Blyth Spartans 4 Skelmersdale 0

Blyth Spartans 4 Skelmersdale United 0 (18th March 2017)

I am well aware that travelling around the country to watch semi-professional football matches between two teams I don’t support in any way, is a little bit nuts, but when you see a sign saying “A1 Newcastle and The South, you do start to question what on earth you are doing. In fact, in the Blyth supporters’ bar, with the TV showing Scotland v Italy in the Six Nations, I realised it would be possible after the match to drive to Edinburgh, have some dinner, then drive back to Blyth, quicker than I’d be able to get home after the match.

To go this far, further than I’d ever driven, or been driven, before (for any reason, not just football) it’d need to be somewhere a little out of the ordinary, be a decent ground, and be a decent game. Thankfully this ticked all the boxes.

For a start, Blyth Spartans are one of those famous giant-killing non-league clubs, including a run to the 5th round in 1978, where a replay against Wrexham was watched by over 42000 when switched to St James’ Park. And how can you not like a team called “Spartans”? I was even taken in enough to make a rare souvenir purchase of a Blyth Spartans key ring, to replace the Bohemians 1905 one I have, which is starting to fall apart.

Sadly, a five and half hour drive doesn’t put in you in the perfect mood for going exploring, so my knowledge of Blyth is limited to the residential roads around Blyth’s Croft Park, but that’ll do as Blyth Spartans felt like a real community club. Rarely do you see non-league fans wearing the club colours as much as here, with green and white splashes everywhere. Even a lad on the terraces drinking from a can of 7-Up almost looked to have done so because the can was green.

The place had a decent amount of terracing too. Both ends looked new identical covered terraces, designed by someone who’d actually stood on terracing before, who knew the importance of steps being high enough to offer a view over the person in front, and set back from the goal enough that people at the front won’t block the view of the goal. All too often with modern terracing you feel it’s been designed by someone who’s about 6’8″, who has never experienced having the back of someone’s head in their line of vision.

An older terrace filled half of one side, pretty deep, but no crush barriers, with many cans of green paint splashed out to add more club identity. High concrete walls at either side weren’t exactly welcome unless you had x-ray vision, or didn’t care about seeing corners of the pitch, but with Croft Park holding 4400, crowds would need to ride a fair bit before it’d be an issue.

The main stand opposite dates from the 70s, with its roof (green, obviously) extending out right to the front without a pillar in sight – a rare luxury at this level.

Fans would no doubt appreciate the unimpeded view, as Blyth are having one of the best seasons in years, top of the Northern Premier League, ten points clear, and looking very good for the title and promotion. Visitors Skelmersdale, in stark contrast, are having a nightmare season, arriving 20 points adrift of safety with just nine games left, hindered further by a horrific goal difference of -55. Maybe their one hope for the game would be that Blyth, with one eye on a match away at 2nd place Nantwich on Tuesday, might take it easy.

They didn’t. In fact Blyth took to the field looking like they wanted to get the game put to bed as early as possible, and Skelmersdale knew they were in for a day akin to manning the pumps on a sinking ship. With Alun Armstrong coaching Blyth to play in an entertaining style, with a flair rarely seen at this level, it was always going to be a matter of when, rather than if, as far as the scoring went.

It took a while, surprisingly. Blyth had the ball in the net fairly early on, heading in from a free kick, but that was ruled out for offside, and the opener didn’t come, amazingly, until the 36th minute. Skelmersdale’s busy keeper could do little when Blyth got to the byline and zipped a low cross in for a tap-in.

Just before that, Skelmersdale had actually had a chance to take the lead. A cross picked out a player at the far post, but with it being so long since he’d been in position to attempt a shot at goal, he’d seeming forgotten what to do, and a clear back-post header chance bounced of his head with the finesse of a man wearing a diving helmet.

With their resistance broken, Skelmersdale conceded a second just two minutes later. A chase between attacker and keeper at the edge of the box was won by the Blyth attacker, but he was forced a little wide, so rather than try to score himself, he cut the ball back. The keeper got a foot the resulting shot, but it wasn’t enough to prevent it going in, and make sure the result was never in doubt. It was a little harsh on the Skelmersdale keeper who, despite a couple of kicks that had found the green of the main stand roof rather than the green of the pitch, had done as much as anyone to keep the scores level for so long.

While Blyth were still clearly on top, there was definitely a sense of the table-toppers easing off in the second half. A win at Nantwich on Tuesday wouldn’t clinch promotion, but it would put the finishing tape in sight, so no point taking unnecessary risks.

Not that they completely slacked off, especially after adding an overdue third 20 minutes into the half, heading in at the back post from a corner. This wasn’t even supposed to be that good a performance from Blyth, but it was clear just how much this team enjoys playing and enjoys the style of football they play, and with a little more composure, this could have been a big score.

The biggest example of such a lapse in composure was with the score at three nil. In a move similar to the one that led to the first goal, a ball across the six yard box from the byline was met about three yards out, directly in front of an open goal. The crowd numbered 667 – the fax number of the beast – and I think all of them are still struggling for an explanation of how the Blyth player managed to play the ball into the arms of the stranded keeper, rather than into the net.

There was still time for a 4th to be bundled in, to give the scoreline a more realistic reflection of how the day had gone, and to send everyone, with the exception of those connected to Skelmersdale, home very happy. Just as well really, as some of those going home had rather longer journeys than most.

