Stocksbridge Park Steels 2 Irlam 3

Stocksbridge Park Steels 2 Irlam Town 3 (24th August 2019)

Nice weather, nice ground, nice scenery, nice number of goals…a tick in the box for them all. OK, I’ll gloss over an eight hour round trip in a car that was rather too warm, and being honest, I wasn’t totally taken with the large pork pie in the club bar. It was a bit too large in, truth. I asked to borrow a knife to cut it up, and was presented with what looked more like a machete, but overall it was one of the better club bars.

The bar, being perched up on the first floor, was also a popular spot for those wishing to drink while watching the game, offering a fine view of both the pitch and the hills to the north.

The ground itself was up a steep hill, round a hairpin bend, passing an odd castellated tower, leveling out just enough for it to have only a moderate slope. A cricket pitch beyond also had a slope. The two teams in whites, playing as we arrived, no doubt, opted to knock the ball to the downhill boundary whenever possible.

Stocksbridge Park Steels’ ground also used to be a cricket ground. The clubhouse and offices are in the corner, pavilion style, which one empty side which looks like is used to be a cricket outfield, but now is home to a permanent looking fence. The field beyond doesn’t look like it’s hosted cricket for quite a while, looking more like a training pitch for the football club now.

The main stand opposite is a decent structure, named “The Jamie Vardy Stand” after their most famous ex-player, who had three seasons at Stocksbridge between 2007 and 2010. Beyond here is a steep grass bank. Signs telling you to keep of the banking are possibly redundant, as the five foot high sheer wall before the banking even starts would deter all from climbing up, beyond those who regularly attend football matches with crampons and a climbing pick.

There is another grass bank at far end, although with this one climbing up is not only possible, but allowed. The slope of the pitch causes this to be higher at one side than the other. The man who took our money for the car park was stretched out on a blanket at the top, with his wife, having been released from car park duty on the grounds that Irlam weren’t expected to bring any supporters.

The near end, as well as the terracing rising up to the start of the clubhouse, featured a covered end terrace. Such is the slope of the ground, that the roof of this was below ground level as you walked in. The terrace itself would probably be a more popular vantage point when the winter sets in, despite its distance from the pitch. On this day though, with the sun beating down, only a handful of fans used it, one of whom appeared to have dropped a whole pie onto the terracing, lying there, semi-squished, like a meat & potato roadkill.

Also squished, were Stocksbridge Park Steels’ FA Cup hopes. Top of their division after two games, and facing an Irlam team categorised as a division below, they would have at very least fancied their chances. The early signs were that this was well-founded, with the home side doing well in the opening stages. Had an early laid-off chance hit the target, rather than being blazed over, the afternoon could have been different.

As it was though, Irlam, in their first meaningful attack, took the lead, blasting a powerful shot past the home keeper after just four minutes.

Just two minutes later the lead was doubled. A through ball put the Irlam attacker away in what used to be called “the inside left channel” and he took advantage of a keeper seemingly in two minds about whether to come or stay, dinking the ball past him when he did eventually advance.

This was not in the script, and the home side were rattled for quite a while after, not being able to get their game going at all, with Irlam content to play on the break. On a very warm day (especially for Yorkshire) this was understandable, but a little risky. They got away with one chance when a flicked header from a corner had to be cleared away from nearly on the line. They were also fortune when their keeper spilled what looked a routine save. The Stocksbridge player following up was deemed to be offside, sparing the keeper’s blushes, and saving the 2-0 advantage.

The second half started with the home side looking stronger, now attacking down one of the slopes the pitch had. The early pressure told, with the home side curling a fine shot across the keeper, into the top corner, to put them back into the game.

The equaliser always looked on the cards after that, and it was a surprise that it took as long as the 65th minute to come. This time, a cross into a crowded box was controlled and brought down, before stumbling forward and thumping the ball past the Irlam keeper to level the scores.

There looked only one winner now, but Irlam had other ideas. Not long after, a break down the left saw the ball crossed in. The home keeper came out to claim, but didn’t get near enough, and it was flicked over him to drop into the net. Irlam back in the lead.

After working so hard to get back into the match, this goal seemed to really knock the stuffing out of Stocksbridge, and they never quite got on top of the game again, and Irlam saw the game out with probably more comfort than the few that came from Irlam thought at the time. The liveliest moment was probably when a frustrated Irlam played angrily kicked out a ball that had rebounded after going out for a throw, only managing to take out one of his own teammates in the process. So well done to Irlam. Commiserations to Stocksbridge Park Steels. You may have lost, but if nothing else, at least it was a nice day for it.

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Tottenham 1 Inter 1

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Internazionale 1 (Inter won 4-3 on pens) (4th August 2019)

Another new ground, or is it? Just how far does a clubs need to move for the stadium to count as a move rather than a rebuild? I’ve been to grounds, RW Essen for example, where the building of the new stadium required knocking part of the old ground down, and I’ve regarded that as a move rather than a rebuild. I don’t, however, regard either the new Wembley or rebuilt Dean Court as new grounds, despite their total rebuild.

Maybe my rule, which I’ve more or less made up as a write this, is if the two pitches don’t overlap, it’s a new ground. And by that ruling, “New” White Hart Lane, or Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, does indeed count as a new ground, even if only just.

I was actually quite familiar with the old ground, albeit a long time ago. I grew up a Spurs fan. My first ever football match was Spurs v Aston Villa in 1984, and for a couple of years after leaving school in 1986, I would regularly make the trip to White Hart Lane on alternate weekends, due to their home fixtures handily seldom clashing with Reading’s (who I’d start following a few months earlier).

The White Hart Lane of that era was very different to the one that got demolished two years ago. Aside from a new main stand, built a few years earlier, the ground looked the same as it had done for a good 50 years, with terracing on three sides. Outside of heated London derbies, it probably wasn’t the most intimidating venue going, but it had a sense of grandeur to it that few other grounds could match.

