Wanneroo rubbed shoulders with more familiar sounding teams like South Adelaide, Sunbury and Bayswater. But no one ever wondered who played for these teams, let alone what their kit looked like.

So I was happily surprised when I found out that the old Aussie pools stalwarts Fremantle United were among the bestriped bretheren - my curiosity was pricked and I had to discover more. Regulars in the Western Australia League, they've been more than just a name on an English coupon since 1977. Known simply as Freo to their many fans and players, they soon grew to become one of the most successful sides in Western Australia. Since 1985 they've bagged eight WA Amateur Premier League titles, six runners up slots, and a couple of Division One titles.

But they're a club with the local area at heart too, running a stable of 26 youth sides, at all ages and abilities at their Carrington Street ground in the Beaconsfield suburb of the city of Fremantle. This has obviously paid off, as not only are they one of the most winningest sides in the state, but many of their players have gone on to the Australian professional game and beyond.

So if ever you see an Australian Pools coupon again - and who knows, they might just come back into fashion, spare a thought for all those funny sounding teams with a row of tick boxes alongside them. They might just be a bunch of random names to you, but every one of them is at the heart of a living and breathing community.

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Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Corby Town (England)

Corby Town hail from the Northamptonshire steel town of the same name, and first kicked a ball under that name in 1948. However, the works side of the Stewarts & Lloyds steel factory played in the United Counties League from at least the early 1930s, and were thought to be the basis on which Corby Town were formed. The club's nickname, The Steelmen, pays testament to this possibility.

There's is a history of slow but steady progress up the leagues. Two UCL titles in the fifties saw them invited to the Midland Football League, and it was five years later that their Occupation Road ground saw Southern League action - at that time the very top of the non-league tree. Indeed, they applied for election to the Football league on a number of occasions, but were clearly never successful. After a spell of non-league reoganisation saw the Southern League lose its seniority, Corby stayed in one or other of their divisions until 2009, when they battled their way to win the unfeasibly massive Southern League trophy and get themselves into the Blue Square North - the second tier of non-league football.

Along the way they had a change of ground, and Occupation Road made way for the all-purpose sports ground at the council-owned Rockingham Triangle in 1985. Famous former players include Mark Lawrenson, who spent a season there towards the end of his career, West Ham striker Trevor Morley, who started his career there, and the free-scoring and much travelled Dixie McNeil, who currently manages fellow stripes Cefn Druids in Wales.

The club are famous for the self- mocking humour of their fans. A huge number of local residents came down from Scotland to work in the steelmills of Corby, so they often refer to themselves as The Plastic Jocks, and sing songs about ASBOs, poor diets and nicking hubcaps to get the jokes in before their rival fans do. To that end it's always a pleasure to share a game with them, so if they're ever playing around your way, make sure you pay them a visit.

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VC Eendracht Aalst 2002 (Belgium)

Now here's another one of those clubs that play in black and white stripes - but not entirely as you might imagine. Eendracht Aalst are the historic successors to a team called K.S.C. Eendracht Aalst, from the Flanders town of Aalst, who went out of business in 2002. They play at the same ground to the same fans, so in effect are the same club in all but name. They used to be top flight regulars, but after their bankruptcy were required to start all over again in the third tier, and since then have frequently bounced up and down between there and the second division.

The original club formed in 1919, by veterans of the First World War. Their most notorious year though was in the 1961/62 season when part way though a niggly game against Standard Liege resulted in an on-the- pitch punch up between players - which led in turn to a full-scale riot that resulted in the game being abandoned. The club were forced to play some games behind closed doors, many players were suspended for many games, and the club's physical coach was banned from operating for 12 months. The club never recovered and finished bottom that season - taking them another 29 years to get back to the top flight. Has one mad game ever led to such a long-term downfall?

However, by the 1990s they recovered to such an extent that a fourth- place finish in the premier league led them to a small foray into Europe in 1995, where after beating Levski Sofia in the first round they got battered by Roma in the next. Their only other laurels have been two second division championship titles.

They play at the 7000 capacity Pierre Cornelisstadion, and go by the lovely nickname De Ajuinen - Dutch for The Onions. This carries through to their rather unlikely mascot, who appears to be a massive stripy black and white clove of garlic. As far as their strip goes, although frequently flirting with a more traditional striped kit, they currently play in a strange kit with two bold stripes down one side - although we're quite sure that this is only a temporary measure and they'll try out every possible configuration of the famous kit in the future.

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