 

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Muang Thong 2 Kashima Antlers 1

Muang Thong United 2 Kashima Antlers 1 (28th Feb 2017)

With complaints about their tax avoidance, and their general dislike among the lefty unwashed masses for representing everything bad about global corporations, Starbucks struggles for praise these days, so I’ll break the trend. Not for their coffee, and certainly not for the way they took advantage of my heat-induced weariness in the Bangkok sun to tempt me into their “special offer” hideously over-priced coffee-of-the-day. No, they get praise for providing free papers, one of which, the Bangkok Post, I had a flick through while trying to cool off from the 35C heat outside.

On the sports pages, there was a preview of that evening’s AFC Champions League tie between Muang Thong Utd and Kashima Antlers of Japan. I knew the game was taking place, but with me already having a ticket reserved for Muang Thong’s game with Chonburi on the Sunday, I hadn’t been considering trekking all the way out to their ground in Nonthaburi, 15 miles to the north, twice in half a week.

The match report though talked about the game being at Supachalasai Stadium, smack in the middle of Bangkok, just a few stops away on the elevated Skytrain, kicking off in a couple of hours time. I’d been to the smaller stadium directly next door, but not to Supachalasai, so this was an ideal start to my first few days in Bangkok.

First though, I had to get back to my hotel on Soi Nana for a quick shower, as Bangkok heat, and high humidity, don’t exactly keep you fresh. Soi Nana is certainly one of the more “interesting” and “colourful” streets I’ve ever stayed on, at times feeling a bit like something out of the wild west, where you could probably find everything you want, and everything you don’t want, if you looked.

What it does also have is an abundance of taxis and tuk-tuks. Usually these are pockets of rampant inflation compared to prices half a mile in any other direction, and you’ll struggle to find a taxi with a “working” meter on this street. I, however, got touted for a fare by a “freelance” (for freelance read “some bloke with a heap of shit car who’ll drive you somewhere”) taxi driver who agreed to go to the stadium for 150 Baht, about £3. Way more than the Skytrain fare, but it’s a 10 minute walk to Nana station, and I was feeling lazy.

The stadium was only two miles away, but in the glacial traffic speeds of central Bangkok, it took half an hour to get there. My taxi driver, I feel, was just starting to fish for a larger tip with tales of financial struggle, as we got close enough to the stadium to suggest that I could get out now, handily just a short walk from a ticket window and a 300 Baht (£6) ticket, with the stand picked for speed for getting back to the Skytrain after the match.

The stand I’d chosen was clearly a popular one. Even armed with very little useful knowledge of the Thai langauge, I was still able to tell the people with the megaphones outside the entry gates were ushering everyone further down the stand. I’d previously asked the meaning of the series of Thai squiggles under the row/seat area of my ticket, to confirm it meant “unreserved”, but arriving with just about 30 minutes before kick-off, I had less choice than I’d hoped.

I’d wondered why the queues for the pretty ordinary looking refreshment stands outside the ground were so long. Once inside, it was clear – there was absolutely no provision for food or drink inside the ground. I asked a steward about food/drink – more of a mime than a question – and my ticket was re-scanned, so I could go out of the ground and come in again, but this time with some cold drink to cool me down. The sun may have set, but it’s fair to say that nobody thought they needed to put a jacket on to keep the cold off.

The Supachalasai Stadium doesn’t hold too many, a shade under 20,000 but it looks much bigger. For a start the ends are straight, despite behind the curve of a running track, making the ground more of a “D” shape, like Fiorentina. It’s also the only ground I’ve seen, and I’ve seen quite a few, where fans are prevented from getting onto the pitch by means of a large hedge.

After the inevitable flag-carrying FIFA anthem ritual that seems deeply ingrained into football culture here for some reason, the match started, and the hosts started the best. Kashima Antlers were favourites, befitting the club that just two months earlier were 38 minutes away from being crowned World Champions after taking a surprise 2-1 over Real Madrid in the FIFA World Club Final. Unfortunately for them, this meant that they seemed to treat beating the Thai champions as a formality, keeping it tight at the back, and waiting for the breakaways that would win them the game.

Muang Thong had other ideas, and deservedly took the lead in the 12th minute, scoring direct from a free kick from 25 yards, to the delight of the home support. They ought to have made it 2-0 not too long later. A move into the box ended in a shot being blocked. It spun perfectly for another Muang Thong player following in, but his shot was also blocked and the chance was gone. Kashima Antlers posed a minimal threat, seemingly oblivious to the danger they were in, and you had to worry that Muang Thong weren’t making the most of their dominance.

Full credit in the first half must go to the Kashima Antlers fans. A few hundred had made the trip over, and despite the fact that their team spent the first half looking like they’d rather have been shopping in one of the numerous vast shopping malls the line the next mile of so east down the main Sukhumvit Road from the ground, they spent the half singing away, waving flags, and jumping up and down continuously. For me, just walking up the steps to my seat was enough to bring me out in a sweat, so their commitment was admirable.

I’m not sure what the Japanese equivalent of “being given a bit of a bollocking” is, with “saving face” being more important than displays of anger in many Asian cultures, but Kashima Antlers came out in the 2nd half looking like their half-time team talk has been a bit more stern than “keep it up lads”, and it took just two minutes to level the score. There was a big element of luck about it though. There was a lovely cross in to Kashima’s Brazilian forward Pedro Junior, but he completely miskicked the ball, only for it to bounce off his standing leg and run perfectly for a 2nd chance against the wrong-footed Muang Thong keeper, and a virtual tap-in to equalise. He’s also one of those players who adopts the stupid trend of wearing his socks pulled up over his knees, just to give you more incentive to dislike him.