Shortly after I became disillusioned with the top division and the three hour trek to home games, The Shelf got replaced with executive boxes, and the place was never the same after that. It would take another 20 years or so to get to a state where it looked smart again, but it wasn’t the same ground I knew.

The same could be said of the new place, but times 100, and this time for the better. Quite simply, it’s the best ground in the country. Nothing comes close. There will be better grounds for atmosphere, and some will have a more evocative traditional feel, but for aesthetics, how it looks inside and out, not to mention the views from the seats, and the overall quality everywhere in the stadium, it doesn’t have a challenger.

In fairness, I didn’t see the away end. It’s concourse might be a dingy bunker like at The Emirates, but I suspect not. I was in the other end, where glass walls allow a fine view south across to central London in the distance, and the concourses made you think you were in a luxury part of the main stand not the big “fans” end. When I used to stand at the Paxton Road end, the terraces didn’t even have a roof.

The game itself was of little consequence. Like myself, I think a huge number were taking advantage of the £25 ticket offer to see the stadium for the first time, and the prospect of an entertaining game was something of a bonus.

That’s just as well as it was about as “pre-season” as it gets. It started OK, with Lucas Moura bursting into the box on the right, and firing a shot past the Inter keeper after two minutes, but it was definitely half-paced after that. It didn’t help that referee Andre Marriner was almost absurdly lenient with Inter’s repeated cynical fouls to stop Spurs breaking. It look a long time for the first yellow card to come out, when it could probably have been the fifth or sixth of the afternoon.

To make matter worse, Inter then hit Spurs on the break. Stefano Sensi was put away, and he clinically passed the ball past the keeper to level the scores. A few dozen Inter fans in the far corner made their presence known.

The second half went down a gear, and neither side really deserved a second, which resulted in one of the least tense penalty shoot-outs there’s ever been. When João Mário sent the Spurs keeper the wrong way to clinch the shoot-out win, the Inter players celebrated with the kind of joy reserved for finding out you’ve just won £1.38 on Euromillions.

So, on the pitch, perhaps not the afternoon the 59,000 there were hoping for, but for most just being “home” again was probably what mattered most. And what a home it is.

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Lord’s. Australia v New Zealand

Australia 243-9 New Zealand 157 all out (29th June 2019)

For the third Saturday in a row I found myself trekking into London, for my second match of this Cricket World Cup, for another match featuring Australia, but this time at Lord’s.

Two weeks ago I’d seen Australia v Sri Lanka at The Oval, while my visit last Saturday had been for, among a few other things, a gig involving Japanese all-female rock band “Band-Maid” (highly recommended). Despite it taking place in a “venue”, it didn’t exactly fit in with a site about sports grounds, so my toying with the idea of giving it a “it’s summer, and not much is happening” write up, came to nothing.

And, of course, two write ups in three weekends is actually more frequent than much of the time during the football season anyway.

It wasn’t my first visit to Lord’s. I’d first gone there for the first day of a test v New Zealand in 1986. It was a real spur of the moment decision to go then, and a bit of a rush. This time I had a bit more time, but there’s not a huge amount around Lord’s, not unless you like walking past what are easy to imagine to be celebrity mansions. Many took the chance to pop up the road to Abbey Studios, to add Beatles-fan graffiti to an already covered wall, and to annoy the traffic by doing their best fab four impression, crossing the zebra crossing, while motorists get irate as they stop in the middle for selfies.

An unplanned detour, this time to find somewhere in this distinctly upmarket residential area that sold food – I had no intention of paying £12 for a fast-food snack again – meant I again missed the first few balls, not that it mattered hugely.

One thing that definitely did matter on this day was being in the shade. With temperatures recorded around 34 C, spending eight hours in blazing sunshine did not appeal. Luckily my ticket was for the back row of the Mound stand’s lower tier, which was not only fully shaded, but also had a cooling breeze wafting in throughout the day. As the day progressed, the walkway behind this back row gradually filled with people looking to escape a slow grilling, as the glare of the sun advanced round.

You definitely see things you wouldn’t see at football for the cricket. A man walking past with champagne in an ice bucket being one. Loads of men with their sunglasses tucked into the the “v” of their linen shirts, and curiously, quite a lot of people wearing what looked like sailor hats. None of them looked like they owned a yacht, so I’m not sure of the significance.

The crowd was very good natured, despite the antipodean rivalry. The nearest to a cross word was one Australia fan’s unhappy reaction to an English comment. He suggested some kind of minor misdemeanor, to which the English fan replied “It’s that sort of thing that got your lot sent to Australia in the first place”.

The game, it has to be said, wasn’t the best. One day cricket has become more exciting due to the higher run rate, with players regularly pushing the score along with fours and sixes. This was more like a grind of old, from the days of cricket whites, when anything above 250 was considered a big score.

Australia didn’t even manage that. Tied down by dominant Kiwi bowling, they looked in serious danger of total collapse at 92-5, before a game-saving 6th wicket partnership of 107 changed the game. Another stoic struggle saw 44 added by the 7th wicket pairing going into the final over, before Trent Boult took a hat-trick of wickets to end the innings (+ a final dot ball) and seemingly leave New Zealand in command.

The expectation was for either a New Zealand stroll, or maybe a great finish, but in the end neither of those happened. New Zealand seemed to play ultra cautiously, in the face of excellent Australian fielding and bowling, it has to be said. Approaching 100 in the 25th over, the plan seemed to be to ignore the slow run rate, and just build a foundation to allow them to swing the bat later.

Then it all went horribly wrong. The third wicket fell at 97, and New Zealand never looked confident after that. It took another six overs to hit 21 runs, and then the fourth wicket fell, followed by the fifth, just three balls later. The required run rate was creeping up and up, and New Zealand just didn’t have the quality of batsmen to hit that rate, especially given then number of wickets left.