Rather than push on for a winner though, Kashima went back into to playing for a draw mode, albeit a bit better than they did in the first half, and with less than 10 minutes left, it looked like they get a winner they didn’t deserve.

A very soft penalty was awarded to Kashima Antlers when a Muang Thong defender touched a Kashima player’s shoulder, or perhaps just looked at him in a funny way, and the ref pointed to the spot. Up stepped the Kashima No.9, Yuma Suzuki, and he calmly sent the keeper the wrong way from the spot. It would have been the perfect penalty, had it not rolled about a foot the wrong side of the post.

This fired up the crowd and put a new burst of life into the Muang Thong team. They’d not played as well as in the first half, and overall Kashima had shown in glimpses why they were favourites, but Muang Thong had the greater heart and got their reward right at the death. In the 6th minute of stoppage time a nice exchange of passes saw the ball cut back across the 6 yard box, where one-time Newcastle United flop Xisco Jiménez was on hand for a happier career moment, by tucking in the winner at the far post.

As it would turn out, this would be the only Muang Thong game I’d see. Their home game a few days later got switched to an away game, apparently something to do with the League Cup draw, but if you are going to see a “stand-in” game, you can’t ask for much more than a dramatic late winner for the home side. I was happy. Not as happy as the home fans, but Thailand is known as The Land of Smiles, and theirs were positively beaming.

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Ho Chi Minh City 1 Can Tho 0

Ho Chi Minh City 1 Can Tho 0 (25th Feb 2017)

Saigon is the kind of city that slaps you round the head with its noise, traffic and sheer chaos, lets you know it’s more business-like than beautiful, but like Vietnam in general, seduces you with unexpected charm.

It has the angriest traffic and probably the friendliest people around. It’s one of the few countries in the region to use an alphabet recognisable to westerners, then splats an array of accents and squiggles all over it, sometimes two to a letter, to make it incomprehensible, to cope with Vietnam’s tonal language.

It has an exchange rate which makes seven-figure bar bills possible, and a late night scene which means as a foreign tourist you can be approached by a girl on a motorbike offering “boom boom”, while you are appropriately, by coincidence, stood outside the “Phuc Long” coffee house chain. Vietnam also has the most fantastic coffee, even if a white coffee will be no more white than plain chocolate.

It’s officially a Marxist-Leninist Communist country, yes espouses a free-market capitalist economy that makes you wonder why a nation of 93 million hasn’t traded its way to more wealth yet. At times it’s an almost impossibly bonkers place, but it’s great.

Other impossible things over there include trying to explain to a Vietnamese barmaid in the fine, fun and friendly “Number Five Bar” the humour in the often repeated genuine Irish newspaper headline “Cork Man Drowns” (mentioning that he was called “Bob” really was a step too far), and trying to comprehend bus timetables to take me to and from Ho Chi Minh City FC’s Thong Nhat Stadium, a good three miles from the city centre. I had a go at both, but gave up.

Handily, Saigon’s taxis are cheap, and also haven’t yet managed to develop the fault which affects so many in nearby Thailand, where the meters seem to break every time a foreigner flags a taxi down. Unlike the bus, the taxi also deposited me right by the ground. I’d not even got out of the taxi before an old woman bearing a ticket strode purposefully to the door and suggested through the power of mime that I buy off her.

Seeing the price as 70,000 Dong (about £2.50) I took out a 100,000 dong note to pay, expecting change. The old woman clearly saw the language barrier as a great opportunity, and proceeded to thank me for my “generosity” in apparently not wanting any change. I could have pursued it, but it could have been undignified, and on balance, she needed that extra 30,000 dong much more than I did.

I spend 30,000 anyway on a couple of coffees over the road, now a dab hand at the Saigon road-crossing technique of walking out into the never-stopping traffic and having blind faith that bikes will swerve around you.

Unlike in Da Nang, there was an obvious sense of activity, and a game was clearly taking place tonight. Being a foreigner, and clearly not looking a threat, I was waved through the security checkpoints, with the chance to put my guesses of the block/row/seat info on my ticket to use, as the little Vietnamese I’d learned wouldn’t be of much use. A barmaid, the same one I’d baffled with “Cork Man Drowns”, had taught me (phonetically) “Mo Hai Ba Yo!” which is “1…2..3…cheers!” but I couldn’t really see it coming in handy.

70,000 dong had got me into the luxury of the main covered stand, and clearly fans in Saigon like a little luxury, as this was clearly the most popular part of the ground. The next most popular part was the uncovered opposite side, where large steps of concrete acted nominally as seats. In the distance, Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest building, the Bitexco Financial Tower, with a helipad jutting out from the side like the bottom lip of one of Sting’s Brazilian rainforest buddies, could be seen in the distance.

Hardly anyone went in either end. Both were beyond an already distant running track and deeply unpopular. About 100 Can Tho fans, who’d made the 100 mile trip up from the heart of the Mekong Delta for this game, sat in green isolation in the corner of one end. At the other corner of this end was another green invasion, with a large tree’s branches hanging over into the stadium, as if trying to climb in without paying.

It hit 33C (91F) on this day, and given the evening humidity, it must rank as one of the hottest, or at least sweatiest, games I’ve been to. I find walking up the stairs hard-going, so heaven knows what it must be like to play in. Maybe the heat led to the slack marking for the opening (and only) goal after seven minutes, where nobody bothered to mark an attacker in the middle of the penalty box, and he headed a cross in with ease.