The next two wickets fell for just 13 runs, taking another six overs, and many saw this as a chance to nip away early, beating the rush, and avoiding the inevitable. New Zealand limped on for another five overs, like a mortally wounded animal looking for a place to die, before a catch down towards the boundary put the game out of its misery. An 86-run defeat is poor at the best of times, but to a total as low as Australia’s it’s almost embarrassing.

New Zealand face England next, in what could amount to a semi-final eliminator. Australia will probably be thinking already about returning to Lord’s in two weeks’ time, making notes of the procedure here when, or just maybe “if”, they win the cup.

 

 

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The Oval. Australia v Sri Lanka

Australia 334-7 Sri Lanka 247 all out (Cricket World Cup, 15th June 2019)

This was not my first trip to The Oval. I’d been here seven years previously, although that visit was for an Aussie Rules exhibition match. This time it was for cricket, a sport I’ve not attended since going to the opening day of a test match 33 years ago.

I can’t claim to be an avid cricket fan. I used to be very into the sport in the past, but the move of the game to Sky Sports, among other things, saw my interest wane almost terminally. Out of sight, out of mind.

A cricket World Cup though, in England, offered the change to see a bit a glamour and a full ground – not something I witnessed at England v New Zealand in 1986, and definitely not for the Aussie Rules friendly.

There was also an Australia connection this time round, with Australia being one of the two teams involved on this day. In fact Australia will be playing when I go to another game in two weeks. It’s not due to any draw to Australia. I won’t be going round slipping “G’Day” and “Knoath, mate” into my everyday conversation. It just happened that the only two weekend fixtures that were nearby, and had semi-reasonably priced tickets available, featured Australia.

I’d imagined Aussies would make up a large contingent of the crowd, but they were outnumbered by a huge margin by Sri Lankan fans, who were highly enthusiastic, but judging by the overheard comments, not hugely optimistic.

With no connection to either side, my concerns were more about the weather. It’s been abysmal for over a week, and the risk of the match, and my day, being partially ruined by rain, loomed large. The clouds overhead were several, if not quite fifty, shades of grey, and the odd spot of rain was slightly worry.

The skies quickly brightened though, with teases of blue sky poking through the growing gaps. The Australians, put in to bat first, also saw things brightening with a very strong start. The score was at 80 before the first wicket fell, and by the time opener Aaron Finch went for the third wicket, the score was already at 273. On his home ground, Finch equalled his highest score with 153, hitting 20 boundaries, five of them as sixes. It put Australia in a very strong position to press and take a few risks in the rest of their innings. They lost four more wickets, but added another 61 runs in the remaining seven overs to set Sri Lanka a target of 335 to win.

As a tip, I’d suggest that if you need food at The Oval, then unless you are one of the people playing, don’t try to get it during the lunch interval. The queues are horrendous, and the concourse areas very cramped in places. A one-day game lasts about 8 hours, so nipping out during the game isn’t quite so risky as in football. Nobody has ever walked out of a cricket match, cursing that when they went for a burger they missed the only run of the game – although you can miss stuff, as I’d find out later when I managed to miss two rapid wickets in a row.

Sri Lanka started their innings like men on a mission. They smacked 24 off the first two overs, and raced to 115 inside 16 overs before the first wicket fell. The large Sri Lankan contingent were thrilled, sensing a victory that had looked unlikely earlier.

Slowly though, the Australian bowlers tightened things up. The high run rate, well above what was required, slowly got forced down, until it started to fall behind. With 18 overs left, they were on 186-2, and still looked in with a decent shout, but then it started to unravel.

Opener Dimuth Karunaratne went for 97, and as he walked off, Sri Lanka’s belief seemed to walk off with him. Three wickets fell in just 8 balls in the 36th and 37th over, and with them now at 217-6, it would be asking an awful lot for Sri Lanka to chase down the total with so few wickets or experienced batsmen left. They’d lost two more by the end of the 40th over, and needing almost 100 to win, it was all over bar the shouting. Many Sri Lankans decided to head off early. Beating the rush seemingly more important than watching the beating.

Sri Lanka limped on, adding just 11 more runs in just under six overs before Nuwan Pradeep edged behind to end the innings, and the game. Australia moved to the top on the table, while Sri Lanka’s ship was sinking, even if their band, at the back of the stand behind me, noisily played on.

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Slough 3 Reading Yth 1

Slough Town 3 Reading Youth 1 (B&B Cup Final, 6th May 2019)

In footballing terms, this won’t go down as my most successful Bank Holiday weekend. I went to three games, and in those games the teams I wanted to win all failed to do so. In fact the best result was a draw in only one of the three, and even that was 0-0.

I saw Bracknell lose their play-off final on Saturday, watched Reading play out a 0-0 v Birmingham on Sunday, and saw a disappointing Berks & Bucks Cup Final defeat for Reading against Slough, also back at Bracknell.

The final was meant to be in Slough, but got moved, possibly because Slough were in it. Slough were not meant to be in the final, as they lost to Marlow in the semi-final, but Slough appealed over Marlow fielding a player who’d played in another county cup, and Marlow were thrown out. Several other clubs, including Slough and Reading, were said to have breached the rules of the cup too – in Reading’s case, fielding contracted professionals.

The problem is the rules seem unduly harsh – such as the “played in other county cups” rule, or not fit for purpose when the professional clubs of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire are being invited to take part. Potential further appeals meant it wasn’t even known if the result would stand, and it also seemed unclear what players exactly Reading could field without being in breach of the rules.

Possibly with this in mind, Reading fielded a very young team, and their inexperience told. Very early on it became clear that Slough would have the physical edge, and they quickly sussed out how to gain a tactical advantage too.

Reading’s youth games are more geared towards developing ability, encouraging players to express themselves and be comfortable on the ball, playing out from the back. In youth games, with little intensity, that’s fine. Against battle-hardened veterans it comes unstuck. The pretty triangles, stepovers, little flicks, and passing out of trouble, becomes a liability when faced with a team who’ll chase every player down.

It didn’t take long for the ball to get stuck in the Reading half, as Slough let Reading play square balls, then poised like lions waiting for that gazelle to stray, before going in for the kill. Reading’s half was littered with the bones of mauled attempts to move upfield, with the ball given away cheaply, either through tackles or interceptions, as the young players learned the hard way that the are certain things you can’t get away with in you own half.

It was no surprise Slough went in front, stabbing in a loose ball in the box, or that they got a second not long later, this time from the spot. More surprising was that going 0-2 down spurred Reading on to their best spell of the game. One thing Reading did have was pace, and when they ran at the Slough defence, they looked dangerous. It was once such pacey move that lead to Reading pulling one back before half time, even though in truth, it was Reading’s first good chance of the game.

The hopes were that Reading would carry on using that threat in the second half, but the hopes didn’t last long. It’s harsh to criticise young players too much, but after an initial bright spell, it was virtually 40 minutes of bad passing, bad decisions, and needless fouls.

With three minutes to go, Slough hit a fine shot across Reading’s keeper into the top corner to seal a well-deserved victory. And while the final whistle wouldn’t be greeted with the same kind of elation that the actual FA Cup Final would be, maybe it’s fitting that the trophy goes to a team for whom it’ll really mean something.

So Slough’s name goes on the trophy, although with all the threats of appeals still in the air, perhaps it’d be better if they only wrote in on with a pencil for now.

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Bracknell 0 Cheshunt 3

Bracknell Town 0 Cheshunt 3 (4th May 2019)

I should probably have stayed away. I have a terrible record in play-off finals, both with Reading, and as a neutral. I have an even worse record watching my home town club, Bracknell. I have seen them play 12 times, and only seen them win once, and this wasn’t it.

It’s even worse at home, where not only would this would be my 9th game without seeing them win, but only once in those 9 games have I seen them let in fewer than three goals.

I was feeling rather more confident this time though. Virtually all of the previous eight visits to Larges Lane have been during periods when the team has been, to put it bluntly, diabolical. This season they’ve spent most of the season in a two horse race for the Isthmian League South Central title, until Hayes & Yeading pulled away, and they were unbeaten at home in the league all season.

The club has certainly turned things around since a troubling start to the 21st century, which saw the club struggle for results and supporters year after year. Crowds comfortably below three figures were normal.

Part of the change has been the smartening up of Larges Lane. Once a tatty venue, without an ounce of verve or character, it now feels like a club geared towards progress. That said, they have hamstrung themselves slightly by selling off every possible inch of land on two sides, meaning spectator accommodation on three sides is little more than the narrowest of footpaths.

Normally that would be sufficient for this level, but with 1000+ at this game, including maybe 250 from Cheshunt, it would make for somewhat “cosy” viewing in parts.

On an afternoon that would alternate between sun and light showers, Cheshunt kicked off, and for the opening spell looked the better team. The certainly had more of the ball, and definitely settled first, although chances were at a premium. After 25 minutes Cheshunt looked to be going ahead when a header looped beyond the Bracknell keeper towards the goal. With fans already celebrating, it struck the post though, and was hacked away. It should have been a warning.

Bracknell were slowly getting more into the game, getting the ball down and playing it wide. They were just having trouble creating much. Through balls were continually intercepted, and when they weren’t Bracknell had a frustrating habit of straying offside.

As the half wore on, a pattern emerged of Bracknell going forward, but being thwarted time and time again by Cheshunt’s dogged defence. It was like Cheshunt had an extra three or four defenders at all times, and every time a Bracknell attacker thought he’d got through, a telescopic leg would reach out and poke the ball to safety.

It felt like Bracknell were well on top now, and surely the breakthrough had to come, but then…

Bracknell had a free kick out wide, but it was a poor one, cleared towards the wing. A tackle was then missed, and suddenly Cheshunt were away down the left. With Bracknell struggling to get back, the ball was crossed into the box towards Cheshunt’s Shane Cojocarel. In space with the Bracknell defence exposed, he controlled the ball and clipped it past the Bracknell keeper to give Cheshunt the lead just before half time, backflipping in celebration.

Bracknell came out for the second half looking fired up, but it didn’t take long for it all to start going horribly wrong. Bracknell hadn’t seen a single one of a multitude of loose balls in an around the Cheshunt box fall kindly, yet just three minutes into the second half, a loose ball in the Bracknell box fell invitingly for Cojocarel to prod home his and Cheshunt’s second.

It still didn’t feel over. Bracknell continued to push up, but again and again, with the same outcome. An attack which scored 102 goals in the league was being comprehensively snuffed out. Five minutes later it was all over. A cross from the right was played into the Bracknell box, and again, the Bracknell’s defence looked stretched, and this chance was turned in to have the Cheshunt contingent thinking about promotion, and Bracknell thinking about miracles.

There was still well over half an hour left. In theory a comeback was possible, but it never remotely looked like happening. Cheshunt’s lock-tight defence repelled everything thrown at it, and Bracknell looked like they knew the game was up. Beyond a few half chances, the best being a header that was put over before the player really had time to aim, Bracknell were just crowded out every time by a defence that somehow seemed able to put two or three players on the man with possession at all times.

Tempers flared once or twice, almost as can be expected in these situations, where a team can see a year’s effort go up in smoke within sight of the finishing line, but the game was dead long before the final whistle blew.

I guess with my record I should have expected no better, but for the large number of Bracknell fans at the game, not to mention the players and officials of the club, it’s a hugely disappointing end to the season. Cheshunt take the glory and the promotion place, while Bracknell will now have to look towards next season, continuing the growth of the club, and hopefully not needing the extra two fixtures to achieve promotion next time round.