If Can Tho were now losing on the pitch, their fans did their best to win the terrace battle, in terms of noise rather than violence. The home fans had been rather tame. Their attempt at “pyro” saw the setting off of one small firework, which could probably have been safely used indoors.

The support certainly reflected a cultural difference in the manner of encouraging a team. With many drums and cymbals, they sounded like every Chinese New Year parade you’ve ever heard, with little variety from the ubiquitous “clang-bang-clang…clang-bang-clang” percussion to spur their team on.

Can Tho were 2nd from last in the league, but while they didn’t look that bad, they always looked they had a mistake in them, and were always just 2nd best. The game wasn’t a classic, perhaps because of the heat, and they possibly only had two serious chances to equalise. The first brought about a diving save that looked rather more flamboyant than necessary, as it the keeper had heard scouts from richer leagues were in the stands. The 2nd was a free kick from outside the area, which went only just wide.

Ho Chi Minh city had two excellent chances to extent the lead, but somehow spurned them both, to the annoyance and amazement of the home crowd. The first was a blast at goal from eight yards, with the keeper stranded, which the home striker could somehow only blast into the back of a defender in front of him.

After that a shot was fired across goal. A touch would have been a certain goal, but it was left, as it rolled just wide of the post.

I should have gone the previous week, when a game v the bottom club, Long an, was much more eventful. It ended 5-2 to Ho Chi Minh City, but the last three of Ho Chi Minh City’s goals all came in injury time. Ho Chi Minh were awarded a late very dodgy penalty, and in a bizarre protest Long An refused compete for the rest of the game, including the spot-kick, with the keeper turning his back rather than try to save it. They then just let the home side walk in two more goals without any kind of challenge, and it ended 5-2.

Only only goal for me though, and I had to take solace with a quick taxi ride (well, quite slow really – it was in Saigon traffic after all) back across town to Number Five Bar where a friendly welcome was waiting. What more could I ask for in my last night in Vietnam? Another goal or two would have been good, I suppose, and surely somewhere I could have had the chance to use an Apocolypse Now reference, but football in a new country, and the chance of a night out with access to the computer picking songs from YouTube, and I was happy. I, for one, would never complain that “I’m still only in Saigon”.

…and finally, a clip I took of the Saigon traffic. This wasn’t the busiest junction I saw by a long shot, but it was a “suggested” pedestrian crossing!

 

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Da Nang Ground Pics

Sometimes things don’t work out quite as planned. For starters, my first day in Vietnam suffered an immediate blow which meant that while I was having breakfast in the central Vietnamese city of Da Nang, my luggage was still 400 miles north in Hanoi, having not made it in time after a tight connection at Hanoi Airport.

Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently, this was meant to be a write up of that evening’s game between SHB Da Nang and FLC Thanh Hoa, taking place at Sân vận động Chi Lăng stadium, just a short 10 minute walk from my riverside hotel. I’d arrived an hour and a half early, anticipating getting a bite to eat before the game. It seemed a little quiet, but there were posters up mentioning the Sân vận động part of the stadium name that I recognised, so it all seemed set.

Unfortunately, my Vietnamese isn’t exactly fluent, to say the least, and it turns out that “Sân vận động” just means “stadium” and the notices were saying the game was now at a new stadium across town.

And the meal was pretty bad too.

As it turned out, things weren’t too bad. The game ended 0-0, so I didn’t miss much, and I spent the first of several evenings in the fine Bamboo 2 Bar, a short walk down the riverside from my hotel, and with half a dozen beers and food still leaving change from the equivalent of a tenner, and the friendly bar staff, that was a result in my book.

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Banbury 2 Cambridge City 0

banbury-v-cambridge-city-33

Banbury United 2 Cambridge City 0 (5th February 2017)

Although it’s taken an awfully long time to get round to coming here, Banbury’s was one of the first non-league grounds I ever saw. I certainly would have seen Wokingham Town’s old ground earlier, being by the tracks on the way to Reading, but Banbury’s ground’s position, also near the town’s railways station, means I saw it regularly when I went to away days on the train towards Birmingham.

To be honest, only one feature stood out – the main stand, and that really only stood out for having a mural featuring spectators, covering the front, long before they had the idea for a much larger one at Highbury. Rather than hiding building work, it was there because the stand had been condemned. There’s no trace of it now, being just a flat patch of grass, although the breeze block shed that stood next to it is still there.

On the other side of the shed is the most surprising feature of the ground – the existence of quite a substantial portion of proper terracing, continuing round the corner and behind the goal. The end is covered at the rear, although a record-breaking attempt at a number of pillars, and the height (of lack of) of the roof at the back makes it a less than ideal enclosure. The rear six feet or so of roof is so low that anyone taller than Warwick Davis is risking a head injury by standing there.

At least the liberal use of red paint would act as a warning, even on the darkest of days. In fact, Banbury have splashed the red and yellow about so much that this must be one of the brightest non-league grounds around, and looks all the better for it. The paint used for the seats in the stand on the other side though is an odd textured gloss, which makes all the seats look like they are dripping wet.

banbury-v-cambridge-city-12

There’s not too much to the rest of the ground. A warm and welcoming clubhouse sits on one side. No terracing behind the other goal, but at least there’s a slope. Round the corner, leading to where the old stand used to be, things narrow to an almost ridiculous degree, which barely room for two people to pass each other. Clearly the wasteland on the other side of the fence is of high value to someone to begrudge the football ground another few feet of space.

Not too far across that wasteland is the idyllic looking River Cherwell, with a canal just beyond that. Naturally the route to the football ground take you via an industrial estate instead. At least those buildings provide a bit of a backdrop for game, and make the ground feel more enclosed than it really is.

As for the game, I usually nominally favour the home side anyway, but the programme seller calling me a young man is enough to ingratiate me into the home cause, and I wasn’t to be disappointed.

I did, however, continue my run of neutral games that were characterised by effort rather than clear chances, but after an early good spell for the visitors, Banbury always had the edge.

banbury-v-cambridge-city-24

They took the lead after half an hour. A back header from a cross ball found its way to a Banbury player on the edge of the box. He took one touch before hammering the dropping ball past the keeper. More “expert” camera work meant that my shot of this goal missed both the scorer (off to the right of the shot) and the ball (billowing out of the net to right) from the shot. I have so many of these that I could release a football-rated coffee table book entitled “101 Great Goals Where You Can’t See the Ball”, available at all good bookshops, and in some naughty ones as well.

Banbury made it safe with just under 20 minutes left. A header from a corner was headed down, and the defender’s effort at clearing the ball saw it do no more than find the roof of the net. It might have been over the line anyway before then, but the defender looked personally defeated, probably because he knew that it meant his team were too.

In fairness, Cambridge City had a real go at Banbury for the last 10 minutes, but their shots looked more likely to break a window on a train shuttling from Reading to Birmingham on the tracks beyond than break the Banbury net, and the game petered out in the setting sun.

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Clitheroe 0 Kendal 0

clitheroe-v-kendal-20

Clitheroe 0 Kendal Town 0 (21st January 2017)

It has to be said, there are times when I wonder if leaving the house at 8 am, to spend the best part of the next six hours trekking up to the wilds of northern Lancashire, is really a sensible thing to be doing, especially when my in-car thermometer was suggesting it was -6C outside.

I’d leaned towards Clitheroe because the ground looked decent, it was in the town centre, there was a chance of seeing some hills as a backdrop, and the clincher – there was a small castle nearby that overlooked the ground. The quality of the match I was likely to see didn’t feature that heavily, which is just as well really.

First up, I’ll say Clitheroe is a really nice little town. It’s full of attractive stone buildings, older pubs, and full of so many little independent shops that seeing a chain establishment like WH Smiths is almost a novelty. One such place, just up the road from Clitheroe’s ground was a shop specialising in hoodies. The name, “Hoody Marvellous” needs to be said in the local accent to make sense.

A little walk through the centre will find you at the tiny Clitheroe Castle, where you can walk up to the keep, with its fine view, for free. As well as being able to see across the town, and the football grounds, there’s also a view of the hills rising up on either side the Ribble Valley. Rising up to the east is Pendle Hill, famous for its witch trials in 1612, and also more bizarrely, for a string of UFO sightings over the years. In fact it seems there have been so many that Steven Spielberg could film a remake of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the Ribble Valley, albeit one starring Jane Horrocks and the shouty man from the SafeStyle double glazing adverts.

clitheroe-v-kendal-21

The top of Pendle Hill was being scraped by low cloud, so no chance of seeing any witches or UFOs on this day, or goals as it would turn out. Just as well that Clitheroe’s Shawbridge Street ground was interesting enough to feel that wiping out an entire Saturday to watch a 0-0 was almost worth it.

For a start, one side featured one of the smallest stands I’ve ever seen, probably only about ten yards long, with four rows of wooden benches. The back row is partitioned into three sections with a mesh that almost makes each end seat look like a priest’s confessional, if only they had a curtain at the front. With the tiny roof needing four pillars to hold it up, and people standing in front of it, the curtain wouldn’t make the view from the stand much worse any way.

Also on this side is a better and larger main stand which somehow looks much older than it probably is. It has the look of a structure that should only be seen in sepia photographs, and frequented by men in hats and stiff collars, and works well with the grey stone buildings that can be seen behind.

The ground also has a sloping pitch, most marked in the north-east corner, which must be a good three or four feet higher than the goal at that end. I can only think of Wycombe’s Loakes Park that sloped as steeply in all the grounds I’ve been to. Surprisingly Clitheroe didn’t seem to now how to play on the slope to their advantage, but then again their wing play on the flatter parts of the pitch was no better either, as both teams played a game that implied they believed the pitch narrowed to about 40 yards wide at either end.

clitheroe-v-kendal-26

I think there comes a point about 30-35 minutes in to many goalless games, where it strikes you that both teams seem to be forgetting how to set up a shot at goal. There was plenty of attacking intent, but little idea behind it. There was almost a reliance on mistakes to present chances. The Kendal keeper didn’t look the safest pair of gloves about when trying to claim high balls, especially when he tried punching away, but he did prove to be a decent shot-stopper in the 2nd half when Clitheroe tried a few edge-of-the-area efforts. Threading the ball through seemed beyond them.

Kendal had the best chance of the game right at the end of the first half. A penalty decision, which seemed about as believable as many of those nearby UFO sightings, went Kendal’s way, but the kick was easily saved by the Clitheroe keeper. It fitted the tone of the game so far, which had seen a stream of “comments” about the officials and their competence, come from the terraces.

The 2nd half was a phrase which the phrase “less haste, more speed” could have been invented for. Clitheroe had actually had a shot and a header hit the Kendal bar in the first half, so they did have chances, but the 2nd just saw them get more and more frustrated as time went by. Try a quick ball, and it would invariably be block or flagged offside. Be patient, and a bad pass or miscontrol would see the chance wasted.