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Arminia Bielefeld 1 Ingolstadt 3

DSC Arminia Bielefeld 1 – 3 FC Ingolstadt 04 (21st April 2019)

It’s fair to say that not many tourists come to Bielefeld. In fact there’s a not entirely serious conspiracy theory in Germany that Bielefeld doesn’t actually exist, as nobody has ever been there, or even knows anyone who had been there.

If you do go there, it’s not a city that assaults you with its charms. There’s a medieval fort to the south of the centre, and you can eke out a small amount of joy from the few old buildings existing on the main square (if you can look past the construction work going on), but even the tourist office was shut on this Sunday. I guess it was pleasant enough, but the quietness of the place did make me wonder if the singer who declared “Münster…you are Rock & Roll” the previous day, had grown up in the town.

After a very hearty continental breakfast in a friendly cafe – a breakfast much bigger than the feeble efforts served in hotels, which make so many miss a good fry up – I was ready for the mile or so walk to the ground for this 1.30 kick off. I quite like an earlier kick-off, but I doubt the Ingolstadt supporters, who’d have to have left at about 6 am to make the game from way down in Bavaria, would have been so keen.

Arminia Bielefeld’s ground, now known as the Schüco Arena due to sponsorship by a local window and solar panel manufacturer, was traditionally known as “Bielefelder Alm”, with “alm” being a German word for a cow field, due to the undeveloped nature of the ground for many years. Even in the 70s, photographs show it as being open terracing on three sides, unusually for Germany, being raised on scaffolding and tight to the pitch, rather than the usual running track.

The “alm” became an “arena” in three stages. First one end and one side were rebuilt as functional single tiers of seats, looking like the intention was to carry the design round all four sides. Luckily someone had a change of idea, and the next stand (an end) to be built was a large end terrace, split into two tiers, with an awkward triangular section of terracing at one side, to avoid people in the seats in the corner having their view blocked.

Finally, in yet another different style, a new double-decker main stand was built, very modern, and adding a definite touch of style and class to the place. Why the club opted for  three different styles is a mystery to me, but the ground is all the better for it.

I’d be watching from the main stand’s top tier, purely because it makes taking pictures easier, but I wanted to have a closer look at the terrace. I was sorely tempted to buy a ticket for there, but suspected (correctly) that it would be fairly packed. The concourse itself was pretty busy with people having beers and bratwursts (as the sign on the tea bar said “you’ll never wurst alone”) and completely open to the elements, barring the overhang of the terracing above. Fine on a gorgeous day such as this, but possibly not so nice in the depths of winter.

The top tier of the main stand was not so packed. This was just as well as the front row seat I’d purchased left me with a view of the near goal that required viewing through a guard rail. I waited until just before kick off, then moved across into a mainly empty row in the next block along. The danger here, according to the state of the floor at least, was pigeons in the roof above. At least that was better than my previous seat, where a guy behind had carelessly, I hope, flicked cigarette ash onto me more than once.

On paper this was something of a home banker. Arminia Bielefeld were just in the top half, while Ingolstadt were bottom of the league, but things don’t always go to plan. Despite not having too much to play for, Bielefeld certainly looked the better team. With good backing from the nearly full south terrace behind the goal, they had much the better of the game, with Ingolstadt limited to the odd break.

Maybe the warm weather was having an impact though, as despite dominating the game, you didn’t really feel Arminia Bielefeld were going hell for leather for victory. You sort of felt they thought if they just keep pressing, eventually a goal will come. A little spell for Ingolstadt though punctured that complacency. A corner was swung in, and the keeper failed to collect under challenge. It just fell perfectly for an Ingolstadt player 10 yards out, and under no pressure he just passed it into the empty half of the net.

He ran off towards the 100 or so of Ingolstadt’s usual 9000 home support who’d made the 300 mile trip up, about the same as Southampton to Carlisle, enjoying the moment in a season that hadn’t offered too much to enjoy so far.

That happened just after half an hour, and it actually felt like it could help Bielefeld by making them see they need to step up a gear. The same theme continued at half time, and they certainly came out looking more determined. That said, even if you attack more, you still have to remember to defend. After 48 minutes a cross came in from the left, and completely unmarked, the ball was headed in to put Ingolstadt into a shock 2-0 lead.

Yet, despite the deficit, the dominance of Arminia Bielefeld still made it feel like if they could nick one, it would change everything, but somehow it just wasn’t clicking for them in the final third.

Just after the hour, Ingolstadt delivered a knockout blow. They went route one, and the long ball fell just outside the area. The defender, under pressure from Ingolstadt’s Thomas Pledl, failed to make a tackle, and half-stumbling Pledl found himself one on one with the advancing Bielefeld keeper. With little time to really think about hit, he just poked a toe out, and it was enough to dink it past the keeper, and rolling into the empty Bielefeld net.

The third really knocked the wind out of Arminia Bielefeld’s sails, and they were never the same after that. They still had the bulk of the play, but they no longer looked like they believed they were going to score. With a minute left they did get one back, when a 25 yard free kick was beautifully curled into the net. The crowd cheered, the goal music was played, and the scorer ran back to the centre circle with the ball under his arm, but few were in any doubt that it didn’t matter, especially in Germany, where referees seem to be more frugal with added time than in other nations.

The whistle blew, and the 100 or so in the Ingolstadt end, plus about a dozen in the block next to me, celebrated a victory which took them off the bottom of the table. No boos or outward signs of disappointment from the home faithful, surprisingly, who reacted to the defeat like they’d just seen a 0-0 draw. My mini-trip to Germany was over, but for Ingolstadt, embarking on a revival that might yet see them survive, their Bundesliga 2 journey might carry on a little while yet.

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Preußen Münster 1 Sonnenhof Großaspach 0

SC Preußen Münster 1 Sonnenhof Großaspach 0 (20th April 2019)

I wasn’t planning on being in Germany over Easter, but a lack of value on flights to alternative places didn’t give me many options. Even my options within Germany itself were limited, but beyond the odd stag party, it doesn’t seem many seek out Westphalia as a weekend getaway.

Two of the great things about a German trip are that the kick off times are confirmed a long time in advance, and that there is normally plenty of choice for games, especially in this part of the country. When you’ve had a many football trips to Germany as I’ve had though (13 now), and been to as many grounds (33), even here, choices start to get limited.

I was lucky, therefore, to find two options a mere 90 minutes away on the train from where I was staying, in Münster and Bielefeld. Münster in particular also offered a bit of a decent old centre to look round for a couple of hours before the game, as well as a survivor of the once popular Germany style of a ground, with three sides of terracing banked in an oval at the ends. They certainly aren’t ideal for viewing, especially when the advertising boards are pushed up so that they obscure he goal line, and I’ve no doubt that before too long it’ll be redeveloped into a modern venue, but until then it’ll be a relic of how the game used to be.

Preußen Münster’s Preußenstadion is a good couple of miles south of the centre, but as is often the way in Germany, free buses to the game are laid on to the ground, stopping at the car park next door. A one-minute walk has you at an open courtyard with ticket booths and a small beer stall. Across the street was a sex shop, more of a sex warehouse, in truth, judging my the size of the place, but not wanting a dildo or a selection of porn DVDs, I just went and bought my ticket instead.

Walking past the shopping trolley slowly filling with empty beer bottles – a common sight outside many Germany grounds as arriving fans deposit their empties – I picked up a terrace ticket for €13 for this Bundesliga 3 fixture.

Through the turnstiles, the ground sloped gently up towards the back of the terrace beyond, with the slightly irregular bowl shape coming into view. The home end was considerably bigger than the away end, and that’s before half of that end had been seemingly declared out of bounds. Not that the visitors would need the space. Sonnenhof Großaspach play in the tiny town of Aspach (pop. 8000) nearly 300 miles to the south, and a head count suggested only 33 of their citizens made the trip up.

The closed section of the away end had the club badge painted onto the terrace, whereas the rest of the ground was decked out in green and white hoops, both seats and terracing. Arriving there slightly easier and earlier than planned, all I could do was buy myself a German beer and find one of the better sports on the terracing. It was a good plan until about 20 minutes from kick-off, when I needed to visit the shipping container that was the toilets, only to return to find some git just settling into my vacated spot.

Fortunately, for me, if not for the home fans, Preußen Münster’s season was petering out into mid-table mediocrity, and the crowd of a little under 6000 would be below average, so finding another spot wouldn’t be too difficult.

I had hoped that fans would be free to walk all around the ground, but I was limited to two thirds of one end. In itself, that wasn’t too bad as I didn’t need the roof on this gloriously sunny afternoon, although I did begin to question the wisdom of wearing a thick black shirt in this sunshine though. Luckily there was just enough of a breeze to keep me cool, although the “fragrant” aroma on the bus back to town afterwards suggested some weren’t so lucky. A group of ultras, who arrived en-masse about 15 minutes before kick-off, avoided sweaty clothes by removing their shirts and singing away bare-chested for 90 minutes. I’ve never quite understood the fascination some male fans have for bare torsos, but each to their own, I guess.

Many clubs have a club song. Preußen Münster, pronounced “Proyson Moonster (nothing to do with Fred Gwynne and his spooky 1960s black & white family) seemed to have several. One, a heavy rock type effort, was going on about the greatness of the city of Münster, although the last line of the chorus “Münster…Du bist (*you are) Rock & Roll” either implied there was an edgy side to the city I hadn’t witnessed while having a look round earlier, or the singer had led a very sheltered upbringing.

Some games have an ebb and flow about them. The story of the game unfolds, as one side, then the other, gain ascendancy and impetus. Not this one. Preußen Münster were by far the better team throughout, and the away side only approached the Preußen Münster box with a trepidation that made you wonder if they feared bears lived there.

The big problem was that despite Preußen Münster dominance, tempered only by a shade of warm end-of-season lethargy, was that they were hopeless up front. They were confident, I’ll give them that, but only in the way that a drunk 45 year old sales rep is at a works Christmas party when chatting up the younger female staff, and with about the same chance of scoring.

I’d noticed a distinct lack of accuracy in shooting during the warm-up, but dismissed the observation on the grounds that I’d made a similar observation at Xativa in Spain, about six months earlier, and the home side scored four that day.

That said, the game certainly didn’t have the feel of a 0-0, and shortly after half time those fears were ended. This time, rather than the usual wild shot, as if the player’s feet were strapped to a jet-pack, a calm measured effort was stroked in at the near post for what would eventually be the winning goal. The scorer, and other players, ran towards the corner where the bare-chested ultras has been doing their best to generate an atmosphere in this low-key third division fixture, and they showed their appreciation.

Other than several shots for the home side that didn’t go in, the biggest talking points in the rest of the game were two injuries. One for the away side, which looked quite nasty, and resulted in their guy being carried off on a stretcher. Then, just a few minutes later, a Preußen Münster one. A contested ball between keeper and attacker outside the box, down by the goal-line, saw the Preußen Münster player take a hefty kick. Had it been an outfield player, it would probably have been a red, but he got off with a yellow.

As befitting a leisurely sunny afternoon, the away side looked like they’d more or less given up, and the only tension was whether Preußen Münster would get the second their overall play (if not their finishing) deserved. One last spurned opportunity saw the ref blow the whistle for full time, and the fans could turn and stroll off happy into the afternoon sun. I wouldn’t say it was a great game, but overall it was a good experience, and a very pleasant afternoon out. The thirty three from Aspach, facing a 5-6 hour trip home, might have had a rather different opinion.