This frustration probably contributed to the games last notable moment, when a Clitheroe sub went in hard for loose ball and connected with a Kendal player instead. The straight red and resigned trudge off down the tunnel matched the home side’s mood.

Kendal went for the last-gasp winner they really wouldn’t have deserved, but luckily Kendal’s attacking ideas were just as lacking as Clitheroes’s had become. Lucky, that is, for Clitheroe. Any neutrals facing a 5 hour journey home after a goal-starved afternoon, I suggest, might disagree.

 

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Bognor Regis 1 Enfield 1

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Bognor Regis Town 1 Enfield 1 (14th Jan 2017)

I’ve had better organised football trips. I was planning to go to Brackley v Stockport, until a Saturday morning check of the state of their pitch revealed the fixtures site I’d got the info from had bodged up, and that game had been cancelled as they were away in the FA Trophy that day, funnily enough, at Stockport.

A quick check for alternatives suggested this game or one at Worthing, and naturally I opted for the one with fewer goals (Worthing and Sutton played out a 2-2 draw).

I then arrived at the ground at about 2.20, and was walking to the turnstiles when I realised I had about £3.50 on me, and had to turn around and get back in my car, and find a cashpoint somewhere in the town. By the time I’d done that, it was too late to have a pre-match beer, and all the programmes had sold out. I thought I’d have to do without the tea bar’s tempting bacon & egg roll too, as somehow “doing an egg” was a task balanced right on a knife edge of impossibility, but at least that went right, even if most of the yolk did leak out.

Bognor’s ground is one I’ve fancied going to for a while. There’s nothing amazing about it, but it does have a decent amount of cover, and old main stand for a bit of character, and a liberal application of dark green paint, which somehow gives smaller old grounds a feeling of cosiness and old world charm.

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The far corner had, rare for this level, an electronic scoreboard. My guess is that it’s the one that used to be on the away end at Loftus Road. That was my first thought when I saw it, and having checked since, the layout of the time and score matches exactly. I’m not exactly an “80s scoreboard aficionado”, so I’ve no idea why I recognised it though. And I could be wrong.

Bognor also featured in the very first Reading game I saw on television. A good couple of years before I saw them play in person, a 2nd round FA Cup tie at Elm Park saw a rare visit from the TVS cameras, and a 6-2 win for Reading. Looking back, the cameras were there for Bognor, not Reading, as TVS’ sport coverage back then regarded anything more than five miles from the south coast as some kind of mystical hinterland where dragons roamed.

Sadly, even with Bognor Regis being top of the league, seeing eight goals here didn’t seem likely. Enfield struck early, when a corner was flicked on and nudged in a the far post, and that seem to throw promotion-chasing Bognor off their stride for the whole first half. Bognor did most of the attacking, but struggled to get any meaningful shots away. If anyone looked like adding a second, purple-clad Enfield looked more likely. I actually like purple as a colour, but Enfield are just one of a long line of football clubs who’ve made it look nasty. You probably have to go back to a Roberto Baggio era Fiorentina to find the last time it’s not looked “wrong” as a kit.

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Enfield’s best chance to take a commanding lead came very early in the second half. A through ball put an Enfield striker clean through, but his attempt to go round the keeper went wrong, and he was forced wide, and the chance was gone. Within a few minutes Bognor would make them pay for that miss. Fulham loanee Elijah Adebayo marked his debut by nicking the ball past the Enfield keeper from near the penalty spot. He ran to celebrate with the fans in green behind the goal, possibly hoping it would make up for the hat-trick he scored against them three months ago while on loan at Slough.

That end was clearly the most popular part of the ground. Not only did it have a decent amount of terracing, but it was right in front of the club bar, and ground rules here are sensible enough to allow people to take beers out onto the terrace. I’ve never quite got how people can hold cold beers outdoors on a cold days though. They must have fingers like frozen sausages after about 10 minutes.

Despite Bognor having control of the 2nd half, Enfield were still a threat, and probably came closest to scoring, with an effort that hit the bar with the keeper beaten. Bognor looked most likely to get that winner though, but despite a few decent changes, it didn’t come. Time to go back into the bar, defrost, and discuss what might have been.

 

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Altrincham 0 Gloucester 1

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Altrincham 0 Gloucester City 1 (7th Jan 2017)

It may sound weird to say it, but it wasn’t really the lure of watching a cup tie at Old Trafford that tempted me to venture up to Greater Manchester. It was the fact that with a speedy exit from Old Trafford, I could dash down to the tram stop and catch a tram to Altrincham, to Moss Lane, home of Altrincham FC.

And I wasn’t the only one either. Crowded onto the tram, I couldn’t help but notice a German fan nearby putting “Altrincham FC” into German Google on his phone, and checking the route.

There may have been 75,000 fewer fans at Moss Lane, and no half ‘n’ half scarves commemorating this historic Vanarama North clash, but it’s the sort of “proper” old-style game I like going to when I travel away in England these days. No tourists – well, I guess you could count me… and the German guy – and no airs and graces to the surroundings. A good honest club where the red and white on show seemed to be exclusively for “Alty”, rather than that other club a few miles up the road.

Moss Lane is one of those quirky grounds, every side different, that has buckets of character. A decent home end with a low roof is full of dark corners, and is easy to imagine being a fun place in Altrincham’s better years, although understandably a little emptier and quieter during the club’s current troubles.