 

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Dorking Wanderers 3 Worthing 0

Dorking Wanderers 3 Worthing 0 (6th April 2019)

Two tips if you ever go to watch Dorking Wanderers. Firstly, don’t try to get into the car park near the ground unless you get there very early. You’ll just join a snake of cars all looking for an elusive parking spot, and it’ll take about 20 minutes to get out. Secondly, also don’t get there late if there’s a crowd over 1000 expected, as finding a decent spot to view the game from isn’t easy. I overheard a fan saying there were plans to put 5000 seats in upon promotion, which sounded a tad optimistic, but for now it’s mainly hard standing on three sides.

Other than that, it was not a bad day out on what turned out to be a historic day for Dorking, clinching the title and winning promotion to the National South.

It was that prospect that swelled the crowd, as well as the hundreds who travelled up from Worthing. Other than the friendly vibe around the ground, and one or two rather fetching young women behind the club bar, the Worthing fans wouldn’t have returned home with too many happy memories of the day.

Worthing, who have promotion aspirations of their own, started well enough, and the game started in what some might call a chess-like tactical battle, where both teams tried, with a degree of caution, to break down the other’s defence. Others might call such a cagey opening, “a bit dull”, but there was a lot at stake for both sides.

Gradually Dorking started to get the upper hand, clipping a shot from close range over the bar, but the game really needed a goal. There looked a fine chance of one late in the half. Dorking were getting more and more success down the left wing, and cross was put in that looked perfect for the striker in the six yard box to head in. The header though went backwards, away from the goal, mainly because he’d been fouled, which would be hard for the ref to miss.

The resulting penalty wasn’t missed either, and Wanderers, who were relying on other results going their way to win the league, were on their way to keeping their part of the bargain.

After a swift pint in the club bar, I watched most of the second half in the half where Worthing fans were mainly located, mainly because I could see the pitch from there. It’s safe to say they weren’t too happy with their day so far, and it only got worse. A deflected shot put Dorking 2-0 up, and everything seemed to be going against them. The referee even managed to block a promising attack by getting in the way of a pass, getting the Worthing fans even more annoyed. I’ll blame youthful exuberance, but it’s not rare for fans of well-supported non-league clubs to have a sense of entitlement, and the comments as I walked past them reflected that. It was just frustration, but the truth was Worthing were just being beaten by a considerably better team on the day.

To rub it in, a few minutes later Wanderers added a third, when a set-piece couldn’t be cleared, and the ball was simply nodded into the gaping goal to wrap up the win.

Wanting a change from the floor-level vantage point, I made my way to the main stand, where I managed to find an empty seat that didn’t have a season-ticket holder’s name on it, sat up at the back. Sitting down, I realised possibly why it was empty. The view of the goal to my left was obscured by the glass screen ends. They were lovely and clean – a rarity at non-league grounds – but made from a kind of glass with enough distorting ripples to make it not exactly ideal. I was also near two radio reporters, both chattering away in that weird radio-reporter intonation that makes it sound like their every thought is being read from a piece of paper that’s just been handed to them.

With the game as good as over, both sides were going through the motions to a degree now. For Wanderers players and fans, thoughts would no doubt be turning to other scores. The hope was that Haringey Borough would drop points at Hornchurch, but they were 2-1 up, meaning the final whistle was a slight anti-climax. Nearly there, but not quite. The guy on the PA starting talking about having to wait until next week. I also thought it oddly fitting, as I feel promotions should be secured on sunny days, not the gloomy light rain of the day.

The crowd started to shuffle out, when there was a cheer from the corner terrace. It spread like a wave around the ground, and to the players, who knew it meant the score at Hornchurch was 2-2, so promotion, and the title, was theirs.

A small and incredibly youthful pitch invasion followed, while the squad celebrated, dancing and singing away. While celebrations at this level, due to the lower crowds, lack the spectacle of thousands celebrating at a league game equivalent, you do get a more personal feel to things. So many of the plays and staff, volunteers mainly, and even the fans, will know each other. The sense of it being a club, in the true sense, rather than a corporation, is so much stronger.

So what if, as the exasperated Worthing fans sang “you’re just a shit Billericay”? If money is spent wisely, and a legacy is created, that has to be a good thing. Fans from Dorking, seeing a club from the town promoted to its highest ever level, won’t be worrying too much. Now, if they could only sort out that car park…

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PTT Rayong 2 Samut Prakan 1

PTT Rayong 2 Samut Prakan City 1 (10th March 2019)

Last year I claimed, with a just about reasonable degree of plausibility, that I opted for a few days in Thailand’s “lively” resort of Pattaya as it offered the prospect of a match at either Pattaya United or PTT Rayong. Last year the gamble didn’t pay off, with neither at home, so I opted to do the same this year, as part of a three week Cambodia/Vietnam/Thailand trip.

My odds of success lengthened when I heard Pattaya United had been moved to different part of the country, but my luck was in. Not only were PTT Rayong at home, but they were at home on the Sunday, whereas a Saturday game might have made it very tight to get there after my flight in to Bangkok earlier in the afternoon.

I won’t pretend I dislike Pattaya. If nothing else, compared to most other Brits here, even at 49 I get to feel young and attractive in comparison, and you’ll never be short of a bar to go to. One other thing a tourist town has is plenty of tourist services, such as taxis, and that was the very thing I’d needed to get to Rayong (and back) on the Sunday. I booked in a small stall near my hotel, and the woman running it said the driver would be her husband. She did worrying say his English was limited to “Yes, no and OK”, which did make me wonder what exactly he thought he was answering yes, no or OK, to, but he thankfully did have a slightly better grasp of English than that. Certainly better and much more useful than my Thai vocabulary, which might stretch to 20 words at a push.

I might have felt more confident of finding a taxi back on my own had PTT Rayong’s ground actually been in Rayong, rather the in the middle of nowhere, around 12 miles north-west of the town. The location makes a little more sense when you realise PTT is a Thai equivalent of Esso or Shell, and the ground is over the road from one of their refineries, albeit incongruously hidden behind a botanical garden.