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Down the side, mainly covered, you can’t fail to notice the average age of the terrace regular has leaped up by about 20 years. It would definitely be a place to hear a few grumbles and the odd less than polite pithy comment to opposition players. In the middle section of this terrace is a tv gantry, held up by a forest of scaffolding poles, rendering the whole area unusable.

While awkward, that shouldn’t be an issue, with a fair-sized open terrace behind the far goal providing a fine view of the ground. What it doesn’t do though is provide any cover, which is a slight problem on a typically Manchester-like drizzly afternoon, but not enough to deter many hardy folk from using it as a vantage point.

The other side contains the fairly well proportioned main stand, flanked by a small stand on one side and a clubhouse on the other. Shutters cover the clubhouse windows during the game, making it look like a closed retail unit – all thanks to the stupid rule, devoid of any common sense, that says people aren’t allowed to have a beer within sight of the pitch.

Some might unkindly suggest that in the clubhouse with the shutters down would be the best place to watch Altrincham this season, as they are having something of a nightmare. At the end of this, their 23rd games of the season, they’d still only have 8 points. Their one solitary win was away at Stalybridge Celtic three months ago. Their twelve home games have yielded just two points, the last of which was way back on the 6th of September. This would be their 7th consecutive home league defeat.

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Yet, on Saturday’s showing, they didn’t actually look too bad. They weren’t fantastic, but they certainly didn’t look a team 16 points from safety already. In fact I’d say they had most of the play and for much of the game looked the more likely team to score. Scoring has been something of an issue though, and few of the shots they did have were too convincing.

Whatever problems have befallen the club to cause this slide – they were in the Vanarama National last season after all – the fans seemed to be either loyally supportive or just resigned to their fate. Grumbles yes, but no anger. They certainly could fault the team for effort.

Gloucester had gone ahead after half an hour, the scorer knee-sliding away to celebrate, but had annoyed many with a range of time-wasting antics in the 2nd half. They allowed their hosts extra impetus late on with a player getting a 2nd booking and the subsequent red card, but although Altrincham threw everything they could at the Gloucester goal, they weren’t throwing it with much accuracy. Altrincham’s football was the play of a team desperately wanting to score, but not really having the belief they were going to do so.

It finished, frustratingly, with Altrincham struggling to even get the ball out of their own half for much of the closing stages, before the whistle signalled home defeat number ten. Arrangements were made for meeting in pubs later and/or seeing people back here next week, before trudging off into the dark evening gloom. Moss Lane might not have the glamour of a day at Old Trafford, but is has heart, and that counts for a lot.

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Manchester United 4 Reading 0

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Manchester United 4 Reading 0 (7th Jan 2017)

Queuing up outside the turnstiles, a steward who’d just commented to me about people walking through the queues rather than walking round, was approached be woman. “Have you got the time?” she asked. “Yes, love, but I don’t have the energy” came the quip back. It sort of went downhill from there.

Not being able to face the prospect of having to get up at half six on a Saturday morning for the three and a half hour drive up, I’d stayed overnight in Altrincham, with the plan also being to dash back to watch Altrincham v Gloucester after the Reading game. I did consider having a bit of a night out in Altrincham, but Altrincham appeared to be shut, so I took the metro into Manchester instead. The metro tram, whose stops are announced by the most bored sounding woman in Greater Manchester, dropped me off very near a lively nightlife district. Sadly, I went looking in a different direction, and it took me ages to find a reasonable pub that was still doing food. I sat there, looking at the dark gloomy Manchester drizzle out of the window, with “Club Tropicana” playing out of the pub’s speakers.

Reading’s previous game had been abandoned due to fog, so it was a little troubling to wake and see thick fog everywhere. Coming in on the tram, I’d planned to have a look at Old Trafford Cricket Ground first. The tram stop is right next to the cricket ground, and although I could get inside easy enough, seeing the far side clearly was much trickier.

There aren’t many other sights in the immediate vicinity, with Old Trafford (the football ground) being in the middle of the biggest industrial estate in Europe. The only cobbles and “Coronation Street houses” you’ll find round this way are, funnily enough, the cobbles on Coronation Street itself, with the set being about a mile up the road at the ITV studios, sat directly across the canal from the new BBC Centre.

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By the time I’d returned from a trendy-looking pub next to the BBC, the fog was lifting, although not quite gone. There was no hint of it once inside Old Trafford though.

It wasn’t my first visit to Old Trafford. My only other visit though, way back in 1989, was so long ago that I stood on wooden terracing, in the corner between the Stretford End and the main stand. Now, the ground has completely changed, the biggest club ground in the country, yet oddly, it didn’t look that big.

It certainly looked big, but it’s not really a venue that looks like it holds nearly 76,000. Maybe it’s the fact that the low roof restricts the view of much of the ground, or maybe it’s because it’s been so so often on TV, that there’s nothing of a surprise about it, but it’s not one that makes you go “wow” when you walk through the tunnel. The millions of Manchester United fans worldwide might have a different opinion.

Perhaps a clue as to why it doesn’t look as big as you’d think a 76,000 stadium should look came where I got to my seat, and realised the stand appeared to have been designed for people who had the build of Charles Hawtrey. It was “cosy” to say the least.

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I was sat – or stood to be exact, as the whole end stood for the entire game – to a guy who knew me from the days when I was an away regular. Embarrassingly I couldn’t quite place him, but people do change a bit in 25 years. I was also in the row behind a contender for Reading’s angriest fan, and to be fair, he did have quite a bit to be angry about.