The walk to the ground from the grassed overspill car-park weaved along pathways showing you the back of buildings of unknown purpose, before the ground emerged out of the trees. A sign along the back of the stand announced “PTT Stadiums” (in English), as if they had some kind of stadium building franchise. To my knowledge, this is the only one.

Outside I was approached by a German fan asking me where the ticket office was. It turned out he lived in the area, but had never been before. Usually I have a fine talent for going all round the ground in the wrong direction before finding the ticket office, but here it was pretty much straight ahead. A ticket for 120 Baht, nearly £3 a today’s exchange rate (oh for the days of 65 Baht to the Pound when I first went 11 years ago) was purchased, which got me a seat in the main stand.

I spent about half that amount again on snacks before going in. One item was sort of fat crisps on a skewer, covered in a cheesy powder. They were edible, but if I was to say I enjoyed them, it would be a lie that even Donald Trump would be ashamed of. The other was a kind of fried fish in breadcrumbs, chopped up, and put into a paper cup. That could actually have been decent, but they poured a sauce on before giving them to me. I have no idea what that sauce was, but it was utterly foul. I took one bite and realised I’d be having no more, and also realised I’d be tasting that sauce for hours to come.

I also came close to an impulse purchase in the club shop, seeing that shirts were only £20. As much a bargain as that seemed compared to shirts here, I also realised I’d probably never wear it again, so a bit of a waste. A polo shirt, on the other hand, was probably much more like it. Sadly it had no price tag, but I also realised that I’d have to wear it over the t-shirt I was already wearing, and on a night where it was warm enough to make me sweat at even he mildest of exertions, that probably wasn’t a good idea. Instead, I made my way in.

While clearly built to a budget, there are 12,000 capacity stadiums I like less than PTT Rayong’s place. For a start, it’s fully covered, but the roofs, propped up by roof supports, give the ground a slight “old time” feel. It’s certainly no Shrewsbury/Colchester concrete box. In fact there was very little concrete anywhere. It did look slightly like it had been built from a giant Meccano set, but that just gave it character.

The pillars gave it a bit of character too, but what they didn’t give it, if you got there a bit late like I did and had to take a seat towards the back, was a great view. I did find a seat that didn’t have a pillar obstructing either goal, but it was not exactly perfect. The presence of a tv gantry, itself requiring another couple of pillars, didn’t help, but all things being equal, I was glad to be here at last. Although Pattaya United’s Nong Prue Stadium would have been a much easier venue to go to, this was my preferred ground of the two.

Had Pattaya United not moved, then this game would have had the added spice of being a local derby between the two, being a little under 30 miles apart, because today’s visitors, Samut Prakan, were indeed the club that took over from Pattaya.

Samut Prakan, about three quarters of the way from Pattaya to Bangkok, used to have their own team a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, “Super Power Samut Prakan”, as they were known, were neither super, nor a power, finishing the season with only six points, and a goal difference of -97. The team folded at the end of the season, but Pattaya United’s owners decided to move the club to Samut Prakan, for reasons best known to them.

Samut Prakan City, whose ground’s location is not much more of a city than the old team was a super power, arrived in 2nd place in the league, with PTT Rayong still searching for their first point of the season after two defeats. It quickly became clear that the visitors were not going to have the easy afternoon they might have expected. The odd early flurry aside, PTT Rayong got stronger as the half progressed, backed by enthusiastic knots of supporters at both ends.

Up front for PTT Rayong was Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, once of Arsenal, whose career had meandered and taken him to Thailand at 28. He may not have shown the skills that his early career hinted at, but at 6’3″ he was a major headache for Samut Prakan’s backline, and would have a big influence on how the game turned out.

His first big contribution was after 27 minutes. A free kick about 40 yards from goal was chipped into the area. Jay rose to meet it, nobody else had much chance, and he headed it up and back towards the goal. I could be doing him a disservice, as it did look like a flick-on, but whatever it was, it was perfect to wrong-foot the keeper and drop into the net, to give PTT Rayong their first lead, and indeed first goal, of the season. The visitors caused a few scares, but PTT deserved the half-time lead.

Deciding I’d rather not spend the second half peering through the pillars, I made my way round the corner to watch from an underpopulated end instead. The stewards who scrupulously checked tickets pre-match were now handily waving anyone through the gate without a care, and I made my way into what a banner called the “Hardcore Zone”. It was only afterwards that I realised how strange it was that every single banner was in English, in a country where English speaking (and certain reading/writing) is a long way from being universal.

There was little evidence of anything hardcore at half time, when most just sat sedately chatting and eating (if there’s one thing Thais never stop doing, it’s eating), but come the restart there were a couple of guys with megaphones getting the fans there to sing and dance away.

They had a lot more to sing and dance about in the 58th minute. Possession was conceded cheaply in the Samut Prakan half, and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas picked the ball up on the right, and headed towards goal. He lumbered forward, before eventually having his progress halted by defensive numbers. This allowed him to roll the ball across the “D” of the box though, and a teammate banged in a first time shot to give the hosts a 2-0 lead they never looked like giving up.

Given that I was keen to make a quick getaway, and not be stuck in the car park, I nipped round and watched the last five minutes from the corner of the ground nearest the car park. I got there just in time to see Emmanuel-Thomas miss a good chance to put the game to bed. Within a minute the lead had been halved, when a shot from fully 25 yards beat the home keeper, to give the visitors a glimmer of hope, just going into stoppage time.

One tame effort aside though, PTT Rayong saw the game out with ease to claim their first three points of the season, to the delight of the home fans as they streamed out though the botanical gardens. I was pleased too. I wanted to see PTT Rayong win, and even if this happy ending wasn’t the sort that most foreign visitors to this part of the world seek out, it would do for me.