I fully expected Reading to lose by three or four goals anyway, as even with the changes Mourinho made to his United line-up, the team was far superior to anything Reading face in The Championship. Saying that though, I still expected them to have to work for their goals. Instead, it was 20 minutes of “rabbit in the headlights” football, with Reading doing almost nothing to stem wave after wave of red-shirted attacks. 0-2 after 15 minutes, I was hoping that fog would descend after all. My Angry-and-shouty in front wasn’t having his favourite afternoon.

Reading did eventually turn up, aided no doubt by Manchester United easing up with the job effectively being done already. Reading managed to get their passing game going to the extent that they “won” possession 55-45, but while possession might be nine tenths of the law, it’s only one tenth of football, and United were able to add two more goals to give the scoreline a fairer indication of the difference in ability. True, one was an absolute gift by keeper Ali Al-Habsi, which effectively ended any fears that he’d be poached away in the January transfer window, but they also missed some very good chances.

It could have been better, but I suppose it could have been a lot worse. All that was left was for me to depart a minute into the sympathetic two minutes of added time, to catch that tram to Altrincham. At least there, I wouldn’t worry about four goals or more going into either net.

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Highmoor IBIS 0 Bracknell 6

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Highmoor IBIS 0 Bracknell Town 6 (31st Dec 2016)

One of the thoughts I’ve had from time to time is to wonder what I’d do if Reading went bust. And by bust I mean properly bust, with the club wound up and the Madejski Stadium being flattened to make way for an extension of the retail park, and future generations of Reading dad’s taking their kids round Wickes or Tesco Extra, saying “You know, I think the penalty spot used to be around here, son”.

If recent history is anything to go by, the club would reform – hopefully with a name more imaginative than AFC Reading – and would look for a new ground to start afresh. That would present something of a problem, as there’s only really one option, Scours Lane, currently home of Highmoor IBIS.

An estate agent could no doubt describe the place in glowing terms – set on the banks of The Thames, this West Reading location has potential for redevelopment – but the sad truth is that it has to be one of the ugliest and unloved grounds I’ve been to.

In fairness to Highmoor, it’s hardly their fault, as they only moved in at the start of the season, after previous residents, Reading Town, were wound up by their owners, Battersea & Wandsworth TUC. It seems the TUC, ironically, had very poor relations with their “workers” at the club and didn’t pay them, causing them to walk out. With the TUC not being willing to show solidarity with their “brothers” against themselves, they shut the club mid-season.

Scours Lane is also, despite its riverside location, not exactly the nicest part of Reading either, as the topping of all the club fences with razor-wire would hint at – coiled in copious amounts that would seem sufficient to deter a military assault, let alone local thieves.

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What struck me though was the mess and random items that seemed to be strewn about the place for no discernible reason. All of the club’s facilities were in a 40 yard wide strip to the east of the pitch. Alongside the bar and tea bar was, for some reason, a table-tennis table, slightly wonky, net hanging off, just plonked on the grass. Further along was a small beer tent, empty, and seemingly on the verge of collapse. Nearby were two sections of fencing stacked aimlessly against the bushes, along with a cheap white plastic chair.

Chairs were a feature on this side, with several plastic orange ones, of the variety you might get in a school or a cheap MOT/Exhaust centre, scattered about, some stacked, one or two upturned. Some presumably empty beer kegs were beside a few more chairs, next to a cheap and functional seating unit down the touchline.

The tea bar was mobile rather than a permanent fixture, offering “Real Fairground Food”, which is good to know, considering the amount of fake fairground food we are constantly bombarded with. I didn’t sample its wares though, and maybe the food there was excellent. I didn’t actually see a Michelin star, but there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it.

The far side had a small cover, set way back beyond where anyone would want to stand. The river end had bushes obscuring any hope of seeing the river, while the covered end opposite, with a couple of rows of seats added in one corner, only offered a view beyond of the express trains thundering down the GWR main line, a few yards beyond the cratered car park behind.

The functional new seated stand might be dull, but it was at least an improvement made by Highmoor IBIS, and with the smart sports facilities of the IBIS club next door, maybe they’ll get round to tidying up the rest of the ground too.

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If there’s any cash spare, they could maybe give a thought to investing a little in the team too, as it doesn’t seem to be the best. I had a very poor record watching Bracknell, my home town club. In nine previous games I’d not only never seen them win, I’d only once seem them concede less than three goals. It was very definitely tenth time lucky, smashing the jinx completely with this away haul for Bracknell.

Down at this level, a full five promotions from League Two, mismatches are very common as club fortunes fluctuate violently between optimism and wrist-slashing despair. Highmoor IBIS aren’t the worst team in the division – that honour goes to 18th-placed Burnham (Highmoor are 14th) who, after just 23 games, have already conceded over a century of goals and have a GD of -77, but this result put Bracknell top, which is something of a turnaround for a club that’s spent much of the 21st century plunging the depths of incompetence.

It’s be easy to patronise Highmoor IBIS for pluckily carrying on, giving their all, against the odds, be the reality is that they got thrashed 0-6, at home.

On a bobbly pitch, the game had a pretty consistent pattern, namely Bracknell would attack, get the ball in the box, and the Highmoor defence would either somehow hack it away, or the Bracknell team would queue up to have a whack at the IBIS goal. It wasn’t one-way traffic, but the home side seemed equally inept up front as at the back, and the damage could have been even worse.

So after 10 games, my Bracknell record now reads W1 D3 L6. With my first visit being a good 25 years ago, if not more, that “W” has been a very very long time in coming.

 

 

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